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.

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Who says Britain’s Conservative MPs are not future oriented?  

In fact, they are acutely focused on what job they might be able to get after the next general election, due in 2024.

Prospects looked worse after new Chancellor Jeremy Hunt delivered his mini-budget on Thursday.  His programme: rolling tax increases for the next six years.  And because tax thresholds are not being raised in line with rising prices and wages, persistent inflation (which also seems more likely) will make it more painful.

Have a smidgen of sympathy for the poor multi-millionaire.  Under the current bipartisan rules of the game, there is no alternative if the growth in debt is to be curbed.  Those who produce the most, must give the most.

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Excellent writing on the New Right.  The Old might read 

An insightful mini-essay from Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen on how his “own preferred slant of classical liberalism is being replaced” by what – for want of an agreed term – he categorises as the New Right

At his level of intellectual discourse, this means “the smart young people I meet who in the 1980s might have become libertarians”.

Presumably they didn’t.  But nonetheless “the New Right doesn’t entirely reject the basic principles of free market economics”. (Is ‘entirely’ redundant here?) 

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Musk of the Year

Elon Musk was Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2021.  With his release of a peace plan for Russia-Ukraine, you wonder if he’s trying  for the double.

Not if Ukrainian president Zelensky has any say in the matter.

It’s usually sensible to be thinking about a settlement while fighting, but it’s dangerous to forget that, while politics is hard to control, war can be impossible.

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Brotherhood of Europe but Sisterhood of Italy

All European elections are about Europe.

That’s one conclusion which might be drawn from the decimation (a fine Latin term that) of Italy’s governing class – and also the election of a centre-right coalition government – last Sunday.

To understand more, recall the previous election in 2018.  That also turfed out the ruling establishment (and again in 1994, where Italians opted for the fresh and untarnished Silvio Berlusconi, if your memory can bear going back that far).

Last time, the two biggest and newest parties – the right-populist League and the left-populist Five Star Movement – joined in an unstable coalition.

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Lucky Liz? Wait a few years to find out

Britain’s new PM, Liz Truss, might have caught a break last night.

The International Monetary Fund, after a longish period of complaisance in regard to fiscal stimulus, abruptly decided that the Truss economic plan was a good point to draw a line, in part because giving people their money back was seen as untargeted and might increase inequality.  

But in being so unusually prompt and decisive, it has missed a chance to wait and see which way the wind blows.

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Ukraine war to end – but what then?

With every pause in the Ukrainian counteroffensive, talk of stalemate pops up.  But pay more attention to the currents, than the surface froth.

So nice to get some quality thinking in the Hoover Institution’s Strategika publication.  First, Niall Ferguson with a typically thought-provoking insight into war as a continuation of economics by other means.

He argues that Russia is just too poor to overwhelm a Ukraine backed by the rich West.  

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Orban et urbi

Hungary’s PM Viktor Orban doesn’t get a great press – at least outside Hungary where it’s harder to arrange.

So broadminded diversity connoisseurs might profit from a recent speech at the Bálványos Free Summer University and Student Camp (a ‘large-scale intellectual workshop of the Carpathian Basin’ apparently).

It reads both well and revealingly; logically constructed and strategically coherent; its premises stated and conclusions drawn.  Perhaps he could give Zoom lessons to more gushy and less focused global peers.

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You can’t keep a good man down

Or a bad one up, it would seem.

Jeremy Corbyn has reminded us why Britain’s Labour party dispensed with his leadership after defeat by Boris Johnson in 2019, when he offered his thinking: on war in general and Ukraine in particular.

We can share common ground with his platitude that it is “disastrous … for the safety and security of the whole world”.  Like him we might want the UN to be “more centre stage”.  While being a touch more inquisitive as to why it languishes in the wings.

But probably not so much in agreement with his view that “… pouring arms in isn’t going to bring a solution, it’s only going to prolong and exaggerate this war”.  

Then again, it’s what some important people in the French and German governments seem to think.  They just know that they need to say the opposite in public.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump deplores other people’s pouring and reluctantly admits he needs to be holding the vessel.

And, like Henry Kissinger, Pope Francis wants us to not lose sight of the geopolitics.  He urges “simply against reducing complexity to the distinction between good and bad, without thinking about roots and interests, which are very complex”.  

Unlike the Vatican, Corbyn has never understood the value of an experienced press secretary.

OK – these commentaries predate the recent Ukrainian counter-offensive which seems to be stunningly successful.

Doubts are growing about the ability of Russian forces to manoeuvre, to resupply and even to hold their ground.  We are reminded again of the projecting power of the US war fighting machine and led to speculate on the extent and nature of US support (a re-examination of the US influence on the remarkable transformation of Croatian forces during the Balkan wars might be timely). 

Indeed, it suggests that pouring in arms (albeit on a limited scale relative to Russian and Chinese resources) could lead to an early termination favourable to both Russian and Ukrainian peoples.

Putin has skilfully surmounted weakness before.  But this does seem to be the first time he has actually lost the initiative. His main electorate – the whole of the Russian security and governing apparatus – perceives risk.

All that stands between him and political defeat is the support of enough Russians for his goal of bringing the Russian people home.

Corbyn is surely right that you can’t control a war by pouring in arms.  Unfortunately, the non-controllability of war is not always a decisive reason for non-involvement.

Belligerents need to choose between limited aims.

As do non-belligerents.  

Nor does achieving limited aims guarantee the outcome you want (reference the oeuvre of comparative literature on the first and second world wars).

The Ukraine war is complex; people are dying; it has tremendous risks for Europe and the world; and it’s surely not the best way for settling disputes between the peoples of the former USSR.

But the institutions which place a higher value on human dignity have an opportunity to inflict a defeat on their opponents.  And you just hope that such an outcome is better than the reverse.

The US administration appears confident in its ability to calibrate pouring to achieve the outcome it wants.  And who knows, that might even bear some resemblance to those of Henry Kissinger or even Pope Francis.