Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Putin uses tough tactics against protest challenge

Police showed up on Ksenia Sobchak's doorstep at 8 a.m. in the middle of a sleepy long weekend and started a search.

Russian opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov arrives for questioning at the Federal Investigation Commission building in Moscow June 13, 2012. REUTERS-Sergei Karpukhin

They spent hours in her apartment on Monday, going through the belongings of the 30-year-old TV personality, socialite and restaurateur before she had a chance to get properly dressed, Sobchak recounted to a Moscow radio station on Wednesday.
Before they left, they served a summons for Sobchak to report to investigators the next day for questioning over violence at an opposition rally on the eve of President Vladimir Putin's May 7 inauguration - a protest she did not attend.
The search was part of an arsenal of tactics that have drawn chilling comparisons with Soviet-era treatment of dissenters considered "enemies of the state", and have Russians wondering how far the former KGB officer will go to quash threats to his authority in a six-year term he has hinted may not be his last.
"Putin has not invented anything new - a great deal of what he is doing comes from the Soviet era," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a rights defender who began her career monitoring show trials at the start of the Soviet dissident movement in the 1960s.
"He would probably like to use exclusively Soviet methods, but that's impossible in the 21st century," said Alexeyeva, 84.
Putin's critics say he is doing his best to follow tradition.
"I never thought we would return to such repression in this country," Sobchak, whose late father, a mayor of St. Petersburg, gave Putin a start in politics two decades ago and was one of the liberal politicians credited with advancing democracy in Russia after the 1991 Soviet collapse.
She said investigators forced her to read intimate letters out loud and "didn't even let me get dressed for some time" after she was roused from sleep and answered the door.
"They would not let me go to the bathroom alone," Sobchak said on Ekho Moskvy radio. "There was not even a woman there, I had to do this in front of man in a mask with machinegun."
Police and investigators also searched the homes of opposition leaders Alexei Navalny, Sergei Udaltsov and Ilya Yashin on Monday, rifling through refrigerators and children's rooms and leaving with boxes of belongings from family photographs to computer drives.
The searches were followed by hours of questioning on Tuesday that kept some of the best-known opposition leaders away from the biggest protest since Putin's inauguration for his third term in office.
Tens of thousands marched through Moscow chanting "Russia without Putin", defying a law Putin signed on Friday establishing fines, in some cases thousands of dollars, for participants in demonstrations at which order is violated.
Access to websites of at least three media outlets that are platforms for criticism of Putin, including one that was broadcasting the protest live, was blocked or disrupted on Tuesday by hacker attacks.
The Ekho Moskvy site was inaccessible during the interview with Sobchak, in which she said she had refused to answer all 56 questions posed by investigators a 5-1/2-hour session.
"We will see how far this absurdity is carried," said Sobchak. She has been summoned for more questioning on Friday, signaling no let-up in pressure that has clearly left her shaken.
"I am a fighter, but suddenly I sat down and my hands were shaking yesterday because there is a feeling of helplessness," she said of the search. "These people are walking around your apartment, doing as they like."

Russian anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny waves to the media as he arrives for further questioning at the Federal Investigation Commission building in Moscow June 13, 2012. REUTERS-Sergei Karpukhin

Navalny's office was searched after he was questioned on Tuesday and he was questioned again on Wednesday, as was Udaltsov, who had ignored the initial summons and attended the rally on Tuesday.

The apartment of Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy premier who called at the protest for peaceful efforts to "rid the country of this usurper who wants to rob us and rule for life", was searched later the same day.
Putin, 59, remains popular among millions of Russians who credit him with establishing stability and improving living standards during an oil boom that coincided with his initial two-term presidency in 2000-2008.
He won a March election easily but returned to the presidency with his authority dented by big protests reflecting anger over evidence of fraud in a December parliamentary vote and dismay among Russians tired of his rule.
Police largely left those protests alone but began to crack down after Putin's election, beating protesters at the rally on May 6 - in clashes police and protesters blame on one another - and briefly detaining hundreds in subsequent weeks.
Sobchak and the others are being treated as witnesses in the investigation into the violence at that rally, but the pressure carries an implicit threat they could face charges punishable by prison terms, like 12 detainees in the case.
For many Russians, the searches and questioning of political foes, real or perceived, carries echoes of the era of Soviet police tactics that often targeted prominent people but cast a pall of fear over the whole country.
A Twitter hashtag that translates as #hello1937 - a reference to one of the deadliest years of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's purges and repression - was used frequently on Monday as Russians learned of the apartment searches.

Mikhail Gorbachev, whose liberalization policies as the last Soviet president in the 1980s ended in the collapse of communism, said increasing fines for protest violations was "a mistake" by Putin, whom he had urged not to seek re-election.
"It needs to be corrected as soon as possible. It would be best if the president himself does this," Gorbachev, 81, told Reuters.
Putin's tough tactics will also add tension to ties with the United States and the European Union, already strained by deep differences over the conflict in Syria, Putin's anti-Western campaign rhetoric and other issues.
The U.S. State Department said on Monday it was "deeply concerned about the apparent harassment of Russian political opposition figures" and said the searches, summonses and law increasing fines "raise serious questions about the arbitrary use of law enforcement to stifle free speech and free assembly".
Putin is unlikely to make changes in the law, but he showed flexibility in his approach to protests on Tuesday. Police mounted a light presence at the march and rally, which was held with permission from the authorities. No one was detained.
But critics say the law is just one method used to keep people off the streets.
A 22-year-old student at the rally, who gave her name only as Darya, said most of the people she knew who went to the first big opposition protest in December stayed home on Tuesday because they had seen others lose jobs or face problems at university.
"I think these searches are an attempt to fabricate criminal cases against leaders of street demonstrations, because it is clear that street protests alarm the Kremlin very much," said veteran dissident Alexeyeva.
Gennady Gudkov, an opposition lawmaker, said the pressure tactics and the protest law, which Putin signed despite warnings it was unconstitutional, indicate influential hawks have gained the upper hand in an internal struggle over Putin's policies.
"It shows that the Kremlin hardliners who say we will not negotiate with protesters or hold dialogue with society have won out," said Gudkov, a KGB veteran who is among leaders of the protest movement.

Like many opponents of Putin, Gudkov said the tough tactics were bound to backfire, radicalizing people and bringing more out into the streets: "In the absence of real dialogue between the authorities and their opponents," he said, "The situation is moving toward civil war."
Alexeyeva said such a violent outcome is far off because most Russians, steeped in memories of the bloody upheavals that wracked their country repeatedly in the 20th century, share Putin's fear of revolution: "No one wants blood," she said.
But protests could turn violent "if the authorities use forceful methods too actively", she said, and warned that the only way Putin could head off the challenge to his authority was through compromise.
"I'm not a fortune-teller and I can't predict how it will all play out," she said. "But I do know that society has awoken and there is no way to stop it except by giving the people the changes they are demanding."

Vladimir Putin Gets Tough on Russia’s Paris Hilton

Ksenia Sobchak, a TV personality often portrayed as Russia's Paris Hilton, had a rocky start as a leader of the country's opposition movement. At one point, demonstrators tried to boo her off a stage.
Now, President Vladimir Putin's ham-handed effort to punish protesters is making her a star.

On June 11, the day before a major opposition march, cops unexpectedly showed up at the door of Sobchak's Moscow apartment with a search warrant -- part of a crackdown on opposition activists that also brought police to the homes of corruption fighter Alexei Navalny and left-wing radical Sergei Udaltsov. They took her computer and mobile phone. They also opened a strongbox and confiscated the contents, which, according to police, included more than 1 million euros packed in envelopes. As a result, one of Russia's top entertainers had to borrow from a make-up assistant to fuel up her car.
The searches, allegedly part of an investigation into violence at a demonstration that preceded Putin's bizarre May 7 inauguration, are just the latest in a series of hard-line measures that are angering Muscovites and reviving the opposition movement.
On June 5, the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, passed a bill imposing a fine of 300,000 rubles ($9,000) for organizing a rally, or any gathering, without the authorities' prior approval. The minimum fine for merely taking part in such a gathering was raised from 300 to 20,000 rubles ($600). The approval by parliament, dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, came despite a denunciation from Putin's own Council for Human Rights, which argued that the exorbitant fines would restrict Russians' freedom of assembly, and despite the vociferous protests of some legislators.
“The State Duma has never seen a bigger disgrace,” said deputy Sergei Ivanov, of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party. “This shows the United Russia party's protest phobia. Your bravado is built on the expectation that police and workers from the Urals will protect you, but they won't.”
Putin hastily signed the bill on June 8, just ahead of a major opposition rally planned for June 12 in Moscow. The unusual speed of the bill's passage into law prompted a storm of commentary in the blogosphere, with thousands reposting a cartoon portraying a mischievous Putin shouting: “I signed it in time!"
The authorities "do not respect us and they are not even trying to pretend they do. Should we just take it and wipe the spit off our faces?” wrote Echo Moscow radio commentator Anton Orekh, calling on Muscovites to attend the rally.
Monday's apartment searches added insult to injury. Although several people have already been arrested for fighting with riot police at the pre-inauguration demonstration, investigators are after bigger fish. As they searched the apartments of Sobchak, Navalny and Udaltsov, police confiscated all electronic equipment, “even CDs with pictures of my kids,” Navalny tweeted. The anti-corruption activist also had to give up a T-shirt proclaiming United Russia to be “a party of crooks and thieves.”
In Sobchak's case, officers initially suspected the cash-filled envelopes to be some kind of slush fund to finance people's participation in the protests. A better explanation soon presented itself: Sobchak is often called on to emcee lavish corporate parties and award ceremonies, and each envelope contained a fee for one event. “My annual income is more than $2 million,” Sobchak tweeted. “Don't I have the right to keep money at home if I do not trust the banks?” Investigators are now checking into Sobchak's tax status.

The irony of Sobchak's situation is that her father, then St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, gave Putin his first government job back in the early 1990s, putting him in charge of the city's foreign economic ties. Putin remained loyal to the elder Sobchak until his death in 2000. Now the respected statesman's 30-year-old daughter is an unlikely celebrity of the opposition camp. “It's time she realized: Opposition figures will be grabbed even for crossing the street in the wrong place,” journalist Sergei Dorenko wrote in his microblog. “It's time to learn how to be a saint.”
Bloggers started comparing the surprise searches – somewhat hyperbolically – to Josef Stalin's reprisals of 1937. Even normally sober people who had not planned on attending the march now wanted to take part. “I'll have to go,” economics professor Konstantin Sonin wrote in his blog. “This is not 1937, of course, but some kind of twilight zone like 1990-1991, when the authorities' hysterical harshness one day was followed by total paralysis the next day.”
It remains to be seen whether the current standoff between Putin and the opposition can indeed be compared to the last months of the Soviet Union. The June 12 march was a success, culminating in a rally and concert that flooded a central Moscow avenue with about 50,000 protesters. But it was roughly comparable to another Russian march held later that day: About 30,000 fans walked to the central stadium in Warsaw to watch Russia play Poland in a Euro-2012 soccer match. Polish police had to use water cannons to stop fighting between the fans and hardcore local nationalists.
In Warsaw, the sides played to a 1:1 draw, much like Putin and Moscow's protesters have done in the latest round of their epic battle.

Syria firestorm proving too fierce for Annan's cooling touch

Scarred by his failure to stop Rwanda's genocide nearly two decades ago, Kofi Annan faces another bloody debacle on his watch as his mediation efforts founder in Syria.

Steeped in a culture of seeking consensus even when it looks unlikely, the soft-spoken former U.N. secretary-general is again at the point where his diplomatic efforts are being overtaken by mass killings rather than being seen as a step to peace.
Although as mediator for the United Nations and the Arab League he has sounded the alarm in Syria with as much moral force as anyone could muster, Annan has failed to get divided world powers or President Bashar al-Assad to stop the bloodshed.
His qualifications as a star statesman who could make mediation work in Syria - if anyone could - were strengthened by his success in halting a spiraling conflict in Kenya four years ago. But Syria is proving a far tougher task.
"He's driven by the idea of 'don't think no', always looking for the best outcome," Fred Eckhard, who worked as Annan's spokesman during his time as secretary-general, told Reuters. "We'll just see if that's enough."
In little over a week since Annan called on Assad to take "bold steps" to make his peace plan work, loyalist forces have been accused of more massacres, opposition strongholds have been shelled and U.N. monitors have been shot at.
With sectarian violence worsening, Annan could do little this week but express concern and demand access for U.N. monitors to investigate killings.
On Tuesday, his spokesman said Annan hoped to convene a meeting of an international contact group on Syria soon, but no venue or list of participants had yet been set.
Asked late last month what had to happen before his peace plan was declared dead, Annan said only the U.N. Security Council could decide.
"When you are dealing with these sorts of issues, it is not a simple issue of drawing up red lines," he said.

Annan, 74, was shaped by an upbringing in an ethnically divided culture in his native Ghana, but one where dialogue was prized and outright conflict rare. It was a time of optimism and confidence as Ghana headed for independence from Britain.
"He was born and bred in an environment of looking for compromise," said economist Kwame Pianim, a childhood friend.
That seemed to work after Kenya's 2007 presidential election, when rival candidates from different tribes claimed victory and some of their followers engaged in ethnic massacres, killing more than 1,200 people.

With the country seeming headed towards the brink of civil war, Annan put the two candidates in a room and announced: "There is only one Kenya". He helped persuade one of the rivals to accept the post of prime minister in a joint government. The violence ended and his role was praised.
"He is a very skilful negotiator. We came to see that he was offering us the best possible that was available," said Salim Lone, from the Kenyan opposition camp that had felt cheated of victory. "The alternative was the continuation of mass killings," said Lone, himself a former U.N. official.
But earlier in his career, Annan's record was less successful. He was head of U.N. peacekeeping in 1994, when he acknowledges he should have done more to help prevent the slaughter of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Critics say he chose the route of procedure and diplomacy instead.
"He becomes quite wedded to the processes, but ultimately you don't serve the processes by following the processes to the point of absurdity," said David Bosco of American University in Washington.
The greatest reproach was that Annan failed to act on a telegram from the then U.N. peacekeeper commander, General Romeo Dallaire, urging a move against arms caches being built up by Hutu extremists as they prepared mass murder.
"I believed at that time that I was doing my best," Annan said years later. "But I realized after the genocide that there was more that I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support."
In a later book that was scathing about the world's failure to act, Dallaire had only good things to say of Annan the man - describing him as projecting a rare "humanism and dedication to the plight of others".
Rwanda was far from the only stain. Annan was at the top of peacekeeping at the time of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, where insufficient U.N. forces again failed to stop the killing, and during a fiasco in Somalia that preceded Rwanda.
Annan's defenders say he tried to get enough troops and the big power support to make a difference in Bosnia and Rwanda. Critics argue that he was held back by respect for the limits he had learned in decades as a U.N. functionary.
Annan's later decade as secretary-general was tarnished by allegations of mismanagement of the oil-for-food program for Iraq. Although Annan was cleared of wrongdoing, his son Kojo was found to have used U.N. contacts to his improper advantage.
Even his mediation in Kenya, while mainly seen as a success for helping to halt violence, is not unchallenged. Some believe his compromise papered over a flawed election too elegantly, allowing the possible loser to keep power and failing to do enough to prevent potential future conflict.
"The Kofi Annan peace architecture was sloppy in the extreme," said Mutahi Ngunyi of The Consulting House thinktank, which gave security advice to negotiators. "His role helped only to the extent that he calmed the temperatures."
Crucially, in Kenya Annan had the advantages of the backing of regional leaders and of Security Council powers with no particular axe to grind.
Syria is very different: Western countries are pushing for an ending that leads to the departure of Assad. Russia and China still appear ready to veto such steps in the Security Council.
"Without the political backing of governments and the right governments in the right configuration you can't do anything," said Eckhard.
Annan, who annoyed the United States by branding the 2003 invasion of Iraq illegal, had the credentials to get a foot in the door in Damascus as more than a Western stooge.
But critics say his determination to keep up the consensus seeking diplomacy is more likely to fuel than quell an increasingly sectarian conflict as Syrian forces step up efforts to crush opponents who are themselves launching more attacks.

"I think he's fallen victim to the curse of the mediator, that all other options are inferior," Bosco said.
"He has gone out of his way to attempt to discredit other options and I think that's a mistake," Bosco said, while pointing out the lack of apparent appetite for options such as armed intervention.
Last month's massacre at Houla of 108 people, mostly women and children, showed the advantage of having U.N. observers on the ground to at least bear witness despite Annan's failed April 12 ceasefire. The U.N. monitors said they suspected army shelling and pro-Assad militia were behind the Houla killings.
But those deaths and the many since then - including nearly 80 people reported massacred in another village - have also demonstrated the impotence of the monitors, who have struggled to even get access to sites of suspected slaughter.
Annan described Houla as a tipping point for the conflict. That could also apply to any chance of negotiating an end to it.
"Does he see a way out? Maybe not. But I don't think that would have stopped him," Eckhard said.

At a Turkish Border City, War in Syria Smothers Business

Before the uprising against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, and the ensuing carnage, an estimated 600 to 700 carloads of shoppers used to cross the border each weekend to Antakya, the ancient city of Antioch, in the Hatay Province of south-central Turkey, to buy fashions and housewares.

No longer. Sales at the city’s covered market are down about 10 percent by some merchant’s estimates. The situation is far worse for stores in the Halep Bazaar sector of the market, which catered mostly to Syrians. (Halep is the Turkish name for Aleppo, the city in Syria.) The lack of Syrian shoppers has reduced their trade to a trickle.
Ali Karasu stood downcast inside his bedding shop late last month, having given up nearly all hope of selling what he advertises as dowry furnishings. His business, he said, has been affected “100 percent” by the strife in Syria.
Waving at boxed sets of ruffled deep purple and crimson bedspreads, Mr. Karasu said he was living off his savings and had stopped restocking his shelves.
“I used to have 50 or even 100 Syrian people coming here every weekend to buy my blankets,” he said. “Now there’s not even one.”
Next door, at Naim Burc Ticaret, its shelves jammed with sheets, towels and fabric by the meter, Huseyin Burc, the manager, said his business had fallen 50 percent or 60 percent in the past year. He said many of the businesses that depended on the Syrians were about to collapse, and that he was depleting his savings in order to not lay off any of his four workers.
In addition to the financial toll, shopkeepers are battling a psychological burden.
“Every day, these horrors are in my mind,” Mr. Burc said. “I know that over there someone is being tortured or losing their legs, or a family member. It’s always weighing on my mind. In this market everybody has at least distant relatives there.”
He is also worried that the sectarian violence in Syria might spread to Turkey. “We have no arguments here now between the different groups. Everybody gets along,” he said. “But that was true in Syria, too, for a long time.”
Other sectors are also being affected by the strife, according to Ergun Beserikli, assistant general secretary for the Antakya Chamber of Commerce.
Leading businesses in the region included agriculture, transportation logistics, tourism and the manufacture of furniture and shoes, he said, along with cultural tourism as travelers from Europe and the United States came to see early Christian religious sites like the church of St. Peter, carved into a mountainside above the city.
The farmers of Hatay Province sent cotton, flour, olive oil, fruit and vegetables to customers in neighboring Middle East countries, the province’s biggest export market, he said.
But exports fell last year to $97 million in 2011 from $118 million in 2010, as the eastern border closed. 

“After the Syrian problem started, both sides lost,” said Mr. Beserikli. “While we imported tea, sugar and eggs from Syria, we exported souvenirs, textiles and shoes to Syria. Now that has all stopped.”
“Before, people would drive over every day to buy from us,” he added. “They used our airport as a stopover from the Middle East to Istanbul, and spent money here. We built new shopping malls, including one set to open in 2013. This was our plan for the future. But now, who will come?”
Business leaders in Antakya have asked the central government in Ankara for help. Mr. Beserikli said that the chamber’s president and the board of directors went to Ankara three months ago to talk to ministers in the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to try to find a solution.
Asked if there had been any progress, Mr. Beserikli said he preferred not to comment. He noted, however, that the central government does offer an incentive program for investors in the region.
While that may be too little, too late for the merchants of the Halep Bazaar, many of them say they do not blame the thousands of Syrian refugees who are crowding into border camps that are financed by Turkey.
Nurettin Binicioglu, who runs a scarf and clothing store near the Halep Bazaar, tries to keep his own business losses in perspective.
“I’m very worried about what is happening to the people over there,” he said, his voice rising with frustration. “It’s more important than our business. When you see them coming over wounded, or dead, our hospitals full of the wounded, the problems the women and children in the refugee camps have, alone and struggling to care for the children. It’s heartbreaking.”
Mr. Binicioglu, whose grandparents were from Syria, said he was housing some of his other Syrian relatives at his mother’s home in a nearby town. “If they go back, they might be killed,” he said. “Even if they wanted to go, I wouldn’t let them. It’s safer here.”
“When you visit the refugee camps, you see people in pain and it kills you,” he added. “You see the kids always crying, unable to forget the frightening things they saw. There are people being killed or wounded every day. Some day it could happen to us.”
He then echoed the sentiments of several merchants at the Halep Bazaar, urging NATO and the United Nations to intervene quickly.
“This is an international crisis. It’s not just about Turkey,” he said.
“The West intervened in Iraq, so why don’t they do anything in Syria? They have the power, but they do nothing. We have to insist they find an answer to help the people in Syria. And please, hurry up.”

Syria seeks big barley imports, unlikely to succeed

Syria wants to import 600,000 tonnes of barley after violence prevented the local crop from coming to market, an article on the Ministry of Agriculture's website said, while traders said its chances of success in obtaining the supplies looked slim.!Reuters/RTXOE2K.jpg/RTXOE2K.jpg

Several trade sources have told Reuters in recent weeks that Syria is frozen out of international grain markets due to the impact of western sanctions on trade finance.
The state-run General Organisation for Fodder has been unable to procure any quantities of local barley due to the situation on the ground in Syria, an unidentified source was quoted as saying in an article on the ministry's website on Wednesday.
The U.N. peacekeeping chief said on Tuesday the 15-month uprising taking place in Syria had grown into a full-scale civil war.
"This situation has driven the General Organization for Fodder to speed up the process of securing contracts for the import of 600,000 tonnes of barley," the article, which was originally published in the official Al-Baath newspaper, said.
The article did not give any details about the import deals. Agriculture Ministry officials could not be reached for further comment.
Grain trade sources were sceptical whether Syria has the ability to shop successfully for such large quantities.
"They do not have the mechanisms of payment, and there are growing issues with discharging at Syrian ports, so it's really not feasible for them to be able to buy as much as 600,000 tonnes," one European-based grain trade source said.
"The most they are able to bring in is small consignments, which is not enough."
The United Nations is struggling to deliver humanitarian aid to an estimated 1 million people in Syria because of visa delays and the difficulty in reaching areas ravaged by fighting.
Unable to finance the big international grain purchases it has been used to, Syria has engaged in a desperate search for grain that has forced Damascus into an array of unusually small deals, many arranged by middlemen around the Middle East and Asia.
The amounts agreed have been nowhere near meeting Syria's reliance on imports for about half of its annual needs of 7 million to 8 million tonnes of grain, a situation that threatens to sap domestic support for Bashar al-Assad as he faces mounting international condemnation and domestic defiance of his rule.

The main barley-producing areas of Syria are Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Idlib, all areas where fighting has been heavy.
Another grain trader said Syria in recent days had been in talks to buy 400,000 tonnes of barley in a series of purchases from small unknown middlemen.
"None of the big trade houses want to do deals with Syria at the moment, and it is not known if this has gone through," the source said.
"The impression is that these private middlemen are not experienced and do not know about how the grain trade works."
A Syrian state-run agency failed to make a purchase in a tender last month for 150,000 tonnes of feed barley, while European traders said it was difficult to undertake a formal tender in a time of sanctions.
A reluctance among foreign banks, shipowners and grain traders to sell to import-dependent Syria - even though food is not itself subject to sanctions - has translated into a struggle for the country to meet its grain import needs.
Syria is expected to produce 800,000 tonnes of barley this year of which 112,000 tonnes will be in Hama, the article said. (Reporting By Maha El Dahan and Jonathan Saul; editing by Veronica Brown and Jane Baird)

Putin Hits the "Re-Reset" Button With Syria

Last week, Russian President Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel during his victory tour of Europe that Russia is not supplying arms to Syria that "...could be used in a civil conflict."
Chalk one more falsehood up to Mr. Putin.

How clever by half is this Kremlin! As it runs a veritable conveyor belt of helicopter gunships, artillery, tanks, and anything else one can find in the Russian arms bazaar into Assad's hands, the Russian leadership feigns support for a UN diplomatic effort to negotiate some sort of ceasefire in Syria. Based on global reaction and inaction, we are all the suckers for it.
Although not in the same league, the arms shipments denial smacks of Nikita Khrushchev denying Russia was sending nuclear missiles to Cuba when the evidence was so blatantly false for the world to see.

If only the Arabs were marching in their streets like their Russian counterparts against Putin perhaps that would get the Kremlin's attention and cause Putin to ask how much damage he is doing to himself throughout the Middle East by pouring gasoline onto the Syrian inferno.
I'd better catch myself. The Kremlin does not care one iota.
Just what is driving Putin to play his two-faced game with the other members of the UN Security Council and clutch the Assad dynasty for dear life?
First, Russia has staked out a strategic geopolitical interest in Assad's longevity. Moreover, Putin apparently takes a certain crude satisfaction in defying the west on Syria and seemingly revels in the growing criticism of Russian intransigence on behalf of its Assad puppets. Harkening back to the bad old days of the Cold War, Putin considers Syria part of Russia's Middle East "sphere of influence," which includes Iran, and Russia considers the growing influence of Sunni-stoked Muslim "Brotherhooditis" as a potential danger to the soft underbelly of Russia's already volatile Caucus region. An uninterrupted rule of the Assad clique fits neatly into Putin's grand foreign policy designs. In the Kremlin's calculation, it stands to gain far more by siding with the more Russian-friendly Shiites in Syria and Iran, than with the Sunnis who form the extremist Islamic groups challenging Russia's control of its southern reaches in the Caucuses (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia) and Central Asia. Russia, by the way, has no need for their oil, either.
Second, Russia's growing Mediterranean fleet is now conveniently anchored in the deep, warm-water Syrian port of Tartus, which has become the home for Russia's Mediterranean fleet. The Russian's have reconstituted in Tartus the once-famous Soviet era Fifth Squadron, led by its main aircraft carrier admiral Kuznetsov, and supported by the nuclear-powered battle cruiser Peter the Great, and a flotilla of support ships and attack submarines.
Third, apparently the Kremlin must be starved for arms revenue. Its largest state arms export company, Rosoboronexport, has annually shipped over $700 million worth of arms to Assad, representing 78% of Syria's arms imports, accounting for 7% of Russia's annual arms revenue, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). According to Russian media source the daily Kommersant, Damascus and Moscow recently concluded a contract for 36 Yak 130 light attack aircraft for a contract price of $550 million, which also includes the helicopter gunships which Secretary Clinton yesterday criticized Russia for dispatching to Syria in recent days. And just last Saturday as the fighting in Syria was intensifying, Arab media outlet Al Arabiya reported that a Russian cargo ship, despite Russian efforts to conceal its cargo and identity, was seen offloading a large amount of weapons at the port of Tartus.
All of Putin's bold defiance on behalf of the Assad regime is another wake-up call for this administration that the then-and-again President Putin is determined to "re-reset" U.S.-Russian relations, and face down anyone who stands in the way of Russia reasserting its position as a counter to U.S. influence in the Middle East. Putin will cooperate with us when it is convenient for Russia. But make no mistake about it, with his re-election as president, the U.S. will have to navigate a full-fledged realignment of Putin's more assertive foreign policy in our bilateral relations, whether in the Middle East, or on arms control, or over a potential nuclear showdown with Iran.
So what can be done by the Obama administration to turn the Russian arms faucet off to salvage any hope to prevent Syria from becoming the 21st century Middle East version of a 1936 Spanish civil war?

Unfortunately, short of a naval and air quarantine around Syria, very little.

But other than hurling criticism of Russia's chicanery, why hasn't the Obama administration tabled a resolution before the UN Security Council demanding that all countries cease sending arms shipments into Syria? Dare the Russians to veto it, and when it does, get other countries to blacklist the Russian arms exporting company, Rosoboronexport. Where are the U.S. and European banking and finance sanctions against Rosoboronexport and the Syrian banks that enable the cash and carry arms deliveries?
As I have often written on this site, the Obama administration is engaged in a Syrian policy best designated (this week being the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in) as a "limited modified hangout" where the Chicago campaign headquarters, rather than the National Security Council, seem to be in control for what passes as U.S. Syrian policy. Since when does a presidential campaign apparatus trump America's national security interests? What are we waiting for? For Syria to completely explode like a nuclear bomb with fallout across the entire Middle East, and then for us to ask how could we have been so blind to the consequences of our inaction?
Stopping Russian arms shipments are only part of a broader problem. There is a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria -- compounded by an ineffective UN Blue Helmet force that has been paralyzed by the diplomatic ineptness of Kofi Annan and the relentlessness of Assad and his Russian benefactors. The massacres committed by Gestapo-like Assad goon squads are masking, if that is at all possible, the more dire humanitarian mayhem throughout the country. Aid is not getting through to the civilians caught in the cross-hairs of Assad's security forces. How many more thousands of Syrians will perish in what seems to be an abdication of moral duty and responsibility by western and Arab nations who can't even come up with a concerted plan to provide basic aid to the innocent Syrian women and children who are pawns in this fight to the death.

Romney starts ad wave; GOP PAC gets more cash

A deep-pocketed casino mogul is pouring a $10 million infusion of cash into a group backing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's cause just as the Romney campaign makes its largest ad buy since becoming the all-but-certain GOP challenger to President Barack Obama.

Billionaire Sheldon Adelson made the $10 million contribution to Restore Our Future, an independent group running ads that support Romney's campaign, according to two people with knowledge of the situation. They spoke on condition of anonymity Wednesday because they were not authorized to discuss Adelson's plans publicly
At the same time, Romney's campaign is spending $3.3 million to run television ads this week in seven general election battleground states. The ads began running Wednesday and will continue through the week in Colorado, Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia, according to officials who track ad purchases. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Romney campaign has not announced the advertising plan.
While Romney's team has run ads outlining what a Romney administration would do in its first days in office, his campaign largely left televised attacks to Restore Our Future and to Crossroads GPS, a conservative-leaning group tied to former President George W. Bush's longtime political director Karl Rove. Both groups have been running negative ads against Obama in battleground states for several weeks.
Restore Our Future is staffed by former Romney advisers. The group has spent at least $46 million on ads backing the former Massachusetts governor during the Republican primary and since he emerged as Obama's presumptive challenger.
A pair of 2010 court rulings significantly eased campaign spending rules, allowing corporations and wealthy individuals to contribute heavily to super PACs and other independent groups. Such groups raise and spend money freely on advertising but are legally prohibited from coordinating with the campaigns they support.
So far, the vast majority of independent groups have supported Republican candidates. Priorities USA Action, formed by former Obama White House staffers to promote Obama's re-election effort, has struggled to raise money and keep pace with its GOP-leaning counterparts.
Adelson and his family contributed $21 million to a super PAC promoting Newt Gingrich during the Republican nominating contest. Gingrich suspended his campaign last month and endorsed Romney.
Since then, Adelson has told associates he would continue contributing to Republican causes but would consider giving only to groups with nonprofit arms that are not required to disclose their donors. Restore Our Future runs such a nonprofit in addition to a super PAC that is required to disclose its donors. It was not immediately clear whether Adelson's contribution went to the super PAC or the nonprofit.

Adelson and his wife, Miriam, are among the most generous super PAC donors this election cycle, the first in which billionaires have a green light to give unlimited sums of cash to groups that support their favored candidates. They're among a handful of wealthy Republican donors, including Texans Harold Simmons and Bob Perry.
The Romney campaign ad buy was first reported by CNN. The Adelson contribution to Restore Our Future was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.