Thursday, August 28, 2014

NATO: New satellite images show Russian troops in and around Ukraine

By Dan Lamothe August 28 at 12:27 PM WashPost

NATO released satellite images on Thursday of what it said were Russian artillery, vehicles and troops in and around eastern Ukraine, just as Ukrainian officials said Russian troops in armored vehicles captured the Ukrainian town of Novoazovsk, along its southeastern coastline.

The satellite photos appear to show Russian vehicles and troops in numerous locations. NATO officials said that the first image below shows a convoy with self-propelled artillery in the area of Krasnodon, Ukraine, inside territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists on Aug. 21. The Ukrainian military has not moved this far inside separatist-controlled territory, so NATO officials said they are confident the equipment is Russian:

This second image shows Russian artillery units setting up positions in Krasnodon, NATO officials said. Vehicles believed to be carrying ammunition and supplies are alongside them.

“This configuration is exactly how trained military professionals would arrange their assets on the ground, indicating that these are not unskilled amateurs, but Russian soldiers,” NATO officials said.

(More here.)

Russian Soldiers in Ukraine Put Pressure on Putin

With evidence of Russian military activity in Ukraine piling up, how long can Moscow deny its involvement in the ongoing conflict?

Simon Shuster TIME
Aug. 27, 2014

The frantic appeal to the Russian President came on Wednesday from a cramped and cluttered office in the city of Kostroma, about 200 miles northeast of Moscow, where the relatives of Russian prisoners of war had gathered to wait for news of their sons and husbands. Olga Pochtoeva, the mother of one of the Russian soldiers recently captured in Ukraine, stood before the camera, her eyes red from crying, and addressed Vladimir Putin directly. “I beg you in the name of Christ,” she said. “Give me back my child. Give him back alive.”

It was another blow to Putin’s position on the war in eastern Ukraine. The previous night, after a round of talks aimed at ending a conflict that has claimed more than 2,000 lives since April, Putin had again insisted that Russia was not a party to the conflict and had sent no soldiers to fight it. “This is not our business,” he told reporters after the talks in the capital of Belarus, having just finished his first meeting since June with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. “It is a domestic matter of Ukraine itself,” he said.

But Putin’s persistent denials of Russian involvement have started to crack, eroded by a growing body of proof that Russian soldiers are in fact fighting and dying in eastern Ukraine. The evidence suggests a new level of Russian involvement in the war, not merely funneling weapons and volunteers across the border to the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, but sending regular Russian ground forces on missions into Ukrainian territory. The inevitable result of that escalation has been a growing Russian casualty count, and the funerals and panicked relatives of Russian soldiers have been hard to sweep under the rug. Soon they are likely to force Putin either to come clean and admit his country’s intervention in Ukraine, or to face the growing public resentment over his denials.

The first crack in Russia’s claim of non-involvement came on Monday morning, when the Ukrainian security services released images of nine Russian paratroopers who had been captured on the Ukrainian side of the border. In the video statement of Pochtoeva’s son, Yegor Pochtoev, he appeals to his parents directly. “Mom, dad, everything is fine. I have enough to eat and drink,” he says. “But the Russian Ministry of Defense is denying that we are their servicemen, that we have come from Russia.” He asks his parents to help prove that they are Russian soldiers.

(More here.)

The Poisoning of Africa’s Vultures

By DARCY L. OGADA, NYT, AUG. 27, 2014

NAIROBI, Kenya — IN July of last year, roughly 500 vultures died after they ate the pesticide-laced carcass of an elephant that had been killed by poachers in Namibia. It was an example of one poaching technique in Africa that seems to be on the rise: the poisoning of vultures so that authorities won’t be alerted to the location of the crime.

The overhead circling of vultures has long been used to locate lost or dead livestock. In the same way, vultures help law enforcement officers zero in on poachers.

With their keen eyesight and distinctive vantage point, vultures can locate an elephant carcass within 30 minutes of the animal’s death. It can take 45 to 70 minutes for the most skilled poachers to hack off two elephant tusks, and when vultures gather overhead rangers can get that much closer to apprehending the perpetrators. By poisoning a carcass and killing vultures en masse, poachers are trying to ensure that next time around there will be fewer of them to contend with.

Vulture conservationists began to take particular note of this development in July 2012, when an elephant was poached in Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe and 191 vultures were found scattered around the carcass, poisoned. Since then, six more cases of these poisonings have been reported. The most recent was in May. All told, some 1,700 vultures died.

(More here.)

America’s coal heartland is in economic freefall — but only the most desperate are fleeing

“My dad worked in the mines until he couldn’t pass a physical no more, and I always thought I’d do the same."

By Chico Harlan August 27 WashPost

LOGAN, W.Va. — For 51 years he’d lived in the same hollow and for two decades he’d performed the same job, mining coal from the underground seams of southern West Virginia. Then, on June 30, Michael Estep was jobless. His mine shut down, and its operator said “market conditions” made coal production unviable.

What has come since, for Estep, stands as the new Central Appalachian economic experience: a job-hunt in a region whose sustaining industry is in an unprecedented freefall. “I don’t know what to do,” Estep said as unpaid bills piled up, his cable cut to black, and his wife withdrew the last $7 from a checking account they’d held for 20 years.

What’s happening now in America’s coal heartland is not just the typical bust. Those in the industry say it’s more dire, potentially permanent, caused at once by declining reserves, a cheaper influx of competing gas and looming environmental regulations. More than 10,000 miners have lost jobs over the past two-and-a-half years in southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, and their plight illustrates how, even amid an economic recovery, certain segments of the workforce are being shut out.

Miners, modestly educated but accustomed to high pay, are among the hardest group of American workers to retrain. They also tend to challenge one of the tenets of economics logic — that people will go elsewhere to find jobs. Even though the economy is growing in northern parts of West Virginia, driven by a natural gas boom, those in the geographically isolated southern parts have shown a tendency to stay put, even if it means sliding toward poverty.

(More here.)

FBI Files Link Christian Televangelist To Mafia, Gun Running, Narcotics, White Supremacism

The co-founder of the world's largest Christian evangelical television ministry has been linked in FBI files to the Mafia, gun running, narcotics, money laundering, anti-Semitism, white supremacism, and other activities around the world.

David Badash, TheNewCivilRightsMovement.com

The FBI was investigating Paul Crouch, the co-founder of Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). Crouch, who died last year at the age of 79, was one of the world's first "televangelists." Crouch and his wife, Jan Crouch, first began their "ministry" by renting time on a local Canadian TV station, and grew their "ministry" into TBN, a multi-million dollar international TV network which he co-founded with the now infamous grifter, Jim Bakker, and his wife, Tammy Faye Bakker.

The New York Times in 2012 reported on the TBN founders who were at the forefront of the so-called "prosperity gospel," noting that in 2010 alone they took in $93 million in donations through their "ministry."

Now, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, investigative journalism site MuckRock "reveals the laundry list of Crouch’s activities the FBI was monitoring or even investigating."

Among the more interesting revelations is the claim that the FBI's "reports accuse Crouch and his partners as being motivated by 'anti-semitic and white supremacist,' beliefs."

In 1997 the FBI labeled Crouch "an anti-semitic, white supremacist" -- but once they identified him as a religious figure they "conducted no further investigation."

(More here.)

Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?

Nickolas Kristof, NYT
AUG. 27, 2014

Let’s start with what we don’t know: the precise circumstances under which a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot dead an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown.

But here’s what evidence does strongly suggest: Young black men in America suffer from widespread racism and stereotyping, by all society — including African-Americans themselves.

Research in the last couple of decades suggests that the problem is not so much overt racists. Rather, the larger problem is a broad swath of people who consider themselves enlightened, who intellectually believe in racial equality, who deplore discrimination, yet who harbor unconscious attitudes that result in discriminatory policies and behavior.

Scholars have found that blacks and Hispanics treated by doctors for a broken leg received pain medication significantly less often than white patients with the same injury. School administrators suspend black students at more than three times the rate of white students. Police arrest blacks at 3.7 times the rate of whites for marijuana possession, even though surveys find that both use marijuana at roughly similar rates.

(More here.)

Bill O’Reilly and White Privilege

Charles M. Blow, NYT
AUG. 27, 2014

Is white privilege real? Not according to Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly.

This week O’Reilly debated the issue of white privilege with a fellow host and then returned to the topic the next day with this doozy of a statement:

“Last night on ‘The Factor,’ Megyn Kelly and I debated the concept of white privilege whereby some believe that if you are Caucasian you have inherent advantages in America. ‘Talking Points’ does not, does not believe in white privilege. However, there is no question that African-Americans have a much harder time succeeding in our society than whites do.”

It is difficult to believe that those three sentences came in that order from the same mouth. Why would it be harder for blacks to succeed? Could interpersonal and, more important, systemic bias play a role? And, once one acknowledges the presence of bias as an impediment, one must by extension concede that being allowed to navigate the world without such biases is a form of privilege.

(More here.)

Russian and Ukraine troops battle in south, prompting fears that invasion has begun

By Annie Gowen and Karoun Demirjian August 28 at 6:37 AM, WashPost

KIEV, Ukraine — Fighting between the Ukrainian military and what Ukrainian and Western officials say are Russian troops worsened early Thursday, prompting fears in Ukraine that a Russian invasion of their territory has begun.

Ukrainian officials say Ukrainian troops are continuing to battle combined Russian and separatist forces on a new southern front around the border town of Novoazovsk, east of Crimea on the Sea of Azov. A military spokesman also said Russian troops are increasing surveillance from northern Crimea, the autonomous Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Moscow in March.

As firefights and shelling continued all day Wednesday and into the night, there were differing reports on whether Novoazovsk, a previously quiet border town, had fallen to Russian-backed separatists. Russian troops and their allies do control villages north of there, according to military spokesman Andriy Lysenko.

(More here.)

Islamic State Fills Coffers From Illicit Economy in Syria, Iraq

Group Pirates Oil, Exacts Tribute From Locals, Making It Among World's Richest in Terror

By Nour Malas and Maria Abi-Habib, WSJ
Aug. 27, 2014 5:37 p.m. ET

The Islamic State runs a self-sustaining economy across territory it controls in Syria and Iraq, pirating oil while exacting tribute from a population of at least eight million, Arab and Western officials said, making it one of the world's richest terror groups and an unprecedented threat.

That illicit economy presents a new picture of Islamic State's financial underpinnings. The group was once thought to depend on funding from Arab Gulf donors and donations from the broader Muslim world. Now, Islamic State—the former branch of al Qaeda that has swallowed parts of Iraq and Syria—is a largely self-financed organization.

Money from outside donors "pales in comparison to their self-funding through criminal and terrorist activities," a U.S. State Department official said, adding that those activities generate millions of dollars a month.

For Western and Arab nations that are striving to stop Islamic State, the group's local funding sources pose a conundrum: A clampdown on economic activity that helps fund the group, counterterrorism officials and experts said, could cause a humanitarian crisis in the already stressed areas it controls.

(More here.)

Military Skill and Terrorist Technique Fuel Success of ISIS

By BEN HUBBARD and ERIC SCHMITT, NYT
AUG. 27, 2014

BAGHDAD — As fighters for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria continue to seize territory, the group has quietly built an effective management structure of mostly middle-aged Iraqis overseeing departments of finance, arms, local governance, military operations and recruitment.

At the top the organization is the self-declared leader of all Muslims, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a radical chief executive officer of sorts, who handpicked many of his deputies from among the men he met while a prisoner in American custody at the Camp Bucca detention center a decade ago.

He had a preference for military men, and so his leadership team includes many officers from Saddam Hussein’s long-disbanded army.

They include former Iraqi officers like Fadel al-Hayali, the top deputy for Iraq, who once served Mr. Hussein as a lieutenant colonel, and Adnan al-Sweidawi, a former lieutenant colonel who now heads the group’s military council.

(More here.)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

In Audio From a Koch Event, McConnell Envisions Undoing Obama Initiatives

By JONATHAN WEISMAN, NYT, AUG. 27, 2014

WASHINGTON — At a private conclave with the billionaire Koch brothers’ political apparatus this year, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, laid out a confrontational agenda for a Republican-controlled Senate aimed at dismantling President Obama’s legislative successes through the federal budget.

In an audio recording leaked to The Undercurrent, a liberal-leaning YouTube channel, and initially reported by the magazine The Nation, Mr. McConnell told the mid-June gathering in Dana Point, Calif., that if the Republicans gained control of the Senate and retained control of the House in November, Congress could use the budget process to force the president to roll back his priorities.

“In the House and Senate, we own the budget,” he said, explaining that the initial blueprint on taxes and spending does not require the president’s signature. “So what does that mean? That means that we can pass the spending bill. And I assure you that in the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing riders in the bill. No money can be spent to do this or to do that. We’re going to go after them on health care, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board. All across the federal government, we’re going to go after it.”

(More here.)

Medicare: Not Such a Budget-Buster Anymore

By Margot Sanger-Katz and Kevin Quealy, NYT
AUG. 27, 2014

You’re looking at the biggest story involving the federal budget and a crucial one for the future of the American economy. Every year for the last six years in a row, the Congressional Budget Office has reduced its estimate for how much the federal government will need to spend on Medicare in coming years. The latest reduction came in a report from the budget office on Wednesday morning.

The changes are big. The difference between the current estimate for Medicare’s 2019 budget and the estimate for the 2019 budget four years ago is about $95 billion. That sum is greater than the government is expected to spend that year on unemployment insurance, welfare and Amtrak — combined. It’s equal to about one-fifth of the expected Pentagon budget in 2019. Widely discussed policy changes, like raising the estate tax, would generate just a tiny fraction of the budget savings relative to the recent changes in Medicare’s spending estimates.

(More here.)

GOP poll of women: Party 'stuck in past'

By: Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, Politico.com
August 27, 2014 05:47 PM EDT

A detailed report commissioned by two major Republican groups — including one backed by Karl Rove — paints a dismal picture for Republicans, concluding women voters view the party as “intolerant,” “lacking in compassion” and “stuck in the past.”

Women are “barely receptive” to Republicans’ policies and the party does “especially poorly” with women in the Northeast and Midwest, according to an internal Crossroads GPS and American Action Network report obtained by POLITICO. It was presented to a small number of senior aides this month on Capitol Hill, according to multiple sources involved.

Republicans swore they’d turn around the party’s performance with women after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012. And while they are in good shape in 2014, poised to pick up seats in the House and possibly take the majority in the Senate, the new report shows that they have not improved their standing with women — which could exacerbate their problems if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee in 2016.

The report – “Republicans and Women Voters: Huge Challenges, Real Opportunities” – was the product of eight focus groups across the country and a poll of 800 registered female voters this summer. The large-scale project was a major undertaking for groups.

(More here.)

Ukraine Says Russian Forces Lead Major New Offensive in East

By ANDREW E. KRAMER and MICHAEL R. GORDON, NYT
AUG. 27, 2014

NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine — Tanks, artillery and infantry have crossed from Russia into an unbreached part of eastern Ukraine in recent days, attacking Ukrainian forces and causing panic and wholesale retreat not only in this small border town but also a wide section of territory, in what Ukrainian and Western military officials described on Wednesday as a stealth invasion.

The attacks outside this city and in an area to the north essentially have opened a new, third front in the war in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists, along with the fighting outside the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Exhausted, filthy and dismayed, Ukrainian soldiers staggering out of Novoazovsk for safer territory said Tuesday they were cannon fodder for the forces coming from Russia. As they spoke, tank shells whistled in from the east and exploded nearby.

Some of the retreating Ukrainian soldiers appeared unwilling to fight. The commander of their unit, part of the Ninth Brigade from Vinnytsia, in western Ukraine, barked at the men to turn around, to no effect. “All right,” the commander said. “Anybody who refuses to fight, sit apart from the others.” Eleven men did, while the others returned to the city.

(More here.)

Veterans Affairs Watchdog: Health-Care Scheduling Delays Not Fatal

Inspector General Finds Widespread Scheduling Problems at Phoenix VA But Can't Tie to Deaths

By Ben Kesling, WSJ
Aug. 26, 2014 2:24 p.m. ET

The Department of Veterans Affairs' independent watchdog said no patient deaths at the Phoenix VA Health Care System were directly caused by long wait times, in a final report that nevertheless detailed widespread scheduling problems there.

The Office of the Inspector General for the department released the report Tuesday, following months of turmoil at the agency, multiple investigations and a number of resignations, including by Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. Much of the attention on the agency was triggered by claims that patients died because of long wait times that department employees didn't properly track.

"While the case reviews in this report document poor quality of care, we are unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the death of these veterans," the inspector-general report said. The document, however, noted that 28 patients had "clinically significant" delays in care due to scheduling problems or poor access to care.

The report was issued as the White House was focused Tuesday on veterans. President Barack Obama spoke at the national convention of the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans service organization, which has been a vocal critic of VA problems.

(More here.)

Russia and Ukraine Talks Yield Little Progress on Ending Conflict

From left, presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine meet in Minsk on Tuesday. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Putin Promises Support but Focuses on Trade Issues in Peace Talks With Poroshenko

By Andrey Ostroukh in Minsk, Belarus, and, Alan Cullison in Moscow
Updated Aug. 26, 2014 7:31 p.m. ET, WSJ

Face-to-face talks between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents failed to produce a breakthrough for ending the conflict over eastern Ukraine, as Kiev released videos of captured Russian soldiers and rebels pushed toward a government-held city.

The one-on-one session, which Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko described as "tough and complex," ended early Wednesday after a day of talks on the crisis in the Belarusian capital of Minsk.

Mr. Poroshenko said afterward that he would prepare a "road map" toward a possible cease-fire with the pro-Russia separatists, according to a statement carried by news agencies.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin expressed support as well as apparent skepticism. "Russia will do everything possible for the peace process, if it begins," he told reporters separately, adding that it "should get started as soon as possible."

(More here.)

American Fighting for ISIS Is Killed in Syria

Photo Douglas McAuthur McCain
By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT, NYT
AUG. 26, 2014

WASHINGTON — Like many teenage boys who grew up in the Midwest in the 1990s, Douglas McAuthur McCain was a fan of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and loved to play basketball.

But as he grew older, he lost interest in basketball as he shuttled between two suburban Minneapolis high schools. He never graduated, and in his late teens, he began to have run-ins with the law. In the decade that followed, he was arrested or cited nine times on charges including theft, marijuana possession and driving without a license.

Mr. McCain moved back and forth from Minneapolis to San Diego and then abroad. Officials now know he ended up in Syria, where three days ago, Mr. McCain became the first American to die while fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He was 33.

The rebels who killed him were fighting for the Free Syrian Army, a rival group backed by the United States, and they went on to behead six ISIS fighters — but not Mr. McCain — and then posted the photographs on Facebook.

(More here.)

Obama Pursuing Climate Accord in Lieu of Treaty

By CORAL DAVENPORT, NYT, AUG. 26, 2014

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is working to forge a sweeping international climate change agreement to compel nations to cut their planet-warming fossil fuel emissions, but without ratification from Congress.

In preparation for this agreement, to be signed at a United Nations summit meeting in 2015 in Paris, the negotiators are meeting with diplomats from other countries to broker a deal to commit some of the world’s largest economies to enact laws to reduce their carbon pollution. But under the Constitution, a president may enter into a legally binding treaty only if it is approved by a two-thirds majority of the Senate.

To sidestep that requirement, President Obama’s climate negotiators are devising what they call a “politically binding” deal that would “name and shame” countries into cutting their emissions. The deal is likely to face strong objections from Republicans on Capitol Hill and from poor countries around the world, but negotiators say it may be the only realistic path.

“If you want a deal that includes all the major emitters, including the U.S., you cannot realistically pursue a legally binding treaty at this time,” said Paul Bledsoe, a top climate change official in the Clinton administration who works closely with the Obama White House on international climate change policy.

(More here.)

U.S. Mobilizes Allies to Widen Assault on ISIS

By HELENE COOPER and MARK LANDLER, NYT
AUG. 26, 2014

WASHINGTON — The United States has begun to mobilize a broad coalition of allies behind potential American military action in Syria and is moving toward expanded airstrikes in northern Iraq, administration officials said on Tuesday.

President Obama, the officials said, was broadening his campaign against the Sunni militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and nearing a decision to authorize airstrikes and airdrops of food and water around the northern Iraqi town of Amerli, home to members of Iraq’s Turkmen minority. The town of 12,000 has been under siege for more than two months by the militants.

“Rooting out a cancer like ISIL won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick,” Mr. Obama said in a speech on Tuesday to the American Legion in Charlotte, N.C., using an alternative name for ISIS. He said that the United States was building a coalition to “take the fight to these barbaric terrorists,” and that the militants would be “no match” for a united international community.

(More here.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Are Growing, and Growing More Dangerous, Draft of U.N. Report Says

Where ice once capped the Sermeq Avangnardleq glacier in Greenland, vast expanses of the Arctic Ocean are now clear. Credit Kadir van Lohuizen for The New York Times

By JUSTIN GILLIS, NYT
AUG. 26, 2014

Runaway growth in the emission of greenhouse gases is swamping all political efforts to deal with the problem, raising the risk of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” over the coming decades, according to a draft of a major new United Nations report.

Global warming is already cutting grain production by several percentage points, the report found, and that could grow much worse if emissions continue unchecked. Higher seas, devastating heat waves, torrential rain and other climate extremes are also being felt around the world as a result of human emissions, the draft report said, and those problems are likely to intensify unless the gases are brought under control.

The world may already be nearing a temperature at which the loss of the vast ice sheet covering Greenland would become inevitable, the report said. The actual melting would then take centuries, but it would be unstoppable and could result in a sea level rise of 23 feet, with additional increases from other sources like melting Antarctic ice, potentially flooding the world’s major cities.

(More here.)

Real Americans and Real Economics

Paul Krugman, NYT
August 25, 2014 4:53 pm

Maybe I’m deluding myself, but it seems to me that we’re not hearing as much as we used to about “real Americans” — the notion that the true essence of the nation is white people living in small towns, associated these days with Sarah Palin but also invoked by whatshisname, the guy who lived in the White House between Clinton and Obama and misled us into war. But I’m sure that’s still how a lot of people on the right see it.

What made me think about that concept is something sort of parallel I’ve noticed about the reaction to my writings. Often, I find, the most rage-filled emails and voice mails come after I’ve written something fairly economistic, like today’s piece. And typically, part of the rant is something along the lines of “You call yourself an economist?” You see, the person delivering the rant has a notion of what economics is; he (it’s almost always a he) believes that “real economics” is about singing the praises of free markets — basically Capitalism Roolz. It’s inconceivable to him that you could have a more nuanced view without being a Marxist. And he’s outraged both that I have the temerity to claim that I’m doing economics and that other people seem to take me seriously.

And it’s not just random Tea Partiers who think this way. It includes hosts of TV business shows, and some famous economists too.

(More here.)

Russia admits its soldiers have been caught in Ukraine

A video released by the Ukrainian security service purporting to show Russian servicemen captured on Ukrainian territory. Photograph: Reuters TV
Defence ministry source claims captured soldiers seen on video were on a border patrol and had strayed into Ukraine by mistake (yeah, and the dog ate my homework)

Shaun Walker in Kiev
theguardian.com, Tuesday 26 August 2014 05.44 EDT

Sources in Moscow have admitted that men captured inside Ukraine are indeed serving Russian soldiers, but said they crossed the border by mistake. The admission comes as President Vladimir Putin is due to land in Minsk for talks with his Ukrainian counterpart on Tuesday afternoon.

Videos were released by Ukrainian authorities of interrogations of prisoners, who said they were serving Russian army officers. One said he had not been told exactly where they were going, but had an idea he was inside Ukraine. There was no immediate confirmation of the authenticity of the recordings, but the fact that Russian wire agencies ran a defence ministry admission that soldiers had indeed crossed into Ukraine suggested that the footage was genuine.

"The soldiers really did participate in a patrol of a section of the Russian-Ukrainian border, crossed it by accident on an unmarked section, and as far as we understand showed no resistance to the armed forces of Ukraine when they were detained," a source in Russia's defence ministry told the RIA Novosti agency.

Ukraine said it had captured 10 Russian soldiers, though it did not state how they were caught. Weapons and fighters are able to cross the porous border freely, but until now there has never been confirmation that serving Russian soldiers are active inside Ukraine, despite repeated claims from Kiev and some circumstantial evidence.

(More here.)

Will Putin Push for a New Cold War?

by Tom Maertens

Tom Maertens served as National Security Council director for nonproliferation and homeland defense under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and as deputy coordinator for counterterrorism in the State Department during and after 9/11.

Several media sources have suggested recently that we are heading towards a new cold war with Russia.

Vladimir Putin once termed the breakup of the Soviet Union the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century," and indeed, he appears intent on reestablishing a Russian empire.

He even asserted to Obama in 2009 that Russia is entitled to a “sphere of influence” in Ukraine…and elsewhere, too, apparently: since 2008 Russia has invaded Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia), Transnistria (Moldova) and subverted and then annexed Crimea.

Putin has admitted the “green men” in Crimea were Russian troops, there “to prepare for the referendum,” which later produced the expected Soviet-era results: 93% of Crimeans “voted” for annexation.

Putin’s next target was Ukraine, where Russian-supported “separatists” took over several towns, declared independent republics, and then called for Moscow’s help.

In reality, the “separatist leaders” -- Igor Girkin, Igor Bezler, Nikolai Borodai, Alexander Zakharchenko, Vladimir Antyufeyev, and others -- are Russians with military intelligence backgrounds who specialize in subversion.

Putin’s gambit backfired when a Malaysian airliner was shot down with a Russian-supplied SA-11. The evidence overwhelmingly incriminates the rebels, as virtually every Western news-gathering source and Western government agrees. The rebels initially claimed credit for shooting down a Ukrainian AN-26 cargo plane. Once they discovered it was a civilian airliner, they changed their story.

The Kremlin-controlled media repeated their claim and the subsequent flip-flop thirty minutes later. The Russian media have replayed the other separatists’ claims as well, including that the U.S. shot the plane down, and Igor Girkin’s bizarre contention that the plane had been flown on autopilot with rotting corpses pre-loaded in Amsterdam as a provocation.

Andrei Malgin, a journalist under Soviet leaders from Brezhnev to Gorbachev, labeled the Kremlin’s Ukraine propaganda campaign “deliberate lies” in The Moscow Times, writing “they have truly reached a new low.”

Such propaganda goes unanswered because Putin has closed down most of the free press and put the opposition in jail – the ones, that is, who didn’t mysteriously die.

Putin’s regime has particularly targeted critical journalists, such as Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasia Baburova, Natalia Estemirova, Georgy Gongadze and Paul Klebnikov, all of whom were killed in circumstances implicating the regime. The lawyer Sergei Magnitskiy tried to recover money stolen by Putin’s cronies and was imprisoned on trumped-up fraud charges. He died in prison.

According to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, Russia is as corrupt as Pakistan, and is apparently rotting from the head down. The international press has reported on Putin’s energy company holdings, which have been estimated at $60 billion, and on his four yachts, fleet of airplanes, 20 homes, and his collection of gold watches.

Alexander Litvinenko had alleged corruption and malfeasance while Putin was running the FSB, and was assassinated in London for it. The British are seeking to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, a former FSB/KGB colleague of Litveneko and now a member of parliament, for the crime.

Putin’s FSB was widely believed behind the two 1999 explosions in Moscow that were blamed on Chechens and used to justify the second Chechen war – which catapulted Putin into the prime minister’s job. The incriminating evidence came when operatives with FSB license plates and FSB IDs were caught by local police planting a third bomb in Ryazan, 100 miles south of Moscow. The FSB later claimed the event was a “training exercise,” even though a live detonator was left behind that matched the ones used in Moscow.

Putin’s campaign against Chechens was extensive: two Russian agents were convicted by a court in Qatar in 2004 of murdering the former president of Chechnya, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, with a car bomb in Doha.

Anna Politkovskaya, who survived several assassination attempts, wrote in 2006 that: “We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss … if you want to go on working as a journalist, it's total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death, the bullet, poison, or trial….” In her case, it was several bullets.

Russia’s land grabs were the first forceful change of borders in Europe since the end of WWII, and, together with the shootdown, have alarmed Europeans. Their response, along with the US, was to impose tough financial and economic sanctions, while seeking to negotiate a political solution on Ukraine. Russia imposed import restrictions of its own but has agreed to talk. Meanwhile, Russia continues to send military equipment into eastern Ukraine.

The key question is whether Putin will allow his proxies there to be defeated, as is currently happening, or save face by sending in the Russian army. That would send relations into a deep freeze, a new cold war.

This article was published in the Mankato Free Press, August 26, 2014. Mr. Maertens is co-editor of Vox Verax.

Ukraine detains Russian paratroopers

U.S. ambassador warns of ‘counteroffensive’

By Annie Gowen and Karoun Demirjian August 26 at 7:39 AM WashPost

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine said Tuesday its forces detained a group of Russian paratroopers who crossed the border into eastern Ukraine, and the U.S. ambassador to Kiev warned of a possible “Russian-directed counteroffensive” by pro-Moscow separatists, raising tensions between the two countries ahead of a planned meeting between their presidents at a regional summit.

In a briefing Tuesday, Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said the Ukrainian army detained 10 Russian paratroopers in the Donetsk region, scene of some of the heaviest fighting with separatist rebels in the east. The spokesman said the Russians were detained with their documents and weapons and had provided statements.

In Moscow, news agencies quoted a Russian defense official as saying the soldiers had crossed the border by accident and surrendered to Ukrainian forces without attempting to resist.

(More here.)

California Governor Signs Law Requiring a ‘Kill Switch’ on Smartphones

By BRIAN X. CHEN NYT
August 25, 2014 7:53 pm

Governor Jerry Brown of California on Monday signed into law a measure that requires smartphones sold in California to include smarter antitheft technology, a feature that lawmakers hope will help reduce phone theft.

The bill, introduced by State Senator Mark Leno and sponsored by George Gascón, San Francisco’s district attorney, requires a so-called “kill switch” — which would render a smartphone useless after it was stolen — to be included on all smartphones sold in California starting in July 2015.

A kill switch is software that allows consumers to disable a phone after the device has been reported stolen and reactivate it only with a correct password or personal identification number. Proponents of the bill have argued that wide adoption of this type of antitheft technology would lead to a reduction in phone theft because it would make it more difficult for criminals to resell stolen phones.

“Our efforts will effectively wipe out the incentive to steal smartphones and curb this crime of convenience, which is fueling street crime and violence within our communities,” said Senator Leno, in a statement.

(More here.)

Election Panel Enacts Policies by Not Acting

By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE, NYT
AUG. 25, 2014

WASHINGTON — The three Republican and three Democratic appointees of the Federal Election Commission had reached yet another deadlock: They would issue no advisory opinion on whether the Conservative Action Fund could accept contributions of Bitcoin, the online currency created to be untraceable.

But a ruling of sorts emerged nonetheless in the hearing, held late last year, when one of the Republican commissioners, Lee E. Goodman, suggested that the group could essentially do as it pleased. The fund “has a clear statutory right to give and receive in-kind contributions regardless of what we say here today,” Mr. Goodman said.

The case was just one of the more than 200 times in the past six years that the commission has split votes, reflecting a deep ideological divide over how aggressively to regulate money in politics that mirrors the partisan gridlock in Congress.

But instead of paralyzing the commission, the 3-to-3 votes have created a rapidly expanding universe of unofficial law, where Republican commissioners have loosened restrictions on candidates and outside groups simply by signaling what standards they are willing to enforce.

(More here.)

Lost in America

Frank Bruni, NYT
AUG. 25, 2014

More and more I’m convinced that America right now isn’t a country dealing with a mere dip in its mood and might. It’s a country surrendering to a new identity and era, in which optimism is quaint and the frontier anything but endless.

There’s a feeling of helplessness that makes the political horizon, including the coming midterm elections, especially unpredictable. Conventional wisdom has seldom been so useless, because pessimism in this country isn’t usually this durable or profound.

Americans are apprehensive about where they are and even more so about where they’re going. But they don’t see anything or anyone to lead them into the light. They’re sour on the president, on the Democratic Party and on Republicans most of all. They’re hungry for hope but don’t spot it on the menu. Where that tension leaves us is anybody’s guess.

Much of this was chillingly captured by a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll from early August that got lost somewhat amid the recent deluge of awful news but deserved closer attention.

(More here.)

The Making of a Disaster

Roger Cohen, NYT
AUG. 25, 2014

LONDON — Almost 13 years after 9/11, a jihadi organization with a murderous anti-Western ideology controls territory in Iraq and Syria, which are closer to Europe and the United States than Afghanistan is. It commands resources and camps and even a Syrian military base. It spreads its propaganda through social media. It has set the West on edge through the recorded beheading of the American journalist James Foley — with the promise of more to come.

What went wrong? The United States and its allies did not go to war to eradicate Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan only to face — after the expenditure of so much blood and treasure — a more proximate terrorist threat with a Qaeda-like ideology. The “war on terror,” it seems, produced only a metastasized variety of terror.

More than 500, and perhaps as many as 800, British Muslims have headed for Syria and Iraq to enlist in the jihadi ranks. In France, that number stands at about 900. Two adolescent girls, 15 and 17, were detained last week in Paris and face charges of conspiring with a terrorist organization. The ideological appeal of the likes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is intact. It may be increasing, despite efforts to build an interfaith dialogue, reach out to moderate Islam, and pre-empt radicalization.

“One minute you are trying to pay bills, the next you’re running around Syria with a machine gun,” said Ghaffar Hussain, the managing director of the Quilliam Foundation, a British research group that seeks to tackle religious extremism. “Many young British Muslims are confused about their identity, and they buy into a narrow framework that can explain events. Jihadists hand them a simplistic narrative of good versus evil. They give them camaraderie and certainty. ISIS makes them feel part of a grand struggle.”

(More here.)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Friends of Israel

AIPAC has consistently fought the Obama Administration on policy. Is it now losing influence?

By Connie Bruck, The New Yorker

On July 23rd, officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—the powerful lobbying group known as AIPAC—gathered in a conference room at the Capitol for a closed meeting with a dozen Democratic senators. The agenda of the meeting, which was attended by other Jewish leaders as well, was the war in the Gaza Strip. In the century-long conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the previous two weeks had been particularly harrowing. In Israeli towns and cities, families heard sirens warning of incoming rockets and raced to shelters. In Gaza, there were scenes of utter devastation, with hundreds of Palestinian children dead from bombing and mortar fire. The Israeli government claimed that it had taken extraordinary measures to minimize civilian casualties, but the United Nations was launching an inquiry into possible war crimes. Even before the fighting escalated, the United States, Israel’s closest ally, had made little secret of its frustration with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “How will it have peace if it is unwilling to delineate a border, end the occupation, and allow for Palestinian sovereignty, security, and dignity?” Philip Gordon, the White House coördinator for the Middle East, said in early July. “It cannot maintain military control of another people indefinitely. Doing so is not only wrong but a recipe for resentment and recurring instability.” Although the Administration repeatedly reaffirmed its support for Israel, it was clearly uncomfortable with the scale of Israel’s aggression. AIPAC did not share this unease; it endorsed a Senate resolution in support of Israel’s “right to defend its citizens,” which had seventy-nine co-sponsors and passed without a word of dissent.

(More here.)

America cannot wait while the world warms

A climate for change

By Editorial Board August 25 at 7:00 PM, WashPost

FOR MORE than a century, scientists have understood the basic physics of the greenhouse effect. For decades, they’ve realized humans can affect the climate by burning coal, oil and gas. But the country’s leaders remain divided on the need to curb greenhouse emissions, let alone how to do it.

Among mainstream scientists, this paralysis is mind-boggling.

There is now no doubt that the world is warming. In 2010, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deemed this conclusion “unequivocal,” pointing to multiple, independent lines of evidence, including decades of direct temperature readings. In 2011, Richard Muller, a University of California at Berkeley scientist and former climate-change skeptic, verified this conclusion after a two-year review of the data. The complaint that scientists did not predict a slowdown in warming lately does not contradict this finding: Climate change is a long-term phenomenon; the line will go up and down here and there, but the general direction will be up. As the most authoritative source on climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, explained in its Fifth Assessment Report last year, “Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.”

(More here.)

Cutting the Corporate Tax Would Grow Other Problems

Jared Bernstein, NYT
AUG. 25, 2014

The current debate over corporate inversions, in which American companies like Burger King consider renouncing their citizenship for tax-reduction purposes, is only the latest reminder that the United States corporate tax code has deep problems.

Ideas for reforming the business side of the tax code abound, but there are those on both the left and the right who argue that it cannot be salvaged and should simply be abolished. N. Gregory Mankiw made the argument from the right on Sunday in The Times.

The basic idea behind abolition is that the current corporate tax code is fraught with wasteful loopholes — each of which has politically power defenders — that both lose revenue and distort business decisions. The abolitionists ask: Why not give up on the fiction that we can adequately and efficiently tax companies and instead tax their shareholders at higher income-tax rates?

(More here.)

Choking the Oceans With Plastic

By CHARLES J. MOORE, NYT, AUG. 25, 2014

LOS ANGELES — The world is awash in plastic. It’s in our cars and our carpets, we wrap it around the food we eat and virtually every other product we consume; it has become a key lubricant of globalization — but it’s choking our future in ways that most of us are barely aware.

I have just returned with a team of scientists from six weeks at sea conducting research in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — one of five major garbage patches drifting in the oceans north and south of the equator at the latitude of our great terrestrial deserts. Although it was my 10th voyage to the area, I was utterly shocked to see the enormous increase in the quantity of plastic waste since my last trip in 2009. Plastics of every description, from toothbrushes to tires to unidentifiable fragments too numerous to count floated past our marine research vessel Alguita for hundreds of miles without end. We even came upon a floating island bolstered by dozens of plastic buoys used in oyster aquaculture that had solid areas you could walk on.

(More here.)

Abbas Seen as Ready to Seek Mideast Pact on His Own

By JODI RUDOREN, NYT, AUG. 25, 2014

JERUSALEM — With no clear resolution in sight to the battle between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, who has been largely sidelined as his popularity sank during the conflict, is making a new play to reassert his role and cast himself as the leader of all Palestinians.

Mr. Abbas plans to present an initiative Tuesday to the Palestinian leadership that, several people close to him said, would bypass American-brokered negotiations with Israel that have failed for many years to produce a Palestinian state. Instead he will call for an international conference or United Nations resolution demanding a deadline to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. As leverage, Mr. Abbas would finally join the International Criminal Court and other institutions where he has long threatened to pursue Israeli violations, these people said.

(More here.)

Wrong Way Nation

Paul Krugman, NYT
AUG. 24, 2014

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is running for president again. What are his chances? Will he once again become a punch line? I have absolutely no idea. This isn’t a horse-race column.

What I’d like to do, instead, is take advantage of Mr. Perry’s ambitions to talk about one of my favorite subjects: interregional differences in economic and population growth.

You see, while Mr. Perry’s hard-line stances and religiosity may be selling points for the Republican Party’s base, his national appeal, if any, will have to rest on claims that he knows how to create prosperity. And it’s true that Texas has had faster job growth than the rest of the country. So have other Sunbelt states with conservative governments. The question, however, is why.

The answer from the right is, of course, that it’s all about avoiding regulations that interfere with business and keeping taxes on rich people low, thereby encouraging job creators to do their thing. But it turns out that there are big problems with this story, quite aside from the habit economists pushing this line have of getting their facts wrong.

(More here.)

Russia to Send Second Aid Convoy to Ukraine This Week

Foreign Minister Also Hopes for Political Resolution to Conflict at Presidents' Meeting on Tuesday

By Olga Razumovskaya, WSJ
Aug. 25, 2014 5:50 a.m. ET

MOSCOW—Russia wants to send a second convoy of humanitarian aid to Ukraine as early as this week, its foreign minister said on Monday.

Sergei Lavrov said his country also hopes to discuss a political resolution of the conflict in Ukraine at a meeting between Russian and Ukrainian presidents as well as European Union officials in Minsk, Belarus, on Tuesday.

The comments come ahead of the first meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko in Minsk in two months; and amid mounting casualties in the conflict-stricken eastern Ukraine.

On Sunday, Russia hinted that it was interested in delivering more aid to battle-torn eastern Ukraine after all the trucks from the first aid convoy returned to Russia.

Mr. Lavrov said in a Monday briefing that Russia had sent a note to Ukraine on Sunday detailing the kind of humanitarian aid it would like to send.

(More here.)

Pressure Mounts on Obama to Act on Islamic State

Republicans Press for More Action Against Islamic State

By Colleen McCain Nelson and Adam Entous, WSJ
Updated Aug. 24, 2014 8:04 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama faces pressure at home and in the Middle East to quickly step up strikes at Islamic State militants, but also reluctance from some within his own party and European allies to do so.

The leading options under consideration for strikes in Syria—if Mr. Obama decides to expand the fight—are narrow in scope, designed to prevent the Islamic State from carrying out any plots that threaten Americans and from resupplying its forces in neighboring Iraq. Officials played down prospects for a broad-based campaign to uproot and destroy Islamic State's xvast fighting force in Syria.

Republicans seized on Islamic State's battlefield gains in Syria and the beheading of a U.S. journalist last week to step up calls for a more aggressive stance. As the U.S. military said Sunday it carried out two more air strikes in Iraq, Republicans urged more decisive military action to include airstrikes in Syria.

All options must be on the table for defeating Islamic State, including deploying U.S. ground troops in Syria if military commanders decide they are needed, said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on CNN's "State of the Union." "We've got to win and stop these guys," he said.

(More here.)