What is Britain Doing to Help Syria?

A massive summit on aid to Syria was hosted in London in early Feb 2016 – attended by David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Secretary of State John Kerry. The UK government prides itself on leading the humanitarian effort to Syria, and hopes to prod other countries into stepping up their game. So what is the UK actually doing to help Syria, and is it really helping?  

Russia and the West’s tense relationship explained

Journalist and historian James Pearce explores some of the myths surrounding Russia. Is it true that Russians don’t like Westerners? If not, where does this idea come from?


Why is our relationship with Russia so tense?

The communist flag. Russia was once under the rule of Communism

Communism; all are equal…ish

Russia was once a country under the banner of Communism.

Communism is a political system where (in theory at least) all means of production are owned by the community rather than by individuals.

Russia was known to the world as ‘the Soviet Union’ or ‘USSR’ (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). The revolution of October 1917 created a new kind of system which strived to create a communist state (by implementing the ideas of philosopher Karl Marx) in Russia. Before this point Russia was ruled for centuries as an autocracy by a ruling class called the Tsars.

The West (e.g. America, Britain and the rest of Europe) had adopted a system called Capitalism. This means trade, industry and the means of production are mostly privately owned and operated for profit.

Map showing the various sides and alliances in the cold war between Russia and the West

Cold War; in the red corner – Russia, vs. the West, in the blue corner

Because of these two different political ideas, Russia’s relationship with Western countries became strained. The West saw the Soviet Union as the true enemy to Western capitalism and civilisation.

As well as this initial reaction to the appearance of the Soviet Union, the post WWII world witnessed a nuclear arms race between America and Russia as a way of showing ideological superiority. The consequence of this was the staunch anti-Soviet rhetoric on one side in the West, and the anti-American policy complemented by strict censorship in the Soviet Union.

However, in Soviet times, the citizens would turn off the sound when images of America were shown on television. Ordinary people knew little about America and wanted the story beyond the anti-American propaganda of the Soviet government. Particularly in the 1980s when the incumbent leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, began to allow more freedoms in the media with his policy of glasnost (openness).

Today, this situation has changed dramatically. A recent survey by Levada found that around 70% of Russians have a negative opinion of Americans. Many will recall a laser image on the U.S Embassy of president, Barack Obama, eating a banana. Such actions come about as a result of the bad press abroad, particularly in the U.S. With the continued negativity throughout the media is it any wonder? This is not to defend these actions, but this combined with the geopolitical tone towards Russia has sparked a new feeling of anti-Westernism in Russia.


What is the Western media saying about Russia?

Screenshot of the Guardian asking "Is Western media biased towards Russia?"

Is Western media biased towards Russia?

There is no Soviet Union anymore, but Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis has witnessed the return of negative stories about Russia in the Western press. However, the Russian press also produces negative stories about the West and these two prejudices play off one another.

EXPLORE: the Ukraine crisis, and how Russia is involved?

It’s an easy task to find headlines which adhere to the anti-Russian style, and doing so is also essential. As well as slamming Russia’s democratic record, the Western press has largely been focussing on Russia’s military capability, especially since the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

For example, there was a copy of Time magazine which depicted Russian President Putin and the remains of flight MH17 in his shadow. MH17 was shot down in Ukraine, and there was speculation that Russia was involved. This has not been proved. That didn’t stop The Sun newspaper referring to downing of flight MH17 as ‘Putin’s Missile’ on its front page.

EXPLORE: the “annexation” of Crimea – did Russia steal a country

Obscene titles such as ‘Putin has Asperger’s’ or ‘Russians need to suffer to survive’ provide no real information about the situation, but do reveal the growing obsession with condemning Russia.

It is the belief of some, such as former CNN producer Danny Schechter, that the majority of Americans ‘completely trust’ their news channels. He told Russia Today “they don’t speak Russian and there is no background or context. As a result, they are willing to believe the worst”.


War Games

Russian military forces stand in front of a tank

War games; Russia’s military presence worries the West

Moscow has repeatedly denied claims of Russian troops being present in Ukraine and recently started developing new nuclear missiles and tanks.

According to Test Tube News, Russia has around 8,500 nuclear warheads, of which 1,800 are operational, and around 845,000 active troops. These missiles are only a deterrent, meaning any launch would result in the same amount of destruction in return. The troop size is actually one of their stronger points. Military funding in 2015 is expected to be at around $81 billion compared to the U.S’s $831 billion. Much of Russia’s army is also ill equipped with modern technology, yet they operate more tanks than the U.S.

President Obama has described Russia as only a ‘regional power’, something which still plays into the hands of the press. In an article for Russia! magazine, Mark Galeotti wrote that Russia’s military is ‘good enough to chew through Ukraine and Georgia, but not for more advanced purposes’.

This was enough justification for the West to send extra troops to the Russian border in Estonia and Latvia (also Poland). Stories about Crimea and Russian ‘volunteers’ fighting in Eastern Ukraine create the impression of an imminent Russian invasion.

Russia and the West; President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin sit awkwardly in silence

Tension, what tension?

In another example, the visit of former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras to Moscow caused panic. An article by Timothy Heritage for Reuters highlighted how realistic it would be for Greece to link up with Russia. Ties of culture and religion keep them closely acquainted and sympathisers to each other’s situation.

For months after the visit the press talked of Greece leaving the Eurozone and becoming a prospective member of BRICS (the countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, all deemed to be at a similar stage of new economic development). If this happened it could open a space for Russian business and military bases on the European continent.

By the press focusing on a fear of what Russia might do as opposed to why such a move may have suited Greece, it in turn showed Russia as a real threat to the national security of Western nations.

Regardless of Russia’s military capability, the belief of a dangerous Eastern neighbour exists. There is a clear anxiety shown in reports of Russian planes entering NATO member airspace or submarines just off shore. A visitor to my university, Chuck Snodgrass who worked in the U.S military and closely with the CIA, told us of the ‘Pearl Harbour Syndrome’ America has. The Western press echoes the American fears of being caught out again with their planes on the ground like in 1941.

This paranoia coupled with Russian planes entering UK airspace and their large nuclear arsenal creates a very tense situation with the potential to worsen. The nuclear of Russia arsenal leads the West in to thinking a war would be disastrous. This is an area where they cannot compete.


What do the Russians think?

LGBT activists were attacked during an action "Day of Kisses" against a homophobic bill that would prevent "non-traditional sexual relations propaganda among minors", aka the "gay propaganda ban" in front of the State Duma in Moscow, Russia. Москва. Акция активистов ЛГБТ сообщества "День Поцелуев" против приниятия гомофобного закона у ГосДумы в Москве закончилась избиениями активистов и задержаниями.

Russia has been criticised as being homophobic –  LGBT activists under attack in Moscow

On my first visit to Russia in 2013, I stayed with friends in their apartment in Southwest Moscow. As is the ‘done thing’ here, we started drinking in the kitchen and discussing politics. When America came up in conversation, my friend Svetlana said something I had never considered, yet perpetually do now. Specifically discussing Russia’s gay propaganda laws, she exclaimed:

“How can America lecture us on what to do and how to live, then justify going to war with everybody?!”

This viewpoint is similar to that of Russian film maker, Andron Konchalovskiy. Whilst discussing Russo-Western relations with Russia’s most famous journalist he said:

“It’s too bad we’re not blue, green or purple, because if we were, then the world would treat us differently […] The West expects us to act like they act. They go after us all the time. Do you know why? It’s because we look like them. If we looked different they’d get off our backs. Take the Chinese. Does the west ever go after them for not being democratic, for not living up to Western standards? No. And why not? Because the Chinese look different. I tell you, the problem is that we look like westerners, but in fact we’re not, we’re different”.

The feeling in Russia, by at large, is one of mistreatment. The population feel that their situation is not entirely understood, especially concerning Ukraine, a crisis with local roots. Despite Russia not being considered a part of the ‘civilised world since the time of the Mongol occupation, there is still a huge expectation among Western nations for Russia to play along. They look like westerners, but they are not. When Communism fell, the expectation was that Russia would change overnight and jump on the free market economics band wagon; it did not.

It is also possible that Russia does not understand America’s situation since both have little in common as nations; their histories have been completely different.

With regards to the UK, the reaction is mixed. 62% of Russians have a negative attitude towards to EU, although this merely scratches the surface. Since the Iraq War, many Russians see the Brits as the flag carrier of U.S foreign policy, which may explain the claim that the UK is becoming a ‘diplomatic irrelevance’.

The editor of The Moscow Times (Moscow’s English language newspaper), Nabi Abdullaev, wrote in The Guardian that the West’s bias ‘robs it of its moral authority’:

Russia's president Putin at an international summit

Enigma; the West wonder what Putin’s end game is

“Most western media cover the crisis in Ukraine mainly by concentrating on the Russian President’s cynicism and imperial ambitions. There is excellent field reporting from Ukraine in the western media, but they make only a modest part of the general message”

He also went on to say that covering key issues like the U.S’s intentions with Ukraine, Ukraine’s future government and Putin’s paranoia regarding NATO are rarely, if at all covered. For instance, most Crimeans welcomed their reincorporation to Russia, but the West focused on how illegal it was.

Indeed, the NATO paranoia is evident from the president to the people; to be portrayed as a threat and then encircled (and sanctioned) is something Russians view as unacceptable. Not least because Gorbachev was promised NATO would stay put after Germany’s reunification. Now NATO sits on Russia’s border. Having a president who stands up to the West and asserts Russia’s authority is the anecdote.  

Unlike Americans however, Russians do not appear to be fearful of a military conflict. Levada’s report this August showed Russians fear poverty more than a new war. Moreover, it revealed greater numbers of people feel stability inside the country compared with 2013.


Bias? If not, what’s happening?

Russia will always be a country which provokes a wide spectrum of views. Evidence usually makes people change their minds, although the line between facts and fiction appears to be blurred. Both sides claim a different truth with a lot of it left unsaid at either end. Without question, the West routinely downplays the Russian side of the story, but 90% of Russians receive their news from state run channels, and therefore also receive biased information.

After the Soviet Union became the new Russian Federation. Russia will not become a new, different kind of country until those who were born in the Russian Federation come to power and start controlling things. However, closing itself off to the West will also not improve the situation at home.


James is a Moscow based journalist and historian who also writes for The News Hub and Russia! magazine. Follow him on twitter @JamesPearce_101

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No Harm In A Little Perspective: Nuclear Weapons

A Vintage Threat

Black and white image of a stereotypical 1950s family in a nuclear bomb shelter

Nuclear weapons have a kitschy old school feel

Nuclear weapons have a kitschy old-school feel. The threat of nuclear Armageddon is what our parents grew up with, not us. It is not something we tend to think about from day to day. We did some research, though, and were surprised to find the likelihood of nuclear war today is higher than we might think.

The closest the world ever came to nuclear devastation was completely by accident. On September 26th 1983 Soviet Russia picked up signals that a US ballistic missile was heading their way. The poor sod in charge, Stanislav Petrov, had to make the call whether or not to retaliate with their own missiles. Refusing to be ‘that guy’ who started World War III, Petrov decided it was a false alarm and did nothing. Luckily he was right – and the world was spared millions of deaths. Neat. Close call though.

And now for something completely obvious: This would not have happened if nuclear weapons didn’t exist.

Well duh-doy. Donald Trump wouldn’t keep happening if he didn’t exist. Then again, the world’s nations haven’t signed a treaty promising to rid the planet of him, like they have with nuclear weapons.

Ever since 1970 with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty or NPT, the whole world, including Britain, has been officially committed to global nuclear disarmament. If we all agree with the UN party line: getting rid of nuclear weapons makes the world a safer place.

Meanwhile, in Britain, senior members of every major political party insist that Britain should keep and update its own nuclear weapons in order to make Britain a safer place. Members of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet have even said they would resign if the new Labour leader did not support the renewal of Britain’s nuclear weapons programme, Trident. [What is Trident?] A Telegraph column stated recently that possessing nuclear weapons is what keeps European countries protected and free.

Hang on just a tick. How can eliminating nuclear weapons make the world safer while at the same time Britain needs nuclear weapons in order to be safe?

Deterrence Theory: Explained

The logic that solves this conundrum is called deterrence theory.

Deterrence theory is very simple: Take two enemy countries: Country X and Country Y. If Country X possesses nuclear weapons, they are capable of inflicting such enormous damage that Country Y wouldn’t dare attack them.

If both countries have nuclear weapons, their early-warning systems mean that if they are attacked, they will have time to retaliate with their own missile before they are hit. If Country Y was to launch a nuclear missile on country X, deterrence theory suggests that they can expect to have a missile launched right back at them.

False Alarm?

False Alarm?


The result is that no one dares do anything.

So – according to this theory – possessing nuclear weapons deters other countries from making aggressive moves. A recipe for everlasting peace?

Perhaps, except when false alarms very nearly lead to nuclear war like it did in 1983. Since we’re only human and liable to make mistakes from time to time, would it not still be safer for the world to get rid of all these weapons of mass destruction? Keep Out of Reach of Humans?


The problem with this: now that nuclear weapons exist, we can never un-exist them. They are out there now, like the bad smell of a cooking experiment gone wrong. And like bad smells, not everyone wants to own up to making them.

There are 15,000 nuclear bombs in the world. Here is a map to show you where those bombs are. Five of the eight countries who possess nuclear weapons have signed the non-proliferation treaty, recognising that any aggressive use of their nuclear weapons would be illegal under international law and stating that they will take concrete steps towards worldwide disarmament. These countries are Britain, China, France, Russia and the US.

There are three other countries who have openly tested and declared possessing atomic bombs who have not officially agreed to play nice with their bombs: these are India, North Korea and Pakistan.

Still from Team America of Kim Jong Il

North Korea have got Alec Baldwin. And also nuclear bombs.


Meanwhile, Israel is believed to have been developing nuclear weapons since the 1950s and there has been major diplomatic work in the last year to ensure Iran is not making nuclear weapons on the sly.

The key word here is uncertainty. Some reckon that nuclear states like Britain would be mad to get rid of their nuclear deterrents at a time like this. This is because no one can be 100% certain which other countries may or may not possess weapons of mass destruction, and how they intend to use them. Better safe than sorry?

But uncertainty can easily turn into scaremongering: rogue states like North Korea are not the number one threat the UK faces. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament points out that the UK government’s National Security Strategy sees international terrorism, cyber-attacks and climate change are greater threats than nuclear war. These problems cannot be solved with a nuclear deterrent. As the old saying goes, you can’t nuke a terrorist.

Bad for the world, Good for Britain?

What does this mean for the UK’s nuclear weapons programme, Trident? (Tell me again, what’s Trident?). The programme, funding and nuclear technology are outdated and due for renewal – and the House of Commons will vote next year on how, and if, this should be done.

Every major political party, except the Scottish National Party,  supports Trident renewal in principal. So Trident = good?

Not everyone thinks so. The No to Trident campaign argues that the £100 billion needed to renew the programme would be better spent on other methods of national defence, seeing as the threats Britain faces like terrorism and climate change cannot be tackled with nuclear weapons.

This £100 billion cost for renewing the Trident programme is disputed.

According to the Guardian, the Commons library estimates the cost of renewing the programme to be closer to £25 billion.

Whichever estimate convinces you, it’s a lot of monies.

A pricey safety net or necessary investment?

A pricey safety net or necessary investment?

Is Trident an expensive but necessary investment in UK security, or is it a very pricey safety net that we do not need?

The safety of the nation is not the only thing in question. Britain’s status in the world as a nuclear power is what guarantees it a place on the Security Council.

It’s not all or nothing. Britain does have the option of remaining a nuclear power, but reducing its stockpiles of nuclear weapons. The UK has in fact been gradually dismantling its own nuclear warheads from 225 to a goal of 180 by the mid 2020s. This may not seem like much, but it is similar to the agreed joint-reduction of nuclear warheads by the US and Russia that earned President Obama a Nobel Peace Prize.

Are these the concrete steps towards global nuclear disarmament the UK has signed up to under the non-proliferation treaty? Are they enough? Would renewing Trident negate these actions, or is it still a necessary part of Britain’s defence?  

Nuclear weapons explained: When nuclear weapons were invented, we opened a Pandora’s box that cannot be shut.

We now live in a world where we cannot be certain who does and does not possess weapons of mass destruction. Because of this, some would argue that it is better to be safe than sorry, and to use nuclear weapons as a deterrent: the most deadly defence mechanism ever. The counterargument is that nuclear weapons are not what we need to tackle the problems we actually face today, and that they are an unnecessary, expensive and potentially deadly safety net. It is difficult to face the ugly truth of how peace works now, and there are decisions and judgement calls we have to make that we wish would go away, but won’t.

Take Action as part of the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons


Two different meanings of “MILF” which should not be confused

I thought MILF stood for “Mother I’d like to f***”

MILF an attractive mother comes out and greets a friend

MILF; hot mom or Islamic extremist group?

Sure it does. However you really shouldn’t confuse a MILF with The MILF or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

They are a rebel extremist group in the Philippine Islands, in the South China Sea. The MILF are fighting for increased powers for the Muslim community. Their original aim was the liberation of the Bangsamoro Land; an area to the south of Mindanao (the second largest island in the Philippines and one of the most important).

The MILF want control of the area returned to the Muslim people.

The MILF was officially formed in 1977 by local Moro Muslims in the area. Since then an estimated 120,000 people have died in the conflict between the MILF and the government. The MILF have kidnapped important government officials and other high-profile targets and have attacked security forces. They’ve also been responsible for bombings of civilians. Guys, could you not just sit down and talk it through?


OK, gimme some context

The Philippines are made up of 7,000 islands, but most of the population only live on 11 of these. When the Spanish conquered the islands in the 1500s they called the locals “moors”. The word literally means “black” in Greek. This later merged into Moro. Nothing like a bit of casual racism to make friends and influence people.

The Philippines were given independence in 1946. However the area’s Spanish history is clear; most of the population are Catholic, apart from small pockets of Moro Muslims in various areas.


Why are we talking about the Moro Islamic Liberation Front?

You mean, apart from having the awesome acronym “MILF”?


MILF - Dinosaur holds up two fingers in the universal "peace" sign

The new deal means peace with the MILF … for now.

Well, The Moro Islamic Liberation Front are in the news this week. They’ve started handing over their weapons after peace talks with the government. In return the government will pay out 25,000 Philippine peso (around £350) to 145 members, designed to give them a chance at a new start in the community. Somehow I can’t see the British government following suit and giving cash to extremists.

In the south of Mindanao island the majority of people are Muslim. Thanks to the deal more powers will be given to them; they’ll be allowed to govern under Islamic Sharia Law. The Philippine government will keep control over foreign policy and the economy.


How long did it take for the deal to be made?

The deal with the MILF has taken around 17 years to succeed. Better late than never, I guess? But not everyone is convinced. The peace deal didn’t go down too well in the Philippine Congress due to a fight in January where many police were killed.
And despite the Moro Islamic Liberation Front having around 10,000 soldiers, only 75 weapons have been handed over. So, it may be a while before we hear the end of the MILF.


What people are saying;

MILF - Moro Islamic Liberation Front twitter reaction

The double meaning of the word MILF was too much for Twitter

What we learned; other countries combating Islamic extremists could possibly learn from the Philippines.

Should governments make deals with extremists like the MILF?

Why is there a Chinese Great Wall of Sand in the middle of the South China Sea?

Umm, I thought China already had a Great Wall?


chinese great wall of sand china south sea, great wall of china

This is the Original Great Wall of China.


Yeah, but this new one isn’t thousands of years old. It was only spotted last month. Lets break it down.

On the left is the Great Wall of China. It was built in 700 BC to defend China’s borders from invaders.




chinese great wall of sand china south sea, ariel view of the great all of sand in the china south sea

Chinese Wall of Sand.

And on the right is the Chinese Great Wall of Sand.

It appeared in 2015 and is there… to defend China’s borders. Well, if it worked before, why not do the same again.

China has been building the “wall” in the South China Sea. Chinese ships pumped sand onto existing coral reefs to build and extend patches of land.


They are then adding concrete and creating airbases out in the middle of the ocean. Oh, and they are also installing weaponry on the islands. Not suspicious at all.


Why the need for a Great Wall of Sand?

chinese great wall of sand china south sea, cat jumps out on other cat hiding under grass

China and surrounding countries set up military bases in the hope of claiming the territory of the Spratly Island Chain. Meowww…CAT FIGHT!

An ocean is a big place; it’s quite difficult to know which bits belong to different countries. After all you can’t exactly just put your flag in the water. Back to the drawing board I suppose.

China claims that the whole of the South China Sea is Chinese Territory. Fair enough, I mean it does have their name in it.

But other countries like Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei (no we hadn’t heard of it either) and Vietnam say some parts are theirs.

chinese great wall of sand china south sea, malcolm in the middle gif golf cart sinking into water

How do you define sea borders without a flag? I have a sinking feeling about this.

All the countries disagree over who owns the Spratly Island Chain. This is a small group of islands in the South China Sea.
So did the countries do the sensible thing and talk it out? Not a chance. Most of the countries involved have built separate military outposts along the Spratly Island Chain to stake their claim.

The islands are hundreds of miles from China. This hasn’t stopped the Chinese marking their territory by pouring tons of sand into the sea and building on existing coral reefs to create military bases. At the moment, these are separate bases.  As the Chinese keep on building people have joked that they are building a second wall of China in the sea.  It’s ambitious, I’ll give them that.



What do other countries think about events in the South China Sea?

China and the USA haven’t been the best of friends recently. The USA is suspicious of China’s military expansion and worries China will evolve into a dangerous superpower. And China dislikes being told what to do by the Yankees.

China and other countries are about to attend the Shangri-La dialogue. This is meeting is for world leaders in the Pacific/Asia area to discuss security and military events. I wonder what they will be talking about?

Chinese Great Wall of Sand Twitter Reaction

Twitter reaction to the Chinese Great Wall of Sand.


What we learned today: China loves walls. Like, seriously loves them.

Is China sensible to protect its borders? Or is there a better way to develop relationships with other countries apart from building sand castles?