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?”

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.

Continue reading “Musk of the Year”

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.  

Continue reading “Ukraine war to end – but what then?”

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.

Continue reading “Orban et urbi”

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.

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.

In politics there are lies.  And then there are lies

Russia’s foreign ministry recently put out a handy three minute video to commemorate (celebrate is probably not the word) the 83rd anniversary of the signing of the Hitler-Stalin alliance on 23 August 1939.

As befits professionals, they try to avoid direct lies and use as much of the truth as possible. Inconvenient facts (like the division of Eastern Europe into zones of occupation, deportation and extermination) are omitted.  

But you have to pause at the concluding sentence: ‘Thanks to the Soviet-German non-aggression pact, the War began on strategically more advantageous borders for the Soviet Union, and hundreds of thousands of lives were saved’

So much to discuss.

Whether one should still call an arrangement for war a non-aggression pact; whether the alliance was strategically quite so advantageous for others; why that costly advantage (particularly to those rotting away in camps and execution pits on both sides of the demarcation line) was so spectacularly thrown away in 1941; and indeed whether the ministry’s final justification – that ‘ … hundreds of thousands of lives were saved’ – has any merit.

That question must certainly occur to anyone who has read Timothy Snyder’s ‘Bloodlands’  which concluded that the interaction of the two dictators consumed some 14 million (non-combatant) lives in the geographies covered by the arrangements  – many of them in Ukraine.

The question would also have had a particular resonance the following day, which was the 31st anniversary of Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union.

It is also exactly six months since Russian forces started their third invasion to complete the re-integration of the more Russian bits of Ukraine and neutralise the rest – within strategically more advantageous borders no doubt.

And perhaps that’s also why the foreign ministry chose this moment to signal that Russia doesn’t see a diplomatic solution to the war and expects a long battle.

Fair enough.  Vladimir Putin comes across as a keen student of Carl von Clausewitz and would surely agree with him that  “ … war is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.” 

And his overall political goal must be to convince those who identify as Russian that it is worthwhile continuing the struggle to unite them under his type of government. According to opinion polls, many Russians are sympathetic to this.

But politics works both ways and the progress of the war since 2014 indicates that Putin has also done outstanding work in creating a distinctive Ukrainian identity (one which appears to be shared by many Ukrainians whom he thinks are Russian).

Which suggests that if Ukraine can successfully resist, Russians might conclude that changing the Russian government would be a better way of achieving a sound long-term relationship than by forcibly changing the Ukrainian one.

That might also meet Henry Kissinger’s enumeration of the Western coalition’s logical goals of Ukraine as a “bridge between Europe and Russia” and avoiding a situation where “Russia could alienate itself completely from Europe and seek a permanent alliance elsewhere”.

This leaves the initiative in the hands of the US administration who – despite the sterling efforts of British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and soon-to-be ex-PM Boris Johnson – dominate the supplies of money, weaponry, training and intelligence necessary for Ukrainian resistance and even resurgence.

Luckily, the Americans are playing a blinder on this (as they make clear in their conversations with the sympathetic folk at the Washington Post).  At least, if one judges by their disdain for everyone else.  

They take some pains in bagging Ukraine’s President Zelensky for failing to take their intel seriously.  His response:

“Zelensky heard the U.S. warnings, he later recalled, but said the Americans weren’t offering the kinds of weapons Ukraine needed to defend itself.

“You can say a million times, ‘Listen, there may be an invasion.’ Okay, there may be an invasion — will you give us planes?” Zelensky said. “Will you give us air defenses? ‘Well, you’re not a member of NATO.’ Oh, okay, then what are we talking about?”

The Americans offered little specific intelligence to support their warnings “until the last four or five days before the invasion began,” according to Dmytro Kuleba, Zelensky’s foreign minister.”

As the prospect of a long haul grows, both in the fighting and in the politics, we must hope that the Biden administration continues to perform to its own high standards (and perhaps even exceed them when cooperating with its allies).  Because there is potential for a better outcome than merely more advantageous borders.

Why these men die

Whether and/or when Vladimir Putin will attack Ukraine is the story of the moment. But perhaps it’s better to regard the war as already started: say in Georgia in 2008, or Crimea and the Donbas in 2014.

And despite knowing the most likely ending – namely the termination of the Putin regime – the extent of death and damage and the social and political ramifications are deeply uncertain.

But there is reason to hope that Russia’s dictator (in the Roman sense) has made two significant misjudgments.

Continue reading “Why these men die”

Here’s hoping our new govt gets the message about intelligence from GSCB’s role in exposing Russian hackers

Three cheers for the GSCB.  It has been lauded by the US FBI and intelligence agencies for its role in uncovering Russian covert intelligence activities around the world.

The Minister in Charge of the intelligence services, Andrew Little, expressed surprise we had been named – but this is a wake-up call to the new government, which is woefully short of experience and hard realities in the wider world – and a reflection on how much NZ services are valued by allies.

This is the story: On October 15 a federal grand jury in Pittsburgh returned an indictment charging six computer hackers, all of whom were residents and nationals of the Russian Federation (Russia) and officers in Unit 74455 of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), a military intelligence agency of the General Staff of the Armed Forces.

The charges were announced by Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers; FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich; U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania Scott W. Brady; and Special Agents in Charge of the FBI’s Atlanta, Oklahoma City, and Pittsburgh Field Offices, J.C. “Chris” Hacker, Melissa R. Godbold, and Michael A. Christman, respectively. Continue reading “Here’s hoping our new govt gets the message about intelligence from GSCB’s role in exposing Russian hackers”