The Octopus in Political Cartoons

Octopuses are a popular trope in political art. They came in vogue in the 1870s, when Frederick W. Rose depicted Russia as a giant octopus lording over Eastern Europe. The sea monster was quickly given to Germany when it posed a bigger threat to peace in Europe. During the early Cold War, it was Russia’s turn again. The octopus was the perfect metaphor for spreading communism.

Here is a selection of the best and worst tentacled sea creatures. Read more

So Much for Yet Another Russian Reset

A flag of the Russian Federation
A flag of the Russian Federation (Amanda Graham)

From Reuters:

US president Donald Trump grudgingly signed into law on Wednesday new sanctions against Russia that Congress had approved overwhelmingly last week, criticizing the legislation as having “clearly unconstitutional” elements.

Ever since the United States entered the stage as a world power, it’s brushed up against Russia. From the 1918-20 international intervention that halfheartedly tried to prevent the rise of Soviet communism to this latest American sanctions bill, the US has long hoped to turn Russia into yet another reliable ally, joined together in a liberal order of peace and prosperity.

That geopolitical naivety is deeply embedded in the American body politic: candidate after candidate has hoped to defang the Russian bear with arms outreached, only to discover that Moscow sees not friendship but subjugation.

It is a relationship between an idealistic, extremely safe nation state and a cynical, deeply insecure one. One finds every betrayal or turnabout shocking; the other sees them as a natural course of events. Read more

Venezuela Is a Geopolitical Tinderbox

Presidents Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Vladimir Putin of Russia shake hands at the Kremlin in Moscow, July 2, 2013
Presidents Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Vladimir Putin of Russia shake hands at the Kremlin in Moscow, July 2, 2013 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Surges of protests against a deeply unpopular government have catapulted Venezuela from back-burner regional crisis to a hemispheric one. It’s only a Russian presidential visit away from becoming the world’s next geopolitical hot spot.

Medical supplies are running short, opposition leaders are calling for nationwide boycotts and now the Americans are rousing themselves to begin a sanctions regime against the beleaguered Maduro government.

It’s quite the fall from grace. From 2004 until 2013, Venezuela’s economy rocketed upward, bringing a measure of prosperity to a country long accustomed to hardship. It appeared, in those heady days, that Hugo Chávez, the country’s authoritarian ruler, could bring about his socialist Bolivarian Revolution and economic prosperity. For the Latin American left, Venezuela was proof that one did not have to conform to the neoliberal capitalism of the United States to be successful.

Alas, since 2013, the economy has slid further and further while inflation has hammered the country’s currency to the point of worthlessness.

With America now poking its nose directly into Venezuelan affairs, with the opposition building a shadow government and with the Russians trying to shore up Nicolás Maduro’s government through increasingly generous aid shipments, the country has all the ingredients of a major geopolitical crisis.

The Americans could find themselves sucked into an ever-expanding role in managing the Maduro regime; the opposition could give up on peaceful politics altogether and embark on an armed struggle; an opportunistic Vladimir Putin might wedge Russian power into South America in hopes of throwing the Americans off balance in Europe. Read more

Five Reasons to Doubt Libyan Truce Will Hold

Paolo Gentiloni and Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime ministers of Italy and Libya, inspect an honor guard in Rome, July 26
Paolo Gentiloni and Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime ministers of Italy and Libya, inspect an honor guard in Rome, July 26 (Palazzo Chigi)

Libya’s two most powerful leaders have agreed to call a ceasefire and hold elections next year after a meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris.

Their deal has the potential to end six years of civil war, but there are at least five reasons to doubt it will hold:

  1. Khalifa Haftar, the generalissimo in charge of eastern Libya, and Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the internationally-recognized unity government in Tripoli, did not agree on a date for elections, so there is no deadline.
  2. The truce exempts counterterrorism, which Haftar and Sarraj could interpret differently. Haftar calls his entire campaign a counterterrorist operation.
  3. Libya’s institutions, including the central bank and National Oil Corporation, have recognized Sarraj’s as the legitimate government, but he has no security force of his own and could struggle to convince the militias that support him to stop fighting.
  4. Haftar, by contrast, has his own army, which occupies two-thirds of Libya, most of its oil ports and the city of Benghazi. But he has to convince a rival parliament in Tobruk to agree to the deal. Given how well the civil war has been going for them lately, they may balk at its terms.
  5. While Western countries and the United Nations back Sarraj, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates support Haftar in his war against Islamists. Read more

Ukraine Might Be Better Off If “Little Russia” Did Secede

Military vehicles of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic are seen in eastern Ukraine, May 30, 2015
Military vehicles of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic are seen in eastern Ukraine, May 30, 2015 (Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov)

Separatists in the southeast of Ukraine have declared a new country: “Little Russia”.

The announcement by Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, amounts to little, argues Gwendolyn Sasse of Carnegie Europe.

She points out that leaders in Luhansk, Ukraine’s other breakaway region, have distanced themselves from it. Russia, which otherwise backs the Donbas uprising, hasn’t voiced support either. And the local population doesn’t want independence. A survey conducted earlier this year found a majority in favor of remaining in Ukraine. Only a third want to join Russia.

Yet it might be better for Ukraine if the region does secede. Read more

The United Republics: A Peace Plan for America

Clare Trainor's proposal for high-speed rail connections between seven American megaregions
Clare Trainor’s proposal for high-speed rail connections between seven American megaregions

The 2016 election was a turning point in American history. Cultural, political and regional differences have become so vast that the American political system is becoming unsustainable. There are two fundamentally different visions of what this country should be and the current federal system does not allow these differences to be reconciled.

For these reasons, I am proposing a new political system that would transform the United States of America into the United Republics of America.

This new government would still allow nationwide coordination of domestic and foreign policy, but it would devolve power to newly created republics. Read more

Russia Is Feeding Off and Neglecting Siberia

The sun sets on Novosibirsk, the capital of Russia's Siberian Federal District, December 9, 2011
The sun sets on Novosibirsk, the capital of Russia’s Siberian Federal District, December 9, 2011 (Mikhail Koninin)

Russia is in the unusual situation of feeding off a settler colony that itself remains poor and underdeveloped.

Vladislav Inozemtsev writes in The American Interest that Siberia accounts for 75 percent of Russia’s landmass, 20 percent of its population and 76 to 78 percent of its exports.

During the Soviet Union, the figures were 57, 10 and 46 percent, respectively.

If Siberia stopped supplying commodities to Moscow, its exports would be smaller than Hungary’s. Read more