Opinion: Russia and the Great Illusion

imageIn 1910, British journalist Norman Angell published “The Great Illusion”, arguing that the integration of the global economy was so all-embracing and irreversible that future wars were all but impossible. Released shortly before the outbreak of the Great War, the idea that humans had outgrown their propensity to mass slaughter did not stand the test of time for long.

We face today a similar dichotomy in Putin’s Russia. Europe and Russia are intertwined in mutual trade dependency and the major oil companies – BP and Shell among them – are increasing their investments in Russia. Since the end of the cold war, military conflict between the UN security-council members has seemed inconceivable.

Yet, Russia today appears to be in the grip of a ruthless kleptocracy that orchestrates the embezzlement of state funds on a massive scale and seeks to expand its tentacles to its near abroad. Russian state propaganda appears to be based on the dictum of Joseph Goebbels that “when one lies, one should lie big.”

Putin’s actions as head of the Russian State are there for all to see – the widespread corruption and advancement of favoured oligarchs; the abolition and repression of a free press with the imprisonment, kidnapping and murder of journalists; the poisoning of Alexander Litvenenko who was granted asylum in the UK following his disclosure of the plot to assassinate the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky; the death while in prison of Sergei Magnitsky after his exposure of large-scale theft from the Russian state, sanctioned and carried out by Russian officials.

We should be in no doubt as to the length to which Putin’s administration will go. The BBC correspondent, Robert Peston, reported last month that at the height of the financial crisis on Wall Street “the Russians were suggesting a joint pact with China to drive down the price of the debt of Fannie and Freddie, and maximize the turmoil on Wall Street.”

During the Second World War Norman Angell argued that if France, Britain, Poland, Czechoslovakia and others had bound themselves together to oppose Hitler’s military aggression, and to appeal to world justice for solution to countries’ grievances, then the great mass of reasonable Germans would have stepped up and stopped Hitler from leading their country into an unwinnable war.

In today’s Russia as in 1930’s Germany, nationalism is on the rise. Crimea was the first test and now the establishment of ‘Novorossiya’ in Eastern and Southern Ukraine is the order of the day.

The UK and the US have given assurances to seek to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine under the terms of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Those assurances need to be taken seriously in developing a coherent response to Russian aggression.

Nick Clegg, in denouncing Nigel Farrage’s admiration of Putin, has avoided Lloyd George’s mistake of being slow to recognise the danger of fascism. We need to ramp-up sanctions further now with a UK ‘Magnitsky’ Act aimed at Russian officials complicit in criminality and international aggression.

Kremlin star photo by˙Cаvin 〄

* Joe Bourke is an accountant and university lecturer, Chair of ALTER, and Chair of Hounslow Liberal Democrats.

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  • Eddie Sammon 24th Apr '14 - 10:53am

    Putin is essentially a rational actor and needs to be treated as such. I thought it was interesting reading back on Tony Blair’s book where he says Putin used to be pro western, but actions such as Iraq and others alienated him. Listening to other sources it appears Putin is an ethnic nationalist, which makes for a very difficult problem, but his ambitions are limited and therefore I think the article exaggerates the fear that we should have of Russia. He has no interest in sending his own kind to the slaughter – it is a problem that can be solved, much easier than dealing with religious extremists who don’t care if they die.

  • Eddie,

    Yesterday, on the heels of Ukraine’s decision to resume military operations in the country’s east, Russia threatened that if their interests are attacked then Moscow would have no choice but to respond. Comparing the current stand off in Ukraine’s east, where it is widely believed Russian agents and special forces soldiers have deployed, to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that “if we are attacked, we would certainly respond.” He added: “If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia for example, I do not see any other way but to respond in accordance with international law.”

    Today, Ukrainian forces moved to take back the eastern city of Sloviansk from pro-Russian separatists, killing as many as five militants. The news that Kiev had moved to dismantle checkpoints in Sloviansk was met with a sharp rebuke from the Kremlin, which has massed thousands of troops along the border with Ukraine. “If the regime in Kiev has begun using the army against the population inside the country,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin, “then this is undoubtedly a very serious crime.”

    These statements of intent may be perfectly rational from Putin’s point of view as an ‘ethnic nationalist’ – but if we are to take them at face value, then the assurances the US and UK have given with respect to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine are about to be severely tested.

  • Richard Dean 24th Apr '14 - 8:55pm

    Isn’t it the case that, if Russia’s interests were served by invading Eastern Ukraine, they could have done so anytime they wanted? With little local resistance capability, and with nothing that couldn’t be adjusted to in the way of Western reaction? If that is the case, Putin’s stance looks more like posturing. He can’t be seen to abandon Ukrainian Russians, but he’s got Crimea now and may not be too keen on the rest.

    The impression given by the Western press seems to be that a significant part of the population of Eastern Ukraine, even a majority, consider themselves in some way Russian, even if many might also prefer relations with the EU. It’s a population that may not be easy or cost-free for Russia to manage. Even a Russian mafia could have problems there.

    Russia has made many mistakes, and its meddling in Ukrainian politics has undoubtedly contributed to the impotence of honest people and the increasing level of corruption, but isn’t it obvious too that Russia must be part of the solution?

  • David White 25th Apr '14 - 8:26am

    Richard Dean may be right about ‘Putin’s…posturing.’ However, the ‘West’ is making itself look utterly ridiculous. Putin could, if he wished, stop posturing and annexe as much of Ukraine as he wished. The West can no nothing – apart from seizing Chelsea Football Club and continuing to grouch.

  • Matt (Bristol) 25th Apr '14 - 9:53am

    I am inclined to wonder whether some cynics in the Kremlin would ‘rationally’ prefer a weak and divided Ukraine that is a permament hotspot of potential civil war and violence to one that is able to function as an alternative model of a democratic pro-European Russia. This is short of actually formally invading Ukraine (apart from occasionally at weekends for fun in a deniable fashion), but it is a long way off being prepared to come to the table for negotiations with anything but sabotage and obfuscation in mind.

  • I think Richard is right when he says “isn’t it obvious too that Russia must be part of the solution?”. However, if they choose not to engage with the UN security council, there is little that can be done to change their mind. Russia needs to be part of the solution in Syria, but there too they have been focused solely on Russian national interests to the great detriment of any potential political settlement in that war-torn country.

    I also suspect that Matt (Bristol) is close to the truth that the Kremlin may ‘rationally’ prefer a weak and divided Ukraine that is a permanent hotspot of potential civil war and violence to one that is able to function as an alternative model of a democratic pro-European Russia.

    It is easy to understand the rational of why Russia may want a ‘cordon sanitaire’ of buffer states around its borders comprising Finland, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. It is similarly easy to understand why European states, formerly in the Soviet Bloc, would want to diversify their dependence on trade with Russia with tariff-free access to European markets and seek the protection of a military alliance with Nato.

    As to David White’s comment that the West can do nothing to counter what US Secretary of State John Kerry calls “distraction, deception and destabilisation” in eastern Ukraine – it may be so, but the UK is perhaps in a stronger position then other EU states to impose meaningful sanctions.

    Nick Cohen explains Why Threats to Russia over its actions in Ukraine are undermined by the warm welcome its billionaires continue to receive in the west
    Why London turns a blind eye to Russia’s adventurism

    He notes “A comparison with 1914 is instructive. At the start of the First World War, Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George were so determined to maintain the European balance of power they were prepared to risk bankrupting the British empire”.; ” and asks “whether David Cameron and George Osborne are prepared to risk bankrupting a Mayfair estate agent a century on.”

    Ben Judah in the New York Times op-ed writes in a similar vein London’s Laundry Business
    Bill Browder of Hermitage Capital, the former employer of the late Sergei Magnitsky, talks with Charles Davidson in The American Interest about How to Wield the Capital Weapon and the intensifying worldwide fight against financial corruption

  • Ian,

    “Let us hope and pray that restraint and good sense prevails.” Indeed,

    Perhaps China could exercise significant restraint on Russian thinking in this area. In the 19th century, China was forced to cede the Far East and parts of Siberia to Russia. During the 1960s and early 1970s, there were border tensions and even a number of armed clashes between China and the Soviet Union.

    Small parts of Russian territory were then quietly ceded to China — and more recently, the two agreed to accept the current borders — but China believes much larger chunks of what is now Russia rightfully belong to China. As if to settle these broader claims by osmosis, Chinese settlers have been steadily moving into Russia’s remote, economically depressed and underpopulated regions.

    By asserting its historic sovereignty over Crimea, Russia has set a dangerous precedent for the Chinese as they look wistfully over their northern border. Those vast empty spaces of Russia’s Far East, full of all kinds of natural resources, are what China’s booming economy craves. And now its citizens live there too, much like ex-Soviet Russians residing in Crimea.

    Russia not so long ago agreed to preserve and defend Ukraine’s existing borders. Breaking that agreement in a moment of opportunity creates a precedent for other countries with alternative border preferences, including China, to follow suit if the relevant opportunities arise.

    Beijing will no doubt bide its time and will not do anything precipitous or unlawful. But when the time comes, it will not hesitate to re-assert its claims – and Russia will have no one to blame but Putin for providing a convenient excuse for a land grab, in the form of a powerful precedent in Crimea.

  • jedibeeftrix 25th Apr '14 - 9:40pm

    @ Richard – “Isn’t it the case that, if Russia’s interests were served by invading Eastern Ukraine, they could have done so anytime they wanted? With little local resistance capability, and with nothing that couldn’t be adjusted to in the way of Western reaction?”

    Agreed, as I have said at my place:


  • While Ukraine may be no match for Russia militarily, I would expect any Russian military incursion into Eastern and/or Southern Ukraine to be hotly contested by the Ukrainian military and reserves – unlike the passive acceptance of the fait accompli in Crimea.

    Jedibeeftrix, I have read your interesting blog and note the importance you attach to the Russian naval facilities in Sevastopol in the decision to annex Crimea. There is, however, a suitable alternative home base that has been prepared for the Black Sea Base at Novorossiysk and was a back-up option for Putin.

    Sweden and Finland both seem to have been spurred into considering full membership of Nato as a consequence of Putin’s actions in Crimea http://www.dw.de/nato-next-for-sweden-and-finland/a-17519846.

    A federalised Ukraine that remains within the Russian sphere of influence may be an adequate outcome for Putin – but is it not the case that the separation of Crimea makes it less likely that Ukraine will elect a president or parliament that is well disposed to significant Russian influence or participation in Russia’s Eurasian Union.

    A switch from Europe to China as the principal market for Russian oil and gas is the logical response to moves by the EU to reduce energy dependence on Russia. China, however, is likely to be in a position to drive a hard bargain for its supplies as a consequence.

    This geopolitical strategy game can get quite tricky, can’t it?

    As to Western reaction, it is access to London as a financial centre and tax havens in British overseas territories by those Russian officials and their associates that aid and abet overt criminality and/or international aggression that could be the target of UK sanctions.

  • Simon Banks 26th Apr '14 - 9:43am

    Unfortunately, Angell’s views just before the First World War had the opposite effect to what he’d have wanted: most leaders and opinion formers believed his argument to the point that any war would of necessity be short – so relatively acceptable and nothing like as mass murderous as it turned out.

    His view of events in the late 1930s I didn’t know about. I’m sure he’s wrong about the mass of the German people, because the Nazi grip was far too firm, but there is evidence that a generals’ coup would have been attempted if those countries had formed a common front.

    Putin is indeed rational, but totally cynical and uncaring. His reaction to the Ukrainian revolution is fairly predictable but I doubt if his aims go beyond Eastern Ukraine and a cowed pro-Western government in Kiev. If they do, it could be his Vietnam and Afghanistan. It’s a vast country.

    Because he’s rational and fairly predictable, he is indeed in a sense less dangerous than fanatics or deranged dictators, but his attitude is basically sadistic and to deal with him effectively, you need to be in a position of strength he can understand. Otherwise, he despises you. So what is our position of strength?

  • My sincere thanks to Joe Bourke for his response to my comment. Yes, I had read Nick Cohen’s excellent article. Indeed, I always enjoy reading Mr Cohen’s opinions, even when I disagree with him.

    UK is in a strong position to apply rigorous sanctions against the corrupt Putin’s nation and against his equally criminal wealthy supporters. However, I fear that Cameron and Osborne will prove unwilling to upset their chums in The City, whence OldCon receives substantial gifts – I would have said ‘bribes’ but, had I done so, I might have been moderated, immoderately! But we shall see what the British government will do….

  • Thomas L Friedman has a good op-ed in the NY Times Follow the Money in which he quotes Mandlebaum on how to end Putinism “which would be good not only for the world, but also, and especially, for Russia. The tools are primarily economic: denying Russian oligarchs access to the Western financial system and reducing the energy revenues flowing into Putin’s coffers.”

    It is an echo of Norman Angell’s too early discursive on the potential effect of globalisation on military strategy.” … When containment was primarily military in the Cold War, America bore a disproportionate share of the Western burden. Now that it’s economic, “the Europeans will have to contribute much more,” argues Mandelbaum. “The Germans will have to be willing to forgo their sales of machine tools and cars to Russia, the French will have to cut back or give up arms sales to the Putin regime, and the British will have to stop the Russian oligarchs from using London as a playground and money-laundering site. Most importantly, the Europeans will have to wean themselves from Russian gas.”

    Ming Campbell was asked on the BBC lunchtime news today “What does Putin want?”. He struggled to give an answer and offered three possibilities:

    1. The psychological issue for Russia of being taken seriously as a Great Power by the West,
    2. The maintenance of the traditional Russian strategy of securing its borders with buffer states and spheres of influence.
    3. A distraction from domestic concerns about the administration of the Russian economy and continuing endemic corruption within the country.

    With the EU having difficulties in coming up with an effective united position on sanctions, the G7 appears to be now taking the lead. Switzerland was traditionally the favoured home for stashing looted Nazi gold and the ill-gotten gains of despots and dictators the world over. The idea that London has taken over the dubious mantle of most favoured home for such ill-gotten gains is not a comfortable one.

    There have been significant moves in the UK in recent years aimed at curbing the use of tax havens for tax evasion and there is an institutional infrastructure in place to identify money-laundering. Vince Cable’s recent announcement of measures to require disclosure of the ultimate beneficiaries of company shareholdings in the UK is another step towards transparency.

    We are not a country that can adopt or accept the traditional Swiss attitude of asking no questions about the source of dubious investments in UK registered assets – even if that means that such hot-money moves to financial centres in the middle or far east less concerned with its source.

  • I came across this gem on Sir Brian Barders blog that helps to explain my observation in the article that “Russian state propaganda appears to be based on the dictum of Joseph Goebbels that “when one lies, one should lie big.”

    “… Russia’s straight-faced assertions that the uniformed soldiers taking control of Crimea are all Ukrainians and not soldiers of the Russian army are extremely familiar to anyone with experience of dealing with Russian government and party officials in Soviet times. Westerners always marvelled at the ability of their Russian interlocutors, frequently intelligent, educated, experienced and sophisticated operators, to say things that they knew to be untrue — and that they knew we knew to be untrue. To survive in the Soviet version of communism it was absolutely necessary to be able to hold two absolutely incompatible and mutually contradictory versions of reality in one’s mind at the same time, one of them broadly true and the other almost completely false. To respond to obvious lies by saying “That’s a lie, you know it’s a lie, and you know that I know it’s a lie” would have made any future dialogue or relationship impossible. One just had to convey that message by sceptical facial expression, almost a wink. The Russians know perfectly well that their military intervention in Crimea is in flagrant breach of international law, and they know that the outside world knows that too, but it’s obviously impossible for them to admit that they are acting illegally: so they advance an almost openly fictitious account of what has happened in order to cover their illegality..”

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