Ukraine’s fight for survival

By Viewsridge РOwn work, derivate of Russo-Ukraine Conflict (2014-present).svg by Rr016Missile attacks source: BNO NewsCity control sources: Cities and towns during the Russo-Ukrainian War, CC BY-SA 4.0,

It is very hard to think about anything other than Ukraine at the moment. What we are witnessing is a defining moment in European history – but one that is unresolved. Vladimir Putin has crossed a postwar red line in Europe by the use of warfare as a means of furthering political objectives. Military intervention has been not unknown in postwar Europe of course. The Soviet Union orchestrated a number of military interventions within the Communist Bloc. The collapse of Yugoslavia prompted a nasty war, in which European powers, and America, intervened. But the invasion of Ukraine feels very different. What to make of events so far?

A lot of what I wrote back in January stands the test of time. I suggested that Mr Putin wanted to achieve a rapid military victory over Ukraine; I questioned how easy that would be; and I said that an attack would galvanise a previously complacent Europe.

Clearly the Russian attack has not gone according to plan. Its leaders appear to have expected Ukrainian forces to collapse quickly. They seem to have believed their own propaganda that the Russian-speaking majority resented the current Ukrainian government as dominated by “fascists” from the west of the country, and that this would especially be the case in the east. Given that Russia has formidable intelligence services, with plenty of inside sources in Ukraine, this is an astonishing failure of intelligence. It is not hard to guess its cause though: Mr Putin’s advisers were too scared to tell him what he did not want to hear. It reminds me of the “groupthink” of George Bush’s regime prior to the 2003 Iraq War, which expected that the the Americans would be welcomed with open arms, and that a democratic state would be easy to impose. The Russian armed forces were clearly using the wrong tactics – not attacking with sufficient force at the critical points. They doubtless have been trying to avoid civilian casualties too, until today at least. We know from America’s experiences that this is an impossible promise to keep in a large-scale war, and Russia’s weapons are not as accurate – so the fact that there have been many civilian casualties does not disprove this.

One curiosity about all this is that Western military experts shared the Kremlin belief that Russian forces would achieve a rapid victory. The BBC calls the Russian military strength “overwhelming”. But it isn’t. In my January post I commented that I did not think the reported size of the Russian buildup of 100,000 men looked enough. Well, the latest estimates go up to 200,000, but that is still quite small force for such a big operation. Soviet-era armies were much, much bigger. What the experts appear to think is that Russia has modernised its armed forces on the US model, and have a corresponding level of effectiveness per man. If so then then that size of force would certainly be big enough to achieve a quick initial victory, and the problems would only start later on. But I don’t think that Russia’s modernisation has got that far. Or rather the theory has got ahead of the training and the actual technical capabilities. Furthermore there must be a question over the Russian forces’ morale. They were not psychologically prepared for a hard fight against people who look and speak the same as them. It is natural for military experts to overestimate their potential opponents as a matter of caution, especially as it helps make the case for more defence funding. I think that has happened here with Western military analysts.

Which is not to deny that the situation for Ukraine looks very grim. The ferocious bombardment of Kharkiv shows new Russian tactics. The conventional wisdom remains that Russia will prevail in the end. Personally, I do not take that for granted – but let us assume for now that this is right. What next? The problem for Russia is that the powerful resistance shown by Ukraine’s army, leaders and private citizens has established a creation myth for the Ukrainian nation. Mr Putin is right that originally the country was an artificial creation. But all nation-states are that at the beginning. National identity is forged by history, and Mr Putin’s hostility to Ukraine has helped forge that in double-quick time. This attack has sealed it. This will make any puppet state created in the country very hard to maintain. Internal security forces will have to be created from scratch in a short space of time, from unpromising raw materials; it will not be like Belarus. There is a risk of an insurgency. I honestly hope that, if Russia does win, that resistance will be only passive. The West should not support an insurgency. Having endured the horrors of the IRA campaign in the UK in the late 20th Century I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. But it is a risk.

But even if resistance is entirely passive, Russia will have to maintain a substantial security presence, reducing the level of threat elsewhere. It will also have a lot of wounds to lick. That gives NATO time to get its act together, if Mr Putin decides that is his next target. The key to that is Nato’s European members stepping up their military commitments. Mr Putin’s attack has certainly stimulated the European public in that direction. Also the promises made, when the eastern nations joined NATO, to limit eastern deployments can now be shredded. Unless there is regime change in Russia, we are headed towards a new cold war.

A further point of interest is developments have undermined Russia’s efforts to undermine Western politics, through the spread of disinformation and sponsoring disruptive politicians. In the period leading up to the attack there quite a number of apologists for Mr Putin. On the right were those, like Donald Trump, who are fascinated by the exercise of raw power. People on the left like anything that challenges US hegemony: we had the rather incongruous spectacle of people who claim high political principle with respect to the Iraq wars and Palestine coming over as hardened exponents of realpolitik. But the narrative now offered by mainstream media is a compelling one, and Russia has offered no coherent alternative (or not outside its own borders – within them they can promote a version of events that is much further from reality). For people the right there is the spectacle of people bravely defending against a sophisticated army using citizen militias, an idea they love. On the left, Russian apologists have been led up the garden path by Russian claims that they were not going to attack, as well ass claims that the Ukrainian regime did not have wide public support, and made to look very foolish. Anti-Russian sentiment has exploded. This has given tough sanctions against Russia an easy ride. This may have been more than Russia expected. The Russian disinformation campaign is now wholly out its depth.

Meanwhile the US President Joe Biden has played a very well-judged game. He opted to share intelligence early and quickly about Russian intentions. This pressurised Russia, forcing it into repeated denials that have weakened its overall standing – and readying the public at large for what was about to happen. He also made very clear what his response would be, again preparing the ground well. If the Russians are surprised by the strength of the sanctions, they have no reason to be.

Overall the impression is that Mr Putin became overconfident, both based on his past successes, and the apparent weakness of the West. He suffered from the delusion of many authoritarians that the Western public is too focused on the comfortable life to be any good at the life-and-death stuff. But when provoked the public responds. This now means that the Russian state has many problems crowding in on all sides: from the conduct of the war, to response to sanctions, to managing public opinion to even fending off cyber attacks (although as yet not particularly serious ones). Mr Putin’s references to his nuclear arsenal is a sign of weakness. But Mr Putin has invested a lot in that arsenal, and he wants it to count for something.

That leaves us in a very uncomfortable place. Mr Putin will be desperate not to lose face. Things have to get worse before there is much hope of them getting better. Hopes of an early end to the pain depend on Mr Putin being overthrown. And the chances of that are unknowable.

How legitimate are Russia’s claims over Ukraine?

Parts of Ukraine are already being shelled. The situation is to be sliding ever further into all-out war. Western mainstream media has been telling quite a simple and consistent story about this. Many more thoughtful people want to probe this, but the counter-infomration is polluted by Russian misinformation. How did we get here and what is really happening?

Western politicians are advancing a very simple story. Ukraine is an independent country, which is being threatened with military power. That is a very bad thing. Defenders of Russia are advancing a more complicated story, but the way of Russian propaganda is not to present anything that is consistent or coherent, but to spread doubt. It does this through a combination of truths, half-truths and downright lies. Through this fog, two key ideas are being advanced: Ukraine is not a legitimate independent state, and that the current government’s policies present Russia with a major threat to its security. The lack of clarity around this message means that its impact in the West has been very limited. It is picked up by people on the far left and far right who have very little political influence. Donald Trump may be among them, but for once the rest of his party is going in a very different direction. Nevertheless the mainstream Western view does over-simplify a complex situation.

What are my sources? They are mostly mainstream, reported in places such as The Economist and the Financial Times, combined with my knowledge of history culled from many sources. This is supplemented by the reported experience of a friend who emigrated to a Russian-speaking region of Ukraine, Dnepropetrovsk, in the early 2000s (or before, even). Sadly he passed away on Christmas Day 2020 – but I remember well what he said about the experience of living in Ukraine (with some knowledge of Russian, but little Ukrainian), and especially the events of 2014, which most accounts take as the starting point of the current crisis.

Ukraine emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union almost by accident. It was not a coherent political creation. Stalin gifted it Crimea for no particularly good reason. The west of the country included lands that had not been part of the Russian (or Soviet) state until Russia occupied it in 1940 as part of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. This included the city now called Lviv, traditionally Lvov, which had been part of the Austrian Habsburg empire. I visited it back in 1984 (along with Minsk, Moscow, Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev), and our Russian guide explained she could not understand the locals because they were speaking Polish. Further west the country has a longer association with Russia, but had they a distinctive language and religion (Catholic rather than Orthodox). But in the east, including the capital Kiev, the country has been more consistently Russian. Russian language and ways predominate. These differences created political tensions between Ukrainian nationalists and those that looked to Russia, who predominated in the West, especially in Crimea, which hosted a Russian naval base, and the Donbas, which had substantial, if increasingly obsolete, heavy industry. Both sides had substantial power bases and the Ukrainian government fell under the influence of each in turn. Among Russian speakers, who form the majority, there is no automatic looking to Moscow – which I often regard as historically a Ukrainian offshoot, rather than the other way round. The region’s experiences under the Soviet government were not happy. While not comfortable with Ukrainian nationalism, and its emphasis on the Ukrainian language, Russian speakers’ overall attitude to the country’s independence has been quite pragmatic.

The most important thing to understand about the first decade or two of Ukrainian independence is that the country was badly run. As in Russia, well-connected oligarchs amassed huge assets and proceeded to dominate politics. In fact it was worse than Russia, as, especially under Vladimir Putin, Russia began to reign their oligarchs in. The early 2000s were probably the high-point of Russian influence in Ukraine as a result. People could see that Russians were better off. But the tide turned, I think for two reasons. Firstly the standard-bearer for the pro-Russian faction, Viktor Yanukovich, who legitimately won the presidency in 2010, was unspeakably corrupt. Meanwhile Eastern European countries that joined the European Union started to prosper, and their governance improved. Ukrainians increasingly looked west for inspiration. Yanukovich tried to juggle the Europeans against the Russians, but as he was increasingly pressured by Russia away from Europe, this was too much for many Ukrainians. This led to the Maidan revolution, which turned Yanukovich from power in early 2014, but until after nearly 100 protestors were killed by the security forces.

This is where the contested history really starts. In Russian telling the Maidan revolution was a fascist-led coup, back by Western powers, and the government it created started to oppress Russian-speakers. Evidence cited includes clashes in the Black Sea port of Odessa in May 2014, where more than 40 pro-Russian supporters were killed in a fire. I can’t speak for the strict legal constitutionality of Yanukovich’s ejection from power, although it was instigated by the country’s parliament – but it is wrong to say it was anti-democratic. New elections were held in June of that year, which gave the whole thing legitimacy. But we should not underplay the bitterness felt by pro-Russian citizens at the time. And, given the muddle of the country’s creation, neither should we question their feelings of affiliation with Russia.

Then the Russians struck. They managed to occupy Crimea with very little violence. They also supported uprisings in Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region. It is hard to tell what local people in the areas felt about this actions. So far as can be told most people in Crimea were (and are) happy to be part of Russia (a referendum was organised – but such haste and lack of process that it is hard to take seriously). The exception were descendants of Crimean Tatars exiled there by Stalin – who were anti-Russian rather than pro-Ukrainian. I’m sure plenty of people in the Donbas regions supported the uprising, though I suspect that most were against violence. The Ukrainian government tried to take back control, leading to a nasty war which drew in Russian troops (“volunteers”), who managed to stop the badly-organised Ukrainian effort, but not without many dead on both sides.

It is worth pausing here to consider what the stance of the Western powers is in all this. Europeans welcomed the opportunity to trade in a market with substantial potential, as well as the political kudos of promoting a European-style democratic society. But they also despaired at the corruption in Ukraine, and doubtless worried about trampling on Russian power. Americans were surely not that interested, as they pivoted away from Europe to Asia, with major distractions in the Middle East. Both are now accused of not taking Russia seriously enough at the time, and of failing to provide the country with military support, or pressing the Russians with more severe sanctions. Meanwhile the Russians accuse those same powers of orchestrating the whole thing. I think the truth was that the West saw the area as within a Russian sphere of influence, and hesitated to get involved. But neither could they easily accept Russia stopping the Ukrainian people facing westwards if that is what they chose. They also worried about violation of international law – although America had thoroughly muddied the waters there with their invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Donbas rebellions reached a stalemate, and a ceasefire of sorts was arranged through, formalised in the Minsk Protocol in 2015. This envisaged Ukraine taking full control of the rebel areas, but within a system of devolved government which would have given these states a veto over much of what happened at national level. The protocol has not been honoured by either side. Doubtless it is at the centre of French-led efforts at diplomatic intervention, but the sticking point might be as much the Ukrainian government as the Russian.

According to my friend in Dnepropetrovsk, the 2014 war was a turning-point in the attitudes of the bulk of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. They were shocked at Russia’s violent intervention, leading to so many deaths of their compatriots from all over Ukraine. They have got behind the pro-Western direction of the government, which now aspires to join NATO. Doubtless pockets of pro-Russian feeling remain, though, for example in Odessa. Meanwhile Mr Putin’s Russia finds the western drift of Ukraine intolerable. Pointing out that Russia has only itself to blame for this doesn’t help.

This is a matter of prestige rather than genuine threat to Russian security. Though NATO leaders cannot say it, they have no intention of letting Ukraine join NATO. And if they did it is hard to see that they would deploy aggressive forces there. NATO is fundamentally a defensive organisation, and its members, except America on occasion, really don’t like throwing their weight around militarily. Their speciality is soft power. Mr Putin may see westward-looking Ukraine as a threat to his political system, though. That soft power presents a real threat on that score. So he is now trying to balance soft power with hard power.

Personally I think that the Ukrainian government’s NATO aspirations were a serious mistake. It would have been better to aim for formal neutrality – a bit like the state of Finland in the Cold War. It would have provoked Russia less – though made a Russian military intervention less costly. Perhaps Ukrainians think that the 2014 interventions show that Russia may see a neutral Ukraine as an opportunity for meddling. Especially when its leader questions the country’s high to exist.

This challenge is downplayed in Western media coverage, but it is getting harder to ignore. For more than a hundred years, after the world started to reject imperialism, it has been held that the right way to settle such matters is through consent. But the bar to countries breaking away has been a high one, and that of countries absorbing neighbours higher yet. Somebody once said that Russia has to choose between democracy and imperialism. After a brief interval of democracy in the 1990s, it is clearly back into imperialist thinking.

Morally the Western powers are clearly in the right, for all the over-simplifications. Russia’s use of military power is naked imperialism. We should have stopped going to war about such things as a region’s wish for independence, provided it abides by basic humanitarian norms. Britain is not sending tanks to Scotland to suppress the Scottish nationalists. We should be standing against the change of borders except by consent. Even the invasion of Iraq ended with an independent state in unchanged borders – though that doesn’t make it right.

Levelling up from a government that won’t let go of centralised power

Last week Michael Gove, Britain’s cabinet minister for “levelling up”, published a white paper to set out government strategy, building on what had hitherto been not much more than a slogan. It attracted predictable howls of derision, not all of which were deserved. If it is disappointing it is because it presents no real sign of challenge to Britain’s highly centralised political culture.

The good points about the strategy are its ambition, and is aim to make levelling up, or equalising geographic opportunities, a central priority across all government departments. There are two main areas of public criticism. Firstly that there is not much public money attached to the transformation process. Secondly that it advances the idea of political devolution within England only a fraction. I have some sympathy with the government on the first count. It is clear that the problem of regional inequalities has deep causes, and it is not just a question spreading public investment more equally. And yet this all most people want to talk about. We need to move the conversation on. The second criticism is much more pertinent. The Economist suggests that the policy is reminiscent of the Labour government led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from 1997 to 2010: the introduction of regional mayors to provide a new, more local focus for policy coordination, combined with a lot of centrally designed targets and centrally controlled pots of money for local bodies to bid for. Serious devolution would entail local revenue-raising powers, something that is clearly still as much anathema to Whitehall now as it was back then.

I will come back to why I think that matters. But first I want to take issue with the way that government policymakers, and many of those that critique them, like the journalists at The Economist, are thinking about regional development. And that centres around productivity. To them the central problem is low productivity in English regions outside the South East, and Wales – the picture is a bit more complicated in Scotland. By this they mean a concentration of better-paid jobs and profitable businesses in the South East. That is fine as far as it goes, but their suggestion is that this needs to be corrected by making regional businesses more efficient and productive. But what if the main problem is that more productive businesses (i.e. the most profitable ones, or those with best-paid employees) are attracted to the South East. If you improve the productivity of a business in Yorkshire, say, you may find that all that happens is that it moves to near London, or outside the UK altogether, or at least the more profitable elements of it. Often this happens through the business selling out, especially hi-tech businesses.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have huge reservations about the way most economists think about productivity. They are guilty of a fallacy of composition, by assuming that the way you manage an individual business is analogous to the way you run the whole productive side of an economy. This is ironic because economists love to complain that the public suffer from a similar fallacy about household budgets and the national budget. An economy contains a wide variety of businesses with different rates of productivity, as economists measure it. Some are more susceptible to productivity improvement than others. Some are positively inimical to productivity (consider status goods, for example). As productive businesses become yet more productive the resources released tend to move to less productive businesses. This is well-known to economists as the Baumol Effect (or Baumol’s Cost Disease), which doesn’t stop them from ignoring it.

So the key question to me is not why regional businesses are relatively unproductive, but why well-paid jobs tend to gravitate to London and its environs. Political connections are surely part of the answer. Decisions over the allocation of vast public resources are made there, to say nothing of decisions on laws and regulations, and taxes. Physical proximity makes a big difference to the political influence you can wield. That is why countries with more devolved decision-making (my favourite example is Switzerland – but the same applies to Germany) have more equal regional productivity, and why small, independent countries often perform better than non-central regions in large countries. Yorkshire isn’t physically or culturally very far from Denmark or the Netherlands after all, but income per head does not bear comparison. The Irish Republic has overtaken the initially more developed Northern Ireland. The government’s proposed reforms will do very little to change London’s gravitational pull. Regional politicians still will have to travel there to bid for the new funds on offer, employing London consultants to hone their bids to match the fashionable ideas and buzz words that hold sway there.

Still, that can’t be everything. The British regions have suffered enormously from the collapse of old industries, devastated by the march of technology and globalisation. There may be interventions that can push back against this tide. Universities are amongst the few bright spots of regional development. The South East has very strong universities, especially if you include Oxford and Cambridge, which are on the edge of the Midlands, but no monopoly. Perhaps more regional centres can be established for medical research, surely a promising avenue for the country, based on these universities and local NHS institutions. Better intra-regional transport would surely help. Better transport links to London, on the other hand, are more ambiguous in their impact. But such initiatives would be easier to get off the ground if local leaders were not constantly having to appeal to London for permission to proceed, but something could still be done.

An interesting question is whether the green economy can be used to promote regional development. Renewable energy has a strong regional element, but its impact on jobs looks quite limited, especially compared to the old fossil fuel industries. Can a change in focus in agriculture, to turn the land into a carbon sink, generate a healthier rural economy? This must surely be a critical part of any zero carbon strategy. This is interesting because it might entail a reversal of agricultural productivity, as conventionally measured anyway, as some of the interventions could be more labour intensive. Agricultural productivity has always been a prime driver of economic development, as workers are released from the land to work in factories. But we are now appreciating its huge hidden costs. There would be a rather wonderful symmetry if the development of a more sustainable post-industrial economy involved reducing nominal agricultural productivity. It is not incompatible with improving wellbeing, though attitudes to the consumption of “stuff” and, indeed, meat, would have to change. It entails placing a financial value on environmental assets.

Such ideas seem far away from current government thinking, though some ideas on agricultural finance are starting to move in that direction, and have also been promoted by Mr Gove. It is one of the few positive possibilities arising from Brexit, as agricultural reform in the EU proceeds at a snail’s pace.

Meanwhile some good-old fashioned “levelling-down” should not be ruled out. This means taxing excess wealth and high incomes harder, and using this to make investments in regional infrastructure. That, at least, is something Britain’s highly centralised government infrastructure is well-designed for.

British policing needs to learn from the Army

At long last London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, forced out Dame Cressida Dick, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. I called on him to do so some time ago – but that doesn’t stop it looking like an act of political grandstanding.The important bit comes next.

My main criticism of the Met (and many other of Britain’s police forces) is bad management, which has led to the organisation being “institutionally stupid”, as I put it. In other words an organisation composed of perfectly intelligent people who somehow keep doing stupid things. Institutional stupidity is, of course, very common. It is marked by an over-emphasis on procedure over initiative, and a strong desire to protect the institution’s reputation at all costs. It often goes alongside a culture of bullying and excessive centralisation of decision-making. Examples of stupidity at the Met are legion. The two that stand out to me are the Operation Midland investigation into child sex abuse, and the Met’s response to the Morgan enquiry into the serial failures of an old murder investigation. In Operation Midland vast resources were expended following up the allegations of a very shaky witness, which damaged the reputations of several highly respectable people. A few simple enquiries could have ended the whole thing very quickly. The Morgan enquiry accused the Met of “institutional corruption” because of its continual obstruction right up to senior level. “Corruption” was probably the wrong word to use, but the obstructionism was no less shameful for that – and it remains unacknowledged by police management. Redolent as these episodes are of management failure, they were not enough to do for Dame Cressida: her term was extended last year.

In the end the shocking results of an enquiry into police behaviour at Charing Cross police station were too much. It revealed a flourishing culture of racist, homophobic and misogynistic banter that the more naive of us thought had been stamped on ages ago. Many were shocked that nine of the fourteen officers involved are still serving. Personally I wasn’t particularly upset by that – corrective action needs to focus first and foremost on management. Junior police officers landed in the middle of a rampant canteen culture tolerated by management are in a very difficult position, and it should not be up to them to bring it to a halt. While the incident itself may not be as serious as some of the other failures – on the basis that this could have been a rogue clique – I can appreciate its role as a last straw. Like the killing of George Floyd in America two years ago, the deeply shocking thing about it is how little attitudes have changed amongst many policemen even after decades of kerfuffle and reform. It serves to show just how ineffective our attempts to deal with the problem have been.

The Mayor has focused on police culture, and especially discriminatory attitudes. That is important, but, in my view, secondary to changing the management culture. The discrimination culture is much easier to fix if the management is respected and effective. If you focus too much on discrimination at the expense of proper management, the whole process can be discredited as the police fall down on the task of protecting people. Ordinary policemen will simply suggest that effectiveness is being sacrificed to political correctness. This seems to have happened in at least some places in America following the Floyd outrage.

Is it possible to change the culture of such a large organisation with such strong internal bonds among its members? It’s easy to see how policemen feel an “us against them” attitude. They are expected to deal with things the rest of society won’t touch; they put their lives in danger – and all they get for this is abuse, most often. Change is clearly difficult, but not impossible. An example where change has been successful is in the British Army. The Army used by notorious for institutional stupidity. Discipline and orders were considered more important than responding to situations intelligently. But the demands of modern warfare forced change. Army leaders were chastened to see how much more effective the German Army was at “middle management” level than their own in World War Two, especially in the early years – and they started to pick up on German doctrines that encouraged initiative at junior levels, and learning from mistakes. The Army is far from perfect – bullying remains a problem – but its transformation over the years has been dramatic.

A lot hangs on Dame Cressida’s replacement. The new leader has to understand the management problem – something I don’t think Dame Cressida ever did – but also inspire respect amongst members of the force. There is an enormous amount to be said for appointing an outsider – though there are risks to this. Somebody from outside the UK has been suggested – though problems of management in policing are hardly confined to Britain. My suggestion would be to look for an inspirational leader in the Army.

The choice rests with the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, in consultation with Mr Khan. Neither individual has shown much understanding of effective management and leadership. Ms Patel has been dogged by accusations of bullying, and makes promises that can’t be delivered. Mr Khan showed impressive focus in his political career, right up to his election as Mayor, but has practically sunk without trace once he got there. Still, they both have a strong incentive to get this right: let us hope they make a good choice.