Russia: Sweet Oppression


March 27, 2010: After nearly a year of negotiations, Russian and the United States diplomats have agreed on new terms to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expired at the end of 2009. START limits the number of nuclear weapons each nation has. The 1991 treaty allowed each nation to have 2,200 nuclear weapons, while the 2010 treaty reduces this to 1,550 warheads. At the height of the Cold War, each nation had over 20,000 warheads. Most of those have since been demilitarized, and their nuclear material recycled as power plant fuel.

During the Cold War, both nations built far more nuclear weapons than were needed for defense. These weapons are expensive to maintain, and many are becoming useless because of old age. But taking nuclear weapons out of service (even ones that don't work anymore) and destroying them, hurts national pride in Russia (and to a lesser extent in the U.S.).

Efforts to negotiate the new START treaty, were stalemated over Russian insistence that the U.S. promise to not install any anti-missile systems anywhere that could possibly intercept Russian ballistic missiles. The U.S. refused to make such a promise, partly because, missile defenses against Iran or North Korea would also be capable of intercepting Russian missiles. Russia reacted with considerable hostility when Romania recently announced willingness to host American anti-ballistic missile systems. Romania, like most East European nations, likes the idea of shooting down Russian ballistic missiles. There was also some disagreements over verification and monitoring. The U.S. and Russia, even with the new reductions, still control over 85 percent of the nuclear weapons on the planet. The other nations with such weapons are China, France, Britain and Israel.

Russia wants to spend less on maintaining elderly nukes, and more on developing and manufacturing modern weapons. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did a vast network of defense industries. The Soviet Union was never able to really match the quality and innovation of Western industry, so they stayed in the game by providing lower prices ("quantity has a quality all its own".) This no longer works as well as it used to. Most nations have become convinced that the Western approach (high quality and reliability) is the way to go. Russia has never been able to compete under those rules. With over half of the Soviet era defense firms gone, and most of the survivors starved for cash and competent personnel, government efforts to catch up with Western competitors seem vain and hopeless. But aside from the PR benefit of such announcements, there was a serious problem with military research and development not keeping up with the West. So Russia is shopping around, seeking to buy new technology, and become a cheaper source of more competitive weapons developed with such foreign tech.

March 22, 2010: A Russian electronic surveillance (spy) ship, that had apparently broken down off the coast of Japan, has completed repairs and moving under its own power again. The ship stopped and dropped anchor while working on the unspecified problems. During the Cold War, breakdowns by Russian Navy ships at sea were common. Such incidents have been sharply reduced since 1991, because after the Soviet Union collapsed that year, there was little money available for navy ships to leave port. That has changed over the last few years, and many of these old Cold War era ships have been cleaned up and sent to sea. There, some of them continue to break down.

March 20, 2010:  Over 100,000 Russians demonstrated in major cities, demanding more freedom and democracy (like direct election of provincial governors, rather than having them appointed by the federal government.) But the majority of Russians appear to back the government, which has exploited the Russian preference for security (financial and physical) over political and economic freedoms. The man mainly responsible for the return to Soviet era totalitarian rule is Vladimir Putin, a former secret police official who  went to work for the new democratic government in the 1990s, and got elected president in 2000 (and reelected in 2004). He reduced crime and corruption and got the economy going. With more GDP to tax, Putin got government services (especially pensions for elderly Russians, who all worked for the state during the Soviet period) restored. Putin came across as strong, decisive and just. This was the popular perception of what the ideal Russian ruler should be. Much to the dismay of the West, there was relatively little dissent as Putin turned Russia into what can best be described as an "authoritarian democracy." But Putin followed the rules. The constitution limited him to two terms, so he ran for parliament after he left the presidency in 2008, and now serves as prime minister. Putin still has enormous influence over the direction of the government, a situation common in many parliamentary democracies. Meanwhile, the government has not pushed Internet censorship as aggressively as China, and thus has a more effective Internet community that is able to spotlight corruption and government inefficiency.

March 19, 2010:  Russia has followed China in making it more difficult for criminals to obtain Internet addresses (domains). The laxity (you could buy a domain name without really identifying yourself) enabled a lot of Internet criminals to operate global scams with little fear of prosecution. Now, within the space of a few months, Internet criminals have found their two most popular playgrounds, dangerous places to do business.

March 12, 2010: Russia and India signed 19 economic and military procurement agreements. These included settling the dispute over the aircraft carrier Gorshkov, and the construction of a dozen nuclear power plants in southern and eastern India.

March 11, 2010:  In Chechnya, police killed four rebels, including a leader who had been sought for many years. Corruption and high unemployment have kept the Caucasus in a surly mood for decades. Sending lots of police and soldiers has kept the violence down, but finding effective officials to run the place has been much more difficult.




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