Syria is the biggest blot on an awful year

2016 is not over yet. And one of my bugbears is people reviewing the year before it is finished. Sometimes life delivers a finale in the last week. Who can forget the Boxing Day tsunami? Older readers may remember the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the last days of 1978 - an event which changed everything. But surely there is nothing that can possibly happen in the last few days of 2016 that can redeem it - though things could happen to make it even worse. If Jesus Christ was to make his second coming, and call out Nigel Farage and Donald Trump for the evil that they have perpetrated, nobody would believe it was the real Christ, and nothing would change.

Brexit is, of course, the event that most colours my view of 2016, as it is has the most direct impact on me. It has plunged my country into years of bad-tempered, divisive politics and an administrative quagmire for no obviously good purpose, and given has licence to the intolerant to deliver their bile in the name of free speech and democracy. And the election of Donald Trump as US President does similar things - a campaign built almost entirely on untruth and false promise.

But rumbling behind this is Syria. This is not a new story, but one that took an evil turn in 2016. And unlike Brexit or Trump, it has been killing and maiming many thousands of people, and displacing millions. Its effects ripple through to Europe and the rest of the world. The fall of Aleppo to the Assad regime shows the collapse of liberal intervention, led by President Barack Obama, and the triumph of the evil methods of Bashar Assad, supported by Vladimir Putin's Russia and Iran's hardliners. It seems that there is nothing we can do to stop the spread of evil without crossing the red lines that liberals have drawn - about the ethical use of force, and intervention on purely humanitarian grounds. We must kill innocent people and ruthlessly pursue national interests in order to achieve anything, it seems.

2016 (so far) has been an excellent year for Vladimir Putin. Earlier in the year I drafted a post comparing him to Napoleon, and urging the rest of the world to emulate his Nemeses of the Russian Prince Kutuzov and the Austrian Prince Schwartzenberg in undermining him and destroying him. (I do not rate Waterloo as the decisive event in the fall of Napoleon - had he won that battle he would have been beaten soon after). For some reason I never posted it; I would have looked foolish if I had.  Russia has not become bogged down in Syria, as I was forecasting. Mr Putin proved too clever for that. The Russian military has developed tactics for dealing with insurgencies that are economical and effective. They include the indiscriminate bombing of civilians and the targeting of schools, hospitals and anybody who seeks to aid the suffering. These are tactics that liberal democracies find unethical - but we will not intervene to stop their use. Our doctrines of non-intervention make our actions predictable, and that has been exploited by the chess-playing Russian regime. The political left, so critical of much milder tactics when used by the US, stay silent. The right try to divert people's attention to the lesser evil of the Islamic State terrorist network, pretending that it is an existential threat, and that we should ally ourselves with Assad, the Russians and Iran to suppress it - not caring about any innocent lives destroyed by this pursuit of national interest.

The worst of Syria is that all approaches look hopeless. I have been advocating non-intervention by the West, leaving it to regional actors to sort the problem out. But that simply leaves the door open for other actors, like Russia, to intervene on the side of evil, while the interminable suffering continues. Humanitarian intervention? This is treated as a political act and prevented or attacked by the Assad regime and the Russians so that those interventions tilt the balance in their favour. And yet military intervention would have led to a quagmire that would not have made things obviously better. Our allies would quite likely have turned out to be just as nasty as everybody else. We can, with some justice, shrug and blame others for the problem -there are no shortage of culpable suspects) - but that won't stop the suffering.

So there seems to be not much more that we can do that watch, helping refugees where we can. Russia will no doubt seek an exit - though its campaign looks to have been quite economical, it will still cause stress to that country for no obvious tangible benefit. The new Trump regime will be left with the puzzle of how it continues the campaign against IS without goving succour to Iranian hardliners, whom it loathes. Maybe some kind of political settlement will be achieved which leaves Assan in place, but allows other factions space.

But the outlook is dismal. The era of liberal intervention, which started in the 1990s with Tony Blair in the van, is well and truly over. The Middle East has proved too big a task for it. But the policy's virulent left wing critics cannot claim victory - they have been exposed as vacuous complainers with no interest in any alternative strategy for alleviating suffering. The western liberal democracies are diminished. That may not be a bad thing of itself, but we must hope that other powers come forward, able to look beyond narrow self-interest. They must understand that creating a stable and prosperous world is in everybody's interest, but that it cannot be delegated to just the US and its allies. That is slim hope indeed.

Syria represents the worst of an awful year.

Ukraine: as Russia wins the battle it is still losing the war

The picture from Ukraine remains as depressing as ever. Following the ouster of the kleptocratic President Viktor Yanukovych in February, Russia has taken the opportunity to destabilise the country, annexing Crimea and turning the east and south against the west and centre . The West, and especially the EU, has looked completely ineffectual. What are we to do?

Russia's President Vladimir Putin is drawing a lot of kudos from this turn of events. He has outwitted his opponents at every turn. His main problem now is one of success. He might be forced to annex the eastern provinces of Ukraine into Russia, which will simply add an expensive headache to his country. Probably all he intended was to destabilise Ukraine and force it into a sort of Belgian federation that would cripple the western-inclined part of the country and prevent it from aligning with the EU and NATO.

Undoubtedly this state of affairs reflects Mr Putin's tactical skill, and some finesse and tactical assurance from his security services. As a result he has attracted some admiration from fringe political figures in the West, such as Scotland's Alex Salmond and Ukip's Nigel Farage. Still, it is not too difficult for us over here to have a feel for right and wrong. Russia, with its oligarchs, mafias and overbearing security services, as well as old-fashioned prejudices, is not a country we would want to live in. The pro-Russian activists in their military fatigues and balaclavas, to say nothing of their tendency to beat up those who disagree with them, look like the paramilitary thugs we knew all too well from Northern Ireland, and not the voice of the people.

And yet Russia is clearly winning the war of hearts and minds in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian state has sunk to such depths that Russia looks like a better option. The state apparatus, such as its security services, was undermined to such and extent by Mr Yanukovych and the revolution that overthrew him that they cannot counter Russia's intervention. Ukraine's most effective supporters are its own oligarchs, who no doubt have their own problems of credibility. So Russia is going to end up by winning. An irregular referendum will drive a breakaway of the Russian-leaning provinces from the rest of Ukraine. The country will be able to hold credible country-wide elections, and the Western alliance will end up by having to pour in money to an economic basket case in the rump, a lot of which will under up in Russian coffers as it jacks up energy prices. The US and the EU seem to be helpless to stop this.

And there isn't much they can or should do. Deploying armed forces is a non-starter. Tougher economic sanctions will probably be more pain than they are worth. The West needs focus on strengthening its strategic defences to counter future Russian adventurism. In particular Europe needs to invest in alternative energy sources to Russian oil and gas. It also needs to show that even if the principle of no military intervention applied to Ukraine, it does not apply to other potential flashpoints. And it needs to think about projection of propaganda to counter the Russian state-controlled media.

If it does all these things, Russia's ruling elite will eventually lose out. Russia's economy is running out of road. It badly needs productive business investment, but such investment requires reforms: to strengthen the rule of law, and to tackle large monopolistic businesses. Mr Putin's regime lacks the clout and skill to do this, which means that the country will seriously fall behind both Western developed economies, and emerging Asian ones. His foreign adventures, based on yet more thuggery, simply reinforce his country's weaknesses, making it a less attractive place to invest, whether you are a foreigner or a Russian businessman outside the favoured elite.

The West won the Cold War not through military confrontation, whatever some on the American right believe. It won because the Soviet Union and its satellites fell so far behind their Western counterparts in economic standard of living that their ruling elites lost the confidence to govern. Russia's economic governance is much better than that of the old Soviet Union, but sooner or later its people, and people in places like the east and south of Ukraine, will start asking why things are so much better in the West.

The strength of the West, and especially the EU, is in the long game. That strength remains: we should have more confidence in it.

 

Putin is no Hitler, but we have to draw a line

For those of us who take an interest in history, it has been a scary few days, as Russia flexes its muscles over Ukraine. It is the sort of behaviour that can lead to war, if not now, then the next time they try it. It's worth trying to unpack these historical parallels a bit.

First there is a reminder of the lead up to the First World War, now very much in the public consciousness as the centenary approaches. There are some striking parallels here. First is complacency. In 1914 there had been 43 years of peace in Europe, and an era of rapid growth and international trade. It was widely assumed that economic interconnections were such that a major war was unthinkable - one side or other would always back down before it was too late. That assumption is widespread now.

Next we can see a "Great Power" mentality in Russian policy. Before 1914 politicians tended to see the world dominated by the interests of Great Powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, the USA, etc.), who had spheres of interest. Each great power pursued its own national interest, treating each other with circumspection and respect, but trampling over other countries at will, provided they were in there own sphere. Russia seems to consider the Ukraine as part of its own sphere - as with all countries within the boundaries of the old Soviet Union. China seems to think this way too, but the Western powers have a more enlightened view of the world, and like to see things in ethical terms. Of course the Russians and Chinese think this ethical view is just a cynical cover for extending the Western (or rather the U.S.) sphere.

And finally there is militarism. The most toxic element of the pre-1914 political cocktail was German militarism. The German ruling elite was dominated by the military, and barely constrained by democratic processes. They had developed a philosophy that world politics was a life and death struggle between nations, of which war was the only arbiter. Their military analysis of the European situation in 1914 - that they could win a general European war, especially if Britain stayed neutral - meant that they egged the Austrians on. The military play an important part in the Russian political elite, and they feel an acute humiliation from their decline of prestige since the Cold War, and a sense of satisfaction from their intervention in Georgia. The Russians will not want a full-scale war with the West, but they are probably happy to contemplate unequal confrontations with their immediate neighbours.

But I find the parallels between Russia and Hitler's Germany before the Second World War the more alarming. Hitler had developed a doctrine that it was right for Germany to intervene to protect German populations outside its borders. This led successively to the occupations of Rhineland (which had been occupied by the French under the Versailles Treaty, but which was recognised as German territory), Austria, Sudetenland, the rest of Czechoslovakia, and finally Poland. In each case, until Poland, the other European powers failed to react, which emboldened Hitler to move to the next challenge. The parallels with Russia's interventions in Georgia and Ukraine are rather striking. First there is the doctrine of intervening at the request, or in the interest of, people considered part of a wider ethnic identity. Second is the kind fig-leaf legal pretexts that are used to justify these interventions (in Crimea the letter from ex-president Viktor Yanukovych) without any real regard to ethical merit. Third there is the failure to stand up to each provocation by the rest of the world community - justified in the name of avoiding war. There is a rather chilling parallel with some of the dissembling I read amongst some comments by some on the internet: Ukraine has a complicated history; there is no clear right and wrong; Crimea should really be part of Russia anyway. This is strikingly reminiscent of the supporters of Appeasement in the 1930s. In that case a firm intervention by Britain and France could have caused Hitler's downfall and prevented war - or at least led to Germany's early defeat in a war, and millions of lives saved.

We can overdo the parallel between Putin's Russia and Hitler's Germany. True, Putin's rule has a lot of elements characteristic of fascism: contempt for the rule of law, suppression of dissent, and appeal to a highly nationalistic view of history. But there is little of Hitler's sense of a national mission. Russia is a much more cynical place than Germany was in Hitler's time. Russia may despise the West, but it also envies it and craves recognition by it. Hitler sought more than prestige: he sought something much more like domination.

But there are risks. Russia feels that it has "interests" not just in Ukraine and Georgia, but in Byelorussia, Moldova and the Baltic states (to say nothing of the Asian former republics of the Soviet Union). It might be tempted to use military means to extend its influence in each of these countries if it gets away with a painless annexation of the Crimea. This is not only bad for the people living in these places, but could cause war, and in any case sets an awful precedent for other countries.

To combat this the West needs to be clear and united on a number of things. First is that our view of democracy is that it comprises a system of moral principles that go way beyond the holding of elections. That includes respect for legal processes, honesty by ruling elites and protection of the interests of minorities. Mr Yanukovych lost his legitimacy through his theft of public assets and through his excessive deployment of lethal force against protestors. These are things that go beyond the pale of democratic rule. We need to be quite consistent in holding the new Ukrainian government to the same standards, condemning any oppression of the Russian minority. Secondly, we accept that borders can change, but that it must be done through a democratic and legal process, with full protection of minority rights. One day Byelorussia might join up with Russia. Perhaps even there is a way for Crimea to become independent or join Russia too. But military means is unacceptable. Military intervention is only allowed where something like genocide is starting to take place, and preferably with UN backing. Third is that military intervention against a NATO country really does mean war.

So, when Russia breaches these principles, what to do? There do need to be consequences, and the West much accept damage to its short-term economic interests. A number of sanctions have been talked about, against Russia and against Russian elites. These have justification, but we need to leave enough tools in the box in case Russia ups the ante. The legal pretext for Russia's intervention in Crimea could equally be used for a full-scale invasion of the rest of the Ukraine. If this happens, what will we do?

Longer term, we need to do two things. First is to take concrete steps to speed the import of shale gas from the US to Europe, and other measures to reduce the dependence on Russian gas. Second it to make a number of gestures to strengthen NATO's eastern defences. This is the sort of thing that gets noticed by the Russian elites - and will lead them to ask whether all this military adventurism is worthwhile.

Ultimately, though, we would like Russia to take its place amongst the community of civilised nations. This means rolling back the cynicism that is engulfing that society. If it does so, then it will become a more appealing place to live, and its soft power will be enhanced. Byelorussia would no doubt rejoin it. Meanwhile, though, the West must show some spine or things will just get worse.