Putin’s Russia: Napoleon syndrome

It is easy to be completely consumed by the drama of British politics and covid strategy right now. But big things are happening in the wider world, as the West retreats and other countries try to capitalise. I have seen some quite alarmist comment on China and Russia in particular. I will look at China another day – but this time was a cold, hard look at Russia and its President, Vladimir Putin.

I came to political consciousness in the 1970s Cold War. At first I was swept up by the anti-Soviet alarmism stoked up by conservative politicians and commentators. In due course I came to see through it: the threat was real but heavily exaggerated. Soviet strengths were talked up, and Western ones were discounted. I was left with the feeling that this stemmed in part from a secret admiration by the conservatives for the Soviet system, with its clear command and control, and its prioritisation of the military. I see this same pattern being repeated with respect to Russia now – as well as China.

No discussion of Russia can get very far without consideration of its undisputed leader of the last two decades: Mr Putin. The historical figure he most reminds me of is Napoleon. He sees other states either as adversaries or satellites. Of course he has to accept that some of the world’s powers, notably China, cannot be treated as either, but there is something very transactional about his relationships with these middle-ground states. One adversarial relationship predominates: with Mr Putin it is the United States, whereas with Napoleon it was Britain (or England as most people called the country then). A second resemblance with Napoleon is Mr Putin’s genius for searching out the weak spots of his adversaries and probing them hard. He repeatedly pulls off masterstrokes – such as his seizure of Crimea and intervention in Syria, which make Western leaders look leaden-footed. A third resemblance is that he clearly loves military power, and wants to find ways of using it to advance his prestige. And from what does he draw prestige? He clearly craves international recognition, including the expansion of Russian territory, and an increase in the number of satellites. There are echoes of Napoleon there. And Mr Putin is absolutely ruthless.

All of this means that Russia represents a huge threat, especially to the free countries of Europe. Mr Putin clearly wants Russia to take back its old frontiers in Europe, especially by retaking Ukraine and Belarus, as well as the Baltic states. He probably feels the same about the Caucasus and the ex-Soviet Asian republics, but that seems to be secondary in his defining conflict with the West. Mr Putin is clearly trying to think of ways that he can further these objectives, and he wants to use his growing military arsenal, including nuclear weapons, to achieve this – though in practice this is very hard to do. That adds up to a massive headache. The parallel with Napoleon does point to some important things about how this headache has to be managed.

The first is that there can be no lasting diplomatic accommodation with Mr Putin’s Russia. He has come to define himself on this adversarial relationship and he will never be satisfied. Britain and Russia found this with Napoleon – not even practical control of virtually all continental western and central Europe could satisfy him. He could never be trusted to keep to a bargain. The European powers came to see that Napoleon was the problem, and not France. Western leaders personalise the Russian problem on Mr Putin, and that is exactly the right approach to take. He is as close to evil as we can see in the current world, but the country he leads is a wonderful one, with which we should be having flourishing, peaceful relations based on mutual respect.

The second lesson from Napoleon is that you don’t beat him at his own game. The Russian Tsar Alexander tried to out-Napoleon Napoleon and the result was catastrophe at Austerlitz. In the end Napoleon was beaten by patient leaders, like the Russian general Kutusov and Austrian Schwarzenberg, whose military strategy might be described as anti-Napoleon. They, and the political leaders of Europe they served, caught Napoleon in a spider’s web from which he found it impossible to escape. In the process they built a European political system that lasted for a century. A system, in other words, that did not require charismatic leaders at its heart. The point is to beat the evil genius by using institutional methods that will last, and exploiting strengths in an asymmetric way.

Mr Putin is not Napoleon; Russia is not post-Revolutionary France. Mr Putin has lasted much longer but achieved nothing like the same pinnacle of prestige. Mr Putin has undoubted strengths, but major weaknesses too. His methods may work well for the efficiency of his intelligence and military services, but they are creating a country where nobody wants to live, compared to its European neighbours. The economy is held back by rampant corruption. Citizens may have access to the basics of modern civilised life (and much more so than in Soviet days), but as soon as they want to challenge corruption or injustice, they feel threatened and helpless. When Mr Putin initially took power, it was conceivable that most people in Belarus and Ukraine would have liked to join up with his country in a prosperous democracy, as these countries were in an even worse state. But Russia’s attack on the Donbas in 2014 (the seizure of Crimea is more ambiguous because the casualties were not heavy) has made up Ukrainian minds, even Russian-speakers who had been more sympathetic to Russia. The protests in Belarus over a rigged election show that winning hearts and minds there is going no better. In the Baltic states and Poland the choice between the West and Russia is also very clear. Other countries, like Hungary flirt with Russia, but only because they feel it is at a safe distance. It is this weakness that is the West’s main strength in dealing with Mr Putin. Time is not on his side; the more people know him, the less they like him.

So what to make of Mr Putin’s latest machinations? There is a build-up of troops on the Ukrainian border, and Russian leaders are making not so subtle threats about using them. They are making demands that might at first look to be just an acceptance of Russia’s status and power, but which Western leaders know full well to be a Napoleonic trap. Some demands look not so unreasonable – such as keeping Ukraine and Georgia out of NATO (NATO would be mad to invite in countries with frozen border disputes and run by corrupt elites), but others seem to be designed to be unacceptable (such as reducing defence commitments to Poland).

Does Mr Putin really mean to invade Ukraine if the West doesn’t cave in? He could be provoked into it, which is why the response needs to be quite circumspect. But it is hard to see what he would gain, beyond some shoot-term looting. Western military analysts seem to accept Russian boasts that their forces would achieve a quick victory, using their superior air power, amongst other assets. But it would not be a pushover. Ukraine is much readier than it was in 2014 and has strengthened its armed forces; it has its people behind it. Furthermore the Ukrainians have been talking to, and buying weapons from, Turkey, amongst other countries, which has developed technology which has seen a lot of success against Russian-backed forces in Syria, Azerbaijan and Libya. Heavy casualties in a war against fellow slavs simply because they enjoy a freer life (that is, are more Westernised) will not make Mr Putin more popular at home. And all he would achieve is the acquisition of a large territory of resentful people that will be very hard to control. His country does not have resources to lavish on the conquest to try and win round herts and minds. In his early years, Napoleon could tell people he conquered that he was bringing down oppressive aristocratic regimes – until constant conscription for his warmaking caused them to see through this; the Russians have no such narrative.

Cool heads need to prevail amongst Western leaders. Care needs to be taken not to provoke Mr Putin excessively, but his demands cannot be met. Economic and other sanctions will not be much of a deterrent – so I wouldn’t place much store on these, except for the subtext that the West’s response to an attack on Ukraine would not be military. The West also needs to make a show of improving the defences of NATO members bordering Russia, to demonstrate its own red lines.

One card that Mr Putin does hold is the dependence of much of Europe on Russian natural gas – especially acute in the winter. But the dependence is two-way. As Russia’s general economy is weak, it depends heavily on its gas exports for the foreign currency it needs. Again the answer is patience. Strategically dependence on this resource needs to be reduced – which of course fits with climate goals. In the meantime Russia commands little public sympathy in European democracies, and a degree of hardship will be accepted if Russia cuts off or limits supplies.

In the end Mr Putin’s regime will collapse in the same way that the Soviet one did, because it cannot deliver the sort of lifestyle that its people want. Its elites will become increasingly cynical and in the end even they will lose faith. In the West we simply need to show the Russian people that a better way of life is possible. And above all we must stick to our principles and behave by the book, according to the rules of international law. That is an integral part of our better way.

Paradoxically, Napoleon’s reputation was enhanced by his relatively early departure from power, and his period of exile when he focus on massaging history. France did not have to endure the long period of decline that inevitably follows from an autocrat holding power for too long, however able. Mr Putin’s achievements are meanwhile fading into distant past, and overshadowed by the failings of his regime. We will have to wait patiently while he slowly loses his grip. For Russia’s sake we must hope that the wait is not too long.

A vindication for Ed Davey and Keir Starmer

The Liberal Democrat victory in North Shropshire is astonishing. It is the second stunning victory for the party in a year – Chesham & Amersham could be explained away by it being a Remainer seat and affected by NIMBY issues on house building and railways. No such excuses are on offer here, and the swing was even larger. In fact the last time there was such a large by-election swing between the parties (Christchurch in 1993) it was a prelude to the Tory meltdown in 1997. The Lib Dems have reestablished themselves as the protest party of choice in the Tory heartlands.

The first thing to say about this is that it is a vindication of the leadership of Sir Ed Davey. He has come in for much criticism, from inside and outside the party, since being elected last year. He wasn’t being radical enough, it was said, and in particular he should have spent more energy banging on about the failure of Brexit to deliver its promises. But that would have limited the party’s appeal to a rather well-off and well-educated elite, and probably failed even there with the party lacking wider credibility. He has been proved correct that the public mainly wants to move on. Instead he has revived the party’s focus on local issues, used to highlight the message that Westminster is out of touch. Importantly they were able to convince many Labour voters (the party was a comfortable second in 2019) that they had a better chance of winning in this seat – but the victory was founded mainly on scooping up doubting Conservative voters, and persuading others to stay at home..

Labour failed to do quite so well in the by-election two weeks previously in Bexley, in the London suburbs, in spite of the Lib Dems keeping their heads down there. We can’t read too much into the contrast, since evidently what proved fatal for the Conservatives in Shropshire were their evasions over Christmas parties in December 2020 in Downing Street and elsewhere – and that blew up largely after Bexley.

In fact the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, should feel vindicated too. He too has avoided stoking up told-you-so on Brexit; he has also avoided saying anything radical at all, notwithstanding his promises to Labour members before they selected him. Instead he has chosen to major on competence and “leadership”. In his early months he always stood in front of a backdrop with the word “leadership” in it. This was a failure at first. Criticism of Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, seemed to be a Westminster village thing that didn’t “cut through” to the general public, in the village’s terminology. Not long ago I was urging Sir Keir to be be more radical by advocating reform of the House of Lords and the electoral system, allying himself with the Lib Dems and Greens, and capitalising on disillusion with the political system. That has proved unnecessary – it would always have been a risky strategy, but playing it safe can be paradoxically risky too in politics. But now the government’s credibility is shot in the nation at large, and voters are not as frightened of him as they were of his predecessor. That Lib Dem by-election victory in 1993 (in fact there were two that year, like this) heralded a Labour victory after all. Labour is now leading in the national opinion polls.

For the Conservatives this defeat points to two big problems. The first is Mr Johnson’s leadership, the subject of my previous blog. As I said then, I get very tired of the suggestion that Tories tolerate the incompetence because he is an election-winner. What on earth is the point of winning then? The public can and did suspend its judgement on Mr Johnson, but that happy period seems to be over. Many Tories hope that with a stronger team of advisers, his record can be turned around. Mr Johnson is certainly resilient. But is he able to manage his advisers? Personally I doubt it. The party would be better off changing leaders, and fast.

The second problem for the Conservatives is their discipline over covid policy. Covid policy scepticism is rife on the backbenches, and it shows. The most visible sign was the lack of mask-wearing in parliament, before the Omicron crisis put the wind up them. But there has been constant carping, leading both to a big backbench rebellion on the “Plan B” measures this week, and to confused messages from government ministers. Should or shouldn’t people reduce social contact in the run up to Christmas? Many on the right have disappeared down the rabbit-hole of extreme scepticism – stoked up in their social media bubbles, and egged on by increasingly vocal owners of hospitality and other affected businesses. This occasionally breaks the surface – such as with the complaint that the NHS has become the “National Covid Service” by excessively prioritising the disease, and as a result it is neglecting other conditions. I guess they want the covid patients to be left in the car park. While the sceptics make some pertinent criticism of policy – such as how we prioritise saving life over quality of life – their overall position descends quickly into incoherence. More to the point politically, it is an extreme position and incompatible with winning middle-ground voters. Covid is a deadly disease, if not for most people, then a significant minority, often including people we know. People are worried about it, and want to take precautions, and want to know that the NHS will be there for them if they or their loved ones fall seriously ill. They can’t see how that happens if they follow the wishes of the sceptics. As the FT’s Robert Shrimsley points out, Tory sceptics aren’t interested in learning to live with the virus, they just want things to go back to the way they were.

Now I am sure that most Conservative MPs are quite sensible on covid policy, but their sceptical colleagues are making the whole party look like nutters, and are clearly having an effect on government policy. They need to be stamped out just as the rump of Remainers were when Mr Johnson first took the leadership in 2019. But first that means Mr Johnson has to articulate a clear strategy for dealing with covid that takes on some of the points sceptics make – on finding a way to live with the virus, and on quality of life. Which brings this second problem back to the first.

For as long as the Conservatives fail to deal with their leadership and discipline issues, the strategies of Ed Davey and Keir Starmer look to be sound. Moreover their apparent pact to stay out of each other’s way in Tory seats, but not try any formal arrangement, also seems to be vindicated – and is another echo of that 1997 landslide. That still leaves two questions for them, and especially the Labour leader. What happens if the Conservatives change leader? And what do they do if they actually win power at the next election?

Eschewing radicalism will help persuade soft Tory voters to vote Labour or Lib Dem – but there must be a point to it all.

Tory MPs must ditch Boris Johnson

By common consent last week was terrible for the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. He failed to bluff his way through the story of a party a year ago in Downing Street, in apparent breach of covid regulations. More juicy details are leaked out whenever the story might be dying down. A video of a mock press conference held a few days after the party told us all we needed to know about this event: it happened; it was wrong; and they knew it. Meanwhile the Conservative Party was fined by the Electoral Commission or failing to disclose donations properly on the refurbishment of his flat – and it turns out that some of his statements on this affair have been less than complete. Then he has been forced to introduce “Plan B” of covid restrictions in the face of the Omicron variant – much to the consternation of many Tory MPs and lobbyists, who accuse him of doing this prematurely to divert attention from his other troubles. It says something about the trouble he is in that the birth this of his daughter failed to gain much attention at all.

It is possible to have some sympathy for Mr Johnson. The party in Downing Street was a long time ago, and doubtless many other similar events took place across the country, unpunished, even as many ordinary members of the public cancelled their plans, and were separated from their loved ones. I find the suggestion that the police should waste resources by investigating it a bit outrageous. There is clearly a malicious hand behind the way information is being leaked, and not least that video. The time for a fuss was a year ago; this is just political manoeuvres. Similarly on the flat, the bottom line is that the public were not asked to pay for it, and the fact that some external party donors might have been involved is, I’m afraid, just how many politicians run their lives. The Electoral Commission’s rules are often confusing, and they have the tendency of all regulators to pursue the minor infractions of the well-intentioned, rather than the serious stuff that is so much harder to pin down – a version of the proverb “Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves”, ending up as “Penny wise, pound foolish”. And as for the new covid regulations, these look sensible and well-timed. As usual sceptics fail to understand the dynamics of exponential phenomena, as well as the reasons why it is important to keep the flow of cases to our hospitals manageable. Days make a difference; this was a welcome departure from reacting far too late, which has been the government’s usual habit. That is being too kind, of course: the first two stories illustrates mr Johnson’s fondness of flouting rules designed for everybody else; the third invites he question of by he did not act more promptly in previous critical moments in the never-ending covid drama.

But there is a much deeper problem. We have been spun the story that Mr Johnson is a man of radical strategic vision, who does not get bogged down the detail – his supporters like to compare him to Winston Churchill in World War 2. But Mr Churchill had many years of experience in and around government by then, and knew the value of competent people. Mr Johnson has little governmental experience, and treats competent people as a threat. This week’s Economist bemoans the fact that all the radical promise of his takeover of government in 2019 has dissipated. But there is absolutely nothing surprising about any of this. It was always clear that Mr Johnson was a ducker and diver, with little of the grasp required of effective leaders. He was chosen by MPs and party members out of frustration with his predecessor, Theresa May, and then by the public, largely because his opponents lacked credibility. His majority is as much rejection of Corbynism as an endorsement of a new Conservative vision of levelling up, deregulation and the sweeping aside of complacent liberals.

As The Economist points out, Mr Johnson’s progress on the big issues is no better than his handling of the trivia. Covid has been a huge distraction, but the government gets stuck as soon as it hits anything difficult – such as liberalising planning policy, managing Brexit, investing in infrastructure, or many other things. The government’s handling of the pandemic is mixed at best. Mr Johnson often seems to be aiming for a middle way between lockdown advocates and sceptics that is the worst of both worlds. Ironically his recent handling of the Omicron variant has been very sound – it is an astute combination of short-term measures to buy time, and the promotion of a longer term solution through booster jabs; the public has clearly responded. And yet he cannot break free from the suggestion that he is using the issue to distract attention; the manner of his broadcast on Sunday night has few other convincing explanations.

The onus is now on Conservative MPs. They got themselves and us into this mess, and they need to get us out. Under Britain’s constitutional arrangements only they can remove the Prime Minister, outside an election, if he does not go of his own accord. They simply have submit no-confidence letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee. And yet they seem reluctant. Some justify this on the grounds that he is an “election-winner”. But what is the use of somebody who wins elections but cannot govern? That is an unbelievably bleak view of the purpose of politics. Besides, the favourable circumstances of the last election will be hard to recreate. One problem is the lack of a challenger to wield the knife, as Margaret Thatcher did for Ted Heath in 1974 (as Matthew Parris points out). At least two cabinet ministers are on manoeuvres (Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, excoriated by Mr Parris). Clearly of greater stature is Jeremy Hunt, who lost out to Mr Johnson in the last leadership election. Surely one of these can break cover?

Maybe they are waiting for Thursday’s by election in North Shropshire. But Britain needs somebody, somewhere to make a stand, and soon.

No easy answers to Britain’s migrant mess

A political crisis is playing out on the coast of England not far from my Sussex home. Almost daily, flimsy boats carrying migrants attempt to cross the Channel to reach the Kent and Sussex coast; they are often picked up by Border Force or RNLI boats. The numbers are growing rapidly, with not even the autumnal weather putting them off. And these crossings have turned to human tragedy, with 27 migrants dying off the French coast last week when their boat capsized.

The political crisis arises because Conservative Party supporters feel that this situation is intolerable; they had voted for Brexit to keep migrants out, but they seem to be flooding in, with the government apparently helpless. Many of these supporters would rather the travellers drown pour encourager les autres; Conservative politicians, realising that such views are unacceptable in the mainstream, instead rail against the people smugglers profiting from the traffic, and the allegedly unhelpful French. Left and liberal politicians meanwhile suggest that safer alternatives be provided for the migrants, but mainly enjoy the schadenfreude of pointing out that Brexit has made this particular problem harder to deal with. Workable solutions are not offered.

To a large extent the government’s problem is one of success. It has implemented harsh policies to keep out those migrants it deems to be undesirable, meaning most refugees and anybody who is not highly educated, preferably at a British university. They have taken full advantage of Brexit to do this, and the overall flow has been reduced substantially. The country takes in many fewer refugees than comparable other European countries. Earlier efforts to cooperate with the French, predating Brexit, have stemmed the flow of migrants smuggled on lorries. The refugees and their people-smuggling agents have few alternatives to the use of boats. Unfortunately the trade is so lucrative that it has expanded – and it has proved very hard to police. Unlike Poland and Belarus, Britain can’t simply put up a fence patrolled by soldiers to keep them out.

Why are they coming? After all they are passing through countries, not least France, that many Britons feel are desirable places to live. But like in Britain, these refugees, many of who are Muslim, evoke a lot of public hostility, so their governments aren’t exactly welcoming. Many of the migrants want to join family or former neighbours already settled in Britain. There is also a suggestion that Britain has a rather lax attitude to things like identity papers that makes it easier for illegal migrants to get on. Most of the migrants seem to be genuine refugees from the world’s growing number of troublespots – Afghanistan in particular. A suggestion by some that they are mostly “economic migrants” from countries that are simply poor no longer seems to be true, though I don’t entirely trust my sources on this. At the bottom of this, Britain is indeed a highly desirable place to live, and one where migrants with the sort of get up and go needed to make the hazardous journey can do well. Racism and Islamophobia are rife, but I don’t think they are worse than anywhere else in Europe – and indeed attitudes are probably more liberal than in most.

What is to be done? Shrugging and letting it carry on is unattractive. The country could probably absorb the arrivals easily enough, but the trade is lucrative and expanding. Many more will doubtless die – and also the continued acceptance of the migrants makes the state look ineffective. Most of the migrants seem to be scooped up by the authorities (unlike the lorry-smuggling trade) and then have to be processed, rather than simply disappear into their communities, placing a strain on the civic authorities. Pushing the boats back (as apparently the Greeks do to boats from Turkey) looks unworkable. The Channel is too broad and its waters too unsafe, especially in the craft that the migrants use. The traffickers have no incentive to give them more seaworthy boats. Beyond that the authorities’ main idea is to remove them from British shores as fast as they can. This, it is argued, will “break the business model” of the smugglers by reducing the chances of a successful journey. This could be to offshore processing centres – Australia has used such a policy with some success – and then back to their home countries. The legal obstacles to such a policy are in the process of being dismantled by new legislation. But where to process? It is not an attractive prospect for the host nation, and British dependencies are too small and too far away (the Falklands has been suggested). And how to send people back to a war zone?

Or the migrants could simply be sent back to France (or Belgium, also used by the smugglers). That requires their agreement, though, and they have no incentive to cooperate. After Brexit the country has many fewer pathways to achieving a solution along these lines. Some form of quid pro quo would be needed, and that would mean accepting a greater number of refugees one way or another. Meanwhile the idea of beefing up the border patrols on the continental side of the water and arresting the traffickers seems to have little chance of doing much to stop such a lucrative trade.

Another idea from conservative types is to make life harder for refugees and illegal immigrants in the UK. This was tried out a number of years ago with a policy called “hostile environment”. Alas such policies in the hands of bureaucrats and enforcement agencies usually end up by punishing the wrong people – those that came in long ago, when paperwork was laxer, and who are now fully integrated. Such people are easier to find. That was the “Windrush Scandal” that proved to be politically very damaging. Besides the idea of Brexit was to celebrate Britain’s tradition of freedom and lack of bureaucratic interference in daily life – and not t turn us just another Euro-state regulated by busybodies.

So what do liberals suggest? Increase the flow of refugees through safe, legal routes. The idea seems to be that doing so would reduce the incentive for migrants to take such a risky route and pay the smugglers. But, of course, it cannot reduce the overall flow of migrants. Indeed it would surely increase it – reducing the cost of migration would increase the flow. There would also be an incentive for other countries to send their awkward refugees on to the UK. Another liberal idea is to try and head of the trouble that is causing people to flee with more aid. But the failure of Western military interventions, and the concomitant rise of countries starting or provoking wars makes this a pretty hopeless task.

So what to do? There is no good answer, but the best way forward surely requires multiple approaches. It starts with more generous policies for accepting refugees through safe, legal routes. It is ridiculous that the country has not done more to accept more Afghans, for example, as there was clear political cover for this in response to Taliban victory. This would give Britain a stronger bargaining position when trying to hammer out solutions with our European neighbours to get tougher on the smugglers and reduce the number of successful crossings.

And that is probably as good as it gets. The people trade is like the one in illegal drugs – too hard to stop, but one that multiple channels can alleviate.