July 28, 2018

 A new book combines 30 years of Arctic photography with science

Cryopolitics.com

by Mia Bennett

Earlier this week, I spoke with Christoph Ruhsam, the polar photographer behind the new book, Frozen Latitudesand honorary secretary of the Austrian Society for Polar ResearchFor Ruhsam, who works in the IT industry for a living, traveling to the Arctic has been a lifelong passion. Originally from Austria, he grew up close to the glaciers that for millennia have kept the top of the Alps in a deep freeze. But during his lifetime, he's seen his landlocked homeland's cryosphere shrink to a fraction of his childhood memories.

This early attraction to icy landscapes kept drawing him farther and farther north, taking him to Iceland, Greenland, and even Franz Josef Land, the Russian archipelago first officially discovered by the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition of 1872, which named it after the empire's nineteenth-century ruler. After thirty years of traveling across Arctic landscapes, Ruhsam had taken enough photographs to put together a fine art photography book, published this year by German press Seltmann and Söhne.

Photographer Christoph Ruhsam in his element | Christoph Ruhsam

Over those three decades, he also became increasingly concerned about climate change. His interest in the science driving the Arctic's drastic alterations, and in conveying them to people, is part of what makes this photography book different from other offerings. Frozen Latitudes' final chapter includes charts illustrating the rise in global and alpine mean temperatures and an article by Wolfgang Schöner, a well-respected Austrian glaciologist and one of Ruhsam's mountaineering friends. The book's text is also printed in both German and English, making it accessible to readers on both sides of the North Atlantic Ocean.

The rapid sublimation of Arctic landscapes before our very eyes is one reason why it is becoming ever more cherished even as humanity's collective actions continue to melt the ice caps. While nineteenth- and twentieth-century explorers saw towering icebergs as terrible and fearsome, now they are objects of melancholy beauty, floating vestiges of a more frozen world. The Austro-Hungarian explorers of a century and a half ago, for instance, could hardly have imagined that not far from where they sailed, one day, an Italian pianist would float atop an iceberg playing "Elegy for the Arctic" on a Steinway shipped from Hamburg.

During our conversation, Ruhsam gestured towards the irony of how appreciation for the Arctic is growing as it becomes scarcer, a phenomenon an economist could explain in more transactional terms. "There is a permanent value in pristine landscapes which are becoming less and less," he noted.

Highlights from Frozen Latitudes, out now by Seltmann and Söhne.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Mia Bennett: How did your interest in the Arctic begin?

Christoph Ruhsam: I think it somehow relates to my Nordic-bound interests in general. When I studied to be an electrical communications engineer in the '80s, my wife and I started to look around the northern parts of Europe, and we always reached out further north. Somehow, we were in Iceland, and after Iceland we came right to Greenland. At that time, of course, global warming was not yet such a big topic. But we already knew from various reports that there was something going on, so that was another motivation: to look at what was going on in high northern hemispheres.

On the other hand, I'm an Austrian, and I'm right within the mountain areas of the open range. We'd seen large glacier systems, rather tiny compared to what you see in the Arctic, really disappearing over the last decades, and that also made us aware there was something going on.

Probably the last point on that side is one of our best mountaineering friends, Wolfgang Schöner, became one of the most renowned Austrian glaciologists. So the fuel came from various sides and that simply made us always looking further north. And of course, as a very passionate photographer of landscapes - pure landscapes - that's what my motto is. I always took a lot of photos, some where I thought, well, I think I now have a nice book and should try to find a publisher, which I succeeded in doing.

MB: I spent last autumn working at the University of Vienna, where there is a strong group of polar researchers, and I've met a number of Austrians interested in the Arctic over the years. I even know one young man from Austria who moved to a small village in northern Finland. Given that Austria is both landlocked and quite far from the Arctic, what explains the country's fascination with the north?

CR: I think it's still a very personal relationship that everyone has to establish. But one reason might be that glacier systems aren't very far away. Though they are going higher and higher, still, they're quite visible. As an Austrian, you have a tight relationship with nature, learning skiing at an early age. This gives us a certain emotional connection to wintertime and the Arctic, which, let's say, is considered to be a permanent winter situation, though not that much anymore, especially in summertime. So that might be one driving force for Austrians to be a little bit more attracted to the Arctic than other nations.

MB: You've seen a great deal of the Arctic over a significant period of time - some thirty years. Do you think Arctic landscapes really are pure and pristine?

I think one of my motivations to go always further north was to leave behind the destroyed sites that you can see all over the northern countries further behind me. But looking at your website and the various exploitations that are currently being done in Greenland, it's clear that especially due to the warming of this area, industrial activities have increased over the past decades. So that has an impact, of course, on both sides. On the one hand, it may provide a better living for the Inuit and other Native tribes living up there to probably become less dependent on natural resources. But on the other hand, I think we all know from other similar industrial activities that they probably don't get highly paid, that they are positions requiring little education, and that it gives them another dependency on something that may move away after 10, 20, or 30 years when a certain site has been completely exploited.

On the one hand, it's the pristine landscapes I'm looking for. But as you say, they're definitely changing, and there are sites that are definitely not pristine at all, which is a big pity. I received that in a personal way from a "pure landscapes" perspective, and that's also why my photo book tries to capture the beauty of the High Arctic. There is a permanent value in pristine landscapes which become less and less, and permanent value may be worth more than short-term exploitation that just leaves a big gravel pit behind, or a landscape very much polluted by oil or other chemicals after the industrial site closes down. You can see that very much if you go to the northern part of Russia.

"There is a permanent value in pristine landscapes which become less and less."


I've recently read about your travel to Murmansk. I have seen those destroyed landscapes where you believe you are not on planet Earth, but rather further out in the universe. I think those sites really leave a really destroyed landscape behind, and that is a big ecological disaster for the locals who cannot pick berries anymore or the reindeer herders who have big trouble getting healthy food for their reindeer. So I think that is one of my messages that I want to convey with the book: pristine landscapes have a value that go much higher and further, that go completely beyond short-term exploitation.

MB: There's been a massive proliferation of Arctic photography these days, what with Instagram, social media, and everything else. What sets your book apart from the rest?

CR: It's a pity that the inflation of photos has become really high due to Instagram and all the other social media. My photo book, I think first of all, distinguishes itself from other digital media because it's a printed set of photos, and that will make it really last much longer than anything else you can see on the internet. A photo on Instagram is liked, and tomorrow, it's already gone. So I wanted to attempt the rather permanent value of a book. And secondly, I can show you here [Christoph opened the book to some of its panorama shots, which bleed across two pages], I have used the possibility to print across both sides so we have really nice, large-scale panorama photos. A standard monitor on a digital device is not able to represent wide-scale photos without constantly zooming in and out. I think seeing those very rare panoramic images, which I had stitched together from up to 20-25 single photos on the computer - that, I think, is one other uniqueness of this book.

A photo on Instagram is liked, and tomorrow, it's already gone.


I think it would also be interesting for the audience to know that the book is not only about my photo passion. It's also about insights into the cryosphere. My friend, the glaciologist, Wolfgang, wrote chapter six, called "The Cryosphere," providing scientific background information: what is the cryosphere, what is it composed of, what are the ecological conditions, and also what are the meteorological conditions that make it unique. He then explores the recent temperature and carbon dioxide changes that he measured firsthand, and i think that's a very nice combination. You have pristine landscapes, you get to know first-hand expeditions, stories that are quite ambitious in many respects, and in the end, you get a solid scientific background and information about what the frozen latitudes actually are about. I think makes the book quite comprehensive not only for people interested in photography, but also people wanting to learn a little bit more about what's going on in those northern latitudes.

MB: Your photographs span over 30 years. What are some of the biggest changes you've noticed in the Arctic?

CR: In the early '90s, we were in east and west Greenland on a summer expedition where we crossed certain landscapes, which were to our understanding really pristine. We just followed at that time a rather coarse map from the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, and the glacier systems had been mapped in the 1950s. When we tried to reach one of them, Midgard Glacier, in southeast Greenland, we really thought we would be able to touch the ice and experience the ice walls and vertical cliffs. But when we arrived, which was about 50 years after they were mapped, the glacier had retreated 15 kilometers, so we only spotted it with our binoculars.

"Midgard glacier was gone."


When I wrote the book starting a year ago, I started to look at Google Maps and tried to get a hold of these glaciers, especially in southeastern Greenland. Midgard Glacier was gone. Now, there is no big glacier - just two side glaciers that come down from the inland ice. So if you compare my photos from 1990, within another 15 years, the glacier has retreated another 15 kilometers. It's now physically gone. I think that acceleration, which I saw firsthand, is one of the things I took with me from a non-scientific perspective. That's a clear sign that global warming is upon us, and there is probably not much we are currently doing against it.

The final chapter in Frozen Latitudes discusses the science of Arctic climate change.

MB: In contrast, is there anything you've seen that's stayed the same in the Arctic, perhaps culturally or socially?

CR: I would say that the Natives that we talked to and that traveled with us, they have not really changed a lot. I think those whom we met, some from the western part of Greenland, some from the southeastern part, and some from Ittoqqortoormiit - those people we lived and worked with, they are still trying to a certain degree to use the local resources. They've also experienced a big change in communications. You can easily Skype with the rest of the world. But they're still trying to live in a rather traditional style, in a hybrid combination using modern communications and modern living styles, to a certain degree. There is, on the one hand, a certain attempt by the Greenlandic government to keep expenses low in these remote settlements. but people in these areas are also trying to keep their lifestyles. They have been, I think, really trying to live much more from local traditional hunting and gathering capabilities than those who are moving into the bigger cities and more western-oriented society, which is of course also established.

A dogsledder in Gubbedal, Liverpool Land, Northeast Greenland | Christoph Ruhsam

MB: What was it like traveling to Franz Josef Land, the archipelago off Russia's Arctic coastline?

CR: That was a very unexpected opportunity. I had at that time a personal crisis where I also thought job-wise, "What will I do?" So suddenly, I had the opportunity to take part in an expedition to Franz Josef Land, which was also for an Austrian a very important experience because it is named after one of our last emperors, Kaiser Franz Josef. There were so many islands that were named after places near my hometown. For instance, I live 40 kilometers from Wiener Neustadt, and there was an island called Wiener Neustadt Island. I had known all these names for many decades from various books I'd looked at, and suddenly I had the chance to go there on a small-scale expedition.

This was in 2012, which had the lowest sea ice record ever measured by satellites. We were north of Franz Josef Land right at that time when the when the lowest sea ice levels were reached, and we were in search of sea ice, not just polar bears. We did not intend to go to the North Pole, as we weren't on a nuclear icebreaker. It was a traditionally equipped ice-strengthened vessel. But still, the crew tried to approach the ice edge, and we had to go up to 83°N in order to reach at least some ice patches. That was just 700 kilometers from the North Pole. So we really saw what satellite records at that time measured: that it was lower than ever before, and the ice patches were not very thick. The ice-strengthened vessel could more or less break them easily. That gave another indication that it was not just the area that was reduced at that time by 50% compared to the satellite measurements that started in 1979. It was also the thickness, the volume, which was reduced by 80% compared to the original records from the 1980s. So, this was another firsthand experience that not only big glacial systems are disappearing, but that the complete Arctic Ocean ice cap is becoming thinner and smaller. That, of course, is an accelerating feedback loop which will, I think, give us in the coming years a very fast diminishing ice cap so that nothing really will remain in the next 10-20 years. That's at least what scientists have estimated.

Wiener Neustadt Island from the north, Franz Josef Land | Christoph Ruhsam

So that was a very interesting experience to experience the old Austrian empire in Kaiser Franz Josef Land, and also to see what goes on in exactly those hot spots in terms of global warming, where the average increase in temperature is expected to go up 8°C more than in the past. Globally, we always discuss keeping the increase below 2°C, but that's just a global average that is trying to be reached. In some Arctic areas, the rate will considerably overshoot. Franz Josef Land is one of those areas with a predicted increase of 8°C compared to before. That's something I experienced at that time, and it gave me another idea that global warming is not something we can ignore.

"We were in search of sea ice, not just polar bears."


MB: What do you shoot with?

CR: I'm a Nikon guy. I've always had one of the, let's say, upper-class cameras, DSLR cameras, but I always had to find a compromise between weight and versatility. It means I usually have a big zoom lens with me so that I'm not handicapped by having to unmount lenses because now, I suddenly need a wide angle or zoom lens. Especially under very cold and not very friendly conditions, it's not handy to have all of that, for instance, on a dog sled. So I'm currently using a Nikon D750 with an 18-200mm zoom lens. That's a compromise in terms of weight, size, and versatility.

MB: And so you do all these travels and expeditions to the Arctic in your spare time?

CR: Yes, that's the one thing. I have to pay myself, and I have to reduce the time I spend up there to a couple of weeks every year. I have children and a wife, so I have to balance that all out.

***

Frozen Latitudes is available for purchase at various retailers including the book's official website, Amazon UK, and Amazon.de.

Mia Bennett | July 28, 2018 at 8:09 pm | Ta

July 23, 2018

Belt and Road Initiative increases sovereign debt risks in Tajikistan

https://globalriskinsights.com/2018/07/belt-and-road-initiative-increases-sovereign-debt-risks-in-tajikistan/


   

 by Yueyi Chen , July 23, 2018

At the People’s Bank of China-IMF joint conference in Beijing back in April, IMF head Christine Lagarde warned about potential debt risks for countries involved in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This grand development initiative aimed at dismantling foreign investment barriers and improving international logistics has provided much-needed infrastructure support to its recipient countries. However, the BRI-related project loans may cause a problematic increase in sovereign debt in certain host countries.   

Debt risks posed by BRI-related financing  

As one of the poorest countries in Eurasia, Tajikistan is assessed by the IMF and World Bank to have a “high risk” of debt distress. However, as the “first leg” of overland infrastructure projects of BRI, Tajikistan is still planning to increase its external debt to pay for infrastructure investments in the energy and transportation sectors.

The Tajik government recently issued$500 million in Eurobonds to finance part of the costs of construction of Roghun hydroelectric power plant, an embankment dam in the preliminary stages of construction on the Vakhsh River in south Tajikistan.

The Vahdat-Yovon railway, which will link Tajikistan’s central part with the southern provinces of Khatlon and enhance the overall transportation capacity of the country, was financed by concessional loans provided by the Chinese government.

The construction of Vahdat-Yovon railway was contracted to China Railway Group and the railway went into full operation in 2016. The $72 million project loan was attracted from the Export-Import Bank of China (China Exim Bank) at concessional rates. In addition, a $3 billion portion of the Central Asia-China gas pipeline (Line D) was also reportedly financed through Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI), although there could be pressure for the Tajik government to cover some of the financing costs.

Tajikistan’s debt-to-GDP ratio is rapidly increasing, rising from 33.4% of GDP in 2015 to an expected 56.8% in 2018. Tajikistan’s debt to China, Tajikistan’s single largest creditor, accounts for almost 80 percent of the total increase in its external debt over the 2007-2016 period. If Tajikistan fails to pay back these infrastructure loans, which often entail the use of sovereign guarantees, tensions may arise on the bilateral relationship between two governments.

Why is sovereign debt even riskier?

For rich developed countries, properly managed sovereign debt is actually beneficial to financial development and can also stabilize macroeconomy because it enables the government to increase its budget deficit as the financial system comes under pressure. However, it is not the case in many emerging economies, where lending mechanism and accounting practices are poorly developed. It is hard to know how much debt any government can safely issue beforerisk premiums start rising in a dangerous manner, and regulators are always unable or unwilling to measure risks appropriately.

In addition, private debts can always be powerful leverages because private lenders can negotiate with the borrowers to acquire their physical assets in order to compensate for the failed repayment. However, it is not easy to make such a deal when it comes to sovereign debt, which entails sovereign guarantee and government reputation. For example, to reduce the debt burdens, Sri Lanka announced in last December that it would hand over control of the Hambantota port, which was financed by loans, to a state-owned Chinese enterprise China Merchants Port Holdings. However, this 99-year lease deal with China enraged Sri Lankan government critics, who are complaining that the deal has seriously threatened the nation’s sovereignty and the price being paid for reducing the China debt is even more costly than the debt burden Sri Lanka seeks to reduce.

Problems with the lending mechanism of BRI

One of the major problems with the current lending mechanism of BRI is that China does not report cross-border project financing in a standardized or transparent manner. Chinese Development Bank and China Exim Bank do not disclose the terms of their loans, making it difficult, if not impossible, to accurately assess the present value of the debt owed by a host country to China.

In addition, most of the private financial actors, namely investment banks and commercial banks, shy away from BRI projects due to high political risks. In the case of Tajikistan, security threats on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border and conflicts among different domestic interest groups all created investment barriers for private the sector.

Multilateral loans: a saving grace?

In order to mitigate the concerns about potential debt risks caused by BRI, China has demonstrated a willingness to provide additional credit to protect borrowers from default risks, but a clear policy framework aligned with global standards is still absent.

The participation of multilateral financial institutions, such as AIIB and the World Bank, can contribute to a more sustainable lending mechanism for the BRI projects in that they play a vital role in promoting transparency as well as making financing terms for loans to sovereign governments publicly available. 

Default risks are a huge obstacle for smaller commercial banks to finance BRI projects. However, extending credits for large-scale infrastructure projects in the form of syndicated loans allows commercial banks to jointly raise capital for large sovereign borrowers at reduced costs. This would also bring emerging economies like Tajikistan greater visibility and flexibility in their project financing.

 CATEGORIES: ASIA 

Monsoon Session Begins With a Vote of No Confidence

Analysis by Aman Thakkar , Editor Indialogue

On Friday, June 20th, Prime Minister Modi’s government, led by the National Democratic Alliance, faced a vote of no confidence. The motion was the first to be approved after nearly 15 years, as the motion requires 50 supporters before it can be moved. The motion was movedby Jayadev Galla of the Telegu Desam Party, which withdrew from the alliance earlier this year due to frustrations over their demand that the central government offer the state of Andhra Pradesh “Special Category Status.” However, it was the President of the Indian National Congress, Rahul Gandhi, and his speech that got the most attention from the opposition.

Indeed, the MP from Amethi hit out at the government on a host of issues, ranging from demonetization to job growth to defence acqusition. Indeed, Gandhi’s criticisms on the Rafale deal, which was initially under negotiation under the INC-led UPA government from 2004 to 2014, but was concluded by Prime Minister Modi’s government, led to the government of France issuing an official statement. He culminated his speech when he walked over to Prime Minister Modi’s seat in the Lok Sabha, and gave him a hug.

Prime Minister Modi hit back in the final speech before the vote, criticizing Gandhi for what the PM alleged were untruthful remarks regarding the Rafale deal, as well as responded to opposition’s criticisms on the decision to conduct surgical strikes in Pakistan, on foreign policy, and on economic growth. The final vote was then tallied, and went decisively in favor of the government, with only 126 MPs voting in favor of the motion.

*Bigger Picture: A number of analysts have already begun pointing to this exercise as an indicator of how respective parties will perform in the upcoming 2019 elections. I have a different view for now. While, yes, the exercise does speak to the INC’s ability to organize a coalition and rally the mythical “united opposition” against the BJP, the story here is more about the rhetoric. The speeches by Prime Minister Modi and Rahul Gandhi are quite telling about how they look to engage the voters and each other on the issues. That’s where I’ll be looking over the next few months as the political calculus among the key parties on the periphery of both alliances (the TDP, Shiv Sena, Biju Janata Dal, AIDMK, etc.) shift._

*Aman Thakkar, Editor Indialogue*

World Security Updates


   

Be sure to visit www.justsecurity.org throughout the day for the latest analysis from the Just Security team.  And now with the news:

   

IRAN

“To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE,” President Trump said in message on Twitter last night, the strong language following Trump’s decision in May to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and his administration’s reinstatement of sanctions against Tehran. Joshua Berlinger reports at CNN.

Trump’s tweet appeared to be in response to reported remarks by yesterday Rouhani that “America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.” Jessica Donati reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s remarks come within the context of his administration’s attempts to increase pressure on the Iranian government, including a call to cut Iran’s oil exports. The threat to oil exports led Rouhani to suggest that Iran could disrupt regional oil shipments and on Saturday the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he supported Rouhani’s comments on the matter, Austin Ramzy reporting at the New York Times.

“We will never abandon our revolutionary beliefs … we will resist pressure from enemies … America want nothing less than [to] destroy Iran,” the senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) commander Gholamhossein Gheybparvar was quoted as saying today by the I.S.N.A. news agency, accusing Trump of carrying out “psychological warfare” against Iran. Reuters reports.

Trump’s angry message came shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed a group of Iranian-Americans in California, saying that the Iranian regime “resembles the mafia more than a government” and called Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif the “merely polished front men for the ayatollahs’ international con artistry.” The BBC reports.

“In light of these protests and 40 years of regime tyranny, I have a message for the people of Iran: the United States hears you. The United States supports you. The United States is with you,” Pompeo said in his California speech, also accusing top Iranian leaders of corruption, saying that Ayatollah Khamenei has $95bn in an off-the-books hedge fund. Oliver Laughland and agencies report at the Guardian.

Pompeo branded Iran’s religious leaders as “hypocritical holy men” in his speech yesterday, adding that “sometimes it seems the world has become desensitized to the regime’s authoritarianism at home and its campaigns of violence abroad.” James Reinl reports at Al Jazeera.

The Iranian foreign ministry today condemned Pompeo’s speech as a “clear interference in Iran’s state matters,” Reuters reports.

The escalation in rhetoric comes three weeks before the Trump administration reinstates the first round of banking sanctions against Iran which were suspended under the nuclear deal. Further, and more extensive, sanctions will take effect in November, Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

The Trump administration has launched a campaign of speeches and online communications to erode support for Iran’s leaders, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said the campaign is supported by Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton and is meant to supplement attempts to put economic pressure on Iran. However, the officials said some of the information was exaggerated, incomplete or distorted, Jonathan Landay, Arshad Mohammed, Warren Strobel and John Walcott report at Reuters.

   

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT

The Pentagon has been taken by surprise in the days following President Trump’s one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, with defense officials finding it difficult to explain the statements coming out of Moscow that the two leaders reached agreements involving military issues. Ellen Mitchell and Rebecca Kheel report at the Hill.

“We almost have two governments,” deputy C.I.A. director John McLaughlin told the Aspen Security Forum on Saturday, adding that “we have the president’s brain and thumb, with his tweets. Then we have the professionals in the government.” There is growing amongst officials that the gulf between the president’s and the security services’ approach to Moscow is impeding the U.S.’ efforts to formulate a coherent Russia policy, Michael R. Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers are concerned that Putin may use the Helsinki summit to divide N.A.T.O. allies by claiming secret bilateral deals with the U.S., and Congressional Republicans are urging the White House to out-maneuver the Kremlin by defining what was and wasn’t agreed to. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R.-Tenn.) has admitted that he  has “no idea” what Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov was referring to when he said Wednesday that Trump and Putin had struck “important verbal agreements, ” Alexander Bolton reports at the Hill.

The U.S. rejected a proposal from Russia Friday for a referendum to be held to determine the fate of eastern Ukraine– a proposal that emerged in the days following the Helsinki summit. Washington commented that such a referendum would have no legitimacy given that the area is not under control of the Ukrainian government, Reuters reports.

There is renewed interest in Trump’s tax returns following the Helsinki summit, with the president’s comments during the joint press conference with Putin on Monday leading some lawmakers to hypothesize about the president’s possible financial ties to Russia. Democrats have increased calls for Congress to request Trump’s tax returns from the Treasury Department, with top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Mark Warner (Va.) commenting that “I think we have a cloud that hangs over this whole administration at this moment in time,” Naomi Jagoda reports at the Hill.

“My admittedly awkward response was in no way meant to be disrespectful or criticize the actions of the president,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a statement Saturday, referring to his apparently genuine surprise on Thursday when he learned of the president’s plan to invite Putin to the White House in the fall, Emily Cochrane reports at the New York Times.

Trump is said to be exasperated by Coats, but his dismissal would likely lead to a contentious fight over his replacement as the midterm elections approach, Christopher Cadelago and Matishak report at POLITICO.

“The fact that we have to talk to you about Syria or other matters is very different from issuing an invitation,” House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy commented on “Fox News yesterday. Such invitations, Gowdy claimed, “should be reserved for, I think, our allies.” Eli Okun reports at POLITICO.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Saturday brushed aside calls that he should resign following the Helsinki summit, the appeal coming from a newspaper owned by Huntsman’s own family. Jaqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

Putin’s attacks on U.S.-funded news organizations threaten democracy, and if his threats materialize they should be countered with sanctions, the Washington Post Editorial Board comments.

Putin gifted Trump a soccer ball at the Helsinki summit. An analysis of the significance and implications of the state gift is provided by Vivian Salama at the Wall Street Journal.

An overview of the events of the Helsinki summit and the ensuing fallout is provided by Ishaan Tharoor at the Washington Post.

Following the “moral surrender” of the Helsinki conference, elected Republicans must remember that they have the power to pressure the White House and can do so without derailing a conservative agenda, Charles J. Sykes comments at the New York Times.

Trump and Putin are aiming to forge a new world order, and we must counter their vision by proactively crafting our own, Anne-Marie Slaugher argues at the Financial Times.

Putin may regard the Helsinki summit as a victory, but “Trump’s disastrous performance is likely to lead to unintended consequences that ultimately harm Russia,” Alexander Gabuev explains at Foreign Policy.

   

TRUMP-RUSSIA

“So President Obama knew about Russia before the Election,” Trump stated in a message on Twitter last night, adding “why didn’t he do something about it? Why didn’t he tell our campaign? Because it is all a big hoax, that’s why, and he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win!!!” The message marks another reversal in Trump’s position on Russian interference, Felicia Sonmez reports at the Washington Post.

The weekend disclosure of classified surveillance warrants has kick-started political infighting over whether the Justice Department was justified in monitoring former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, with Trump sending a message on Twitter yesterday claiming that the warrant applications make it appear “more & more likely” that his 2016 presidential campaign was “illegally being spied upon.” Page has denied being an agent of the Russian government, Del Quentin Wilber and Byron Tau report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani did not respond to a request for comment, despite the fact that a White House spokesperson referred questions on why Trump believed the documents proved the F.B.I. and D.O.J. demonstrated illegal conduct to Trump’s personal counsel, Reuters reports.

The newly released surveillance warrants were granted and renewed by a number of judges sitting in a court authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.), the BBC reports.

The surveillance applications and warrants were included within 412 pages of heavily redacted documents made public by the F.B.I. late Saturday.  The documents include the claim that “the F.B.I. believes that the Russian government’s efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with” Trump’s campaign,” and also state that Page “has established relationships with Russian government officials, including Russian intelligence officers,” Oliver Laughland and Martin Pengelly report at the Guardian.

Page yesterday referred to the allegations that he was a Russian agent as “spin,” a “ridiculous smear campaign” and “literally a complete joke,” in comments on CNN’s “State of the Union,” but Page did admit that that he had worked as an informal adviser to the Russian government. Eli Okun reports at POLITICO.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) yesterday described government surveillance of Page as “not at all” justified, making comments on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” and adding that the “the whole F.I.S.A. warrant process needs to be looked at.” Eli Okun reports at POLITICO.

Russian woman Mariia Butina – accused of spying in the U.S. for Russia – used her links to a Russian central bank executive to attend meetings with U.S. government officials, including one session with the vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Stanley Fischer in 2015. Fischer has confirmed Butina’s presence at a meeting in April 2015, which she allegedly attended as an interpreter for her patron and then deputy governor of Russia’s central bank Alexander Torshin, Bob Davis reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Butina also attended a meeting in 2015 with then Treasury undersecretary for international affairs Nathan Sheets, reportedly to discuss U.S.-Russian economic relations during Democratic former President Barack Obama’s administration. The two previously unreported meetings appear to reveal a wider circle of high-powered connections that Butina sought with U.S. political leaders and special interest groups, Reuters reports.

The U.S. and Russia issued contrasting accounts of a call between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov over the weekend, with Russia’s foreign ministry claiming in a statement Saturday that Lavrov had directly raised Butina’s case, appealing that she had been arrested on “fabricated charges” and pointing to “the need for her early release.” The State Department, however, made no mention of Butina in a statement yesterday, claiming that the two discussed “a broad range of issues,” including Syria, counterterrorism, dialogue between US and Russian businesses and “diplomatic access,” the Guardian reports.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has begun a social media campaign calling for Butina’s release, posting a call to action on its Twitter account Thursday, stating that it was mobilizing a digital “flash mob” in her support and urging supporters to change their profile pictures to photos of her. Megan Specia reports at the New York Times.

Butina received financial support from Russian billionaire Konstantin Nikolaev,according to a person familiar with testimony she gave Senate investigators. Nikolaev holds investments in U.S. technology and energy companies, Rosalind S. Helderman reports at the Washington Post.

“I did meet her, a few interactions were pleasant,” South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford (R) told CNN Friday, adding “it’s the girlfriend of a guy I’ve known for 30 years. She seemed nice enough.” John Bowden reports at the Hill.

An in-depth look at Butina’s purported romantic partner and U.S. political activist Paul Erickson is provided at the Wall Street Journal.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s recent federal indictment of Russian intelligence officers lays the foundations for tougher sanctions against Russia,with the administration able to rely on the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, signed into law by Trump last year. A question remains however, as to whether Trump will levy such sanctions, Ian Talley reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Lawyers for Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections want to interview former prostitution tycoon Kristin Davis,who was imprisoned after being tied to former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D). John Bowden reports at the Hill.

The trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, the first to go before a jury in the Mueller investigation, will “create daily reminders of the Mueller investigation, as commentators pile onto cable networks to discuss what the case could indicate about the president’s own exposure,” Darren Samuelsohn and Josh Gerstein write at POLITICO.

It is unclear how long the Mueller investigation might continue for, and while “the indictment could be the high point for his team …it could be simply the crest of one of several coming waves,” Katelyn Polantz comments at CNN.

   

SYRIA

Israel assisted the evacuation of hundreds of rescuers, known as the White Helmets, and their family members from southwest Syria to Jordan yesterday. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained in a statement that “a few days ago President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others approached me with the request to help extract from Syria hundreds of White Helmets,” the AFP reports.

The evacuation was arranged as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces continue their offensive on rebel-held positions in the southwestern provinces of Deraa and Quneitra, making advances with the help of Russian airstrikes. Raja Abdulrahim reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The rescuers and their families will be resettled in Western countries within three months following a temporary stay in Jordan, according to a Jordanian government source. Dan Williams and Suleiman Al-Khalidi reports at Reuters.

Assad’s supporters and Russia have called the White Helmets terrorists and have accused them of being agents of foreign powers, with state media saying that the Israel’s role in the evacuation demonstrated that the White Helmets collaborated with enemy powers. Patrick Wintour and agencies report at the Guardian.

The U.S. State Department welcomed the rescue of “these brave volunteers” and called on the Syrian government and Russia “to abide by their commitments, end the violence, and protect all Syrian civilians, including humanitarians such as the White Helmets, in areas formerly part of the southwest de-escalation zone and throughout Syria.” Sarah El Deeb and Aron Heller report at the AP.

The Syrian government today condemned the evacuation as a “criminal operation” carried out by “Israel and its tools,” Reuters reports.

Pro-Assad forces have continued to advance of Deraa and Quneitra, and more rebel fighters and their families have evacuated the area for the northern rebel-held province of Idlib. Al Jazeera reports.

Israeli jet fighters struck targets in Syria’s western Hama province yesterday,according to reports by Syria’s state S.A.N.A. news agency and the Lebanon-based Al Mayadeen channel. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said the facility targeted was a missile warehouse used by the Assad regime and opposition sources said there was Iranian presence at the site, Jack Khoury reports at Haaretz.

Israel’s “David’s Sling” air defense system was triggered today by fighting within Syrian territory near the border with Israel and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Reuters reports.

Russia sent a proposal to the U.S. to jointly arrange refugee returns to Syria in accordance with agreements reached by Putin and Trump at their summit in the Finnish capital of Helsinki last week, Russian agencies said, quoting Russian defense officials. Reuters reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed joint humanitarian efforts in Syria on Saturday, according to the Kremlin. Reuters reports.

There is debate within the Trump administration regarding the Syria conflict and potential cooperation with Russia, with the head of U.S. Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel saying: “I’ve watched some of the things that Russia has done, it does give me some pause.” Dion Nissenbaum and Michael R. Gordon report at the Wall Street Journal.

In the Syrian capital of Damascus there is hope that the seven-year civil war is almost over in light of gains by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the past year. Bassem Mroue explains at the AP.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 14 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between July 9 and July 15. [Central Command]

   

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A deal between the Palestinian militant Hamas group and Israel was reached Saturday morning to help restore calm following exchanges of fire. However, the fragile ceasefire may have been threatened yesterday by the Israeli military firing toward a group of Palestinians launching incendiary balloons toward Israeli territory, Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Gaza’s essential services are on the verge of shutdown, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Jamie McGoldrick, warned at the weekend, calling on Israel to end restrictions to the import of fuel and urging donor to fund emergency fuel which may run out by early August. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and U.S. special representative Jason Greenblatt appear poised to abandon plans to rebuild Gazaas it suffers a dire humanitarian crisis and economic collapse. Kushner and Greenblatt have made indications about a change in stance in recent opinion pieces and Kushner said yesterday that the militant Palestinian Hamas group “has driven Gaza to a state of desperation” and that “provocations will not be rewarded with aid.” Mark Landler explains at the New York Times.

A Palestinian teenager in the West Bank was fatally shot in the chest by Israeli fire today, according to Palestinian health officials. The Israeli military said its troops were carrying out a raid at the Dheisheh refugee camp and a “violent riot” broke out, the AP reports.

“The Arab Republic of Egypt announces … its rejection of the law passed by the Israeli Knesset [parliament] on the ‘national state for the Jewish people’ law,” the Egyptian foreign ministry said in a statement on Saturday, referring to legislation that was passed Thursday and adding that it “undermines the chance for achieving peace and reaching a just and comprehensive solution for the Palestinian issue.” Reutersreports.

   

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump has been frustrated with the lack of immediate progress since his summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last month, according to accounts from within the administration, despite the fact that the president has publicly hailed the summit in Singapore as a success. John Hudson, Josh Dawsey and Carol D. Leonnig report at the Washington Post.

International sanctions against North Korea must continue until it delivers on its promise to denuclearize, the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday, speaking alongside the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley and after briefing U.N. Security Council envoys. Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.

“Our challenge now, candidly, is to continue to make progress but to make that progress in an environment that is essentially void of trust, and without trust we’ll find it difficult to move forward,” the commander of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula, Gen. Vincent Brooks, said on Friday. Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

A “bold move” from Washington to agree a peace treaty with North Korea is needed for continued negotiations, according to an official with knowledge of Pyongyang’s views on the matter. Will Ripley, Kevin Liptak and Joshua Berlinger report at CNN.

The U.S.-North Korea negotiations have not been going well at all, Christopher Dickey and Donald Kirk write at The Daily Beast, noting the lack of progress on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the return of the remains of U.S. service members killed in the 1950-53 Korean War.

North Korean state media has been harshly critical of Japan and toned down its attacks on the U.S. and South Korea. Eric Talmadge explains at the AP.

   

AFGHANISTAN

A suicide bomber detonated explosives at the exit to Kabul airport yesterday, killing 20 people including nine members of a security detail assigned to Vice President Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and wounding 90 others, according to police and health officials. Dotsum was returning to Afghanistan after a year in exile, and faces criminal charges of rape and kidnapping along with accusations of brutality, human rights abuses and the killing his first wife. Rod Nordland reports at the New York Times.    

Dostum traveled from the airport in armored transport was unharmed in the blast, which has been claimed by the Islamic State group, Al Jazeera reports.

Dostum’s return and safe passage on arrival was given the green light by President Ashraf Ghani, who is hoping to stabilize the north of the country – the site of Dostum’s power base – and secure Uzbek support before next year’s presidential election. AFP reports.

“You are aware that I had health problem,” the General told supporters and political allies at his office in Kabul, who had attended in their hundreds to greet him at the airport.  Dostum claimed that “I visited Turkey where I was under treatment…and had to stay for a year and three months,” Habib Khan Totakhil reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. should honor its offer to talk to the Taliban, with negotiation providing the only way to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan, the Financial Times comments.

   

YEMEN

A suspected U.S. drone strike killed four alleged al-Qaeda militants in Yemen’s central province of Marib, tribal leaders said yesterday. Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

Yemen’s government said yesterday that the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels should release all prisoners before peace negotiations take place. The AP reports.

   

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. Defense Department announced Friday that the Trump administration plans to send an additional $200m defense funds to the Ukrainian government to support “ongoing programs and operational needs” in the conflict with pro-Russian separatists. John Bowden reports at the Hill.

China “would be thinking about starting scenarios when they would be able to take Taiwan over” if it sees the U.S. not supporting Taiwan, the Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said yesterday. Matt Rivers, Steven Jiang and Ben Westcott report at CNN.

“A narrow agreement between elites will not solve the problems plaguing South Sudan,” the White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday, expressing skepticism about prospects for peace. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

Unrest in Iraq has raised fears of instability months after the Iraqi government declared victory over the Islamic State group. Andrew England explains at the Financial Times.

Power in the International Trading System

Evita Schmieg

Trump Administration Risks Destroying World Trade Order

SWP Comment 2018/C 30, July 2018, 4 Pages

The international trading system is in flux. A spiral of protectionism threatens to expose the limits of the WTO’s ability to protect against abuses and prevent trade wars. And the reason for this is astonishing: The US Administration believes that the existing rules – which the Americans themselves played a leading role in writing – disadvantage the United States. Currently the Trump Administration is working hard to dismantle the system.

Download (PDF)

July 22, 2018

P7 – What is Chidambaram really worth?

PGurus.com

A look at how Chidambaram was the Rain Maker for his party. Finance Ministry must have been a hobby.

By

 Sree Iyer

July 16, 2018

A look at how Chidambaram was the Rain Maker for his party. Finance Ministry must have been a hobby.

Parts 1-6 can be accessed here. This is the concluding part.

Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them – thus wrote William Shakespeare.

The erudite evil genius that he is, P Chidambaram (PC) perhaps wanted to come up with his own variation of the above phrase –

Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some will buy greatness at any cost.

I have said this before and will say it again here. It is the burning ambition of every Indian politician to die a Prime Minister (PM), even if for just one day. This is especially difficult for a member of the Congress party, since the eighties – Indira Gandhi placed loyalty above everything else and the fact that some nonGandhis became the PM was more out of serendipity and luck than sheer ability (e. g. P V Narasimha Rao, who practically ran the government under Rajiv Gandhi). But money can move mountains and minds, especially the ones that matter when the question of who shall lead the country crops up.

What is PC really worth?

An excellent question that can perhaps be answered by looking at the utterances of his son Karti Chidambaram, who in a rare moment of candor, revealed that he was worth Rs.6L crores ($100 billion). A copy of the Direct Message that he sent to a Twitter user is shown below in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Karti Chidambaram’s boast

I wanted to try and break down his claimedwealth of Rs.6L crores and see from where he could have amassed it. Figure 2 shows some of the scams in which Mr. Chidambaram and his family are involved in. I am going to do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation to see if the numbers add up to Rs.6,00,000 crores. The investigative agencies can and will be able to drill down the details…

NSE co-location scam

This has been extensively documented in the series on High-Frequency

Figure 2. Money making avenues of P Chidambaram

Trading scam and the amount of money in question is between Rs.50,000 crores to Rs.75,000 crores[1].

Offshore assets

PGurus has a detailed article, listing the various properties that the Chidambaram family has acquired all over the world[2]. The conservative estimate of the value of these works out to be around Rs.20-25,000 crores ($3 – $4 billion).

Kickbacks

ICICI Bank’s loan to Videocon was Rs.40,000 crores ($6 billion)[3]. Several loans from ICICI Bank under Chanda Kochhar have had 10% kickback to her (through her family members)[4].  If the Bank CEO got 10% kickback of a loan that was essentially a farce, imagine how much of a cut the top guy in the Finance Ministry, who ordered it, would get! 25% of the loan amount is a conservative estimate. Now do the math – The amount of Non-Performing Assets (NPA)s in the country is Rs.10L crores. 25% of this works out to a cool Rs.2.5 Lakh crores ($40 billion).

PGurus wrote about the findings of the Department of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) on a huge scam in coal imports from Indonesia, during the period 2008-2010[5]. In a nutshell, it is an instance of the over-invoicing of coal. Even though the ships directly land in India from Indonesia, the bills were routed through fictitious and benami firms in Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai before landing in India. This is just one instance – there are several that happened in the UPA regime.

Benami ownership

Looking at the ownership structures of some of the Private Banks and entities like the National Stock Exchange (NSE), it appears as though Mr. Chidambaram took full advantage of Participatory Notes to hide the real owners in such entities. ICICI Bank has 40% foreign ownership and HDFC 76%. NSE has close to 34% foreign ownership. As ICICI kickbacks to Chanda Kochhar emerged, no class action lawsuits happened in the United States (where ICICI is traded as an American Depository Receipt (ADR)). This is a clue that the real owners of such entities are in fact high net worth individuals from India, who have enough clout to control what the Indian government can and cannot do. Witness how no action was taken against Ms. Kochhar and her family till now… Asking her to go on a leave of absence appears to be a gentle nudge to step aside till the heat cools down.

Much of the action in these entities happened under Mr. Chidambaram’s watch. Looking at the valuations of the above entities and other as yet un-earthed firms, and if Karti Chidambaram is right, that works out to least Rs.2.5L crores invested in such ventures.

Figure 3. Chidambaram’s wealth

In Conclusion…

The estimates above need to be tracked and verified by the investigating agencies – it is not going to be easy because much of it is stashed away abroad and with every visit, Karti Chidambaram is creating new walls of obfuscation by adding more layers[6]. But frankly, the ED and CBI are looking at peanuts when they are trying to go after the Chidambaram family on INX Media and Aircel Maxis scams when there is a wedding feast that is visible to everyone except them.

References:

[1] Anatomy of a crime P2 – The amount of the HFT loot – Sep 25, 2017, PGurus.com

[2] Chidambara Rahasya – Details of huge secret assets & foreign bank accounts of Chidambaram Family – Mar 15, 2017, PGurus.com

[3] Chidambaram knew the ICICI Bank – Videocon Rs.40,000 cr loan and other dubious deals – Apr 4, 2018, PGurus.com

[4] ICICI Bank head Chanda Kochhar and husband on the radar of probe agencies for doubtful loans to debt-ridden Videocon Group?Mar 25, 2018, PGurus.com

[5] Is Arundhati Bhattacharya protecting Coal importers who indulged in over-invoicing? Jul 23, 2016, PGurus.com

[6] How should India proceed to get back billions from Tax Havens – BringBackBillions, Part 8 – Aug 16, 2016, PGurus.com