August 17, 2016

NEED TO KNOW

Terror Bogey

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s negotiating style bears some similarity to the old American cliché “Shoot first and ask questions later.”

That’s why observers are cocking their eyebrows at Moscow’s claims to have foiled a series of Ukrainian attacks in Crimea last week.

On one hand, such incidents, whether real or imagined, could well be the pretext for a fresh invasion. On the other, they set the stage for a my-way-or-the-highway approach to talks on the status of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions at the G-20 summit in China next month – which Putin has already termed “pointless.”

It’s a signature Putin strategy to extort concessions even before coming to the negotiating table. But that doesn’t make it any less worrying — because he’s proven capable of following through on the unthinkable in the past.

Last Wednesday, Russia’s spy agency claimed to have stopped a terrorist attack on the Crimean border. Minutes later, Putin accused the pro-Western government in Kiev of choosing terror over peace. The next day, he announced war games in the Black Sea.

Whether intended as preparation for an actual invasion or to create the impression that one is imminent, Russia has also reportedly mobilized its troops in Crimea since the alleged terror plot.

Reuters quoted the Ukrainian ambassador to the UN as saying that Moscow had amassed more than 40,000 troops in the region, while a spokesman for the Ukrainian border guards said he had observed an uptick in Russian military activity in northern Crimea.

There are several theories about Putin’s end game.

Short of preparing for an actual invasion – which cannot be ruled out – Putin may use the threat of such an attack to demand changes to the format and terms of the ongoing talks on Donetsk and Luhansk.

It might also be a campaign strategy in the lead-up to elections in September, where the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party may face a tougher battle than usual due to economic problems related to low oil prices and sanctions.

Or it could be a gambit to influence the U.S. elections, where Republican candidate Donald Trump has called for better ties with Moscow so often as to be accused of being a Russian stooge by a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

If Russia is prepping for an invasion, it’s likely to be a limited one, geared toward establishing a security corridor that would protect electricity and water supplies to Crimea. But it’s possible that a larger-scale operation to establish a land corridor connecting Donetsk and Luhansk with Crimea is under consideration, according to The Guardian. That would mean over-running the port city of Mariupol and advancing along the coast.

On the other hand, if the maneuver is mere political extortion, there are already signs Putin may be getting what he wants – as German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Monday that Germany is suggesting ways to ease tensions in talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

WANT TO KNOW

Open-Ended Conclusions

Australia will close a controversial detention center for asylum seekers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, said the country’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill early Wednesday.

The governments of Papua New Guinea and Australia are looking into options for how to proceed with the facility, said O’Neill. The Manus Regional Processing Center – which currently houses 854 men – would not be closed immediately as these plans take shape.

Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled in April that detaining asylum seekers and refugees at the Manus Regional Processing Center was unconstitutional.

Currently, asylum seekers, including genuine refugees, who arrive in Australia are sent by the Australian government by boat to offshore detention centers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific island nation of Nauru.

Australian officials said in a statement that none of the asylum seekers on Manus Island would be settled in Australia as part of the deal.

In return for housing this center and resettling genuine refugees, Australia gave Papua New Guinea over $300 million in aid in 2013.

Himalayan Disputes

At least five civilians have been shot dead and 15 more wounded as government forces in Indian-controlled Kashmir clashed with anti-India protesters.

Government troops fired live rounds of ammunition and teargas to break up a crowd of protesters in Aripanthan village, to the northwest of the main city of Srinagar, killing four.

Thousands of Kashmiris from neighboring villages then poured into the town’s streets as news of the killings circulated, with large crowds continuing to chant anti-India slogans at the civilians’ funeral Tuesday.

A fifth civilian was killed in the southern Anantnag area of Kashmir as more demonstrations broke out against a government-imposed curfew across the region.

Tensions have been running high in the contested Himalayan region since Indian forces killed a popular rebel leader nearly six weeks ago. The cumulative death toll from the ensuing round of protests – the largest Kashmir has seen in years – has now reached 64, with thousands more injured.

Intensifying Cooperation

Russian warplanes were allowed to depart from Iranian territory to bomb targets in Syria on Tuesday.

It’s an unprecedented move, say analysts. Iran rarely, if ever, allows foreign powers to use its bases for attacks, while Russia has never used the territory of a Middle Eastern country for its recent aerial campaign in Syria.

Russian long-range bombers took off Tuesday morning from an airstrip near the Iranian city of Hamedan, 175 miles southwest of the capital of Teheran, to strike targets in three provinces in northern and eastern Syria before returning to Russia, said Russian authorities.

The development highlights the deepening cooperation between two powers who are already heavily invested in the Syrian conflict and bolsters Russia’s presence in the region, say analysts.

“Russia’s use of an Iranian base represents a turning point in Russia’s relations in the Middle East,” Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics, told the New York Times. “It sends a powerful message to the United States and regional powers that Russia is here to stay.”

Russia’s increased presence also lends support to President Bashar al-Assad as the UN attempts to start yet another round of peace talks in the coming weeks.

DISCOVERIES

Old Bones, New Findings

Mount Lykaion figured prominently in the legends of Ancient Greece and Rome: It was the site where Lycaon, one of the first Greeks, was turned into a wolf after he tried to trick Zeus by feeding him a sacrifice tainted with human flesh.

And the fire pit altar at the mountain’s peak saw human sacrifices to Zeus as well as livestock offerings, according to ancient writers.

Archaeologists have long debated the veracity of these tales, but evidence found during an excavation on the altar of Mount Lykaion may support ancient Greeks’ claims: a 3,000-year-old skeleton of a young man was recently discovered in the peak’s ashes.

The results have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, so these findings may still be debunked.

But certain features of the boy’s remains – such as the skeleton’s lack of a complete skull – are “very suspicious,” and an indication that a ritual of sorts led to his demise, Ioannis Mylonopoulos, an archeology professor at Columbia University, told the Washington Post.

As for the other vexing question as to why the young man’s remains were buried at the sacrificial spot as opposed to a cemetery, Mylonopoulos said it’s possible “the deceased was buried within the ash altar as a form of honor.”