Ukraine: what’s to negotiate?

As the Kremlin’s spokesman tells us – somewhat improbably – that regime change was never Vladimir Putin’s goal, the debate on whether Russia and Ukraine should be negotiating gets another bounce.

Depressing – but necessary – to bear in mind that a settlement will rest more on power than on justice.

Some other lessons from the conflict also seem to be getting neglected.

Continue reading “Ukraine: what’s to negotiate?”

NZ-Aust defence agreement draws attention to the need for strengthening our military capabilities

Facing  what they  say is a  growing threat to regional security,  Defence  Minister Peeni  Henare  and  his  Australian  counterpart, Richard  Marles,  (who is  also Australia’s  Deputy Prime  Minister) have  agreed to  explore strengthening the  “joint operational capabilities of our forces”.

For  NZ, trying  to rebuild its  defence forces  which were run  down  during the  Covid  pandemic,  and  now  losing  personnel, this  is  particularly  significant.

Australia  and NZ  already  have  what  the  ministers  believe to be  a “uniquely  close  relationship”.  But with  the  unspoken  threat from  China in the  Pacific (the  ministers  call it  an “increasingly complex  security  environment”,  it  is  vital that  NZ steps  up  the  pace  of  recruiting  new  personnel  to  each  of  its three armed  services. Continue reading “NZ-Aust defence agreement draws attention to the need for strengthening our military capabilities”

Thubron, Gorbachev and Putin: who is the odd man out?

It’s hard to believe Colin Thubron, writer, is more than eighty years old.  In his latest epic – ‘The Amur River: Between Russia and China’ – we can wince as he describes carrying fractured ankle and ribs for several thousand miles from the swamps of Mongolia through Russian detention.

Thubron is really a historian of sorts.  His longevity (personal and professional) and his absorption in the contested Eurasian borderlands allows him to interpret his interlocutors’ most painful memories.

Mikhail Gorbachev – who died yesterday – was another student of Russian history.  Google has no record of the esteemed travel writer’s meeting the last supreme leader of the USSR (Thubron’s breakthrough work ‘Among the Russians’ was published in 1983) but one imagines he would have been uniquely equipped to distil the inherited memories of the Russian-Ukrainian family’s suffering during the Stalin famine.  

Assuming that the politician would let him do so.

Gorbachev leaned on history to create a vision for a greater Russian state.  But – like his predecessor Kerensky – he found neither state nor people would respond to his plan in a coherent fashion.

Odd you might think, because when the – perhaps inevitable – civil war broke out in August 1991, the old order vapourized in a few skirmishes.  And despite being on the winning side (wasn’t everybody then), there was no following – or place – for Gorbachev in the new order.

Vladimir Putin also has a keen interest in Russian history.  Indeed it’s the basis of his vision for the country’s future.

As news comes through that there is still no place for Gorbachev in the new order (the Kremlin won’t give him a state funeral), it’s ironical to consider that Putin is the Soviet leader who has managed to achieve a reformulation of the USSR.  Gorbachev’s dream – now as nightmare.

If Gorbachev was the theorist with the plan, Putin was the pragmatist.  Where Gorbachev fragmented the system and gave away both sticks and carrots, Putin – with the attention to needs of the most astute democratic politicians –  painstakingly, and with a great deal of trial-and-error, built a durable coalition from old powers like the security services, the military command and ethnic bosses, and new powers, like the oligarchs.

Putin’s power grew as competing forces (including some former allies of convenience, like the oligarchs) were neutralised.

People from prosperous and gentle countries, like New Zealand, can be obtuse in coming to terms with the fact that both peaceful and violent societies need a dedicated cadre of public servants thinking about where to use violence and kill; on whom to inflict it; and by what rules and procedures.  Indeed, it can be more complicated at the kinder end of the spectrum (ask our defence officials about their participation in the Russian-killing programme, for example).

Putin is one of those public servants.  He joined the KGB, the Soviet institution which quintessentially embodied that responsibility.  

While Gorbachev’s actions showed a tremendous desire to avoid the use of force to achieve his goals, it’s hard to say that about Putin.  His record suggests an emotional attitude closer to Stalin’s, of whom the poet Osip Mandelstam (also one of his victims) said: 

“He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries. / He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.”

One can imagine a powerpoint presentation in the Kremlin running through the kill-list, with Putin then leading a vigorous discussion on the appropriate toxins, calibrating the suffering to the crime.  Personal justice demands personal attention.

But back to Thubron, whose ruminations remind us that sometimes – as with Gorbachev – you just can’t force some things on the Russians, and sometimes – as with Putin, and others – you can.

Thubron’s people are the descendants of camp survivors, war veterans, party torturers; those who endured the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ones born after; and those who just kept their heads down.

By getting into an extended war in the Ukraine, Putin’s ability to force things on Thubron’s people may be slipping.  It’s giving them a choice: between an insular and – in some ways – more secure society, and a freer and, in social terms, less stable one.  With the price paid in lives.

You can see that China’s General-Secretary Xi might have a keen interest in restricting the scope for choice in Russia and thus be anxious to help Putin redeploy Russian soldiers to the Ukraine from Colin Thubron’s Amur river.

With Ukraine’s attempts to recapture Kherson building up and reports of facilities to re-educate Putin’s ‘liberated’ Ukrainians, we get a step closer to an answer.

Deployment to train Ukrainian troops is all very well – but Henare should fix sights on new hardware and lifting NZ army morale

When PM Jacinda  Ardern  announced this week the  government had decided to give  additional  support  to Ukraine  against  Russia’s illegal  war, she described the deployment  of 120 personnel from the NZ Defence  Force to the UK  to  help  train Ukraine soldiers as “significant”.

The decision follows a  completed deployment of  30 NZDF personnel who went  to Britain in May to   train Ukrainian military  personnel in operating  artillery.

“We know that one of the highest priorities for Ukraine right now, is to train its soldiers, and New Zealand is proud to stand in solidarity alongside a number of other countries to answer that call,” Jacinda Ardern said.

Point  of  Order  has  no  doubt the NZ  contingent will  do a  very  good  job.  It may even  revive  the rundown morale  among NZ’s  armed  forces. Continue reading “Deployment to train Ukrainian troops is all very well – but Henare should fix sights on new hardware and lifting NZ army morale”

ACT goes on attack as Defence Force personnel are found to be sniping at pay, dwellings and leadership

When a  Royal New Zealand Air Force C130 Hercules broke down in Vanuatu  this  week   there  was  a certain  irony   in the  event.  It left  Defence Minister Peeni Henare stranded in the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara, where he had been leading  a delegation of 30 New Zealanders, including officials from the New Zealand Defence Force and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who were in the country for World War II commemorations.

Henare  took  over  the  Defence  portfolio  after  the   2020 election,  but  so  far   he  has  done  little  to  upgrade  the  rundown   state   of  the  country’s  defence   resources.

Whether  his   stranding might serve  as  a  wake-up  call  could  be  monitored   not  just  by   Defence officials   but  by a   wider  public  becoming  alarmed  at  how  defenceless  NZ  has  become,  even  as  threats  in  the  Asia-Pacific  region  become  all too obvious.

This   week  the  ACT  party drew  attention to  how numbers are dropping in the New Zealand Defence Force as personnel are faced with “poor pay, poor dwellings, and poor leadership from the Minister”. Continue reading “ACT goes on attack as Defence Force personnel are found to be sniping at pay, dwellings and leadership”

Missiles that loiter (with intent to do mischief) – Australia is re-arming but NZ is still considering modern munitions

Australia  this week   announced it is planning to spend $A3.5bn on long-range strike missiles years ahead of schedule because of growing threats posed by Russia and China, Associated Press has  reported..

Defence Minister Peter Dutton said  the accelerated re-arming  would  increase Australia’s deterrence to potential adversaries.

Meanwhile  there  is  no  sign  of  the  Ardern government  considering   increasing  defence  spending, although  Defence  Minister  Peeni Henare  did say  this  week the government had considered sending weapons – such as the Javelin missile launchers – as part of the government’s support of Ukraine in fighting off the Russian invasion.

 “That’s been in front of Cabinet for consideration. To date, Cabinet hasn’t agreed.”

Point of  Order   would   like  to  think   the  NZ  Defence  Force   has  its  own  stock of  Javelin missiles, but  there  is  little  evidence  of that.   The US has already supplied thousands of the anti-tank missiles and hundreds of launchers  to Ukraine’s forces.

A Javelin missile, a  modern successor  to the  Bazooka,  costs  around $US1m. Continue reading “Missiles that loiter (with intent to do mischief) – Australia is re-arming but NZ is still considering modern munitions”

What should Peeni Henare wear for Defence talks with Peter Dutton? A flak jacket, perhaps

On his  first  mission abroad   as  Defence  Minister, Peeni Henare  says he  is  seeking to “regenerate New Zealand’s  defence  force readiness and  capability in  a  post-Covid  world”.

In  that  phrase he (in effect) underlines  how   heavily  committed  defence elements  have been in  their  various  roles  during the prolonged  pandemic.  It  will  be   with  relief    that  those  forces can  now  get  back  to  what  they enlisted to be.

But  Henare   now  has  to  get  to  grips  with the vital  role  of  securing  NZ’s  defences –  as  NZ   always  has done – with its  allies  and partners, particularly with his  Pacific  focus.

After   talks  in  Fiji on  how best to support Pacific partners to work together to provide solutions to the region’s challenges, he  goes  on to Australia which  is New Zealand’s only formal defence ally and one of its closest security and bilateral partners.

There  he  is  to hold talks  with  the  formidable  Peter  Dutton. Continue reading “What should Peeni Henare wear for Defence talks with Peter Dutton? A flak jacket, perhaps”

Henare seems fixed on fighting Covid – we had to wait for Twyford for words of concern about Putin’s nuclear threat

As  Russian guns  bombard  Ukrainian cities and  the  world  watches in horror, New Zealanders, too, are recoiling at  Russia’s  aggression.  The  threat of  nuclear  weapons  being used compounds the shock of  war.  A devastating  human  cost is  being  borne by the  Ukrainian people.

So where  is  NZ’s  Minister of  Defence, Peeni Henare?  What does  he  think  of  the  invasion by  Russia  of  its  neighbour and its threat to use nuclear weapons?  And is he  checking   the  state  of  NZ’s  armed  forces, to be ready to do whatever must be done if Vladimir Putin sparks a wider war?

Henare spoke  in Parliament  yesterday  in the  general debate  (remotely) and  expressed his eagerly awaited thoughts.

He began by  endorsing the  words  of  Deputy  PM  Grant  Robertson  on what Wellingtonians have endured over the past weeks.  The occupation of the area around Parliament,  he thought, was

”… testament to the challenges that our people have faced in Wellington and in other parts of our country.  What we want, though, is for our country to go back to normal as quick as possible, and this Government’s focus is to make sure that where we can, we will secure our future off the great health decisions and the great health leadership that we have done to make sure our country comes through this particular pandemic”. Continue reading “Henare seems fixed on fighting Covid – we had to wait for Twyford for words of concern about Putin’s nuclear threat”

We are all Ukrainians now – for now anyway

It’s not as easy to sympathise with Donald Trump, as it is (or perhaps used to be) with Jacinda Ardern.  But sometimes it’s worth pushing yourself.

Take for example the coverage of his exclusive appearance on the – wait for it – Clay and Buck show.  

It was reported in the Daily Beast as:

“This time, the twice-impeached ex-president lauded the authoritarian leader’s “genius” invasion of Ukraine as “very savvy.””

You probably need to listen to Clay and Buck to pick up the sarcasm.

Continue reading “We are all Ukrainians now – for now anyway”

The day it all changed

 As Russian forces raise their horizons and start killing more Ukrainians in what seems to be a full-on invasion, Britain’s PM, Boris Johnson, got the stakes right when he said “this mission must end in failure”.

That covers a multiplicity of outcomes of varying bloodiness – but the logic is that conflict continues until the goal is reached.  It may take quite a while then.

The phrase game changing is overused, but – in the sense of recognition of a profound change in direction – it might well be applicable in this case.

Continue reading “The day it all changed”