Monday, March 17, 2014

Why Crimea is not like Kosova.. at all

There have been quite a few comments in the blogosphere and in the press along the lines of The West is being hypocritical about Crimea because they supported the separation of Kosovo from Serbia.

Let's just rewind for a moment, shall we.

In Kosovo, Slobodan Milosevic launched a war against his Albanian fellow citizens. He unleashed not merely paramilitary forces but his entire army. Massacres were taking place and virtually the entire population was set to flee across the border to escape the Serbian forces. The result was a Western (and Russian) intervention which stopped the violence and allowed the population to return. The war ended on June 11th 1999. Milosevic was only overthrown in early 2001. It was wholly unreasonable to expect the Kosovars to remain in a state where Milosevic remained in power, thus the province was initially ruled by NATO and then in 2008 the civilian and democratic authorities declared independence.

In Ukraine, the initially democratically elected Viktor Yanukovych embarked on a spree of corruption and theft which only has European parallels with the Putin regime. The corruption was matched by an increasing degree of brutality- the closure of the free press, murder and intimidation of political enemies and finally culminated in the use of snipers against peaceful protestors in the Maidan. As a result the regime which had come to power constitutionally lost all legitimacy and was overthrown- as has happened many times in history. Note too that Hitler initially came to power constitutionally, if not democratically, as did Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin used the troops he had in Crimea to seize control from the Ukrainian authorities and has staged a very hurried "referendum" which has taken place under the guns of Russian armed forces. It was neither a free nor fair election, and was marked by a complete contempt for any democratic norms. The option of the status quo was not even on the agenda. It is very similar to the plebiscite that took place after Germany seized Austria in 1938- with a very similar result, 99.7% in Austria and 96.7% in Crimea. Given that the Crimean Tatars boycotted the vote en masse and yet are said to have had a 40% turn-out, it is easy to see that the result is clearly fraudulent.

So despite the Putin propaganda that the revolutionary government in Kyiv is illegitimate and that Crimea is entitled to self determination, this is a straight forward power-play annexation. It is nothing like the democratic will of Kosovo, now repeatedly expressed through many democratic votes in the new Republic of Kosova. Freedom House acknowledges the progress that Kosova has made and rates the level of freedom way above that of Russia. Russia is now classified as one of the least free countries on the planet.

Putin has made his choices- and after the images of the Putin Youth on the streets of Moscow over the weekend (and the larger protests against Putin)- we see a sort of Happy Shopper version of Fascism. No free press. No free market. The glorification of the state and, of course, the use of violence.

As the West contemplates its next move- and it is being urged by China to cool things off- then we should think of two goals: one is the short term protection of Ukraine. The second is the longer term removal of Vladimir Putin, who is a tyrant to his own people and a global threat to peace. In the short term we accept the de facto annexation of Crimea. However we need to understand that this will not be the last time that Russia challenges the peace, and we need to be much more prepared. Meanwhile if Putin continues to try to regain control over Ukraine by destabilizing the east in order to provoke a war that leads to the return of Yanukovych or some other Russian puppet, then we need to set some very concrete security goals for the future: the end of the Russian occupation of Transnistria, the end of the frozen conflicts in Georgia and the de-militarization of Koenigsberg- which has been overtly used in the past few weeks to threaten NATO directly. These goals need to be achieved whether Putin survives the economic wreck he is creating, or not.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Russian aggression continues

Vladimir Putin is not de-escalating or looking for the off-ramp. As he reinforces his occupation of Crimea with a rigged "vote", he is now upping the rhetoric re: Eastern Ukraine. His supporters have killed Maidan supporters in Kharkiv, but apparently this instability- which has been created solely at his instigation- will justify further Russian military intervention.

It seems clear that he does not believe that the West can or will do very much to stop him.

After his abrogation of the Budapest memorandum, through his invasion of Crimea, he has now essentially abrogated the conventional forces treaties that govern the movement of troops in Europe. He has also said that he know longer feels bound by the nuclear limitations of either the strategic arms reduction treaties or the intermediate weapons treaties. He has essentially repudiated several of the key arms control and confidence building measures that the Russian Federation has signed up to in the course of the past 20 years.

From the Western perspective the initial shock of the Crimean occupation has given way to an increasingly grim mood. Put  simply Vladimir Putin is not a man that the West can do business with. He will not keep any bargain that we make with him.

In the meantime, Russian money has corrupted and eroded our own morality- as the disgusting intervention of Gerhard Schroder reveals all too clearly (Relevant information: Schroder receives tens of millions a year from Russia).

Nevertheless, the invasion of Ukraine and the undisguised power politics of the Kremlin have caused a deep and permanent rupture that can not be repaired for as long as Putin is in power. In the past few days Putin has forced a major reappraisal of Western strategic priorities. Russia had been regarded as a troublesome but necessary interlocutor. Now it is regarded as an essentially hostile power. The result has been huge changes. The trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership is now back on. BP, the largest tax payer to the UK Treasury, formerly blacklisted by the US government after Deep Water horizon is now reopened for business. long running disputes across the Western alliance have been quietly settled. 

All of this has been part of President Obama's quiet diplomacy to meet the challenge of Russian sabre-rattling. It is just as well, because even an intervention in Eastern Ukraine may not be the end of this crisis. The policy of NATO is now awake to the vulnerability that Russian aggression now reveals. The Baltic states are at a high level of alert, with repeated Russian air force incursions and cyber attacks underway. The Russian live-fire exercises that took place in the Baltic Sea show a Russia that is practicing an invasion of the region, and the dispatch of US Air Force jets to Poland and Lithuania will not be enough to resist a determined attack by Russian forces. 

This is not just about Ukraine.

The bloody stalemate in Syria came about because the West believed the expressed Russian fears over their naval base in Tartus and was unwilling to intervene. Now it is likely that the Syrian opposition will be more actively supported and the removal of Putin ally Assad will become an express goal of Western policy. Russia has not faced a determined challenge from the West. Now it will.

If Putin moves into Eastern Ukraine he will not face sanctions, he will face economic warfare. It is Spring and a buyers strike for Russian gas would be a body-blow for an economy that is already under considerable strain. Asset freezes will include most if not all of the access points where Russia gains the capital it needs. As it is Russian investment is collapsing, and within a few months the damage could be crippling- even as things stand. Outright bans on capital transfers- as in Iran- will inflict a deep recession on Russia. 

Will that be sufficient?

The Ukrainian army is in a pretty weak state, yet it is quite large and will be highly motivated to defend the territory of their country- and they are far more prepared than they were even two weeks ago. An incursion by Russia may not be quite the same thing as the 2008 invasion of Georgia, where the Georgian troops were mostly still in Afghanistan and those in Gori were caught in a surprise attack. A war between Russia and Ukraine would be inevitable, but any attempt to occupy Ukraine would lead to a long term conflict which the Russians- under direct international pressure from China as well as the West- might have to give up.

Putin is an old Communist. He does not understand the economy damage that he will inflict upon his people. The closure of all free and independent media in Russia and the absurd censorship and propaganda which the regime has tried to replace it with has not eliminated challenges to the Putin tyranny. Neither has the arrest of most of the opposition leaders in Russia. The blow-back from Putin's repression will come eventually. The question for the West is now to limit the damage from Putin's warmongering until the regime of thieves and crooks can be overthrown from within.

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.

Monday, March 03, 2014

The West must look to its values if it seeks to confront Putin

It is easy for me to say "I told you so". For years this blog has warned about the aggressive despotism of Vladimir Putin. For years, the use of violence and money to corrupt and weaken the West has eroded our ability to work against one of the most vile regimes ever seen. For years these warnings, and those of people like Edward Lucas, have been ignored.

Now we are paying the bitter price of our greed and hypocrisy in our dealings with the Kremlin.

The fact is that democracy is not all about creating the best economic standards for its citizens- although that tends to be the result of good democratic governance. At the heart of democracy is a core of moral values which have little to do with money. An open society: the rights to free opinions, freedom of assembly and the right of every citizen to not just debate but to decide and control what is best for them, both individually and collectively, is a just cause. 

After a serious of pin pricks- the Iraq war, expenses scandals of various kinds- our society now views much of this moral core with great cynicism. The rise of massive inequality has also marginalized the majority of citizens, whose stake in such an unequal society grows less every year. Huge state bureaucracy has created a clientele of workers now dependent on patronage who do not respond to the will of the people, but serve their own agenda.

We have reduced even citizenship to a matter of dollars and cents. Disgracefully the old proposal to auction visas, and therefore a fast track to citizenship, has recently been resurrected. It is of a piece with the fact that Russian oligarchs have already corrupted us, buying members of the House of Lords to serve on their boards, paying corrupt accountants and shyster lawyers to sanitize the money they gained from murder.

The Russian state is in the hands of a criminal gang who regard government- any government, including ours- as a conveyor belt of wealth and power from the mass of the population to those who can exploit them. Too much of the West, including- especially- the City of London has been happy to become accomplices to the Putinists.  

Now, however, the invasion of Ukraine shows the folly of that monstrous conspiracy.

Putin is almost a tragic figure: runty little Vova, from the back streets of Leningrad was long ago subsumed into the embracing will of the KGB. His narcissistic publicity stunts demonstrate a very fragile ego. Now, he is psychologically isolated. He is divorced from his wife of 30 years, Lyudmila, and despite rumours of affairs with various women, there is a high chance that Vladimir Putin is in fact a repressed homosexual, as are others of his circle. Those who simply disagree with him- even on trivial matters- can end up in the GULAG or, more often, dead. He is certainly badly adjusted, and probably he is now severely mentally ill. His rage at being defied has long been violent, it is now a country sized rage. He will seek to mutilate or crush Ukraine, as he has done in Georgia and Moldova in the past. This is not a rational interlocutor.

The West may not take action in the immediate term- the reversion of the G-8 to G-7 is a small slap on the wrist. Yet it is now clear that, as with Hitler in the 1930s, Putin intends to take "defending Russian interests" to a level where Russia seeks an aggressive confrontation. This will ultimately lead to a war, and no matter what happens in Ukraine, a confrontation could arise almost anywhere that Putin deems to be "defiant": Estonia, Finland, Poland, even Germany (where Vova has a deep psychological connection). As with Hitler, that means sooner or later he will come up against unbreakable interests. That is why the West must now accept that Russia is lost, and that aggression must be contained: to follow the model of the cold war and avoid the model of the 1930s.

It is not my purpose in this particular blog to advocate specific policies, however, I think that we must not merely seek to establish priorities in how we can prevent further Russian aggression and limit the impact of the invasion of Ukraine. We must also set an agenda for our own moral renewal. That is a holistic process, and one which never ends, but the greed and immorality that have lain at the heart of our relationships with tyrants must now be addressed. This not merely an external process, the cynical way that the NSA, for example, has betrayed the democratic trust now means that the West is in many places regarded as the moral equal of the Putinist regime. 

Unless we renew our commitment to the idealist principles of Democracy, I fear that we may even become the moral equal of Putin. We need to rebuild an agenda of freedom and fairness. We need to rebuild our own democratic institutions and eliminate too the double think that lies at the heart of media and government cynicism. 

Putin is a genuinely wicked human being. He is also an immature and weak man. He can be defeated. In fact he must be defeated and driven from office at the earliest opportunity. However the way to do that may have more to do with non-violence, democratic renewal and the superior morality of freedom than with the diplomatic, military and even economic mechanics that are being contemplated in chanceries of around the world this afternoon.