The World Today for January 29, 2018



Close Encounters

Close encounters and near misses with Russia’s navy and air force have grown common since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in Syria – raising fears of an accidental escalation in what increasingly looks like a modern-day Cold War.

On Christmas Day, Britain’s Royal Navy escorted a Russian warship through the North Sea near UK waters and deployed a helicopter to track other Russian vessels in the area, CBS News reported. Claiming such activities have spiked recently, the head of Britain’s armed forces, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, warned that Russian ships could cut undersea internet cables, “immediately and potentially catastrophically” impacting the economy.

Soon afterward, the US Navy’s guided-missile destroyer Carney sailed into Ukrainian waters Jan. 8 in the third such patrol through the tense Black Sea region since August, Newsweek reported. The Kremlin views such cruises with as much concern as the West views Russian incursions into European waters.

Moscow has repeatedly blasted outsiders for meddling in the Black Sea – an area in which the Kremlin once enjoyed unrivaled dominance, the magazine noted. And its anger over the activities of US ships and aircraft, which have “no business” in the region, according to a decorated Russian general, has resulted in some tense moments.

Within a 72-hour period last summer, for instance, a Russian fighter jet nearly collided with a US plane over the Baltic Sea, Vox noted. And Moscow threatened to shoot down US aircraft flying over parts of Syria west of the Euphrates after the US shot down a Syrian warplane for the first time during the long-running conflict.

There’s little sign of respite in 2018.

This month, Russia accused the US of facilitating a series of drone attacks on Russian bases in Syria, prompting a vigorous denial from the Pentagon, the Associated Press reported. Meanwhile, the commander of the Estonian Defense Forces claimed that Russia’s Zapad, or “West,” military exercise in September was a practice run for a massive military attack against Western Europe, Newsweek said.

And John R. Bolton, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, drew attention to Moscow’s planned expansion of its naval station at Tartus, Syria, and support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Tehran to argue in the Hill that Russia will continue to pose a growing threat.

There’s a flip side to that coin.

Washington and various European nations may see Moscow as an interloper seeking to undermine democracy in Europe and the Middle East. But Russia sees the eastward expansion of NATO and other efforts as an aggressive attempt to shrink its sphere of influence, reported the UK’s Express newspaper, noting that the $4.8 billion European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) will modernize and expand nine military bases in Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Luxembourg.

NATO’s military maneuvers in Eastern Europe “clearly indicate blatant unwillingness of our Western partners to stop pushing an anti-Russian agenda,” Russian news agencies have quoted Moscow’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, as saying.

With both sides carrying ever-bigger sticks, some soft talking will be needed to prevent further escalation – especially if the next calculated “near miss” results in an actual collision.



A Question of Normal

Finland President Sauli Niinisto easily won re-election on Sunday, avoiding a second run-off by securing more than 60 percent of the vote.

Far-right creationist Laura Huhtasaari also declared that the 6 percent vote share earned by her Finns Party was a victory of sorts, saying, “We are going to be the new normal,” the New York Times reported. But the closest rival to Niinisto was Pekka Haavisto, the gay, left-wing candidate from the Green Party.

While Huhtasaari had been more aggressive in her vows to defend Finland, voters backed Niinisto’s more cautious approach of balancing good relations with Moscow and NATO, Reuters noted.

During his first term, Niinisto managed to avoid alienating Moscow, even though Finland backed western economic sanctions against Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

“I have no intention of making changes just for the sake of making changes,” he told reporters after the results were announced.


Same Question, Same Answer

Mexican officials said Sunday the government would deploy federal police troops to round up major criminals in a bid to slow drug-related violence that resulted in more than 25,000 murders last year.

The crackdown is designed “to recover peace and calm for all Mexicans,” Reuters quoted National Security Commissioner Renato Sales as saying.

He did not specify how many federal police would be deployed.

Violence is a major issue in the upcoming presidential election, where President Enrique Pena Nieto’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is trailing in the polls.

At least 25 people were murdered in Mexico over the weekend, including nine men who were executed at a house party in Monterrey.

Notably, some blame Mexico’s military-style crackdowns for the uptick in violence, saying that breaking up big cartels and arresting gang leaders has resulted in “smaller, more blood-thirsty groups.”

Opposition candidates in the presidential race have pledged varying reversals of that approach.


Out of Jail

Saudi Arabia on Saturday released Prince Alwaleed bin Talal from detention, albeit in a luxury suite in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, suggesting that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s supposed crackdown on corruption is coming to a close.

The release of the country’s most famous investor and one of the richest people in the world sent shares in Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding soaring on Sunday, though the stock is still 2.3 percent below its level before Prince Talal was detained, Reuters reported.

Most observers are convinced Prince Talal secured his release by surrendering a large portion of his assets to the government. But not everyone believes that corruption was the true target of Crown Prince Mohammed’s crackdown. Rather, many see the detention of Prince Talal, at least 10 other princes, four ministers and tens of former ministers as Prince Mohammed’s bid to solidify power and neutralize potential threats to his leadership, the New York Times said.


Martian Brew

Not NASA scientists, but a bunch of college kids at Villanova University answered one of the modern era’s most perplexing questions: Yes, beer could be made on Mars.

The astrobiology students were tasked with finding out which crops could survive in harsh, alkaline Martian soil and help feed a hungry colony, the New York Times reported.

Without access to actual Martian dirt, students resorted to using crushed basalt from an ancient volcano in the Mojave, which closely matches NASA’s analysis of the real stuff – and can be bought online.

Using various other methods to further replicate Martian conditions, students were able to sustain plants such as soybeans, kale and potatoes.

Naturally, “because they’re students,” one group of interstellar farmers also chose to grow hops, the plant that gives beer its bite, said Edward Guinan, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Villanova, who teaches the course.

Marijuana was also up for consideration but was ultimately nixed by Guinan.

Given the success of this experiment and similar ones in the Netherlands, Villanova students are currently looking into doing follow-up tests with other crops like barley, the other key ingredient for a tall glass of Martian brew.


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