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.

How far will liberals go to defend their values? Putin poses the question.

Liberal values are under attack by people happy to use violence to stop their advance. Two main groups of attackers have emerged: various flavours of Islamic extremism, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This onslaught is causing stress for traditional liberals.

We are used to dealing with constitutional opponents: from the collectivist ideas of the left to the social conservatism of the right. But these opponents play by a set of rules which, though they include some manipulation of the media, by and large do not involve killing people. The debate is engaged on liberal terms and settled democratically. But what happens when our opponents do not accept such rules? What happens somebody else has declared war on liberalism?

We have an ideal that we defend ourselves using the minimum level of force, while trying to move the dispute on, and into a liberal and democratic form. In particular we want to maintain peacetime rights and methods as far as possible – since the idealisation of war is itself a rejection of liberal values. This is largely appropriate as we confront Islamic extremism. This is guerilla activity from within our societies. But there are some types of threat where we have to accept something far from the peacetime ideal. Hitler was stopped in Stalingrad, by forces whose methods were no less ruthless than his own. Sanctions and a peace conference would not have liberated Germany. The problem arises when a state decides to project its military power to evil ends. In recent memory we have the appalling example of the former Yugoslavia. There the state power of Serbia was used to promote ethnic cleansing. Liberals in the West tried to step back, not takes sides, and talked of promoting dialogue. But to Serbia this was just weakness. It was not until the appalling massacre of Srebenica that Western countries realised that they had to take sides.

And now Vladimir Putin’s Russia poses a similar threat. Ethnic cleansing may not be on their agenda, though defence of Russian-speaking people is supposed be one of their motivators. The Russian aim seems to be to maintain the power of its ruling elite, not just in Russia, but across a broad sphere of influence outside. This involves a cordon-sanitaire of neighbouring client-states, and undermining the multinational organisations of NATO and the EU that represent opposing value systems. In this they are building on a deep sense of Russian otherness to the rest of Europe, and widespread suspicion, or outright hostility, to liberal values. Persecution of gays, for example, is something of a totem. The Economist this week has published an analysis, though some might doubtless it to be a little paranoid. Russia is prepared to use a projection of military power to secure its aims, and it is also projecting “soft power” of propaganda and sponsorship of extremist political parties, such as the National front in France. They are deploying great subtlety on both fronts, having learnt much from previous adventures, for example in Georgia.

And I worry about the reaction here in the West. I recently had a din-dong on Facebook after somebody started posting a series of stories (from respectable sources) to suggest that the Kiev government were a bunch of ruffians and that we should leave them to their fate. I will quote at length from this conversation, perhaps stretching Facebook etiquette a little (Facebook is regarded as “semi-private”, but the person publishing these views is using a political label rather than their own name, so I feel fewer scruples about quoting them here).

We are talking apples and oranges. You seem to be more concerned with the geo-political battle between Washington and Moscow. Liberals should be more interested in protecting the rights of minorities in Ukraine rather than standing up for a nationalist state who wants to crush opposition by violence. Very few people seem to be speaking up for the innocent civilians caught up in what is a classic proxy civil war, with the USA and most of the west supporting and funding one side and the Russians the other, no doubt with covert support. The constant blame game by both sides means little to people who have had their homes or family blown up. 
There is no military solution for Kiev, Putin will increase his support for the rebels to match anything that we can provide. Even if Kiev could conquer the rebel territory, what then? Journalists who have been there report real anger by local people with the Kiev government. In the Ukrainian parliamentary elections last October in government held areas of the Donbass the turnout was less than a third and in those areas less than 20% of voters voted for government parties. There clearly needs to be proper political dialogue between Kiev and the rebels, anything less than this will prolong the misery for everyone. It was not a wise move for Kiev to declare war on their own people and call them terrorists. Kiev is very dependant on western financial support, we need to start pressuring Kiev to stop breaking international law on human rights and war crimes and start entering serious negotiations with the rebels as we did with the IRA. Russia needs to do the same with the rebels. Ultimately, this conflict needs to be resolved by the will of the people through a proper referendum not through violence.

This is interesting because it is largely accurate on the core facts. The people of the Donbass never trusted the Kiev government; the war has polarised their views against it; a projection of Russia’s military power means that a military reconquest by Kiev looks impractical. The Kiev government has been responsible for indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, and some fairly robust enforcement of its conscription laws, which can, of course, be described as violations of human rights.

But hang on. Moscow’s intervention is what prevented any kind of peaceful or constitutional solution. The “anti-terrorist operation” by the Kiev government was only started after the “little green men” had appeared to stiffen up the rebels, and persecute anybody that supported a united Ukraine. Russia was building on genuine discontent by the people of the Donbass, but ultimately it was and is a projection of Russian military power. It is not wrong to respond to such a projection of power by military means, and if the Ukrainian government had not, the “rebels” would control a much broader area of territory – to say nothing of encouraging the Russians to push their luck elsewhere. And when wars start, things get messy – especially when the  Ukrainian military is not the fully modern, professional and well-equipped forced force that we are used to seeing in the West. They have not, so far as I know, bombarded civilian areas that were not part of a military conflict zone (i.e. containing Russian weapons) – unlike the indiscriminate recent attack by Russian rockets on Mariupol, or, indeed, the attack on MH17. Finally, the Ukrainian government has the backing of its citizens in the areas it controls, even Russian speaking ones, as Kiron Reid’s article in the current edition of Liberator makes clear (and also my limited personal contacts in the country).

The best chance of promoting liberal values in Ukraine remains a strong government in Kiev that is aligned to the West in outlook, if not formally a member of NATO or the EU. The current government is the best prospect so far of achieving the sort of reforms that will push back the influence of the malign oligarchs and security aparatchiks that are the hallmark of the Putin way. It is clear that the sort of peaceful settlement that Russia would allow in Ukraine would fatally undermine such a government and give it (or its puppets) a veto over any serious effort at reform. Liberals in the West can’t use the familiar formula from Yugoslavia that there is bad on both sides, and wash their hands of it. We must take sides. This does not necessarily mean supplying arms, still less military assistance, though we should not rule out such support on principle.

It is not just the people of Ukraine that would suffer if Ukraine is humiliated further. There is no reason to think that Russia’s adventurism will end there. The Russian elite has never accepted the loss of the Baltic states, all of whom have large Russian-speaking minorities.  Russian adventurism there could involve Western, and British, troops.

At its best liberalism means the defence of the weak and the promotion of universal human dignity. At its worst it can be camouflage for avoiding difficult choices. In the face of the lethal threat posed by Mr Putin, please let it be the former.

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.