Sunday 2 March 2014

Ukraine and the Threat of War

Of all the available options to mark the outbreak of the First World War in its centennial year, starting another is the least appropriate way I can think of. But the dogs of war are straining at the leash, and the drums are loudly echoing across the Black Sea's northern shores. The decision of Vladimir Putin to send Russian troops into Crimea is the by far the most serious international incident this decade.

First things first, let's clear out the nonsense. It says something about the poverty of this country's politics when a government minister uses the occasion of crisis for desperate point-scoring. But Javid is not alone. Plenty are the armchair brigade who urged war on Syria from Tweetdeck (as opposed to carrier decks) and are making broadly similar claims. The argument goes something like this. Because the US and its allies didn't rain cruise missiles down on Damascus, its opponents in Moscow and Beijing will conclude that the West have lost its nerve, more or less giving them a free hand.

It doesn't stand up to argument. Exhibit one: Afghanistan and Iraq. The Anglo-American invasion and occupation of these unhappy lands didn't clip Moscow's wings. It allowed Putin and Medvedev to crack down on Chechen and Ingush separatism in the name of the War on Terror. Exhibit two: Russia's brief conflict with Georgia and subsequent establishment of puppet states in Abkhazia and South Ossetia proceeded while the West was still bullish and with the neocons in the White House. Now, of course, Putin and his circle of advisors would have weighed up the reaction of "world opinion". But considering the actions of the US is a matter of routine. Russia knows the Americans are not going to intervene militarily in support of the new Ukrainian government, and it has never been a realistic proposition. Hence the "weak West" thesis is a complete red herring. We'd be here whether we'd flung cruise missiles into Syria or not.

The second point is the hypocrisy or select blindness of Western commentators, paid-for or unsolicited. I think it was Thatcher who said that there are no principles in international relations, only interests. Yes, "defence of Russian speakers" and such like is a flimsy pretext for Russia's military interventions. The good reason seeks to mask the real reason, and no one would doubt that Putin is motivated by what he understands as Russia's interests - of which more in a moment. But come on, let's bin the cringing naivete for once. The West in the shape of the US and European Union have as surely pursued their sometimes complementary, sometimes divergent interests as their Russian opponent. NATO and the EU have expanded eastwards consistently since the soviet collapse, and the US has military bases dotted about the USSR's former central Asian republics. You don't need to be an apologist for Putin - and I'm definitely not - to note that the Kremlin might feel a process of encirclement is in motion, and that it will be a long-term concern in its foreign policy deliberations. Russia's military incursion is conditioned by its perception of creeping threat - if you can grasp that then Putin's behaviour becomes understandable.

Understanding, however, does not excuse Russia's behaviour. There is absolutely no reason to whitewash Putin. His regime is a grotesquery as vicious and criminal as its democratic legitimacy is thin. To cosy up to it out of "anti-imperialism" or some residual Sovietist nostalgia is morally vacant and politically stupid. And to have Lenin's self-described disciples doing so would have that waxen figure back-flipping in his mausoleum. But condemnation and moral opprobrium is no substitute for analysing and dissecting, and Putin is pursuing a consistent strategy. As the New Atlanticist's Damon Wilson argues, Russia's strategy is about destabilising its former possessions and as a kind of ring of instability that would prevent their being turned against Moscow. The FSB and the Russian foreign office observed how the Baltic States were removed entirely from Russia's orbit and integrated into the EU and NATO. Acquiescing to that elsewhere could have relegated it from great power status to a "Saudi Arabia with trees".

But why? It's not just a matter of fear. The problem Russia has is three-fold. As Putin's administration becomes more authoritarian, the more brittle it becomes. If you cultivate the image as a strongman, you need to do the heavy lifting. Presently Putin does enjoy a large measure of popular support, largely because he is perceived as standing up for Russia in the world. Allowing the Ukraine to slip away and theoretically putting the large Russian-speaking minority in harms way would be political suicide. It's a good job for Putin that his natural political instincts keep this option off the table. Second, Russia's ruling clique of oligarchs and bureaucrats could teach the British bourgeoisie and its hangers on a thing-or-two about decadence. They represent the most parasitic forms of capital, forged by Yeltsin's sweeping privatisation of the economy and, since, have done little but gorged themselves on Russia's vast energy and mineral reserves. That money is funneled into prestige office blocks in Moscow but precious little is getting reinvested in the "real" economy. There's also the small matter of a flatlining population after nearly two decades of absolute reductions. Despite the BRIC hype, Russia is in a spiral of long-term decline.

Unfortunately for us in the West, the money markets of London, New York and Frankfurt are lubricated by cash looted from Russia's oil fields and mines. Neoliberalism has reversed the economics of 1914. Whereas then British and French capital was doing quite nicely under the Tsar, today it is Russian capital making cash in London from financial alchemy, property and football. An unstated and underestimated risk for Britain and the US is economic blowback.

Which brings us back to the West. Notwithstanding NATO's condemnation, the US and EU are urging restraint on the new Ukrainian government because they have no short, medium or long-term interest in action against Russia, be it open conflict, a ruinous proxy war ostensibly between West and East Ukraine, or sanctions. It is also wary of further cementing a de facto alliance between Russia and China. However, despite warning the new government against taking action, Yatsenyuk's ad hoc administration also have limited choices. For Ukrainians who fought Yanukovich's stooge regime this is another phase of Russian bullying. The political clamour to do something might be too great to resist, especially when you have open fascists in your cabinet.

This week will be crucial. Let's hope the outcome will be something other than 'nothing good'.


Strategist said...

I think it was Thatcher who said that there are no principles in international relations, only interests.


America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.

Speedy said...

I thought that was MacNanamra?

"NATO and the EU have expanded eastwards consistently since the soviet collapse"

Yup - power is hungry for power. To paraphrase the late, great Iain (M) Banks, every cluster of interests is in effect an "hegemonising swarm".

There's no need for Ukraine, Turkey, Romania, Serbia, etc. It should have got/ get its own house in order first, but the Eurocrats are also hungry for more "influence" - it's all about them, nothing to do with the people, human rights etc.

Although it's a gangster state, i have a bit of sympathy for Russia - i saw first hand how it was treated in the early 90s, mobs of pensioners and working class folk selling off their last remaining possessions in the street, girls prostituting themselves, while the West turned its back.

The West is like that Cumberbatch bloke, the slave driver in 12 Years etc. Full of piety and compassion but still a slave driving mother******

Robert said...

Ukraine is bankrupt and the kind of austerity that the EU and IMF will impose will very likely lead to a situation similar to that in Russia in the Nineties.

This article detailing Latvia’s experience over the last couple of decades might be of interest. Not every former Eastern bloc country now in the EU has enjoyed an EU-brokered economic miracle.

It was only about 8 years ago when Latvian airlines were almost giving seats away so that tourist would fly into Riga – where they were greeted by “working girls” in abundance and an assortment of nefarious hostelries and clubs and bars. If I remember rightly, you could fly from London to Riga for about £25 then.

Not sure the Ukraine fascists will approve of rich foreigners flying in and buying their women. Fascists are very sensitive about such things.

Robert said...

I think it was Palmerston who coined the phrase. England has no permanent friends or enemies just permanent interests.

Meanwhile if Tsar Vladimir the Terrible decides to invade/liberate eastern and southern Ukraine what legal justification could he use?

If would him I might try this:

The sole remaining legal representative in the Ukraine is President Yanukovich according to the Ukranian constitution. Yanukovich has neither resigned nor been impeached. Thus, if President Yanokovich requests Russian military assistance to protect Ukranian nationals under existential threat from a cadre of anti-russian and anti-semitic Ukrainian nationalists that have gained significant influence in the coup d’etat, then this is not a Russian invasion, but an invitation of Russian forces into the Ukraine.

Kiev either has the means to control the fascists but chooses not to or it does not have control of them, either way they are failing by their own measure to uphold the security of Ukranian citizens in the East and South of Ukraine. Russian intervention is not being asked to overthrow the regime in Kiev, but to protect. This is R2P – Responsibility to Protect as requested by the President of the Ukraine.

Yanukovich is safely in Russian custody and no doubt Vlad the Hammer could persuade him to issue such a request in return for safe asylum in Russia and maybe a financial payoff for him and his "family"

jimboo said...

Destabilisation, this seems to be a common tactic these days, the US have abandoned regime change to create areas of permanent turmoil, not a nice world to be born into.

asquith said...

Are you reading Mark Galeotti's blog on this topic and all things Russia?

For that matter, do you know him from his Keele days? I attended one of his lectures but we never went as far as speaking to each other or anything.

Anonymous said...

Good article overall.

I think all the left in Britain can do is highlight the total hypocrisy of our state.
Ours is a nation that time and time and time and time and one more time again and again and again infringed the territorial sovereignty of state after state after state after state after state. And those states are more often than not thousands of miles away!

And our state expects the Russians to sit back and allow theirs next door neighbours Ukraine to be sent into total chaos (what with their history)! I disagree that the Russians want instability on their doorstep, they have an active interest in stability. It is the West who seek to cause instability, but in the most chaotic way possible. In Syria, let the Jihadists cause mayhem and hope we can pick up the spoils, in Ukraine support extremists and hope to sideline them and install our own people. It is a ridiculous strategy, and has been a feature post 9/11. This is disaster capitalism in action.

If we oppose Russian intervention in Ukraine, we should have been much louder in opposing the West’s interference, and their interference everywhere. Russia has far more credibility in this than the West does. And that isn’t nostalgia for the USSR, I understand the USSR is a dead duck, it is just bleedin obvious.

The idea of Ukraine in the EU is totally laughable, if Turkey can’t get in because of their constitution, how is the Somalia of Europe going to get entry? It won’t be long before all those who wanted rid of Russia’s man will be protesting against the new regime and the whole thing will start again.

Ukraine is a total basket case, and how anyone can think Russia wouldn’t take a keen interest in it’s fate is not living in this world. The bluff has been called, the West have let their decade long bloodlust go to their heads, they thought they were untouchable, this firmly sets up the limits. And thank Putin for that!

Phil said...

I agree with you Anon. I am opposed to Russian intervention, and American/EU interference. It was certainly interesting seeing that carelessly leaked document on C4 news last night ruling out action because of Russian money - as sort of predicted in this post!

Re: instability, I should have been clearer on this. I think "managed" instability might be in Moscow's interests, but by that I mean relatively low-level rivalries in which local elites are at each others' throats. But then again, maybe not. I'm going to write about the endgame tonight so I might change my mind ...

Phil said...

I haven't and didn't Asquith. But it's now bookmarked and I'll be regularly reading.