Monday, October 05, 2015

Putin takes on the Sunni Arabs and the target is the oil price

The Russian President has a pattern of incredibly reckless behaviour- the attacks on Georgia, Ukraine, the threats against NATO and all of the rest of it. Yet in a coup-de-main that exceeds almost all of his recent gambles, Putin seems to be set on avoiding the consequences of his Ukrainian misadventure. However, not for the first time, both Putin and the West may be misreading each other. The conventional wisdom amongst the Putinologists is that that the entry into the Syrian imbroglio is a successful attempt to breach the wall of isolation that has been imposed against him since his invasion of Ukraine. In this school of thought, the Russian support for Assad is largely a bluff, and is essentially an attempt to widen the negotiation by catching the West once again off guard.

However, unlike in Ukraine, Russia does have some short term and attainable goals in mind.

The fact is that the intervention in the Middle East is a serious attempt to challenge the United States and Saudi grip on the oil price. By creating a de facto alliance with Iran, Russia has responded to what they saw as Saudi aggression in keeping the oil price low. Russia now has the means as well as the will to destabilize all of the Sunni Monarchies in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia itself. 

This is not about Syria, it is about oil.

It is also a high stakes gamble that could end up causing a direct military confrontation between NATO and its Arab allies and Russia and its new Shia allies in Iran, Iraq and Syria. Now we see why Russia has been courting Egypt- for Egyptian neutrality will maintain the pressure on the Gulf and avoid Russian- but not Western- distractions in North Africa, especially Libya. In the Russian mind the potential instability in the absolutist monarchies is an opportunity to create a Russian-Iranian axis that will push up the price of crude and thus ease the stranglehold on the Russian economy.

Perhaps then he can either resume his work in Ukraine and finally defeat the Ukrainian Army, which has so far proven so resilient; or the failure to create actual reform in Kyiv will push the country back into the Russian orbit. Certainly the political class of Ukraine has yet to live up to the aspirations place upon it by the Maidan revolutionaries. 

So Putin intends to squeeze out the West entirely from Syria and then persuade the oil producers that a deal with Russia is now very much in their own interests- with the threat of revolution, if they do not comply with Russian wishes.

In all of this there is one small problem of course: Russia might face a disastrous defeat. Nevertheless Putin is prepared to roll the dice once more. The West should recognize the implacable nature of the regime in the Kremlin and be prepared, if necessary, to increase the pressure of sanctions.   

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Media play into Corbyn's hands

Unlike many in my own party, I remain utterly unreconciled to the majority of the political positions that Jeremy Corbyn has taken in his long and hitherto undistinguished career.  I think that virtually all of his foreign policy positions are not merely mistaken but actively dangerous. Most of his economic ideas are wholly wrong and would fail if enacted. So the fact that on some constitutional positions he is closer to the Liberal Democrats than to his own party does not- and should not- leave most of our party particularly enthusiastic. 

Yet the monstering that the new Labour leader has received in the press is too much, too soon. Even though the selection of the Shadow Cabinet was amateur night in the circus and the relations between the Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition and the media have clearly begun with, shall we say, a degree of hostility, I think that the media, especially the right wing press, may be overplaying their hand. The fact is that the shrill tone adopted by even the so-called serious media looks excessive when compared with Corbyn's own low key, even dull, demeanour. There seems little doubt that today's PMQ was actually a reasonable success for Corbyn, and this may encourage at least a tacit truce amongst the majority Labour of MPs who still remain shocked and angry that he is now their leader.

Despite the pitiful odds that he could move his party back to government, and despite the utterly unworkable government programme that he would currently put forward, there are an awful lot of people who loath the smug self entitlement of the Conservative Party who gained the support , let us not forget, of a mere 26% of the electorate. The slightest mis-step by David Cameron could lead to his party splitting and the downfall of the Tories. 

The media, whose history of deceit, deception and occasionally despicable behaviour in recent years has placed many- especially the Murdoch press- at a nexus of criminal corruption may find that their attempt to pour a bucket of shit over Corbyn may totally backfire. 

I remain utterly aghast at the idea of Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister- I think his relations with such unsavoury forces as the IRA, Hamas and Putin's Russia actively disqualify him from office- but this may be beside the point. The British electorate will want to give him a fair hearing before they decide, and the media crying wolf at such an early stage may earn the new Leader of the Opposition a certain sympathy. 

The Tory/Media complex may just be playing precisely into Corbyn's hands.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

In Praise of Manly Virtues

In a world where we still struggle to redress the wrongs done to women, both historic wrongs and present ones, it can sometimes seem that to praise the assumed masculine virtues is still -somehow- to denigrate women.

The masculine stereotypes are deconstructed and criticised to the point that it is sometimes hard to remember that just as there are specific virtues to the feminine so there are specific virtues to the masculine. In a world where words have become weapons even stating such a commonplace carries the risks of hostility, even- sometimes- of vilification.

The battle of the sexes may end in a hard fought draw- as indeed it must- but in such areas as public breast feeding, for example, many battles are still to be found even in supposedly equal societies. Personally I find it bizarre that anyone could object to a mother feeding her child and those who demonstrate hostility to mothers who make that choice seem to me to be both discourteous and even rather strange. Perhaps I feel this because I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s where attitudes towards going topless were less hypocritical than they seem to be in the twenty-first century of universal access to pornography via the Internet contrasting with public prudishness.

So, although women continue to asset- rightly- their determination to play a broader, less constrained, role in Western Society and although the battle to overturn the oppression of women in Islamic and other societies is still in its infancy, sometimes we should note the historic virtues of men.

A good example for me has been the heroic actions of the three US Marines and the British man who came to their aid on the Amsterdam-Paris Thalys train the day before yesterday. The three showed self-sacrificial courage in tackling the would-be mass murderer on the train and no little strength in disarming him, even when they themselves were being attacked and badly wounded. The modesty they demonstrated in the face of adulation too was an object lesson in the world of cheap celebrity. They demonstrated in full measure the strength and responsibility that are associated with the masculine. Although it is more than appropriate that the virtues associated with the feminine: nurturing, caring, emotional connection have been promoted to both sexes, nevertheless sometimes it is as well to remember that manly virtues, which women may also possess, are also necessary for a balanced psyche and a balanced society.

At a time when there is great concern about how we educate our young men it seems to me that mutual respect must also include self respect. Women are not yet equal and that is a tragic waste. Yet equality can not be built on the denigration of the masculine, but true equality must lie in respecting our common humanity and our sexual and gender diversity.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The "Power Vertical" shifts in Russia

One way analysts have chosen to examine the dysfunctional political system of Russia is as a "power vertical" where closely linked economic and political interests share out the spoils of the economy. Like all models it is a simplification, but it has sometimes explained events that make no other sense. As the Russian forces in Ukraine have increased their hostile activity- the latest being a renewed offensive against Mariupol- there is now increasing evidence that the power vertical is less united than it has been for sometime.

As I noted a few days ago, the campaigning season in Ukraine is getting short, and with only a few weeks left there is great pressure on the Kremlin to break the deadlock before further help can get to the Ukrainian armed forces and the balance of power turns more strongly against the invaders. What is true for the military may also be true for Russia's internal politics. The announcement that Yakunin may be running for the Federation Council seems to be yet another attempt to force the chairman of the Russian Railways from his critical position. Yakunin seems always to have been weaker than his nominal equals, such as Sechin, and this is not the first time that he has faced seemingly irresistible pressure to move. Neither can we be certain that his move is- yet- a demotion. However if the rumours are true, then there is clearly a significant reshuffle in the offing in the next few weeks.

The policies of late Putinism are in ruins: as China adjusts to a new economic situation, the decision by the Kremlin to hitch their political and economic policies to Beijing and to defy the West looks ever less credible. The devaluation of the Renminbi reflects necessary adjustments as China at least pauses for breath, but can hardly have been less welcome to Moscow. Russo-Chinese trade has been devastated by Moscow's own currency troubles, and, for example, the $400 billion Gazprom deal signed only last year in Shanghai now looks like a dead letter. Facing boycott from the West, Russia is having trouble selling gas even at the new highly discounted prices that it must accept from China. In short the malaise that began to grip Russia as the oil price crashed last year is now set for something a lot more painful.

In the face of prolonged weakness in the oil price, Russia is also in the midst of an investment collapse. Not only is new investment not happening, but the exit of capital is now accelerating. Neither can Russia return to the capital market: the country is all but shut out from both credit and investment supply: the limited US financial sanctions have stopped any other country filling the gap, and the result is a near meltdown. Russian reserves are bleeding, and yet the country continues to spend at least 25% of its budget on its armed forces.

The attempt to promote import substitution that might have justified the Kremlin's ban on Western food imports is also not going well. Endemic corruption allowed much produce into the country while simply increasing inflation. The well publicized destruction of over 300 tonnes of food was a PR catastrophe and raised the level of dissenting grumbles to something approaching anger. The sight of Peskov -who nominally earns about $100,000 a year- wearing a 600,000 watch was yet another example of the power elite demonstrating open contempt for the feelings of the Russian people. No one believes the opinion polls showing Putin at new highs in popularity- indeed the higher the level, the more the polls are ridiculed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that support for Putin in such cities as St. Petersburg is in fact almost gone. Certainly overseas, Russian propaganda has utterly failed, and with the exception of three countries, the global reputation of Russia is not merely negative, but is in fact at a new low. Far from rallying support for a resurgent Russia, the regime is now almost totally isolated.

So the problems mount: the Russian economy is shrinking and with Iran returning to the global oil market, and the LNG and Shale markets expanding it may be many years before the price of oil ever recovers. As the price of solar power continues to fall rapidly, there may in fact never be a recovery to the levels that can rescue Russia.

So Putin's renewed attack on Ukraine feels like a last gasp attempt to ride the Russian nationalist tiger. Yet the the Ukrainian army is putting up fierce resistance. The units facing the Russians are largely Russian speaking themselves and as problems mount in the Russian puppet states in eastern Ukraine, the fears of a blow-back of violence into Russia itself grow more concerning. What Illarionov called the Russian civil war in Ukraine may yet still become a civil war inside Russia itself. 

Thus the rumours swirl about a serious attempt to replace Putin and to try to patch up relations with the West. Paul Goble's thoughts on the comments by Piontkovksy have been widely reported. Certainly in many places the power vertical is privately very critical of Putin. However, with the Chechens still on Putin's leash, there is a serious fear that removing Putin might be as dangerous as retaining him. So the regime is caught in a dreadful bind and with no other plan, they still seek military victory in Ukraine.

A military defeat would leave Putin no option but to go by his own will safely or be removed very dangerously.  The Power Vertical is entering a new and different phase.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Putin reaches a crossing point

The increase in fighting in Eastern Ukraine is reaching levels not seen for some time. The pressure on the Putin regime is now significant. Essentially even a frozen conflict outcome will look like a defeat for the Kremlin, so the heat is on to find a solution that puts more of the region under Russian control and allows the illegal statelets that Russia has created a more sustainable future. To that end, the Russian state authorities are cracking down on their local satraps and imposing increasingly direct rule from Moscow- de facto annexation.

However, in an attempt to create either a viable entity, or better still, the breakout that gives Russia the land bridge to Crimea they still clearly seek, the Russian armed forces are facing stiffer resistance from the Ukrainians than they expected. This is a problem, because if they can not break though before October then the contrary winds against them will probably force a significant change in direction. Rumours swirl that Putin is under an ultimatum to solve the problem or face a major rebellion from his own side. 

The West has failed to help the Ukrainian government directly- either by way of materiel or, of course financially. The pressure on Kyiv is relentless, and although some successes- including against the pervasive corruption of the post Soviet era- are being registered, the stability, indeed the survival of Democratic Ukraine is not yet assured. Putin knows that his enemies are consolidating- but only slowly- and is keen to make his move while Ukraine continues to be in financial and political as well as military difficulties.

For me the response of NATO should be even firmer- of course basing not merely equipment, but troops in NATO states in order to deter further Russian aggression. As for Ukraine, although the thinking has been to avoid involvement in order not to provoke Moscow, I think this is a mistake. A defeat for Moscow would be the end of the regime and the Putin years would be over pretty quickly as all of the disastrous decisions of the Kleptocrat are finally revealed. 

The Shanghai gas deal, which was to be the corner stone of a new Russian alliance with China, is now a dead letter as the current gas price makes the whole project a giant white elephant. China has far bigger relations with Vietnam than it has with Russia and the attempts by Putin to gain Chinese support against the West have come to nothing. Putin is alone, and Russia is neither liked or even respected in Beijing.

Putin is sending much better troops into Ukraine, but even these, against increasingly disciplined and well trained Ukrainian troops may struggle. For the West: increasing and personalising the sanctions must be the next step. Where those on the black list attempt to visit, then they should be arrested and deported and their assets, including London property and bank accounts should be frozen until Russia withdraws its troops.

Over the coming weeks the future of Europe is being decided- the dice are in the air. For the future of democracy and peace, it is critical that the Kremlin is defeated. If it is not then a slide towards general war in the manner of the 1930s only becomes more likely- with nuclear consequences.    

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The enemy of my enemy...

According to Peter Kelner, Labour seems determined to follow the death road and elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader. Well, as we know polls may not be as reliable as they seem, so we will need to wait until the final agony is ground out. However if this deluded and dangerous man IS elected leader of the Labour Party, what then?

Well, for a start it may well be that Norman Baker's gloomy view of the UK as a one-party state is actually fulfilled. Certainly an electorate that was pretty reluctant to endorse Ed Miliband is unlikely to give more support to a party led by a leader from the pro-Russian far left.

To my mind it seems pretty clear that a new form of politics is still needed in the UK. Indeed without it there will not be a UK for very much longer. Across the political spectrum, from left to right, there is recognition that a new constitutional settlement is needed. This needs to create a looser and more federal structure for the nations and regions of the UK and also open up the mechanism of government through an elected House of Lords and a voting system that accurately gives the Parliament that we vote for. 

In a sense the election of Corbyn, by systematically destroying the Labour brand could create the conditions where groups of the left and centre can realign. In the short term this must be a realignment focused of a new constitutional convention for Britain, in the long term I would also hope for a new Radical force that can successfully challenge the complacent and privileged Conservatives, not merely by uniting the opposition, but by attracting those who defected away from the Liberal Democrats back to the Radical, Liberal fold.

Just before his death, Alastair Campbell says that Charles Kennedy called him suggesting a new party of the Radical Centre-Left. To my mind there is such an opportunity- and the creation of, for example, a Scottish Reform Party might be a way forward: offering the Scottish people a progressive, Federalist alternative to the Nationalist statism of the SNP.

After the experience of the SDP and then the SDP-Liberal Alliance and then the Social and Liberal Democrats many in the Liberal Democrat camp are wary of the prospect of co-operation, and even more so after the bruising experience of coalition government. However, it seems to me that the Liberal Democrats must start to offer radical political change if we are to make any headway at all. A "bloc for constitutional change" would have only a limited mandate after its election: to sit as a constituent assembly to pass an agreed platform of constitutional measures and then dissolve for elections under the new system. 

Yes this would mean a single bloc candidate in each constituency in order to win under the current system, but with the prospect of immediate elections under a proportional system within a year of the first, then perhaps this may not be an insurmountable obstacle. 

To me the debate in the Liberal Democrats as to the balance between Social and Economic Liberalism is so much hot air if we lack any means of executing any of our ideas. I believe that arid debates about Trident are simply self-indulgent: it is not even rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic, it is more the band playing Abide with Me to keep our spirits up as the icy water flows around us.

I still believe that the Conservatives are merely the least disliked political party. As Tony Greaves writes in Liberator this issue, the Radicals must rediscover their campaigning mojo, if it is not to be another 50 years before we see Liberal voices back in government. However I believe there is now really only one campaign to fight: The battle for democratic change in our country. The election of Corbyn might be a catalyst that starts the Radical realignment. 

Friday, August 07, 2015

Corbyn is a C**t

Just because Jeremy Corbyn is "authentic", in the sense that he says what he believes, that still does not make him any more moral or ethical than any other politician. In fact since most of what Corbyn believes is either bollocks, bullshit or delusional we could say that Corbyn is authentically dangerous.

His record as an "anti poverty" campaigner is highly questionable: especially since most of his discredited economic policies, including state control over much larger parts of the economy, are more likely to create wider poverty than to reduce it. He is an ex-union organizer and a campaigner: he is certainly not an economist and his membership of "The Peoples Assembly Against Austerity" is almost hilarious in its po-faced self regard.

Meanwhile, if we are to judge a man by his friends the Corbyn keeps extremely questionable company.

Corbyn repeatedly condemns the British Army, while speaking up for the murderers of the IRA. Corbyn has actively supported the disastrous Venezuelan left wing government. He has said he regards Hamas and Hizbollah as "friends"- even when they attack Israeli civilians. This SoB has even repeatedly supported Putin: condemning the activists of the Maidan as American inspired stooges and repeating the libelious comment that NATO is to blame for the warmongering of the thieves, liars and murderers in the Kremlin.

So Jeremy Corbyn is kind to animals- so what?  Hitler was a vegetarian. 

So frankly whatever good points there may be in this humourless, self righteous, bore they are off-set more than a little by his vocal support for some utter bastards.

If Corbyn is the answer, then Labour is authentically dead.