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War: The domain of the demonic

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by Kumar David

In two previous pieces I have inclined to the view that war in Europe (Ukraine-Russia-NATO) is unlikely. I continue to remain of that view but this article is about what may be the course of events if the entanglement goes the other way (“unlikely” is not the same as impossible).

Let me once again summarise in three sentences why I am inclined to say why this European war is unlikely. Russia has suffered too much catastrophe, devastation and suffering during four wars (1708-09, 1812, 1914-17 and 1941-44) that its people will not accept another security threat; the West, NATO and Ukraine know this and will not push the NATO border to the point of Russian panic. Secondly, Biden and Boris (B&B) are playing an opportunist game for domestic consumption; their approval ratings at home have plummeted and they yearn for distraction, but nevertheless will not overstep, and thirdly Ukraine wants to get out of the trap of big-power pincers. If everyone keeps cool and is careful to step away from the precipice the crisis will be diffused.

The danger is that there is always a possible slip, an overreaction by this party or that. For example, to shore up his macho image Biden is sending up to 8,000 troops to Western Europe and repositioning 2,000 from Germany and Poland to Rumania, uncomfortably close to Russia. One misstep and some Russian General may panic and press the Rumania-target button. Boris went out on a clowning honk to Kiev; did he open his gigantic trap and promise more than he can safely deliver? Will Putin decide to move his strategic arsenal and bombers closer to the border? These are concerns at the military level; the bigger and far more important issues that may reshape the world are possible changes of a political nature.

Western leaders have tasted blood, at least a few drops. They have scored diplomatic victories and for sure would like to build on them. They for certain will harass Putin to push him into diplomatic concessions and domestic loosening up such as releasing locked up opposition leaders and containing his hell-bent mafia of assassins and thugs. At this time of writing Putin is internationally isolated except for China; the UN Security Council vote did not go well (only China provided firm backing). The anti-Russian European consensus is fraying but is still holding, and it does not appear that world opinion elsewhere appreciates the anxieties of the Russian people.

Why not hammer the fellow on all sides for maximum gain, B&B may think. They have to calculate carefully; go too far and the injured bear will strike back. All one hears from the West is about how Putin should do this, not do that and so on, but not one word about what the West will do to alleviate Russia’s legitimate security concerns. Any NATO member can veto an application from a new applicant, but all NATO governments seem to opine that Putin is on the ropes and are in no mood to make concessions. Macron has engaged Putin in five days of gentle pressure, all very friendly, but if instead he simply declared that France would impose a moratorium on new NATO membership for five or ten years, tension would instantly fizzle out.

[Article 10 of the NATO Treaty: The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area, to accede to this Treaty].

The best way for Putin to undermine the West is by resetting international balances. Sanctions against Russia will prompt him to reconsider what the devil he is doing by approving sanctions on Iran; or for that matter why he is in the pact at all. If Trump can walk out, why not Putin? Mind you he can go further than that. Iran has money, can afford the best Russian technology and would be happy to buy ‘Iron Dome’ protection for its nuclear facilities. What if Iran can make its nuclear sites Israel-style missile proof? There will be a huge shift in the Middle Eastern theatre if Iran has the bomb. And Russia has so far been only a shy supporter of the Syrian regime; if Russia is isolated by the West what is to stop Putin being less shy?

Then there is the China factor. The Taiwan Straits is a tinderbox. China, I think will extract its pound of flesh for the support it’s extending to Russia on Ukraine. Xi Jinping endorsed the Russian position that there should be no more NATO expansion when he met Putin on February 3 at the Winter Olympics opening. The meeting has been described as warm – the bear and the dragon in an intimate embrace! What if Russian support for Taiwan’s reunification were to become more explicit? It is wrong to think that the Russian bear can be cornered, pummelled and bloodied at no cost. It’s going to be more chaotic than that and confrontation will reshape strategic balances in the West and the East.

The Crimean population is 66% Russian, but Khrushchev presented it to Ukraine (then a USSR ‘province’) in February 1954 in a “fit of drunken generosity”. Even in a nightmare nobody imagined then that the Soviet Union would collapse and Ukraine would become an independent country. Even as dignified a critic of Soviet Communism as Alexander Solzhenitsyn says: “How much indignation and horror Russians experienced! Our limp diplomacy betrayed us”. It is relevant to bear this vodka lubricated antecedent in mind; as early as 1992 this illegality was officially denounced by the Supreme Council of Russia.

Khrushchev’s drunken revelry

It is too sickening to speculate what it would be like if war breaks out in an even limited European theatre. The Russians will take Kiev and occupy most of eastern and southern Ukraine within days by moving directly from the east, the north through Belarus and the south from Crimea. The separatists will break out under Russian air-force protection from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Western sanctions will be brushed aside; some kind of military response by NATO will be called for and that could be disastrous! Germany will refuse to get involved but Poland and Rumania may allow the US to use their territory. Will Russia deploy missiles against these bases? Then what? Can anything turn back mounting escalation?

“Russian bombers finally can do what American bombers long have been able to—strike targets on land with precision from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Well beyond the range of enemy air-defences” says Forbes online. Defence requires first-strike victory even on a limited scale; America and Britain are willing to play at a toy war, but real escalation! And what will it cost Russia in men and treasure to hold on to Ukraine?

The road to peace is crystal clear. My theory is that there will be no war because B&B don’t want it, all they want is sabre-rattling to shore up declining domestic popularity. But that cock will not fight for long in the face of mounting escalation. “Why escalate?”, even US Senators are asking: “Why on earth do we want Ukraine in NATO, what does it do for defence of the “Free World”; Ukraine in NATO does damn-all to strengthen European or Western defences. How does membership of faraway Ukraine reshape NATO defences? These are questions that the now jingoistic BBC will not even ask the reams of “expert” commentators it invites on its shows. Europe and America understand that Russia will not allow NATO to creep up to its border; the sabre-ratting is entirely for domestic consumption but things can go wrong. Why play with fire? By far the status quo is the best; let sleeping dogs lie; keep Ukraine out of NATO, but in other matters (economy etc) let it do as it wishes. It’s like keeping Sri Lanka out of all military pacts with the QUAD, China or India. Nonalignment is a policy that has served us well.

Parallels

I have been asked by readers if there is a parallel between Ukraine-Russia and the national question in Sri Lanka. My reply is a firm NO. This island has been populated by forbearers of the modern Tamils and Sinhalese for over two millennia. But in Roman and pre-Roman times, the lands north of the Black and the Caspian Seas (modern Ukraine and the Russian Steppes) were the domain of Iron-Age cultures and war-like nomadic peoples (Scythians, Sarmatians and later the Huns). They left behind no irrigation systems, cities, monuments, edifices or civilisational accoutrements comparable to the Dry Zone, Anuradhapura, the megalithic remains in the Jaffna Peninsula or Tamil-Brahimi inscriptions. Simply put the civilisational story of the Ukraine and Russian Steppes is more recent and less integrated than Lanka’s.

Since Medieval times that region has been a combat zone of changing borders and annexations between Russian Muscovite rulers, Polish and Baltic Kingdoms, the Cossacks and even Sweden and Finland. It has been a chequer-board too complex to explain here. Eastern Ukraine was incorporated into the Russian Empire (Imperial Russia) in about 1780 during the reign of Catherine the Great. Thereafter “Kyiv was a primary Christian centre, attracting pilgrims, and the cradle of many of the Empire’s most important religious figures” – Wikipedia. The Jaffna Kingdom and Yalpanam played no such role in crystallisation of Sinhala ideology. However, from British times there has been a unified market and a moderately integrated via education and employment economy in Ceylon. My conclusion therefore is that both in the historical storyline and in the context of the current stand-off there is little in common between the two cases.



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Scarcity, prices, hoarding and queuing

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By Usvatte-aratchi

We live in a scarcity economy and will do so well into 2024, past the next Presidential elections if it comes then; it may not. (The new minister may open bets.) All economies are scarcity economies; otherwise, there would be no prices. We also live in plentiful economies; look at the streets of Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, Paris or San Francisco during day or night. Scarcity is a relative term, as most terms are. A scarcity economy is one where prices rise relentlessly, where cigarettes are more expensive in the evening than they were the same morning. Scarcity economies will have two or more sets of prices: one official, others in markets in varying shades of grey until black. Scarcity economies are where everyone (producers, traders, households) hoards commodities, hoards everything that can be hoarded, at reasonable cost. Scarcity economy is one where productivity is lower than it was earlier, where both labour and capital idle. Scarcity itself may push down productivity. Observe thousands of people standing in queues to buy all kinds of things whilst producing nothing. That is labour idling. Others hang on to dear life in crowded trains arriving in office late to leave early, to get to ill lit homes where to cook each evening they repeat what their ancestors did millions of years ago to light a fire. Money is one commodity that can be hoarded at little cost, if there was no inflation. The million rupees you had in your savings account in 2019 is now worth a mere 500,000, because prices have risen. That is how a government taxes you outside the law: debase the currency. In an inflation afflicted economy, hoarding money is a fool’s game.

The smart game to play is to borrow to the limit, a kind of dishoarding (- negative hoarding) money. You borrow ten million now and five years later you pay 500 million because the value of money has fallen. US dollars are scarce in this economy. It is hoarded where it can wait until its price in Sri Lanka rises. Some politicians who seem to have been schooled in corruption to perfection have them stored elsewhere, as we have learnt from revelations in the international press. Electricity is not hoarded in large quantities because it is expensive to hoard. Petrol is not hoarded very much in households because it evaporates fast and is highly flammable. That does not prevent vehicle owners from keeping their tanks full in contrast to the earlier practice when they had kept tanks half empty (full). Consequently, drivers now hoard twice as much fuel in their tanks as earlier. Until drivers feel relaxed as to when they get the next fill, there will be queues. That should also answer the conundrum of the minister for energy who daily sent out more bowser loads out than earlier, but queues did not shorten.

As an aside, it is necessary to note that the scarcity economy, which has been brought about by stupid policies 2019-2022, and massive thieving from 2005 is partly a consequence of the fall in total output (GDP) in the economy. Workers in queues do not produce. The capital they normally use in production (e.g. motor cars, machines that they would otherwise would have worked at) lie idle. Both capital and labour idle and deny their usual contribution to GDP. Agriculture, industries, wholesale and retail trade, public administration, manufacturing and construction all of which have been adversely affected in various ways contribute more than 75% of total GDP. Maha (winter crop) 2021-22, Yala (spring crop) 2022 and Maha 2022-23 and fishing are all likely to have yielded (and yield) poor harvests. Manufacturing including construction are victims of severe shortages in energy and imported inputs. Wholesale and retail trade which depend directly on imports of commodities have been hit by the sharp drop in imports. Tourism, which is more significant in providing employment and foreign exchange, collapsed dreadfully since late 2019 and has not recovered yet. About 16 percent of our labour force work in the public sector. They have failed to contribute to GDP because they did not engage in productive work due to variegated reasons. Teachers were on strike for two months in 2021. In 2022, so far government employees have worked off and on. Wages of government employees are counted as contributions to GDP, by those that make GDP estimates. However, here is an instance where labour was paid but there was no output equal to the value of those wages. Such payments are rightly counted as transfers and do not count to GDP. For these reasons estimates of GDP for 2021 must be well below the 2020 level. The 3.6 growth in official estimates is unlikely. The likely drop in 2022 will be roughly of the same magnitude as in 2021. These declines are not dissonant with misery one sees in towns and the countryside: empty supermarket shelves, scant supplies of produce in country fares, scarce fish supplies, buses idling in parks and roads empty of traffic. There have been warnings from our paediatricians as well as from international organisations of wasting and probable higher rates of child mortality. It is this sort of sharp fall in wellbeing that engenders the desperation driving young and ambitious people to obtain passports to seek a living overseas. You can see those from mezzo-America amassed on the southern border of US. Will our young men and women end up beyond the wall of China?

Of this lowered supply of goods and services, this society is expected to pay a massive accumulated foreign debt. (Remember the reparation payments in the Versailles Treaty). In real terms it will mean that we forego a part of our lower incomes. Do not miss this reality behind veils of jargon woven by financial analysts. It is not something that we have a choice about. That is where international help may kick in. Gotabaya Rajapaksa government after much senseless dilly dallying has started negotiations with the IMF. There is nobody compelling our government to seek support from IMF. They are free go elsewhere as some who recently were in their government still urge. Examine alternatives and hit upon an arrangement not because it permits the family grows richer but because it will make life for the average person a little less unbearable.

If prices are expected to rise people will seek resources to hoard: money to buy commodities, space and facilities to hoard, security services to protect the property and much more. Rice producers cannot hoard their product because animals large as elephants and small as rodents eat them up. Because of the unequal distribution of resources to hoard, the poor cannot hoard. In a scarcity economy, the poor cannot hoard and famines usually victimise the poor, first and most. If prices are expected to fall, stocks are dishoarded to the market and prices fall faster and deeper. In either direction, the rate at which prices change and the height/depth of the rise/fall depends on the speed at which expectations of change in prices take place. A largescale rice miller claims he can control the price of rice at a level that the government cannot. His success/failure will tell us the extent of his monopoly power.

When commodities are scarce, in the absence of a sensible system of coupons to regulate the distribution, consumers will form queues. A queue is rarely a straight here, nor a dog’s tail (queue, in French, is a dog’s tail which most often crooked). Assembled consumers stagnate, make puddles and sometimes spread out like the Ganges, with Meghna, disgorges itself to the Bay of Bengal. They sometimes swirl and make whirlpools and then there is trouble, occasionally serious. There is order in a queue that people make automatically. To break that order is somehow iniquitous in the human mind. That is why breaking the order in a queue is enraging. For a queue to be disobeyed by anyone is infuriating, and for a politician to do so now in this country is dangerously injurious to his physical wellbeing.

The first cause of rising prices, hoarding and queues is the scarcity of goods and services in relation to the income and savings in the hands of the people.

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Terror figuring increasingly in Russian invasion of Ukraine

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In yet another mind-numbing manifestation of the sheer savagery marking the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a shopping mall in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kremenchuk was razed to the ground recently in a Russian missile strike. Reportedly more than a hundred civilian lives were lost in the chilling attack.

If the unconscionable killing of civilians is a definition of terrorism, then the above attack is unalloyed terrorism and should be forthrightly condemned by all sections that consider themselves civilized. Will these sections condemn this most recent instance of blood-curdling barbarism by the Putin regime in the Ukrainian theatre and thereby provide proof that the collective moral conscience of the world continues to tick? Could progressive opinion be reassured on this score without further delay or prevarication?

These issues need to be addressed with the utmost urgency by the world community. May be, the UN General Assembly could meet in emergency session for the purpose and speak out loud and clear in one voice against such wanton brutality by the Putin regime which seems to be spilling the blood of Ukrainian civilians as a matter of habit. The majority of UNGA members did well to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine close on the heels of it occurring a few months back but the Putin regime seems to be continuing the civilian bloodletting in Ukraine with a degree of impunity that signals to the international community that the latter could no longer remain passive in the face of the aggravating tragedy in Ukraine.

The deafening silence, on this question, on the part of those sections the world over that very rightly condemn terror, from whichever quarter it may emanate, is itself most intriguing. There cannot be double standards on this problem. If the claiming of the lives of civilians by militant organizations fighting governments is terror, so are the Putin regime’s targeted actions in Ukraine which result in the wanton spilling of civilian blood. The international community needs to break free of its inner paralysis.

While most Western democracies are bound to decry the Russian-inspired atrocities in Ukraine, more or less unambiguously, the same does not go for the remaining democracies of the South. Increasing economic pressures, stemming from high energy and oil prices in particular, are likely to render them tongue-tied.

Such is the case with Sri Lanka, today reduced to absolute beggary. These states could be expected ‘to look the other way’, lest they be penalized on the economic front by Russia. One wonders what those quarters in Sri Lanka that have been projecting themselves as ‘progressives’ over the years have to say to the increasing atrocities against civilians in Ukraine. Aren’t these excesses instances of state terror that call for condemnation?

However, ignoring the Putin regime’s terror acts is tantamount to condoning them. Among other things, the failure on the part of the world community to condemn the Putin government’s commissioning of war crimes sends out the message that the international community is gladly accommodative of these violations of International Law. An eventual result from such international complacency could be the further aggravation of world disorder and lawlessness.

The Putin regime’s latest civilian atrocities in Ukraine are being seen by the Western media in particular as the Russian strongman’s answer to the further closing of ranks among the G7 states to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the issues growing out of it. There is a considerable amount of truth in this position but the brazen unleashing of civilian atrocities by the Russian state also points to mounting impatience on the part of the latter for more positive results from its invasion.

Right now, the invasion could be described as having reached a stalemate for Russia. Having been beaten back by the robust and spirited Ukrainian resistance in Kyiv, the Russian forces are directing their fire power at present on Eastern Ukraine. Their intentions have narrowed down to carving out the Donbas region from the rest of Ukraine; the aim being to establish the region as a Russian sphere of influence and buffer state against perceived NATO encirclement.

On the other hand, having failed to the break the back thus far of the Ukraine resistance the Putin regime seems to be intent on demoralizing the resistance by targeting Ukraine civilians and their cities. Right now, most of Eastern Ukraine has been reduced to rubble. The regime’s broad strategy seems to be to capture the region by bombing it out. This strategy was tried out by Western imperialist powers, such as the US and France, in South East Asia some decades back, quite unsuccessfully.

However, by targeting civilians the Putin regime seems to be also banking on the US and its allies committing what could come to be seen as indiscretions, such as, getting more fully militarily and physically involved in the conflict.

To be sure, Russia’s rulers know quite well that it cannot afford to get into a full-blown armed conflict with the West and it also knows that the West would doing its uttermost to avoid an international armed confrontation of this kind that could lead to a Third World War. Both sides could be banked on to be cautious about creating concrete conditions that could lead to another Europe-wide armed conflict, considering its wide-ranging dire consequences.

However, by grossly violating the norms and laws of war in Ukraine Russia could tempt the West into putting more and more of its financial and material resources into strengthening the military capability of the Ukraine resistance and thereby weaken its economies through excessive military expenditure.

That is, the Western military-industrial complex would be further bolstered at the expense of the relevant civilian publics, who would be deprived of much needed welfare expenditure. This is a prospect no Western government could afford to countenance at the present juncture when the West too is beginning to weaken in economic terms. Discontented publics, growing out of shrinking welfare budgets, could only aggravate the worries of Western governments.

Accordingly, Putin’s game plan could very well be to subject the West to a ‘slow death’ through his merciless onslaught on the Ukraine. At the time of writing US President Joe Biden is emphatic about the need for united and firm ‘Transatlantic’ security in the face of the Russian invasion but it is open to question whether Western military muscle could be consistently bolstered amid rising, wide-ranging economic pressures.

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At 80, now serving humanity

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Thaku Chugani! Does this name ring a bell! It should, for those who are familiar with the local music scene, decades ago.

Thaku, in fact, was involved with the original group X-Periments, as a vocalist.

No, he is not making a comeback to the music scene!

At 80, when Engelbert and Tom Jones are still active, catering to their fans, Thaku is doing it differently. He is now serving humanity.

Says Thaku: “During my tenure as Lion District Governor 2006/2007, Dr Mosun Faderin and I visited the poor of the poorest blind school in Ijebu Ode Ogun state, in Nigeria.

“During our visit, a small boy touched me and called me a white man. I was astonished! How could a blind boy know the colour of my skin? I was then informed that he is cornea blind and his vision could be restored if a cornea could be sourced for him. This was the first time in my life that I heard of a cornea transplant. “

And that incident was the beginning of Thaku’s humanity service – the search to source for corneas to restore the vision of the cornea blind.

It was in 2007, when Dr Mosun and Thaku requested Past International President Lion Rohit Mehta, who was the Chief Guest at MD 404 Nigeria Lions convention, at Illorin, in Nigeria, to assist them in sourcing for corneas as Nigeria was facing a great challenge in getting any eye donation, even though there was an established eye bank.

“We did explain our problems and reasons of not being able to harvest corneas and Lion Rohit Metha promised to look into our plea and assured us that he will try his utmost best to assist in sourcing for corneas.”

Nigeria, at that period of time, had a wait list of over 70 cornea blind children and young adults.

“As assured by PIP Lion Rohit Mehta, we got an email from Gautam Mazumdar, and Dr. Dilip Shah, of Ahmedabad, in India, inviting us for World Blind Day

“Our trip was very fruitful as it was World Blind Day and we had to speak on the blind in Nigeria.”

“We were invited by Gautam Mazumdar to visit his eye bank and he explained the whole process of eye banking.

“We requested for corneas and also informed him about our difficulties in harvesting corneas.

“After a long deliberation, he finally agreed to give us six corneas. It was a historical moment as we were going to restore vision of six cornea blind children. To me, it was a great experience as I was privileged to witness cornea transplant in my life and what a moment it was for these children, when their vision was restored.

“Thus began my journey of sight restoration of the cornea blind, and today I have sourced over 1000 corneas and restored vision of the cornea blind in Nigeria, Kenya and India till date.

“Also, I need to mention that this includes corneas to the armed forces, and their family, all over India.

“On the 12th, August, 2018, the Eye Bank, I work with, had Launched Pre-Cut Corneas, which means with one pair of eyes, donated, four Cornea Blind persons sight will be restored.”

Thaku Chugani, who is based in India, says he is now able to get corneas regularly, but, initially, had to carry them personally – facing huge costs as well as international travel difficulties, etc.

However, he says he is so happy that his humanitarian mission has been a huge success.

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