Weaponisation of everything with Mark Galeotti: Defence & Security Circle meeting Monday

A follower of the blog emailed me to say that this forthcoming meeting of the National Liberal Club’s Defence & Security Circle may be of interest to readers, at 18.30 to 19.30 on Monday 4 April 2022, at the NLC or online. Presenter is Russia expert Mark Galeotti . “Free, fearless and forthright”.

I have Zoom link – so get in touch if this is of interest.

Blaming the West for the war in Ukraine

By Viewsridge – Own work, derivate of Russo-Ukraine Conflict (2014-2021).svg by Rr016Missile attacks source: BNO NewsTerritorial control source: ISW & Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed map, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115506141

The month-long war in Ukraine is has entered a new phase. Neither side seems to be in a position to make major advances – but the fighting goes on with longer range weapons, causing continued death and destruction. The misery remains for Ukrainians and there seems to be no end in sight. It is a human catastrophe.

Most of the fighting is now around Mariupol. According to BBC correspondents, this is part of a new Russian strategy which focuses on one major objective at a time. Once this objective is secured, they will move on to the next: Odessa perhaps. This fits with a broader narrative followed by BBC correspondents that Russia has overwhelming resources and progress is simply a matter of time. Personally I am sceptical. It is quite hard for the Russians to replace the sort of resources they need to carry out an effective offensive campaign. After Mariupol, they may be too exhausted to do much more, apart from continued bombardment. A stalemate is likely to continue until something big breaks on one side or the other, militarily or politically. Both sides will seek to cover up their vulnerabilities and it is very hard to predict where the cracks will show first.

Meanwhile, I want to step back and look at the blame game. Two narratives are doing the rounds, suggesting that the war is the West’s fault. These are variations on the general, post-colonial narrative that everything that goes wrong is the responsibility of the Western powers, and especially America; everybody else is a victim. This is based on two ideas: one being that the West is all-powerful, in soft and hard power, and so has the ability to shape events everywhere. The other is a victim narrative, popular amongst developing nations, China and Russia, which seeks to absolve anybody else from blame for anything bad happening, often by digging back to some historical misdeed as an underlying cause. Neither is very convincing, especially in the Ukraine context, and, to be fair, few in the West are blaming anybody other that Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia for breaking the great taboo – using a military campaign to solve a political problem.

Still, seeking to blame yourself for things that go wrong is a better habit than always blaming somebody else. It is much easier to change your own behaviour than to convince anybody else to change theirs. It is worth asking what mistakes Western leaders made that might have spared us this tragedy. So what are the two blame narratives? One, popular on the left, and taken up by Chinese commentators, is that Western leaders disregarded Russia’s prestige and security interests, especially with the westward expansion of Nato and the EU. This forced Mr Putin into his death spiral of paranoia and a desire to rectify Russia’s humiliation. The other narrative is popular on the right: this is that Western leaders ignored the emerging threat from Russia, and were too busy engaging with the country rather than pushing back, allowing Mr Putin to think that he could get away with it. The West’s response to Russia’s attack on Georgia in 2008 and Crimea and the Donbas in 2014 are critical aspects of this narrative.

The first point to make is that these two narratives are incompatible. They can only be reconciled by suggesting that Western leaders followed a false middle path – aggressive enough to provoke, but too weak to head off the threat. That is an interesting thought, but we need to look at each of the component narratives a bit more closely first.

There is a case that Western leaders, and in particular George Bush Senior and Helmut Kohl were too aggressive in taking advantage of the collapse of communism. They took the opportunity to cut Russia down to size with a decisiveness and ruthlessness that was too much even for Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, usually referred to as the “Iron Lady” in her confrontational zeal. There is particular criticism of the lack of economic aid as the communist economy collapsed. Instead Russia was flooded by neoconservative economists who urged that nothing should interfere with the operation of market forces in the building of a new economy. Well-connected individuals, and organised crime, took advantage of the power vacuum to make fortunes, while life for most Russians was misery. What Russia really needed was a managed transition to a mixed economy – something the Chinese achieved in the 1980s and 1990s. But the main problem was weak leadership of Russia’s political class – something that was reflected too in other parts of the Soviet Union, not excluding Ukraine. Would Western aid have achieved anything lasting in the absence of such leadership? There is good reason to doubt this – though that is not to say that the Western powers should not have done more.

The next problem came with the breakup of the USSR. This followed the Soviet Union’s internal structure, which did not necessarily make political sense. At the core of each of the USSR’s component republics was an ethnic group distinct from Russia. But that did not necessarily add up to a sensible separate polity. Belarus in particular did not make sense as a separate nation, and Ukraine was dominated by Russian-speakers, even if they might not all call themselves Russians. Never mind: each of these republics became an independent country, while statelets within the Russian federation, such as Chechnya, did not. There was nothing rational about this, but it is hard to see what the West could have done about it, even if it wanted to. The problem was the collapse in authority by the central Soviet state. This then created a dynamic that was very hard to reverse. There was possibly something of a window in the early 2000s when Russia seemed a little less chaotic and better governed than most of the other republics, and might have reunified with Belarus and Ukraine. It is surely true that European and American leaders did not encourage this idea, in order to prevent the new Russian state becoming too powerful. But Russia chose to advance its cause by allying itself with autocrats who were spectacularly corrupt., stoking popular resistance in Ukraine in particular.

But the biggest grievance of Russia’s leadership is the expansion of Nato and the EU that took place at this time. This included most of the old Warsaw Pact countries in Central and Eastern Europe, together with the three former Soviet Republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Let us take the EU first. Russian leaders tend to see this as an aggressive expansion of a zone of political and economic interest by West Europe. In a sense they were right – but it was motivated by the wish to consolidate democratic values and strengthen the European economy. It has broadly succeeded in both aims, notwithstanding many problems, notably in Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria with political corruption, and populism in Poland. Funnily enough there have been fewer such problems of integration among the former Soviet republics that joined. All these countries have prospered relative to the former Soviet republics that did not join the EU, for reasons that will be the subject of many an academic study for generations to come. It his hard not to see this expansion of the EU as a brave political move to benefit the peoples of Europe, rather than a provocation to keep Russia in its place.

That case is less easy to make for the expansion of Nato, which Russia challenged at the time. Personally I felt at the time that the admission of former Soviet republics to Nato was a step too far. But the new entrants clearly wanted to be part of the alliance, and it is hard not to argue that the threat from Russia was a real one. The West tried to reassure Russia with an agreement to limit the deployment of forces in the new countries – an agreement that they have broadly honoured until the Ukraine war. It is very hard to portray this expansion of Nato as a military threat to Russia, which doesn’t stop some people from trying. In the far left narrative Nato’s aggressive intent has been shown in its campaigns in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. But you really have to have the sort of world view that sees Cuba as a brave democracy in order to give this sort of thinking serious weight. But what Nato and EU expansion clearly presented was a limit to Russia’s ability to expand its own influence, and in particular opportunities for the self-enrichment of Russian elites. And yet it is very hard to subscribe to the principle of democratic consent and accept that Russia has a right to treat these countries as part of a sphere of influence, reminiscent of great power politics pre-1914.

The next step in the provocation narrative is the West’s growing influence in Ukraine. There was, in fact, no real prospect of this country joining either the EU or Nato. Oligarchs had too much influence over the state structures for the former, and ongoing territorial disputes with Russia doomed the latter. But western countries would not rule this out formally. Furthermore they have been very supportive of reforms that would push back the corruption rife in Ukrainian public life, which Russia has seen as an important channel of influence. Ukrainians in general have shown a clear preference for closer ties with the West, especially after Russia seized Crimea in 2014 and supported separatists in Donbas, kicking off a nasty war in which many Ukrainians were killed. Before this it was possible to sustain a narrative that Ukrainian politics was a battle between Ukrainian-speaking nationalists in the west, and Russians in the east, with the former only achieving political power through corruption, and using it harass Russian-speakers. The war in the Donbas changed that – though that surely some Ukrainians would still like their country to be part of Russia. But even before the current war, most Russian-speaking Ukrainians looked to the West, and the way they voted in elections clearly demonstrated that.

And that, at heart, is the problem with this Russia-the-victim narrative. The current Russian regime is a bully that believes in subverting the interests of its neighbours to support those of their ruling elite. Do we simply accept this as a matter of realpolitik, or do we push back? And where do we draw the line? Personally I would have drawn a pretty hard line around the borders of the former Soviet Union, and allowed Russia a greater level of influence there, even if it was malign – including an effective veto over Nato membership. But what would the outcome of that have been for the people of Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia? The examples of Belarus and Moldova are hardly encouraging. What I find very hard to take is people on the left supporting this Russia-the-victim narrative, using classic arguments of realpolitik. They would have been much better sticking to the high moral ground and comparing the behaviour of Russia to that of Israel, for example. To their credit this is what some of them have done.

Which brings me to woolly-West narrative. This line of reasoning instantly raises hackles with me because it reminds me of Cold War arguments in the 1970s – which I fully subscribed to at first, before moving on. Actually it may have more justification this time. The argument goes that Mr Putin was committed to his confrontational course in the early 2000s, if not before, and nothing was going to shake him from that path. Better to have frozen Russia out earlier, especially after his attack on Georgia in 2008. This may have weakened Russia economically and even militarily. But that would have given Russia little to lose from aggressive military campaigns against its neighbours, with a distinct risk of a nuclear confrontation. The West wanted to present Mr Putin with an alternative path of continued economic integration with the West, leading to greater domestic prosperity. Even so, the passive behaviour of Germany in supporting Russian gas exports while neglecting its military was not a good look.

There is a little bit of truth in both the West-is-to-blame narratives. But the West’s middle path of wary support for emerging democracies in Eastern Europe, combined with not treating Russia as an enemy was a perfectly rational one. It is hard not to see Russia’s troubles as being primarily driven by mistakes and weak leadership within Russia’s ruling elite in the 1980s and 1990s. After this a democratic path was open to its leadership but tackling corruption and building an open economy; or alternatively there was the Chinese model of developing a competitive private economy while tackling corruption in the ruling elite. But Mr Putin chose not to follow either path. Military assertiveness is not the only way to respond to political humiliation, as Germany and Japan have proved. western leaders may well have made mistakes in their management of Russia – but would that have stopped a war like this being started by Russia? That is much harder to say.

Politics trumps reality again in Britain

Maybe it’s one of those aging things, like the policemen getting younger – but to me our country’s political leaders seem to be becoming more overtly political. I thought that of Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1997, who set the trend for leaders since. And now our current prime minister, Boris Johnson, has taken it to a previously unthinkable extreme. This is evident in yesterday’s statement by Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor. The politics was blatant; a clear strategy for making the country a better place was not.

Mr Sunak was once a rising star in British politics, but now he look as if he will join the long list of politicians (and others) whose careers have been indelibly tarnished by association with Mr Johnson. Yesterday’s effort did not measure up to the difficult economic situation that so many people in the country face – and he instead focused on a number of core interest groups that the conservatives hope will secure them another general election victory, through their votes or donations. This was all too transparent, and not helped by Mr Sunak’s ridiculous claims, such as that he was a tax-cutting Chancellor.

To be fair, the government’s job in managing the economy is unusually difficult right now. Managing a modern economy is like riding a bronco – it is mostly about responding to collective decisions made by individuals and businesses, inside and outside the country, that can quickly overwhelm the tax and spending measures that are the government’s main tools of control. The government’s difficulties are not really of its own making on this occasion. The root causes are the covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the ongoing challenge of climate change. These have delivered a series of economic shocks of a type that policymakers are completely unused to dealing with. The pandemic delivered a major but temporary shock to demand – and the government won plaudits for its drastic policies, like the furlough scheme to underwrite jobs. But it also dealt a huge blow to world supply chains, and that is what policymakers were unready for. From the 1990s onwards new technologies and globalisation bequeathed a highly flexible system of global supply, which people have taken for granted. Even before the pandemic these changes were going into reverse. As demand recovered from the shock, supply did not recover as quickly – and inflation is the result. The problem emerged in 2021, but policymakers responded with denial – including the politically independent central bankers. Nobody seems to know what to do. The last time anything like this happened was in the 1970s, and that was a very different world.

The government is faced with three big and immediate problems: benefits, public sector pay and help for people on lower incomes. Costs for basics, such as food, fuel and heating are rising much faster than incomes and this is creating widespread hardship. The government’s response is to offer some help to working people on lower incomes (provided they are above the minimum tax threshold), and that is about it. Government services are not being given additional budgets to deal with additional pay demands; benefits are being uplifted by a wholly outdated figure for inflation. Most of the help being offered is in fact an offset to rises in National Insurance contributions (NICs) (by changing the rate of pay at which NICs kick in), rather than an actual cut – though at least this targets lower incomes better than deferring the rises altogether. A summer of hardship lies ahead. The country is facing a big squeeze on living standards, and poorer people will feel this the most.

There are two main constraints to the government using the public purse to alleviate hardship. The first is the balance of supply and demand. If the economy cannot deliver the goods and services paid for by government largesse, then inflation will result, with the potential for a wage-price spiral. That was not a problem in the early phase of the pandemic, when government support was very generous, as private demand plummeted even faster than capacity to supply. It is clearly a problem now, and tricky to offset with tax rises, as these tend to affect demand less if they target the better. The second constraint is on public finances – the government’s ability to raise funds if spending outstrips taxation. It is a lot less clear that this is in fact a problem, though levels of public debt are high, and the Bank of England cannot help out by buying bonds through Quantitive Easing, as it could until recently. Still, solutions have been suggested, such as a windfall tax on oil and gas producers operating in Britain’s North Sea. The case for such a tax is a very strong one, but it is completely contrary to Treasury orthodoxy. This holds that it undermines the climate for business investment. In fact investment in oil and gas production in the UK has been very low. The government may feel that it wants that to change, with businesses investing their windfall profits in increasing production to make up reduced supply from Russia. But the government is hardly waving a big stick in order to get such a response.

I can accept that these constraints, especially the inflation risk, are real. But the crisis on living standards demands the taking of bigger risks with the economy than the government is willing to contemplate. In particular bringing forward increases to benefits for inflation looked like a no-brainer. The government’s thinking on that seems to be guided by pure politics. People on benefits (apart from pensioners) don’t vote Conservative and aren’t likely to. Instead the government is focusing help on people in work, and especially those with some stake in property (it is temporarily reducing property taxes, announced before yesterday’s statement). Pensioners are being spared the increase in NICs (which they are exempt from), and doubtless their incomes will catch up later in the parliament, using the “triple-lock” system of increasing the state pension.

Most remarkable of the measures announced yesterday was Mr Sunak’s plan to cut the rate of income tax in two year’s time. Given the ever-growing pressure on public services, it is hard to see how this can possibly be justified, except as a short-term gimmick for electoral advantage. It leaves me feeling exasperated. I am retired and drawing a generous private-sector pension (I’m not old enough for the state one). I was never going to suffer the increase in NICs, but I’m still going to benefit from the Council tax rebate, the fuel duty rebate, and, if it comes, the reduced rate in income tax. I am not facing any kind of hardship. This just doesn’t seem fair.

Will Mr Johnson get away with it? Labour is better placed to capitalise on the unfairness than it was when led by Jeremy Corbyn, but it is still tricky for them. There a still a broad swathe of conservative voters out there ready to be persuaded that people on benefits have only themselves to blame. But I think that pressure on public services, which now includes demand to increase our armed forces, is going to be very hard for the government to manage. Eventually reality will strike.

But in the short-term I think it will be Mr Sunak who will pay the political price rather than his boss.

Will Ukraine and Russia settle?

By Viewsridge – Own work, derivate of Russo-Ukraine Conflict (2014-present).svg by Rr016Missile attacks source: BNO NewsTerritorial control source: ISW & Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed map, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115506141

Much as I predicted last week, the war in Ukraine has ground into a stalemate. Russia has made no significant advances in the last few days, and actually not much in the last couple of weeks. Meanwhile negotiations between the two sides continue. I got rather excited yesterday when the Financial Times published a newsflash suggesting that Russia and Ukraine had agreed a 15-point plan. This sounded promising, but there has been no wider confirmation. The statements coming from Moscow continue to be bleak. Where are we at?

The reporting from the BBC continues to focus on human drama at the expense of any clear perspective on what is happening. This is especially true of Lyse Doucet, reporting from Kyiv. In her reports Russia is “extending its attack” and getting ever closer to the centre of the city. The sound of Russian artillery is louder she says – though I’m not clear how she is distinguishing between the Russian and Ukrainian guns. In fact military experts suggest that the Russians aren’t getting any closer (though they are doubtless consolidating the gains they have already made, and bringing in more forces, perhaps including artillery). Much is made of missile strikes, which are hitting high-rise residential blocks. These weapons are being fired from a distance and appear to be unguided. Precision weapons are expensive and Russia has doubtless run down its stock. This does not look like a decisive strategy. There seems to be a random element in Russian targeting, arising from the use of these long-range and unguided munitions; they are clearly not bothered about hitting civilian structures, but neither is likely that specific structures are being aimed at. This is doubtless true of Mariupol too – Russian hits on a maternity hospital, and then a theatre being used as a shelter, are unlikely to have been singled out for attack, as suggested by the Ukrainian government, and repeated by BBC reporters. But neither are Russians making any effort to avoid them.

The Russian attack has clearly run out of steam. They are desperately trying to find extra troops to feed in, including recruiting Syrian mercenaries. The numbers and types of forces don’t sound decisive, though. This would be an excellent moment for the Ukrainians to launch a serious counteroffensive. But their counterattacks seem to be quite limited. That suggests that they too lack the types of forces to mount decisive attacks – this would be beyond the extensive territorial defence forces that the country has built up so rapidly. Perhaps they are still trying to assemble and train forces able to conduct such operations, or waiting to reinforce their air force. They may be worrying about Russia’s remaining air capability, and its ability to counter any Ukrainian ground operations. This could be one reason for the country’s desperate appeals for Nato to enforce a no-fly zone.

Meanwhile the Russian government seems to be consolidating its hold on domestic politics. They have closed down independent news sources, and provided a steady stream of nonsense to bolster their side of the story. Vladimir Putin seems to be turning on the Russian middle classes, who are attracted to western values, and may have access to to external news sources. He is increasingly branding middle class sceptics as an un-Russian fifth column. This strategy also creates a narrative for resistance to Western sanctions – who wants to support a decadent Western lifestyle? People are naturally patriotic, and Mr Putin’s strategy may well be working. There seems to be little substantive dissent. The Russian public may not have been ready for the war when it started, but as it drags on, they may be as accepting of its consequences as are Ukrainians, with their remarkable rallying to their country.

Russian resilience is to be expected. They do have some weak links, however. They will not easily be able to replace hi-tech imports from the West. This may even affect their advanced weaponry. On the international scene, their Belarusian ally is weaker than Russia. They have not contributed troops directly to the campaign, even though Russia has requested them, apparently. If that country breaks out into serious dissent and unrest, Russia has no spare troops to help President Lukashenko out. These seem long shots though.

But if Russia looks quite secure, that still leaves the question of how it is supposed to win this war. The aim of establishing an occupying army or a puppet regime now look hopeless. So it makes sense to explore what the Ukrainians are willing to concede, so that they can declare victory and pull out. And the Ukrainian government must also be asking how this war is supposed to end. They don’t seem to have sufficient forces to launch a major counteroffensive to send at least one of the four major Russian thrusts back to where they started. So they too have an interest in exploring the options for a settlement.

The starting point is clearly for a ceasefire, and for Russian forces to retreat back to their start lines. That would mean Russia continuing to occupy Crimea and the eastern Donbas. Which leads us to the question of territory. It is conceivable that Ukraine concedes the Russian takeover of Crimea. The Donbas is trickier – Russia, on behalf of its surrogates, claims additional territory there. Some kind of international resolution of these might be a way forward, based on consulting the people that live in these regions. That will be hard amid the rubble of war. A previous attempt at this, the Minsk accords, has failed – there does not seem to have been any enthusiasm for this route forward from either side.

As for political control, Russia will have to drop its stated aim of “de-nazification” – replacing the current Ukrainian government with one that is more amenable. However the Russians demand for the country’s neutrality looks more feasible. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky seems to have conceded staying out of Nato, on the basis that membership was never actually on the cards anyway. Finland, Sweden and Austria have adopted formal neutrality after all. The Russians have also said that Ukraine should not join the EU either. That will be much harder for the Ukrainians to concede. And the EU will be much more willing to accept it as a member than it was before the war – though there are obstacles.

There is also the question of “demilitarisation”, another Russian war aim. That will also be quite hard for the Ukrainians to concede, but it will be necessary for them to show that Ukraine lacks a major offensive capability. Renouncing longer-range weapons could be one part of this.

And what of the wider international community? If the war ends, the sanctions regime against Russia and Belarus needs to be reviewed. But the more that Russia gets, the harder this will be. Clearly there needs to be some kind of negotiation between Nato countries and Russia about deployments of forces in Europe – but Russia’s bargaining position is weak. Nato will insist that the Baltic countries are allowed to strengthen their defences.

We can only hope that something is sorted out and that the war is ended soon. The ongoing negotiations at least offer us a degree of hope.

Russia and Ukraine contemplate an unwinnable war

By Viewsridge – Own work, derivate of Russo-Ukraine Conflict (2014-present).svg by Rr016Missile attacks source: BNO NewsTerritorial control source: ISW & Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed map, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115506141

The Ukrainian war is an important test of British journalism. I have mainly been following events through the BBC, supplemented by the Financial Times and The Economist – with snatches from elsewhere. This coverage is wildly better than anything coming out of state-controlled media in Russia, for example. But some, especially on the left, feel it is biased. I only get snatches of the frustration from Facebook, as I observe comments on the feed of a contact whom I respect in spite of her engagement with the wilder left. Many of these commenters snatch at anything that throws doubt on the narrative coming out on mainstream media. But the main thing to know about this critique is that it has negligible political impact, and isn’t worth getting worked up about it.

Still, the mainstream coverage is far from perfect. As ever, it is drawn to spectacular pictures and individual stories and loses a lot on perspective. It is hard to know how much damage to civilian areas is “collateral”, in the manner of US and British action in Iraq and Syria, and how much is deliberate targeting of civilians (as has been the case in the Russian-backed campaign in Syria). After days of talking about a devastating bombardment of Kharkiv, for example, I was surprised to see pictures of civilians taking trains and cars out of the city in areas that were clearly undamaged. Kharkiv is a big place, of course, but the BBC seems to be using the same old photos to illustrate its stories of the damage there.

Another niggle is that BBC correspondents have a tendency to talk up the strength and power of the Russian forces. They talk of overwhelming strength, and simply as assume that Russia can deploy this strength to prevail in the long term. Others suggest that Russia can rerun its campaign in Chechnya, or the Russian-led one in Aleppo.

But the situation in Ukraine is very different to Syria or Chechnya. It is a much bigger theatre, and the forces opposed to the Russians are much larger. Russia doesn’t have enough troops. Western experts believe that 95% of the forces brought forward by Russia for this campaign have now been committed. And this was about 75% of Russia’s army. Including reserve forces, Ukraine’s army is more than twice its size, not counting the numbers of civilians (and foreigners) enrolling. But, of course, the Russians are regulars, and better organised, and much better equipped. As the attacker they can choose the battlefield and apply overwhelming strength there. Except, for some reason, they haven’t. Russia has spread its forces across many lines of advance. Russia’s main advantage is in vast quantities of ammunition for longer-range weapons: artillery shells, missiles and bombs. While they must be running down stocks of these, they do manufacture their own, and it is much easier to ramp up production of these than it is to recruit men.

And that is leading into a stalemate. Russian forces are making slow progress: to the east and west of Kyiv, and expanding their bridgehead from Crimea. But it is far from clear whether they have the wherewithal to launch substantive attacks on Kyiv, Odesa or Zaporhizia, which appear to be the targets – though they may be able to overwhelm Mariupol, where things are clearly desperate. Of course I don’t know how much the Russians and Ukrainians are holding back. The Ukrainians might be stretched to breaking point, and vulnerable to a well-placed offensive from Russian forces. Or they might have reserves that they can put into a game-changing counter-offensive, once Russia has committed to its next major push forward. But my guess is that a horrid stalemate is approaching. In many ways that is the worst possible outcome for both Russians and Ukrainians.

What can the Russian regime do? It is apparently trying to scrape together some extra forces, including the recruitment of foreign mercenaries. It could start calling up conscripts and reservists. Vladimir Putin has apparently ruled that out today – but what worth are his promises? He can simply ratchet up the narrative about the existential threat to Russia from the West. But such a measure would have a huge political cost, given that he has done little to prepare the Russian public for a major war against fellow Slavs. Alongside Western sanctions taking effect, taking away that easy access to the West and western consumerism which seems to be so important to Russia’s middle and upper classes.

The war is increasingly looking unwinnable from both sides. Russia is a first-rank power militarily, but not economically. It will find it hard to sustain an all-out economic war with the West, even with the qualified support of China (who will want to limit the damage to their own economic relations with the West) without huge damage. It lacks the manpower required to win the sort of people’s war that the conflict is becoming. Russia has a strong national identity to call on, but the threat to its people from Ukraine is abstract, while that to Ukrainians from Russia is all too real. Ukraine, meanwhile is in the process of forging its own national identity. One thing we don’t know is how much support there is for joining up with Russia within Ukraine. There is doubtless some, but the mainstream media is not reporting it at all – as doubtless people with that view are keeping their heads down. But what is clear is that most Russian-speaking Ukrainians now identify as Ukrainian and not Russian. With continued support from the West it looks as if they can sustain the war for a long while yet. They can dig deeper into their own human resources than Russia can.

Which leads to the question of what will Russia’s break-point be? Vladimir Putin has backed himself into a corner. He may have downplayed the level of military commitment to the Russian people, but he has given them maximal objectives – to ‘de-nazify” and demilitarise Ukraine – not simply to ‘liberate’ the Donbas region and secure recognition for Crimea. It looks impossible for him to declare victory and get out. And that surely means that the only way to stop the war is to remove him from power. That would require some form of putsch. For that, the situation in Russia would have to become intolerable. How far away is that? That is another thing I cannot know. But as somebody who is steeped in Russia’s intelligence services, Mr Putin has surely payed a lot of attention to his personal security.

All of which leaves us with a grim outlook of months more killing and suffering. We thought that Europe had learned enough of the futility of war. It is heartbreaking to see that we are having to learn this all over again.

Ukraine’s fight for survival

By Viewsridge – Own 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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115506141

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.

Is liberalism in crisis?

I was fascinated to read Why Liberalism is in Crisis in the New Statesman, which takes the form of a dialogue between John Gray and Ross Douthat. I’m familiar with Dr Gray, a British philosopher; Mr Douthat is a New York Times columnist, with a practising Christian perspective (i.e., to contrast with my own non-practising, agnostic Christian perspective, and Dr Gray’s Christian-influenced atheism). They are both highly sceptical of the liberal establishment, but are both deeply rational, and clearly Western liberals in the broad sense. As such I appreciated and enjoyed the article.

Despite their differences, both men agree that liberalism is in retreat, both within Western societies, and globally. They have an intense dislike of the “woke” consensus, as well as right-wing populist irrationality. Interestingly they think that the fashionable pessimism about the future of Western democracy is overdone. But they are firm believers in the global decline of the West: Taiwan is as good as gone, so far as they are concerned – while the rise of China, India and Russia is relentless and continuing – though I’m not sure if Mr Dothat agreed with all of the last bit (i.e. the inclusion of Russia). But neither think that these rising powers is promoting a universal credo to replace liberalism, as the Soviet Union once attempted. Instead Christian universalism is being replaced with something much more focused on national and ethnic identities. Optimism about the spread of liberalism had been based on the idea that it is the route to economic prosperity – but the rise of China has given the lie to this, says Dr Gray. Meanwhile Western ruling elites seem to be in denial about all of this.

If you break down the article into individual statements about the political state of play, I would agree with most of them. Furthermore, I would agree with two of the writers’ big conclusions: that the decline of Western liberal democracy is overdone by most commentators, and that the political heft of the West has declined sharply, as China in particular has advanced, while Russia makes mischief in the vacuum left behind. Where I disagree is that liberalism, and a belief in cosmopolitan liberal democracy, will simply retreat into being the West’s house philosophy, while the rest of the world moves to various flavours of nationalist autocracy. I think that liberalism is outgrowing the West.

This is for a number of reasons. The first thing is that I don’t think that universalism is dying. According to Dr Gray the West’s universalist out look derives from the fact that Christianity was the world’s first major universalist religion. Christian’s believe their message is for all nations. It shares this outlook with Islam but not, say, Judasm or Hinduism. Buddhism seems less tied to ethnicity, but you don’t hear of Buddhist missionaries, and its forms seem closely tied to local traditions in, say, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and so on. After Western imperialism burned out, Christianity followed the West’s commercial expansion. Perhaps the same might be said of Islam: expanding through conquest at first, and then through commerce. But Christianity is burning out – though the authors spend a bit of time talking around the possibility of a Christian revival. More contentiously, I would say that Islam is heading down the same road. So if I accept that universal religions are in terminal decline, why do I say that universalism is alive and well? Because communication technology has so reduced the barriers to universal communication. Almost everybody either has access to the internet, or aspires to it. Memes cross boundaries all the time. China is creating its on separate online world, but it can hardly hope to keep out international influences entirely – and once inside they will spread rapidly. China is already heavily influenced by Western ideas, from Marxism, the centrality of science, the embrace of capitalism to Western fashions. This is not one-way traffic, of course, as the west consumes non-Western ideas voraciously. Above all this interconnectedness promotes a certain lifestyle of which the Western middle classes are the apogee. Furthermore, the world is beset by worldwide problems, from climate change to global trade and finance. People think of themselves as human and inhabiting the planet as a single homeland. This awareness is crying out for a philosophy which embraces this idea. Nationalism, on the other hand, ends up by promoting conflict with neighbours and minorities.

The next point is that the autocratic ways of non-Western nations are in collision with the idea of individual autonomy, for which demand will rise as prosperity develops. The autocracies are stuck with an awkward dilemma. Their principal justification is that personal autonomy needs to be sacrificed in order to advance prosperity and harmony. If they don’t deliver these things, their legitimacy declines – as is happening in Russia. If they do deliver – as China is managing – demand for individual autonomy will rise, placing more pressure on the governing elite in due course. Popular resentment may not focus on demand for democracy, but it instead on corruption. The presence of corruption means that individuals are routinely humiliated by state power – personified by a lowly official rather than the commander-in-chief. Rampant corruption blights all the nationalistic autocracies. The Chinese leadership understands this threat very well, and is fighting corruption hard. But it is doomed. Its method is to concentrate yet more power to the central elite, creating more opportunities for either corruption or jobsworth local rule – which can be just as undermining of authority in the long term. Only Singapore has managed to establish autocracy and clean government at the same time – and for that it surely depends on its small size. Where the West has failed to impose its influence, in Afghanistan for example, it is largely because it had no answer to rampant corruption.

Meanwhile, each of the developing non-Western powers has a strong dependence on trade with the West. China cannot seem to break out of its huge trade surplus. In the short term this puts China in a strong position – it stockpiles Western currencies, and creates dependencies for certain products. But the country would face social collapse if it was unable to export at such volumes. And all the countries depend on the West for certain high-technology components. Their elites build bolt-holes in Western countries in case things should sour in their own.

The strength of liberalism is that it provides answers to all these challenges in a way no other system does. It embraces the idea that all people are equal and share mutual interests. It provides for a system of accountability that is the surest way of stemming corruption and providing individual autonomy. By no means all democracies have corruption under control – but nearly every country which does have corruption down to manageable levels is a liberal democracy (Singapore is the stand-out exception). The secret of liberalism is not its Western heritage, but that fact that it solves problems, and that it is the best way to secure the middle-class lifestyle than most of humanity aspires to. There may be alternatives to advancing towards that objective, but not to holding it. China, India and Russia will all discover this in their own way.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate what I am talking about is on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea is by no means a country of Western heritage. It was colonised by Japan, not by any of the Western powers. And yet cosmopolitan liberal democracy has taken root there, and the country is amazingly prosperous. Part of their journey was through nationalist autocracy, but this could not be sustained. Meanwhile in the north, a rejection of such values has led to a spiral of totalitarianism. North Korea consistently fails to feed itself, while investing heavily in the military to secure its future. Countries like China and Vietnam have retained their autocratic ways, and not shared North Korea’s fate – as they have embraced capitalism. And yet ultimately even these well-managed autocracies will face the choice of following one or other of the Koreas.

What we in the West have to realise is that our collective political power is in relative decline, and that we no longer rule the world – not that we ever did, but it has been an implicit assumption made by thinkers of left and right, who attribute all the world’s failings to Western policy failures. And the West no longer rules liberalism either. This hugely power set of ideas have a life all their own. Liberalism is not in crisis – but the self-confidence of the West is.