23 March 2022: Spain’s current problems, here and there; An unfair cop; Traffic fines; Swimming madness; & Other stuff

Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable
Christopher Howse: ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

Cosas de España/Galiza

More on Spain’s North African complexities here.

And something here on the challenge of ending the truckers’ strike

The ex police chief in Pontevedra has been recorded by a colleague saying: I’d like to see some of those protesters raped by a riot cop. As if this weren’t bad enough, said police chief is female. Won’t help her retirement, I guess. Though she comes from Madrid, where they might know nothing about this.

This is a road I pass along 4 times a day:-

As you can see, it’s devoid of properties on either side. But this hasn’t stopped the Pontevedra council reducing the speed limit from 50 to 30 and setting up a radar trap there. I confidently expect to get a fine one of these days, to add to the two I’ve ready had this year, despite – I insist – always trying to keep within the limit. Sometimes Atlas nods . . .

The UK 

Richard North’s Turbulent Times has been a good source on information on the situation in Ukraine. This morning his site is down. Has it been hacked, I wonder.


Two bits of bad news-

1. Blunt truth from AEP: The half-hearted sanctions against Russia have already failed

2. The West is losing the information war with Russia – and hasn’t even noticed.

See below for both of these.

The Way of the World 

I guess we’ve  all seen this foto of the winners of a women’s swimming race in the USA:-

So, an unsurprising comment: Sport must face up to reality – fairness and inclusion cannot co-exist with trans participation. Unless one of the two is prioritised, the controversy will continue in a naïve and dishonest manner. I guess separate events for trans women is a non-starter. Two classes of ‘women’. Both hating the other. Even more than men . . .

Quote of the Day  

The mother of the British captain of the super-yacht allegedly owned by Vladimir Putin: My son would never work for a murderer. Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?

Finally . . .

That coat of Putin’s that I said was ugly .  . Endorsement from a national columnist: His £10,000 Loro Piana anorak looks like it cost 40 quid at Matalan.

For new reader(s): If you’ve landed here looking for info on Galicia or Pontevedra, try here. If you’re passing through Pontevedra on the Camino, you’ll find a guide to the city there.


Half-hearted sanctions against Russia have already failed: Ambrose Evans-Pritchard 

Russia has not defaulted on its sovereign debt after all. Nor is it likely to do so under the current sanctions regime, and as long as Europe continues to finance Vladimir Putin’s military state with purchases of gas, oil, and coal.

The Kremlin is already sufficiently confident to reopen the Moscow stock exchange for bond transactions. The US Treasury’s sanctions office (OFAC) has made life easier by leaving a loophole for sovereign debt repayments, concerned that there might otherwise be a Lehmanesque shock to global finance. 

The uninterrupted flow of fossil revenues – at windfall prices – is enough to cover interest service costs and redemptions. Goldman Sachs even thinks that the central bank will be able to relax capital controls gradually.

The rouble has not collapsed. It has stabilised after a 40pc devaluation, a manageable drop for a semi-autarkic closed economy. The fall is less than the currency slide in Turkey over recent months, which few even noticed outside specialist circles. 

We are facing the failure of western sanctions policy. Calibrated half-measures are not sufficient to change the Kremlin calculus or to dissuade Putin from a policy of attrition against civilian targets. 

Yes, Russia is having to sell some crude oil at a steep discount but the gap is already narrowing as shippers learn to navigate the political reefs. India and others are competing for bargain supplies, cutting the discount to $20 this week from $28 a barrel after the invasion of Ukraine. If Europe is still buying Russian oil, how can distant states in Asia be persuaded to desist?

The Kremlin is still earning almost $100 a barrel at today’s global prices ($118), twice the average of the last eight years. The Russian current account is in rude good health. Clemens Grafe from Goldman Sachs expects the surplus to top $200bn this year as imports of western consumer goods are slashed.

Russia has enough usable foreign currency to stay afloat for a long time. Western sanctions against the central bank are not proving to be the killer blow supposed at first, and nor is the ejection of some Russian banks from the SWIFT nexus of global payments. There are too many deliberate exemptions.  

Goldman’s deep-dive into the effect of sanctions ought to end all wishful thinking. The US investment bank forecasts that the Russian economy will contract by 10pc this year, a bad recession but not an economic breakdown. Growth will then recover to 2.4pc next year and 3.4pc in 2024 as the country adjusts. Exports will be back to 98pc of prior levels by early next year. If so, Putin is not going to lose sleep over this.

Russia’s trade will mostly be diverted rather than destroyed. There may even be some short-term growth stimulus as Russia replaces western goods with home-made manufactures. Putin has been building a fortress economy ever since the annexation of Crimea. Net foreign funding is negligible. Total public debt is 18pc of GDP, one of the lowest ratios in the world. 

Over four-fifths of GDP come from sectors that import just 15pc or less of their inputs, falling to 7pc in the mining industry. This is a radically different economic structure from western states such as Poland.

“If Russia were fully integrated into global supply chains, restrictions on imports and exports would be immediately destructive. However, Russia largely exports goods that are almost fully produced locally,” said Mr Grafe.

Iran endured tougher sanctions without buckling. Cornell professor Nick Mulder, author of The Economic Weapon, said the country settled into a new equilibrium within a couple of months. “If Iran’s experience is any guide, Russia will survive and return to lacklustre growth,” he said. “Historically, sanctions have hardly ever been successful in stopping wars,” he said. A rare exception was the Balkan ‘war of the stray dog’ in 1925. Needless to say, Putin’s war on Ukraine is not a border skirmish. It is a long-planned attempt to overturn the post-Cold War settlement and alter the world’s balance of power.  

European ministers once again grappled with a hydrocarbon embargo – the fifth package of sanctions – at an EU meeting on Monday. Once again the proposals ran into resistance from Germany, with Italy and others happy to tuck in behind.

There is a pervasive fear of a gilets jaunes uprising across Europe, a suspicion that a fickle public will not tolerate a cost-of-living shock once the horrors of Ukraine lose their novelty on TV screens – but that is to abdicate leadership.  

The business-as-usual lobbies in Germany have dusted down a catastrophe scenario known as Lükex 18, a report by the German civil defence agency (BBK) painting a portrait fit for Hieronymous Bosch of what might happen if gas supplies were ever cut off. 

It is to throw sand in our eyes. We are already in late March. The winter is over and Europe will have enough gas to last deep into the late autumn. It has sufficient spare import capacity for liquefied natural gas to rebuild some of its depleted storage with shipments of LNG from the US and Qatar over the summer months.

Professor Moritz Schularick from Bonn University said an immediate halt to all purchases of Russian gas, oil, and coal, would cut German GDP by 3pc this year and cost around €120bn but is perfectly feasible. “The world wouldn’t end,” he said. 

The possible measures are by now well known. Every one degree cut in home heating saves 10 billion cubic metres (BCM) of gas. If Europe dialled down from an average of 22 to 19 degrees, which happened in some states in the 1973 crisis, it could already cover one fifth of total Russian supply. Targeted sections of heavy industry can be rationed with a small loss of GDP. 

As for oil, the International Energy Agency has just cut its forecast for global demand this year by 1.3m barrels a day (b/d). It has issued a 10-point plan for rapid cuts that could shave a use by a further 2.7m b/d without causing an economic crisis, chiefly by a string of temporary measures such as lowering speed limits by 10 km/h, car-free Sundays, and less air travel. Together these savings add up to 4m b/d, equal to most of Russia’s oil exports to Europe.

The issue is no longer whether it can be done but whether Europe has the political courage to try. What is clear is that western sanctions policy is the worst of all worlds. We are suffering an energy shock that is further inflating Russia’s war-fighting revenues.

While it is hard to separate the effect of sanctions from war disruption and market psychology, the current situation is intolerable. We are allowing Putin to exploit Russia’s leverage as a full-spectrum commodity superpower. 

The spot price for ammonia in Europe has risen sevenfold this year, deliberately pushed higher by a Kremlin ban on fertiliser exports that has no other purpose than causing maximum chaos and probably a global food shortage over the next year. Shortages of nickel, palladium, and other metals are becoming critical. 

It is a strategic imperative to bring this crisis to a head immediately by raising the ante. A total energy embargo would buttress the military resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces and test whether it is even possible for Putin to continue prosecuting a bungled invasion.  

As matters now stand, the sanctions have failed to achieve anything. It is Ukrainian resistance, and military kit mostly provided by the Anglo-Saxon powers of Nato and frontline EU states, that have so far held the line. Core Europe has done little more than bleat on the margins.

The spontaneous willingness of European nations to welcome millions of refugees is marvellous – and the UK should drop its tone-deaf visa requirement immediately – but what is most needed is to confront the cause of this vast human convulsion.

2. The West is losing the information war with Russia – and hasn’t even noticed. From India to South Africa, there’s an online battleground that’s going under the radar… and Putin’s army of trolls has all the momentum. Io Dodds, The Telegraph

On March 3, one day after India and 34 other countries refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in a United Nations vote, the hashtags “IStandWithPutin” and “IStandWithRussia” began trending on Twitter in India.

The hashtags, propelled by tweets lauding Vladimir Putin for opposing the United States and “standing against the West’s hypocrisy”, underlined India’s longstanding cosiness with the Russian government – its biggest arms supplier – as well as its understandable antipathy to Western empire-building.

Yet the tweetstorm does not appear to have been entirely natural. Over the last two weeks, multiple researchers have found evidence that those hashtags were boosted by networks of fake or hacked accounts, many created very recently, coordinating with each other to artificially amplify the pro-Kremlin hashtags.

The networks appeared to suddenly “activate” when the war broke out and bore all the hallmarks of a state-sponsored influence campaign like those mounted by Russia, Iran and so many other countries over the past decade to massage public opinion at home and abroad.

For Nato countries trying to diplomatically isolate Putin’s regime, that highlights an uncomfortable point. Though Russia’s vaunted information warfare apparatus seems to be failing in the West, there remains a large chunk of the world, from India through China to South Africa, where that is not the case.

“An idea I’ve heard a lot is that Kyiv is ‘winning’ the information war,” says Carl Miller, a research director at the think tank Demos who tracked some of the Indian networks. “I think that’s fairly complacent and based on a mistake: that our information environments are more universal than they are. [The fact] that we can’t see these influence efforts in the US or UK isn’t because we’re winning, it’s because we’re not the battleground.”

If Russia has failed to divide Western hearts and minds, it is not for lack of trying. Social media researchers at the Atlantic Council, a pro-Nato think tank which receives funding from the British government, have compiled a blizzard of hoaxes, hacks and censorship targeting Ukraine and its allies. Though not all can be tied to the Russian state, Putin has long blurred the lines between spy agencies, state-backed media, private companies, online vigilantes and even cyber-criminals tacitly shielded by the government.

There have been doctored videos of Polish saboteurs in eastern Ukraine, released on the eve of the war by Russian-backed separatists and amplified by state-backed media. There have been implausible allegations of US biological warfare labs in Ukraine, apparently lifted from the American far-Right and reproduced by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

There was even a computer-generated “deepfake” simulation of Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky asking the country’s soldiers to lay down their arms. Meanwhile, UK mobile phones carried by British volunteers in Ukraine are feared to have triggered a deadly Russian airstrike after their signals were picked up by Russian surveillance equipment.

Yet attempts to sway Western publics have largely failed in the face of vigorous social media opposition from the Twitter-savvy Zelensky and countless Ukrainian citizens, argues Andy Carvin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab (DFR). “Russia did not seem prepared for Ukraine to fight back in the form of a meme war alongside counter-offensives on the ground,” says Carvin. “Ukraine has done an extraordinary job.” Not just on the military, but the digital front: “It was like 20th century Stalinist propaganda coming [up] against 21st century social media messaging.”

Shelby Grossman, a scholar at Stanford University’s Internet Observatory who has tracked many pro-Kremlin influence campaigns in the developing world, credits Russia’s failures in the West to stiff Ukrainian counter-propaganda, stricter action by Silicon Valley companies such as Meta (Facebook’s parent company) and Twitter, and the relative moral clarity of Ukraine’s cause. In particular, tech firms and the EU have banished the state-backed media outlets RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik from much of the internet after years of audience-building throughout the West.

Both researchers, however, warn that Western nations are only part of the PR battle. “What we’re really seeing is several information wars taking place at once – or, if you prefer, different theatres of operation in a broader information war,” says Carvin. “I don’t think the Kremlin is too concerned about what the average person in the West thinks at the moment.”

On the home front, Russia has “successfully clamped down on access to independent and social media”, including by banning Facebook and Instagram and designating Meta an extremist organisation. It has tried to reduce information leaks from its own armies to open-source researchers in the West by cracking down on smartphone use, albeit with limited success.

Another key theatre appears to be India. Miller’s analysis found dense clusters of frequently interacting Twitter accounts, some of which were later banned by the social network for breaking its rules on “platform manipulation on spam”. A Hindi-speaking cluster promoted memes about Western hypocrisy, comparing Ukraine to Palestine and calling for solidarity with Russia against Western imperialism, while other clusters targeted south-east Asian countries, Urdu and Sindhi speakers in Pakistan, and English and Zulu speakers in South Africa.

“My suspicion is that there is an underlying strategy being exposed here to target parts of the world where anti-colonialism and antipathy towards the West will have some resonance,” says Miller. An unverified Twitter account identifying itself as Russia’s ambassador to Uganda picked up the theme on March 5, tweeting: “Russia did not stain itself with slavery and the atrocities of colonialism. Not in Africa, not in Asia, not in Latin America.”

These narratives build on long-running Russian influence operations in Africa, where Putin has been attempting to revive his country’s Cold War era diplomatic footprint and where many people depend on social media for news. Dr Grossman and DFR have tracked several covert campaigns probably tied to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch known as “Putin’s chef” who is accused by US prosecutors of interfering in the 2016 election via an infamous “troll farm” known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA). Prigozhin is also alleged to have ties to the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary group that operated in Syria and the Central African Republic, and has numerous mining interests throughout Africa.

“These [Facebook] pages produced almost universally positive coverage of Russia’s activities in these countries and disparaged the UN, France, Turkey, Qatar, and the Libyan Government of National Accord, most often while purporting to be local news sources,” said a 2019 Stanford report. In South Sudan, IRA-linked networks have praised Russian bases and aid packages from Prigozhin, while in Mali, they pressed for Russian troops to replace French ones in battles with Islamist groups (France eventually withdrew).

In the Central African Republic, Carvin says, the Wagner Group even “became a meme”, celebrated as a macho alternative to the neo-colonialist French. So the big question is how much of this has happened naturally and how much of this has been due to Russian influence operations.

All these nations joined India in abstaining from the UN vote against Russia. Dr Grossman thinks it’s unlikely that information warfare played a large role in that, suspecting instead that Russia is targeting countries where it already has a favourable audience. Yet such campaigns may help keep nations on side against Nato pressure by manufacturing the impression of popular support.

China has deployed its own sophisticated propaganda and censorship apparatus to echo Russia’s perspective. Partisan posts backing Ukraine, and some backing Russia, have been swept from social networks, while both domestic and overseas state media outlets have avoided blaming Russia for the war and occasionally repeated Russian hoaxes.

“They follow the guidelines set by the Party and generally follow the line of reporting by [state news agency] Xinhua, which presents Russia in a positive light,” says Prof Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute. “It reflects China’s real position which is that it outwardly proclaims ‘neutrality’ in the conflict but in reality supports Russia and Putin.”

At least broadcast TV is easier to monitor than social networks, which tend to section off their users in bubbles of shared culture that see totally different information on their timelines. While Twitter is largely public and allows mass data collection by academics, Meta has historically baulked at giving researchers such access. The private messaging app Telegram – widely used in Russia and Ukraine – is even harder to study.

Indeed, Carvin says that RT, which retains a massive following in Latin America, is increasingly urging Spanish-speaking users to join its Telegram channels as tech firms and the EU crack down on it elsewhere. Russia’s embassies in Ethiopia and Uganda have done the same, though their channels only have about 2,300 members between them. Still, Dr Grossman argues that it’s right to focus on Ukraine for now, because that is where the info-war can most directly affect the physical war. The Zelenskyy deepfake was “kind of janky”, she says, but what if it had actually worked? “The potential impact there is just so severe.”