Economic lessons from Ukraine: Part 1

One of the more important things to happen during the Ukraine war has gone largely unnoticed.

The Ukrainian government has announced that “half of Ukraine’s business regulatory procedures will be cancelled”.

Obviously, one hopes they get the right 50%.

Continue reading “Economic lessons from Ukraine: Part 1”

We know what the PM thinks of David Seymour – but how does he stack up alongside Vladimir Putin?

Buzz from the Beehive

Ukraine loomed large in the latest announcements and the one speech posted on the Beehive website in the past 224 hours.

The speech came from the PM, telling us what she said in her address to Ukraine’s President Zelensky on the occasion of his addressing the New Zealand’s Parliament.

Prime Minister’s address to President Zelenskyy

Yours is a country at war and you are at the helm, leading your people through a crisis.

The name of Vladimir Putin, curiously, is missing from the speech.

Can you imagine Winston Churchill railing against the Nazis without telling us what he thinks of Hitler? 

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta made two announcements that would have been encouraging for the Ukrainian leader: 

Further humanitarian support to Ukraine for winter hardships

Aotearoa New Zealand is providing more humanitarian aid to support the people of Ukraine as the conflict enters the winter months, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced today.

Mahuta did mention Putin in this statement:

“Russia’s targeting of energy and other civilian infrastructure is deplorable. As Ukraine faces a harsh winter, Putin’s actions have further disrupted electricity supply, and are harming the health, safety and well-being of already vulnerable communities.”

New sanctions on Iran over role in Ukraine

New sanctions are being imposed on Iran for its supply of weapons technology to Russia causing death and injury to Ukrainian civilians, as part of our continuing response to the war.

In her speech this morning, Ardern told Zelensky that in response to his address, he would hear loudly and clearly that this is not a forgotten war.

And nothing could be more emblematic of that I hope, than so many parties of the New Zealand parliament, on the other side of the world coming together to condemn Russia’s war, and stand firmly and clearly with you.

But in the judgement of Stuff’s Thomas Manch, the PM was outperformed by National’s Chris Luxon-  Continue reading “We know what the PM thinks of David Seymour – but how does he stack up alongside Vladimir Putin?”

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?”

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?”

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.

Reading for Putin

While he won’t have time at the moment, Russia’s Vladimir Putin might profit from flicking through ‘The Day Will Pass Away: The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard 1935-1936’ by Ivan Chistyakov and published by Pegasus Books.

He might pause on the passage on page 38:

“27 December 1935. Commissioner Morozov [Frost in Russian] from the Third Section: what can he actually do, what guidance is he supposed to offer, when he doesn’t have a clue about the situation or the measures we have already taken, when he doesn’t know that we have already tried everything, we’re not our own enemies, and we’re not trying to get ourselves awarded fatigue details or arrested.  All they do is swear at us, punish us: the commissioner, the political adviser, the company commander, the head of the Third Section. That’s all any of them can do. Who is there to advise, support and explain? Nobody. Just get on with your job!”

The ring is familiar to anyone who has been in a bureaucratic hierarchy under impossible pressures.

Which brings out the importance of the degree of choice in any system.

Not that there was very much of that in Chistyakov’s case.  In the summer, he was a Muscovite technician, unconscripted, catching the tram to work and going to concerts.

By Christmas time, he was working in 50 degrees of frost, sleeping in all his clothes and dreaming that the bathhouse might get fixed.  As a prison guard officer, he was well up the hierarchy.

His diary entries suggest that his incentive to do his job (or be seen to do it) was the implicit threat that he might drop down to join the zeks.  Their incentive – also effective – was a sliding scale of daily bread ration, from 2 kg to 100 grams.

You might suspect that keeping a diary was a sign that he wasn’t cut out for the job.  In any event he was ‘repressed’ a year later and presumably joined the prison population.  In 1941, he died at the front near the town of Tula, not far from his beloved Moscow.

Now Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s version of the system has come a long way in the last eighty years and we can comfortably assure ourselves that its brutality is substantially mitigated.  It is unquestionably less bad.

But strip away the material improvements and the essentials look pretty similar.

That is important for understanding what is happening in Ukraine right now.

Putin acquired power by offering Russians more attractive choices than others.  But they look less attractive now – particularly for the soldiers called upon to fight and perhaps die on Chistyakov’s battlefields of eighty years ago.

The choices for military age Ukrainian men might not seem terribly good to us, but they have better and more honourable choices than Russians.  And so far that seems to march with a greater willingness to fight.

The latest reports from well-informed observers like the Institute for the Study of War suggest that the Russian military is regrouping and using its weight of materiel to grind out a solution in the east.  Enough to avoid toppling the structure of choices which Putin has been erecting since his presidential inauguration on 7 May 2000.

An embarrassment of choices too for us in the west.  Many of them hard. Whether to give Ukrainian fighting men the equipment they need to win – or just to survive? Whether to continue to pay record prices for Russian carbon? Whether it is realistic to tell voters that the costs are all going to be carried by multinational companies? Whether it is in our interests to aim for a stalemate that minimises our own short-term financial damage?

Or even whether to try to help change the choices available to today’s Ivan Chistyakovs.

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”