Vlad Putin’s Prime-Time TV Talk Show

- April 17th, 2014

 

Putinconference

On Thursday, while Western attention was focused on a meaningless confabulation of useless airbags (hello John Kerry) gathered in Geneva to avoid resolving the Ukraine crisis, Russian eyes were focused on their television screens where Vladimir Putin was talking.

And talking and talking and talking.

He was talking to his People. Talking to them one on one. And talking to them by the millions. He was even talking to a few Americans over in Sarah Palin’s Alaska.

As I write this, Putin is still talking — and will probably go on for a few hours more.

Putin is live on-air at the moment, fielding questions in a call-in television show the likes of which no other world leader would subject himself or herself to — and which no democratic leader could probably get the airtime to do, even if he or she wanted.

This is the 12th time time since 2001 that Putin has hosted one of these televised town hall meetings. And they do go on.

Last year’s telecast lasted four hour and 48 minutes. That’s almost FIVE HOURS of non-stop talking and thinking on his feet and pounding his points home again and again and again. For almost FIVE HOURS. And he didn’t take one pee break. Man, that KGB training is good.

Putin does these things from a Kremlin television studio with talking-head moderators and a clap-happy live audience. He started taking questions shortly after noon Moscow Time (eight hours ahead of Toronto’s Eastern Time Zone) and he’ll wrap up in time for his attentive television audience to start making dinner.

Questions are submitted through an official website, by text messaging, direct telephone call-in, a special cell-phone app, a live video link to Sevastopol in the Crimea and even a pre-taped video segment from Americans in Alaska.

(By the way, Russia now says — only half-joking in a threatening, pull-your-nose kind of way —that it would like to have Alaska back from the U.S., much as it corrected the “historical mistake” of giving away Crimea.*)

Hell, even Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower currently hiding out in Moscow, got on the line to ask Putin if Russia was intercepting its citizens’ communications data like the U.S. government. Putin said (as one spycraft expert to another, as he put it) that yes, Russia was intercepting private communications but only to safeguard the country and only in a completely legal, court-approved way. Putin was lying, of course — either that or Russian courts are even more whore-ish, docile instruments of Soviet (sorry, “Russian”) state security organs than they appear.

The show’s producers say more than two million questions have already been submitted for this year’s show and the number will rise as the telecast goes on … and on … and on. Last year the questions topped the three-million mark.

Now of course this thing is meticulously stage-managed. The questions are sifted and salted and the answers are pre-packaged and rehearsed. But FIVE HOURS is still a long time for the guy Time magazine calls “the most powerful person in the world” to subject himself to public scrutiny and put his policies and popularity on trial — even if it is a show trial.

I doubt we’ll see any questions about Putin’s private life — financial or romantic, anyway, although a film clip of a shirtless Vlad wrestling polar bears in the snow may turn up — but major issues of the day are brought up and addressed.

That’s what this thing is all about, after all: An opportunity for Putin to speak directly to the Russian people, to give his spin on what’s happening, to lance various boils, to explain why and how Russia without Putin would be like a day without sunshine.

This year the first questions and answers focused on the unfolding Ukraine crisis and the seizure of Crimea by Russia (pretty much everyone says “Yea!”), but domestic concerns were also on the table, with housing prices and the cost of living being major issues.

I’m going to give you a taste of how the show started and I’ll probably drop back in later in the day to add a few updates if anything out of the ordinary arises.

The key thing to remember is that on this day — Thursday, April 17, 2014 — the most important event taking place in the unfolding Ukrainian crisis is Vlad Putin talking on television — not the meaningless prattle of a bunch of pompous puppets at a conference table in Geneva.

 

First question:

What is your assessment of the situation in eastern Ukraine?

Putin went through his stock talking points — the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych was unconstitutional, the current regime in Kiev is an illegal junta, an association with the EU would have badly hurt Ukraine both economically and politically, Ukrainian ethnic Russians are being threatened and discriminated against by the current nationalist regime in Kiev, the solution to the problem is a much looser Ukrainian federation which gives vastly increased powers to the various regions of the country — and “we need to talk to the people” to resolve the crisis peacefully. (And that’s a good thing — until you’re an ethnic Ukrainian living in a part of your country that Russia wants to absorb.)

Second question asked if Russian secret agents and military special forces are behind the current uprising in eastern Ukraine (and previously in the Crimea).

Vlad: “Nonsense. There are no Russian operatives in Ukraine.”

Hahahahahahahahahaha. (That was me laughing, not Putin. Vlad doesn’t laugh a lot. He flashes the occasional shark smile, but he’s not much in the way of belly busters.)

The broadcast went live to a video link-up with Russians in the Crimea who (of course) had nothing but praise for Putin returning them to “the Motherland.”

And then the commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Alexander Vitko, got on to ask another potted question that Putin swatted out of the ballpark.

That was followed by a former member of Ukraine’s disbanded (and discredited) Berkut riot police asking Putin if run-when-the-going-got-tough former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych had “always been a weakling and traitor.”

Putin chose slightly diplomatic phrases but essentially said, “Yes, the bum was a weak-kneed wannabe. No guts, no glory.”

He said the founders of the Soviet Union never imagined for a moment that the day would come when Russia and Ukraine were separate nations and he repeated again and again that NATO, not Russia, was the instigator of all the current trouble. Russia, he said, was just protecting its interests and its people.

But a lot of the Crimea and Ukraine questions were more about how costs of expansionism would affect the average Russian. Putin gave very reassuring answers, calmed fears, made the bad thoughts go away.

He told his national audience no Russian social spending would be hurt by the cost of absorbing Crimea and he warned the “new” citizens in the Crimea not to expect too much too soon. “It will take time,” he said.

He said Russia could easily handle any extra costs without affecting the budget because it’s a rich country: “We have trillions.”

And, no, Putin doesn’t think Russia’s income from oil and gas exports to Europe and elsewhere will be curtailed by the Ukrainian crisis. He was calm, rational, reassuring (if you are a Russian) — No panic, babe, we can talk this thing through … as long as I end up getting what I want.

 

UPDATE: “We can talk this thing through … as long as I end up getting what I want.” That about sums up the “agreement” produced by the Geneva talks. Nothing was settled in Geneva; the real issues were avoided — at least publicly. Putin is still going to get what he wants — direct (if masked) control over important parts of Ukraine and its economy and indirect control of the country as a whole. In the end, Ukraine will remain in the Russian “sphere of influence” while the West goes along with that and calls the end result “victory.” Or maybe “peace for our time.”

 

The questions went from the sublime to the ridiculous to the mundane reality of surviving daily life in modern Russia — from the aforementioned Alaska question (which drew applause from the tame audience but got a smiling turn-down from Putin) to a comment from an old guy in Khabarovsk, over near the Chinese border, that he has to pay state taxes on his car but can’t drive it anywhere because “there are no roads” out of town.

And so it goes. Disabled housing … strengthened ties with China … even the price of bread.

Putin is a showman with plenty of energy and endurance. You might almost say he has charisma … if shark skin was velvet. He loves the limelight and he loves being “the People’s President.”

I’ll check back in later if anything major happens, but you get the drift …

UPDATE: Putin-palooza ended at 3:56 p.m. Moscow Time, so Vlad talked almost an hour less than last year. The 2013 time of 4:48 still stands as a personal best.

He really didn’t say much more. Mainly just that he doesn’t want to be president for the rest of his life. For how long then? Life less one day? He’s definitely good to go for at least the next 10 or 20 years.

Also he said that, despite the current little contretemps in Ukraine, Russia and the U.S. will “continue to be partners despite our disagreements.” That partnership, Putin said, is “essential for global security.”

I think it’s safe to say, that after the events of the last few months — from Sochi onwards — Putin expects the U.S. to understand Russia is not a junior partner in that relationship. Big Russia is back.

 

––––––––––––––––––––––

*Tsar Alexander II sold Alaska to the U.S. in 1867 for $7.2 million — a deal known in the American press at the time as “Seward’s Folly” because the political pundits of the day thought Secretary of State William Seward had overpaid for a piece of useless frozen tundra.

 

 

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Russian Bear Goes Shopping In Ukraine

- April 10th, 2014

 

 

Rogozin-middle

Dmitry Rogozin, deputy prime minister of Russia, in the middle

 

In early December 2013, as Euromaidan protesters and Berkut riot police fought for Ukraine’s soul in the streets of Kiev, a big (6-foot-4), beefy (250 pounds) bear of a Russian went on a shopping trip in the country’s south.

The Russian bear was ostensibly checking out the wares for sale by various parts of the former Soviet armaments industry which ended up — quite by chance — in Ukraine after the dissolution of the USSR. He was visiting manufacturers of rockets and missiles, jets and helicopter engines, battleships and submarines.

In actual fact, the visit was more like the American CEO of a multinational corporation on an inspection tour of his company’s branch plants in Canada (more about that later).

This particular Russian bear is a very big one indeed — Dmitry Rogozin, deputy prime minister of the Russian Federation, the minister in charge of the country’s military-industrial complex and the man overseeing the current massive modernization and expansion of Russia’s armed forces.

Rogozin’s a loyal supporter of President Vladimir Putin (as one has to be to stay anywhere close to the levers of power in Moscow) and, more importantly, a member of the small inner circle of advisers that Putin actually listens to.

Another thing about Rogozin is that he’s an ardent ethnic Russian nationalist and a flamboyant, popular politician with a knack for making controversial statements. And he’s hard as nails: He’s a firm believer that the Soviet Union was a world power in the 20th Century because of its military muscle, not for any ideological reasons.

So this is the big Russian bear who stalked through Ukraine with his shopping list in early December 2013.

Rogozin’s itinerary? Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Mykolaiv and Kiev.

If those names seem vaguely familiar (don’t worry if they don’t — I can’t keep all this stuff straight without referring to notes either), it’s because I mentioned three of them in a Nosey Parker blog post a few days ago as being among four Ukrainian cities that provide a key to understanding why the Russians will almost certainly invade and seize a large chunk of eastern and southern Ukraine in the next few months.

Those three are Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia and Mykolaiv. The fourth city I mentioned was Odessa. Here’s the map again showing those four cities (marked with red pointers). Click on the map to enlarge it.

ukraine-pointer-map

The purple pointers show Kiev, Kharkiv and Lviv — the cities where most of the action took place in the recent overthrow of Ukraine’s president — and the blue pointers show the three eastern Ukraine cities where pro-Russian agitators have been seizing government buildings and calling for annexation by Russia for the past week or so. Just ignore the red arrow pointing at Transnistria for the time being (we’ll probably get into that another time).

 

UPDATE: This was written almost a week ago but I’m leaving it up a bit longer because it’s still relevant. The only major change is that the “pro-Russian” protests and occupations have spread and intensified. Russia, in other words is keeping the pressure on and upping the ante. The current Kiev regime is caught between a rock and a hard place. Its threats have not worked and it cannot actually use effective force to quell the secessionist activity because that would (a) discredit the new regime for using the same lethal suppression of Ukrainian citizens that brought down the old regime and (b) give Russia an excuse to intervene overtly and powerfully as the white knight coming to save the abused citizens of eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine-Russia-takeover

 

So now it’s time to explain the attraction of Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia and Mykolaiv and why Rogozin and Putin consider control of those Ukrainian cities vitally important to Russia’s security and well-being. Although not on Rogozin’s December itinerary, I’ll also explain the importance of Odessa to the Russians.

And I’ll add an explanation of why Rogozin visited Kiev on his December tour. It certainly wasn’t to check out the Euromaidan protesters in Independence Square or commiserate with Russia’s beleaguered ally, then-president Viktor Yanukovytch. The Russians had other people in Kiev to do all that.

I want to remind you again that the vast Soviet military-industrial complex was spread across the whole multi-ethnic, multi-national USSR, not centred solely in Russia (although Russia was always the brains of the operation, so to speak). So when the USSR fell apart in the early 1990s, newly independent countries like Ukraine and the Baltic states and the Central Asian republics took large chunks of the Soviet Union’s scientific, technological and industrial base with them when they bolted.

Тягач_МЗКТ-79221_(комплекс_Тополь-М)

Russia began a massive rearmament programme in 2011 with plans to spend 20,700 billion rubles (that’s roughly $770 billion — THREE-QUARTERS OF A TRILLION DOLLARS) on modernizing and upgrading its military capability by 2020. Russia’s own military-industrial complex is working full-time to meet this target and can’t keep up. So, of course, the old non-Russian Soviet network — which never really cut ties with the Kremlin — is getting back up to speed as well.

For a deeper look at the dependence of Russia on the Ukrainian armaments industry, here’s a link to a very important article by Vladimir Voronov, published in the Russian monthly magazine Sovershenno Sekretno (Top Secret) on Feb. 24, just a day or two after Yanukovytch fled Ukraine for sanctuary in Moscow. Of course, that link’s only useful if you read Russian (which I don’t) — but I wanted to give proper acknowledgement to the originating source.

Here’s another link to a piece from the Gorshenin Institute, which includes an English translation of Voronov’s original piece in Sovershenno Sekretno. It’s well worth the read.

Ukraine_census_2001_Russian

Two final maps and notes before we start getting into specifics:

1.The map above shows the rough ethnic and linguistic dividing line between the two Ukraines — the Europe-looking, Ukrainian-speaking western and central regions, and the Russia-looking, Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions.

2. The map below was produced by the CIA in 1993 to show U.S. congressmen what Soviet military-production assets ended up in newly independent Ukraine after the breakup of the USSR. As you can see, most of those production facilities fall in the Russian-speaking zone, the part of Ukraine the Kremlin always considered to be “really” part of Russia. The major exception is Kiev, which was on Rogozin’s itinerary and which we’ll discuss shortly.

CIA-1993-dfnsindust-ukraine

So here goes.

Yuzhmash-rocket

Dnepropetrovsk 

When you think Dnepropetrovk, think rockets and missiles.

That’s what are designed by the Ukrainian state-owned firm Pivdenne and built by state-owned Pivdenmash.

Under their old Russian names Yangel Yuzhne Design Bureau and Yuzhmash (short for Makarov Yuzhnyy Machine-Building Plant or something like that), they were important developers and manufacturers of Soviet-era nuclear inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and rockets for the space race.

Today they are key components in the Kremlin’s amped-up nuclear missile upgrade.

Pivdenmash currently produces Zenit, Tauras and Cyclone and other carrier rockets. Of course, in true Soviet fashion, it also produces satellites as well as wind turbines, buses, trams and tractors.

Pivdenmash is one of the largest employers in Ukraine with a workforce of somewhere in the vicinity of 15,000 employees. I should point out that Leonid Kuckma, Ukraine’s second post-Soviet president, was general director of Pivdenmash from 1986 to 1991, back when it was known by its Russian name Yuzhmash (the name by which it is still largely known).

 

Excerpts from Ukrainian-Canadian author Myroslav Petriw’s 2012 suspense novel Yaroslaw’s Revenge:

Dnipropetrovsk was a dirty industrial city. Situated astride the Dnipro River waterway, with close access to the iron mines of Kryviy Rih, the coalmines of the Donbas, and the manganese mines of Nikopil, this city had become a center of heavy industry for the Soviet Union. It was a Detroit without the Renaissance Center…

Looking for a sign identifying the offices of Pivdenmash, Yarko saw instead a huge logo proclaiming the name Yuzhmash in Russian. Factories or businesses retained their Russian names, signage and even websites despite officially having been renamed in Ukrainian. You seemed to have to know both languages to find anything in central Ukraine. This was an experience not uncommon west of the Zbruch River. The Zbruch had formed the border between the USSR and Poland before World War 2, and the Ukrainian nation was divided between these two states. Stalin’s Holodomor — Genocide of Famine of 1932-33 — ended at this political border, leaving a sharp linguistic divide that was clearly perceptible 80 years later. The observation at that time by the Italian consul Sergio Gradenigo that the aftermath of that tragedy will be russian colonization of this country, which will affect its ethnic makeup, was most prophetic.

 

Motor-Sich-MI-35-helicopter

Ukrainian troops look at a Russian MI-35 military helicopter powered by a made-in-Ukraine engine as it patrols the new border between Russian Crimea and Ukraine.

Zaporizhia

Downriver from Dnepropetrovk is Zaporizhia, home of Motor Sich.

This is the only thing you need to know about Motor Sich and its importance to Russia: MOTOR SICH PRODUCES ALL ENGINES FOR ALL RUSSIAN HELICOPTERS.

That’s both civilian and military helicopters, even the ones the Russians are selling to the U.S. Of course, Motor Sich also makes many of the engines for Russian civilian and military jets. As Wikipedia says, “Motor Sich inherited most of the former Soviet Union’s aeronautical engine manufacturing capability.”

Zaporizhzhya is also home to Motor Sich’s R&D arm, the Ivchenko-Progress Design Bureau. Motor Sich is another of Ukraine’s major employers. And it is, of course, another major industrial complex where Russian is the working language.

An indication of the interdependency of Motor Sich and the Russian military-industrial establishment is that Motor Sich signed a new, upgraded co-operation agreement with Rostec, the umbrella organization for Russia’s defence industry, in early March — WHILE RUSSIA WAS IN THE MIDST OF ANNEXING THE CRIMEA FROM UKRAINE. Do you see where the loyalties lie?

 

naval

Mykolaiv

The Russian navy has been building warships at Mykolaiv since 1788, shortly after Catherine the Great’s armies seized the area from vassals of the Ottoman Empire.

The Nikolaev Admiralty shipyard that built the first 44-cannon frigate of Catherine the Great’s Black Sea fleet eventually  became known as Russud in 1911, then (briefly after the revolution) the Andre Marti Yard, and since 1931 “Shipyard Named After 61 Communards,” its still-official name. Through most of its life and all those name changes, it’s generally been called the Nikolaev Shipyard. It built battleships for the czars, and destroyers and missile cruisers and submarines for the communists and the oligarchs who followed them.

Today Mykolaiv is still building vessels for the Russian navy in three shipyards. This is also where some of the icebreakers and submarines will be built that Putin will use to enforce his control of the Arctic. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

 

weapons-oktyabrsk

 

And just south of those shipyards is the “specialized sea port” of Oktyabrsk.

You won’t find Oktyabrsk on a Google map search of the Ukraine.

But it’s there if you know where to look.

It’s just south of the Korabel’nyi district near Mykolaiv where the Bug River opens up into the Gulf of Dniprovska and thence (after the tricky, protective narrows at Ochakiv) into the Black Sea about 100 km east of Odessa.

Oktyabrsk is the highly secure, very Russian “specialized sea port” from which the Kremlin ships out Kh-55 cruise missiles to Iran, Pechora-2 surface-to-air missiles to Eritrea, T-72 tanks to Venezuela and South Sudan, even more tanks and rockets to Myanmar (Burma) … and all of the above to Syria.

The map below shows why Oktyabrsk is a much more efficient port for Russia to use than, say, St. Petersburg, which is the port which would probably have to substitute if Russia was blocked from easy access to the Ukrainian Black Sea ports of Oktyabrsk and Odessa.

Oktyabrsk-shipping

 

Oktyabrsk was designed and purpose-built exclusively as a weapons shipment port for the Soviet Union. It is, after all, the port where nuclear weapons were loaded onto Soviet military cargo vessels in 1963 and shipped to Fidel Castro, thus precipitating the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Understand this: Oktyabrsk has always been Russian, will always be Russian. It doesn’t matter what the name on the map says, it’s Russian territory. A member of the Ukrainian parliament has as much chance of setting foot inside Oktyabrsk as you or I have of getting into the U.S. Marine base at Guantanamo Bay uninvited.

MV-Faina-at- Mombasa-T-72

Odessa

Odessa is a hub of Russia’s overseas weapons trade. Keep in mind that one of Russia’s biggest, money-making exports — after oil and gas and other natural resources — is weaponry.

Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state arms dealer, controls 80% of Russia’s arms exports and ships billions of dollars worth of killing machinery around the world each year ($34 billion in contracts were being filled as of June 1, 2013). Rosoboronexport primarily uses subsidiary companies and agencies based in Odessa and Oktyabresk to do the actual delivery work.

As well as bringing in foreign currency, Russia’s arms trade also gives it immense political  leverage in various parts of the world where it sells weapons. The power to deliver — or withhold — modern armaments is power indeed.

 

Here’s what Tom Wallace and Farley Mesko, analysts for the shadowy C4ADS research organization, had to say (in part) in a September 2013 report entitled The Odessa Network: Mapping Facilitators of Russian and Ukrainian Arms Transfers:

 

The Odessa Network is a loose collection of logistics contractors for the governments of Russia and Ukraine, not independent arms dealers. Key companies and figures in Odessa include Kaalbye Group (* See note below), Phoenix Trans-Servis, and their high-level political connections via key facilitators such as Boris Kogan. The companies work with state weapons export agencies such as Rosoboronexport and Ukrspetsexport. Odessa Network company leaders have personal and financial relationships with cabinet-level officials in the Russian and Ukrainian governments, including a personal advisor to Putin and senior Russian military- industrial figures. The Odessa Network centers on a group of Odessa-based private companies that regularly move large arms shipments. Affiliated EU and Russian ship- ping firms such as Briese Schiffahrts (and its subsidiary BBC Chartering) and Balchart play an important specialized role in transporting particularly large or sensitive shipments. The network is deeply interconnected. Personnel and equipment frequently cycle between different companies, and many network members are family members, close friends, former classmates, etc.

The vast majority of weapons shipments leave from the Ukrainian port of Oktyabrsk, which was specially built by the USSR to move weapons (for example, this was the point of origin for Cuba-bound missiles in 1963). Despite being located in Ukraine, Oktyabrsk is functionally controlled by Russia—the port manager is a former Russian navy captain, and the port owner is a Kremlin-linked oligarch. Russian state weapons export agencies and Odessa Net- work firms maintain offices and personnel in Oktyabrsk.

The Ukrainian firms also engage in non-weapons business—freight brokering, crewing, chartering, etc.—and operate in global shipping centers such as Hamburg, Rio de Janeiro, Singapore, and Dubai. To protect their weapons shipments, some of the Ukrainian and Russian firms own or contract with multiple private maritime security companies, who also operate in African conflict zones.

Weapons and non-weapons shipping activities generate large profits for Odessa Network leaders. They put their money in both legitimate ventures and a well-known network of Panamamian shell companies and Latvian banks that have been used for money laundering by other entities, includ- ing the Sinaloa Cartel and Hezbollah. They also are active users of US and EU financial institutions.

* NOTE: Kaalbye Shipping International denies any involvement in illegal arms shipments, points out that it is a frequent, certified shipper of heavy equipment, missiles and naval vessels for NASA and the U.S. military, and received an apology from the Washington Post earlier this month for making unsubstantiated allegations (based in large part on the assertions of the aforementioned C4ADS report) about its business activities.

 

In addition, Odessa is part of a sea-and-pipeline link that the European Union would like to use to avoid Russia in shipping oil and gas and other resources from non-Russian parts of the Caspian basin through Georgia to Europe. Russia would dearly love to control that link as well as all the land lines it currently runs to Europe.

And, let us not forget, Odessa is another Black Sea city that was Ottoman before the czars seized it for Russia in the 18th Century, a city with a still-large ethnic Russian population. It is a prime target for Russian takeover, according to NATO’s top military commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove.

Russian_Antonov_AN-225_in_1989

Kiev

Now Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, is not in the so-called “Russian zone.” As demonstrated by the Maidan protests that toppled Yanukovytch in February, it is one of the principal centres of anti-Russian, pro-European sentiment in Ukraine.

Why would the Russians want to get mixed up with that?

For the same reason they would be willing to roll in the tanks to maintain control of Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia and Mykolaiv: Because a key component of the Russian military-industrial complex is located there.

That would be the Antonov aircraft manufacturing complex, a cornerstone of Soviet-era air power and still one of the major aircraft producers in the world. Its heavy-lift military transport planes are still the biggest and best of their kind. It’s a state-owned Ukrainian company but Antonov only came to Kiev from Central Russia in 1952. Why? Same old reason — the communist leadership never expected the Soviet Union to dissolve into separate countries.

So Dmitry Rogozin went to Kiev in December 2013 to inspect the Antonov works and check up on various orders currently being filled for the Russian military.

As with Motor Sich in Zaporizhia, the Antonov production facilities in Kiev are an integral, necessary part of Russia’s current military build-up. And, like Motor Sich, Russia simply cannot afford to let that connection be broken or even disrupted for very long.

 

If Canada were Ukraine…

To put this in comparative terms, imagine that Canada is Ukraine and the United States is Russia.

Now imagine that major, essential components of the most sophisticated parts of the American military arsenal are made in places like Vancouver and Calgary and Regina and Winnipeg (which happens to be sort-of true, just not to the same extent as it is in the Russia-Ukraine equation). And imagine that a large portion of the Western Canadian population has strong ties to the U.S.

Now imagine that a criminal gang of neo-Nazi conspirators and paid agitators from Quebec has seized power in a coup in Ottawa and is (a) trying to form a strong alliance with Russia, (b) doing everything they can to defeat the U.S. and (c) threatening to make all of Canada a unilingual, French-speaking nation.

(That is not — I repeat, NOT — what is happening in Ukraine, of course, but it’s similar to the scenario being pushed by Kremlin-controlled media in Russia and it’s more or less what a lot of ethnic Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine seem to believe — or at least say they believe.)

Do you really think, given that semi-hypothetical situation, the U.S. would even consider allowing Canada to fall out of the U.S. sphere of influence or — even worse — join an economic and/or military union with Russia against the U.S.?

Don’t you think the U.S. would intervene militarily, either to crush the illegal insurrection in Eastern Canada or — much easier and cleaner — simply seize Western Canada (which links up nicely with Alaska/Crimea) and all of the important resource, technological and industrial infrastructure that is so important to American interests?

And don’t you think, given that same semi-hypothetical situation, a large portion of the population in Western Canada would welcome that military intervention?

 

So that is why Russia has very strong motivation — with proper ground cultivation — to move into Ukraine militarily and take the parts it deems to be “Russian” and which are essential components of the Russian military-industrial complex.

However …

While keeping the pressure on Kiev (and Washington) militarily, Russia is also pushing an alternative that would avoid war.

Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? You mean there’s a way to avoid war with a bigger, badder enemy who is guaranteed to whump my ass? It’s pretty much the alternative Adolf Hitler offered Czechoslovakia in 1938, unfortunately.

Russia keeps telling Ukraine to institute radically enhanced “federation” which would give the different regions of Ukraine increased autonomy, essentially making them independent from the central government. Thus the “Ukrainian” parts of Ukraine would do what they wanted and the “Russian” parts would go their own way.

If Ukraine does that, all the “Russian” regions of Ukraine will essentially then become de facto provinces of Russia instead of Ukraine without any invasion or formal name change. But Russia’s control over Ukraine’s essential industries and ports and “Russian” population will be complete without a shot being fired.

What do you think is going to happen?

Yes, Virginia, Putin Will Invade Ukraine

- April 7th, 2014

T-90C-Main-Battle-Tank

 

So it has begun.

Sooner than I thought, actually.

I was quite sure Vladimir Putin would wait until after the May 25 presidential elections to invade Ukraine — the part he hasn’t already seized and absorbed into Greater Russia, that is.

He would have justification and pretext for the invasion, of course, after a new, supposedly nationalist Ukrainian president is elected. The probable outcome is a bitter, divisive split pitting the majority Europe-loving western Ukraine against the minority Russia-loving eastern Ukraine.

That in turn would precipitate open rebellion in the Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, followed by secession, a controlled referendum and pleas to Mother Russia for salvation … culminating in the aforementioned invasion.

Just as we recently witnessed in the Crimea. Just as Adolf Hitler manoeuvred to absorb Deutsch-speaking parts of his European neighbours into Greater Germany in the 1930s.

(Again, I must declare that Vlad Putin is NOT the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler; he just does many of the same things. Every plague, whether it be militaristic expansionism or viral epidemic, follows a pattern and we have a better understanding of what will likely happen in future plagues if we analyze and learn from past plagues.)

For whatever reasons, the Russians have decided not to wait for Ukraine’s presidential elections to make their move.

The internal insurrection has already begun in eastern Ukraine with mass protests and building takeovers in Donetsk, Lugansk and Kharkov on the weekend.

BBC-News-Ukraine-framegrab

 

UPDATE: I’ve finally figured out why the Russians didn’t wait until after the May 25 presidential election to move into high gear. IF the electoral process is in any way fair and above-board and IF the “Russian” regions of eastern and southern Ukraine do not overwhelmingly support secession from “Ukrainian” Ukraine, then a large part of Russia’s leverage disappears. So the Kremlin HAS to either (a) pull  the “Russian” regions out of Kiev’s control  or (b) create the flashpoint that will allow Russia to move in militarily BEFORE the presidential election can have a chance to void Russia’s pretexts for annexation.

 

Now it’s possible the turmoil is the result of spontaneous combustion, a grassroots  uprising against the “illegal junta in Kiev” and perceived political repression imposed on the Russian-speaking population. Possible, but highly unlikely.

The demonstrations and attack teams are controlled and directed by organizations and operatives that take their marching orders from the Kremlin. It’s almost impossible that the protest leaders would let their dogs off the leash without the okay of their Russian masters.

It may be that the current escalation is aimed at getting rid of the Donetsk region’s newly appointed governor, steel oligarch Serhiy Taruta, before he has a chance to establish a power base and thwart the rising swell of secessionism.

It may be that the current protests are just part of a constant, ongoing campaign to increase pressure and destabilize the situation in the run-up to the May 25 presidential elections. Or it may be that the east and south of Ukraine are de facto independent by the time those elections are held.

It may be that Putin is gearing up to strike while the iron is hot, while the huffing and puffing NATO allies are still in a state of disarray and indecision and before any unforeseen developments jostle the sweet spot Putin is currently in.

We’ll see. Whatever the case, the secession of Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine and the military takeover of those regions by Russian armed forces are inevitable.

The Ukrainians know Putin is probably coming, just as the Czechs knew Hitler was coming in 1938 and the Poles knew in 1939.

The only two real questions are “When?” and “How much?”

“When” is “When will the Russian tanks roll in?” I’d say before summer officially arrives.

“How much” is “How much of Ukraine will Putin absorb into Greater Russia?” That’s the bigger question. The new border will probably follow the obvious division line you see in these electoral maps from 2004 and 2010.

 

Ukraine_Presidential_election_2004

 

2010-election-map-BBC

 

But the Russians could make the Dnieper (or Dnipro or Днiпро or whatever you want to call it) River the new boundary (plus all the Russian-speaking districts west of the Dnieper, of course). Then the question is: Will the Russians formally take over all of Kiev or leave it as a divided city?

And will the Russian T-90 tanks roll all the way to the Moldova border to “liberate” little Transnistria, that bizarre enclave of Soviet-era Russians which has been sitting in suspended animation since it broke away from Moldova in a 1992 war?

I think in both cases the answer is probably yes: The Russians will take more rather than less.

They know the U.S. and the rest of NATO will do nothing to stop them militarily. NATO has said so. The only thing stopping the Russians is their own assessment of how much they realistically want to bite off and absorb.

They certainly don’t care about “stern warnings” from Washington or global approbation (as long as China’s okay with it) or — heaven help us — sanctions. What the West thinks or says about the situation just doesn’t matter — as long as the West doesn’t actually do — really do — anything.

In fact, as far as Putin is concerned, a show of strength and a good old-fashioned showdown with the West just solidifies his position domestically. His approval rating in Russia has never been higher than when he re-claimed the Crimea.

putin-reuters

But why? Why is Russia going to invade a sovereign neighbour and create a new Cold War confrontation with the West?

Because it can and because it has to, from a Russian perspective.

I’m not going to dwell on the grand cultural and sociological and ethnological and historical and geopolitical reasons why Putin will do this right now.

I’m not even going to get into Putin’s personal obsession with restoring Russia’s “greatness”  or his (as the English-language Moscow Times puts it) “colonial attitude toward Ukraine.” I’ll just point out that Putin told George W. Bush in 2008 that “Ukraine is not even a state” and, in 2009, referred to Ukraine as “Little Russia” — a diminutive often applied to Ukraine in czarist times.

At best, he’ll divide Ukraine in two — a West and an East, just like the Soviet Union used a divided Germany as a buffer zone during the Cold War.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Look at this from the Russian perspective: The West and its military arm, NATO, have lied and lied and lied to Russia for a quarter of a century (longer actually, but we’ll just stick to the past 25 years — and we’ll also skip the part about the Soviet Union lying and lying and lying to the West). Why? Because they could get away with it. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, what right does NATO have to complain?

When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989 and the Soviet bloc of Eastern Europe began dissolving, the stresses and uncertainties of dismemberment meant nuclear war was a real possible byproduct.

To lessen the possibility of a Soviet nuclear last-ditch stand, NATO promised — absolutely promised in writing in a 1990 accord with the then-Soviet Union — that NATO would not move into the territory of the former East Germany when it was re-unified with West Germany. And NATO promised to keep its hands off all the countries of the former Soviet bloc, leaving a neutral cordon sanitaire, a military safety zone between NATO and the remaining rump of the Soviet Union.

Of course NATO disregarded its sworn promises as soon as it could. The eastern part of unified Germany is littered with NATO bases and, in wave after wave, NATO has absorbed almost all of those cordon sanitaire countries it promised to stay out of — the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999, followed by Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in 2004.

NATO says it was invited into those countries, begged for admission by those countries. So what? NATO was the organization that signed documents saying it would not move into those countries. NATO was the one that broke its promise.

In the end, Russia’s safety zone was reduced to Belarus and Ukraine. From a Russian point of view, the one crossing all the lines in the sand has been NATO. With its last buffer zone now under threat, Russia is just pushing back, getting a little breathing room.

 

Again, you can see where the probable dividing line is from this Wikipedia map (based on 2001 census statistics) showing the distribution of native Russian speakers in the Ukraine. The fact that Russian speakers aren’t a majority in a particular region doesn’t mean that Putin doesn’t see that turf as Russian territory. Crimea won’t be cut off from Mother Russia for long.

Ukraine_census_2001_Russian

 

But we’re not concerned with personal grievances, abstract rationales or fatuous near-future scenarios right now.

We’re going to stick to bread and butter basics here, compelling but rarely discussed practical reasons why the Kremlin will never let Ukraine — at least its eastern and southern half — escape the Russian orbit.

To do this as simply and directly as possible, we are going to look at four Ukraine cities and their role in the Russian empire. (Not right now — this piece is going on too long as it is. I’ll get into specifics in a few days, but I just wanted to give you a heads-up where we’re going.)

These four cities are not the three major metropoli of Ukraine you hear about all the time, the three where most of the action in Ukraine’s recent winter upheaval occurred — the capital, Kiev; the second-largest (and Russian-speaking) city of Kharkiv in the east; and Lviv in the west, the “European” heart of Ukraine.

Those three are marked with purple pointers on the map below. (Click on the map to enlarge it for a better view.) The four cities we’re going to look at are the ones marked with red pointers further south. (The three cities where major pro-Russian demonstrations and building seizures took place on the weekend are marked with blue arrows.)

The four cities we’re concerned with here are Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Mykolaiv and Odessa (or “Odesa” as the map says). These are all technical, industrial and/or transportation hubs.

ukraine-pointer-map

 

The thing you have to remember is that half a century ago, the industrial economies of the entire Soviet bloc were integrated. It’s not just an apocryphal story that left shoes were made in a Polish factory, right shoes were made in a Bulgarian factory and the two lots were shipped to Czechoslovakia to be paired up and boxed.

After more than two decades of post-Soviet disentanglement, there is still a tremendous amount of linkage and interdependency, especially between the Russian and Ukrainian industrial platforms.

And that’s why Russia will never let the four cities I’ve just mentioned — or the rest of industrialized eastern Ukraine — out of its orbit. Russia needs these cities. They are key, critical components of the Russian military-industrial complex. They are part of Russia — in fact if not in name at the moment — as much as Smolensk or Bryansk or Kursk or Belgorod.

We’ll get back to this in a few days. In the meantime, feel free to check out Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Mykolaiv and Odessa yourself, see if you can figure out why they’re so important to Russia, important enough to fight for.

Who Earns More — A Canadian, An Italian, A Greek Or A Brit?

- April 2nd, 2014

Euro

Listen up: I want all you quibblers, nitpickers and pedants to leave the room RIGHT NOW. Hop to it … You can stay, Woody — I said “pedants.”

I’m sorry about that, but I’m going to be citing a few numbers and statistics here, and I don’t want to get bogged down chasing meaningless red herrings raised by trolls.

Let’s get back to the core of this discussion: Who earns more — a Canadian, an Italian, a Greek or a Brit?

I’m not taking cheap shots at any particular nationality here. I could just as easily have said Poles or Czechs or Spaniards or even the Irish.

You see, the European Union’s highly paid number crunchers have just released their report on comparative average hourly labour costs for the year 2013 among the 28 member states that make up the EU.*

It’s quite a revealing document in that it paints a picture of wide wage disparity across Europe — from a high of 40.10 Euros (€) an hour in Sweden to a low of €3.70 an hour in Bulgaria — and it’s also interesting to see where Canada fits into the mix.

 

For the record, the Bank of Canada cites the current exchange rate at $1.52 Canadian to buy one Euro (€1). I can tell you from bitter personal experience that your bank and my bank are going to charge you a lot more for the transaction. And I can also tell you from bitter personal experience that the Canadian dollar is worth a hell of a lot less compared to the Euro than it was two years ago.

But we’ll pretend that one Euro is worth roughly $1.50. In other words the Canadian dollar is currently the equivalent of about two-thirds of an Euro. Keep that in mind because I’m going to stick mainly to Euros from here on in.

 

The latest figures from Statistics Canada say the average Canadian worker (age 15 and older) earned $24.64 an hour during the month of February 2014.

So, using our handy two-to-three conversion ratio, we’ll say the average Canadian worker made an average hourly wage of €16. (See why I told the quibblers to leave the room — those extra few pennies just muddy the water.)

For starters, let’s take our four aforementioned nations and put them in descending order. You may be surprised by how the chips fall.

Italy €28.10/hr

Britain €20.90/hr

Canada €16/hr

Greece €13.60/hr

I was certainly surprised by a few aspects of that ranking. I thought Canada would probably come in higher, for one thing.

For another, Greece and Italy are usually lumped together as fiscal danger zones in any discussion of the “troubled” Euro. How can their average hourly wages be so far apart if that’s the case. Is somebody lying? Is everybody lying? I just don’t know.

(And speaking of the “troubled” Euro, how much trouble does that put the Canadian dollar in if I’m paying more than $1.60 for one Euro now compared to less than $1.35 two years ago?)

Another thing is that all these countries (including Canada) and the others I mentioned earlier — Poland, Spain, Czech Republic and Ireland — are in the middle of the pack. Their porridge and their paycheques are neither too hot nor too cold.

 

Now I’m going to list the average hourly labour costs for all the EU members as cited by Eurostat, the EU equivalent of StatsCan. I’ll also stick in Canada as well as  EU-28 (the average for all 28 member states) and EA-17 (the average for the 17 member states that use the Euro as their currency).

We’ll start with the top earners (which really aren’t much of a surprise, although the order may be):

Sweden €40.10

Denmark €38.40

Belgium €38.00

Luxembourg €35.70

France €34.30

Netherlands €33.20

Austria €31.40

Finland €31.40

Germany €31.30

 

Ireland €29.00

EA-17 €28.40

Italy €28.10

EU-28 €23.70

Spain €21.10

Britain €20.90

 

Cyprus €17.20

Canada €16

Slovenia €14.60

Greece €13.60

Malta €12.80

Portugal €11.60

Czech Republic €10.30

 

Estonia €9.00

Croatia €8.80

Slovakia €8.50

Poland €7.60

Hungary €7.40

Latvia €6.30

Lithuania €6.20

Romania €4.60

Bulgaria €3.70

 

Now I’ve written all those numbers myself — no cut and paste — so I may have one or two digits wrong here and there. I don’t think so, but anyone planning to just cut and paste my work should understand there may be a price to pay for their laziness. Here’s a link to Eurostat’s official chart if you want to check my figures or compile your own.

There are so many conclusions one can draw from these numbers — and so many questions raised too.

For one thing, I wonder why the provincial minimum wages in Canada are so damn low.

Should the average Italian or UK worker earn way more than the average Canadian worker? Should the average Greek worker earn less?

Is the average Canadian worker’s toil worth only slightly more than half as much as the average German’s or Finn’s?

And what about the poor Bulgars and Romanians?

And why is Portugal’s average hourly rate almost half that of its neighbour, Spain?

And, if the Euro Zone is going to hell in a handcart while Canada’s sitting pretty on top of all our supposed oil sands wealth, why is the Euro worth so much more today compared to the Canadian dollar than it was in 2012?

Just asking.

***

(*Average hourly labour costs for companies with 10 or more employees and excluding agriculture and public administration.)

April Fools ‘jokes’ suck, blow and are just plain dumb

- March 29th, 2014

NOTE: I have decided to call it “April Fools” this year instead of the singular, possessive “April Fool’s” because … well, just because. But also because there are so many fools out there, it’s not really fair to place all the blame on just one.

spag1

Ah, the BBC’s famous “bumper harvest from Swiss spaghetti trees” on April 1, 1957.

 

April Fools jokes are dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb … dumb.

Dumb.

About the only thing they do in reality is prove the perpetrator is an idiot — usually an idiot with either a terrible sense of humour or no sense of humour at all.

This, I should stress, is not an April Fools joke: I’m serious.

I should also stress this is a personal opinion. I have absolutely no idea whether or not the Toronto Sun will inflict an April Fools “joke” on its readers this year. I dearly hope not but even when I had some say in the operation of the paper I often had to watch, with tears in my eyes, as a dumb, dumb, dumb, unfunny April Fools “joke” made its way into the pages of the paper. Why should now be any different?

April Fools “pranks” are beyond dumb when newspapers and other supposedly reputable media organizations get involved: They’re counter-productive and self-destructive, close to insane.

As I’ve said before (one year ago, in fact):

“Putting out fake/bogus/false/untrue/fraudulent stories ANYTIME ANYWHERE is wrong, stupid, dangerous and malicious, if not actually criminally irresponsible. People are supposed to trust the information in your publication, not look at every item and article with suspicion: ‘Will this thing bite me?’

“How dumb is that, for any responsible news outlet or publication to ask its readers to NOT trust what it says as the truth, to the best of its ability?”

When I was a newspaper editor, I tried to keep whatever publication I worked for (sorry — “for which I worked” feels wrong and sounds wrong) from stepping on the April Fools land mine — usually without success. It was with immense sadness that I would watch normally smart, sane and responsible (within limits) journalists purposefully try to make their readers disbelieve them, to make their readers not trust them, to convince their readers they were lying idiots with no sense of humour or comprehension or rectitude.

In this age of instant worldwide online communication and shared viral experience, it’s even worse. I think everyone knows dozens of cases of sensational but completely fraudulent stories being gobbled up in the voracious maws of news-gathering agencies and spewed out as the supposed truth.

I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve seen a purportedly real news story — spread by everyone from CNN to the New York Times syndicate to the Vatican news service — turn out to be an imaginary piece of fluff contrived by theonion.com or some other “satirical” website, then picked up by some naive intern or frazzled editor and recycled as the genuine article.

(By the way, I tried to use a pseudonym for theonion.com just to avoid giving them undue attention, but every similar idiotic name from “thegarlic.com” to “oink.com” already exists as a bought-and-paid-for, real-life website, so I’m just sticking with the facts. Speaking of which, The Onion’s understanding of what constitutes “satire” is about as accurate and worthwhile as Alanis Morissette’s grasp of what “irony” is. That last part is called “sarcasm,” not to be confused with satire, irony, humour or dumb April Fools jokes.)

Granted, the practice of creating lies and disseminating them as the truth is so common on the Internet that most citizens of the 21st Century apply a truth filter to whatever we read online. (Actually we don’t do it all the time but we should — just to avoid having my friend Woody tirelessly and tiresomely correcting our misstatement of the facts.) The problem is that a lot of stuff that is complete bullshit sounds real, could be real AND HAS NO FREAKING REASON TO NOT BE REAL … except for the fact that the person who foisted the poison apple on the world is a liar, an idiot, a troll, a pustulant carbuncle on the left buttock of the universe and probably a psychopath.

Given that, why would anyone associated with a legitimate news organ — an organization whose most valuable asset is usually its good name and reputation for honesty and integrity and due diligence — choose to place itself in the company of malignant trolls and  sociopathic liars and oozing slimeballs?

I ask you, why?

I don’t know why, but they do just that. Time after time. Year after year. Like some journalistic equivalent of lemming hordes throwing themselves off cliffs in a frenzy of mass self-destruction.

lemming-2

Lemmings don’t generally fling themselves off cliffs in vast multitudes, by the way. The worst perpetrator of that lie was Walt Disney, whose Oscar-winning 1958 nature “documentary” White Wilderness showed thousands of lemmings supposedly throwing themselves to their certain deaths during a mass migration. According to a later CBC investigation, it turned out the Disney folks had collected all those cute, cuddly little lemmings around Hudson Bay and flown them to Calgary, where the “documentary filmmakers” placed them on a giant spinning turntable that hurled the tiny, helpless creatures off the cliff. God’s honest truth.

Take, for example, the April Fools “prank” I got on my high horse about last year.

Some two-bit, hokum website that usually hustles half-price tickets to loser Broadway shows had the bright idea of running an April Fools story saying Clint Eastwood had signed on to direct a biopic about Canadian music legend Stompin’ Tom Connors.

It was a total lie, a complete fabrication — but it was presented in a serious, straight-forward, utterly believable manner. There was no real joke, no wit, no artful skewering of misplaced complacency or inflated egos, no delightful tickling of the collective funny bone.  A typical April Fools joke, in other words.

It was just another throw-away story about another pending movie project. To most of the world — especially to the cut-rate Broadway market of purple-haired grannies and fuschia-haired grandees that would normally peruse the website — it was nothing, less than nothing, a ho-hummer.

But in Canada (where Stompin’ Tom fills a place in our hearts that would be occupied by a George Washington-Woody Guthrie hybrid in an American’s heart), it was BIG NEWS.

So everyone from the Globe & Mail to the CBC to Huffington Post Canada jumped all over the “real” news story and gave it big play. (I should point out loyally that the Toronto Sun did not take the bait — probably because no one at the Sun saw it before it was debunked.)

And then — in a matter of hours usually, sometimes days — the red-faced Globe & Mail and the others issued retractions and apologies and tried to make the whole pathetic episode go away. The CBC, in fact, (much to its shame) actually tried to erase its error from the record, to pretend that it never happened at all. Sort of like those 1930s pictures of Stalin and his disappearing flunkies. Which is worse — falling for a lie or pretending you’re infallible?

Now here’s the thing that gets me: Even though all these reputable news organizations were bitten on the ass — humiliated, disgraced, mortified, sucker-punched — by a dumb, dumb, dumb April Fools joke … most of them went ahead and perpetrated their own dumb, dumb, dumb April Fools jokes too. And they probably will again this year too. What fools.

Last year I asked all the news organizations that were taken in by the Stompin’ Tom fraud to stand up and take this pledge:

“I, ————— (insert name here), do hereby solemnly swear to never ever again publish an April Fool’s Joke because I now understand that not everyone has the same sense of humour I do (if I have one at all) and not everyone is going to understand that my pointless attempt at humour is, in fact, meant to be something other than a dangerous abuse of the power and privilege of the press. So help me, Stompin’ Tom Connors.”

To the best of my knowledge, none of them did. Shame on them all.

Here’s another example from last April Fools Day.

The editors of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cleveland Plain Dealer didn’t just put one stupid false story with one goofy false headline in their April 1 edition: No, they dragged their readers into the fiasco by printing a whole series of false headlines in advance and encouraging their readers to glue the false headlines onto the April 1 print edition of the Plain Dealer to confound, amaze and delight their friends.

I’m not 100% sure but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that this was somehow or other the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s self-serving way of pretending that the newspaper itself didn’t actually knowingly publish an intentionally wrong, misleading, duplicitous news article. But they actually did worse. Look at this.

Cleveland-Plain-Dealer

Not only did the Plain Dealer participate in and encourage the perpetuation of a wildly irresponsible April Fools “prank,” the newspaper then insulted its readers for being the victims of a lie.

Can you imagine how hurtful it must have been to any Cleveland Cavaliers fan who saw a headline announcing the Second Coming of LeBron James, only to find out it was a hoax?

And then, with your face still smarting from that blow, to have the other cheek swatted with a rolled-up newspaper bearing the words “Boy, are you gullible!”

What newspaper editor thought that was a good idea? If I was a Cavs fan (shudder) living in Cleveland (double shudder), I would never, ever buy a copy of the Plain Dealer again in my life. How do you like that “joke,” idiot?

And it’s not just the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Many April Fools “jokes” have caused large-scale panic and even evacuations. Radio seems to be the worst for this, probably because of the immediacy. Back in 1999, for example, a couple of Oregon radio DJs told their listeners a dam had burst — in a valley that had suffered serious flooding the previous year. Only joking, folks, only joking. Man, that’s funny. Put down the pitchforks … please.

The problem is that April Fools “jokes” are supposed to be funny. And not everyone has the same sense of humour or the same life experience that can render an event either funny or tragic. When you couple that with the fact that some people who perpetrate April Fools “jokes” either don’t know they’re supposed to be funny or haven’t the slightest idea how to be funny, then you have a major ugly waiting to happen.

Some April Fools jokes are funny — to me. For example, YouTube’s announcement last year that its entire existence was for the purpose of finding the world’s best video … which would be shown at midnight on April 1, after which YouTube would shut down. Or the American Eagle Outfitters ad for spray-on skinny, skinny jeans.

But the fact that I find them funny doesn’t mean you do or that the “joke” actually is funny or worthwhile in any way, shape of form. A lot of people contacted American Eagle trying to get a can of the spray-on jeans, and a lot of YouTube addicts went into total crisis mode. Believe me, they did not find the tiniest iota of humour in the “joke.”

Some April Fools “pranks” are downright malicious. Maybe deservedly so, but still malicious — and that’s not a good thing. It’s a cheaty, lowball, cowardly way of striking out at your enemies, especially if you’re operating from a position of wealth and power and trust like …

Justin Bieber.

Last April 1, Justin Bieber tweeted this message to his millions of fans.

Bieber_TMZ

The phone number was for the tip line of TMZ, the celebrity gossip TV show/website that makes life difficult for pop idols like the Biebs. So fair’s fair. But consider this: You’re a 12-year-old kid who thinks you have a shot at talking to the Most Important Person In Your Life and instead you get a busy signal or, even worse, a recorded TMZ spiel. By the way, what Bieber did was illegal under U.S. telecommunications law.

And it’s especially important to remember that power and influence don’t automatically make you funny.

Uday-Hussein

Consider Uday Hussein, one of formerly living Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein’s formerly living psychotic offspring. Back around the turn of the century, when Uday was still alive and running the regime’s newspapers and soccer teams for his dad, he ordered the editors of Babil newspaper to include in their April 1, 1998 edition a story saying the U.S. had lifted economic sanctions against Iraq. The Iraqi people were suffering great deprivations at the time because of the sanctions, so there was great rejoicing — until everyone realized it was just Uday’s April Fools “joke.”

The next year, on April 1, Uday announced that monthly food rations would now include bananas, chocolate and Pepsi. Same euphoria, same letdown. He repeated the sanctions-lifted “joke” in 2000 and the bananas-rations “joke” in 2001. No wonder George W. Bush had to invade Iraq — if only to stop Uday’s April Fools “jokes.”

The list of stupid things people do in the name of April Fools is endless and limitless.

The online Museum of Hoaxes has gone so far as to collect what it considers the “Top 100 April Fool’s (sic) Day Hoaxes of All Time.”

Some are mildly amusing and one, which I’ll get into soon enough, is (in my opinion only) wonderful and worthwhile at any time of the year. But this one is (again in my opinion) the exception that proves the rule.

And when I look through the various “pranks” that various news organizations have pulled off over the years, this is what I think: “If you had invested as much effort into producing real, excellent news reporting as you put into this fraud, your now-defunct newspaper might still be alive today.”

Because my point is this: Real is real and fake is fake. Newspapers try to be real — that’s their job, their reason for being. Sometimes they get it wrong, horribly wrong, but they’re supposed to be trying as hard as they possibly can to GET IT RIGHT. So when a newspaper goes out of its way to purposefully misinform and confuse and annoy its readers, it’s going against every tenet and every instinct that a journalist should have. It is, in my view, a betrayal of trust and a crying shame.

So I plead with the newspapers of the world — DON’T DO IT. Don’t make a mockery of your institution, your culture, your business, your profession, your integrity, your honour, and all that’s right and just in this world … (pant, pant, gasp for air) … by lying and cheating in the name of an April Fools “prank.” Which probably isn’t really funny anyway.

Now, having said that, I want to show you the one April Fools creation I actually applaud. But here’s the thing — it doesn’t hurt anyone, it doesn’t do anything that vilifies or denigrates anyone, it doesn’t lie and cheat and make the world a grubbier place. It’s lighter than air and it feels good. It is a joy and a wonder — and I almost wish it was true.

And it could have been done at any time of the year and still have been marvellous. It didn’t need the mean-spirited self-justification of “Ha-ha-April-Fools-screw-you-sucker” to exist.

Here is the BBC’s Flying Penguins video segment, 89 seconds of completely false, completely fabricated, completely wonderful April Fools frippery with host Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame). The clip is actually an in-house ad created to promote the BBC’s digital online service.

flying-penguins

And here’s another nifty clip showing how the completely false, completely fabricated, completely wonderful Flying Penguins piece was put together.

So not all April Fools “jokes” are bad. Just all of them except one. In my opinion.