I did not imagine that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would unfold the way it has. In fact, I was not sure that there would be a full-scale invasion of Ukraine at all. Russia has a recent track-record of invasions. In 2007, it invaded Georgia but largely limited its military ambitions to Abkhazia and South Ossetia — regions that had long been de facto autonomous from the rest of Georgia. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, it largely limited its ambitions to Crimea. Unofficially, it has been an active participant in Luhansk and Donetsk. An invasion of sorts had long been expected. NATO and Ukraine had tacitly accepted it as unwanted, but seemingly inevitable. China had signed off on it with a few provisos. One was that Russia would wait until after the Beijing Scamlympics. The second was that Russia would act with restraint and limit its ambitions as it had in the past.
The extent of Russia’s invasion took everyone by surprise. It has also put China in an awkward position. China had intended to use this as a test case. If a surgical Russian occupation of two de facto independent Ukrainian oblasts went off smoothly and international responses were tepid, China would ramp up pressure on Taiwan with an all-out invasion on the cards. A test-invasion of Kinmen would be a near-certainty. Kinmen is a region comprising a few small islands administered by Taiwan in Xiamen Harbour, about six miles from the Fujian coast — or 116 miles from the Taiwanese coast. By breaking with its precedents, Russia confirmed another: the decadent, degenerate and divided West is still capable of uniting and causing serious damage. The United States might no longer be the undisputed global leader it was in 1992, the United States might have a president whose reign of error puts him into the same disastrous category as Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, but the United States is still able to cobble together a coherent and cohesive coalition. In this way, Putin and Xi underestimated the West in the same way that Hitler and Mussolini underestimated the West, in the same way that Kaiser Wilhelm II underestimated the United Kingdom and France.
In keeping with another precedent, Russia and China misread the situation in Ukraine entirely. Zalenskyy was a deeply unpopular president. He made Bonkers the Clown, ScoMo and Kamala Harris look universally loved. There was widespread disenchantment in Ukraine. When Ukraine became independent in 1992, its GDP and level of development was about the same as neighbouring Poland. In the following thirty years, Poland has charged ahead of it. Poland has matured into a highly-developed country with a quality of life roughly on part with Western Europe and North America. Ukraine has, if anything, declined. When Ukraine became independent, it had a population of well over 52 million people. By the end of 2021, it had a population of just over 41 million. Ukraine’s health system has been crumbling for years. Ukraine’s economy has been stagnant in the cities and effectively collapsed in many rural areas. Corruption and political repression are by some measures worse than in Russia. Much has been made of Leonid Kuchma, his corruption and his heavy-handed tactics. Zalenskyy was no better. If Kuchma put pressure on the media, Zalenskyy simply shut down critical media outlets. If Kuchma was happy to knock off a few troublesome opponents, Zalenskyy (constrained by growing dependence on European and American largesse) was more than happy to gaol troublesome opponents. There was a sense that Ukraine had given up on itself, on its pro-Western experiment.
It’s strange that of all countries, it was China that most misread the Ukrainian situation. When Japan invaded China in the 1930s, it had assumed that China would be an easy target. For all its vastness, it lacked a coherent national government and much of the country was lawless. The parts that were not lawless were little better than lawless. The KMT were corrupt and inept and the Chinese had been chaffing under an abusive West for generations. The Japanese had their share of supporters/sympathisers in China who looked to Japan as a model for development and liberation from Western quasi-colonialism. Likewise, the Japanese assumed that the Indochinese, Dutch East Indians, Indians, Filipinos and Malaysians would see the Japanese as Asian brothers and liberators. The Chinese might have been chaffing, but they wanted peace and development on their terms as a sovereign people. They no more wanted the Japanese to rule them than they wanted the French, British or Americans. If anything, the wanton brutality of the Imperial Japanese Army turned China against Japan and made it look less unfavourably at the West — at least comparatively. If the Netherlands East Indies were sick of the Dutch, if Indochina as sick of the French, if India and the various British colonies that eventually became Malaysia and Singapore were sick of the British, they were even less receptive to the Japanese. The Philippines was sui generis as their independence, slated for 1936, was postponed by ten years at the request of their government. Ukraine, rather than looking at Russia as a liberator and a chance to get out from underneath the often repressive and inept rule of the Poroshenko-Zalenskyy factions, saw them as invaders and interlopers who had no place in Ukraine. Most shocking was when the Russians entered Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine only to find that they were meeting not fellow Russians under a different flag, but Ukrainians who happened to speak the same language. Whatever Ukraine’s failures, the Ukrainian people wanted to live in their own country and on their own terms.
We are in a situation now in which there are two great losers: the Ukrainian and the Russian peoples. Ukraine is being town apart, life for ordinary Russians is incredibly difficult and severe shortages of even the most basic things is once again a fact of life. If anything, Ukraine is more committed than ever to its own place in the world. Russia has, in a matter of weeks, lost all the progress it has made in thirty years. China is stuck in an awkward, even precarious, position. It partially owns the Russian invasion as it signed off on it and underwrote it. If it abandons its Russian ally, it loses face and loses the better part of a strategic partnership that is vital to its own ambitions. If it backs its Russian ally too actively, it risks Western sanctions. Whereas Russia has been quasi-detached from the West since 2015, China is heavily integrated into the global economy and is very, very sensitive to the threat of economic decoupling. Only through the connivance of Western media and bought-and-paid-for Western politicians and institutions did China escape extreme censure for their cynical mishandling of the pandemic. There is precious little goodwill or naivety left. China cannot afford to alienate its major economic powers over Ukraine. It is also having to re-evaluate its approach to Taiwan. For domestic purposes, it cannot drop the threat of forced reunification and military sorties entirely. At the same time, a full-scale of invasion of Taiwan would force a response at least on par with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine if not even harsher as Taiwan’s strategic importance for the global economy and the regional balance of power is far, far greater than Ukraine’s. Its best hope is that in 2024, with Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-en leaving office due to term limits, will be replaced by someone like Hou Yu-ih who, though not supportive of unification, would not be as hostile to China as Tsai.
11 thoughts on “What a Web We Weave”
At my age Christopher, I’m on the fringe of understanding anything, whether it be mechanics, computer processes or politics. But I’ve always tried to read your pieces as you seem to an enormous grasp of world events and the unfolding of history. You also write bloody well.
These days I focus on my work as a hospital volunteer, playing music to elderly and dementia patients via a Bluetooth speaker and the Spotify App. I also play piano at another London hospital.
So I thank you for your continued support of this forum and wish you good health and a free pen to write as you wish. I ought to devote a little more time to the Charioteers. Perhaps I will write a post soon, I have a rant about hearing aids and a memory of learning the piano as an 8 year old. So watch this space!
PG: Glad to hear from you! I intend to write as often as I can. Life gets in the way sometimes, alas. At the moment I’m once again in transition. My move back to the UK was disrupted last year and my legal status is soon to lapse, so it looks like I’ll be moving to the Republic of Ireland later this year — most likely the end of September or beginning of October with regular visits to the UK forming part of my new life.
Please keep doing what you do. It’s more important than many people think or give it credit for. Dementia, awful as it is, does not remove the humanity of those who suffer from it.
PG: Good to hear from you again…
I’d really love to read your rant about hearing aids – for reasons I will explain if you get around to writing a post! Suffice it to say that I only got my hearing tested because everyone around me told me I was going ‘deaf’ so that I could prove them wrong… !
Christopher: thanks for the post – will comment later!
I can’t say I knew much about the Ukraine prior to the invasion and with all the misinformation and propaganda I probably know even less now. But as an uninformed observe in a far-off place, I have been struck by a few things.
1) There are many sides to this story. It has become apparent that Ukraine is not, as the West and MSM would have it, filled with noble, peace-loving people. There are some seriously nasty, violent and corrupt characters in the Ukrainian government and elsewhere. Last week I watched a documentary called ‘Ukraine on Fire’ that really opened my eyes. There are more divisions and factions in the country than most lay people realise and the interference of America and Europe in its internal affairs thereby deliberately antagonising Russia, really needs to be put publicised. The documentary was made in 2016 and produced by Oliver Stone. You should be able to watch it here. (657) Ukraine on Fire – YouTube
2) The propaganda, parading as news, that is emanating from the West is almost certainly no more reliable than that which is being fed to the Russians by the Kremlin. Over the past few years, especially since Brexit, Trump Derangement Syndrome and most recently Covid, my contempt for social and mainstream media has grown by orders of magnitude. Not only are they almost entirely untruthful, the levels of censorship they impose borders on totalitarianism. I simply disbelieve most everything that I read, hear or see in the MSM.
3) As with those other syndromes mentioned above, the inability of 99% of people to tolerate any other point of view other than the received narrative is deeply depressing. Were one to argue that Russia had been warning the West for a long time that it would not tolerate Ukraine joining NATO because of the very real threat that would pose, one would be accused of being a Putin apologist and conspiracy theorist. I use the conditional tense when in fact the past tense is the case. I have been accused of just that. The fear of being cancelled for stating a different point of view is overwhelming.
4) As Nigel Farage pointed out in the EU parliament several years ago, if you poke the bear too often, it will come after you. Farage predicted this invasion as I am sure did many other observers. That does not mean the he or they or anyone else approves of it. Nobody but a psychopath wants to see such death and destruction. I am sure not even Putin wanted it. But I think, like many others, he has gravely misread the situation and his ability to achieve his military objectives. I expect he counted on a swift operation with a minimal number of casualties. The problem that he has now is that he must realise that if he struggles to overcome Ukraine, he is a busted flush when it comes to NATO. His armies and their conventional weapons are not as mighty as he must have believed and the West probably feared. The only choice he has left is the nuclear option. Assured Mutual Destruction.
5) One of the most glaring absurdities to emerge from this debacle has been the energy crisis. Trump warned and the Germans laughed when he said that Russia would have them over a barrel if they allowed themselves to become totally dependent on that country for their gas and oil. They are not laughing now. But nor is anybody else. The problem with inflicting sanctions in a global economy is that all sides get bitten.
6) American hypocrisy in reacting to Russia’s invasion is mind bowing, as indeed is that of Britain. Somalia, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, not to mention its interference with respect to regime changes in numerous other countries.
Sipu: You’ll find that I’m not sold on the Western propaganda outlets’ narrative. I do not doubt that the war is awful. I do not doubt that the Russians are behaving terribly. They have a long history of that. At the same time, there are so many instances of blatant lies and propaganda masquerading as war “journalism” circulating that I cannot fully trust either side. Russia and Ukraine are locked in a propaganda war. Both learnt the same dark art in the same Soviet Union. Ukraine is just as adroit as Russia. That Ukraine is a much smaller, much weaker country that “looks” more sympathetic makes it easier for them to score wins against Russia in that sense. Because of the whipped-up hatred and anti-Russian hysteria, even pointing out that ordinary Russians are suffering terribly and that there’s more than one side to this story can make you a target.
The West has a long history of picking dictators it likes and supporting them, if not installing them. King Farouk would not have survived as long as he did without Western support. France and the USA were only all too willing to overlook Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier’s massive human rights violations because they were at least friendly to their interests. There’s been a civil war in Yemen for years and nobody much talks of it — not interesting. Few know about how awful the situation in South Sudan is. The former united Sudan wasn’t paradise by any stretch, but it wasn’t the hellish warzone it is now. Western “democracy” has turned Libya into a disaster zone. Were it not for the strength of social and cultural institutions, Morocco and Tunisia would have suffered the same fate. There has been much discussion of the FSB carrying out hits on people the Russian state sees troublesome. There is little discussion (save to try to smear those who ask questions) about the number of “troublesome” people in the West who ended up “committing suicide”. There is a local case of some interest. A whistle-blower who made the Obama regime look bad was found dead in Amador County, California. His death was officially ruled a suicide. Never mind the fact that he had no connexion to Amador County and that Amador County is one of the least prepared to handle complex cases. The coroner and the local police forces simply lack the funds, expertise and resources to look at sensitive cases. Back in Blighty it’s no better, with troublemakers zipping themselves into large bags and killing themselves. Never mind that there is no way that someone could, on his own, zip himself up like that much less kill himself the way he died.
I’m an objectivist. I am not naïve enough to believe that there is an ongoing battle between good (whoever is on our side) and evil (whoever is not on our side). There is an ongoing battle, but it’s between two evils. I’m more personally invested in this than I usually am. I know someone who has had to flee Ukraine because of the fighting. As you rightly pointed out, Putin must know that he’s a busted flush. That is where the Chinese angle comes in. The Chinese are far more reluctant to use military force for that reason. They might, perhaps, win. They might also, perhaps, lose. Even if they win, their victory would come at the expense of exposing their weaknesses and shortcomings. The Chinese were eager to underwrite this conflict in order to test the waters. Of course, the fact that Russia has been quasi-detached since 2014/15 and that China has been able to compromise much of the Western establishment has made it difficult to truly highlight China’s role in this debacle.
A good analysis, Christopher. I especially appreciated your comments on China’s position.
A major problem with most (all?) dictatorships is that the leaders are typically all too ready to sacrifice ordinary people in order to build/support their own agendas. The Ukraine situation is nothing new; it’s really Chechnya all over again.
Putin is a cheap bully who rules through fear and is, in fact, afraid himself. There was TV coverage of a Russian conference in which he was seated well away from all his advisers, all of whom looked scared. That was the occasion on which he rather pointedly and nastily picked on the head of his Foreign Intelligence Service. Another time, he appeared with two generals who, when he started spouting nuke euphemisms, looked decidedly uneasy.
Russia has a long history of dealing harshly with those who oppose the leader. There have been many deaths, disappearances and imprisonments. I was, however, quite surprised by the leniency of the sentences imposed upon many of those most recently rounded up. If memory serves, that young woman who burst onto a TV news set waving a placard denouncing the war was only jailed for two years.
What to do about Putin? He won’t back down, he won’t give up, he won’t be cornered without plunging the world into nuclear war. The only remedy, and this is quite unlikely, would be to feed him some means of stopping his Ukraine nonsense while saving face, perhaps even thinking that he’s the victor after all. Again, more than a little unlikely. I hate to catch myself saying this, but I agree with Senator Graham when he says, “The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out” and, “Is there a Brutus in Russia?” Or not. Russia has dealt before, without resorting to the extreme of assassination, with leaders who were not serving their country well. In the best cases, they were simply allowed to fade away into some sort of retirement.
One thing’s for sure: I won’t be booking a trip to either Kiev or Moscow anytime soon. Putin’s “partner” and his current crop of children did well by removing themselves to Switzerland.
Sipu: I also agree with you. The Ukraine has long been a not-very-nice place. But then corruption is endemic in some parts of the world. Putin got where he is by covering up the misdeeds of Yeltsin and his family. I’ve found that Oliver Stone documentary but can’t at the moment make time to watch it. In the meantime, you might try this one, that I saw recently on American Public TV:
That, by the way, is one part of the USA media that I consider trustworthy. Even so, the media here in general leave many things going unreported or underreported and I find myself forced to turn to foreign newscasts for the missing pieces.
What else? Oh, yes, one more minirant. I’m tired of hearing people say that President Biden is feeble-minded or suchlike. One reporter examined his record step by step and concluded that he hasn’t been doing all that bad a job. Still, it’s easier to disparage someone than to trouble oneself with facts. Also, his critics seem to overlook that Biden, whatever his strengths or weaknesses, was and is a vastly better choice than his competitor would have been.
I’d wish you all a Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, but then that might lead to discussion of Ireland, which is a whole ‘nother set of problems. Better, I think, to close with a quotation from Star Trek’s Mr. Spock:
Live long and prosper!
Thanks for a clear (and brief!) insight into some aspects of the present conflict in the Ukraine.
I knew nothing about Ukraine – apart from it being part of the USSR and talking with a delightful Ukrainian in St Petersburg.
I suspect that I am not alone – indeed why should I or many others know? The USSR collapsed a long time ago and what happened in its former territories did not seem so important that it would impinge on my life.
I’ve read newspaper reports – but I always make a point of reading the ‘comments’ – and it has been clear to me that some commentators have knowledge that I clearly did not. In that respect, your post has somewhat enlightened me.
As you might have gathered from elsewhere, I have a certain sympathy with Russia not wanting to see Nato’s armoury on its doorstep – I do not know just how long or how much she has tried to resolve the problem – but, nonetheless, I find her reaction to be way over the top.
But there again, I am incredibly cynical about what I hear from politicians – all of whom want to be seen as golden heroes! So I take, with a pinch of salt, Western leader’s continual threats that Putin will launch nuclear weapons.
Nonetheless, I am not unhappy that the West cobbled an almost instant response and is now expanding that response. I maintain that China is the biggest threat – and have to agree that it is watching the present situation very carefully. Hopefully, it will realise that it cannot just walk into Taiwan…
Cog: I take on board your support of Biden. As you once said, those outside of the U.S. did not fully understand the full impact of Trump’s regime. Many of us weren’t initially very impressed with Biden. Give us time and, maybe, he’ll rise above the initial impression his ‘withdrawal’ from Afghanistan has left us with.
In the meantime: I’ll return your greeting:
Live Long and Prosper.
Boadicea: Nature abhors a vacuum. So does geopolitics. Russia has been consistent about its policies and demands. It, under no circumstances, wanted to have the EU and NATO on its doorsteps. Some point out that Norway, a NATO member, shares a border with Russia. Finland has been an EU member since 1995 and shares a long border with Russia. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are EU and NATO member states. Russia wasn’t particularly happy about that, but it’s accepted it. Ukraine was the red line. It was always going to be the red line. Georgia was a warning shot, so was Crimea. Russia took a chance in 2007 because Bush was a deeply unpopular, outgoing president who had no real clout left. Obama was never taken particularly seriously. He made vague, empty threats but would never carry through all the way. By 2014, it was clear that Obama was a spent force. A weak, legacy and PR-obsessed US president nearing the end of his final term doesn’t have much authority left. There are good things to that. It prevents the damage caused by politicians staying too long as Howard, Merkel, Thatcher and Kohl did. At the same time, it allows countries like China and Russia to run down the clock and strike when there are windows of opportunity as there predictably are.
Biden was never taken seriously. Biden set the stage for this conflict. Russia did not act before because it was too reliant on Soviet-era pipelines that ran through Ukraine. Damage them and Russia’s economic lifeline would be cut. Lots of corruption and malfeasance surrounding them, but they served as a brake of sorts. When Biden removed sanctions on Nordstream II which connected Russia with Germany bypassing Ukraine, he removed that brake. There is a simple rule with diplomacy. You can be as unorthodox in style as you like, but consequences and checks should be substantive and vague threats should never be made. In removing the checks and making vague threats, Biden returned to the Obama-era play book which was a failure then and is a failure now. After Afghanistan, the US simply could not be taken seriously. By openly musing about just how much of an invasion NATO would accept, Biden also gave Russia the green light to go ahead. The American Idiot is being given far too much credit for the Western response. Olaf Scholz, the new German chancellor, lacks the comfortable, easy relationship with Putin that Merkel had. He was also more sceptical of relying so much on Russia. He is, of course, a Wessie and his instincts are inherently Western and pro-Western whereas Merkel was very much a product of the Soviet system. Macron and Johnson have also shown themselves to be capable of rallying when needed. That Biden, after making a mess of everything else, went along with a reasonably good response that was almost more of European making than American isn’t a sign that he’s worth anything. After all, he’s the man who shut down oil pipelines and re-regulated the US energy industry into oblivion. Within a couple months of his taking power, he ensured that the US lost its leading position in energy production. That caused fuel prices to spiral upwards. It also gave Russia a huge financial cushion. Biden’s trade policies also took pressure off China which ensured that they’d have the ability to underwrite Russia’s invasion. Domestically, the US is falling apart. The border barely exists — unless it’s for people who follow laws, then they can be humiliated and dragged through the dirt. Crime is out of control. Inflation is out of control and this idiot regime can only say “lower your expectations, you’ve had it too good for too long”. Before they didn’t manage to completely bungle their response to Ukraine, their approval was in the 30s.
PS: I should add that Russia’s position today is very similar to Japan’s in the 1920s-’30s. For a long time, when its case was heard objectively it had legitimate grievances. Russia was not well-treated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Europeans did not necessarily treat Russia very well and the Americans were insufferable to them. It was the same with with Japan. American meddling discredited Japan’s moderates and cooler heads leading to the fanatics getting the upper hand. American immigration policy was explicitly hostile to East Asians and the Japanese were told in no uncertain terms that they were simply not wanted in the United States. The Americans also ensured that the Anglo-Japanese Alliance which had served as the bedrock of Japan’s defence policy would be terminated and that they’d slap them around as they saw fit. The problem is is that once Japan invaded China, they lost all sympathy and the way the Imperial Japanese Army treated Chinese civilians was so awful that a country that, a decade before, had cut a sympathetic and character had become a monster. Russia cut a sympathetic character, but not now. (I don’t accept the argument that Germany was all that sympathetic a character after the end of the First World War — part of the harshness of the Franco-British response was a direct result of how the Germans had treated Russia and the mess they made by ensuring that Lenin would get to St Petersburg safely)
There we go, slighting President Biden again. People like to blame him for the mess in Afghanistan but fail to see that the reduction in number and complete withdrawal of US troops was set in motion early in 2020 by his predecessor. If anything, Biden did in fact delay the withdrawal schedule.
As for the ludicrous assertion that he has cost us our energy independence, the USA is still – or easily could be – completely energy independent. According to an official well situated to know about such things, a large number of drilling licenses have been granted but never used. What more do you want? To have parts of our national parks and other public lands sold or licensed off, as former President Trump wished to do, just to satisfy private sector greed? As it is, we produce most of our own energy, also importing a fair amount from our good neighbor to the North (Canada). I’m aware that, at some time in the past, we’ve also taken a small amount from Russia (7%, I believe) but that may have only been because the offering price was especially favorable.
True, we’ve had better Presidents but we’ve also had worse ones – far worse! There’s a lot going on in the USA these days of which I don’t approve – in particular, the extremes to which partisan politics has descended – but that can scarcely be laid at President Biden’s door. If anyone started the ball rolling in that direction, it was his predecessor. But then what do I know?