Geopolitics

Vladimir Putin Is Playing The West For A Fool

The failure of the Western allies to weigh on the situation in Syria is a humanitarian disaster. It's also a sign for Putin that he can also have his way elsewhere.

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin on Sept. 4
Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin on Sept. 4
Richard Herzinger

-OpEd-

BERLIN â€" Talks between the U.S. and Russia are again supposed to lead to a ceasefire in Syria, or at the very least a temporary pause in the horrendous bombardments of Aleppo by the Assad regime’s Air Force and its powerful protector, Russia.

Previous ceasefires, however, have always been violated by Moscow and Damascus, with agreement giving way to even more brutal bombing of civilians.

It is quite obvious that the Kremlin views these talks as mere diversionary tactics to fob off the West while pursuing its goal with lethal steadfastness. The goal is not to find a peaceful solution for Syria but to utterly destroy the Syrian opposition and with it, American and Western influence within the country and the entire region.

Wholesale slaughter

There is nothing to indicate that anything has changed vis a via Russia’s intentions, along with those of its ally Iran, whose militias and mercenary troops fight side-by-side with Assad’s troops on the ground against Syria’s Sunni population.

The dimensions of warfare orchestrated by the Moscow-Damascus-Tehran axis have taken on that of genocide. The Russian airstrikes alone, which recently included the targeted use of anti-bunker bombs against underground hospitals, killed more civilians than the ISIS terror militias have. And yet the West is failing still to take serious action to stop the massacres, which are among the worst committed since World War II.

Although the U.S. broke off negotiations with Russia in early October after finally realizing that Moscow would never honor the agreements made, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has, once again, agreed to peace talks. In the meantime, nothing has changed.

Even as the sides were meeting last Saturday, airstrikes on Aleppo continued unabated. Putin and Assad have reinforced their military position since the last broken ceasefire agreement. So why should they now back down voluntarily? The U.S., after all, has no means of coercing them.

More bark, still no bite

Washington and its allies may have sharpened their tone â€" French President François Hollande, for example, recently branded Russia"s actions in Syria as war crimes and threatened to call upon the International Criminal Court in The Hague â€" but they haven't taken any concrete action against Moscow. Nor has President Obama, despite being advised to by some in his own administration, agreed to provide Syrian rebels with anti-aircraft missiles or order strikes on the strongholds of Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The governments and people of the West have yet to grasp the severity of the situation and realize what is really at stake in Syria. Not only morally speaking, but also in terms of global political consequences that a capitulation to Russia’s politics of violence could mean.

The Kremlin sees itself as being in an undeclared war against the U.S. and its main allies. And it's using Syria as a testing grounds to gauge how far it can go in its mobilization against the West. The Putin regime is also demonstrating, yet again, that international law and rules do not apply to the Motherland. The same goes for its treatment of Ukraine, where Russian troops are occupying territory in a independent European state with zero regard for the Minsk agreement.

Actions of armament, such as positioning Iskander rockets in Kaliningrad, which threaten Poland and the Baltic States, as well as the cyber warfare undertaken to destabilize the institutions of U.S. democracy are unambiguous warning signs announcing the determination of the Kremlin to seek open confrontation with the West.

Were he to be elected president, Donald Trump would be a perfect tool for Russia's plan to destabilize the West's leading liberal democracies. But even if he loses, Trump's disastrous election campaign alone has opened considerable rifts within American society that won't be easy to bridge.

Feigned neutrality

Germany, for its part, applies the preferred strategy of whitewashing the imminent threat to freedom. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs doesn't dare verbally admonish Russia the way France and Britain have done.

There has, recently, been more talk of possible sanctions against Russia within the circles close to Chancellor Angela Merkel. But the Putin apologists and general soothers continue to warn against "demonizing" Russia or complicating "dialogue" with Moscow through improper critique.

There is also a growing tendency to view the U.S. and Russia as equally responsible for the Syrian catastrophe, and to argue that the contrast between Russia and the West isn't as stark as it was during the Cold War. As if the democratic states of law and order were indistinguishable from Russia’s Putinism, an authoritarian state that is governed by its intelligence services and the mafia!

On the streets of Germany, mass demonstrations against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement are threatening to undermine the proposed trade deals and jeopardize Europe's economic future in the process.

Defeating these international accords would be a huge success for the Kremlin’s subversive tactics, which, in the finest Soviet tradition, seek to sever Europe’s ties with America.

Russia has long seen Germany as the key to hegemony on the continent, which is why the Kremlin continues to use its influence over people in the German political, economic and publishing spheres to make its hard tactics palatable to the people as a whole. But in the end, Germany's soft approach won't appease Russia, but will only encourage more aggressive tactics.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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