In this week’s episode of London Calling, James and I talk about my forthcoming trip to Iceland and the eye-watering expense of summer holidays, Putin’s muted reaction to the prospect of Finland and Sweden joining NATO and whether that gives the lie to the claim that Putin was ‘provoked’ into attacking Ukraine by NATO’s eastward expansion, the imminent WHO treaty that James thinks will transfer decision-making power from national parliaments to the WHO if there’s another pandemic but which I’m more sanguine about, the woke ninjas who attacked a group of feminists in Manchester, the extension of the terms of reference of the official Covid inquiry to include vaccine harms, and, in Culture Corner, the strange resurrection of Red Dawn, whether we’re going to see Top Gun: Maverick (I am, James isn’t), Severance, which I give one-and-a-half thumbs up, and Slow Horses, which James and I think is the best thing we’ve seen on telly in years.
After some weeks of national polling, discussion and debate, and following Wednesday’s signing of bilateral security agreements with the U.K., it now looks all-but-certain that Finland and Sweden will apply to join NATO – perhaps as early as next week – and that if they do, they will be welcomed with open arms, swelling the ranks of the alliance to 32 members.
But Finland sits directly on Russia’s western border.
Indeed, amongst European nations, Finland has the dubious distinction of possessing the second-longest land border with Russia – second only to Ukraine’s. So why hasn’t this expected eastward expansion of NATO been greeted with the same hand-wringing from those in the West, and the same threats from Russia that we’ve seen in past years with respect to Ukraine’s “provocative” ambition to join NATO?
The reason is that NATO’s eastward expansion was never viewed by Russia as an existential threat – at least not militarily. In fact, the factitious and pretextual nature of Russia’s claimed fears over Ukraine’s closer ties to NATO couldn’t be clearer: on April 8th, Dmitry Peskov repeated Russia’s long-held position that if Finland and Sweden were to join NATO, this would be a threat but not an existential threat. His remarks were repeated by RT in a clear confirmation of the official line:
Moscow opposes the expansion of NATO, but the inclusion of Finland and Sweden in the bloc won’t become an existential threat to it, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told Sky News on Friday.
There can no longer be much doubt that the West is fighting a proxy war with Russia. The goal is not simply to defend Ukraine’s territory and safeguard its sovereignty, but to “see Russia weakened” – in the words of U.S. defence secretary Lloyd Austin (a former board member of Raytheon Technologies).
In a previous post, I reported what the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO said in a recent interview with the New York Times: “I think we are in a proxy war with Russia. We are using the Ukrainians as our proxy forces”. Since then, several U.S. politicians have confirmed this is a proxy war.
On 2nd May, Democratic Congressman Jason Crow tweeted: “The United States is not interested in stalemates. We are not interested in going back to the status quo. The United States is in this to win it and we will stand with Ukraine until victory is won.”
Speaking to Fox News on May 6th, Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton explained: “At the end of the day, we’ve got to realise we’re at war. And we’re not just at war to support Ukraine. We’re fundamentally at war – although somewhat through a proxy – with Russia. And it’s important that we win.”
Then on May 11th, Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw tweeted, in defence of his decision to approve the latest $40 billion aid package: “Yeah, because investing in the destruction of our adversary’s military, without losing a single American troop, strikes me as a good idea. You should feel the same.”
At the end of March, Biden caused a minor incident when he declared that Putin “cannot remain in power”. Now he’s asking the U.S. Congress for another $33 billion to support Ukraine, including $20 billion in military aid. That’s on top of $3 billion in military aid the U.S. has already sent since February.
To put the $23 billion number in perspective, it’s bigger than the annual military budget of Spain, Brazil or Turkey. In fact, only 15 countries in the entire world spend more than $23 billion a year on defence. Famously defence-minded Israel spends a ‘mere’ $24 billion.
As I noted in a previous post, there’s lots of evidence the U.S. actually wanted a war with Russia – notwithstanding the tendency of some commentators to dismiss this claim as ‘Russian propaganda’.
Indeed, Congressman Adam Schiff couldn’t have been much clearer when he stated on the floor of the U.S. Senate, “The United States aids Ukraine and her people so that we can fight Russia over there, and we don’t have to fight Russia here.” (That was in January of 2020 during Trump’s impeachment trial.)
The recent article by Noah Carl about moral concerns regarding weapons deliveries to Ukraine is wrong on every level. The main argument goes that, by providing weaponry, the West might prolong a war, and thus prolong hardship. The same argument could be applied to any military conflict, where it could be held that the military defeat of an enemy can, morally, be accomplished as soon as the aggressor is able to inflict sufficient harm on the populace of its enemy such as to render it ‘immoral’ for the defender to continue without accepting the loss of life as its responsibility.
This is an aggressors’ charter that is, in itself, utterly immoral. Simplified, it says: “Because I can hurt your people, you must surrender, or else you will be causing them harm.” Or, “Don’t stand up to bullies: they might hurt you.”
This line of argumentation needs to emphasise particular kinds of hardship – those suffered during a war – while minimising others. The value of freedom and dignity to the people at the receiving end becomes a ‘preference’ – something like a subjective value judgement – rather than an absolute moral right, and the hardships entailed by the loss of that freedom and having to live under a tyranny imposed by a foreign pariah state for – perhaps – generations is some far-off future imponderable not needing to be addressed.
But let’s consider for a moment the hardship of all those Russian tankers in their T-72s with those quick-detach turrets getting burnt to cinders by our N-LAWs. It must be absolutely terrifying for them. I feel sorry for the Russian conscripts who were apparently forced to sign contracts just before the invasion, making it then ‘legal’ for Putin to send them off to a foreign war. But should Ukraine lose this war, in the coming years those could be Ukrainian conscripts, forced against their will to fight in some foreign land. That’s just one obvious consequence of living under Putin.
Many commentators simply take for granted that supplying arms to Ukraine is the right thing to do. This is by no means clear to me – even if you believe Russia is entirely in the wrong.
Of course, Western countries have already sent billions of dollars worth of weapons (including thousands of anti-tank and anti-air missile launchers) over the last few years, and especially the last few months. So a more pertinent question would be, “Was it moral to arm Ukraine?”
Let’s consider the possible consequences of sending arms versus not doing so. If we hadn’t sent arms, Russia’s invasion would presumably have had a far higher chance of success. It’s not entirely clear what Russia’s objectives are, but a reasonable worst-case scenario is that they would have annexed half the country.
This is clearly a very bad outcome from the point of view of most Ukrainians, who would prefer to live under Ukrainian rule than under Russian rule. (I’m assuming that outside Crimea and the Donbass, there isn’t much support for Russian annexation.)
But are there outcomes worse than Russia annexing half the country after a swift military victory? I think we can clearly say there are worse outcomes. Here’s one: a very bloody conflict that drags on for ten years.
As I noted in a previous post, the Syrian Civil War is now in its eleventh year, having claimed more than 400,000 lives – more than double the number who died in the extremely bloody Yugoslav wars. And one reason it has dragged on for so long is external arming of rebel groups.
Now, Bashar al-Assad may be a very bad guy. You don’t have to like him or his regime to acknowledge there can be few outcomes worse than the Syrian Civil War – worse, I mean, for ordinary Syrians. Which raises the question, “Was it moral for the US to arm rebel groups in Syria?” And it seems very plausible to me the answer is, “No.”
Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago is the man who, way back in 2015, said the following:
The West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked … What we’re doing is encouraging the Ukrainians to play tough with the Russians. We’re encouraging the Ukrainians to think that they ultimately will become part of the West … And of course the Ukrainians are playing along with this, and the Ukrainians are almost completely unwilling to compromise with the Russians and instead want to pursue a hardline policy. Well as I said to you before, if they do that their country is going to get wrecked.
Quite a prophetic remark, you might say. Indeed, predicting that Ukraine would “get wrecked” seven years in advance would seem to suggest that Mearsheimer has a good understanding – that he’s worth listening to. (Note: Mearsheimer did not think Russia would launch a full-scale invasion, so he wasn’t 100% right.)
With the Ukraine crisis still dominating the headlines, Mearsheimer must be the golden boy of his department, right? Actually, no. A group of students recently circulated a letter denouncing him for “propagating Putinism” and claiming his actions are “extremely detrimental for our country”.
The students take issue with several statements from Mearsheimer’s 2015 lecture (which is the source of the quotation above). For example, they characterise his use of the word “coup” to describe the toppling of Viktor Yanukovych as “ideological rather than academic”. (They prefer the more heroic-sounding “revolution”.)
The students end their missive by demanding “public disclosure” of all Russian funding received by Professor Mearsheimer, as well as a “statement from the university community at large that it does not condone anti-Ukraine ideology on campus”. They also claim that, if left unaddressed, the problem could “tarnish the reputation of our beloved University”.
I haven’t been able to find any articles suggesting that the university took action in response to the letter. So the students’ campaign appears to have failed. Good.
And it’s of course absurd to suggest that Mearsheimer holds an “anti-Ukraine ideology”. Indeed, much of his 2015 lecture (which the students probably just skimmed through while searching for ‘incriminating’ statements) is concerned with how to prevent Ukraine from “getting wrecked”.
As I noted in a previous post, Mearsheimer’s proposal comprised three elements: ruling out NATO membership for Ukraine; funding an economic rescue plan, together with Russia and the IMF; and insisting that Ukraine respect minority rights, especially minority language rights.
It seems plausible that if we’d followed this proposal, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are today, with Russian troops advancing on Kiev, and the West powerless to intervene for fear of sparking World War III. From what I see, Mearsheimer is a far better friend to Ukraine than the people who dismissed his warnings.
Outrage. That seems to be the emotion driving current policy towards Russia, replacing in a moment the Fear that had dominated Covid policymaking in the past two years. And rightly so, you might say. Putin has just invaded a sovereign nation for no other reason (if he is to be believed) than to take territory off it and impose an unwanted political neutrality upon it. But while outrage is an understandable emotional response, a justified one even, it is not a sound way to approach grave questions of war, peace and national security.
Our leaders ramp up the sanctions, doing severe harm to our own economies already reeling after two years of extreme responses to the pandemic. The cost of energy keeps on going higher and that’s before Putin has followed through on his threat (let’s assume he doesn’t make idle ones) to cut off the gas. This is despite the fact that the West is not at war with Russia, nor is Russia even at war with a Western ally. Why are we imposing such high costs on ourselves to rally to the defence of a country that we hadn’t troubled ourselves formally to ally with? The answer, it seems, is outrage. The costs we are imposing on ourselves will far exceed the costs of other recent conflicts, certainly in terms of broad social and economic impact, creating severe cost-of-living problems for large parts of society. Which might be fine if we were at war, but we are not. Let’s not forget that the reason we hadn’t allied ourselves with Ukraine is precisely because we didn’t want to get involved in a war with Russia. Have we abandoned that important geopolitical goal?
If media sources are to be believed, the Russian incursion has not gone as well as the invaders had hoped and they have suffered significant losses. Nonetheless, there can be little doubt that the Russian armed forces are laying waste to large parts of the country, killing many people and doing damage the low income nation can scarcely afford and which will take years to repair.
The Russians have now reiterated their war aims, which are the terms on which they say they would end the invasion. They should surprise no one who has been paying attention to what they have been saying since the start. The Russians want Ukraine to recognise Russian control of Crimea and the independence of the eastern pro-Russia regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, plus (perhaps most importantly) a constitutional change which commits Ukraine to be neutral and not join the EU or NATO. They have said they recognise that Ukraine is an independent state and appear to have dropped the aim to “de-Nazify” the country.
The West has responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in three main ways: pouring arms into Ukraine to buttress the country’s defence; imposing heavy sanctions on Russia to cripple its economy; and essentially ‘cancelling’ Russia by shutting down its foreign media, censoring its cultural exports, and banning its athletes from international competitions.
The hope seems to be that either one of three things will happen: the Russians will be defeated or forced to withdraw; Putin will be overthrown in a palace coup or popular uprising; or he’ll be brought to the negotiating table and made to accept terms highly unfavourable to Russia. While this strategy may work, I’ve yet to read a cogent defence of it.
In fact, the strategy could have a number of negative second-order effects – i.e., unintended consequences – that haven’t been properly thought through.
As several people have observed, the West’s response seems to have been slapped together on the fly amidst a storm of social media outrage, as opposed to being carefully devised after consideration of all possible eventualities. One Substack commenter noted:
Just as COVID-19 is the first pandemic in the Age of Twitter, so the Ukraine invasion is, in some sense, the first war in the Age of Twitter. As it unfolds, we are seeing many disturbing parallels to the events of early 2020. People are rapidly normalising once-fringe ideas like a NATO-enforced no-fly zone, direct U.S. conflict with Russia, regime change in Moscow, and even, incredibly, the use of nuclear weapons. Just as with Covid, we’re seeing the rapid abandonment of longstanding Western policies. The overnight flips on German defence spending and SWIFT are like the overturning of conventional public health policies on masking, lockdowns, and so on.
During a panel discussion in June of 2014 – four months after the toppling of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine – Professor John Mearsheimer was asked whether Ukrainians have a right to choose to join the West. His emphatic answer, which provoked laughter from his fellow panellists, was: “No, they don’t.”
This gets to the very heart of the current crisis. Those who deny the West bears any responsibility insist that we must uphold the principle that every state is sovereign and can enter whichever alliances it chooses. Now, this sounds very appealing. But there’s one major problem with it.
The problem is that the US – by far the most important Western country – has blatantly and repeatedly violated this principle over the last five decades. Hence if the West wants to make any kind of normative argument against Russia’s aggression, it has to explain why it doesn’t hold itself to the same standards.
This point was made eloquently by Robert Wright in a recent essay titled ‘In Defense of Whataboutism’. As he notes:
Exercises in whataboutism force people to mount what Singer calls “a disinterested defense of one’s conduct.” They have to articulate a general rule—or a general exception to a general rule—that applies to everyone in comparable circumstances.
Since there’s no “general rule” under which America’s foreign policy would be justified but Russia’s foreign policy would not be, the West cannot mount a “disinterested defence” of its conduct. (I suppose certain countries like Iceland might be able to, but the US – the only one that really matters – certainly can’t.)
So the West doesn’t actually uphold the principle that every state is sovereign and can enter whichever alliances it chooses. Once this is established, the question arises, ‘Is Ukraine one of those states that can’t enter whichever alliances it chooses?’
Well, the policy it did adopt was to ignore Russia’s ultimatum, and actively support the movement that overthrew Ukraine’s pro-Russian government in 2014. This instantly led to Putin annexing Crimea, and the outbreak of the war in Donbass. Is there anything it could have done instead?
Yes, it could have adopted the policy John Mearsheimer put forward, which is based on accepting that Ukraine is one of those states that can’t enter whichever alliances it chooses.
His proposal comprised three main elements: ruling out NATO membership for Ukraine; funding an economic rescue plan, together with Russia and the IMF; and insisting that Ukraine respect minority rights, especially minority language rights. (Note: these were abolished by the country’s Constitutional Court in 2018.)
Now, it’s possible that Mearsheimer’s policy would simply not have worked – that even if it had been followed, we’d still be where we are today. However, the policy seems far more sensible, and far more likely to work, than the one Western leaders decided to pursue instead.
As he noted prohphetically in 2015, “The West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked.”