Munich: The Edge of War

Munich – The Edge of War. (L to R) Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain, George MacKay as Hugh Legat, in Munich – The Edge of War. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

I watched this new film from Netflix last weekend. It is based on a novel by John Harris, and billed as a rehabilitation of British Prime Minister during the 1938 Czech crisis, Neville Chamberlain. If that was its aim, I’m not sure it succeeded.

This episode is a seminal moment of European history. It was the climax of the British policy of “appeasement” of Hitler, and did much to give that word its current bad name. As I was growing into political consciousness in the 1970s, it was taken as Exhibit A in the case against trying to accommodate dictatorial regimes. The fate of an innocent third country was sacrificed for no real good, and war happened anyway. In those days the dictatorial regime in question was the Soviet Union, and the episode was used by conservatives against the idea of detente, and for robust confrontation wherever the Soviets tried to extend their influence. I readily accepted such arguments, until I took up History at Cambridge in 1978. After that I developed a more nuanced view: that the conservatives, in trying to avoid the Second World War were in danger of starting the First. What that year taught me more than anything, though, was need to understand why people did what they did – and that unless you understood how you yourself could have acted that way, then you hadn’t achieved that aim. So I’m all for a more sympathetic treatment of Chamberlain.

This film certainly achieves that. He is played by Jeremy Irons, and portrayed as avuncular, and very clear about what he was trying to do, and not naive about Hitler and the Nazis. This is entirely convincing. But the question of Chamberlain’s rehabilitation hinges on whether his judgement was correct. Here the film is much more muted, which is not a bad thing. But its conclusion is both clear and tendencious.

This question turns on two things. The first is that standing up to Hitler’s threat to invade Czechoslovakia would have unleashed a military coup in Germany and brought his regime to a thankfully early end. Historically this is quite new idea – the evidence has been slow to emerge. The film cannot resist the temptation to take it up. Much of the drama is made-up nonsense, in there for dramatic effect. Chamberlain was not confronted with the reality of the plot in Munich itself, just as the deal was being done. But the coup plot was real enough, and British Intelligence knew about it. I’m not sure if Chamberlain was briefed, but if he had, I’m sure he would have been as dismissive as the rest of the British establishment. This was no way to formulate foreign policy. This is what the film shows, so, for all its nonsense, the film gives quite a fair presentation of the underlying reality. It is one of history’s great tragedies, and the film doesn’t hide this.

The second issue is whether sacrificing Czechoslovakia in 1938 bought Britain and the Allies critical time, which in the end was decisive in beating Hitler. The film doesn’t labour this point of view, but clearly supports it. In one scene, Hitler explains to one of the fictional characters that Germany has 70 divisions poised to invade, and that he would easily overcome Czech resistance. At the very end of the film, in the postscript titles, the film states its case – that critical time was bought, which proved critical to Germany’s eventual retreat.

But this is contentious. A strong case can be made for it, but I for one have yet to be convinced. The first point is that the Czechs were militarily well-prepared – more so than the Poles in 1939. They had superior tanks to the Germans – and indeed the Germans needed those tanks for their subsequent campaigns – from Poland right up to the invasion of Russia in 1941. Rommel’s panzer division, so important in forcing Britain’s retreat to Dunkirk, was equipped with Czech tanks. On the other hand, Germany was ill-prepared. This was exactly why the German generals thought that starting the war would be criminally irresponsible, and why they were planning a coup. Britain (and France) were also badly under-prepared. Both sides made good use of the year and bit after Munich before war was eventually declared. The introduction of the British Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft on the one hand and the German Messerschmitt 109 on the other followed strikingly parallel paths. Apparently Hitler regretted not going to war in 1938, so the portrayal of his confidence in the film may be quite accurate. But he was probably the victim of his own propaganda.

There are many imponderables in the question of who benefited most from the delay. But we need to be clear that Chamberlain’s strategy failed (and that of the French leader Duladier). The two allies were not ready for war in September 1939, and had little idea about what to do when Germany attacked Poland. Chamberlain was a terrible war leader. The portrayal of him in the film of doing everything to put off the prospect of war may well be quite accurate. However admirable and understandable that is, it is a poor place to start when it comes to the business of fighting one. And yet he clung on. France collapsed, the British army lost most of its equipment, and nearly suffered a much worse disaster. it took Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union and America’s intervention to stop hitler, but not after tens of millions of people died. Of course a total German victory would most likely have been even worse than this – but it is hard to think of it as a success from the standpoint of 1938.

Does Munich have any lessons for us in the 21st Century? Conservatives still tend to see all geopolitical confrontations through this lens, continuing to use the term “appeasement” pejoratively. But the policy of detente that conservatives were so worried about in the 1970s and 1980s probably hastened the Soviet collapse rather than put it off. Conservatives claim that it was the robust confrontation of Reagan and Thatcher that did it, but the hollowing out of self-confidence in the Soviet system that engagement brought about was much more important. Dealing with China and Russia now requires a robust mix of confrontation and engagement, and the Munich episode tells us little about this, either way.

Having said that I think there are a couple of things we can draw from it, neither of which are very clear from the film. First is that we sacrifice small nations at the altar of great power politics at our peril. One of the ways that the post-war world differs from those days is that we have a much greater respect for the sovereignty of smaller nations. The treatment of Czechoslovakia by Chamberlain and Duladier would now be considered a disgrace. There was apparently an ugly meeting between these two and the Czechs at Munich in which their abandonment was rammed down their throats. That was somehow left out of the drama – its inclusion would have given the whole thing a lot more edge. The second thing is that empathy and respect cut no ice with strong political leaders. Chamberlain tried this with Hitler, but it only served to make him question his will to go to war. Hitler may even have expected Chamberlain to bottle it when he attacked Poland.

There are resonances with the current situation over Ukraine. Putin is by no means a Hitler, but he shares an adversarial outlook to foreign relations, and a desire to expand his realm (or restore it, if you prefer). The claim is that all Russia wants is status and respect really is nonsense. As former British Foreign Secretary William Hague points out in an excellent piece in The Times, the West has already tried that, years ago, and was rewarded with the first attack on Ukraine in 2014. Mr Putin is examining the West’s every move and looking for signs of weakness. Fortunately the US President Joe Biden’s touch is much surer than Chamberlain’s. He has not abandoned Ukraine, but neither has he promised to go to war on its behalf. His threats are credible.

I’m not a fan of historical dramas, as they always distort events to produce a better story, and they always over simplify. On the other hand, well done they can offer us insight, or at least bring things to constructive challenge and debate. And they are often a visual feast. I love The Crown, for example, for all its manifest nonsense. Munich is very watchable, but scores two hits and one miss in the insights it offers. The hits are its portrayal of the German coup plot, and its presentation of Chamberlain and how the man approached events. The miss is its attempt to portray Chamberlain’s achievement as a success, where it oversimplifies something much grittier.

Just what is Russia’s game in Ukraine?

Last week I speculated about the future of Boris Johnson. Today I try to penetrate the murk around a similarly bewildering, and much more momentous, issue. Is Russia about to start a war with Ukraine?

Russia has been building up forces on the Ukrainian border – numbering around 100,000, we are told. These includes a lot of modern equipment, such as tanks, missiles and anti-aircraft systems. The menace is palpable. But there are a couple of curiosities. Firstly, it is very public. Western media is full of clearly recent footage of Russian troops massing and exercising in the snow. This is in stark contrast to the Ukrainian side, which only seem to have issued some old footage in a very un-snowy environment. The media have had to content themselves with unspectacular footage they have shot themselves. And the second is that 100,000 troops does not sound such a huge number, especially given previous Russian military doctrine. They do seem very well-equipped – this is more like how America goes to war, but, as even American forces have found, not enough to accomplish a substantial occupation of hostile territory. Then the Russians insist they are not about to attack – they are merely conducting exercises. The Russian public are, apparently, not being prepared to expect a nasty war against fellow Slavs.

All that points to a propaganda exercise, and not the prelude to a full-scale invasion. The problem with that interpretation is that Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, has been pumping up the rhetoric for many months now, and his sidekicks are making blood-curdling threats. Mr Putin has talked about “red lines”, and made demands that seem to be designed not to be met, even through a process of artful compromise. They want NATO to back off, away from both the territory of the former Soviet empire and many of its former satellites eastern Europe, from Bulgaria up to Poland. There is no doubt that Mr Putin feels the loss of prestige to Russia from the Soviet collapse. The loss of Ukraine and Belarus is felt particularly acutely – and not without some reason. These countries, or large swathes of them, have been considered to be core Russian territory for two or three centuries (though, importantly, the western part of Ukraine has a very different history). Nothing would enhance Mr Putin’s prestige more than reversing this ignominy. Russia has a huge nuclear arsenal; it has invested heavily in its armed forces, who enjoy a high priority; meanwhile the West seems to have neglected its defences, especially European countries. Surely this disparity can be exploited?

Russian claims that they are not planning a war are worth nothing. Western intelligence clearly think they are planning exactly that. Because Russia’s intelligence services enjoy even more prestige than its armed forces, and are very capable, this must be because that is exactly what the Russians want them to think. The Russians are engaging in a diplomatic process, but making extreme demands. So just what is the “or else” they are threatening if it is not war against Ukraine? In any case, the Russians are quite capable of fabricating a provocation. Russian elites have a post-modern attitude to truth, and for some years they have operated a policy of implausible deniability.

What the Russian seem to want in Ukraine is a puppet government, formally aligned to Russia, and its economy dominated by the Russian oligarchy, funnelling the proceeds back into the Russian economy. The problem is that since their seizure of Crimea and much of the Donbas region in 2014, achieving this through some form coup or rigged election is implausible; they achieved this in 2004 and 2010, only in each case for this to undone by a popular uprising. The Soviet model of dictatorship requires powerful and loyal security forces; they never achieved this in Ukraine, and they are further away from achieving it now than ever. They may think they can achieve something by causing the West to abandon the Ukrainian regime, causing a loss of prestige that results in a corrupt oligarch taking power (not so hard to find in Ukraine). Or maybe they think they can achieve it directly through military intervention, as the US-led coalition did in Iraq in 2003. That ended badly, of course, but Iraq is a very different place.

The further problem for Mr Putin is that Ukraine matters both too much and too to the West. Too much as a token of Western prestige against the constant assault it receives from Russian disinformation and interference for it simply to be abandoned. But not enough that if it did fall to Russia, the West would think its vital security interests would be threatened. This makes bluffing them almost impossible – in the end they would simply call that bluff because not enough is at stake. What an invasion of Ukraine would do is to force NATO to upscale its deployments in Eastern Europe – now kept quite low in deference to previous agreements with Russia made when these countries joined the alliance. This is exactly what Russia wants to prevent, as they would feel the need to upscale their own armed forces in response.

What Russian leaders should appreciate, but don’t seem to, is that open warfare is a red line for European people and their leaders. This is borne of terrible experiences in the Twentieth Century – which Russia endured too, but seems to have taken a different message from. Use of warfare as an instrument of policy is regarded as a crime against humanity. This is one reason they neglect their armed forces given the opportunity, and why conservative commentators (especially in America whose experience of war has been much milder) think their leaders lack backbone. Russia could just about get away with its implausible deniability in 2014, but a major offensive against Ukraine would be a deeply shocking event, that would galvanise them into a very different outlook.

So Mr Putin might be contemplating something short of all-out war. This could be a bombing and missile campaign, like NATO used against Serbia over Kosovo. Or it could be something we haven’t thought of yet. But it all looks very risky. NATO succeeded in causing Serbia to retreat from Kosovo, but it hardly won over Serbian hearts and minds. There would be enormous pressure on Western governments to come to Ukraine’s aid. A full-scale war is even riskier. Ukraine is much better prepared than in 2014, and warfare in the age of cheap drone weapons is decidedly trickier than it was, as Russia has found to its (or its protégés) cost in Turkey, Armenia and Libya.

Russia does have another powerful card to play: Europe depends on its natural gas supplies. By withholding supplies form the spot market (or diverting them to China), Russia has already forced up gas prices to the level of acute pain, even amongst countries like Britain that don’t import anything from Russia. Most of this gas comes through Ukraine, and a war would create a crisis in supplies. And yet this is a hard card to play for the sorts of political gains it seeks. And the Russian regime believes in conservative finances: it would not want to lose the income for a prolonged period. Doubtless it could supply more gas to China – but the Chinese know a weak bargaining position when they see it.

What of the West’s response? Contrary to expectations, this looks to me have been measured and astute – playing an asymmetric situation as best it can. They have offered diplomatic channels. They have also been doing what they can to raise the costs to Russia of an invasion. This mainly comprises preparing economic sanctions. Sanctions don’t have a strong track record, especially since corrupt ruling elites usually find ways of profiting from them. The most interesting is the threat the throw Russia out of the SWIFT financial messaging system – as Iran has been. This could make life very hard for Russia in the short-term. In the longer term it would hasten the development of alternative systems available to countries outside the Western sphere – and doubtless they can rely on the substantial support of China for this. It is hard to know how heavily these threats weigh in Mr Putin’s mind. The West is also offering military support to Ukraine in the form of weapons, ammunition and advice – and doubtless intelligence too. The longer this goes on, the harder it will make any military campaign. But ultimately the West will not commit its armed forces to Ukraine’s defence.

I suspect that Mr Putin wants a lighting military campaign with a rapid victory, like America achieved twice in Iraq, from which Russia’s military prestige would be enormously enhanced (as America’s was, at first), and to impose humiliating terms on Ukraine. If so Kiev is the likely objective. But the risks are enormous, especially in the longer term.

Mr Putin’s best bet is to back off, accept the meagre pickings that NATO is offering, and use all his enormous disinformation capability to declare victory – how Russia could make the West stand to attention by merely flexing its muscles. But the reality would be a clear defeat that marks the limit of Russia’s power.

Putin’s Russia: Napoleon syndrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syria is the biggest blot on an awful year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syria represents the worst of an awful year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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