Tag Archives: Russia

Truce Talks Stagnate As Israel Rejects, Continues Bombings

Hopes for a truce between Israel and Gaza were dashed Tuesday as the bombing campaign continued.

Hopes for a truce between Israel and Gaza were dashed Tuesday as the bombing campaign continued.

There was much discussion during the day on Tuesday that a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza would take effect perhaps around 8pm local time, but as the sun set and midnight approached, Israel’s aerial campaign against the Gaza Strip continued. Talks stagnated in Cairo, Egypt, with the influential Middle Eastern nation taking center stage as it tries to broker a cessation of hostilities in the week old conflict.

Reports from the region indicate that the death toll has risen to 132. As the rumored time for the ceasefire came and went, Gaza residents were informed via leaflet to evacuate Gaza City immediately - seemingly warning of a more widespread bombing campaign to soon begin. Such a move would no doubt increase the death toll even further.

The Israel Defense Force has also been warning journalists to keep their distance from Hamas “operatives”:

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Talks for Gaza Ceasefire Overshadowed by Deadliest Day Yet of Conflict

Israel continues surgical strikes on the Gaza Strip.

Israel continues surgical strikes on the Gaza Strip.

Monday was the deadliest day of the skirmish between Israel and the Gaza Strip with Palestinian reports of at least 34 killed by Israeli bombings. This pushes the overall figure for deaths on the Gaza side over 100, a mark that is sure to continue to rise as the conflict drags on. The tolls provided somber backdrop to negotiations taking place in Cairo, Egypt:

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also arrived in Cairo to aid negotiating efforts. He plans to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the coming days.

US President Obama spoke to his Egyptian counterpart Mohamed Mursi and to Mr Netanyahu on Monday and “discussed ways to de-escalate the situation in Gaza,” the White House said in a statement.

An obligatory statement of regretting deaths on both sides was also mentioned by the President.

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329 & Counting: Another Warmer-than-Average Month for Earth

According to the National Climate Data Center’s monthly report, July 2012 was the 4th warmest July on record for the planet – coming in at 0.62°C above average. A remarkable statistic pointed out by Dr. Jeff Masters at the Weather Underground:

July 2012 global ocean temperatures were the 7th warmest on record, and it was the 329th consecutive month with global temperatures warmer than the 20th century average. The last time global temperatures were below average was February 1985.

Or in graphical form:

Monthly global temperature anomalies from 1880 - present.

Monthly global temperature anomalies from 1880 – present.

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Pussy Riot Verdict Another Boot to Face For Russia’s Fledgling Freedom of Speech

Three members of Russian punk group Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison last week for protesting the Russian Orthodox Church and President Vladimir Putin in a church.

Three members of Russian punk group Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison last week for protesting the Russian Orthodox Church and President Vladimir Putin in a church.

Even though the 2012 election had long since been a foregone conclusion to anyone with a basic understanding of the facts on the ground, there was still a fair deal of resistance to the inevitability of the soon-to-be reelection of Vladimir Putin. In addition to the ability to vote against Mr. Putin and participate in (the few remaining legal) opposition rallies, there were some off-the-beaten-path protests. One of the more notable ones came on the 21st of February, when a female punk rock group called Pussy Riot showed up at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour church in Moscow. After making the sign of the cross, they began to perform the song “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away” as cameras rolled – the video intended for a music video. They were quickly whisked away by guards.

On the 3rd of March, the day before the election, two of the group’s members were arrested and charged with hooliganism. With the election of Mr. Putin sowed up in a total demolishing of the opposition the next day (63.6% for Mr. Putin, 17.18% for the next closest), the Russian legal system moved forward with making sure that the message was heard loud and clear: dissent against the established order will not be tolerated. A third member of the group was arrested on the 16th. The short trial began on the 30th of July and by the 17th of August the verdict was handed down – guilty, with two years imprisonment up next. The presiding judge, Judge Syrova, announced the verdict with this full-throated announcement that the not-state-religion (of which its leader strongly endorses Mr. Putin) trumps any freedom of speech concerns:

The Court considers that social justice and prevention of further possible crimes can only be achieved by restricting the defendants’ freedom and real imprisonment,” Judge Syrova said.

“By their actions, Samutsevich, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina seriously disrupted public order and the day-to-day running of the Cathedral. They showed blatant disrespect to church-goers and workers, and in doing so gravely offended their religious sensibilities.”

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Russia Votes: Putin Reassumes the Throne

Humbled by merely receiving less than 64% of the vote instead of the 70's, a teary eyed Vladimir Putin celebrated his Presidential election victory, starting a new six year term next month.

Humbled by merely receiving less than 64% of the vote instead of the 70's, a teary eyed Vladimir Putin celebrated his Presidential election victory, starting a new six year term next month.`

On the 4th of March, Russians took to the polls to confirm one of the larger locks in elections that will be held in 2012. The cavernous loophole in the Russian constitution that restricts a President to a limit of two consecutive terms, but not a limit on how many terms total, was easily exploited in a highly predictable fashion by now President-elect Vladimir Putin. With the electoral machine that is the United Russia party behind him, he crushed all competition in the vote, securing nearly 64% and ushering in another six years of his rule (prior to 2012, Presidential terms were four years, so quite probably at least another twelve).

Mr. Putin has spent the last four years in the Russian Duma as Prime Minister. The Russian constitution does not divide up power between the executive and the legislative branches as the United States does. Instead of concentrating power in the executive, the President and Prime Minister in Russia serve as co-executive in chiefs. While the President gets more face time, Mr. Putin as Prime Minister still had plenty of power for himself.

The outgoing President, Dmitry Medvedev, was pushed into the office in his own electoral landslide that was helped on by ringing endorsements from Mr. Putin in 2008. While essentially a seat warmer for Mr. Putin, Mr. Medvedev did manage to push an agenda of his own which included economic modernization, moving away from relying so much on fossil fuel profits, guiding his country through the Great Recession, “resetting” relations with the United States, signing the New START treaty, and winning the South Ossetia War against the tiny nation of Georgia. Still, when it came time in late 2011 to make the decision official, Mr. Medvedev announced he would once again fade into the background and pave the way for the “return” of Mr. Putin.

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Syria Steps Up Attacks on Protestors, China & Russia Lead UN to Political Stalemate

Anti-government rallies continue in Idlib, Syria, despite continued government crackdowns that have killed hundreds over the weekend and as many as 7,000 in the past ten months.

Anti-government rallies continue in Idlib, Syria, despite continued government crackdowns that have killed hundreds over the weekend and as many as 7,000 in the past ten months.

On the 15th of March last year, the Syrian people entered the Arab Spring movement with mass demonstrations against the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad on scales equal to that seen in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and others. As one regime after another began to topple, Mr. Assad began a suppression effort against those protesters which wen combined with some concessions would hopefully lead to a peaceful outcome and his ability to remain in power. Ten months later and this policy has long since failed.

Much like the Libyan Civil War in 2011, Western powers appealed to the United Nations in order to provide cover and support for the protesters now turned into revolutionaries who sought to bring down the Assad regime. Libya won support: acting with approval from the Arab League, the United Nations for the first time in history issued a resolution specifically targeting the protection of civilians from an internal conflict, and green-lit international action to support this end. The vote was a bit of a surprise as China and Russia were persuaded to not veto the measure – primary motives being China’s investments in Libyan infrastructure and energy sectors, and Russia’s desire to not see the influence of the European Union continue to spread into northern Africa.

Syria will not see the same level of support from the international community, and for the time being it appears the Syrian rebels will be left to fight on their own. Motives for Russian veto of a weekend Security Council vote range everywhere from protecting a longstanding ally to petty domestic politics:

By bluntly using its veto power to block a United Nations resolution urging Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, Russia has shown a willingness to defy the West at a scale rarely seen since the Cold War times.

The price Russia will have to pay in international condemnation of its action clearly doesn’t seem excessive to the Russian leaders. In fact, the Kremlin even may hope to reap some dividends both at home and abroad by coming to Assad’s defense.

With Russia’s presidential election just a month away, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, seeking to return to the Kremlin, appears eager to stand up to the United States by protecting a longtime ally. Putin already has given his campaign a distinct anti-American flavor, accusing the U.S. of trying to thwart his bid to reclaim the presidency, so bickering with Washington over Syria would give him an extra chance to consolidate his support among nationalists.

Russia’s relations with the U.S. are in a downward spiral amid a host of disputes, and the discord over Syria wouldn’t bring any dramatic change in the overall picture.

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Ukraine’s Former Prime Minister Sent to Prison Camp

Yulia Tymoshenko, former Ukraine Prime Minister, waves from a prison window in November of 2011. She has since been moved to a remote prison camp.

Yulia Tymoshenko, former Ukraine Prime Minister, waves from a prison window in November of 2011. She has since been moved to a remote prison camp.

Ukraine has had a rather wild political life over the past decade. A sea change election in 2004 saw the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych nearly steal the vote from the pro-European candidate Viktor Yushchenko. Yushchenko himself was a victim of dioxin poisoning during the campaign – a murky incident that points in the general direction of former Ukrainian security service deputy chief Volodymyr Satsyuk (who today lives safely in Russia).

As domestic and foreign election observers began to release information on voter fraud, up to a million people turned out to occupy the center of the capital Kiev until runoff elections were announced. Yushchenko won the re-vote, but his political career didn’t get much better. Peaking in popularity within six months of his election, Yushchenko would go on to see an approval rating only the U.S. Congress can be familiar with – the single digits, with disapproval in the mid 70′s by mid-2008 and continuing through the remainder of his term.

One of Yushchenko’s fellow Orange Revolutionaries, Yulia Tymoshenko, became Prime Minister under Yushchenko. The honeymoon did not last very long though as Tymoshenko’s government was dismissed by Yushchenko, and Tymoshenko was thrown under the bus for perceived economic weakness & instability in the ruling coalition. Tymoshenko would return to the post in 2007 behind a new coalition, and would wind up outlasting her former ally Yushchenko in a 2010 Presidential election – an election that saw the narrow victory of the still pro-Russian Yanukovych, six years after his 2004 defeat.

Tymoshenko went on the offensive against Yanukovych and his administration, becoming an outspoken thorn in his side as an opposition leader. Her bloc would boycott Yanukovych’s inauguration ceremony, and raise a rather loud stink about Ukraine’s securing of a treaty with Russia where they would lease naval bases to Russia in exchange for a guaranteed supply of natural gas. Weeks after this deal, Ukraine authorities reopened a case against Tymoshenko that was shut by the country’s supreme court in 2005 – alleging that Tymoshenko had tried to bribe supreme court judges. From here charges would morph until their ironic outcome: Tymoshenko was tried and found guilty in October of 2011 for signing a natural gas deal with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that was deemed to be “abuse of power”. This deal cut out a middle-man company in Ukraine, allowing the country to work directly with Russia – but it was deemed illegal by Yanukovych’s government, whereas Yanukovych’s deal involved the stationing of Russian military forces on Ukrainian soil.

Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison and ordered to pay $188 million to the state. While in prison in December she was arrested again on a tax evasion suspicion. She was placed on indefinite arrest and was moved on December 30th to a remote prison camp:

“Tymoshenko has been moved to a prison in the Kharkiv region,” the state penitentiary service said in a statement.

The European Union, which had planned to initial agreements on political association and free trade with Ukraine at a summit this month, put off the signing and cited Tymoshenko’s case as an example of selective justice in the former Soviet republic.

Yanukovich has refused to intervene and the parliament, dominated by his supporters, has turned down several proposals to remove her alleged offence from the criminal code.

Tymoshenko’s lawyers say she hopes that the European Court for Human Rights, where she has filed a case against Ukraine, will exonerate her. The court said this month it would fast-track the case.

International reaction has been harsh, with even Russia surprised by the severity of the sentence. Amnesty International has called for her release.

Oh, the little country is poking the big country with a stick again!

In tonight’s edition: Georgia is posturing for some odd reason, Pakistan: still a mess, and unemployment looks not quite so bad for the moment…

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As has been mentioned a couple of times in recent postings, we’re at the one year anniversary between Russia and Georgia’s war, the same war that saw Georgia thoroughly spanked as Russia barely expended any muscle in dispatching Georgians out of two sections of the country that preferred to have a friend in Moscow than a friend in the EU.  Doing its best job in not remembering the past, Georgia is trying to flex its muscle, for the hell of it.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Georgia’s actions, including a troop buildup on the borders of two separatist Georgian regions, are cause for “serious concern” a year after a war between the two countries.

“Georgia’s actions continue to cause serious concern, from the unceasing threats to restore its ‘territorial integrity’ by force and daily warlike rhetoric to its concentration of armed forces on the borders with South Ossetia and Abkhazia and serious provocations in border areas,” Medvedev said in a letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Excerpts from the letter were posted today on the Kremlin Web site.

If need be, Moscow can once again flick the Georgian fly off its shoulder.  Whatever the cause the Georgians think they have, right or wrong as they may be, one has to realize that unless you’re going in with the backing of Brussels or Washington, you’re not going to wind up doing much of anything except getting routed.  This lesson hasn’t been learned yet, but hopefully it’s all just a phase and diplomacy can guide both sides in the future.

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Pakistan is a country that has been an absolute mess for years, with the formally government-backed Taliban turning on its source country after being booted from Afghanistan in 2001.  Allowed to fester and gain its control in Pakistan’s largely lawless western areas, the Taliban has been able to spread back into Afghanistan and encroach on Pakistan’s capital – moves that have brought see-sawing violence through cities across the country, resulting in displacement of thousands, and many deaths.  With the apparent killing of a top Taliban leader, it appears that the following has been added to Pakistan’s plate of instability: inner-Taliban conflict.

Pakistan says it is investigating unconfirmed reports of a deadly shooting between two rival Taliban commanders seeking to replace the group’s leader Baitullah Mehsud, who was allegedly killed in a U.S. missile strike.

Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Saturday the reports suggest a fight broke out during a meeting (shura) between Wali-ur-Rehman and Hakimullah Mehsud, and that one of them is dead.

But another Taliban commander, Noor Sayed, denied there had been any such confrontation.

The succession meeting was reportedly held in the semi-autonomous tribal region of South Waziristan bordering Afghanistan, where Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi says Baitullah Mehsud was killed Wednesday.

In theory this is a touch of good news, since a fractured Taliban is less likely to make a move on Islamabad and overthrow the government there, but the chance for more violence elsewhere – especially in the western proviences – continues to run high, if not getting higher.

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Hark!  There’s one sort-of kind-of good-but-not-really bit of news out there!  The unemployment rate fell… slightly!

Major stock indexes jumped more than 1 percent Friday after the government said the nation’s unemployment rate unexpectedly fell in July for the first time in 15 months and that employers cut fewer jobs. Bond prices fell, driving yields higher as investors left the safety of Treasurys.

The Labor Department report handed investors the best evidence yet that the economy could be climbing out of the recession. Analysts widely consider unemployment the biggest obstacle to a recovery in the economy, which is driven by consumer spending.

The surprise figures injected new life in a monthlong rally and provided validation for traders who have been betting since March that the economy is healing. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 114 points to cap its fourth straight weekly gain. The Dow is at its highest level since early November.

I do love that terminology though… “highest since November” – still need another 50% jump to get back to tasting “the way things were” when this all began in 2007.  A 0.1% decline in the unemployment rate doesn’t mean that the sun has risen and everything is all better, but at least the bleeding isn’t at as severe of a rate.  Could this be the peak of the worst in unemployment?  Possible, but not likely – people are still losing their homes and the entire slow turning wheel that has ground us down over the past many months has too much inertia to just stop in its tracks.  Could this be a pause in unemployment and there’s still a second spike higher?  Possible, but not for sure – we may just linger here for years as the economy stagnates before finding its new direction.

Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor, official.

In today’s edition: the obvious happened, Russia & Georgia’s tensions a year later, and a green battery powered future

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Causing more drama than it really should have, considering how set in stone this was from the very beginning, Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed to be a Supreme Court Justice in the Senate by a a wide margin: 68 – 31.  As you may already know, this is historic so much in that she will be the nation’s first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice.

Sotomayor, 55, was touted during three days of Senate debate as an American success story. Raised in a Bronx, N.Y., public housing project by her widowed mother, she had a stellar academic career and served as a federal prosecutor, trial judge and appellate court judge before President Barack Obama made her his first Supreme Court choice.

At the White House, Obama hailed the vote, saying, “These core American ideals – justice, equality and opportunity – are the very ideals that have made Judge Sotomayor’s own uniquely American journey possible. They’re ideals she’s fought for throughout her career, and the ideals the Senate has upheld today in breaking yet another barrier and moving us yet another step closer to a more perfect union.”

Still, there is a hint of things to come by the number of votes against her: 31.  That is the highest total since 1894, when Grover Cleveland’s pick, Wheeler Peckham, was denied by the upper house.  With John Paul Stevens being 89 years old and four other justices more than 70 years old, this battle against Obama might have multiple rounds.

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Is Georgia the new Cyprus?

One year after Russia and Georgia went to war over a separatist Georgian region, the situation has settled into a Cyprus-style stalemate as Russia and the West remain at odds over the territory while pursuing closer economic and security ties.Russia routed Georgia’s U.S.-trained army in the five-day war over the separatist region of South Ossetia. After the conflict, Russia recognized South Ossetia and a second breakaway region, Abkhazia, as sovereign countries in the face of Western condemnation and deployed thousands of troops in the regions.

Georgia looks to be the odd man out, as the aim of the West is not to seek out destabilizing relations with Russia.  In the opposite case, the money to that country would be flowing at a much quicker rate, possibly with additional military assistance.  If the Georgians remain bent on stirring up drama with their large neighbour to the north they stand more of a chance of ending up looking like Kosovo than any sort of prosperous nation. As it stands right now, the divisions created by the war will take many years to heal, with sides reluctant to move any quicker at the table – leaving time and economics to determine how united Georgia will remain – if it is ever to gain back its lost territories.

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The future is nice.  The future uses less gas.  The future is batteries.  Part of it is, at least, after $2.4bn was opened up for the development of battery technologies to power the hybrid and electric cars of the future.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced the list of 48 grant recipients Wednesday in what is being called the largest ever investment in hybrid and electric car advanced battery technology. The grants, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, target U.S.-based manufacturers, automakers, universities, and battery developers in a bid to put a million plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

The grants are divided into three areas: $1.5 billion to help U.S. manufacturers produce batteries and grow recycling capacity; $500 million toward U.S. production of electric drive components; and $400 million for education and workforce training, and the purchase and testing of electric vehicles in multiple locations.

Recipients, which agree to match the grant funds, span more than 20 states but are not surprisingly concentrated in existing auto manufacturing hubs such as Michigan and Indiana. Projects include truck stop electrification, hydrothermal lithium ion battery recycling, electric minivan and pickup truck development and deployment, and community college education for aspiring service technicians.

Breaths of fresh air are welcomed in the state of Michigan, trust me on this one.  While it’s not as much of a good news story as distancing ourselves from auto manufacturing may be, the idea that there might be a Detroit-based auto industry to forge on into the next decade and beyond is at least a little bit of a pick-me-up.

A coup, complete

In today’s edition: Iran’s coup becomes official, the U.S. ponders the good bank/bad bank solution, and the Rooskies are coming

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As the President, I swear to Almighty God before the Holy Quran and the Iranian nation that I will protect the official religion and the Islamic Republic regime and the country’s constitution, and use all my talents and qualifications towards responsibilities I have undertaken, and dedicate myself to serving the people and promoting the country, promoting religion and morality, supporting truth and spreading justice, and will avoid any kind of obstinacy and defend the freedom and dignity of individuals and rights of the nation that the Constitution has recognized.  I will refrain from any action to safeguard the borders and political, economic and cultural independence of the country, and with the help of God and by following the Islamic Prophet and the Imams like a devout and self-sacrificing trustee will protect the power that has been given to me by the nation as a sacred trust placed in me and pass it to the nation’s elected [leader] after me…

With those words spoken today, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began his 2nd term as President of Iran.  It appears all but certain that the old guard of that country has solidified its grip, has pulled off an obvious mass electoral fraud, killed its own citizens to further the cause, and has gotten away with it.  Perhaps not scott free, but any sort of winning is winning, right?  One last time now, the “actual” and “real” results…

Official Iranian Election Results
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 24,527,516 62.63%
Mir-Hossein Mousavi 13,216,411 33.75%
Mohsen Rezaee 678,240 1.73%
Mehdi Karroubi 333,635 0.85%

…and…

Unofficial Iranian Election Results
Mir-Hossein Mousavi 19,075,623 45.39%
Mehdi Karroubi 13,387,104 31.85%
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 5,698,417 13.56%
Mohsen Rezaee 3,754,218 8.93%

The next Iranian election for President is in 2013. Mr. Ahmadinejad is term limited and will not be allowed to run (probably). Still, I highly, highly doubt that any sort of openness of debate will be allowed anywhere near the level that was seen in Iran this year – and it will probably be limited in such a way for a long time.

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The financial crisis and its after effects continue to haunt us.  Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac, two companies that were quazi-private lenders of last resort to potential house buyers, were slammed by last fall’s meltdown.  There appears to be an endgame on the table for both of those companies, and that would basically involve wiping their collective slates clean:

The Obama administration is considering an overhaul of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that would strip the mortgage finance giants of hundreds of billions of dollars in troubled loans and create a new structure to support the home-loan market, government officials said.

The bad debts the firms own would be placed in new government financial institutions — so-called bad banks — that would take responsibility for collecting as much of the outstanding balance as possible. What would be left would be two healthy financial companies with a clean slate.

The moves would represent one of the most dramatic reorderings of the badly shattered housing finance system since District-based Fannie Mae was created by Congress to support mortgage lending during the Great Depression. Both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, based in McLean, have government charters to buy home loans from banks, which they then repackage and sell to investors. The banks can then use the proceeds to offer more loans to home buyers.

While this does the job of making unhealthy companies healthy again, and attempts to collect whatever is left over of what can be paid on these properties, it does allow two companies to walk away from their own lending practices and their own mess, into the future to potentially do it all again.  The bad guys get away and we get stuck with the bill.  The downside to letting them fail, however, was seen in last fall’s stock market crash.  The evaporation of Lehman Brothers helped to evaporate 20 – 30% off of the U.S. stock market – and that was just one financial company.  It’s one of those situations where there are no pleasurable options, just bitter pills to swallow.  Good job, capitalism.

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Russia is flexing its muscle:

A senior Russian military official said Wednesday that Russian nuclear-powered attack submarines spotted off the U.S. East Coast were on a legitimate training mission.U.S. defense officials said Tuesday that two Russian submarines had been patrolling in international waters for several days. While the activity was reminiscent of the Cold War, the U.S. officials said the submarines had done nothing to provoke concern.

Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, a deputy chief of the General Staff of the Russian military, said the patrols were part of efforts to give more training to the military forces.

For anyone who has forgotten the back story, last year the tiny nation of Georgia instigated a war against Russia with weapons sold to them by the United States.  The Georgians were routed and sent packing by the overwhelming Russian forces and in a few days the conflict was over.  The fact that Russians were being shot at with American weapons though, did not sit well with Moscow – causing a freezing in relations like nothing seen since the end of the Cold War.  Such a thing isn’t going to be forgotten by the Russians as quickly as the West might forget that the conflict ever happened.  If anything the exercises off the east coast of the U.S. are a “stay out of our backyard!” warning that, thanks to the current administration we have, will more than likely not turn into a dick waving war for the 2010s and beyond.  Just let time heal these wounds.