Friday, April 18, 2014

A lesson on Russian folklore

A famous Russian proverb says that it is better to have 100 friends than 100 rubles. Ukraine has learnt the hard way the value of the Russian folklore. Really, it's much better to have 100 rubles. If you don't, at least stay away from friends especially if they are fools.

Let’s start with Russia. Its bulging member, the president, becomes harder to conceal. Russia has been going through the fortunate phase of doing relatively well. But of course, it is not enough to win, the others must lose (Gore Vidal). Mr. Putin has apparently decided that it’s about time for Russia to push the West into the same warm and badly smelling spot the West has become accustomed to, gaining some literal ground in process. All in all, neither the land, nor humiliating the West will do Russia any good. It will do wonders to Putin’s rating though. And that is one hell of an achievement for the current Russian president (other than stealing a wallet from his neighbor when he was busy putting a fire out in his house).

He has also achieved a rare for a non Western head of state status of an unassailable figure. The West has no choice but to tolerate him. The reason is that there is no acceptable alternative to Putin in Russia. If sanctions work and people in Russian become desperate, a cleverly crafted blend of nationalism, conservatism and ostensible religiosity would burst into real fascism or communism or, rather more likely, a mixture of the two. Going down, Putin would inevitably take with him his Jewish oligarch friends with their less fortunate coreligionists, the last vestiges of free press and liberal economic practices. Other minorities and Russia’s neighbors would be advised to fasten their belts too. That is something nobody wants. It’s cheaper to feed the beast Ukraine, in a piecemeal manner.

Europe as always was amazing… especially en face. They probably said to themselves: “Sure, why not create another Latvia and help 20% of Ukrainians become redundant in their own country. After all there are only 40 or so millions of these Ukrainians. Really, who would refuse to ruin the economy of their own country just for the honour of being associated with EU?”. Putin probably has very warm feelings towards the guys in Brussels, doing all they can to make Eastern Europe forget what it had been learning the hard way for 40 post-war years.

It’s only the people of Crimea who I feel the real empathy with. Under the circumstances they have made the most human choice of all - they chose bread over cheap talks. Russia is doing well now, Ukraine is a rack - it’s about time to switch. I just wonder why they did not ask to join Qatar or Kuwait. I guess the pensions could have been even higher.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The impetus for change

Israel's reaction concerning the agreement signed by Iran and six powers in Geneva is harsh. That was expected in the light of all the previous utterances by its official representatives. On the other hand it is completely illogical in the view of the fact that Israel is likely to suffer the brunt of the Iranian response in the case of military confrontation. Ultimately this agreement is likely to be one of the most important documents that has been signed on the Middle East recently.

The reasons why Israel is so concerned about this agreement is not limited to the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 Iran has replaced Arab countries like Egypt and Syria as the leader of anti-Zionist camp. This position is based on both ideological (expressing pan-Islamic solidarity with the oppressed Palestinians) and practical (picking up a rallying cause among not-too-friendly Arab neighbors) grounds.  Until now, however, this anti-Israeli sentiment was a mere part of a general anti-Western stance by the Iranian government. Should the West and the Iranians find the way to patch up their differences Israel will ultimately have to face Iran on its own.

This perspective is ostensibly very negative as far as Israel is concerned for a number of reasons. First, Iran has changed a lot during the last decade. It has turned into a new technological and certainly economical powerhouse of the region. Unlike what has been suggested by many, adherence to Islam has proven to be compatible with modern science, at least many branches of it. Iran has also demonstrated a convincing measure of stability and self reliance, which in today's world, seems like a rare assets even in the once-rock solid Europe or Northern America. With its 80 millions of population and third largest oil reserve in the world Iran seems to be more than a match for a 8-million Israel, engulfed in numerous internal and external problems.

Another and less obvious reason for Israel to oppose the agreement is that the confrontational Iran presented a convenient background for Israel's own misdemeanors. It both distracted the international community's attention from Israel's inability to solve the Palestinian problem in a satisfactory manner and directly justified some of the more glaring extravagances of Israel's military spending. Now, when the Iranian nuclear weapon program, hypothetical or true, might cease to be at the center of everyone's attention, Israel's behavior stands to be examined more closely.

Yet this document may have another potentially decisive consequence for the region. For many decades now, Israel with the US at its side has been living in a land of limitless possibilities. It has virtually become "too big for its pants". It lost the sense of reality and the limits of its own power. This agreement might be an important step in bringing Israel back to its natural size, so it can consider the solutions for its problems within the framework of realistic compromise rather than arrogant diktat. The ultimate strategy for Israel in its standoff with Iran lies in finding a just and mutually acceptable solution for the problems with its neighbors, primarily the Palestinians and Syrians. It's been well past the time for Israel to rectify its historical record and its public image. And, as much as I, an Israeli, resent being called a rabid dog, Iran may do a good service to Israel by providing an urgent impetus to do the right thing.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The WWIII may be postponed till further notice

The situation around Iran continues to provide a convenient turf for speculations over the World War III scenarios. However, it seems that the chances for a new world war are not higher than usual. Let's examine the positions of the two sides of this conflict: Iran and the Western alliance.

There are several factors that indirectly demonstrate that the West has no real intention to start the war, although it has taken measures to be seen as if it does.  First, Iran is objectively far beyond any country the US has been fighting with overtly since the end of the World War II. This fact is widely recognized by the Pentagon officials, who publicly doubt the ability to win the war by any means short of deployment of the ground forces.

However, beyond this point, the strategy chosen by the US and Israel for dealing with Iran is conspicuously silly if viewed as a prelude for an attack. Israel and the US ratcheted up the rhetoric without making any moves. As a result, Iran has been shown a stick and than has been given almost a decade to thoroughly prepare itself both militarily and politically for the upcoming war. Undoubtedly that Iran of today is much more capable of inflicting grave casualties both in Israel and among the American troops deployed in the Middle East than it has ever been before.

On the other hand, from the Iranian side the current policy of the US and the West in general should look eerily reminiscent of the very successful American strategy of the the end of eighties, when they bluffed the Soviets into believing that they were on the verge of developing an ambitious star-war program, which would have presumably given the Americans an absolute edge in any future nuclear conflict with the Soviets. The fact was that the US was not, at that time and it is unlikely to be now, anywhere near possessing the technology or resources to realize this program.

The Soviets, however, perceived the danger as very real and started their own counter program, which overstrained the economy, taxed as it was by the war in Afghanistan, the necessity to prop up client "socialist" or "progressive" regimes around the world and, critically, low oil prices. All this created acute discontent and division among general Soviet population and implosion of the Soviet system.

Perpetual explicit Israeli threats and implicit American threats have triggered a serious military build up on behalf of Iran. The missing link was the oil prices which stayed relatively high and even increased (ironically to the great extent as a result of the threats themselves). Only recently this issue was partially resolved when the Europeans and to a lesser extent other American allies acquiesced to the demands of cutting down imports of Iranian energy products. Recent fall of the rial and protests of against worsening of the economic situation may signify a possible success of this strategy.

Thus the West and especially Israel are not well poised to attack Iran now, when there are real signs that the policy of attrition bear fruits. Iran, on the other hand, is in a very different situation. It apparently has spent a fortune on its rearmament. The Iranian news channels present every couple of weeks a new exemplar of expensive military hardware. Even if the effectiveness or combat characteristics of these weapons systems are widely exaggerated, the development, maintenance and manning these new weapon systems represent heavy financial commitment.

Although a strong country, Iran cannot sustain this level of the effort indefinitely, especially on the background of the mounting economic hardships. Having spent so much money on arms, Iran should be greatly tempted to start the war. However, it can ill afford to be seen as an aggressor, a status that would probably undermine the support it can draw from the non-allied states and greatly increase the repercussions in the case of defeat. So in the current situation it looks like one side does not want to start the war, while the other cannot afford it.

Finally, the Iranian rearmament is, paradoxically, very reassuring in terms of the possible development of the Iranian military nuclear program. If indeed the development of the conventional weapons is not a sham, it would be somewhat irrational to spend so much effort in refurbishing the conventional army if Iran is on the verge of attaining virtual immunity in the very near future. These spendings point to either lack of interest in developing nuclear weapons or at the very least to Iran being at the relatively early stage of this program.

In summary, despite all of the bellicose rhetoric by both sides, the war does not seem to be imminent. It also looks like the rift over Iran between Netanyahu and Obama is either superficial or outright orchestrated. Now we can sit down and relax, of course, if other world's problems do not bother us as much.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Belgium as it comes

I am not a posting person, but considering the sadness with which my friends bade me farewell (or adieu) I feel obligated to report some of the circumstances of my new life on the old continent. First, our gravest suspicions were absolutely true: the local people do speak a foreign language. They refer to it as fronce, which raises a suspicion that they consider it French. If so, they are mistaken. Surely a person like me who can fluently read francais and has spent his entire live listening to light French pop would be able to understand more than three words in a half-hour monologue containing an explanation of how to operate a local public washer. I suspect they speak a dialect of Swahili with, judging by the amount of hands' waving, some elements of Italian. Strangely enough, these Italian elements they use only in their conversations with me.

I have attempted to introduce Belgian people to the normal human language, a language that all people who hold the names of Madonna and Justin Bieber dear. Most of them defied my every effort. The only encouragement I had during these frustrating attempts is the knowledge, that somewhere to the north, in wild forests of Ghent and Antwerp there is another group of people whose language the local people would even less inclined to speak. So my situation is not so bad, after all I could have been a Fleming.

The language issue aside, the main difference between the Canadians and Belgians that I have spotted so far is that the Belgians refuse under any circumstances to smile and say hello to people they don't know. Unfortunately I am in a position of the ultimate person they don't know so I get no hellos at all. Had I not spent so much time in Canada being spoiled daily by the people I saw for the first and the last time of my life, I could have been fine, but I am not. This whole situation is exacerbated by the fact that when I do smile at them they tend to cross over to the other side of the street or to pretend to have discovered a sudden need to fumble for a branch or other heavy objects under their feet.

Finally this whole issue of food. It's plenty, cheap and tasty. I am surrounded by temptations and as you might know my new year determination has run thin in February. I gave in to gluttony completely and unreservedly. Yesterday I brought home five kinds of sausages that looked most inviting on the shelf in my local deli. When I came home I discovered that they all were pork. If I had a Rabbi, I would definitely had something to talk with him about.

The Belgian quirks notwithstanding, I have to admit that in terms of beauty the town I live in is unparallel by anything I have ever seen before. I am quite certain now that the bunch of prison architects that took over Canada are personae non gratae in Belgium. That's how I imagine Disneyland to be. So all in all, I miss Canada, but for now I am too busy with being enchanted and overwhelmed to really feel bad.

Best regards to all my friends in Canada,

Sincerely yours,


Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Whoever witnessed a real discussion about the Israeli Palestinian problems is bound to feel often disappointed and even deceived. The reason behind this feeling is that the arguments of both parties seem to go pass each other as if they were engaged in two simultaneous monologues instead of a dialogue. The reasons are manifold: a high level of mutual dislike or even hatred, high stakes and may be personal involvement. However, besides these and other factors, the discussion of the Israeli Palestinian conflict often falls into one of the two pitfalls: being either narrow-focused or out-of-focus.

The first pitfall consists of analysing one of the players or even one aspect of the players’ behavior completely out of the general historical, political, economic and social context. This inevitably leads to harsh conclusions regarding the side under the investigation. This mistake is common for apologists of both sides. According to this type of analysis the Palestinians are motivated by irrational anti-semitic impulses and fanatical Islamic drive for violence exacerbated by an utter disregard for human life. This completely leaves out the reality of the occupation, the paucity and ineffectiveness of alternative means of resistance.

According to the partisans of the Palestinian side, Israel is an apartheid state striving to subjugate its neighbours and take their land and resources through permanent and premeditated exercise of gratuitous violence. This completely omits the true nature of the threats to which Israel is exposed and the real difficulties of fighting off armed guerrilla assaults.

The opposite pitfall is known as “but what with” strategy. People engaged in this kind of argumentation try to shift the focus from a concrete instance of abuse to other similar or purportedly similar behaviours perpetrated either by the antagonist or by other members of international community. This kind of strategy is even worse since it prevents any meaningful discussion of the problem.

The outcome of this two pitfalls are dire since the general understanding of the motifs of behavior for both sides is lacking and they end up being presented in a much more negative way than the history and the present achievements of these two outstanding peoples would otherwise merit. This, in turn, may have contributed to their own mistrust of the other and have  brought the conflict to unhealthy realms of the war of good against evil.

In this blog I would like to put the political events back into their proper context so that the motifs of the people involved would become clearer to outside observers. My underlying goal is to make readers understand that in this conflict the logic of the context often dominates what outsiders would consider as common sense or sound judgement.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The situation around Iran

With the adoption of oil embargo against Iran the EU has raised the stakes even further in the Western standoff with Iran. This action, which probably is bound to have more negative effect on ailing European economy than  Iran, is hardly a sensible step if one is after coercing Iran into stopping its nuclear development. To begin with these sanction failed measurably in the past,  especially in Iraq, where the brunt of these sanctions fell on the civilian population. Secondly, in recent years Iran has acquired vast currency reserves due to the high prices on oil and gas. It will take many years before these sanction will have biting effect, especially given the reluctance of Iran's main partners China, India, South Africa and Turkey, to take part in the embargo. So why then has the EU undertaken this apparently self-defeating decision? I think the EU knows that the effect of the embargo is going to be short-term anyway, since the main Western antagonists of this drama have already chosen the path of war.

Israel is undoubtedly interested in thoroughly defeating Iran. Indeed, if Iran decided to stop its nuclear work Israel would have been the loser, because the  Iran's role in the region, although enhanced by its nuclear advances, relies primarily on the influence it wields among the resistance groups in Palestine, Lebanon, Shia groups in the Arab countries and Syria. From the Israeli perspective, the most desired outcome would be a complete drying up of the financial and military assistance provided by Iran to its allies. This would be feasible only as the result of a serious military defeat suffered by Iran. Hence Israel is interested in waging a war against Iran even more than it is interested in cessation of its nuclear program and it is prepared to pay for that a substantial price in terms of military and civilian losses.

As much as Israel wants to fight Iran it cannot currently start the war. The first reason is that such a thorough defeat of Iran is hardly possible through the use of air force alone. The deficiency of over-relying on  air superiority has been demonstrated in the last Lebanon war of 2006, when Hezbollah guerilla group could frustrate Israel just by staying put. Although it is probable that Israeli air force is capable of overcoming the Iranian air force and anti-air defenses, it still would have pay a very hard price for a very humble achievement. Besides Israel acting alone would have to overcome serious logistic problem of fighting a war with a country separated by at least two sovereign states. In short, Israel would need the support of its NATO allies, primarily the US.

Such support, either military or otherwise, would have been gravely endangered should Israel be the first to attack. In addition, this action would be censured or even actively opposed by the neutral, but Iran-leaning countries like Russia, China and possibly India. Finally it would also exacerbate the anti-Israeli sentiment among the people of Muslim countries, which may have farther negative outcome on the stability of the region. All this reasons will prevent Israel from initiating the attack.

The US itself seems to be eager to flex its muscles once more. It conveniently evacuated its military, but not para-military forces from Iraq and amassed very impressive naval forces in the Gulf. It has a lot at stake at this conflict. Firstly, it needs to prop up the failing fortunes of its allies in the area, including Israel and the Gulf states; secondly, in periods of financial insecurity the power of manipulating oil reach countries become almost a necessity. There is also a personal revenge matter: though there are countries that have bloodied American nose more than Iran, there is no country that has done it with such a gratuitousness and in-your-face manner. Finally, without dealing with Iran, the war in Iraq will go down in history as the horrendous miscalculation, something that the US can ill afford. Yet as well as Israel, the US finds it difficult both for the internal and the external reasons to initiate this conflict.

On the other side there is Iran, which definitely does not want to go to war. It has most to lose in the event of war and least to gain. Supported by its oil revenues and emboldened by its success in crushing the decent it has acquired a status of regional super-power and if left to its own devices it will most assuredly gain more clout in the coming years with its enemies crumbling from inside in the waves of Arab revolutions. It gambled in its opposition to the Western demands and took a position which leaves it with little place for maneuver. The Iranian bet is that no matter what the West will not dare to attack.

This Iranian self-assurance seems to be a miscalculation. It's true that the West is reluctant to initiate the conflict, but it's also true that the Iranian uncompromising stance represents the tool for the West to manipulate Iran into initiating the conflict by some ill-advised action or suffer a series of humiliating and potentially debilitating measures.  The recent decision by the EU is designed either provoke Iran into some kind of retaliatory response, e.g. closing the strait of Hormuz, which would certainly invite a crushing response or appear weak and incapable of following through its earlier belligerent language.

All in all, the unfortunate conflict seems to be almost unavoidable, since it's hard to assume that the stronger side (the West) will give up and that the weaker side (Iran) will come to its senses.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

I am very happy that an Israeli scientist has been awarded the prestigious Nobel price. It makes me proud to be an Israeli too. This makes me also wonder what was so special thirty years ago that allowed Israel to collect several of these awards during the last decade. I decided to make a little comparison of the state of the Israel's science today and thirty years ago. I used Scopus  research engine, a pretty exhaustive source of scientific citations, to see how many papers associated with Israeli institutions have been published in the last 30 days and compared this number with one-month worth of publications in 1980 in Israel and other leading countries. In order to provide a fair comparison with other countries and between different time points I divided the numbers by the population size so the results below represent a monthly number of publications per 1 million inhabitants.

To see the citation tables for 2011 and 1980 press here

These results show that Israel is loosing it's place as a leader of the scientific community. Although, in terms of the number of publications, Israel is still comparable with an average European country, the trend is worrisome. Israel retreated from a position of the "light upon the nations" to mediocrity. In 30 years it has increased its scientific outputs by several hundred percents, while the leading nations have done so by thousand percents, leaving Israel far behind.

However, the real increase in the scientific productivity is not reflected in these numbers. It comes from the developing countries that have, for now, a comparatively low per capita contribution. However, in gross numbers these countries are fast becoming the next powerhouses of science. China's scientific output is only marginally smaller than that of the US and is far ahead of any other country. No doubt it will soon overtake the US as being a leading publisher of the scientific papers. Other developing countries, such as Turkey and Iran, are growing constantly. In terms of the total number of publications they have overcome Israel several years ago and will soon overcome even larger Western nations.

This all means that to stay relevant Israel should increase amount of resource and the efficiency of their use. Otherwise very soon the technological edge will be in other people's hands. Judging by the state of the Israeli science today, this Nobel flourishing of the Israel's science may very well be its Indian summer.