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.
The Daily Sceptic’s Noah Carl, who is a critic of the West’s response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, has posted a podcast debate on the issue between him and Konstantin Kisin, the Russian comedian, on his Substack account. This is how Noah tees it up:
Our discussion centres on the question, ‘Arming Ukraine and sanctioning Russia – is this the right approach?’ Konstantin takes the position that, broadly speaking, it is the right approach. I take the contrary position, arguing that this approach may have serious unintended consequences, and that the West ought to try a different strategy.
Worth listening in full.
Ed West has written an excellent analysis of why so many people on the populist Right are either pro-Putin or regard Putin’s Russia and Zelensky’s Ukraine as morally equivalent. He thinks these conservatives are suffering from ‘oikophobia’ – Roger Scruton’s word to describe the loathing of their homeland by some elements of the Left. The reason Jeremy Corbyn and his fellow travellers always side with Britain’s enemies, no matter how unsavoury, is because they cannot stand Britain and the West and siding with our enemies is a way of expressing that contempt. West thinks that some elements of the Right are now suffering from the same phobia. Here is an extract:
During the Cold War various politicians, writers and artists were prepared to apply a completely false equivalence between the two superpowers. Indeed, one or two of the USSR’s defenders are still MPs today. In the U.S., Angela Davis’s career has not been harmed by her open support for America’s enemies; indeed, it seems to have helped. Others went on to bat for various murderous regimes, including even revolutionary Iran, which Foucault praised as “the most insane” (yes it really was, you old paedophile).
So the far-Left’s initial moral equivalence on the Russian invasion is normal and predictable; it would be worrying if they didn’t side with our enemies, or claim that ‘both sides’ were at fault – if only the anti-bully alliance hadn’t provoked the bully into bullying its neighbours, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Were aliens to invade earth next week, in some Independence Day or War of the Worlds-style scenario, you’d get at least 10 Labour backbenchers blaming America for the conflict. Their radio waves provoked them, or something.
It’s not that they particularly like what Putin stands for, it’s just that they can’t envisage a situation where it’s not our fault, a form of narcissism in which America and her allies are all-powerful and morally culpable. But the radical Left also believe that supporting the West means supporting the values they believe to be in control – the forces of conservatism, capitalism and neoliberalism, all of which will be empowered by Western victory.
That is a fairly rational calculation, and it’s noticeable how some conservatives now come to a similar conclusion. They don’t hate their inheritance like the radical Left, but they hate what their home has become, where progressives wearing the skin of the civilisation they have killed, like a zombie Western civilisation. They also feel that any victory will only further strengthen those in charge.
That perhaps explains why so many populists have badly misjudged this conflict. As Eric Kaufmann wrote this week: “I watched as Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance defended Putin, or adopted the Kremlin’s critique of Ukraine,” Carlson calling it a “pure client state of the United States State Department”. While there are claims for a realist case “tempering Ukrainian demands and accommodating reasonable Russian security concerns, the inability of some to reject the moral equivalence of Ukraine and Russia was glaring”.
Like oikophobes in times gone by, some on the Right have created an imaginary foreign country to reflect on their own society’s shortcomings. “The perception that Russia is a masculine, white, Christian country unafraid to stand up for its traditions forms part of its appeal to conservative populist thinkers,” Kaufmann writes. “‘Putin ain’t woke,’ Steve Bannon said last month. ‘He’s anti-woke.’ The Russian President’s 2019 interview with the Financial Times, when he declared that liberalism has ‘become obsolete’ clearly impressed many Western conservative populists. Against Drag Queen Story Hour and self-flagellation about the sins of the past could be set Putin’s macho, Christian, nationalist Russia. Clearly, some populist elites took the bait.”
None of these beliefs about Russia are really true, as Kaufmann points out, for “any honest appraisal of Putin’s Russia would reveal that its religiosity is weak, immigration substantial, and the Eurasianism of Putin and Alexandr Dugin would readily trade cultural homogeneity for more territory… Putin’s Russia is a ramshackle, corrupt, aggressive despotism. It is not ‘really hot stuff’ as Donald Trump put it once. It is not a post-woke paradise.”
But then that doesn’t really matter. Like British radicals praising a French Revolution that was first a bloodbath and then a dictatorship, their real concern is with home – the oikos. And perhaps they fear that any victory by the West in 2022 will further entrench a largely progressive-dominated establishment, including now the military, which has followed the great inversion of the past few decades. That is why, in foreign conflicts as in much else, Right is the new Left.
We’re publishing a guest post by Adrian Brown, a former Royal Australian Air Force Legal Officer, about whether it’s reasonable to expect Russia to be constrained by moral norms, particularly in light of the failure of Britain and the United States to always observe those norms themselves when the national interest is at stake.
If you’re anything like me, the sooner you forget the sight of Ukraine asking the UN Security Council, chaired by Russia with its power of veto, to vote for a motion demanding that Russia stop its invasion and withdraw its troops, the better. The UN reported that several of its members described Russia’s veto as “inevitable but deplorable”. It’s hard to imagine anything more enervating.
Russia is in clear breach of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. Although the ICC has opened a war crimes investigation, Russia has withdrawn from the underlying treaty and is not subject to its jurisdiction. Before you rush to judgement, the United States has withdrawn too. Russia’s indifference to international law is best illustrated by its appeal to Article 51 of the UN Charter which deals with the right to self-defence. Token at best, mockery at worst. We all know that, without an independent enforcement mechanism, treaties are not like contracts in a rule-of-law based jurisdiction, and international law more generally contains a strong voluntary element.
We often hear experts say that Russia only understands hard power. But before we give up on international law, norms, and other constraints, it’s worth asking whether there is any basis for believing that a state is constrained by moral standards and, to the extent that the West has breached those standards itself, we can demand that Russia complies with them.
In this week’s London Calling, I have to guess where James is on holiday – and I do – and James praises the British Airways staff for not once telling him to put on a mask during his 12-hour flight. We cannot agree on anything in connection with the war in Ukraine – James even takes issue with my claim that the invasion isn’t going according to plan. And James insists Shane Warne’s death from a heart attack aged 52 was caused by the ‘clot shot’ whereas I think it had more to do with his hard-partying lifestyle and his recent 14-day liquid diet. In Culture Corner, James enthuses about C.S. Forrester and Toby says he’s loving Sharpe’s Triumph by Bernard Cornwell, but he give the thumbs down to The Batman, The Sinner and Vikings Valhalla.
Jacob Mchangana, author of Free Speech: A Global History From Socrates to Social Media, thinks banning RT in Europe in retaliation for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a really, really bad idea. (And I agree.) He has set out his reasoning in UnHerd.
In 1922, the USSR established the General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press (known as Glavlit) to weed out “propaganda against the Soviet Union” that “stirred up public opinion through false information”. The mission of Glavlit reflected Lenin’s view that the press was “no less dangerous than bombs and machine-guns” and that its proper role was to serve as “a collective propagandist [and] agitator” for Bolshevik ideas.
Like Lenin and Stalin before him, Vladimir Putin is obsessed with controlling the public sphere through censorship and propaganda. In 2022 Glavlit has been replaced by the media regulator Roskomnadzor, which, in the past week alone has ordered media outlets to only use official Russian sources and banned words like “invasion” and “war” when reporting on events in Ukraine. It has also blocked online access to media outlets for “disseminating false information”, a crime which has seen at least ten media outlets facing legal sanctions. In addition, Russia is seeking to spread its propaganda globally through outlets such as state sponsored broadcasters like RT and Sputnik.
Faced with this development the European Commission is moving forward with an EU-wide total ban on RT and Sputnik – both online and offline – while a similar move in the UK has been proposed by Labour leader Keir Starmer. According to Ursula Van Der Leyen the EU´s “unprecedented” initiative is needed to “ban [Russian] toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe”.
While sanctions targeting Russian oligarchs and the kleptocratic infrastructure of Russia’s economy should be expanded, European democracies should be careful not to copy and paste Putin’s censorship tactics. Once the centralised command and control of media freedom in 27 democracies based on inherently vague definitions of “propaganda” and “disinformation” has been established, the danger is that it will almost inevitably be used to target other forms of undesirable information in the future.
Worth reading in full.
Stop Press: Fraser Myers wrote a piece in Spiked a few days ago making a similar argument.
Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, has called on Boris Johnson to “immediately lift the moratorium on fracking” and help Britain’s European partners to ease themselves off Russian gas dependency. Net Zero Watch has more.
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph’s Planet Normal podcast Sir Richard also warns that Britain’s rush to Net Zero was “admirable but its completely unrealistic, its totally unrealistic. We have to reassess the situation.”
“I don’t know what’s come into the government’s heads on [Net Zero] because they’ve just adopted a set of crazy, unattainable objectives,” he said.
In face of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, Sir Richard argues that Britain should adopt a gas-to-nuclear policy.
“I applaud the objective, as we all do, to move to Net Zero, but we need a policy that is practical and achievable,” he said. “And of course gas in particular, the sort of quality gas the Americans produce through fracking, is going to be the transfer fuel of the future. And then in addition we must develop small nuclear reactors. The technology exists.”
Sir Richard added that UK shale gas would be essential to help our European partners to divest from Russian gas imports:
“We have to have sufficient gas storage and supplies. What the European powers that are dependent on Russian gas need is a sort of Berlin ‘airlift’ of gas supplies to Europe as quickly and as fast as possible so that we change the energy equation.”
“Boris Johnson should listen to the warning by of one of Britain’s most eminent national security experts and lift the fracking moratorium with immediate effect. Any further procrastination over developing alternative gas supplies would be deeply irresponsible and in the face of a worsening European war could only embolden Putin’s aggression.”
Worth reading in full.
You can listen to Sir Richard Dearlove on the Planet Normal podcast here.
Charles Moore has written a good piece in the Telegraph about the recent tweet by Richard Moore, the head of MI6, seeming to say that “LGBT+ rights” are the most important freedoms that distinguish Britain from Putin’s Russia.
This is what Charles had to say:
Mr. Moore is right that one of Putin’s many repulsive aspects is his persecution of gay people. But it is not true to state that LGBT+ rights stand at the pinnacle of all the freedoms that make us different from Putin’s Russia.
The central point about Western freedom is that it is a condition of all living. It cannot be boiled down to sexuality, sex, race, region, age, religion etc: it is not a list of specific rights granted to designated minorities, but freedom for everyone.
It follows that the most important defences of freedom are general too – the rule of law, habeas corpus, parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech. It is a serious mistake to exalt group rights over the rights of each person.
Mr. Moore’s tweet trivialises the evil that Putin embodies – a tyranny attacking all human dignity and all human choice. In this time of extreme crisis, “C” should not be counselling his staff to spend any time at all on LGBT+ “History Month”, or any History Month whatever.
“C”s tweet is unwise for another reason. The head of MI6, even now that he is publicly “avowed”, should not use his position to make moral/political assertions. In our free society, his job should be much more focused than that. His task is to lead the agency that supplies our Government with secret intelligence about threats posed by foreign powers and international terrorist networks, and personally to advise the Prime Minister on such matters.
Vauxhall Cross is the headquarters of Britain’s intelligence professionals, not Mr. Moore’s pulpit.
We’d better hope that Charles Moore and Richard Moore aren’t related or Christmas lunch could be a little awkward this year.
In the past 72 hours I’ve experienced the unusual sensation of feeling more in step with the mainstream media than I have with my sceptical friends. I regard Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as something that’s straightforwardly wrong and which all right-thinking people should unequivocally condemn, whereas many of the people I’ve been in the lockdown trenches with over the past two years feel more ambivalent about the conflict. (See Russell Brand’s latest video for an example of what I’m talking about.)
In what follows, I’ll try to summarise the doubts these sceptics have raised about the West’s response to the invasion, and the way that’s been presented in the MSM, and do my best to respond to those doubts.
Over the past two years, the MSM has revealed itself to be fundamentally untrustworthy in its coverage of the pandemic. Why should we trust its coverage of the war in Ukraine?
I’m not relying on the MSM’s coverage for my understanding of the conflict, but, for the most part, ordinary Ukrainians and Ukrainian reporters on the ground, such as those included in the Twitter list compiled by Gavin Sheridan and the list put together by Giles Udy. But even if I was relying on the BBC and CNN, what is it the sceptics think is misleading about the MSM’s reporting? Do they think Russia hasn’t really invaded Ukraine? Or that the MSM isn’t giving enough credence to Putin’s pretext for invading, namely, that Russia was acting as a “peacekeeper” to prevent the newly-independent breakaway republics of Luhansk and Donetsk being attacked by the Ukrainian Army? It strikes me as odd that people who’ve learnt to be sceptical about the claims various governments have made about COVID-19 over the last two years should suddenly be inclined to take Putin’s manufactured casus belli at face value.
Putin has been provoked by NATO’s expansion eastwards since the fall of the collapse of the Soviet Union, pushing Russia further and further into a corner and leaving it with no choice but to invade Ukraine to prevent it joining NATO.
This is essentially the argument of Stop the War Coalition – an astroturf organisation created by the Socialist Workers’ Party – and its useful idiots in the Labour Party and the National Education Union. It’s rooted in the hard left’s long-standing opposition to Western imperialism and its associated blindspot when it comes to the imperial ambitions of China, the Soviet Union and now Russia – hence Stop the War’s noisy opposition to David Cameron’s proposal to join the U.S. in bombing regime targets in Syria but conspicuous silence about Russia’s bombing on behalf of the Syrian regime. Or maybe it’s not a blindspot, more a case of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. Whatever its roots, it’s not a serious argument. The Western allies didn’t invade Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic in 1997 and force their leaders to join NATO at gunpoint; rather, those newly independent states asked to join because they were concerned about the imperialist ambitions of the former Soviet Union. Ditto the admission of the former Soviet republics Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in 2004 (and Croatia and Albania in 2009). And in case you think their fears of a resurgent Russia bent on territorial expansion were completely misplaced, Russia invaded Chechnya in 1994, again in 1999, attacked Georgia in 2008, annexed Crimea in 2014 and invaded Ukraine last week. Casting these military actions as essentially ‘defensive’, designed to prevent Russia’s encirclement by NATO, is to take Putin and Stop the War’s anti-Western propaganda far more seriously than you should. (For a distillation of the NATO argument, see this piece by Tim Black in Spiked.)