What Will The Neighbors Think?

As Russia threatens Ukraine and intervenes in Kazakhstan, its other neighbors are looking on. Russia’s words toward NATO have been accompanied by warnings to Sweden and Finland not to join NATO.

Russia is presented with a conundrum of its own making. It would like to have friendly or neutral neighbors, but, when they don’t toe that line, as particularly in the case of Ukraine, Russia argues it has no choice but to attack them. This does not encourage a friendly attitude in the neighbors.

Russia’s grab of Crimea and its attack on the Donbas alerted other neighbors to prepare for the worst, now amplified by the Russian military buildup around Ukraine and Russia’s demands on NATO and the United States. The neighbors must respond to Russia’s renewed demand for an explicit sphere of influence.

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Will Putin Start A War?

Nobody knows. End of blogpost.

Or I could go on.

I follow a great many Russia experts on Twitter, and they don’t know. Some tilt one way or the other, but all emphasize that there are great uncertainties. That is how Vladimir Putin likes to play his hand – keep people guessing.

In mid-December, Putin presented two agreements, between Russia and NATO and between Russia and the United States. Basically, the agreements would make it safe for Russia to do what it wants in Europe and, particularly, Ukraine. To develop leverage for those proposals, he has massed something like 100,000 troops around eastern Ukraine with equipment in a way that looks like readying for war.

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Placing Blame

I made a sorta New Year’s resolution to post about stuff other than covid, but covid takes up a lot of everyone’s mental space, and I am particularly angry about this latest surge. Maybe the next post will be about Russia.

This morning, one of my go-to virologists, Dr. Angie Rasmussen, tweeted a rage-thread. She gave a nice definition of endemicity, which I plan to use going forward because it works with my emphasis on prevalence.

In the rest of the thread, she enumerates policy mistakes. She doesn’t explicitly blame Joe Biden, but she mentions the White House, and others do explicitly blame Biden and “the Democrats.” It’s easy to blame the party in power and easy to believe the President can do anything with a snap of his fingers or by signing a piece of paper, but it’s not true. I agree that I would have preferred some of her policies, but let’s focus on what we actually have to change, not just yell at the easy targets.

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Living With Covid: Continuing the Conversation

Kevin Drum offers some suggestions as a conversation starter on “living with covid.”

Far too many people using that phrase actually mean “Shut up and sit down because I’m tired of dealing with this and want things back to where they were before the pandemic so I will act that way.” That’s not going to happen, and Kevin recognizes it in his post, but I need to say it again.

At the moment, with something like 600,000+ new infections a day, we must get prevalence down before we can start to think about a more stable situation. The good news is we may see a decline in infections fairly quickly, say by the end of January, as more people become immune via infection or vaccination. At that point, we need to look hard at what we need to do to keep it that way, because immunity via infection seems to wane fairly quickly. Vaccination, obviously, needs to continue and expand.

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Demonstrations in Kazakhstan

Demonstrations in western Kazakhstan, the oil-producing region, against a sharp increase in the price of automotive fuel, have spread across the country to the former capital, Almaty, and the current capital, Nur-Sultan. There has long been dissatisfaction with a dictatorial-kleptocratic government.

President Tokaev has sacked the former (and first – he served since the breakup of the Soviet Union) president, Nur-Sultan Nazarbayev, from his post as Security Council chairman and is expected to dissolve Parliament. It’s not clear that this will stop the demonstrations.

What is happening in Kazakhstan is exactly what Vladimir Putin fears for Russia. He has seen such demonstrations in several former Soviet republics, most recently in Belarus and in Ukraine in 2014. He is trying to force NATO and Ukraine into reconsiderations of their positions by threatening military action against Ukraine. He will likely see events in Kazakhstan as a CIA/NATO provocation in response to demands he has issued to NATO and the US.

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The Nuclear Five Say Nuclear War Cannot Be Won

Here’s some good news to start the year!

The P5 – the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, all of which have nuclear weapons – have released a statement against nuclear war.

France, the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America consider the avoidance of war between Nuclear-Weapon States and the reduction of strategic risks as our foremost responsibilities.

We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.  As nuclear use would have far-reaching consequences, we also affirm that nuclear weapons—for as long as they continue to exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.  We believe strongly that the further spread of such weapons must be prevented. 

We reaffirm the importance of addressing nuclear threats and emphasize the importance of preserving and complying with our bilateral and multilateral non-proliferation, disarmament, and arms control agreements and commitments.  We remain committed to our Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations, including our Article VI obligation “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

We each intend to maintain and further strengthen our national measures to prevent unauthorized or unintended use of nuclear weapons.  We reiterate the validity of our previous statements on de-targeting, reaffirming that none of our nuclear weapons are targeted at each other or at any other State. 

We underline our desire to work with all states to create a security environment more conducive to progress on disarmament with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all.  We intend to continue seeking bilateral and multilateral diplomatic approaches to avoid military confrontations, strengthen stability and predictability, increase mutual understanding and confidence, and prevent an arms race that would benefit none and endanger all.  We are resolved to pursue constructive dialogue with mutual respect and acknowledgment of each other’s security interests and concerns.

The statement has been expected. It would likely have been presented at the delayed review conference for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which was scheduled for summer 2020. It was rescheduled for later this month and now will be moved to this summer, pandemic allowing.

It’s good that the statement was released now, rather than waiting for whenever the review conference may be able to be held. Russia’s current sword-rattling no doubt is part of the reason.

It’s a strong statement, particularly considering that Russia is included. And, Vladimir Putin would say, particularly considering that the United States is included.

You can find holes in it, and ultimately it’s all words. But it’s a place to start.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Pandemic Update

Over the last few days, I have thought of at least six posts I might write on the pandemic and started three of them, now trashed by events. I am going to write this one straight through and get it posted before something else happens.

The rapid spread of Omicron and its different characteristics from Delta have changed the game, not to mention that we have viruses in circulation with different characteristics. There is a lot we don’t know yet about Omicron and probably won’t for some weeks.

There is also far too much misinformation, disinformation, and wishful thinking circulating on social media. Please don’t retweet people you don’t know or add your non-expert takes to the din. Please.

The CDC released guidance on recovery and going back to work. Every official decision right now is the result of combining not enough data with public health guidelines with expected political and emotional pushback and professional best judgment. I have given up second-guessing. This thread and the one embedded in it indicate why.

It can’t be said enough times that back in June 2021, things were looking up because of the vaccines, and that was when the Republican Party ramped up its hardline push in favor of death and disease. Yes, Delta showed up too, but in a country where public health was uniformly valued, it would have had less of an effect.

I’ve come to look at the pandemic in terms of getting transmission down, and I think that’s still a good frame. The only way we will get back to anything resembling “normal” is to get the transmission down. That’s going to take a while, although what we see of Omicron’s characteristics, it’s possible we could have a peak through January and then be in a much better position by March.

We don’t have enough tests.

We’re not thinking enough about long Covid. More about this later.

Nor are we thinking enough about vaccinating the world. More about this too.

The good thing is that we know what we need to do: Get vaccinated and boosted, mask up around other people, distance as much as possible, avoid large numbers of people indoors.

Stay safe, y’all, and keep the noise down.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money