FIFA today announced that Russia would host the 2018 World Cup and … Qatar … would host the 2022 Cup. Obviously this is shocking news across the sporting and football worlds.
So why Russia and Qatar?
Russia, actually, makes a certain amount of sense. In the end, it seemed like the choice had come down to Russia and England. (The reports that England finished fourth out of fourth for 2018 bidding are stunning, and if true, really demonstrate an … interesting mindset on the part of the FIFA commissioners.) Russia is still largely untapped by football. The Russian Premier League is not yet at the level of La Liga, Serie A, or the English Premier League, but it certainly qualifies as a middle tier European football division.
Moreover, there's a sense that football is growing in popularity in the country, and there is money to be made in the market. Logistically, brand new stadiums, and enough viable locations for them, are something FIFA salivates over in the bidding process. Russia can provide that. Despite being heartbreaking for England (and the joint bids of Spain/Portugal and the Netherlands/Belgium), Russia has the potential to host a strong Cup.
The 2022 decision is more mystifying, but there are a few legitimate enticements Qatar offered. The idea of hosting the Cup in the Arab world is a plus, and by all accounts Qatar's bid presentation was astonishing -- promising to build 9 completely new stadiums, renovating three others, then donating them to third world countries after the tournament, and guaranteeing a Green Cup. But there's a reason why FIFA labeled Qatar's bid "high risk."
(Puzzling, England was recognized to have the best presentation, but that didn't factor into the 2018 decision. The corruption questions are already swirling -- and have been for some months. The New York Times' Jére Longman wrote up a good overview on Nov. 30. )
Qatar presents two major logistical problems that FIFA faces. Qatar is alleging their new stadiums -- open-air, a FIFA requirement -- will be equipped with advanced air conditioned technology, allowing for adequate playing conditions. But where will the players train? 12 stadiums isn't hardly enough. Unless the plan is to build a giant air-conditioned dome above the country, the heat factor -- consistently over 100 degrees farenheit in summer -- is a massive challenge.
Additionally, Qatar's lack of viable summer activities outside the games -- compared to its competitors -- is sigificant, and will deter a large amount of fans from making the trip. That is, after all, the ultimate purpose of the tournament -- promoting diversity and celebrating the fact that, for at least two months, we can put aside our differences and celebrate an event with universal interest. That's not possible with empty stadiums.
As a devoted United States soccer fan, greatly interested in the domestic (I actually watched the MLS playoffs in the last two seasons, and can say the 2009 championship game was arguably the most epic sporting event I've seen) and international game, this is a crushing blow to take. I am old enough to remember the passion of 1994, and young enough to come of age in an era where soccer took off in the United States. While there's no risk that my interest in soccer will wane, there is a chance that many casual followers will, if not tune out, be less engaged with the sport. It's impossible for me to separate that fact from my analysis -- I, like all other U.S. soccer fans today, feel gutted.
It had long been expected that the 2022 tournament was the United States' to lose, and for good reason: the 1994 World Cup was the most successful in the history of the competition (by far), soccer is growing leaps and bounds in the country and its domestic league has just finished its 15th year and is expanding. The country with the most tickets bought for the 2010 World Cup (besides host-country South Africa) was the United States, again by some margin. No infrastructure construction is required (and a number of new stadiums will be built anyway in the next 12 years), there are a huge amount of viable locations to host games, and, despite its struggles, the United States national team has proved itself a legitimate player in international tournaments. (Lest we forget that the United States, in the 2009 Confederation's Cup in South Africa, beat future World Cup winners Spain 2-0, ending their 35 game unbeaten streak?) Furthermore, the United States has qualified for the last six World Cups, a feat that only powerhouses Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, and Spain can match.
Qatar is 113th in FIFA's world football rankings. There's no history nor tradition of the beautiful game in the country. It has never qualified for a World Cup, finished 8th in the Asian Football Confederation's final qualifying round for 2010 -- and will receive an automatic bid for 2022. It has very little infrastructure in place, and that which will be built will be constructed by migrant laborers with very few rights. As recently as 2008, Qatar was in the lowest country tier in the State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report.
FIFA also made another, more practical, mistake -- the United States is a huge market, the growth potential of the sport is enormous in the country, and there's, ultimately, a massive amount of money to be made. The Arab world already loves football -- there are few regional viewers to gain.
Finally, following the 2010 and 2014 (South Africa, Brazil) Cups with two more question marks is a gamble. Now, China, rumored to have interest in hosting the 2026 Cup, will likely not have the chance to do so until 2036 (the same confederation can not host two Cups in a row). And if there are any slipups in the run-up to either 2018 or 2022, you can bet that Brits and Americans will be screaming, "I told you so."
On the bright side, I'd bet everything I have on the United States getting the 2026 or 2030 World Cup.
PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is known for loving both cute things and adrenaline, so it's no surprise that he has taken to movie star Leonardo DiCaprio like a puppy to a new chew-toy. DiCaprio landed in St. Petersburg earlier this week to attend a tiger-conservation conference, but his journey to Russia was rife with excitement. His first Russia-bound plane was forced to make an emergency landing in New York after an engine failure. His second plane had to stop in Finland for unscheduled refueling because of strong headwinds.
According to the Telegraph, Putin spotted DiCaprio in the audience and deviated from his set speech to praise DiCaprio as a "real man" noting that "a person with less stable nerves could have decided against coming, could have read it as a sign - that it was not worth going."
DiCaprio apparently was also feeling the love, telling Putin about his Russian heritage. (A Russian film producer, noting Leo's uncanny resemblence to Vladimir Lenin, is reportedly looking to cast the Inception star as a re-animated version of the Soviet revolutionary in an upcoming sci-fi film.)
With all this love in the air, the tigers were not left out. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the International Tiger Conservation Forum ended with the approval of the Global Tiger Recovery Program, which aims to double the number of tigers in the wild. DiCaprio personally donated $1 million for tiger conservation (which should also make Malia
Of course, Putin's feelings about tigers are already well-known.
Russia is one of 13 countries where tigers still exist in the wild, along with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Washington Post intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein provides some much needed follow-up on yesterday's strange piece in Kommersant promising revenge against the SVR colonel who betrayed the American "illegals." Two former spies, one American and one Russia, remember Colonel Aleksandr Vasilyevich Shcherbakov, thought to be the traitorous spymaster identified in the story. But the story still seems fishy:
Kommersant, said Dmitry Sidirov, the paper’s former Washington bureau chief, "is very close to the Kremlin." Its story, he speculated, was "an intentional leak," most likely a thinly-veiled attack on Mikhail Fradkov, head of the SVR, as the foreign intelligence service is known, since 2007, who had recently been "very much under attack" by rivals.
"The whole point of the story was to make the SVR a joke," Sidirov said.
An unnamed Russian official has told Russia's generally reputable Kommersant newspaper that an assassin has been dispatched to dispense some Soviet-style justice against a former SVR colonel identified only as Shcherbakov, who allegedly controlled the ring of sleeper agents arrested in the United States last June and fled Russia just days before they were arrested:
"You can have no doubt -- a Mercader has already been sent after him."
Ramón Mercader was the KGB-hired Spanish communist who was sent to kill Leon Trotsky with an ice pick in Mexico in 1940. [...]
"The fate of such a person is unenviable. All his life he will drag this with him, living every day in fear of retribution."
So for blowing Russia's inside source on the Montclair Parent-Teacher Association, this guy gets elevated to the level of Leon Trotsky?
It's true that the arrest of "the illegals" can be seen as a sign of the return to KGB-era espionage tactics after a period during which the SVR tried unsuccessfully to distance itself from its past. And the involvement of Russian intelligence has been suspected in a number of other assassinations, notably former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was killed by polonium poisoning in London in 2006.
But telegraphing an assassination plan in advance is going to make plausible deniability a bit tough if something happens to Shcherbakov in the near future. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was a bit subtler back in July, saying, "The special services live under their own laws, and everyone knows what these laws are" and "Traitors always end badly. As a rule, they end up in the gutter as drunks or drug addicts."
Preliminary analysis shows that there is no threat posed to Russia by Julian Assange's resource. You have to understand that if there is the desire and the right team, it's possible to shut it down forever," an expert from the FSB’s Center for Information Security was quoted by Life News as saying on Tuesday.
Links between hacker cells and the FSB made in the past lend credence to this thinly veiled secret services threat. In his recent book on Russia’s secret services, investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov details how the Russian FSB "maintain a sophisticated alliance with unofficial hackers, such as those who carry out cyber attacks on the Web sites of enemies of the state," drawing attention to hacker forums such as Informacia.ru.
Another interesting wrinkle of this story is Assange's claim that he's receiving help in his Russia investigations from "the Americans." Inferring right off the bat that he's getting help from U.S. intelligence -- I'm not saying he is but that's certainly the inference that will be drawn in Russia -- would seem to undercut the validity of his documents right off the bat. If Assange has claimed that "the Chinese" helped him in assembling the Iraq war logs it would have changed the story quite a bit.
Vladimir Putin's trip to Kiev this week to sign a series of trade deals with an increasingly Russia-friendly Ukrainian government should have been a feel-good moment for the Russian prime minister, but all anyone wants to talk about is the mysterious bruise on the side of his face:
Putin's aides denied anything was wrong, but the leader's appearance caused intense speculation in local media and blogs. Ukrainian television channel TSN said the Kremlin chief had "noticeable swelling" on his face and was "covered in make-up."
Andrei Kolesnikov, a well-known correspondent with Russia's Kommersant newspaper, confirmed the president's unusual aspect. "Could it really be the result of some tough sparring?" he asked, saying the bruise was "thoroughly retouched but nonetheless noticeable to everyone without exception".
The Kremlin is not-very-convincingly blaming jet lag and light falling on his face in an "unfortunate manner." The Ukrainian media is reporting that the normally talkative Putin was "sad and silent" during a meeting with his Ukrainian counterparts and left early, canceling a planned dinner. According to the BBC, the bruise seems to have appeared between Tuesday and Wednesday.
Not waiting before launching into speculation, Ukrainian papers suggest Putin either "had plastic surgery, underwent a complicated dental procedure that left his face puffy or had an unfortunate judo fight." As the Guardian notes, Putin's habit of cuddling with dangerous wildlife can also put one at risk of injury. In any event, Vladimir Vladimirovich himself doesn't seem likely to comment.
Russia may have recently scrapped a missile defense deal with Iran -- but the Russians are now seemingly helping out another aspiring nuclear power/purpoted "axis of evil" stand-in: Venezuela.
According to news reports,
Russia agreed ... to help build Venezuela's first nuclear power plant, sell it tanks and buy $1.6 billion of oil assets, reinforcing ties with President Hugo Chavez who shares Russian opposition to US global dominance.
The announcement comes at the end of a two-day visit to Moscow by Chavez; if Venezuela keeps this up, they may be able to take Iraq's beloved lost spot on the roster and become the media darling commentators have been longing to find.
While the agreement between the two powers is preliminary, the move is aimed at concerns over Venezuela's heavy dependence on oil. The Guardian reports, "Venezuela's economy is 94 or even 95% made up of oil... They [the Venezuelans] want to widen their sources of energy so they are less dependent on it."
In remarks that can only be interpreted as congratulatory, State Department Spokesman Philip Crowley stated, "This is something that we will watch... very, very closely."
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
Everybody's (or at least the New York Post's) favorite glamorous Russian spy has resurfaced, putting in an appearance at the launch of a Russian soyuz rocket, bound for the International Space Station:
Dressed in a scarlet peacoat, she was spotted in front of the astronauts' hotel in Baikonur before the lift-off as they boarded a bus to go to the launch. She was swiftly led away by a guard after being recognised by journalists....
Since her arrival back in Moscow she has posed in cocktail dresses for a weekly magazine and appeared at a party at a nightclub, but has not given any interviews about her experience.
Russian media reports said she has been working as an advisor for a bank that is involved in the Russian space programme but officials at Russia's space agency Roskosmos were quick to deny it was involved in her visit.
"Roskosmos has nothing to do with Anna Chapman's visit. As far as we know, she came here as a private individual on the invitation of an executive of a commercial bank," a Roskosmos official said.
Looking forward to where Chapman's fame will take her. Of course, this could only happen in Russia. No U.S. spy whose cover was blown would ever run around like some kind of reality-show star trading on their newfound celebrity. Oh wait.
In a new video blog entry, an unusually stern Dmitry Medvedev takes aim at Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko for using "hysterical" anti-Russian rhetoric on the campaign trail, which according to the Russian President, "goes far beyond not only diplomatic protocol but also basic human decency." He also gets in a dig at the autocratic ruler's human rights practices saying that Lukashnko should "should concern himself with his country's internal problems, including, finally the investigation of numerous cases of disappearances."
Medvedev is responding to Lukashenko's recent accusations that Russia is meddling in the country's election. Relations between Russia and its onetime closest ally have soured in recent years, and in the last few weeks, state-controlled Russian TV stations have been pumping out anti-Lukashenko documentaries.
A similar barrage of criticism in the state-controlled press hit Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov before his firing last week and Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev before he was overthrown in April. Lukashenko is probably right to be worried.
The last leader to receive a similar Medvedev vlog-attack was Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko, who is, of course, no longer the Ukrainian president.
Nearly across the board, the president's initiatives are going down in flames. Nowhere is this more true than in Pakistan where, Jane Perlez reported Wednesday, the civilian government in which the U.S. has invested billions is perilously close to collapse -- if not facing a military coup.
Now comes word that Pakistan is cutting off NATO's supply lines into Afghanistan in retaliation for U.S. helicopter strikes in Pakistani territory -- strikes made necessary because the Pakistani military can't, or won't, crack down on militants unless they threaten the Pakistani state directly.
As for the war in Afghanistan, it's going very badly.
Further east, the United States seems headed for a disastrous currency war with China, although Beijing's recent diplomatic blunders have sent Asian countries running into Uncle Sam's loving arms.
To the west, Iraq still has yet to form a government after seven months of post-election deadlock, and attacks on the Green Zone are metastasizing in a frightening way.
One rare bright spot is Russia where, despite the complaints of Cold Warriors and human rights campaigners, relations are at their highest point since the Yeltsin era. But much of the good work Obama's team has done could easily unravel, especially if the Senate deep-sixes the new nuke treaty.
As for Iran, it's a mixed bag. Obama has kept Europe on board with tough sanctions, and brought along a few other players. But China is likely to undercut those efforts and relieve the economic pressure, leaving the United States and Israel with few options for stopping Iran's nuclear drive. Meanwhile, the drums of war are beginning to beat in Congress.
Of course, if Obama really wants to make a hash of the world, I can think of no better way than to start launch airstrikes on Iran. But I doubt he's going to do that.
Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images
As Julia Ioffe reported last week, recent attacks on longtime Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov in state-controlled media outlets have made it clear that the Kremlin has finally had enough of the legendary power-broker and his resignation has been expected any day now.
Unfortunately, it seems someone forgot to tell Luzhkov:
"I am not going to resign of my own accord," Luzhkov, who celebrated his 74th birthday last week, said at a news conference.
A senior Kremlin official received the mayor on Sept. 17 and told him that he had one week to resign voluntarily, Vedomosti reported Sept. 21, citing an unidentified official in the presidential administration.
But Luzhkov's spokesman Sergei Tsoi told Interfax late Sunday that the mayor planned to work as usual Monday, from 8 a.m. until late afternoon.
Sources say the Kremlin will decide on Luzhkov's replacement around Oct. 6 or 7, after President Medvedev returns from a trip to China. However, Luzhkov is also theoretically planning three international trips of his own in October. It appears that the mayor is holding out to make sure that he and his extensive business interests are well taken care of after he steps down.
Hat tip: The Moscow Diaries
Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images
A top-ranking Russian official recently confirmed his nation's intention to go ahead with the sale of some particularly lethal cruise missiles to Syria. Israel, not-so-surprisingly, is not-so-happy. The supersonic Russian Yakhont missiles have a range of 138 miles, according to the BBC, and could target Israeli warships in the Mediterranean.
Syria and Russia signed the missile agreement in 2007, but Russia is yet to deliver the goods.
The Israelis have been working for some time to dissuade the Russians on fulfilling their contract, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoning his Russian counterpart, Vladir Putin, last month to try and convince him to renege on the agreement.
Of course, the Russians are quite notorious for this kind of behavior; back in 2005 they signed a contract for the supply of the S-300 missile defense system to Iran -- a powerful anti-aircraft system which poses serious threats to modern aircraft, including Israel's own air force. December will mark five years of the Russians dragging their feet on the deal, offering conflicting statements on the status of the system throughout the process.
In the meantime, Russia has been reaping the benefits of the situation, purchasing advanced Israeli drones this spring -- their first military purchase from Israel. More recently, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, travelled to Moscow to meet with Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, where he signed a quite promising military cooperation deal.
Lesson for the day? You could be getting those missiles soon Syria -- but don't get your hopes up, the Russians know how to milk you for the ride.
Ariel Hermoni/ Israeli Defense Ministry via Getty Images
Could the prime minister have just tipped his hand?
The online database of state register Reg.ru shows that the Federal Bodyguard Service in late August registered two Cyrillic-script addresses, Putin-2012.rf and Putin2012.rf.
The agency, which is responsible for protecting top officials, did not register a similar address with the name of President Dmitry Medvedev.
There doesn't seem to be any activity yet on either site.
The New York office director of UNAIDS, Bertil Lindblad, is worried about the one region of the world where HIV infections are increasing, even as rates in the rest of the world level off. It's not in Africa or Asia, or even Latin America. It's Eastern Europe -- countries like Russia and Ukraine -- where a recent UNICEF report notes that increases in infection rates of as high as 700 percent have been seen since 2006.
"There is an urgent need for the whole Eastern European and Central Asian region to act quickly," Lindblad said this morning. "This is really quite scary given the fact that there is denial, and so much stigma and homophobia [in that region.] This could really create huge problems if HIV continues to spread from smaller groups in the population to wider."
It's HIV/AIDS's silent crisis, one that has been underway for the last decade. The region is home to a quarter of all injection drug users in the world (3.7 million), and this is where the epidemic is believed to have begun. These users are young -- most of them teenagers. But from there, HIV spread to sex workers (the majority of whom are also under 30), and now has fully moved into the everday lives of men and women in the region, married and unmarried. A mark of the epidemics progression -- from specific populations into the majority -- is the new incidence of HIV among women, who account for 40 percent of all new infections (that's up from only 24 percent at the turn of the century.)
The stigma attached to the disease -- and more importantly, to the groups of people percieved to be the majority infected with it -- is the biggest obstacle to doing anything about the disease. "Those living with HIV have been silenced and excluded, and risky behaviours borne of futility and hopelessness have been sanctioned or repressed," the UNICEF report notes. Government officials are said to be resistant to admitting the scale of the problem, and today that country remains a difficult places for AIDS advocacy, says Lindblad, who formerly worked in the UNAIDS office in Moscow.
But where there is challenge such as this, there is also often opportunity. Russia, I would think, should have a very serious interest in addressing this crisis. For starters, because AIDS threatens to exacerbate its larger demographic problem -- that of a fast-shrinking population. But the other point might be even more convincing: The injection drug users are using heroin. And that heroin comes from Afghan poppies. For Russia, tackling the illegal drug market in Afghanistan -- one which fuels the insurgency -- is a serious national security issue.
Of course, good old fashioned peer pressure might help edge them along as well. And when the U.N. General Assembly meets later this month, one of the side conversations, according to Lindblad, will be a discussion on HIV/AIDS "co-hosted by the government of China, the government of Nigeria, and UNAIDS," specifically, the Chinese premier and the Nigerian president (South Africa's President Jacob Zuma was also supposed to come, but had to cancel.) "That could influence other big countries such as Russia, for example, to turn around."
DENIS SINYAKOV/AFP/Getty Images
One of the world's most eccentric leaders, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, has announced that he is stepping down as president of the Russian republic of Kalmykia after 17 years in power in order to focus on regaining control of the international chess federation.
Ilyumzhinov is best known for his ongoing campaign to transform his impoverished republic into the world capital of chess, including constructing a $50 billion "chess city." The Russian central government, which appoints the presidents of the republics has been cleaning house lately and the Kalmyk president appears to have been given the boot. (No word on whether the accusations that Ilyumzhinov divulged Russian state secrets while he was abducted by extraterrestrials played a role in his sacking.)
In May, Carl Schreck profiled Ilyumzhinov's ongoing struggle against grandmaster Anatoly Karpov for control of the world chess federation, which will come to a head amidst a flurry of backroom dealing and legal action during this year's biennial chess olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk, Siberia on Sept. 29.
DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's getting a lot of ink tonight for hinting -- yet again -- that he'll make a bid for the presidency in 2012. Citing the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt's four terms as a model, Putin said there would be nothing illegal about running for a third presidential term after Dmitry Medvedev's term expires -- though he didn't say he wanted the job. (Last week Putin said he was "bored" by foreign policy, which falls under the president's formal authority.)
But that wasn't the most interesting thing Putin said Monday, speaking before a crowd of Russian and Western policy wonks in the resort town of Sochi. He used the occassion to issue a rare shoutout to Barack Obama, calling the U.S. president a "deep, profound person" and saying the two men had "similar perspective on global problems."
"Probably this is the best prerequisite for a higher level of relationship with the United States," he added.
As the Wall Street Journal notes, that's a far cry from last year, when Putin reportedly harangued Obama during an unpleasant "working breakfast" in Moscow.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev may be on Twitter, but he was not amused when Kirov's regional governor Nikita Belykh decided to post his thoughts during yesterday's State Council session. (Many thanks to the Wall Street Journal for translating the highlights.)
The bizarre story, which really could have only happened in today's Russia, began when Dmitry Zelenin, governor of Russia's Tver region, noted "State Council. 1 Minute to session." But it was Belykh's furious pounding out 140-character messages that made things interesting. He first noted:
10-15 people at the State Council are sitting with iPads. They used to sit with laptops. Darned stenographers ;)
(He immediately followed his own tweet by asking if they were in fact "doing other things.")
As Medvedev spoke, Belykh posted the tweet that started the brouhaha:
I support your idea of presidential Lycees, Dmitry Anatolievich. Kress. Actually, that was my idea ;(
At this point, Belykh was publicly reprimanded by Medvedev, who had got wind of the governor's feelings: "Nikita Yurievich Belykh is posting something on his Twitter page right now, during the State Council session, as if he has nothing else to do." You'd imagine, at this point, that Belykh would stop Tweeting and pay sharp attention to the rest of the session. You'd also be wrong, as Belykh blamed Medvedev's adviser Arkady Dvorkovich for narking on him:
There you go ;(. Dvorkovich leaked my reports to the President. Such are the costs of the information society ;(
It's clear that Dvorkovich himself was paying more attention to his feed than his boss as he playfully chided Belykh:
At least the record was set straight :)
Other attendees got in on the act, claiming that Belykh's list of followers was destined to rise as a result of the exchange. After the meeting, Medvedev responded to Belykh on his own (Russian-language) feed:
Yes, those are the costs of the information society. The important thing is that they don't distract from work, right?
As a side note, Medvedev's English-language feed follows President Barack Obama, the White House, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and the Kremlin's Russian feed, but only Obama and the White House have returned the favor.
DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images
In an inspired bit of YouTube surfing, Gawker has assembled a compilation of military recruitment commercials from around the world. There are a few clunkers -- three minutes is an awful long time to watch a Russian paratrooper sort of rapping in front of an obstacle course -- and I have my doubts that this Japanese ad is not an elaborate sophomoric hoax, but on the whole they make for pretty fascinating viewing.
Watching these as an American, the most immediately noticeable thing is how little time most of the ads spend overtly appealing to patriotism. There's Estonia, which does it cheekily, and Lebanon, which does it with a slow-motion sentimentality that would be cloying under other circumstances but is actually quite poignant in the context of a country that is eternally trying to keep things together. France and India, meanwhile, both hearken back to the U.S. military ads of the pre-9/11 era, in which we mostly see the life-advancing stuff that enlistment is supposed to get you, with a minimum of actual warfighting. (A career in the Indian army evidently prepares you for a lifetime of golfing and competitive diving.)
The Ukrainian army opts for an admirably straightforward "you'll get girls" approach. Singapore features a naval vessel transforming into a giant robot, presumably developed to contain the same giant lava monsters that have long plagued the U.S. Marines. Britain's jarring entry -- which a student of post-colonialism would have a field day with -- looks like it was directed by Fernando Meirelles. (This kind of "I dare you" approach to recruiting must work in the U.K. -- back in the '90s, when the U.S. Army was mostly promoting itself as a way to pay for college, the Brits ran magazine ads showing a Royal Marine eating worms as part of a survival training course.)
But the real winner here, I think, is Sweden, which is promoting military service to young women as a means of avoiding working as an au pair for awful Americans:
PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images
U.N. Security Council members Brazil and Turkey have chosen very different paths since they both voted against the latest round of U.N. sanctions on Iran. While Brazil has pledged to abide by the sanctions, despite their disagreement with them, Turkey's energy minister has vowed to bolster gasoline sales to Tehran. Turkey's gasoline sales have reportedly boomed to over five times their daily average, compared to the first half of this year.
Turkey is not the only U.S. ally looking to increase trade with Iran. In Iraq, a new Iranian trade center has recently opened, and Iran's ambassador has promised to double trade between the two countries, which he estimated at about $7 billion last year.
Russia -- though few might call it a close U.S. ally -- is also getting in on the act. Its state atomic corporation is set to load fuel into Iran's first nuclear power plant next week.
It doesn't look like pressing more reset buttons with Turkey, Iraq or Russia is going to help the U.S. attempt to isolate Iran.
Criticisms leveled against Moscow's response to the raging wildfires are now obsolete. While Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov was roundly berated for grudgingly returning from his European vacation to deal with the fires, Vladimir Putin himself co-piloted a plane over burning forests, releasing 24 tons of water on a blaze -- all without any formal pilot training.
Putin, wearing a blue shirt and jeans, boarded a Russian-built Be-200 amphibious aircraft as a passenger for a flight over the Ryazan region.
But he later went into the cockpit and sat in the co-pilot's seat, holding the throttle and pushing a button to dump 24 tons of water on forest fires about 200 kilometers southeast of Moscow.
Footage on Channel One television showed Putin hitting the button and asking the pilot, "Was that OK?"
The pilot replied, "A direct hit!"
After the spectacularly managed photo-op, reminiscent of a similar adventure by the second Bush, Putin visited a village where he pledged aid: Families would be compensated in cash or have their houses re-built, but at a maximum of $66,600, or 2 million rubles.
ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Yesterday, the U.S. department of Labor published an updated list of "products that federal contractors must certify under... are not produced with forced or indentured child labor." The list is maintained with the reasonable goal of making sure that "federal agencies do not buy products made with forced or indentured child labor." The list includes some usual suspects like Chinese toys, Indian textiles and diamonds from Sierra Leone. But as the Moscow Times's Alexander Bratersky noticed, it also includes Russian pornography.
Child pornography may be a problem in Russia, but, as Bratersky notes, the list raises that question of why the U.S. government would want contractors to provide pornography of any type or nationality. Bratersky wasn't able to get any answers out of the department but I'm sure the investigation will continue.
Russians have long since thought of ways to cope with the frigid cold (think over-buttered bread and over-flowing shot glasses), but weathering the blistering heat is a newer challenge. Record temperatures across the country -- in the low nineties! -- might make Washingtonians trapped inside the beltway scoff, but for those more accustomed to donning fur coats than string bikinis, the high heat has brought out unusual (and not altogether admirable) behavior this summer.
Perhaps most alarming is the spike in drowning among summer sufferers desperate to escape the heat wave. In one July week alone, over two hundred Russians reportedly drowned -- deaths that are being chalked up to ill-advised drinking before diving. The summer-long toll would make any suburban lifeguard fall off his chair: 1,244 deaths in June, and 400 so far in July. (Moral of the story? One clear liquid at a time is best: sips of vodka or splashes of water, but never both.)
These numbers are troubling, but may not be all so surprising -- Russia typically reports five times the number of drowning deaths than the United States, regardless of thermometer readings. The real jaw-dropper of the summer made headlines last week, when a money-making project in southern Russia quickly went from cool to cruel to criminal. The story is another case of near-drowning, but this time the victim is one you wouldn't expect to find along the beachfront: a parasailing donkey. What's now being condemned as a flagrant case of animal cruelty began as an advertizing ploy. Several businessmen launched the donkey into the air in hopes that the unusual sight would lure prospective sunbathers to their private beach. The stunt instantly attracted attention -- just not the kind the beach-owners had in mind. The donkey, not surprisingly, didn't take to his new elevation, and instantly raised complaints (what some spectators described as "screaming"). Alarmed children below added their cries to the ruckus, and concerned swimmers (or at least those with un-clouded senses) did their best to rescue the tortured animal upon its landing.
Though "no one had the brains to call police" right away, the backlash in the days that followed has been unequivocal. The story was broadcast on Russian national TV, and investigations, a precursor to criminal charges, have been launched against the offending entrepreneurs.
Some say the stunt is merely another example of widespread Russian insensitivity toward animals. Even so, the verdict is out on these misguided businessmen: just a couple of real asses.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
If it was a football match, the score would be 10:4 in Russia's favour.
But numbers do not tell the whole story. As a radio presenter in Moscow put it: "This means that one of their spies is worth two and a half of ours."
Indeed, while the 10 Russian "illegals," who never seemed to get closer to the U.S. centers of power than attending a few think tank luncheons and technically never actually committed espionage, the four spies the Russian turned over include former members of the KGB, SVR, GRU, and a prominent nuclear scientist. It certainly seems like a pretty good deal from Washington's point of view.
If you're a not-so-diehard World Cup fan (read: ever since Landon Donovan dropped out of sight, you've stopped keeping track of the scores), this story ought to (re) pique your interest:
Eight percent of Russians believe their national team will win the World Cup, despite the fact that it never qualified for the tournament, an independent poll has showed.
Russian pride was shattered when its team was denied a place at the world's most-watched sporting event, currently underway in South Africa, when they were defeated by Slovenia in the qualifying stage.
The poll, conducted by Russia's Levada Center between the 18th and the 22nd of June, surveyed 1,600 Russian adults across 130 cities.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
As foreign moles in suburban America, the "Murphy's" of Montclair -- two of the recently exposed Russian "illegals" (read: spies with boring long-term assignments) -- were charged with the difficult task of acting less Russian. Meanwhile, back in Moscow, migrant workers have been forced to take on precisely the opposite challenge: acting more Russian.
Ire toward foreign arrivals in Moscow is nothing new (double-digit murders of foreigners are standard each year in the capital city), but the recent proposal of a "Muscovite Code," a set of measures designed to encourage cultural assimilation, highlights just how intense the pressure to conform truly is. The rules, to be developed by city officials with input from local residents, would outline the "dos and don'ts" of traditional Russian culture; everything from speaking Russian-only in public (a do) to turnstile-hopping "like goats" (a don't). Supporters of the new measure note that these rules would not be mandatory, but would instead serve as a helpful resource for foreigners unfamiliar with the city's unspoken code of conduct. As Mikhail Solomentsev, head of the Moscow city government's Department for Inter-Regional Communications and Regional Policies explained:
"At the moment, there are unwritten rules that residents of our city have to adhere to... For instance, people shouldn't slaughter sheep in a courtyard, make shashlyk on their balcony or walk around the city in their national dress - and they should speak Russian."
Many, however, don't consider the proposal quite so benign. The new rules, they say, are simply one more way to reinforce Moscow's already entrenched culture of xenophobia. Of course, after Monday's revelations, Moscow officials might be wise to consider another (unintended) use of the Code: a how-to guide for "illegals" doing their best to blend in...
DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images
Stalin's postmortem downfall was (quite literally) on display last night in Gori, Georgia, where a statue of the Soviet leader was dismantled from its decades-old perch in the square of Uncle Joe's hometown. The unceremonious removal -- conducted without announcement or fanfare in the dead of night -- sounded strangely reminiscent of a criminal enterprise (albeit one carried out by amateur vandals). Stalin's unexpected departure, however, came at the directive of the city's parliament, which explained its decision as a necessary product of modernization. Even President Mikheil Saakashvili weighed in to express his approval: "A memorial to Stalin," he declared in televised remarks, "has no place in the Georgia of the 21st Century."
Saakashvili's assessment isn't as cantankerous as it may sound -- in fact, Stalin-bashers in Gori are by all measures behind the curve. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, rioters across the crumbling USSR eagerly demolished all signs of the former leader (à la Baghdad in 2003), but Georgians in Gori staunchly resisted the revisionist portrait of their homegrown hero: Hundreds of locals reportedly gathered to protect the statue against its would-be defilers. Stalin's corpse was removed from its original resting place inside Red Square in 1961, just a few years after its entombment; half a century later, what's thought to be the last remaining statue of the leader in its original locale has finally come down.
Of course, these Georgians aren't merely catching up with a trend; they plan to take their protest one step further. In a not-so-subtle gesture to their neighbors, the now-ousted statue will be replaced by a memorial for Georgian soldiers who died in the country's 2008 war with Russia.
The now-dismantled Gori Stalin made FP's list of the world's ugliest statues in April.
No love for BP from Russia's oil man-turned-president:
On the eve of his first state visit to the U.S. next week, Mr. Medvedev also questioned whether the Gulf oil spill might lead to the "annihilation" or breakup of BP, as the company faces billions of dollars in losses from the disaster.
He stopped short of saying Russia would re-evaluate BP's lucrative partnership in Russia, which represents almost a quarter of its oil production, but predicted the spill will prompt a fundamental rethinking of oil exploration around the world.
"This is a wake-up call," Mr. Medvedev said. Of BP's fate, he added: "Certainly, we are not indifferent to their future. ... Hopefully, they can absorb the losses."
As we've discussed recently on this blog, the Kremlin is not exactly a disinterested party in BP's fate. The Russian government taken a number of steps over the years -- including barring the TNK-BP subsidiary from Russia's lucrative energy export market and setting unreasonably high production quotas -- to make life difficult for the company, often to the benefit of Medvedev's old company, Gazprom.
Interesting, the Economist invoked Russia and Medvedev's predecessor this week in criticizing President Obama's response to the spill:
The collapse in BP’s share price suggests that [Obama] has convinced the markets that he is an American version of Vladimir Putin, willing to harry firms into doing his bidding.
That's going just a bit far. Obama hasn't sent anyone off to Siberia or even suspended anyone's visa. But Tony Hayward's still probably hoping Obama doesn't get any ideas from the Russian president when they meet next week.
DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images
Criticizing a column by Charles Krauthammer is an action roughly akin to shooting fish in a barrel, but today's offering contains a particularly egregious distortion:
On Tuesday, one day before the president touted passage of a surpassingly weak U.N. resolution and declared Iran yet more isolated, the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran gathered at a security summit in Istanbul "in a display of regional power that appeared to be calculated to test the United States," as the New York Times put it. I would add: And calculated to demonstrate the hollowness of U.S. claims of Iranian isolation, to flaunt Iran's growing ties with Russia and quasi-alliance with Turkey, a NATO member no less.
Growing ties with Russia? Not so fast, Chuck.
First, need I point out that Russia did, in fact, vote for the resolution in question?
Second, back in May, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ticked off the Russians when he strongly implied that Russia was becoming an enemy of the Iranian people. Here's how Reuters characterized the Russian response:
The Kremlin swiftly chastised the Iranian leader for "political demagoguery" and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday described Ahmadinejad's tirade as "emotional".
He said Iran had for years failed to respond to Moscow's efforts to resolve the dispute over nuclear work seen by the West as having military purposes, a charge Tehran denies.
This is not to say that Moscow is ready to overthrow the mullahs or simply go along with U.S. plans to put the hurt on Tehran. Russia's interests in Iran are primarily commerical, as was clear from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's comments this week. (''We ensured the absolute protection of all the vitally important trade channels that exist between Russia and Iran ... The U.N. resolution doesn't create any barriers in this sense.'') He also indicated, however, that Iran wouldn't be allowed to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Beijing-led security group focused on Central Asia.
Ahmadinejad has an interesting personal history with Russia. Back in 1979, according to the Atlantic's Mark Bowden, he voted against occupying the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, favoring a demonstration in front of the Soviet Embassy instead. A fellow student radical later described the future president's thinking in a BBC documentary thusly: "Mr. Ahmadinejad said it will boost the Soviets’ influence -- the real threat to the revolution is Russia and the Marxists."
There is a long history of Russian interference in Iran, including one of the first crises of the Cold War -- Joseph Stalin's refusal in 1946 to end the Soviet occupation of vast swaths of the country. It was only after the massive application of pressure by then U.S. President Harry Truman that the Soviets agreed to withdraw. This history is no doubt widely remembered in Iran today, even as the regime looks for lifelines wherever it can find them.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
It hasn't attracted a whole lot of attention yet, but Russia's announcement this week of the arrest of militant leader Ali Taziyev, better known as Emir Magas could be a devastating blow to the insurgency in the North Caucasus. Magas was officially second-in-command behind the better-known Doku Umarov in the hierarchy of rebels aiming to establish an Islamic emirate in the Caucasus.
Past FP contributor and Bishkek-based International Crisis Group analysts Paul Quinn-Judge explains that Magas is actually a more significant target:
[W]hile Doku has become largely a figurehead in recent years – the last link with the old generation of independence fighters and a symbol of the war’s transformation into a religious struggle – Magas was a frontline commander, a highly successful military planner and an astute organiser. He was one of the commanders of the bloody attack on Nazran in 2004. He is sometimes alleged to have taken part in the hostage taking at Beslan later that year. He claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in June 2009 that badly injured the president of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, and in the period between these events he united virtually all the small semi-autonomous groups of Islamic fighters under the command of the North Caucasus Emirate. This is an achievement that seems to have eluded his predecessor, Shamil Basayev.
The guerrilla movement was quick to confirm that Magas had been captured, and did not try to hide the gravity of the development. A long commentary on the Ingush jihadist site hunafa drew parallels with the early losses of Mohamed’s followers. It described the capture as a “severe test” for the movement and for Magas. “May Allah give him strength,” the site said.
Magas has been taken to Moscow for questioning.
As BP executives contemplate just how much the ongoing fiasco in the Gulf is going to cost them -- not to mention the lost years and millions spent on greenwashing -- the latest news from the company's joint Russian venture TNK-BP is unlikely to cheer them up:
is pushing its unit that controls the huge Kovykta gas field into bankruptcy, TNK-BP said Thursday, as it has failed to sell the field to the government. , which controls Kovykta and whose management is loyal to TNK-BP, said it could not repay its loans and filed a petition to the local arbitration court of the Irkutsk region to initiate bankruptcy.[...]
Kovykta, which TNK-BP has controlled for about 15 years, had been meant to supply China before Moscow started asserting control over natural resources and made its gas behemoth Gazprom a gas export monopoly. Officials have repeatedly threatened to withdraw the Kovykta license from TNK-BP for low production volumes.
BP and its partners have argued that output targets for Kovykta set by the Russian government became too onerous after it was unable to supply China, because Russian demand didn't make up the shortfall.
The Russian government is essentially pressuring TNK-BP to increase production while shutting them out of the lucrative export market controlled by Gazprom. TNK-BP has been trying to sell the field the cash-strapped Gazprom, but the deal has yet to be finalized.
The unit, a joint venture with a Russian investnment group, has long been a source of frustration for the British company. Back in 2008, the Russian government denied work visa extensions to TNK-BP's British executives, who were then locked in a feud with their Russian partners over control of the company. The two sides eventually came to an understanding.
But despite the headaches, TNK-BP accounts for around a quater of BP's global production and 10 percent of its profits. So today's new could bring a little schadenfreude for the folks in the gulf, courtesy of the Kremlin.
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
Passport, FP’s flagship blog, brings you news and hidden angles on the biggest stories of the day, as well as insights and under-the-radar gems from around the world.