Thursday, 28 April 2022

Russia & Ukraine: The smartened-up story – Chapter IV

 I’ve said in the previous chapters and I’ll mention it again: in the current war Russia (and only Russia) is the guilty party.  But that’s no reason for Western politicians and mainstream media to treat us as if we’re all simple-minded, unable to grasp complexity or nuance and incapable of telling reality from wishful thinking.

In this series of articles, I fight the groupthink; I attempt to expose the dumbed-down narrative that’s being fed to us and smarten it up. I trust my fellow human beings: we are able to cope with the stark, unadulterated, unvarnished reality; treat us like intelligent adults.

In this chapter, I will focus on Russia’s political position, on the military situation on the ground, on probable outcomes and on the indirect (but no less grave) consequences likely to result from Putin’s aggression and from the Western response to it.

Pariah

Listening to Western politicians and media outlets, one may be forgiven for thinking that Russia is on the brink of collapse: isolated politically, undermined economically and defeated militarily.

Speaking on LBC, former Prime Minister David Cameron told Putin

"[You] turned your country into a pariah state and we're going to treat you that way."

“Pariah”?  You’d think that Mr. Cameron would have learned to be careful with his assessments, after getting the mood of his own people so wrong in the runup to the Brexit referendum!

The Times of London interviewed former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, who opined that Putin might be deposed by a coup:

"With Putin, I very much expect there to be resistance growing and discontent growing that will be resolved one way or another."

Well, everything is possible, of course.  But the problem with Mr. Kozyrev’s opinions about what’s may happen in Russia is that… he’s been living in Miami for donkey’s years now.

The (however unpleasant) reality is that Putin enjoys popular support in Russia.  A recent opinion poll showed that his approval ratio rose to no less than 83% in March 2022.  While we cannot guarantee the veracity of this result, the poll was conducted by Levada Center; which, in the words of USA Today, is

"widely considered among the only credible pollsters operating in Russia."

People in the West may struggle to grasp that kind of result, when it comes to a man who restricted freedoms at home and initiated a war abroad.  But admiration and even love for strong leaders is very much part of the Russian culture.  And, on the other hand, Putin – who has a tight grip on the media – controls the flow of information and the public narrative.

There is, of course, social media.  But, it’s not so simple.  To start with, only 30% of Russians are on Facebook – as opposed to 66% in the UK; for Twitter the numbers are 11% in Russia and circa 60% in the UK.  But it’s not just that: even when they do use social media, Russians tend to use it… in the Russian language (only circa 5% of Russians speak English).  But what also needs to be realised is how social media actually works: unless you are looking for something specific, chances are that platforms like Facebook and Twitter will mostly show you posts that more or less align with your own opinions.  This is how their algorithms work: they seek to identify your ‘interests’, then show you mostly posts that chime in with those ‘interests’.  The chances of ‘learning the truth’ from social media aren’t actually great – unless one makes a determined effort to find a variety of points of view.

In fact, the reality that Putin enjoys popular support in his own country is well-known among Western leaders – though few of them care to admit it.  Well, they may hide the truth from us, but fortunately not all of them dare to lie to their own parliament.  Questioned in the US Congress, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters (who is in charge of the U.S. European Command) said that popular support in Russia was a major factor in Putin’s decision to go to war.

The Western press has been quick to notice anti-war protests which took place in several Russian cities.  Well, that’s great – but only until one reads that the largest such protest (in Moscow’s Pushkin Square) is reported – by the same Western media – to have numbered 2,000 people.  Compare that with the more than 750,000 people (as estimated by the Met Police) who, in 2003, demonstrated in London against the war in Iraq.

Well, Putin may be popular at home, but Russia is internationally isolated – right?  Err… so it would seem – if you get your information from Western politicians and West-centric media.  But let’s broaden our view a bit.

True, a clear majority of UN members voted in the General Assembly to ‘deplore’ the Russian aggression.  But talk is cheap, ‘deplore’ isn’t a particularly strong term in diplomatic parlance – and votes in the General Assembly don’t count for much.

When it comes to adopting sanctions against Russia, things look a lot different.  Of course, the European Union enacted such sanctions as a bloc – and so did 5 countries: USA, Canada, UK, Japan and Australia.  And… that’s all, folks!  Sure, you may say, but the US is the world’s largest economy; it’s not just one more country.  True – but not necessarily relevant.  The US may be the top dog when it comes to economic output; but in 2021 it accounted for just 3.6% of Russia’s exports.  The UK (despite the bad blood between the two countries, caused by nefarious Russian activities on British territory) accounted for 4.5% and Japan for 2.2%.  In fact, those large economies were worth – in terms of Russian exports – less than Belarus (4.6%) and Kazakhstan (3.8%).  Admittedly, the EU was the destination of a whopping 30% of Russian exports.  But, as we know, that’s mostly coal, oil and gas, which continue to be supplied from Russia.  From the point of view of Russia’s international trade, the most important country is by far China (14% of exports and more than 20% of imports).

Nether China nor India (another populous country with a large economy) have any intention of sanctioning Russia.  And that’s true of every other country in Asia (except Japan), as well as the entire Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

In fact, given that besides the European Union, only five non-EU countries have adopted any sanctions against Russia, Putin might argue that it is the former that’s isolated!

Mighty Bear or paper tiger?

But – I hear you say – things will no doubt change.  More countries will surely join in; the Russians themselves might decide to get rid of Putin.  After all, as we learn from the Western media and from our very reliable leaders, Putin’s army is getting a right beating at the hands of Ukrainian forces.  In fact, writing for Al-Jazeera, Justin Bronk determined that

"Russia has effectively admitted defeat In [sic!] Ukraine."

You heard that, folks?  The Russian Bear is actually a paper tiger!  Justin Bronk, by the way, is Senior Research Fellow in Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute in London (ironically the acronym they use is RUSI).  Well, if a Senior Military Scientist working for something with ‘Royal’ in its name said it – it must be true!  Especially since RUSI is an independent charity, which assures us on its website:

"The Institute receives no core government funding."

Now, one of my many issues is that I like to verify things that are given to me as 'fact'.  That’s why I had a look at their list of ‘Supporters’ (charities are supposed to disclose lists of major donors).  In the highest category – called ‘Over £1,000,000’ – I was surprised (no, not really!) to find a certain outfit called ‘European Commission’.  In another category (more modestly described as ‘£200,000 to £499,999’), one finds some other renowned philanthropists: United States Department of State, [UK] Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Canada Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Plus, incidentally, Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs – which might explain why Mr. Bronk published his article in Al Jazeera, of all places.

Just as an aside: one of Mr. Bronk’s previous Al-Jazeera contributions dealt with Iran’s ballistic missiles – which, Mr. Bronk broadly dismissed as

"potentially dangerous but not decisive or hugely effective."

That article was published on 9 March 2016.  That is, I’m sure, a mere coincidence: nothing to do with the fact that, on 8 and 9 March 2016, Iran test-fired a whole series of long range ballistic missiles (some of whom have been marked with good wishes written in Hebrew – such as ‘Israel must be wiped off the face of the Earth’).  Nothing to do with the fact that these missile tests were 'a bit' embarrassing for the Obama administration, coming as they did shortly after the ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action’ (JCPOA – i.e. the agreement that removed sanctions and gave Iran access to some $100 billion of previously frozen funds) started its much awaited implementation period.  Though I seem to remember then Vice President Joe Biden rather struggled to explain why such a ‘Comprehensive’ Plan of Action did nothing to prevent Iran from developing and testing what is essentially a nuclear bomb delivery system!

So, now that we’ve established his superb credentials, let’s go back to Mr. Bronk’s article on Russia admitting defeat in Ukraine.  The article gleefully announces that

"the Russian army has taken extremely heavy losses; between 7,000 and 15,000 personnel killed and more than 2,000 vehicles visually confirmed as destroyed or captured."

[B]etween 7,000 to 15,000” is of course quite a wide range.  And anyone who served in the army (any army!) knows that ‘visually confirmed’ is the military equivalent of ‘take with a grain of salt’.  According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Russia has more than 1,000,000 regular soldiers under arms, plus 2,000,000 reservists.  Its military budget is 4.3% of GDP – double the proportion UK spends.  The Russians have circa 13,000 tanks (the largest such arsenal of any army in the world) and hundreds of thousands of military vehicles, of which circa 36,000 armoured ones.

Now, I am not claiming for a moment that the Russians did not sustain losses – even such that other countries might call ‘heavy losses’ (though to describe a few thousand fatalities as “extremely heavy losses” in the context of the Russian army is indicative – to put it mildly – of a ‘slight’ penchant for exaggeration!)  For whatever it’s worth, by the way, BBC News Russian claims to have documented the death of 1,083 Russian servicemen.  This is based on the panegyrics published in local newspapers and on locally issued lists of ‘fallen heroes’.  If Mr. Bronk’s “between 7,000 to 15,000” is right, then it means that the BBC missed 6,000 to 14,000 obituaries.  Or perhaps those soldiers did not have any relatives and were not considered heroes...

Anyway, what we are not told (you’d struggle to find such information in the Western press) is the extent of losses on the Ukrainian side.  The Russians claimed (on 16 April) to have killed 23,367 Ukrainian troops.  On the very same day, President Zelenskyy estimated Ukrainian military fatalities at 2,500 to 3,000 troops, while judging Russia’s losses to be 19,000 to 20,000.

Me… gee… I just don’t know.  But I know one thing: ‘Truth is the first casualty of war’.  Or, as Samuel Johnson more poetically put it:

"Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages."

Since many of those involved in this conflict aren’t particularly famous for their love of truth in the first place, it behoves us to reign in our credulity, lest we become hapless foot soldiers in their propaganda war.

It’s not just the losses.  We are told that Russia has already suffered a defeat and 'had to' reassess its war aims.  For instance, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby claimed, already at the end of March:

"[T]hey failed to take Kyiv. Which we believe was a key objective. And again, you just have to look at what they were doing in those early days. They wanted Kyiv. And they didn’t get it."

True, the Russians “didn’t get” Kyiv – although they half-encircled the city, reaching within a few miles of it.  But it does not follow that they “wanted” it.  Before starting his ‘special operation’, Putin and his collaborators issued lots of tough-sounding, threatening statements.  That’s to be expected when a dictator decides to go to war.  Some of those statements may have been psychological war; others were no doubt meant to sow confusion and mess up the Ukrainian troops’ disposition.  Who knows?  One thing is clear: taking those statements at face value is incredibly naïve.

Did Putin want to conquer the entire Ukraine?  I doubt it.  Conquering a country of that size is of course possible – Hitler conquered Poland in just six weeks.  But, as the Russians still remember from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, conquering and controlling are two different things.

Like everybody else, I cannot read Putin’s mind.  But, as someone who spent his youth under a dictatorial regime, I can try to guess the ‘logic’ behind his actions.

I suggest that, ideally, Putin would’ve wanted to replicate in Ukraine the model that works so well for him in the case of Belarus and Kazakhstan: to wit, an authoritarian regime closely allied with Russia, while maintaining (at least in theory) the national independence, with all its nominal attributes: a flag, an anthem and separate votes at the UN.

Assuming my guess above is accurate, would Putin have wanted to conquer Kyiv?  Doubtful, I say.  Firstly, where he really wanted to take a city, take he did (see the case of Mariupol), even against desperate Ukrainian resistance.  Secondly, taking a city of the size of Kyiv (c. 6 times larger than Mariupol) would have involved heavy Russian losses.  His army’s advantages (in terms of manpower, equipment, firepower, air superiority) come into play in open terrain, not in close-quarter street combat.  And any regime he would’ve installed in Kyiv under occupation would’ve been irredeemably tainted in the eyes of most Ukrainians.

In the West, the narrative is that the Russian army was stopped in its tracks by resolute Ukrainian resistance, combined with its own logistical mishaps.  But how credible is this narrative?  Kyiv is well-served by roads and railroad and it is relatively close to Ukraine’s border with Russia’s ally Belarus.  The supply lines are neither long nor difficult and Russia has, of course, plenty of petrol to fuel its tanks.  Videos circulated, apparently showing Russian soldiers looting Ukrainian shops and plundering food.  This was taken to mean that they were hungry.  But anyone who, like me, has lived for any length of time on army (any army) rations, will tell you that those taste – at best – somewhere between bland and disgusting.  No, soldiers plunder civilian shops not necessarily because they lack food; what they lack is 'just’ discipline and ethics.

As for Ukrainian resistance: assuming that Putin really wanted to take Ukraine’s capital, encountering such challenge should have caused him to bring in additional reinforcements (Russia has, as we know, plenty of additional manpower and materiel).  But this has not happened.  Are we to believe that the Russian dictator gave up so easily?

Why, then, the initial advance on Kyiv?  My guess is that Putin was simply applying maximum pressure, hoping to see either a Ukrainian-led coup or the country’s current government agreeing to make extensive concessions.

Neither scenario materialised – his bluff clearly did not work.  But to describe this as ‘defeat’ is ‘a bit’ premature.  The fact of the matter is that all the fighting takes place inside Ukraine – not in Russia.  While it is, as mentioned, doubtful that the Russians really wanted to take Kyiv and Kharkiv (Ukraine’s second-largest city, situated very close to the Russian border), Putin has secured a much more useful objective: a sizable land corridor linking Russia to the Crimean Peninsula.  Apart from facilitating logistics, this turns the Sea of Azov into an inner Russian lake.  It allows the Russian navy to blockade not just the Ukrainian Black Sea ports, but – in case of need – also the Georgian ones.  Last but by no means least, it goes a long way towards reversing what Putin sees as a NATO encroachment via the Black Sea shores of its members Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania.  In any conventional conflict between Russia and NATO, the Black Sea may become a main theatre of operations – and potentially Russia’s soft underbelly.

Pink represents Ukrainian territory taken by the Russian army. The latter appears to have initiated a pincer movement from south from Izyum and north of Mariupol and Berdyansk. This threatens Ukrainian supply lines and, if completed, may cut off Ukrainian forces engaged in combat on the Donbas front.

After reaching Crimea via Mariupol, the Russian army continued to push west along the seashore, threatening the important port and industrial cities of Kherson and Odessa.  Taking those cities would cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea, leaving the country landlocked; and would establish a land link with the largely Russian-speaking breakaway Republic of Transnistria, which seceded from Moldova and is being ‘supported’ by a contingent of Russian troops.  Whether Putin actually wants to take Kherson and Odessa remains to be seen.  But what the southern push certainly does is to broaden Russia’s tactical options.

The yellow-green area represents Ukrainian territory occupied by the Russian army (approximatively). The red arrows are estimated directions of Russian offensive. The thin red strip to the East of Moldova represents the breakaway 'Republic of Transnistria' (recognised internationally as part of Moldova and 'supported' by Russian troops).  The two 'republics' carved out of Georgia are also represented.

The Russians have also conquered considerable Ukrainian territory in Ukraine’s east and north.  Very importantly, they have reached the town of Izyum, circa 100 km deep inside Ukraine.  This may be the key to taking the entire Donbas.  The Russians are currently pushing west along the entire Donbas front, thus engaging a large proportion of the Ukrainian army.  But simultaneously they threaten to encircle those Ukrainian units through a pincer movement south of Izyum and north of Mariupol.

Speaking about the latter city: we are told about the heroic Ukrainian resistance and about the horrific plight of civilians caught in a city under siege.  What is less frequently explained is that the city is, for all practical purposes, under Russian control – and has been so for a while now.  A few hundred Ukrainian soldiers still holding on in an ever-decreasing area – in the ruins of the Mariupol’s industrial area – may be symbolic and heart-warming for many Ukrainians; but in stark military terms it is of no real consequence.

So what’s the end game?

So, while in the West the story is overwhelmingly one of Russian military incompetence and defeat, I fear that in reality Putin is doggedly pursuing his goals.  Nor do I believe that his goals have fundamentally changed – he has just accepted that they will take longer to achieve.

Assume, for the moment, that Russia conquers and – international recognition be damned – holds on to Donbas (or large parts of it), as well as other parts of Ukraine.  Assume, also, that at that point Putin stops the offensive and declares victory (despite Western assertions to the contrary, it would not be difficult for him to ‘sell’ that victory to the Russian people – after all he’d have the new territories as ‘evidence’).

What will happen then?  Ukraine’s economy is in tatters.  The World Bank expects (or, more accurately, expected early in April) the country’s GDP to shrink by 45%.  So just $88 billion – down from circa $160 billion last year (but that forecast assumes that most of the Donbas will still be Ukrainian…)  Repairing the infrastructure is (so far!) expected to cost $63 billion.  Millions of Ukrainians took refuge in the West – and the best and brightest among them are unlikely to return any time soon to their ravaged country.

It’s easy to provide weapons to Ukraine in the midst of an aggression against it – especially as the weapons don’t cost much, as they come from old, existing stocks.  But who will support Ukraine economically in the years to come?  Who will supply the coal, oil and gas needed to keep Ukrainian from freezing next winter – and many winters after that?  Who will provide the money needed to rebuild the country and its economy?  After two years of devastating pandemic, the West faces grave economic difficulties of its own.  But without massive and sustained economic aid, Ukraine will gradually fall under the sway of its larger and stronger neighbour, just as surely as Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Dire consequences

This isn’t just about Ukraine, unfortunately.  Putin’s aggression – and the paltry Western reaction to it – have made the entire world a much more dangerous place.

First and foremost, there is China.  China which is arming at a tremendous pace.  China, which is expanding its international reach and influence, alongside its economic might.  China, which is becoming more and more assertive in its relationship with the West.

What does China get out of this?  Firstly, an extremely valuable ally (Russia) – and one that is likely (because of the Western sanctions) to become increasingly dependent on its economic and political support.

Secondly, China had an opportunity to gauge the West’s determination – and found it lacking.  Given that the Western governments showed zero willingness to intervene militarily in Ukraine (a European country) – how likely are they to make such a move when China attacks Taiwan?

China (red) and Taiwan (the blue island to the south-east of China). China considers Taiwan part of its sovereign territory and has openly declared its intention to reunite it with the mainland at an unspecified time in the future.


Thirdly, China had the opportunity to see in practice the value of economic dependence: the West was rendered impotent not just by its lack of appetite for conflict, but also by its dependence on Russian exports of fuel.  But, while the Western leaders belatedly try to reduce that dependence (a gargantuan task in itself), their economies rely more and more on Chinese exports and Chinese money.

China's officially-available military budget. In 2022, its military expenditure is expected to reach c. $230 billion.  Which means that it almost doubled in the past 10 years.


China is already the main exporter to Europe; it’s share of EU imports of goods will soon reach 25%.  While Western economies (like sail ships drifting entirely at the mercy of ‘market winds’) increasingly focus on services, China is building itself as the Global Manufacturer.

We in the West live in an increasingly sophisticated world: everything – our power plants, our roads and railways – and certainly our military – is based on computers.  And what’s the problem with that?  Well, let me tell you: I am typing this on a Chinese-manufactured keyboard; I format it with the help of a Chinese-manufactured mouse.  My laptop was assembled in USA from components made mostly in Taiwan.  And I rely increasingly on my iPhone – manufactured in China, of course.



Now remember what Putin got away with – just because Europe buys about a third of its fossil fuels from Russia.  How will we ever be able to confront Chinese aggression?  Or is ‘It won’t happen’ our ultimate strategy?

And it’s not just China; there are many – enemies and unreliable friends – who will look at the Russia-Ukraine-West kerfuffle and draw conclusions.

Take Iran, for instance.  Or, more precisely, take the Ayatollah that sits at the top of the Islamic Republic.  He has seen at least two Middle Eastern leaders toppled and killed in a rather brutal, dishonourable way: Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein tried to get nuclear weapons – but was stopped first by an Israeli raid and eventually gave up that quest.  He ended up hiding in a dark, smelly underground hole, from which he was pulled out and ultimately hanged.  Unlike him, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi ‘listened to the voice of reason’: he agreed to stop and dismantle its nuclear programme, as well as give up chemical and biological weapons.  He was eventually defeated, captured and killed by a mob – including by being rectally assaulted with sharp objects…

If your conclusion is that all dictators end badly – think again.  There is at least one who is, perhaps, much worse than both Saddam and Gaddafi: I’m talking about North Korea’s own Kim Jong-un.  He is, however, very much alive and kicking; in fact, he is arguably untouchable –because, unlike the two Middle Eastern dictators mentioned before, he was neither stopped, nor listened to reason, but went on and obtained nuclear weapons.

And then there’s Ukraine.  Which has nothing to do with any of the dictators I mentioned – except insofar as it had and gave up nuclear weapons.  Had it controlled those weapons today, would Putin have attacked it?

Now place yourself in the tight shoes and wide robes of the Iranian Ayatollah and think: what can you learn from all this?

An Iranian Khorramshahr ballistic missile (range: c. 2,000 km)


And it’s not just the Ayatollah, but every jihadi terrorist out there.  Make no mistake: the next Osama bin Laden, the next Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – they are all emboldened by this.

In international relations there are many steadfast enemies, but few reliable friends.  If you’re an ally of the US (think, for instance, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan), what will you make of what’s happening to Ukraine these days?  We are not talking about countries that share ‘values’ with the West, but regimes that see (or saw, at least) interest in an alliance with mighty Uncle Sam.  But an uncle that abandons one nephew might also abandon the next one in his hour of need.  The US ‘nephews’ are increasingly unsettled and might be ready to exchange their old uncle for another, with a more reliable ‘nepotism’ policy.

Again, put yourself in the shoes of these Middle Eastern ‘kings’, ‘emirs’ and ‘presidents’.  On one hand, there’s Russia: it stuck to its ally, Syria’s Bashar Assad, through thick and thin – even after the latter butchered Syrians by the thousand, including with chemical weapons.  Putin unerringly saved Assad’s bacon, not in the least by direct military intervention.  On the other hand, there’s the West: one does not have to go back as far as Vietnam or bring up Jimmy Carter and the Shah of Iran – there are more recent examples.  Obama dropped Mubarak like a hot potato, then tried to ‘make nice’ to an Islamist.  It was the Egyptian dictator’s sheer luck – not the protection of his ‘ally’ – that spared him a fate similar to that of Saddam or Gaddafi.  The West abandoned its ‘ally’ Georgia when it got in trouble with Putin.  And now it’s done pretty much the same with Ukraine.  To be an ally of the West is to be constantly preached to – just look at the constant stream of ‘criticism’ that democratic Israel is getting – but not necessarily get help and support when needed.  The West is gentle on its enemies and tough on its friends.  Or, as Henry Kissinger more forcefully put it,

"it may be dangerous to be America's enemy, but to be America's friend is fatal."

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I want the West to give up its values and, like Russia and China do, warmly embrace every bloody dictator who promises to be ‘on our side’.  No, quite the opposite.  But what is needed is consistency and dependability.  By all means choose your friends and allies carefully; but then stand by them.  Zigzagging between supporting friends and appeasing enemies will take you nowhere.

 

***

In the next (and probably last) instalment of this series, I will focus on Jews.  What (if any) are the current and potential consequences of this conflict on the Jewish people and the Jewish state?  Watch this space.

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

Russia & Ukraine: the smartened-up story – Chapter III

As mentioned in the previous chapters of this series, we are witnessing a worrying phenomenon: a type of groupthink – engendered by Western politicians and mainstream media who promote a simplistic, monochromatic version of reality.  The fact that in the current conflagration Russia (and only Russia) is the aggressor should not be used to cover up grave errors committed by other parties (in particular Ukrainian and Western leaders), which paved the way to the present situation.  These errors need to be teased out and analysed – not in order to justify Russia’s invasion, but to learn and derive conclusions for the future.

In this series of articles, I attempt to do just that: expose the dumbed-down narrative; and present a smartened-up account, in all its polychromatic intricacy.

In this episode, we will have a hard look at the Western response to Russia’s aggression: what was that response in practice (that is, beneath the layers of demagoguery and verbal ornaments)?  How does that response measure in relation to the West’s moral and legal obligations?

‘Not engaged in the conflict’

On 7 December 2021, when Russian troops were being marshalled on Ukraine’s borders, US President Biden had a video call with Putin.  The subsequent White House communiqué makes for some interesting reading:

"President Biden voiced the deep concerns of the United States and our European Allies about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine and made clear that the U.S. and our Allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation."

What the docile mainstream media heard (and reported) was a threat of ‘extreme’ sanctions.  In reality, however, Putin would have interpreted Biden’s ‘threat’ of “economic and other measures” as a pledge not to intervene militarily.  That Russia would have to deal with economic sanctions was already obvious – and repeating that threat was a sign of weakness, not strength.  From Putin’s point of view, the ‘threat of sanctions’ was nothing but green light to proceed, with no fear of direct military confrontation with the US or with NATO.

Yet on 22 February (i.e., two days before the Russian invasion began) Biden made this crystal-clear, as if to remove the last shred of a doubt in Putin’s mind:

"Our forces are not and will not be engaged in the conflict."

Biden wasn’t the only one that provided Putin with all the reassurance he needed.  European and NATO leaders went out of their way to let Putin know that they won’t intervene militarily.  For instance, on 4 February 2022, NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoana declared:

"NATO will not get involved militarily in Ukraine.

And why wouldn’t it?  As politicians and the servile media hastened to explain, that’s because Ukraine wasn’t a member of NATO.

"The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) said it condemned ‘in the strongest possible terms’ Russia’s attack on Ukraine, but it has not sent any troops to Ukraine.

This is because Ukraine is not a member of the Nato alliance, meaning it is not obligated to launch an armed attack against Russia to protect Ukraine.”

This was, to put it mildly, sand thrown in the public’s eyes, as well as turning the reality upside-down: after all, the only reason why Ukraine was not a NATO member was because NATO did not accept her membership – so that it wouldn’t have to defend her in the event of attack.  And, as already mentioned, NATO has in the past intervened militarily in non-member countries (like Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia).

In reality, it wasn’t the West ‘threatening’ Putin.  It was Putin threatening the West: he ominously warned unspecified countries not to interfere in Ukraine:

"If you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history."

So, while our media was dutifully reporting the Western threats of ‘extreme sanctions’, it was the West that backed off, frightened of a possible clash with Russia.

Technically (or ‘legally’) NATO was not obliged to intervene.  Morally… now that’s a different story.  What is the point of talking about ‘rules-based international order’, if those rules are not enforced (or are not consistently enforced)?  The phrase is then not just emptied of any meaning; it becomes a fraud, a way to ‘trick’ countries like Ukraine with false pretences – and then abandon them to their bitter fate.

But if NATO can at least hide its cowardice behind technicalities, that meagre excuse isn’t available to the US (nor, arguably, to the UK).  Let me explain why:

In 1991, when Ukraine won its independence, it was hosting on its territory the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world.  These were nuclear bombs and missiles, which had been placed there as part of the Soviet Army’s ‘nuclear deterrent’.  Ukraine (already traumatised by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster) did not want those weapons; Russia did.

So, through a series of trilateral agreements signed between 1994 and 2009, USA and Russia jointly guaranteed Ukraine’s security, territorial integrity and political independence – in return for the country’s renunciation to nuclear weapons, all of which were ‘returned’ to Russia.  Let there be no doubt: these were international agreements (a.k.a. ‘legal obligations’ to those who believe in ‘international law’).  And at least one of those agreements was also signed by the UK.

Russia has, of course, cynically violated those guarantees.  But USA (and, arguably, the UK as well) also failed to fulfil their side of the bargain.  They did not defend Ukraine’s security, territorial integrity and political independence – as they had committed to.

Hold on, I hear you saying – but we enacted ‘extreme sanctions’ against Russia!  Didn’t we?

Well, firstly sanctions (however ‘extreme’) are not what the term ‘guarantee’ is supposed to mean.  Guarantees are meant to provide defence against aggression, not to punish the aggressor post-factum.  But no one expected sanctions – or the threat thereof – to stop Putin’s aggression.  In fact, sanctions (much, much harsher than those imposed on Russia) failed to deter the likes of North Korea, Iran and Syria – countries considerably smaller and poorer than Russia.

And how ‘extreme’ are the sanctions imposed on Russia, anyway?  Take for instance the expulsion of seven Russian banks from the SWIFT international payment system – which was ‘sold’ to us as a harsh form of economic punishment.  Sure, such ban could have caused Russian companies a few headaches; but the key word in that announcement is ‘seven’.  There are no fewer than 330 banks operating in Russia.  Now imagine that several large British banks were thrown out of SWIFT.  Rather than transferring money via Barclays (banned from SWIFT), I’d have to open an account with – say – Starling or Metro Bank (still in SWIFT).  I’d use that account for the international transfers, then execute a domestic transfer to Barclays.  Sure, I might be paying a bit more in bank fees, to account for that domestic transfer and for maintaining an additional account…  But this is really a mild inconvenience – not an ‘extreme sanction’.

So why weren’t all Russian banks sanctioned?  To answer this, we need to look at the recent trajectory of the Russian currency – the Rouble.

Back in February and the beginning of March, the Western media was gleefully announcing the fast depreciation of Russia’s currency.  On 16 February (i.e. before the invasion), 1 Euro was worth circa 85 roubles; on 15 March (after sanctions were imposed), it was 145 roubles.  But what we were not told is that, since then, the Russian currency has recovered: by 8 April, it had bounced back to pre-sanctions levels: 86 roubles per Euro.

The Russian rouble bounced back, despite all those 'extreme sanctions'.

So what caused this swift recovery?  On 31 March, Putin issued a decree, requiring ‘unfriendly countries’ (no prizes for guessing which countries he meant) to pay… in Russian roubles, if they wish to buy Russian gas.

And they do wish to!  Russian natural gas accounts for one third of the EU consumption – but that’s an average across the entire Union; in countries like Germany and Italy, it is a considerably higher proportion.  And it’s not just gas: Russia is the source of 34% of Germany’s crude oil and 53% of hard coal (used in power generation, but also to make steel).

Also on 31 March, Western mainstream media carried statements by Europe’s political leaders, rejecting the Russian demand:

"Germany and France rejected Vladimir Putin's demand that foreign purchasers of Russian gas pay in roubles as an unacceptable breach of contract, adding that the manoeuver amounted to ‘blackmail’."

But, interestingly, the whole issue has since disappeared from the news.  We are not being told what actually happened: are we still paying in Euros?  Or has Europe accepted the “blackmail” and now pays in Russian roubles?  The latter would result in a rise in the parity of the Russian currency versus the euro.  So which is it?  Well, have a look at the rouble’s ‘miraculous’ recovery and take a guess!

I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry: whatever the currency, we know that, while talking of ‘extreme sanctions’, Europe continues to buy Russian coal, oil and (especially) gas, to the tune of hundreds of millions of Euros a day.  It has no choice, as our ‘wise’ leaders failed to find alternative sources – even after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, even after the Donbas war.

This, of course, makes a mockery of the ‘extreme sanctions’; what’s more, paying in roubles would force Europe to deal with Russia’s Central Bank – in contravention of their own sanctions!

Of course, the West has sanctioned Putin personally – as well as several of his close associates, such as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.  Any assets that Putin may hold in the West (for instance, money in Western banks) have been confiscated.  Yay!  Except that… we are not told what those confiscated assets are.  We aren’t even told what is their total worth.  I suggest that may be because… their total worth is zero.  Come on!  Putin may be many things – but dumb he ain’t.  Why would he keep money in Western banks (or any other assets in the West), when he’s been told many times that there will be sanctions?

‘Collective punishment’ and ‘the sins of the fathers’

But at least we grabbed some assets from the ‘Russian oligarchs’: a yacht here, a private jet there, a mansion in London…

Well, I’m sure the oligarchs themselves do not like that.  But I’m also pretty sure Putin does not give a damn.  But, hold on: the Independent informs us that

"The drastic sanctions on Russian oligarchs are designed to put maximum pressure on Putin."

Seldom have I heard something so blatantly stupid.  It is not Putin who is beholden to the oligarchs – but the other way around.  Those oligarchs made their money (or so we are told) because of favours bestowed on them by Putin and members of his regime.  And, however many yachts, planes and mansions we grab in the West, the bulk of their assets (such as shares in Oil & Gas, petrochemical and metallurgic companies) are in Russia.  Their families are typically there, as well.  In Russia – read: subject to Putin’s decrees; which, let me tell you, are ‘a bit’ more effective than Western sanctions!

And I don’t just question the effectiveness of sanctioning oligarchs – I doubt its morality, as well.  Sure, it may be that these oligarchs are indeed awful people.  BBC’s Panorama programme implied that much, when talking about Roman Abramovich and accusing him of making his money through bribes, Mafia-style threats and other unpleasant methods.  That may indeed be so.  But I thought we in the West enjoyed something wonderful called ‘Rule of Law’?  According to which people are not punished unless/until proven guilty?  And, furthermore, according to which that guilt (or lack thereof) is determined in a court of law – read: not by the government, not by the public and not even by the BBC?  Any ‘oligarch’ (indeed, any person) suspected of committing an offence should stand trial.

As for whether these ‘oligarchs’ are moral people – isn’t it a bit late to question their ethics, years after they (and their billions) were welcomed with open arms by the UK and other European countries?  Isn’t it a bit strange that Western leaders only developed such exacting moral standards once Putin attacked Ukraine?

In addition to his Israeli citizenship, Abramovich is also a national of Portugal  a EU member country.  It is that latter citizenship that allowed him to continue to live in the UK, even after Brexit.  He obtained by claiming some Sephardic ancestry, in accordance with the Portuguese laws, which offer naturalisation to descendants of Sephardi Jews.  The law requires those claims to be assessed by experts (who are, of course, themselves Jews).  And so, on 12 March, the BBC gleefully reported that one such expert – Rabbi Daniel Litvak (rabbi of the Jewish community in the Portuguese city of Porto)

"was detained on Thursday as part of an investigation into how citizenship had been granted."

Nobody thought of questioning Abramovich's Portuguese-ness before.  It is surely a mere coincidence that a challenge was mounted in March 2022, soon after Russia started its invasion of Ukraine!

Rabbi Litvak (and the leaders of his community) deny any wrongdoing and claim that Abramovich’s ancestry was assessed in the usual way, according to criteria

"accepted by successive [Portuguese] governments."

Interestingly enough, we were never told what came out of that inquiry.  But we know that Abramovich has not been stripped of his Portuguese nationality.  Instead, the Portuguese law has been ‘tightened’: instead of just showing Sephardi ancestry, applicants will now have to prove ‘effective connection to Portugal’.  Which (in passing be said) may be a bit difficult, given the more than 500 years that passed since the expulsion of Jews from that country!

Of course, I am not inclined to shed many tears for ‘oligarchs’ – I’m sure they’ll be fine.  But will we?  I am rather concerned that the campaign to ‘persecute’ (but not prosecute) the ‘oligarchs’ is nothing but a set of populist measures designed not to help Ukraine, but to appeal to base instincts such as envy and – in the case of certain ‘oligarchs’ with Jewish names and Premier League associations – antisemitism.

There are also immediate practical consequences – in addition to the moral concerns: the rule of law doesn’t just protect our freedoms; it also attracts investment into the West.  Investors from places like China, South America, Africa and the Middle East have traditionally been happy to spend money in the UK, in the knowledge that their property will not be confiscated willy-nilly, without due process.  That money, which creates jobs and fuels our prosperity, may now dry out.

But if sanctioning ‘oligarchs’ on the basis of suspicions and allegations is ethically and pragmatically problematic, it is the sanctioning of Russian leaders’ families that really reeks of moral bankruptcy.

A BBC article dated 6 April 2022 announces the sanctioning of Putin’s two daughters and of the daughter of Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov.  The article merits a bit of analysis, as it is, in my humble opinion, nothing short of disgusting.  It says that

"[t]he measures follow new revelations of atrocities by Russian troops in Ukraine, including images of bodies of civilians scattered on the streets of Bucha, near the capital Kyiv.

[…]

“Referring to the Bucha murders, US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday: ‘There's nothing less happening than major war crimes.’

‘Responsible nations have to come together to hold these perpetrators accountable,’ Mr Biden added.

The US said that Mr Putin's daughters, Katerina Vladimirovna Tikhonova and Maria Vladimirovna Vorontsova, were being put under sanctions ‘for being the adult children of Putin, a person whose property and interests in property are blocked’."

So how are Putin’s daughters linked to the Bucha massacre?  They are not in any way, of course; it is incredibly, outrageously misleading for BBC to play with words and string sentences in a way designed to imply that they are.  This kind of subliminal manipulation should be repugnant when perpetrated by any media outlet; let alone one that is funded by the public and – as such – is expected to inform the public with due accuracy and impartiality.

But, unethical journalism aside, how about the ‘explanation’ that Putin’s daughters are sanctioned “for being the adult children of Putin”?  I always thought that children don’t get to choose their parents – has someone in the US discovered that they do??

Later in the article, the BBC again quotes official US sources listing the ‘crimes’ of Putin’s daughters:

"The [US] announcement described Ms Tikhonova as ‘a tech executive whose work supports the GoR [Russian government] and defense industry’."

Her sister, Ms Vorontsova, it went on, ‘leads state-funded programs that have received billions of dollars from the Kremlin toward genetics research and are personally overseen by Putin’".

Katerina Vladimirovna Tikhonova (Putin’s elder daughter, aged 37) is a mathematician.  How exactly her work “supports the GoR [Russian government] and defense industry” is unclear – especially since no other scientists (not even those working in Russia’s extensive nuclear programme) have been sanctioned.

As for Maria Vladimirovna Vorontsova (36), she is a doctor and medical researcher, specialising in genetics and endocrinology.  It may well be that Putin takes special interest in her research and that, as part of that interest, her programmes are abundantly funded.  But there is nothing to indicate that those programmes have any sort of military dimension.

In fact, the next part of the article presents yet another ‘reason’ for the sanctions:

"Asked why the US was targeting Mr Putin's daughters, a senior Biden administration official said the US thought they could be in control of some of their father's assets.

‘We have reason to believe that Putin, and many of his cronies, and the oligarchs, hide their wealth, hide their assets, with family members that place their assets and their wealth in the US financial system, and also many other parts of the world,’ the official said.

‘We believe that many of Putin's assets are hidden with family members, and that's why we're targeting them’."

“The US thought…”“We have reason to believe…”?  Since when have we taken to sanctioning individuals on the basis of ‘beliefs’ and mere suspicions??

Not to mention that the article presents – in the space of just a few sentences – three different ‘reasons’ for the sanctions.  The ‘journalists’ who wrote it seem totally unconcerned and not inclined to challenge the contradictory character of those US announcements.

And just as unquestionably, the UK joined in those ‘family’ sanctions – just a couple of days later.

As I was writing this, the All-England Club (organiser of the Wimbledon tennis tournament) announced that it will ban Russian and Belarusian players.  The AEC justified discriminating against sportsmen and sportswomen on the sole basis of their nationality by stating that

"in the circumstances of such unjustified and unprecedented military aggression, it would be unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players with the Championships."

That sounds very assertive.  But just what "benefits" is Putin going to get from World #2 Daniil Medvedev playing at Wimbledon?  Is he going to get credit for the latter's famously accurate serve??

The oh-so-wise Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston wanted Russian players to denounce Putin's regime as a pre-condition for participation.  And, just in case you didn't get it, this is the Sports Minister of the United Kingdom – not of Russia, China or Burma!

We must start telling our dear leaders that this is patently wrong.  Individuals should not be discriminated because of their country of origin, or because of their opinions.  There is no such thing as 'crime of opinion'.  Mr. Huddleston may think he fights the Putins of this world: in fact, he is becoming one.

No-fly and what might fly

One of the keenest Ukrainian demands was the institution of a no-fly zone over Ukraine (or parts thereof).  NATO (and the various Western leaders) flatly refused that Ukrainian request.  As British Prime Minister Boris Johnson explained:

"When it comes to a no-fly zone in the skies above Ukraine, we have to accept the reality of that involves shooting down Russian planes…it’s simply not on the agenda of any Nato country."

That much is true, especially if the putative no-fly zone covered the entire Ukrainian territory or a considerable portion thereof.  In fact, the ‘official’ Ukrainian demand (as expressed by President Zelenskyy and some of his entourage) had precisely that purpose: to draw NATO into the conflict via the creation of ‘incidents’ between Russian and NATO combat planes.

But who says that the no-fly zone has to be extensive?  And who said it needed to be enforced by NATO planes?  Why not designate a relatively small area in Western Ukraine (say from Chernivtsi to Lviv) as a refuge area, policed from the air and on the ground by contingents from neutral countries?  Closed to the movement of military equipment and personnel (with the exception of those belonging to the Neutral Police Force) but provided with international humanitarian aid the Refuge Area should be designed as a safe haven for refugees fleeing the ravages of war in Ukraine’s other regions.  After all, what is a point of (to use that worn-out slogan) ‘opening our borders to Ukrainian refugees’?  Why expect war-battered, fleeing refugees (or those who are willing and able to) to cross borders and potentially travel as far as the UK – rather than secure a safe area for them and provide them with a decent life in their own country, amongst a population they feel connected to?

Of course, Putin might not agree to all this – though I don’t see much downside from his point of view.  But why not try?  If you’re US President Biden, UK Prime Minister Johnson, French President Macron or German Kanzler Scholz, why not make a formal proposal to that effect?  Is it perhaps that building up public hostility by exposing Russian war crimes is politically more useful than actually helping civilians survive?

Avoiding World War III

But let’s come back to the initial response – to the repeated Western statements that NATO won’t get involved.

‘It’s easy to criticise,’ I hear you saying.  ‘But what do you want us to do – start World War III?’

No, I don’t really want that.  But excessive Western timidity does nothing to avoid that terrible outcome; it made it more likely.  Showing fear never appeases a bully – it emboldens him.  Those who are not streetwise enough to understand that fact, should at least learn it from history:

In a bid to create a ‘buffer zone’ against future German aggression, the Treaty of Versailles (which formally ended World War I) declared Germany’s western-most region – the Rhineland – a demilitarised zone.  German military equipment and personnel were banned from that area.  Yet on 8 March 1936, Hitler ordered 20,000 German soldiers to march into the Rheinland.  This was a blatant violation of the peace treaty.  Documents from the Nazi archives clearly show that at the time the Wehrmacht was still unprepared for war.  Warned by his generals, Hitler was apprehensive – he very nearly ordered the German soldiers to pull back from the Rheinland when it was reported that the French soldiers were gathering at the border with Germany.

But it soon became clear that the French and British governments had no intention to enforce the Versailles treaty, they meekly acquiesced in its violation.  Had they confronted Hitler at that point, they might have prevented the war that was to start three and a half years later.  In the words of American author William L. Shirer:

"... in March 1936 the two Western democracies, were given their last chance to halt, without the risk of a serious war, the rise of a militarized, aggressive, totalitarian Germany and, in fact – as we have seen Hitler admitting – bring the Nazi dictator and his regime tumbling down. They let the chance slip."

Almost exactly two years after the remilitarisation of Rhineland, Hitler manoeuvred Austria into ‘joining’ Nazi Germany.  Again, France and Britain did not react, because (as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared):

"The hard fact is that nothing could have arrested what has actually happened [in Austria] unless this country and other countries had been prepared to use force."

Which, they clearly were not prepared to do.  What wonderful reassurance for the ever-more-confident Führer!

No wonder that the next crisis arrived just a few months later – in September the same year (1938)!  Rather than defending Czechoslovakia, as they had committed to do, the British and French leaders gave Hitler green light (through the Munich Agreement) to take over a significant portion of that country.  He, of course, went on and occupied the whole lot.  Many historians agree that, had Britain and France stood firm at that point – Hitler might not have attacked Czechoslovakia or may have been defeated if he did: the German army was still not fully prepared for war, while the Czechs’ smaller but well-equipped army was ready for combat and entrenched in fortified positions.  The Nazi Germany (which at the time still did not yet have access to the resources of an entire continent) would have had to fight on two fronts.

Instead, upon arrival back to England, Chamberlain infamously waved the Munich Agreement as an achievement and boasted that he had attained “peace for our time”.  But “our time” was to last exactly 11 months: on 1 September 1939, Hitler (this time in cahoots with Stalin) attacked Poland.  What followed was 6 years of devastating war.  Even then, Nazi Germany and its allies were defeated only at the cost of huge human and material sacrifices.

Despite their good intentions, appeasers like Chamberlain did not avoid the war.  All they achieved was to make war more likely – and ultimately conduct it from a less favourable position.

As mentioned before, Putin is no Hitler.  But that does not mean that we cannot draw some conclusions from the events that preceded World War II.  Those who do not learn from historical errors, tend to repeat them.

The West has already stood by when Russia attacked Georgia; it allowed Putin to grab Georgian territory (via the old tactic of creating the ‘independent republics’ of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), as well as subvert Georgia’s political trajectory.

The West once again stood by (with only the economic and political equivalent of frowning) while Russia gobbled up Crimea and parts of the Donbas.

It should be remembered that Russia also supports militarily the ‘independent republic’ of Transnistria – which all other countries view as part of the territory of Moldova.

And now, ‘extreme sanctions’ and political posturing notwithstanding, the West is standing by once more, in practical terms allowing Putin freedom of action in Ukraine.

So one needs to ask: what next?  At which point do we draw the line?  And will we be in a better or worse position – when we finally are forced to confront the bully?

US and NATO should never have provided Putin with reassurance that they will not intervene militarily in Ukraine.  Quite the opposite: they should have stressed the US (and by extension NATO’s) legal status as guarantor of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political independence – while at the same time admitting that there are issues related to borders and the status of minorities, which need to be resolved through negotiations and accommodation.  Rather than insisting that joining NATO is ‘ultimately a Ukrainian decision’ (it is not, otherwise the country would already be a member of the alliance) the West should have indicated that this is one more issue to be included in the negotiations.

And, of course, the West should show (and not just to Russia) better preparedness to defend itself and its values.  Reasonable military budgets being a simple but effective way to demonstrate such preparedness.  If two thirds of NATO member states can’t be bothered to spend 2% of their GDP on self-defence – what does that tell a potential aggressor?

The Romans had a saying: 'Si vis pacem, para bellum'.  There is only one way to avoid war: by showing willingness to fight it and capacity to win it – alongside desire for peaceful solutions and flexibility to find them.  This isn’t a game for the faint-hearted – but it’s the only game in town.

***

In the next instalment of our saga, we will focus on probable outcomes and consequences (direct and indirect, immediate and remote) of this conflict.


Sunday, 17 April 2022

Russia & Ukraine: the smartened-up story – Chapter II

 In the first chapter of this series, I argued that (on one hand) nothing mitigates Russia’s aggression against Ukraine; on the other hand, We The Public (especially in the West) are being fed a shallow, overly simplistic version of reality, which – while correctly identifying Russia and its leader as the main culprits – seeks to whitewash the many and grave errors committed by Ukrainian and Western leaders.

In this series of articles, I attempt to expose the dumbed-down story; and present a smartened-up account, in all its nuances and intricacy.

No paragon of virtue

In the current conflict, Ukraine is unequivocally the victim of Russian aggression.  But that does not mean we should take as gospel the picture drawn by Western governments and mainstream media.  To quote the Cato Institute:

"Statements from U.S. and other Western officials, as well as pervasive accounts in the news media, have created a stunningly misleading image of Ukraine. There has been a concerted effort to portray the country not only as a victim of brutal Russian aggression, but as a plucky and noble bulwark of freedom and democracy. The conventional narrative would have us believe that Ukraine is an Eastern European version of Denmark."

Ukraine may be (hopefully will be!) on its way to embrace liberal democracy.  But, make no mistake, it is a long way from that lofty ideal.

The 2022 report published by the Freedom House classes Ukraine as ‘Partly free’, with a score of 61 out of a possible 100.  Here’s the Cato Institute again:

"Interestingly, Hungary—which has been a target of vitriolic criticism among progressives in the West because of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s conservative social policy—ranks eight points higher than Ukraine, which is the recipient of uncritical praise from the same Western ideological factions."

Israel, by the way (whom some of the same “progressives” accuse of nothing less than apartheid!), is ranked as ‘Free’ with a score of 76.


Map published by Freedom House (2020). Ukraine appears in yellow (partly free). So does EU member Hungary. Israel appears in green (free).

In its 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International awarded Ukraine a score of 32 – the lowest among European countries with the sole exception of Russia, which scored even lower (29).  Despite the well-publicised corruption scandals involving former Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel (59) scored considerably better – in fact above many EU member states.

Ethnic strife

Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine’s political scene has been characterised by a struggle between the East and West of the country.  By way of simplification, the East is largely Russian-speaking (as are parts of the South) and tends to elect politicians favouring increased ‘friendship’ with Russia; the Western half of the country largely speaks Ukrainian, is suspicious of Russia and inclines to a closer relationship with the (global) West.

The struggle came to a head in 2010, with the election as President of Ukraine of Viktor Yanukovych. An ethnic Russian, Yanukovych defeated Yulia Tymoshenko by 49% to 45%, a result made possible primarily by voters in the Donbas and other regions with large ethnic Russian population.  International observers declared the elections ‘free and fair’ (but then, what do they know…)  Tymoshenko alleged extensive vote rigging and – while ultimately withdrawing her legal challenge – refused to accept Yanukovych as the legitimate winner.  She was soon accused of various misdeeds in a series of ‘anti-corruption’ legal cases and received a seven-year prison sentence.

All this did not deter the West from continuing to court Ukraine, dangling before it the coveted prize of close political and economic partnership, as well as, eventually, membership of NATO and the European Union.  Political convenience trumps moral principles.

Except that, although initially favourably disposed (at least apparently) to that courtship, in December 2013 Yanukovych ultimately refused to sign the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement – a document committing the parties to increased economic and political integration and meant to pave the way towards Ukraine’s accession to full EU membership.  Instead, he surprised everybody by opening negotiations towards a ‘strategic partnership treaty’ with Russia.  Many smelled a rat: Putin had applied months of economic and political pressure, urging Ukraine to ditch its EU-related plans and join instead a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.  On the other hand, Yanukovych appeared to operate within the letter of the Ukrainian law – as the country’s constitution places the President in charge of negotiating and signing international treaties…

However technically legal, Yanukovych’s decision was followed by mass protests (later dubbed the ‘Euromaidan’ Revolution or the Revolution of Dignity), which descended into extreme violence and actual street fights between militants and police.  In January-February 2014, those clashes resulted in the death of more than 120 people (108 protesters, 13 police officers) and the wounding of a further 1,800.

Under pressure and following mediation by the EU and Russia, Yanukovych signed an Agreement on the Settlement of the Political Crisis with the leaders of Parliamentary opposition.  He agreed to a curtailment of presidential power, new presidential elections by the end of the year and withdrawal of security forces from central Kyiv.  In return, the opposition promised to cease any violent protest and surrender the weapons.  But while the police did withdraw, various armed groups refused to comply with the agreement and threatened to storm the presidential compound and the Parliament.  European politicians spoke in general terms 'against the violence', but they stopped short of condemning what was, in reality, a violation of the agreement they themselves mediated.

Yanukovych fled to Russia and was subsequently deposed by the Ukrainian parliament – though in a manner technically inconsistent with the impeachment process prescribed by the constitution.  He was eventually tried in absentia, found guilty of high treason and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

A new government was installed, which swiftly rolled back much of Yanukovych’s legacy.  All civil servants who served under the former president (up to one million people) were excluded from public office.  Again, these excesses did not result in the firm Western condemnations that we would expect, given our leaders’ much vaunted moral principles and democratic credentials.

Yanukovych’s departure may have brought about restored order in Kyiv.  But in Eastern and Southern Ukraine (and in other heavily Russian-speaking areas, such as Kharkiv) there were pro-Russian protests, which occasionally clashed with anti-Russian ones.  Several people were killed in sporadic bouts of violence.  In places (e.g. in the city of Luhansk), the pro-Russian protesters occupied public buildings and replaced the Ukrainian flag with the Russian one.  The violence soon intensified to civil war levels, with increasing use of heavy weaponry.

It is difficult to assess the extent to which these protests were native, rather than encouraged or even orchestrated by Russia.  I any case, Russia eagerly took advantage of them.

In March 2014, the de-facto leader of Crimea (not recognised by Kyiv) invited Putin to ‘assist with peace-keeping’.  The outcome is well-known: following a referendum (deemed illegal by Kyiv) Crimea was (re)annexed by Russia.

Putin attempted to follow a similar pattern in the Donbas, but there the Ukrainian resistance was more intense.  Using a strategy already tried and tested in places like Georgia and Moldova, Russia carved out two ‘republics’ (Donetsk People’s Republic, Luhansk People’s Republic) out of Ukrainian territory and used them as bases for further operations.

The West refused to recognise either the annexation of Crimea or the ‘independence’ declared by the two republics.  Economic and political sanctions were applied against Russia – even while the European Union continued to eagerly buy Russian coal, oil and gas (making no real effort to wean itself from the dependence on those Russian products).

On the other hand, Ukraine’s plans of acceding to full EU membership were not allowed to progress and the country was not admitted in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

In other words, the West did what it does best: backed off when bullied, while pretending to be tough; and kicked the can down the road, in the forlorn hope that things will resolve themselves, rather than getting worse.

Nationalism, ultra-nationalism and neo-Nazism

One of Putin’s claims against Ukraine is the ‘Nazi’ nature of its government.  Indeed, the Russian dictator has made public his intention to ‘de-Nazify’ the country.  In the West, such claims are dismissed as ludicrous.  Often, the only ‘argument’ cited against this claim is that Ukraine’s president Zelenskyy is Jewish.

Of course, irrespective of Zelenskyy's ethnicity, Putin’s claim is indeed ludicrous.  He has not sent the Russian Army into Ukraine to fight Nazism.  But that does not mean, unfortunately, that he has not been offered grounds on which to build that spurious narrative.

Ukrainian nationalism was significant as a historical factor during World War II, when it tended to collaborate with the Nazis against the Soviet Union.  Harshly repressed by the latter during and after the war, it resurfaced with a vengeance once Ukraine gained its independence in 1991.  Many of the policies implemented by the Ukrainian state since then (such as the legislation on the use of Ukrainian, rather than the Russian language) can be described as nationalist.

Unlike many self-described ‘progressives’, I do not think that nationalism (moderate nationalism, that is) is necessarily something to be frowned upon.  I understand the desire to close ranks, to strengthen the national identity, in particular when it is perceived to be under existential attack.

But ‘est modus in rebus’: while I find moderate nationalism benign and often beneficial, I’ll have no truck with the extreme, xenophobic, exclusionary version of the phenomenon.  And in Ukraine, the two often not just coexisted, but collaborated; and, what’s more, extreme nationalistic factions were often included in and embraced by the state apparatus.

This was only exacerbated by Russia’s intervention in Ukraine’s internal ethno-linguistic conflict.  The armed conflict gave already existing far-right groups not just impetus, a popular role and access to weaponry – but also direct and often enthusiastic support from the state.  It transformed groups of extreme political activists into armed militias.

Arguably the most famous of them is the Azov Battalion.  It was founded by Andriy Biletsky – a far-right militant with a very chequered past.  He is reported to have said, in 2010 that Ukraine’s national mission was to:

"lead the white races of the world in a final crusade […] against Semite-led Untermenschen."

Biletsky has meanwhile toned down his rhetoric and now denies that he ever said that.  But few believe that he really changed his views.  In 2006, he assumed the leadership of the far-right organisation ‘Patriot of Ukraine’ – which many analysts view as a fascist, neo-Nazi group.  Suffice to say that it was formed by former members of the Social-National Party (!), who decided to leave it as it had become too moderate…


Flag of the Azov Battalion. The black symbol is called Wolfsangel. The Anti-Defamation League lists it as a hate and neo-Nazi symbol.  The round white symbol (referred to as Schwartze Sonne or Black Sun) was used by the German Nazis.

In 2015, a drill sergeant called Alex boasted (in an interview with USA today) that “no more than half” of his comrades were neo-Nazis – including himself.  He was, however, contradicted by the brigade spokesperson, who said that a more accurate proportion of neo-Nazis was ‘just’ 10-20%.

And here’s the problem: the battalion (later developed into a regiment) was integrated into the Ukrainian security forces (as a National Guard unit).  Which means that neo-Nazis (whether 10%, 20% or 50%) are being paid a salary by the Ukrainian state.

Again: this in no way justifies the Russian invasion.  But there is something else that isn’t justified: the complete silence of Western politicians (as well as most pundits and ‘human rights activists) when faced with the ultra-nationalist and neo-Nazi tendencies tolerated (and occasionally embraced) by the Ukrainian governments, especially since 2014.  The same ‘progressives’ that brazenly accuse Israel of ‘Judaizing Jerusalem’ seem utterly and eerily uninterested by the overt ‘Ukrainisation’ of a country where 30% of the citizens speak Russian as their mother tongue.

 


NATO

Yet another Putin complaint concerns Ukraine’s potential joining of NATO.  He sees the alliance’s expansion into Eastern Europe as constituting a direct threat to Russia.

That NATO expanded in the general direction of Russia is a fact.  Initially made up of North American and Western European countries (hence the ‘North Atlantic’ name), NATO was joined by Greece and Turkey in the midst of the Cod War.  The latter shared a border with the Soviet Union.  But after the demise of the USSR, NATO absorbed within its ranks the former ‘socialist’ countries of Eastern Europe: Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999; Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Baltic countries in 2004; Albania and Croatia in 2009, Montenegro in 2017 and, finally, North Macedonia in 2020.

NATO was conceived as a military alliance against a potential Soviet aggression. But it expand eastwards even after the Soviet Union broke up. How does NATO look, when seen from Moscow?

NATO declares itself a defensive pact.  But this is unlikely to allay Putin’s concerns.  And not without reason: the alliance fought in former Yugoslavia and in Afghanistan, for instance – despite the fact that neither country attacked one of its members.

It is also true that USA would likewise not react very well, were Mexico to join a hostile military alliance. The US certainly wasn’t cool with Cuba installing Soviet weaponry.

With all that in mind, one must question the wisdom of NATO’s expansion eastwards, at a time when the Cold War had already been won.  It isn’t unreasonable for a Russian leader to ask why NATO chose to consistently expand in one direction only: towards the Russian border.  What remains unreasonable, of course, is the military aggression as a means to resolve this situation.  Invasion is no way to make friends.

***

In the next episode of our Ukrainian saga, we will focus on the West’s response to Russia’s aggression.  Was it really, as we are being told, a brave-but-sensible reaction?  Was it in conformity with the West’s international obligations (or, to use that worn-out cliché, ‘international law’)?

Thursday, 14 April 2022

Russia & Ukraine: the smartened-up story - Chapter I

 Introduction

‘Two Jews – three opinions!’  Jews are often described as opinionated and argumentative.  Our ‘classic’ celebrities – from Abraham to Baal Shem Tov, to Tevie The Milkman – are known to have argued even with The Almighty Himself.  Does the Torah not call us the People of Israel – meaning the people that ‘struggles [even] with God’?  And what is the Talmud – if not a bunch of rabbis arguing with each other and with themselves?  Few things are more Jewish than questioning the ‘obvious’, challenging ‘received wisdom’ and killing sacred cows.

I guess that’s why I feel a bit uneasy these days.  As I write this, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is already well into its second month.  And, no matter what mainstream news outlet you choose to follow – be it European or American – you hear the exact same story: Putin is the Devil Incarnate; the Ukrainians are martyrs and their government nothing short of heroic; they are not just fighting the Russians, but also winning.  As for the West, our oh-so-civilised leaders are all perched on the peak of Moral High Ground, from whence they attempt to selflessly help Ukraine without starting World War III.  To find a different story, one would have to listen to fringe, discredited far-left or far-right conspiracy theorists, or else venture into the realm of controversial, attention-seeking academics.

I abhor both the above categories.  And, as someone who grew up in the long shadow of the Soviet Union, I harbour deep rancour towards anyone who’s ever been a KGB officer – let alone any who wish to once again ride roughshod over their people and over their neighbours.  No, invading Ukraine did not make Putin a criminal – he’s been one all along.  And yes, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is inexcusable – full stop.

But something else I abhor is groupthink.  And, while I love sand under my bare feet, I hate it when it’s thrown in my eyes.

Because there is a different story – a more complex story – to be told; not to justify Putin (he is, as mentioned, well beyond that), but to point out that nobody comes out of this smelling of roses.  Certainly not our sanctimonious, holier-than-thou leaders.

In this series of articles, I will attempt to do just that: expose the dumbed-down version of reality that is being fed to us; and propose a smartened-up account, complete with nuance and complexity.

Fair disclosure

Historically speaking, Jews have few reasons to feel warmth towards either Russia or Ukraine.  Russian tsars and Ukrainian Cossacks figure prominently even in our oh-so crowded Hall of Infamy.  Pogroms were not just instigated by the leaders, but also enthusiastically pursued by ordinary Russians and Ukrainians – including in the 20th century.  Many Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis, including in the persecution and murder of Jews.

By the way, the Babi Yar memorial should not be turned into a political football.  It’s good to hear politicians condemning the Russians for bombing in the proximity of the Babi Yar memorial; but their outrage would look a lot more genuine, had they also protested when that same memorial was subjected to Ukrainian vandalism (at least 6 times in 2015 alone!) And, much as I resent the Russian bombs in March 2022, I can’t forget that, in September 1941, it was Ukrainian cudgels that ushered Jews on their way to the Nazi massacre.

And what about the relentless harassment and forced assimilation of Jews in the Soviet Union (which encompassed both Russia and Ukraine)?  That was but a different type of genocide.

No, it’s not just ‘ancient history’.  Modern-day Ukrainian coins and banknotes proudly display the effigy of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, whose hordes perpetrated untold atrocities against the local Jews.  Stepan Bandera (a virulent antisemite and Nazi collaborator) is nowadays celebrated as ‘national hero’ in Ukraine…

The statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky adorns the centre of Kyiv.
His Cossacks murdered, pillaged and raped a valley of tears through Ukrainian Jewry.

So, I confess: I do not regard either Russia or Ukraine with particular sympathy.  While in the current military conflict Russia is clearly the aggressor and Ukraine the victim – in general neither side is populated by angels…

Frankenstein

Subduing the enemy may end a war; but to bring peace, enmity itself must be vanquished.

World War I victors imposed on Germany terms amounting not just to national humiliation, but also to economic pauperisation.  This short-sighted policy catalysed the Nazi phenomenon.

The Allies did not repeat the same mistake after World War II.  Quite the opposite: the ruined Germany (or more precisely, its Western part) became a major beneficiary of the Marshall Plan, which helped transform it into today’s paragon of economic prosperity and (not unrelatedly) of liberal democracy.  But, of course, it was neither wisdom nor generosity-in-triumph that drove that strategy.  The goal was not to bring peace, but to rebuild Germany as an asset for war – the ensuing Cold War.

A war that the West won – hands down.  The Soviet Union didn't just lose control over the ‘Socialist’ bloc; the Empire of Evil itself broke down into its component ‘republics,’ releasing them to become independent states.  What’s more, all those new nation states immediately shed any ‘socialist’ illusions and sought to embrace capitalism with gusto.  So far, so peachy…  But the transition from pauper Marxism to market economy was never going to be an easy one.  And, rather than instituting a new version of the Marshall Plan aimed at helping their fellow human beings in their hour of need, the (by then much richer, but just as selfish and dumb) West abandoned them to their own devices.  Which ‘devices’ happened to be abject poverty, misery and humiliation.  Generals became taxi drivers; scholars sought to make a living as janitors.  People struggled to achieve that basic dignity of a roof over their head and a loaf of bread on their table.  Russia in the 1990s resembled Germany in the 1920s.

Putin is an awful man – but Hitler he ain’t.  Still, his rise to power was based on some of the same economic and psychological phenomena.  Make no mistake: we stupidly, mindlessly, obliviously midwifed this monster.

Ancient history…

Putin’s claims that there is no Ukraine both sound and are ridiculous.  But it’s important to understand his thinking, based as it is on a twisted historical perspective.  The key to that is his other claim, that [Ukraine’s capital city] Kiev is the mother of Russian cities”.  Historically speaking, there is a kernel of truth in the latter claim: what may be considered a predecessor of the Russian state did start in Kyiv, or in the city that Russians call Kiev.  Even the ethnonym Rus (which gave its name to the modern country) appears to have been born there.

The Kievan Rus, c. 11th century

But what Putin seems to forget is the ‘small detail’ of a whole millennium that passed since then.  If that gives Russia a claim on Ukraine as ‘part of Russia’ – then it is high time for Greece to reclaim most of the territory of modern-day Turkey.  After all, Istanbul (then called Constantinople) was the capital of a Greek-speaking empire, before its conquest by Turks in mid-15th century!

And no, don’t be tempted by facile (but false!) analogies with Jews reclaiming Jerusalem and Eretz Israel: Russians really have no need to ‘return’ to Kiev; far from being stateless and perpetual refugees, they have a state of their own: it happens to be the largest country on earth!  And, unlike Palestine in the 19th and early 20th century, Ukraine is actually a state – recognised as such by all other countries (including Russia, at least initially!) – and home to a people with a well-developed sense of national identity.  Putin’s goal is not the reconstitution of old Kievan Rus; it is Russia’s aggrandizement at the expense of another legitimate nation state.  This is imperialism par excellence – the very opposite of national emancipation.

Ukraine is a state and Ukrainians are a separate nation (with their own national culture, language, etc.).  As such, they are endowed with the natural right to national self-determination.  They have every right to choose (as they did) to exercise that right by establishing, maintaining and developing their own nation state – rather than becoming part of a revived Russian empire or of a pan-Slavic supra-national entity.

… and modern boundaries

But, while the right to self-determination in a separate nation state should nowadays be set in stone, it does not follow that the borders of that state should also be.  One of the things that leads to wars (or to longer and bloodier wars) is the newly found Western insistence that borders are sacrosanct.  That may be true of (some, but not all!) European borders: those that developed 'naturally' through centuries.  But, throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East, state borders are often artificial contraptions drawn by Europeans on colonial maps.  These may be ‘international’ borders – but inter-national they aren't: empires tend to ignore demography in favour of geography.

The borders of modern-day Ukraine (as recognised by us in the West) are those of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic – as they were in 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated.  But those borders (initially and arbitrarily drawn by the Bolsheviks in 1922) had moved repeatedly.  Both before and after World War II, territories gained by the Soviet Union from Romania, Hungary and Poland were incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic – simply because it was convenient to do so.  Crimea (annexed in 1783 by the Russian Empire) was transferred by decree from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 – despite the fact that only about 1 in 5 inhabitants was Ukrainian.

'Immutable' boundaries

Needless to say, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was not an independent state.  Nominally an autonomous entity within a federal country, it was in fact nothing more than a province, part and parcel of a hyper-centralised state run from Moscow.  The Soviet leaders paid very little attention to its borders – because in practice they meant little.

Soviet policies (based as they were on the Communist principles of proletariat supremacy), resulted among other things in the forced industrialisation of Ukraine – traditionally a largely agrarian territory.  This was especially true – and for obvious reasons – of the ‘Donbas’ region (Donbas being an abbreviation of ‘Donets River Coal Basin’).  The rapid industrialisation and bespoke government policies attracted large numbers of Russian miners and other workers, who settled in the area (and who, if they happened to do the same in a different part of the world, would have been dubbed “illegal settlers”).

On the other hand, brutal Soviet policies caused an enormous, murderous famine, which killed circa 4 million people (primarily Ukrainian peasants) between 1932 and 1933.

Moscow continued to encourage Russian settlement and acculturation in Ukraine (as they did in all other Soviet ‘republics’) until the rise to power of Gorbachev in 1985.

All these historical developments are relevant to our discussion insofar as they changed the demographic makeup of the population, causing a considerable increase in the proportion of ethnic Russians (while the previous annexations of territory brought in Romanian, Hungarian, Polish and Tatar minorities).

Some may find it tempting to conclude that – since this was done without the consent of the Ukrainian people (and arguably against its national interests) – the trend should now be reversed.  But two wrongs don’t make a right: one does not make up for historic wrongs by visiting injustice upon the heads of innocents.  Whether they descend from ‘settlers’ or from residents of gerrymandered territories, the ethnic Russian inhabitants of Ukraine are in no way responsible for policies (however unjust) enacted before they were even born.

Still: in politics, just like in physics, every action causes a reaction.  Upon gaining its independence in 1991, Ukraine found itself ‘saddled’ with a large Russian minority, plus a significant layer of ‘Russicised’ population.  The reaction was a more-or-less overt policy of Ukrainisation: the preferential promotion of the Ukrainian language and culture – primarily in opposition to their Russian counterparts.  And the process only accelerated with the rise to power of Putin and his policies – which were (not without justification) perceived as an existential threat to Ukrainian peoplehood, let alone self-determination.

An ever-more-restrictive string of laws regulated the use of language, in practice all-but-excluding Russian from education, from the media and from much of the public sphere, despite it being the mother tongue of 1 in 3 Ukrainian citizens.

Imagine, for a moment, that Israel would outlaw Arabic in schools – thus forcing the children of her ethnic Arab citizens to learn Maths, Physics and Geography in Hebrew.  I say ‘imagine’, but in fact the outrage that such measures would generate is hard to fathom.  Yet ‘for some reason’ (ahem!) no such outrage was manifest in the case of Ukraine.  Very few of our politicians and distinguished members of the media profession even cared to comment.  Let alone rage.

But many an ethnic Russian did rage.  If Russian is your mother tongue (even more so, if it was the language of your parents and grandparents) you want your children to be taught in that language; you want them to absorb, cherish and further develop the Russian culture – not the Ukrainian one.  And while those feeling may be pervasive, it’s always easier to act on them in areas where ethnic Russians are a large minority, or even a majority.

This was the case in the Donbas.  A 1994 referendum asked a series of ‘constitutional’ questions.  Should Russian be a second official language in Ukraine?  Should it be the language of administration in the Donbas region?  Should Ukraine be a federal state (i.e., should the Donbas be autonomous)?  Circa 90% of the population of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions voted in favour.  But their vote was ignored by the central government.

Ukraine and the Donbas

Cohabitation of two ethnic groups is somewhat similar to that of two individuals.  It can only be successful through mutual accommodation.  A desideratum that is made no easier by the intervention of one side’s relatives – in this case Russia.  Not even when that intervention is well-meaning – and Russia’s certainly was not.

A reasonable solution to unsuccessful cohabitation is separation.  But that would have meant that (Heaven forfend!) borders would need to change.  That the Donbas inhabitants would be allowed to decide, in a referendum, whether they wished to continue to be part of Ukraine – or go their own separate way.

The Scots, of course, were given just such an opportunity in 2014.  But the Catalans were not – nor are Basques or the Corsicans, to give just a few examples.  It seems that many in the ‘civilised’ West have yet to learn the difference between democracy and tyranny of the majority.

Corsican protesters calling for independence from France

As for Ukraine and its large Russian minority: rather than preaching accommodation or amicable divorce, the West chose to support forced cohabitation – something that, as we know, is never conducive of harmony and happiness.  And, following cues from the West, the Ukrainian government placed the alleged ‘immutability’ of borders above the sanctity of peace.

Not that this provides any sort of justification for Putin’s past and current aggressions.  It’s a naïve person indeed that believes the man is animated by love for his ‘oppressed’ Russian brothers – rather than using them as a convenient excuse.  But, conversely, Putin’s malevolence should not render us blind to the grave errors of judgment committed by both Ukraine and the West.

***

In the next instalment of our story, we will analyse the political repercussions of this ethnic tension.  Or, in other words, how East and West came together to make a bad situation worse.

 
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