Ukraine

Western Audiences Have a Right to Be Accurately Informed About this War

Yesterday, Ukrainian fighters besieged in the Azovstal steelworks surrendered to Russian forces, after a battle lasting almost three months. There’s no doubt this was a surrender: the Ukrainian fighters – who belong to the Azov regiment – were taken in buses to Russian-held territory in Eastern Ukraine (as shown above).  

However, that’s not the impression you’d get scanning Western media outlets like the BBC, CNN and the New York Times. These outlets described what happened as an “evacuation” marking an “end to the combat mission”. Here are the headlines:

• ‘Mariupol: Hundreds of besieged Ukrainian soldiers evacuated’ – The BBC

• ‘Hundreds of Ukrainian troops evacuated from Mariupol steelworks after 82-day assault’ – The Guardian

• ‘Azovstal steelworks evacuated as Ukraine ends combat mission in Mariupol’ – The Times

• ‘The battle for Mariupol nears end as Ukraine declares ‘combat mission’ over’ – CNN

• ‘Ukraine ends bloody battle for Mariupol; Azovstal fighters evacuated’ – The Washington Post

• ‘Ukrainian authorities declare an end to the combat mission in Mariupol after weeks of Russian siege’ – The New York Times

In war, an “evacuation” is when you send boats, planes or vehicles to transport your own troops away from a hostile location. Dunkirk was an evacuation. It is not when the enemy transports your troops to a location under his control after those troops have surrendered. That’s called a “surrender”.

Despite reporting where the Ukrainian fighters were taken (Russian-held territory), some of the articles above don’t even use the word ‘surrender’. One is reminded of Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf – nicknamed “Comical Ali” – who became known for his preposterous claims about U.S. losses during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Note: this has nothing to do with being ‘pro-Russia’. This is about journalists using language that actually corresponds with reality. Which prompts the question of why? Why are they going around describing things in transparently misleading terms?

Would the U.S. Side With Ukraine’s Far-Right Against Zelensky?

In a must-read article, journalist Aaron Maté argues that, in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. sided with Ukraine’s far-right – thereby sabotaging President Zelensky’s mandate for peace.

Contrary to what you might assume based on his ‘Churchillian’ stance during the war, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky was elected in 2019 on a platform to make peace with Russian-backed separatists in the East. The war in Donbas had been going since 2014, leaving more than 14,000 dead.

As Maté notes, in Zelensky’s inaugural address he said was willing to “do everything” to make peace:

I can assure that in order for our heroes to stop dying I am ready to do everything. And I am definitely not afraid to make difficult decisions, not afraid to lose my own popularity, my ratings. And if there’s a need I’m prepared to give up my own position – as long as peace arrives.

He also said that, although it “wasn’t us” who started the war, “it’s our job to end it” – and stressed that “we’re ready for dialogue”.

Unfortunately, these overtures towards a diplomatic solution did not go down well with Ukraine’s powerful far-right. The head of “Right Sector” warned that Zelensky “will lose his life. He will hang on some tree on Khreshchatyk – if he betrays Ukraine and those people who died in the Revolution and the War.”

Even the New York Times wrote in February of this year that Zelensky’s Government could be overthrown by far-right groups if he “agrees to a peace deal that in their minds gives too much to Moscow”.  

What Zelensky needed to face down the far-right, Maté argues, is support from the U.S. If America had backed his pledge to broker a peace deal, he’d have been able to do so without fear of threats or intimidation. But the U.S. didn’t back him, and Zelensky’s pledge went unfulfilled.

Russia’s Muted Response to Finland’s Interest in Joining NATO Suggests its Invasion of Ukraine Was Nothing to do With NATO Expansion

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.

More Politicians Admit: We’re Fighting a Proxy War With Russia

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.”

Why Haven’t Non-Western Countries Sanctioned Russia?

While Western leaders have achieved a certain amount of unity amongst themselves vis-à-vis sanctions against Russia, they’ve failed to convince many non-Western countries to join them – only traditional Western allies like Singapore, Japan and South Korea (which some people already consider part of ‘the West’).

Major players like China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Israel and Saudi Arabia have all so far refused to sanction Russia. Here’s a map of the current state of play (only the purple countries have actually imposed sanctions):

Sanctions against Russia

What explains the Western/non-Western schism on this issue? Is it just that Western countries are more ‘moral’, or that non-Western countries don’t care about people dying in Ukraine? I don’t think so.

As the foreign policy analyst Trita Parsi notes in this piece for MSNBC, different non-Western states have their own reasons for not joining Western sanctions, but there are some reasons that apply across the board. (Parsi’s piece is worth reading in full.)

The Sanctions Debate is a Mess

A few days ago, I wrote a piece highlighting the energy embargo that Russia had placed on Poland and Bulgaria. Russia made clear weeks ago that they would not sell oil and gas to ‘unfriendly’ countries if they weren’t prepared to pay in roubles (which Poland and Bulgaria said they weren’t). As I noted at the time, the Russian move was clever and likely to work.

Some commentators responded to my piece that I did not understand the situation properly. In fact, they said, the embargo would not threaten Poland and Bulgaria because it only hit their gas supplies. Both countries have extensive coal-powered electricity grids and although Poland relies for almost a fifth of its electricity generation from gas, Poland is in the process of weaning itself off of Russian gas and onto alternatives, especially from Norway.

There are a few points that can be made against this argument.

  1. If Poland was going to wean itself off Russian gas anyway and Bulgaria does not rely on it for much of its energy generation, then what was the point of the histrionics? Since it has spooked energy markets and caused European gas markets to spike 20% – as firms price in the possibility of a broader energy embargo – it will give rise to inflated prices in Europe and worsen the already bad inflation.
  2. Poland and Bulgaria may not need the gas, but they do need petroleum. Most cars and trucks do not run on electricity and a new gas pipeline to Norway or additional coal power generation will not help motorists if Russia turns off the taps. If the two countries are willing to pay for the petroleum imports but not for the gas then, again, what was the point? They’ll still be sending Russia money.

These two points raise a much broader one. It appears to me that Poland and Bulgaria’s refusal to pay for Russian gas in roubles has one purpose in mind: to increasingly normalise a European boycott of Russian energy. If Russia does something in Ukraine that’s seen to merit a response from Europe, people will point to Poland and Bulgaria’s refusal, and we’ll be told that a boycott wouldn’t be that bad. This could have a cascade effect where Europe unwittingly commits itself to a catastrophically bad policy.

Former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO Says, “We Are Using the Ukrainians as Our Proxy Forces”

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.)

Public Must Accept Energy and Food Will Be Much More Expensive From Now On, Says (Well-Paid) Senior EU Official

A senior official at the European Commission – the equivalent of the EU’s Government – says the continent must accept that the two necessities of life – food and fuel – have been far too cheap for a generation and to save the planet we must all pay more. Diederik Samsom, Chief of Staff for Frans Timmermans, the Commission’s Executive Vice-President responsible for energy policy, made the comments at a recent meeting of Brussels policymakers. The Times has more.

This spring’s inflation figures for the eurozone are bleak: annual inflation is at more than 7%, and a 44% increase in energy costs is also driving up food prices. A double whammy of the invasion of Ukraine, leading to the phasing out of Russian fossil fuel imports, and Europe’s transition to carbon-free energy have hastened the huge price increases.

Higher energy costs, including a sixfold increase in the cost of gas as an agricultural input, have driven food prices even higher. And the war in Ukraine has disrupted markets in key agricultural commodities, such as wheat and cooking oil, causing knock-on effects all the way along supply chains.

In EU countries the cost of soft wheat has increased 64.6% since March last year and the price of rapeseed, a key oil seed, has risen 77.8%. There are now shortages of sunflower oil, of which 73% of global exports originate in Russia and Ukraine.

The European Commission, which sets key energy policies across the European Union, sees the higher bills as a long overdue and unavoidable reckoning with reality.

Diederik Samsom, Chief of Staff for Frans Timmermans, the Commission’s Executive Vice-President responsible for energy policy, warned that the previous low cost of living came at the expense of the environment and depended on imports of Russia’s fossil fuels.

Samsom admitted that “no one dares to say out loud” to voters that past living standards were unsustainable and that higher prices will be permanent.

“Yes, energy will be much more expensive as of now. Energy was way too cheap for the last 40 years,” he told a recent meeting of Brussels policymakers at the Bruegel think tank, urging governments to confront “taboos”.

“We have profited from it and created enormous wealth at the expense of planet Earth and, as we realise right now, at the expense of geopolitical imbalances [with dependency on Russia]. Both need to be repaired. In order to repair them we need to pay more for energy – and also for food. The two basic needs of life – food and energy – we have paid way too little for in the past 40 years.”

Mr. Samsom appears to earn upwards of £150,000 a year; his boss earns over £200,000 a year. They also have no electorate to face.

Worth reading in full.

Markets Tumble as Beijing Lockdown Threatens

Markets have been spooked by the prospect of the severe Shanghai lockdown – now in its fourth week – being extended to Beijing as one district in the Chinese capital is sealed off following a few dozen positive Covid tests, prompting panic buying. Reuters has more.

Asian markets suffered their worst session in over a month overnight as worries that Beijing could soon be back in lockdown sent Chinese shares back to 2020 lows, and as the effects of Wall Street’s 2.5% slump on Friday lingered…

MSCI’s broadest index of world shares slid 0.7% to a six-week low. Oil fell over 4% in commodity markets and the worries about Beijing saw the Chinese yuan skid to a one-year low.

State television in China reported that residents were ordered not to leave Beijing’s Chaoyang district on Monday after a few dozen Covid cases were detected over the weekend.

The China-sensitive Australian dollar fell as much as 1.2% while the U.S. dollar climbed unhindered to a two-year high, hitting $1.0707 against the euro and 1.2750 versus Britain’s pound.

Much focus on is on how fast and far the Federal Reserve will raise U.S. interest rates this year and whether it will, along with all the other global worries, tip the world economy into recession.

The Ukraine crisis, with its extensive sanctions on Russia and boycotts of Russian energy, have added to the woes, alongside the colossal borrowing of the past two years to fund Covid lockdowns, leading to one of the worst starts to the year on record for the world stock markets.

Will There Be Mass Famines This Year?

The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization tracks food prices around the world via its Food Price Index. This is calculated as the average of five commodity group price indexes, weighted by their shares of global exports in the years 2014–2016. The five commodity groups are: cereals, vegetable oils, dairy, meat and sugars.

It’s important to note: the index doesn’t directly guage the price of food in the shops; it measures the price of food commodities. The former varies from country to country, and depends on factors like local regulations and supply chain issues. But generally speaking, if the Food Price Index rises, the price of food in the shops will rise too.

The chart below plots the index from 1962 to 2022, based on inflation-adjusted prices. The figure given for 2022 is the average for the first three months of the year.

As you can see, the index is currently at its highest ever level. In fact, the value for March (the latest available) was 159, compared to ‘only’ 136 in January – meaning the index has continued to rise over the past three months.

The last time food prices were as high as they are now was during the 1970s oil crisis. In 1973, OPEC imposed an oil embargo against countries that had backed Israel during the Yom Kippur War. This led to a quadrupling of the price of oil, with knock-on effects in other areas of the economy, including food production.