Russia's Putin congratulates Obama on reelection

PutinMOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a congratulatory telegram to President Obama on what he termed “an ever so weighty victory gained with such a wide margin.”

“I know not from hearsay how exhaustive and intense the election campaign may be,” the Russian leader said in the telegram published on the Kremlin website Wednesday.

Putin stressed the results achieved in Russian-U.S. relations in recent years and expressed his hopes for continued joint constructive work. Cooperation is crucial for “stable and safe development in the world,” he wrote. Putin wished Obama further success and extended an invitation to visit Russia next year.

In his Twitter post, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote  “Congratulations,” addressing it to Obama.

Earlier in the day Medvedev, on a visit to Vietnam, hailed the results of the U.S. presidential poll, saying that he is “glad that the president of a very big and very influential country won’t be the man who considers Russia enemy No. 1,” the Interfax news agency reported. Medvedev was alluding to remarks by GOP candidate Mitt Romney, who called Russia the “No. 1 geopolitical foe” of the U.S.

“Obama is easy to understand and a predictable partner,” Medvedev said at his news conference in Hanoi. “Whether we like America or not, every Russian family depends on how the [U.S.] dollar is doing.”

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Moscow rally praises nationalism, denounces Putin and minorities

Russia's Day of National Unity
MOSCOW –- On Russia’s annual Day of National Unity holiday, more than 5,000 young nationalistic protesters took to the streets of the nation’s capital, denouncing President Vladimir Putin and demanding his ouster.

Brandishing imperial Russian black, yellow and white flags, and wearing Cossack uniforms including black boots, hoods and masks, they marched peacefully for four miles along the embankment of the Moscow River on a gray afternoon before rallying in front of Gorky Park.

In contrast to many previous liberal opposition rallies, the march was allowed by the Moscow government and police stood aside, ignoring the crowd’s numerous chants that were filled with ethnic hatred. Police didn’t display clubs and shields and didn’t provoke demonstrators the way they had done at numerous past rallies.

Yet the attitude of the authorities failed to prevent the crowd from also chanting that Putin was “an enemy whose place is in prison” for ignoring the interests of the Russian nation and allowing migrants to work and live in Russia. One demonstrator near the front of the march carried a poster that read: “Putin is better than Hitler?”

In recent years, the Kremlin has continued to court Russian nationalists despite a significant transformation in their agenda, said Andrei Piontkovsky, a senior researcher of the System Analysis Institute, a Moscow-based think tank.

“Putin’s idea of suiting Russian nationalism with his ongoing effort to restore the might of the Russian empire and to advance beyond the Caucasus and even claiming break-away republics of Georgia no longer plays well with this new breed of Russian nationalists,” Piontkovsky said in an interview. “They don’t want to expand Russia, they don’t want to hear about its greater Eurasian status -- Putin’s favorite game. They want to get rid of the troublesome North Caucasus and its inhabitants they refuse to acknowledge as Russian citizens.”

Piontkovsky noted that the Kremlin had miscalculated in being soft with the right-wing nationalists in hopes of using them to its advantage against the liberal opposition.

The nationalists have instead sided with Putin’s sworn enemies as five of their leaders entered the recently formed Coordinating Council uniting opposition forces from the extreme left to the extreme right.

It is not clear how and when the liberals would part company with the nationalists, Piontkovsky said, but for the time being they are ready to work together against the Kremlin -- a point the Sunday rally in downtown Moscow proved quite clearly.

Alexander Belov, a leader of Russkiye, a nationalist movement, called for unity with liberals in his speech at the rally.

“He who sits in the Kremlin is an enemy!” he shouted as the crowd went on chanting the last word. “We shouldn’t shun and not cooperate with other opposition forces because only together we can get rid of Putin.”

“He will be drinking the blood of our people until we throw him out,” Belov shouted to massive applause.

The rest of the speeches and slogans included racist and xenophobic sentiments, including anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic statements.

As the crowd was chanting “No mosques on the Russian soil!” a bystander asked one demonstrator where Russian Muslims should go to pray.

“They should go back home and pray there,” was the blunt response of nationalist activist Dmitry Maslennikov, 28.

“But if they are Russian citizens what should they do?” insisted the bystander.

“They should be sorry,” Maslennikov replied to cut the discussion. “I know one thing: Jews, Muslims, masons and the government are our enemies!”


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Photo: Russian nationalists march in downtown Moscow. Credit: Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times

Deadly Syrian stalemate spurs new diplomacy, little hope

Syrian rebel amid rubble of recent battle near Aleppo
Galvanized by a Syrian death toll that has doubled to 36,000 in little more than a month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for a new rebel hierarchy to direct the fighting against President Bashar Assad and steer Syria back to peaceful ethnic and religious coexistence.

GlobalFocusThe latest proposal for halting Syria's 19-month-old civil war brings little new strategy to the crisis. Rather, it vents frustration with the international community’s own "divisions, dysfunctionality and powerlessness," as the International Crisis Group recently noted, that have prevented brokering an end to the bloodshed.

Like European leaders before her, Clinton acknowledged this week that the West’s reliance on out-of-touch exiles within the Paris-based Syrian National Council has done more harm than good in the effort to have opposition forces speak with one voice on their plans for a post-Assad future.

Clinton told reporters accompanying her on a trip to North Africa and the Balkans on Wednesday that the Obama administration will be suggesting names and organizations it believes should play prominent roles in a reconfigured rebel alliance that Western diplomats hope to see emerge from Arab League-sponsored talks next week in the Qatari capital, Doha.

But the U.S. push to get the opposition’s act together also exudes desperation. In the two months since a failed rebel campaign to take strategic ground around major cities, fighting has ground down to a bloody impasse, giving neither Assad nor his opponents hope of imminent victory on the battlefields.

The rebels’ summer offensive also exposed the widening role of Islamic extremists who have entered the fight, bringing arms and combat experience to the side of Assad’s fractured opponents. But the Islamic militants’ alignment with Syrians trying to topple Assad also gives weight to the regime’s claims to be fighting off terrorists, not domestic political foes.

Clinton reiterated the West’s insistence that Assad have no role in Syria’s future. That prompted immediate pushback by Russia and China, which have opposed what they call foreign interference in Syrian domestic affairs.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Paris for talks with his French counterpart when Clinton announced the Obama administration’s latest initiative. A longtime ally and arms supplier to Syria, Russia has blocked three United Nations Security Council resolutions to censure Assad and, along with China, has rejected Western demands that the Syrian president resign and leave the country.

"If the position of our partners remains the departure of this leader who they do not like, the bloodbath will continue," Lavrov warned.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi registered Beijing’s objections by unveiling a "four-point plan" for bringing peace to Syria that reiterates the communist state’s position that the future of Syria be left for Syrians -- including Assad -- to decide.

Beijing has a solid history of blocking international intervention on human rights grounds, apparently fearing China could become a target of such actions because of its harsh treatment of dissent and political opponents.

For some Middle East experts, the solution to Syria’s crisis lies somewhere between the Russian-Chinese "hands-off" policy and the U.S.-led Western view that only regime change will bring about peace.

"This conflict is for Syrians and their neighbors to resolve, with European and Russian involvement. The U.S. should stay one removed," said Ed Husain, senior fellow in Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He described Clinton’s appeal for a new rebel leadership structure as "laudable, but a year too late."

"She’s driven by a desire to want to help now, but also to ensure a smooth transition in a post-Assad Syria. Sadly, reality on the ground dictates otherwise,” Husain said, alluding to entrenched battles that portend a long standoff.

Growing fears that extremists are gaining clout with the rebels also complicates diplomacy, as Syria’s Shiite, Christian, Kurdish and other minority sects are wary of how they would fare under a Sunni-dominated government allied with fundamentalist jihadis.

Clinton emphasized that extremist forces should be excluded from any new opposition forum that might emerge from Doha.

"It may seem ironic to call for a broad tent and then say 'except for those guys.' But I think the administration and other countries concerned about the future of Syria know that one of the challenges will be to have an analysis of who is who in the opposition,” said Charles Ries, a career U.S. diplomat now heading Rand Corp.’s Center for Middle East Public Policy.

Ries sees the need for "more movement on the ground in Syria" before Assad or the rebels are ready to submit to negotiations on the country’s future.

He is hesitant to declare the civil war a stalemate or the Russian-Chinese position unchangeable in the long run. But with rebels pinned down in the urban areas they hold and warding off attacks by Assad’s superior armed forces, he said, no one seems to think Assad is in the kind of imminent danger of being ousted that would be the catalyst for negotiation and compromise.


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Photo: A Syrian rebel fighter last month defends territory near Aleppo, one of many urban battlegrounds the opponents of President Bashar Assad are now struggling to hold. Credit: Zac Baillie / AFP/Getty Images

Russian lawmakers vote to expand definition of treason, espionage

The upper house of Russia’s parliament voted to broaden the definition of espionage and high treason, continuing what many activists view as a crackdown on dissent in the countryMOSCOW -- The upper house of Russia's parliament voted Wednesday to broaden the definition of espionage and high treason, continuing what many activists view as a crackdown on dissent in the country.

The legislation, which will become law if signed by President Vladimir Putin, expands the definition of espionage and high treason to encompass "the rendering of financial, material-technical or other assistance to a foreign state, international or other organization or their representatives in the activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation."

The bill was approved by 138 of the 139 lawmakers present in the Federal Council, the parliament's upper house.

The legislation, which was submitted by the Federal Security Service, the successor of the Soviet KGB, offers officials wide room for interpretation and could undercut the development of democracy in Russia, warned Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Council of Civic Society and Human Rights.

"If approached literally, the bill creates totally unlimited possibilities of finding high treason in any action," Fedotov said in an interview Wednesday. "If a passerby asks me in a Moscow street for directions to the Kremlin and duly gets them from me and later turns out to be a member of an organization working against our national security, I will automatically become a person guilty of high treason."

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Russian demonstrators mark unofficial Political Prisoners' Day

Russia Political Prisoners' Day
MOSCOW -- Teacher Svetlana Nikitina could hardly imagine while studying Russian literature that she would eventually mark Political Prisoners’ Day with a protest against what she considers the growing repression in Russia.

But Tuesday, Nikitina was among hundreds of demonstrators gathered in icy downtown Moscow to recognize the unofficial holiday conceived by inmates of Soviet prisons and labor camps in the 1970s, at the height of leader Leonid Brezhnev's stifling political and economic policies.

“For me it was important today not to stay at home and not to keep silent but come here and show solidarity with those who suffer for standing by universal humanitarian values,” Nikitina, 24, said in an interview.

Demonstrators held photographs of numerous detainees considered to be prisoners of conscience. They included former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two opposition activists arrested this month on charges of plotting to organize mass disturbances.

Thirteen others are in custody awaiting trial on charges of assailing the police in the clashes that ensued from a protest rally May 6,  the eve of Vladimir Putin’s presidential inauguration.

Opposition activists and rights advocates say the charges are false and, together with a number of recently adopted laws, symbolize the Kremlin’s desire to crack down on the opposition. Government officials say they are trying to prevent violence and the disruption of law and order.

Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said the Tuesday rally was an important opportunity to criticize the Putin government. The turnout was impressive, especially on such a nasty night, he said.

“It is not anywhere close to Hurricane Sandy, but it also means something when [people cope with] the sludge under their feet under this icy shower falling on their heads to say they want Putin out,” he said as the crowd chanted “For free Russia!” and “Putin on trial!”

Among the protesters Tuesday was Ksenia Kosenko, the older sister of Mikhail Kosenko, a 37-year-old protester in custody since May 8 on charges of clashing with the police during the May 6 rally.

She said her brother’s trial would begin soon and that prosecutors want to prove that Kosenko, who has a record of  mental illness after suffering a trauma during his army days, is “a dangerous lunatic.”

“My brother is quiet and peaceful, and I am afraid our mental institutions haven’t changed much since the Soviet days,” she said.

Opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov was among those who addressed the crowd. He was charged last week with plotting to organize mass disturbances and was allowed to remain free on a pledge not to leave town, though two associates were taken into custody on the same charges.

“The investigators thus want to manipulate my friends they are holding in prison and pit them against me, or else they want me to make some irrational move like try to flee from the country,” Udaltsov said in an interview before he addressed the crowd.

Udaltsov’s associate Leonid Razvozzhayev told a group of rights activists visiting him in a Moscow prison last week that he had been kidnapped in Ukraine before being taken to Russia and psychologically tortured for two days by masked men, and that he issued a confession dictated to him by his captors.

Nikitina said the demonstration Tuesday showed that many Russians were willing to continue pressing the government for greater political freedom.

“I have no illusions about our ability to change anything by coming here and I don’t believe things will change for the better the next day,” she said. “But I don’t want my students to grow up in a climate where they can be arrested for not keeping silent about things they disagree with.”


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Photo: A protester in Moscow displays a photo of jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky during a rally in support of political prisoners. Credit: Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times


U.S. gas bonanza from fracking slow to spread globally


In less than a generation, the United States has soared to world leadership in extracting natural gas from shale formations by hydraulic fracturing. But as the world debates whether “fracking” is an economic boon or a budding environmental disaster, few foreign countries are following the U.S. lead.

GlobalFocusConditions unique to the United States have encouraged investment in the abundant source of low-carbon energy and boosted prospects for reducing dependence on costly and unpredictable supplies of foreign oil. Of the natural gas consumed in the United States last year, 94% came from domestic production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“The availability of large quantities of shale gas should enable the United States to consume a predominantly domestic supply of gas for many years and produce more natural gas than it consumes,” the agency reports, predicting a 29% increase in output by 2035, almost all of it from shale fracking.

The rapid advance toward self-sufficiency has made the U.S. industry both a model and a cautionary tale for other countries pondering all-in development of their shale-gas reserves.

Significant deposits of natural gas trapped in coal and shale seams have been identified in Eastern and Western Europe, Canada, Australia, China, South Africa and the cone of South America. Global energy giants like Shell and Chevron are bankrolling billions in exploration, sizing up the cost-effectiveness of replicating the U.S. boom in more remote locales with little infrastructure.

Technological advances in horizontal drilling have made it feasible to tap small pockets of gas trapped in shale layers a mile or more below the surface. Contractors bore thousands of feet down through soil, rock and water layers, then drill laterally through the shale to create a horizontal well. When sand, water and chemicals are blasted into the bore holes, the force fractures the shale, releasing gas from fissures within the sedimentary rock. The gas is captured and ferried by pipeline to distribution grids or to port facilities where it can be converted to liquefied natural gas for overseas shipment.

But the process leaves behind tons of chemical-contaminated mud. There are also reports of drinking water pollution from the chemicals and methane gas that escapes into underground reservoirs. A study last year published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documented “systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale gas extraction” in the aquifers above the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in the U.S. Northeast.  This spring, the U.S. Geological Survey reported “a remarkable increase” in the occurrence of earthquakes of magnitude 3 or larger that it tied to fracking operations.

This month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office acknowledged that the Environmental Protection Agency was finding it “challenging” to inspect and enforce clean air and clean water regulations in the fast-moving fracking industry. For example, the GAO report noted, the EPA is often unable to evaluate alleged water contamination because investigators lack information about the water quality before the fracking occurred.

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Cuban missile crisis myth constrains today's diplomatic standoffs

Kennedys and Khrushchevs
This post has been corrected.

Fifty years after the superpowers were poised to annihilate each other over nuclear missiles sent to Cuba, the myth prevails that President Kennedy forced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to back down by threatening to unleash nuclear war.

It took three decades after October 1962, when the world hovered on the brink of a cataclysm, before  documents were declassified that disclosed the back-channel diplomacy and compromise that led to peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis. But even today, hard-liners cling to the narrative that taking a tough, inflexible stance with adversaries is the path to diplomatic triumph.

GlobalFocusThat misguided interpretation hampers diplomacy today, say veterans of the perilous Cold War standoff and the historians who study it. The notion that threatening military action can force an opponent's surrender has created dangerously unrealistic expectations, they say, in high-stakes conflicts like the U.S.-led challenge of Iran's purported quest to build nuclear weapons.

Kennedy didn't stare down Khrushchev with vows to bomb Cuban missile sites, although that was the tactic pushed by his military advisors, recently revealed history of the crisis shows. The president sent his brother, then-Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, to secretly negotiate with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. In the strictest of confidence, RFK offered withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey and a promise not to invade vulnerable Cuba in exchange for the Kremlin pulling out the nuclear arms it had deployed to Fidel Castro's island.

"The secrecy that accompanied the resolution of the most dangerous crisis in foreign policy history has distorted the whole process of conflict resolution and diplomacy," said Peter Kornbluh, Cuba analyst for the National Security Archive at George Washington University. "The takeaway from the crisis was that might makes right and that you can force your opponents to back down with a strong, forceful stance."

Documents released sporadically over the last 20 years show that the crisis was resolved through compromise, not coercion, said Kornbluh, who has spent decades pushing for declassification of U.S.-Cuba history documents related to the crisis. Some 2,700 pages from RFK's private papers were released by the National Archives and Kennedy Library just last week.

R. Nicholas Burns, a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service now teaching diplomacy at Harvard's Kennedy School, sees applications for the Iran dispute from the real story of the missile crisis resolution.

The fundamental breakthrough in the confrontation occurred "because Kennedy finally decided, against the wishes of most of his advisors, that rather than risk nuclear war he was going to make a compromise with Khrushchev," Burns said. He pointed to the confidential offer to remove U.S. Jupiter missiles from Europe, a turning point still "not well understood -- people think Khrushchev backed down."

In the real world, Burns said, "it is exceedingly rare that we get everything we want in an international discussion. To get something of value, you have to give up something."

Burns sees the outlines of a negotiated agreement with Iran that would prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon, a plan he believes would be acceptable to Democrats and Republicans once the presidential election is over and the campaign rhetoric that rejects compromise dies down. In exchange for Iran's submitting its nuclear facilities to regular international inspections, Burns said, U.S. and other Western leaders could recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium to the levels needed in civilian arenas, such as energy production and medicine.

Lessons learned in the U.S.-led wars against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan also argue for exhausting every diplomatic option before engaging in armed conflict, Burns said.

"Sometimes it's necessary to use military force -- I'm not a pacifist," said the retired diplomat, who was an undersecretary of State for political affairs under President George W. Bush. "But more often than not, you have to put your faith in diplomacy. We have the time and space to negotiate with Iran."

Differentiating between national interests and those of allies is an even more important lesson gleaned from the missile crisis, said Robert Pastor, an American University professor of international relations and former National Security Council official in the Carter administration.

"Fidel Castro actually urged Khrushchev to attack the United States because he felt American imperialism would try to destroy both Cuba and the socialist world," said Pastor, who credits Khrushchev with wisely rejecting Castro's adventurism in favor of peace. Pastor sees a similar danger of Israel provoking war with Iran, confronting Washington with the need to decide between trying to restrain Israel or fighting a new Middle East war.

Sergei N. Khrushchev, the late premier's son who is now a U.S. citizen and international affairs analyst at Brown University, has been campaigning for a correction of the Cuban missile history at anniversary events this week.

"Khrushchev didn’t like Kennedy any more than President Obama likes [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad," he said in an interview. "But he realized you have to speak to them anyway if you want to resolve problems. We say we will never negotiate with our enemies, only with our friends. But that's not negotiating, that's having a party."

For the record, 8:35 a.m. Oct. 17: This post originally said the RFK papers made public this week were posted on the nongovernmental National Security Archive website. They were released by the National Archives and Kennedy Library.


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Photo: Caroline Kennedy, daughter of late President John F. Kennedy, shows her mother's original copy of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to Sergei Khrushchev, son of late Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, next to a photograph of their fathers at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston at a commemoration Sunday of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. Credit: Michael Dwyer / Associated Press


Putin allies keep hold on power in local Russian elections

In local and regional elections marked by low voter turnout and fresh allegations of polling fraud, Russian leader Vladimir Putin's United Russia party claimed a landslide victory
MOSCOW -- In local and regional elections marked by low voter turnout and fresh allegations of polling fraud, Russian leader Vladimir Putin's United Russia party claimed a landslide victory on Sunday.

Putin's allies preserved their seats in all five of the regional governor’s jobs up for a vote. And United Russia won most of the 4,848 local legislative seats and referendums up for a vote in 77 regions, according to preliminary returns.

Some observers called the results a political comeback for the Kremlin party after a poor showing in the national parliamentary election held last December, when it won less than 50% of the vote amid widespread accusations of massive electoral manipulation.

Putin thanked voters on Monday. "For me, the results of the vote are not unexpected," he said in televised remarks. "I think it one more step confirming the voters' intent to support the current authorities and the development of the Russian statehood."

Pro-Kremlin analysts also hailed the returns as a powerful retort to the results in last year's election, which brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets in a movement that shook Russia until the summer.

"United Russia has taken its more-than-convincing revenge," Dmitry Orlov, director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communications, a Moscow-based think tank, said in an interview.

Independent observers noted, however, a record low turnout of 13% to 20% in various contests and cited numerous reports of large-scale electoral manipulations.

Grigory Melkonyants, a deputy chief of Golos, a human rights group monitoring Russian elections termed Sunday's vote a Pyrrhic victory for the ruling party.

"Instead of laughing their heads off with joy, United Russia should be crying their eyes out with such a ridiculous turnout, because now it is not clear who these governors and parliaments really represent, as the population en masse stayed at home and ignored the elections," Melkonyants said in an interview. "In some elections, opposition candidates and parties were prevented from getting on the ballot list during the registration process, whereas in those regions where opposition forces were represented on the ballot, the authorities once again used manipulations like multiple votes by one person."

Liberal opposition candidates won an insignificant presence in the legislatures of the cities of Barnaul in eastern Siberia and Kaliningrad in the West, Melkonyants said.

"The opposition candidates are good as protest heroes, but the public can't imagine them as efficient managers," pro-Kremlin analyst Orlov said.


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Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, listens to Central Electoral Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov during a meeting Monday just outside Moscow. Credit: Alexei Nikolsky / Ria-Novosti / AFP/Getty Images

Russian rights activist has fighting words over Peace Prize choice


MOSCOW — In Russia many perceived the decision as strange and curious to say the least.

Veteran human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for the fourth time, called the Nobel committee’s selection Friday of the European Union “absurd.”

“It is a prize that in my opinion goes nowhere,” Gannushkina, a board member of the human rights Memorial society, said in an interview. “Who gets the prize: the nations of the European Union or the bureaucratic structure that manages it?”

“And after all, European states haven’t been all that peaceful in recent years,” she said. “They fought in Yugoslavia, Iraq and they are still fighting in Afghanistan, something I can’t approve of at all.”

Gannushkina complained that the Memorial society, which was on the short list of Peace Prize nominees, is undergoing a very difficult period, because funding for its North Caucasus program has been cut as a result of the expulsion from Russia of its main donor, USAID.

“If the Peace Prize were awarded to the Memorial it could make the Kremlin have another thing coming before completely shutting us down, which is quite possible now,” Gannushkina said. According to the new legislation, the Memorial and other human rights groups operating in Russia that are sponsored from abroad have to officially declare themselves “foreign agents” or face the prospects of being closed. 


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Photo: Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina in Moscow on Oct. 4. On Friday she called the decision to award the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union "absurd." Credit: Natalia Kolesnivova / AFP/Getty Images  

U.S., allies girding for worst-case scenario with Syria's WMD

Chemical weapons response training site in Jordan
During a week that witnessed deadly artillery exchanges between Syria and Turkey and a tense showdown over a plane purportedly ferrying munitions from Russia, the arrival of 150 U.S. troops in Jordan was likely to be viewed as token support for an ally coping with a refugee influx from Syria's civil war.

GlobalFocusThe deployment, though, may be a response to mounting concerns at the Pentagon and among European and Middle East allies that Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of hostile forces if the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is eventually toppled.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta disclosed little about the special-forces mission to Jordan when he confirmed it at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Wednesday. But he noted that the United States has been working closely with Jordan to keep track of Syria's weapons of mass destruction as the 19-month-old rebellion grinds on.

Unlike a decade ago, when bad intelligence on Iraq's alleged chemical and biological weapons spurred a clamor for U.S. military intervention, defense strategists appear to be approaching the suspected stockpiles of mustard and nerve gases in Syria with more collaboration and caution.

The resistance to preemptive action isn't just a consequence of lessons learned in Iraq. Syria is believed to have one of the world's largest chemical weapons arsenals, with commercial satellite surveillance and intelligence reports suggesting as many as 50 production and storage sites as well as missiles that could carry the deadly agents beyond its borders. Jane's Intelligence Review reported in 2009 that Damascus had embarked on a major upgrade of its chemical weapons facilities, transforming its Safir site near Aleppo, now the scene of intense fighting, into a credible deterrent to any threat from nuclear-armed Israel.

The scope of the Syrian chemical weapons program and the international community's failure to craft a cohesive plan to stop the fighting confront Western military strategists with the need to plan for a worst-case scenario rather than act to prevent it, analysts say. That means preparing allies in the region to launch a massive rapid-deployment operation after the Assad regime collapsed but before Al Qaeda-aligned fighters or rogue elements of the Syrian rebels could get their hands on the WMD.

Military exercises in JordanThe U.S. special forces sent to Amman are probably training Jordanian troops in containment techniques and checking their equipment and chemical-biological hazard protection and practices, said Steven Bucci, a former Army Green Beret officer and senior Pentagon official who is now a research fellow in defense and domestic  security at the Heritage Foundation.

"They will probably be running them through training procedures for dealing with this stuff to secure it and get it under control or to respond to it if it gets used" in a calamitous last battle, said Bucci. "This is about the best use of our military we could have now, and hopefully we're also helping out the Turks."

Bucci testified to Congress in July that even a limited operation to secure Syria's chemical weapons would require more than 75,000 troops -- and many more if launched amid the civil war now raging.

It is "not a viable option" to commit masses of U.S. ground troops to such an operation, Bucci told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade. Any effective force, he said, would have to involve troops from allied Muslim countries also at risk of attack with Syria's chemical weapons.

That's why, he said in an interview Thursday, it is essential for the United States to coordinate with Syria's neighbors now to prepare a post-Assad operation that can prevent terrorist groups or smugglers from making off with the WMD.

Raymond Zilinskas, director of the chemical and biological weapons program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, points out that assessments of Syria's chemical weapons program are largely unverified. But he, too, says the United States and its allies should be girding for the worst.

"From what I understand, these depots are pretty well guarded by the Syrian regime's forces, and they would probably be the last to give up their guarding duties," Zilinskas said. "But if there is a total collapse, there would of course be a threat of jihadists getting these weapons."

Talk of airstrikes to remove the threat is nonsensical, Zilinskas said. Syria has formidable antiaircraft defenses built with Russian assistance, and the international community lacks crucial information on the precise locations, quantities and containment of the gases to be able to bomb them without risking spreading the deadly substances.

"Sarin is pretty volatile. If all these other problems could be resolved, the sarin would probably be destroyed or would be so volatile that it would disappear quickly," Zilinskas said. "But that's not necessarily the case with mustard gas. It's much less deadly but much more persistent. And if the Syrians turn out to have VX, which is a persistent nerve gas, that could cause real problems. That is the worst-case scenario they have to prepare for."


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Hezbollah claims responsibility for drone shot down in Israel

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Photo, top: A military training facility in Russeifeh, Jordan, where U.S. forces and a handful of British allies began training Jordanian commandos this week to respond in case of an attack with chemical weapons from neighboring Syria. Credit: Mohammad Hannon / Associated Press

Insert: A scene from U.S.-Jordanian military exercises in the Qatrana desert in June. Credit: Jamal Nasrallah /AFP/Getty Images


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