Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Clear-eyed realism now needed re: Russia

There is a lot of hot air being blown about by people who have only just noticed what the implications of Russian policy in the Crimea actually are. Some of it is along the lines of "making a stand", as if forcing oligarchs wives out of Harvey Nicks will have a material effect on Putin's decision making. Some of it, by contrast is hand wringing at the impotence of the West. I do not -yet- believe- the Putin=Hitler narrative, but there are now some very uncomfortable parallels, and it does not take a Nazi level of evil to cause a major war.

The reality is inevitably more nuanced and far more difficult to manage. Let us consider a few facts.

Firstly, we should remember that the fall of Soviet Communism was an act of political and economic liberation for the vast majority of the people the former Empire. The creation of full democracies in Central and Eastern Europe and the massive increase in living standards associated with this has been an inspiring achievement. Even in those countries that have ended up as politically authoritarian states: Belarus, Kazakhstan and even Russia itself, have seen large increases in living standards. Yet there is no doubt that the corruption, political violence and increasing repression have also severely limited the economic progress of these authoritarian states too. Soviet nostalgia has supported political repression and criminality, and has now essentially made the empires of the oligarchs merely branches of state ownership. The result has been the accelerating capital flight that we have seen over the past few years. Russian state capitalism is a weapon against any alternative poles of power, whether economic or political. Putin, by gathering the ultimate poles of economic power back into the Kremlin has to a degree placed almost all of the Russian economy under his direct control. In the short run this is a strength for Putin, since he can deploy resources far more rapidly than the free market can in support of military objectives. In the long term, it restricts investment to the point where major economic damage is the result. However in the short run, Putin has a war chest of reserves which is over $450 billion.

Putin has become essentially a highly centralizing and authoritarian ruler. In fact he has become worse than that: we must now, I think, address the future intentions of Vladimir Putin. I think the repeated and continued use of force: in Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abhazia, and now Crimea has to be linked to Putin's repeated statements that the fall of the USSR was a "geopolitical disaster". In short we have to take at face value the idea that Putin intends to recreate the geopolitical space of the Soviet Union. More to the point he is clearly prepared to use force in order to do this. He will forcibly annex Crimea, regardless of the wishes of its inhabitants. He may also seek to annex eastern Ukraine in due course. The dismemberment of Ukraine, as with Georgia and Moldova before, makes these countries so vulnerable, that the West cannot easily draw a line a set up a policy of containment. Neither should we forget that the Kremlin has stooges in all three countries that will reliably do Putin's bidding in order to damage their host nation.

There is worse. The use of gay rights in order to paint the West as decadent is actually an attempt to create a sense of contempt and fear of "the other". It is the same demonization of small groups that Hitler used against Jews. You can more or less substitute the word Jew for Gay in Putin's occasional outbursts on the subject. It is a cynical and disgusting policy and one which also intends to blacken the West in the eyes of much of the world where Gay rights remain controversial. The psycho-sexual hatred of Jews that formed the basis for Nazi ideology may or may not have a similar basis in Putinism, but it is certainly very similar politics. 

The sense of grievance that Putin has fostered is also very similar to the Hitlerian policies of the 1930s. The Soviet Union- in which Putin placed great belief, as can, perhaps, be seen by the attempts to protect the statues of Lenin- was betrayed and in this world view it must be restored. 

So we have an aggressive, tyrannical regime that uses out and out lies in its propaganda and which seeks not merely to recreate a Russian hegemony in the former Soviet space, but in due course to challenge Western power, wherever it may impinge on Russia. Thus, as Hitler, sought to create a German state which he claimed was based on the principles of self-determination, so Putin claims the same- to unite all Russians. However, as with Hitler, he intends this unity to be a platform for a greater Empire.

The analogues are of course not exact. However what they have most in common is contempt for international law. We can now no longer expect Russia to abide by any treaty- economic, arms reduction or nuclear. That is a big disaster. It means that the West must, once again, begin the painful process of containment. Setting red-lines and policing them. 

The good news is that Russia is so reliant on the West to export the only thing they have: energy. The even better news is that the USA is now self sufficient in energy. It is also spring. We could stage a buyers strike of Russian gas and watch their reserves fall like a stone. If the seizure of the Crimea is not going to be the Sudentenland mark II, we have to accept that Russia is now our enemy and to deal with them on that basis. 

That means the Cold War, Mark II. 

No Arms. No Bank accounts, No Visas, and real military force to defend NATO.

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