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Daily Archives: February 20, 2022

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The Ukrainian Crisis in the Multipolar World Order: NATO, Russia and China

Mher D Sahakyan wrote . . . . . . . . .

The crisis in Ukraine proves that a multipolar world is a reality – and that the US-centered world order is history. There are two competing sides in this showdown, one the United States with its allies from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the other Russia. China, for its part, supports Moscow. The two non-Western powers are building an Eastern political and economic pole underpinned by several joint projects and international frameworks such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The superpower China has Moscow’s back provides an additional impetus for Russia to stand firm in defense of its position on Ukraine. It is not alone against the US and its allies.

But what does Russia want with Ukraine? What are China’s interests? And what are the scenarios going forward?

Ukraine: From Soviet republic to NATO member candidate?

On December 8, 1991, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, three of the four republics that originally formed the Soviet Union (SU) in 1922, gathered in a dacha in a forest in Belarus to sign the Belovezh Accords that announced the collapse of the SU, which ceased to exist 17 days later. Ukraine became an independent state with Leonid Kravchuk as its first president. Russia, however, would maintain significant influence in Ukraine until February 2014 and the Maidan revolution, which led to the ouster of elected president Viktor Yanukovych and his government. In the aftermath of that political turmoil, Russian military supported the ethnic Russian population in Eastern Ukraine in their struggle against Kyiv and organized a referendum that resulted in the Russian Federation incorporating the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol.

Russia was aiming to unite post-Soviet states to create the EAEU. Fearing that Moscow was trying to revive the SU, the US planned to draw Ukraine away from Russia’s orbit and transform it into a Western outpost. Without this strategically important country in the fold, the EAEU would not be as strategically strong a grouping and the Russian navy would not have access to Crimean ports, through which it could control the Black Sea.

The US was successful in restraining Ukraine from joining the EAEU member, aided by the escalation of tensions between Moscow and Kyiv and the imposition by Washington and Brussels of sanctions on Russia over Crimea. This undermined the status and development of the EAEU.

Washington’s second aim, however, was not accomplished. When Russia reacted to the 2014 revolution in Ukraine by sending troops to Crimea, organizing a referendum and adding the peninsula to its territory. Russia’s action to support ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine and defend them from attacks by Ukrainian nationalists won for Moscow huge influence over the rulers of the self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, the Donbas region of Ukraine, and secured it a place in negotiations over Ukraine’s political direction. The main part of Ukraine, which has remained under the control of Kyiv, started to strengthen its political, military and economic relations with the West. The status quo prevailing over Ukraine was disrupted in December 2021, with tensions escalating in and around the divided country. The main trigger was Ukraine’s use of Bayraktar TB2 drones, provided by Turkey, against Russian-backed forces in Donbas. In response, Russia concentrated approximately 100.000 troops in its own territory, near the Ukrainian borders.

Russia seeks a NATO rollback

The Russians remember the assurance that Western leaders made to the SU’s last president, Mikhail Gorbachev, that NATO would not extend its reach to the East. Russians blame Gorbachev for not signing an agreement with the West to that effect. In the 1990s, the leaders of the several Soviet Republics (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, Moldavia and the Baltic states) were told by the West that the collapse of the SU would be a victory for everyone, as they would gain independence, break away from Communism, and have a chance to become part of the “European family”.

But only the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), which have been an anti-Russian bulwark, joined the European Union (EU) and NATO. As the president of Armenia from 1991 to 1998, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, put it in an interview in 2021, the post-Soviet states are providing some value to the West if they make problems for Russia.

They Russians concede that they lost the Cold War and, for this reason, they are still losing their territories, influence and markets. For its part, the West basked in its victory and thinks it can continue its political and military extension towards Russia’s borders. This dynamic is causing more and more stress between the two sides, given that Russia is a much stronger player now than it was in 1990s and 2000s, while the EU and the US are arguably much weaker both economically and strategically. In Eurasia, Russia is backed by China, which provides it an opportunity to deter the US in the region and keep the delicate balance of the powers.

Russia wants to keep Central Asia, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan under its influence. It wants to get assurances from the US that Washington and its allies will not try to rally these countries to the Western pole. Moscow wants an undertaking from the West that Ukraine and Georgia will not become NATO members. Moreover, it wants NATO to avoid deploying in post-Soviet countries troops and military equipment which could be used against Russia. Russia wants to sign an agreement on these issues with the US. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on December 17, 2021, published a draft “Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on security guarantees”, which it has provided to the US and NATO for discussion. After negotiations between NATO and Russia on January 12, 2022, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the transatlantic alliance had rejected Russian requests regarding new members and the withdrawal of troops from Eastern Europe.

A meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Geneva on January 21, 2022, did not lead to any de-escalation. The Russian side said that they would wait for the US and NATO to answer in writing. A week later, in a telephone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian leader Vladimir Putin stated that “the US and NATO responses did not address Russia’s fundamental concerns such as stopping NATO expansion, not deploying assault weapons near Russia’s borders, or rolling NATO’s military capacity and infrastructure in Europe back to where they were in 1997 when the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed.” In sum, the tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine continued to escalate.

China weighs in

In this standoff, China’s position is important, given its standing as a major power with regional and global influence. In consonance with Russia’s break with the West over Crimea in 2014 (Moscow’s participation in the G8 was suspended), Moscow launched a pivot to the East and sought to strengthen its relations with Beijing, which had not supported the US and EU’s anti-Russian sanctions.

As the Ukraine crisis has mounted, China is in a tricky position. China is not interested in any military action in Ukraine, as this would result in major economic disruption. The two main links along the Silk Road Economic Belt, namely the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor (CCAWAEC) and the New Eurasian Land Bridge, which connect Asia and Europe, will be in danger. Russian territory and transport networks such as the Trans-Siberian railway are strategically important for China to reach Russian and European markets and northern seaports.

Within CCAWAEC, Ukraine is a key transportation hub between Asia and Europe. If it would be necessary to avoid Russian territory, it can send and receive goods from China via rail connections passing through the territory of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Central Asian nations. China would like to see this alternative route through Ukraine to Europe operational.

As situation in Ukraine heats up, the US and the West will focus on Russia and its intentions, taking some pressure off China in the Indo-Pacific. This could provide an opportunity for Beijing to apply more pressure on Taiwan. China might, therefore, be interested in seeing a limited escalation in Ukraine but not an all-out war. In this conflict, China is backing its comprehensive strategic partner, Russia, while not fully declaring itself an ally of Moscow. In Beijing, decision makers reckon that if Putin’s Russia is defeated by the West in this instance, the US and its allies might be emboldened in their confrontation with China. Moreover, China needs Russian weapons to modernize its army and oil and gas to fuel its economic growth.

China has signaled its position. On January 27, 2022, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China noted that Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during a phone conversation with Blinken, indicated Beijing’s support for Moscow: “In the 21st Century, all parties should completely abandon the Cold War mentality and form a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism through negotiations. Russia’s legitimate security concerns should be taken seriously and addressed.”

On February 4, 2022, on a visit to Beijing to meet counterpart Xi Jinping and attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games, Putin described Russia’s ties with China as “unprecedented in the spirit of friendship and strategic partnership.” Putin is the first foreign leader Xi has met in person since 2020.

Scenarios going forward: A role for Beijing?

If war between Ukraine and Russia breaks out, it will be a major disaster for Ukraine. Even if the US and other NATO members send weapons and military advisors to the country, the smaller country’s forces would be defeated by a much stronger Russia. Ukraine is not a NATO member; thus, the organization’s members would not be obliged to come to its defense and engage in the conflict. The West would only impose fresh sanctions on Moscow, possibly excluding Russia from the SWIFT payments and cash management system. In response, Russia could recognize Luhansk and Donetsk as independent republics, as it did with Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the war with Georgia in 2008. For this reason, Kyiv must keep calm and find ways to ease the tensions with Moscow.

If NATO join in a war with Russia on the side of Ukraine, this could lead to a world war. But this scenario is unlikely. During the Bucharest Summit in 2008, NATO declined to approve the Ukraine and Georgia membership action plans, indicating only that the two countries could possibly join in the future. Russia and NATO members the US, France and the UK are all nuclear powers. Conflict among them could escalate to the unimaginable, which would be a world-crushing catastrophe. International organizations and other interested states must encourage all sides to continue diplomatic efforts and not resort to war to resolve the situation. The sharp exchanges between Russia and the US in a session of the UN Security Council on January 31, 2022, were not encouraging. The brinkmanship continues.

Since NATO has not made any concrete offer to Kyiv to join the organization in the near future, it would be constructive if members withdraw military units and halt weapons supplies to Ukraine. In turn, Russia needs to give guarantees that it will not provide weapons to pro-Russian militants in the Donbas. It should also refrain from recognizing Luhansk and Donetsk regions as independent states and try to find solutions to the impasse through diplomacy.

China, for its part, can take the initiative and offer to be a mediator between Ukraine and Russia. Once the Winter Olympiad is over, Beijing could refocus the message of peace (the Olympic tradition of the “truce”) and take a leading role in resolving the crisis. This could be a defining moment for China on the international stage.

Source : Asia Global

Why Are Certain School Books Being Banned in U.S.?

Anthony Zurcher wrote . . . . . . . . .

A growing number of US parents are alleging that school books are obscene or otherwise harmful to children. It’s creating an increasingly divisive political battle that could spill over into upcoming national elections.

Yael Levin-Sheldon, a mother of two who lives near Richmond, Virginia, recently heard about a book that a teacher in an area school brought into the classroom. She made a note of the title, The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person.

The title alone, Levin says, is racist – and it’s not the kind of book that should be available to children in public schools.

“Now think of it saying, ‘on being a better black person’,” she said. “Would that be ok?

Levin-Sheldon is the Virginia chapter president of the conservative parents-rights group No Left Turn in Education. Her organisation compiles a list of books it says are “used to spread radical and racist ideologies to students” and “divide us as a people for the purpose of indoctrinating kids to a dangerous ideology”.

The list includes Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale and White Fragility by Robin Diangelo. The Black Friend, a New York Times best-selling memoir by Frederick Joseph recounting his challenges as a black student in a predominantly white high school, isn’t on the list. At least, not yet.

Books such as Joseph’s – offering critical views on topics like US history or race – gained new prominence in school curricula and library collections as a response to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and educational efforts to address concerns about persistent racism in the US. No Left Turn contends that the works should be taught in context, along with other texts that provide a different (and assumedly more positive) view of America’s past. And parents, Levin-Sheldon adds, should have the choice of opting out of those lessons.

Other works, however, particularly ones that touch on human sexuality in explicit detail, should be outright prohibited, the group argues.

“When it comes to pornography and paedophilia,” Levin-Sheldon says, “that’s when we want those books removed.”

This, she adds, is all her group is seeking. It’s not too different from what free-speech advocates and educators say they would like, as well – a conversation between parents, teachers and school librarians, balancing moral and educational interests and conducted with the best interests of the children in mind.

In practice, however, it hasn’t always worked out that way.

A rising tide of complaints

A state legislator in Texas produced a list of more than 850 books that he contended may cause students to feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race or sex. A Dallas Morning News review found 97 of the first 100 books on the list were written by ethnic minorities, women or LGBTQ authors.

A school district in San Antonio pulled 400 of those books from its libraries without any formal review process or specific complaints from parents.

A Tennessee school board removed Maus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from its eighth-grade curriculum because of profanity and anthropomorphised mouse nudity.

In Polk County, Florida, a school removed 16 books pending review, including award-winning novels The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and Beloved by Toni Morrison, because they contained “obscene material”.

Challenges have come from the left, as well. A school district near Seattle, Washington, dropped the 1960 Harper Lee classic To Kill a Mockingbird from its curriculum because of its depiction of race relations and use of racist language.

Characters’ use of racist epithets also prompted efforts last year to limit the teaching of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in school districts in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, and Burbank, California.

The American Library Association keeps track of the number of complaints lodged against books in school libraries and has recorded a marked increase over the past year. According to preliminary data, from September through November of 2021 the association tallied 330 incidents. The total number reported for all of 2019, the last year schools across the US were in-person for the entire year, was 377 – suggesting that the final 2021 numbers ultimately will dwarf previous amounts.

The cumulative effect, says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, is significant damage to open discourse and learning across the country.

“We are a government, a society that purports to protect freedom of speech, the freedom to access information to make up our own minds, to engage in a broadly liberal education,” she says. “And we’re now finding that we have a movement to shut down that conversation, to deny those rights, particularly to young people.”

‘Covid lemonade’

According to Tiffany Justice, co-founder of the parents group Moms for Liberty, the surge in parental interest can be attributed, at least in part, to the remote learning policies schools implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic. For the first time, they say, many parents had an up-close view of what their children were being taught – and they didn’t like it. She calls it “Covid lemonade,” because the pandemic had a silver lining.

“We had never really been able to get parents as invigorated as they have been seeing the curriculum up close and personal while they were sitting with their child doing the work,” she says. “We saw it as an opportunity to really engage parents even more and to get them involved in their children’s education.”

Social media has also proved to have a potent effect on the scope of the movement. Activists says it has helped their groups organise across the US, as parents learn that they are not alone in their concern. On the other side, groups like the American Library Association have found the same books identified in complaints turn up again and again, as lists – like the one on the No Left Turn websites – are circulated online.

“Social media is amplifying and driving both the messages of these groups that are pursuing a particular agenda, as well as individual challenges that crop up in a community,” Caldwell-Stone says.

At the heart of the issue is a debate over the role of parents, schools and the rights of students in the classroom. Both Levin-Sheldon and Justice point out that until children turn 18 they are minors, and parents should be able to review the ideas and subject matters to which their children are exposed – even if that’s not supervision all parents want to exercise at home or in the classroom.

Free-speech proponents counter that libraries are meant to serve an entire community of students, not just the ones with the most prudish parents. And although students are not adults, they still have rights – and agency. A dialogue between parents, teachers and librarians is important, but if teenagers seek out information on a topic of interest, they should have access to it.

“There’s this notion that young people are in search of the most illicit material in every area of their lives, all the time,” says Jonathan Friedman, director of Free Expression and Education at PEN America, an author’s free-speech group. “I don’t think that’s true. I think people go to a library there’s usually an alignment between reader and text.”

The politics of anger

As the push to pass judgement on – and remove – certain books from schools has become a national drive with national attention from conservative and liberal media, tempers have become increasingly frayed.

A school board meeting in Flagler County, Florida, to discuss the removal of the book All Boys Aren’t Blue devolved into obscenity-laced protests and counter-protests. (The board’s decision to approve the book’s use was ultimately overruled by a county official).

Meetings in other parts of the US have had to be cancelled or delayed because of threats against public officials. During a school board meeting in Carmel, Indiana, last July, where parents were taking turns reading out explicit passages from books that they believed should be removed from their school library, a man was arrested after a handgun fell out of his pocket.

Levin is quick to note that her group does not approve of such parental conduct and they seek to train their members to behave “respectfully and professional” at school board meetings. Justice agrees, calling her members “joyful warriors”, but adds that parents have reason to be angry.

“Yeah, they’re upset,” she says. “Their kids aren’t learning in school. They’re sending their kids to school and their kids are learning more about – who knows? Not reading and writing.”

Anger can be a potent force in politics, and conservative politicians – and Republican-dominated legislatures – have sought to harness the passion.

Last November, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governorship by campaigning on education and parental rights. One of his television adverts featured a mother who objected to Morrison’s Beloved being taught in her son’s high-school English class.

As November’s mid-term elections approach, with control of the US Congress and many state governments at stake, more candidates on the right are following suit.

Matt Krause, the Texas legislator with the 850-book list, is running for state attorney general. On Tuesday, the Indiana state Senate approved a bill that would allow the criminal prosecution of school librarians for disseminating “material harmful to minors”. The Oklahoma legislature is considering a bill that would ban public school libraries from offering any books on sexuality or gender identity.

Friedman warns that efforts to remove books will have an adverse impact on librarians and school officials, who could engage in “soft censorship” by pre-emptively pulling titles they worry could spark controversy. It could also have a chilling effect on authors and publishers, who might shy away from controversial topics and stifle their creativity.

“If you are telling a story that’s on the borderline of any of these issues right now, you’re going to think twice about writing in a way that might get banned or draw national attention,” he says. “You’re not going to publish that book; you’re not going to give that talk publicly about it.”

Ashley Hope Perez is one of those authors feeling the pressure. In a recent issue of Texas Monthly, she describes how she was harassed after her book Out of Darkness was criticised as being obscene in meeting of a school board near Austin.

“Ugly phone messages calling me a ‘degenerate piece of -‘, emails that were little more than expletives strung together, social media comments saying I was ‘literally SATAN’ and suggestions that I hang myself,” she writes. “The attacks on Out of Darkness say far more about our cultural moment than they do about my book.”

She notes that her book was first published six years ago with little controversy. The political ground, it seems, has shifted significantly since then.

Source : BBC

Chart: Russia’s Friends and Foes

Source : Statista

Mental Speed Hardly Changes Over a Lifespan

Mental speed — the speed at which we can deal with issues requiring rapid decision-making — does not change substantially over decades. Psychologists at Heidelberg University have come to this conclusion. Under the leadership of Dr. Mischa von Krause and Dr. Stefan Radev, they evaluated data from a large-scale online experiment with over a million participants. The findings of the new study suggest that the speed of cognitive information processing remains largely stable between the ages of 20 and 60, and only deteriorates at higher ages. The Heidelberg researchers have hereby called into question the assumption to date that mental speed starts to decline already in early adulthood.

“The common assumption is that the older we get, the more slowly we react to external stimuli. If that were so, mental speed would be fastest at the age of about twenty and would then decline with increasing age,” says Dr von Krause, a researcher in the Quantitative Research Methods department headed by Prof. Dr. Andreas Voß at Heidelberg University’s Institute of Psychology. In order to verify this theory, the researchers reevaluated data from a large-scale American study on implicit biases. In the online experiment with over a million participants, subjects had to press a button to sort pictures of people into the categories “white” or “black” and words into the categories “good” or “bad.” According to Dr. von Krause, the content focus was of minor importance in the Heidelberg study. Instead, the researchers used the large batch of data as an example of a response-time task to measure the duration of cognitive decisions.

When evaluating the data, Dr. von Krause and his colleagues noted that, on average, the response times of the test subjects rose with increasing age. However, with the aid of a mathematical model, they were able to show that this phenomenon was not due to changes in mental speed. “Instead, we think that older test subjects are mainly slower because they reply more cautiously and concentrate more on avoiding mistakes,” Mischa von Krause explains. At the same time, motor execution speed slows down during the course of adult life: older participants in the experiment needed longer to press the appropriate key after they had found the right answer.

Another finding of the study was that average information processing speed only progressively declined with participants over the age of 60. “It looks as though, in the course of our life, we don’t need to fear any substantial losses of mental speed — particularly not in the course of a typical working life,” says Mischa von Krause. “Generally speaking, we should also note that the test subjects in all age groups included individuals with high and low mental speeds. Our results relate to the average trend.”

The results were published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Source: Heidelberg University