eyes on the U.S.

Ukraine, Don't Blame American Weakness

The crisis in Crimea says more about Russian ambitions and European foot-dragging than it does about indecisiveness in Washington.

Kiev marches on
Kiev marches on
Ansgar Graw

WASHINGTON – It's prime time in America, and the cable television channel AMC is showing Sylvester Stallone’s nearly 30-year-old film Rocky IV. In this installment of the boxing saga, the American hero Rocky Balboa gets roughed up pretty bad in the first round by Soviet muscle machine Drago.

If you switch to Fox News, you’re reminded that former presidential candidate Mitt Romney warned, in 2012, that Russia remained "the USA’s number one geopolitical enemy." Meanwhile, experts on CNN discuss whether Russia’s grab of Crimea from Ukraine was provoked by the weakness of American President Barack Obama, who laughed at what he called Romney’s “Cold War rhetoric.”

Reset, rebuild

The idea about American weakness deserves some follow-up, but focusing on the White House is far too simple. Yes, Obama’s “reset” policy to mark a new start in relations with Russia was naive. The President didn’t understand Russia’s classical geopolitical thinking. Neither the plan to link former Warsaw Pact countries into an American missile shield nor the dialogue about citizens’ rights were compatible with Vladimir Putin’s goal to rebuild a tightly-led super power after the traumatic demise of the USSR.

Last year Obama came across as a ditherer on the foreign policy front when his threats to unilaterally punish Syria for using poison gas gave way to an unexpected request to Congress – and finally with Putin’s help, turned the whole thing over to the negotiating table.

And yet, the mobilization of Russian units, with the apparent target of ensuring Russian dominance at least in Crimea, is hardly a result of Obama’s waffling. Otherwise how would you explain Putin’s military intervention not dissimilar in some respects to the Crimea operation in Georgian provinces Abkhasia and South Ossetia in 2008? During the Caucasus war Obama wasn’t president George W. Bush was, and his foreign policy seldom came under criticism for lacking decisiveness.

The weakness of the US President is not, however, what is driving Russia to create precedents in Crimea. It is instead the "fixed star" in Moscow’s policy itself – the consolidation of its own territory and securing a peripheral cordon sanitaire to keep real or suspected enemies at a distance particularly after the experience of NATO eastward expansion in the 1990s.

This makes it even more imperative that the US not show weakness in the way it handles this crisis. Beyond the President, whether the US reacts weakly will also depend on the ongoing trench warfare between Republicans and Democrats. The political standoff in Washington concerns health reform as well as negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program.

With regard to Ukrainian politics it wasn’t Obama who wavered. The US imposed sanctions on members of the despotic and now-departed pro-Russian regime in Kiev, while the Europeans were studiously ignoring the storm clouds gathering. That’s why it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Victoria Nuland, an assistant secretary of state, in a supposedly confidential phone conversation, said: "F#*k the EU."

Think twice

In view of the apparent occupation by Russian military units of Ukrainian military installations in Crimea, Washington is once again planning sanctions, this time against the Kremlin. And again, the Europeans don’t want to hear it. They would however be far more directly hit by Russian reprisals than the Americans – mainly Germany that in its push away from nuclear energy has actually again become more reliant, as it had traditionally been, on Russian gas.

The European Union volume of trade with Russia is 11 times that of the US with Russia. That’s why, in Washington, the view is that without the Europeans (headed by Germany) effective sanctions against Moscow are not feasible.

Still, Obama should think twice about the "political, diplomatic and economic isolation of Russia," which so far he’s cautiously floated via Secretary of State John Kerry. In too many crisis situations, from Syria to Iran, Washington depends on a certain amount of cooperation from the Russians. Which is why a military reaction is not being considered anywhere, neither by Europe, NATO, nor in the US.

All signs point to Moscow seizing Crimea, whether by annexing it to Russia (to which it belonged until 1954) or in a camouflaged maneuver – “autonomy” recognized by the Kremlin. Over and above that, there is the threat of a Ukraine divided into a Western, pro-European part and an Eastern, pro-Russian part although this could possibly be avoided if the West joins together to secure this huge bankrupt country at the center of Europe.

To do that the EU is going to have to dig deep into its pockets. And because Russia is no longer going to deliver petrol and gas at less than world market prices to Ukraine, the US could make that up with its enormous new wealth of its fracking-driven supply of gas. If the US were also to offer this supply to the Europeans, this would be a considerable embarrassment to Putin.

The Rocky movie, by the way, ends with a hard-won victory by Rocky Balboa over the Russian Drago. The Crimea crisis, for now, shows no signs of a Hollywood ending.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ