As winter sets in, both Russia and Ukraine still think they can win this war

The fantastic new German cinematic version of Erich Maria Remarque’s seminal war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, makes a telling, universal point about war itself right off the bat: how a conflict plays out is almost never as you imagine it to be.

The young German boys are regaled about the effortless victories they are about to win for Kaiser and fatherland by their paunchy, dead-eyed, middle-aged, history teacher, a man for whom war has always been a glorious theory. The next thing we know, the clueless lads he has swept up in his nationalistic fever are at the hellscape of the western front in World War I, about as far away from chivalric glory as it is possible to be.

Remarque’s microcosm of the folly of the Great War can be easily extrapolated: that if the great men of 1914 had known all that was to come in the deadly whirlwind of the next four years – which would sweep their more civilized world aside in favor of the barbarism of that was to characterize the twentieth century – none of them would have been as suicidally bellicose as they were in the fateful summer. To put it mildly, the Great War did not go according to anyone’s plan.

As the canny Otto von Bismarck put it, when you draw the sword, you roll the dice. Wars start out being about one thing, but their outcome is always a gamble. Rarely do they end as anyone imagined at their start. In the case of the present Russo-Ukrainian War this is surely true. What Vladmir Putin assumed would be a weeks-long mopping-up exercise, as Kiev was once again politically amalgamated into the wider Russian empire, has become something very different, indeed.

Worse, for analysts, the fog of war is a very real thing, as yesterday’s missile incident in Poland helped to demonstrate. Trapped in the myopia of day-to-day events, it is devilishly hard to take an intellectual, strategic step back, and make sense of what the pointillist painting actually looks like, rather than obsessing over-much about the dots.

Yet if we are to make sense of the world, these are the intellectual precepts we must sternly follow to do so.

Two Present Truths

In the case of Ukraine there are presently at least two hidden truths that bear a lot more discussion, as they reveal the trajectory of the war, rather than merely what is happening on any given day.

First, despite wishful thinking on all sides, there is a lot more fighting to come; the end is not yet in sight.

It ought to be axiomatic (it isn’t) that wars continue as long as both sides think they have a realistic chance of attaining victory. In both the Russian and Ukrainian cases at present, both Kiev and Moscow think the spring can still lift them to dominance over the other.

In the case of Moscow, despite the recent humiliating defeat at Kherson, Putin still has reasons to believe ultimate victory will still be his.

First, Russia’s new position on the east bank of the Dnieper River (which neatly bisects Ukraine) is far more defensible that was the Russian army’s line awkwardly jutting across the river to Kherson. Putin’s troops had time to dig in before they executed this long-planned retreat. With winter setting in, and with Ukraine perennially short of arms, the Russian army hopes to regroup during the winter lull before the spring campaign of 2023.

Also, on the plus side, the Kremlin plans to put 300,000 new troops in the field. While the actual number will be smaller (experts estimate 180,000 is more realistic) and while they will be raw and often indifferently trained, as Joseph Stalin put it, at some point quantity becomes quality.

Putin had tried to avoid this draft as long as possible, as politically it puts his regime in danger as average Russians become more affected by the tragedy of the war itself. But in gaining use of this new mass of men there is an immediate military upside. He can hurl these new troops at the Ukrainians, at a minimum blunting their advance, and wait for western war weariness to further his cause.

For all these reasons, and despite the military calamities that have befallen him, the Russian elite still believe ultimate victory in the war is possible. It will fight on.

But given its recent surprising successes at Kherson and around Kharkiv, Kiev is greatly encouraged and of no mind to end a conflict where the military momentum presently lies with them. The Biden administration, which in sending more than half of all military and civilian aid to Kiev is in essence Volodymyr Zelensky’s patron, shows no signs of flagging in its support for the Ukrainian cause.

More advanced American weaponry has arrived in Ukrainian hands, most famously the HIMARS multiple rocket launcher, and with time and practice, Ukrainian troops are using the new, advanced weaponry to increasingly deadly effect. With the coming of the Spring, and with the strategic initiative still with them, Kiev is not remotely minded to throw in the towel.

Second, it is political forces away from the battlefield that will determine the outcome of the war.

The two key present political drivers of the war are as simple to explain as they are hard to gauge: will western war-weariness outpace Russia’s fabled ability to suffer, or will Putin’s calling up of his reservists and issuing a semi-draft be the beginning of the end of Russian tolerance for his botched invasion? The key political question is whether Russian or Western weariness comes to a head first.

For the West, the good news is that the European scramble to secure energy supplies for the coming winter has been tactically successful; most of the storage tanks are around 90 per cent full, in excess of normal EU directives. Europe will be able to get through the coming winter.

But what about the next one? For the EU’s scramble to throw policy plates in the air in terms of its energy policy must not obscure the devastating fact that Brussels has no plan to get through the next winter.

It will take time for the German engineers to construct the vast Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminals in the north of the country to offload American shale. Likewise, gas-rich Qatar would like to help, but its long-term contracts until recently have been with Asian countries.

There will be more gas from the Netherlands and Norway, but the black hole that emanates from Europe divesting itself from Russian natural gas (due to the moronic energy policies on the continent of the past two decades) will not go away. It is next winter that remains the problem.

Is Europe really prepared to theoretically support a Ukraine most of its citizens have never visited, given the practical economic and social costs that may ensue? Is a decadent Europe really prepared to genuinely make sacrifices for anything?

A fine European Council on Foreign Relations poll of June makes for bleak reading. When Europeans were asked whether the goal over the Ukraine war should be to for it to end immediately or to see Russia defeated, a plurality of 35 per cent wanted peace at all costs, while only 22 wanted justice for Ukraine. Further, pluralities favored peace at any price in Italy, Germany, and France.

If things get tougher, it is an open strategic question as to whether Europe is not the weak link in sustaining the Ukrainian cause.

For the hawkish Russian elite, the danger is that further defeats – and even the absence of a confidently expected victory – will lead to Putin’s demise or at least desire to save face in some way at the negotiating table. While the Russian President is undoubtedly hoping that time is on his side as the Europeans waver in their support for Ukraine as 2023 progresses, time can also be seen as moving against the Kremlin.

A war that was supposed to take days has taken years. Easy victory has given way to humiliating stalemate at best and defeat at worst, sullying the very Russian nationalism brand that has been the source of both Putin’s political legitimacy and surprising popularity for decades. John Kennedy put it well: while victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan.

Putin may find himself increasingly alone, isolated, and politically endangered if Russia’s masses of men cannot change the current trajectory of battle. Saving face at the negotiating table (with the Europeans and Americans restraining the Ukrainians on the basis that they are paying for everything) may be his last, best hope of survival in time.

So, these are the new truths of the Russo-Ukrainian War. What Remarque would entirely understand is that lying beneath these strategic questions there lies one horrible, human certainty; the suffering is bound to continue.

This piece was originally published in Conservative Home.

The midterm map says America will turn right

The pioneering 20th-century Kenyan aviator Beryl Markham put it well in explaining the intellectual usefulness of maps: “A map says to you, ‘Read me carefully, follow me closely, doubt me not … I am the earth in the palm of your hand’.” And for all the fog obscuring the outcome of the 2022 US midterm elections, we have a clear map to guide us to the outcome if we simply decide to use it.

There is a lot we can already glean. First, historically, the party out of power two years after a new president is sworn in almost always does well, as “buyers’ remorse” sets in regarding the new administration. The simple fact is that there have been only four midterm elections out of 38 since 1870 in which the party holding the White House either gained seats in the House of Representatives or had a net loss of five seats or fewer — the very limited number that would cost the Democrats their current majority. This historical navigation point alone means the House is likely to shift to Republican control.

Second, the phrase most associated with the legendary former Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill — “All politics is local” — has been proved almost entirely wrong over the past generation; in fact, it’s national, not local. The single biggest determinant of House outcomes is the sitting president’s approval ratings. Again, as we have said before, a president with an overall approval rating above 60 percent can dictate to Congress his wishes; one with an approval rating below 40 percent is trying to squash rumors that he is dead.

According to RealClearPolitics’ most recent polling, the hapless Joe Biden is limping along at 43 percent, a number that does not augur well for Democratic hopes in the House. Adding these two navigation points together on our intellectual map, look for the Democrats to lose between 25 and 35 seats in the House, and for the Republicans to take control.

Third, while House races have become nationalized over the past generation, Senate races remain stubbornly idiosyncratic, with outcomes instead based on both the specific character of the candidates and the nature of the state itself. With a third of all Senate seats up for election in 2022, the Democrats also have the luck of the draw this time around. They are not defending any Senate seats in states carried by Donald Trump in 2020. Further, the Republicans must defend 20 seats, limiting their chances to make large gains, while this cycle the Democrats are defending only 14 seats. For these highly specific reasons, Democratic losses in the Senate will be fewer than in the House.

However, fourth, the primary issues the campaign has been fought on — the intellectual terrain of the political contest — have greatly favored the Republicans. November’s latest CNN poll finds the economy the overwhelming issue for most voters, with a majority 51 percent saying it is the most important policy area affecting them. Abortion — after the Supreme Court struck down Roe vs Wade and returned decision-making on this contentious social issue to the states — comes a distant second at just 15 percent.

A September NBC poll confirms our navigational data point, listing the top four issues as the Economy, the cost of living, abortion, and crime. Republicans have a decisive 23-point advantage over Democrats in terms of handling crime and 19 percent on the economy.

Voters overwhelmingly blame the Biden administration for the worst surge of inflation in over 40 years, after it ruinously spent trillions of dollars on social programs even as the economy quickly returned to pre-pandemic levels. Too much money chasing too few goods has been the largest factor leading to the price spike, in which adjustable mortgage rates topped 7 percent and the price of staples such as beef and gas skyrocketed. Grocery prices overall have increased by an uncomfortable 13 percent since Biden’s inauguration.

The economy, the cost-of-living crisis and the surge in inflation are voters’ greatest concerns, and the White House is who they blame. RealClearPolitics June polling shows a dominant 64 percent of those surveyed disapprove of how the president is handling the economy. This is simply killing Democratic chances to retain the 50-50 Senate.

Fifth, we know the states to watch on election night. Ohio, North Carolina, and Wisconsin are all narrowly trending Republican; buck that trend in any of these and the Democrats have a real chance to hold the upper chamber. However, New Hampshire, Arizona, and Pennsylvania have all been narrowly trending Democratic. A loss in any of these and it is going to be a long night for Joe Biden’s party. Control of the Senate may once again come down to Georgia, as it did in 2020. There, if any candidate fails to obtain 50 percent of the vote, there will be a run-off in a month’s time to determine the seat, and quite possibly the Senate majority.

Given our intellectual map, however, the midterm outcome is surprisingly clear. My firm’s final prediction is for the Republican Party to take the House by 25-35 seats, and the Senate more narrowly by a one to three-seat margin. The GOP is going to be back.

This piece was originally published in Arab news.

Rishi Sunak and the revenge of the grown-ups

A famously frustrated Bill Clinton once explained the paradox of American politics like this: While the American people emotionally liked the Democratic Party — loving its nurturing focus on taking social care of the country — it still tended to vote for a colder, more distant, law-giving Republican Party. The Democrats were the “Mommy Party” and the GOP was the “Daddy Party.”

The American people might have yearned for a warm New Testament cuddle, but, when things went bump in the night and goblins came, instinctively they voted for Old Testament Republicans — the grown-ups of their day — to save them from the darkness. You might resent being told to eat your vegetables but you are secretly glad someone has the force of character to tell you to do the hard, necessary things in life.

Something very like this powerful dynamic is playing out in the high-drama surrounding the seemingly endless crisis swirling around Britain’s Conservative Party — historically perhaps the most successful political party in the modern world, though not recently.

Beset by an annoying, otherworldly self-regard for its own internal machinations, the Tories are on their fifth prime minister in six years — and this in the face of the pandemic, cost-of-living crisis, return of endemic inflation, and the war in Ukraine. In other words, international perils make this a time for grown-ups, even as the Conservatives have parochially behaved like children. It is little wonder that they find themselves fathoms behind the center-left Labour Party in the polls. The Tories have squandered their greatest asset and the secret to why they have been the natural governing party in the United Kingdom for much of the past two centuries: They are no longer seen as stern, yet capable, grown-ups.

Rishi Sunak on Tuesday became the 57th prime minister in British history, coming to power precisely to restore the Tories’ sullied grown-up reputation. A few years ago, I remember meeting him at a Tory Party function and he was everything he appears to be at a distance: steady, well-meaning, serious (if rather funny), talented and rather quiet. In other words, he seemed to me even then to be the polar opposite of the bombastic, carnivalesque, louche, strutting Boris Johnson. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it well: “Character is destiny.” Johnson as premier and Sunak as chancellor was never going to work well, and the record shows it did not.

Character invariably spills over into policymaking. Johnson was for what came to be known as “cakeism” — in that you can have your cake and eat it, too. In policy terms, this meant the magical thinking view that the UK could have a European-style safety net and pay only American-style taxes. While such an irresponsible view made Johnson popular with the Tory base for a time, a concerned Sunak fought a rear-guard action against this fiscal abomination. Johnson’s undoing for attending a series of Downing Street parties (and misleading the world about it) while draconian strictures were in place for the general public because of COVID was just another form of cakeism. The rules Johnson made were for the little people; they were never meant to apply to him.

The disastrous 45-day reign of Liz Truss followed, fueled (quite properly) by a basic critique of a British economy that is no longer fit for purpose in the 21st century. Decades of low productivity have left the UK with a low-growth, high-regulation undynamic economy, a Europe across the channel. Truss rightly wanted to take advantage of Brexit, using the regulatory freedom it allows to remake the UK as a Singapore-on-the-Thames: low-tax, low-regulation, high-trade and high-growth. All of this macroeconomic thinking was admirable and correct but, during the seemingly endless leadership campaign that followed Johnson’s defenestration, Truss fatally omitted to fill in the policy details lying behind her ambitious aspirations.

Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who skillfully used her spell as leader of the opposition to prepare the British public for radical changes she intended to make, Truss thrust them onto the British people with little warning. It proved to be her undoing. The markets, already spooked by the Bank of England’s derelict performance in taking its eye off the inflation ball, rebelled. Famously, Truss’s shelf-life as premier was shorter than that of a Tesco grocery store lettuce purchased by The Daily Star.

Because of all these self-inflicted wounds, Sunak comes to power with almost nothing left to lose. Upon winning the leadership, his Old Testament admonition to the death cult that has become the Tory Party could not have been more on point: “Unite or die.” In terms of foreign policy, look for the UK to continue its strong (almost worryingly neo-conservative) support of Ukraine in the face of Russian adventurism.

On the economic front, while entirely sharing Truss’s dream of the UK as a Singapore-on-the-Thames, Sunak disagrees with how to get there. First, Truss’s unfunded tax cuts will be shelved for the foreseeable future to steady markets worried about the profligacy of the British political elite. Second, cakeism is over; there will be significant spending cuts. Third, defense spending will hold steady, but probably will not be allowed to stratospherically rise from 2 percent to 3 percent as Truss had announced. Fourth, as a pro-Brexit leader, Sunak will look to make good on the promise of Britain’s hard-won freedom to cut trade deals with the portions of the world that are actually growing (India, the United States, the Anglosphere).

In other words, it’s time for Britain to eat its vegetables. It is a time for the revenge of the grown-ups. I have a sneaking suspicion that Bill Clinton will be proved right. Despite the very tall odds, look for Sunak to succeed in his new role.

This piece was originally published in The Hill

Sanctions on Russia are on a collision course with Europe’s green ambitions

These days, Europe is seen as the weak link in the developed economic world. The European stock market is underperforming its US rival, down 22 percent year-to-date. Even risky emerging markets are doing better. Likewise, Europe’s surging inflation rates, in countries like Germany and Spain (not to mention what the UK is going through), are worse than it is in Mexico.

What is the primary policy culprit for all this economic woe? Most of all this is due to European sanctions on Russian energy as punishment for its aggression in Ukraine. That’s by far the most significant headwind. These sanctions have set off a massive commodity price spike that’s rebounded to damage the European economy.

Green zealots (and there are a lot of them in Europe) say that somehow all this economic misery is actually good for the continent because by abandoning Russian oil and gas, European Union leaders are signaling to its member states and its people that it is boldly moving into a post-fossil fuels world. Ursula von der Leyen, the out-of-her-depth EU Commission president, grandly describes the move beyond fossil fuels as Europe’s moon mission.

But all this utopian fervor hits the skids the moment reality intrudes, for facts are stubborn things. Punchy revolutionary rhetoric won’t turn Europe away from fossil fuels. Instead, ironically, the continent is being forced to return to coal to make up for the energy shortfall as a result of giving up Russian gas, merely to keep the lights on over the coming winter. Yes, coal is back in climate-purist Europe.

The Greens – the second in command in the ruling German coalition and occupying the pivotal Economic and Foreign Ministries– have been dragooned by reality into using more coal, a fatal sin in their climate change religion. This month’s ban on Russian coal just means Germany will simply get it from elsewhere. And the place to make up the difference is with their old American allies.

U.S. coal exports to Europe rose more than 140 percent in May compared to a year earlier — and they are continuing rising at that stratospheric level because Europe desperately needs coal for electricity generation to replace Russian gas. By October, U.S. coal shipments will need to grow far higher than they already are just so enough coal will be available in Europe to keep the heat on by winter, says the U.S. Coal Exports Coalition, part of the National Mining Association.

Despite all the endless nattering about climate change and the Paris Accord getting re-signed by the Biden Administration in his first year in office, the world’s biggest polluters are also not falling in line with Europe’s utopian green agenda, given the raging global energy crisis. For example, India, not wishing to commit economic suicide, said it would delay coal power plant closures recently to maintain low energy costs. This makes perfect policy sense. But to put it mildly, it is not music to the ears of Europe’s green elite.

At the big picture policy level, it is now painfully obvious that energy sanctions on Russia have boomeranged, proving to be a disaster for European commodity prices, fueling the continent’s cost of living crisis, through the law of unintended consequences. On the other side of the ledger, the increase in global energy prices that the sanctions have brought about have led to an unbelievable increase in Russia’s energy export earnings, up a whopping 22 percent in the year to date, as at the end of September. Surely, this is not what the West initially had in mind.

It is time to take a deep breath and actually think in realist terms. Some sanctions placed on Russia are good and serve western interests, but others, clearly, do not. But it has become something of a political nightmare – once the sanctions are in place, which leader could justify rolling them back? In a rush to appear at the front of the pack, many sanctions were slapped on private companies vital to the global economy without a second thought for the unintended consequences.  

Instead, the West has shot itself in the foot on energy, done great harm to climate change initiatives, and risks rising global food prices due to fertilizer production limits, and sky-high energy prices.

At the world market level, there is little doubt that the demand for coal will continue to grow, while the economic reality energy sanctions have unleashed mean that the green agenda in the European Union has been pushed into the background. The massive expansion of renewables is currently mainly on paper – while the increasing hunger for energy today is real.

This piece was originally published in City A.M.

Putin’s rattling of nuclear weapons, the danger they pose worldwide – and the role of the Nobel Peace Prize

As Max Hastings’ hugely enjoyable most recent book, Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 makes abundantly clear, during the Cold War millions of people went to bed terrified of a nuclear conflict breaking out. However, since the implosion of the Soviet Union, the world has increasingly perceived the threat of nuclear war as highly unlikely.

Yet today, as one analyst wrote, “for the first time in the nuclear era, one country used …nuclear threats…to deter other countries from intervening in a large-scale conventional war of aggression. We have entered the age of ‘predatory nuclear-weapon states’”.

As Vladimir Putin issues his bloodcurdling threats to take Russia’s war in Ukraine nuclear, with great power competition once again on the rise, there is a need to revisit our assumptions about the potential for the use of nuclear weapons, as the chances they are used has risen alarmingly. The only way to effectively guard against such a doomsday scenario from unfolding is to strengthen the existing international regime on the issue.

In an August 1st letter to participants of a conference on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), Putin remarked “there can be no winners in a nuclear war, and it should never be unleashed.” This was a blatant effort by the Russian leader to walk back from his earlier warning during a Feb 24 speech when he launched the ongoing war on Ukraine.

At the time, in a pointed reference to the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal, he warned the west that any attempts to interfere in Moscow’s military campaign against its Slavic neighbor would lead “to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history.” Days later, to underline the threat, he placed Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert.

Six months on, Russia’s dismal kinetic performance in the battlespace has been thoroughly exposed to the world, and Moscow is reeling under the weight of massive sanctions. In increasing desperation, Russian senior spokesmen have alluded to the use of tactical nukes – or worse.

The CIA Director’s, William Burns, in his first public speech in April, warned as much when he said that Putin could resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons if he felt Russia was facing a catastrophic loss of its war in Ukraine. Three weeks later, the CIA chief again noted that “given the kind of saber-rattling we’ve heard from the Russian leadership” Washington “can’t take lightly,” as the possibility of Russia engaging in a low-yield nuclear strike grows.

While the risk of Russia engaging in nuclear attacks has increased because of its war in Ukraine, it certainly isn’t the only concern on this front. More recently, in the wake of escalating tensions over Taiwan, a U.S.-China war became possible. As Beijing’s conventional military capabilities are weaker than Washington’s, the same logic applies: in an attempt to avoid defeat, which could also translate into the fatal weakening of their regime, the Chinese could decide to go nuclear.

Unfortunately, great powers aren’t the only ones that could in certain situations resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons; several regional actors could also engage in their use. Just last month, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un thundered that his country is ready to deploy its nuclear forces in the event that a U.S-backed South Korea decided to launch pre-emptive strikes against Pyongyang.

Likewise, given the parlous state of South Asian geopolitics, the risks of a nuclear exchange in the region are rising. Due to its long-standing conventional disparity with arch-rival India, Pakistan has retained a policy of nuclear first use. But now, with Islamabad’s economy historically at its weakest point amid growing security challenges, especially from Islamist extremists and the rise of the Hindu nationalist regime in neighboring India, the risks of nuclear conflict have increased.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, regardless of whether there is a new nuclear agreement or not, Iran can be expected to continue to pursue nuclear weapons, especially as the regime is weakening internally while maintaining an aggressive foreign policy.

At a time when we have numerous nuclear flashpoints, it is critical to look back at the past successes of denuclearisation. Of course, they are only a handful of such cases, which include Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine, and South Africa. Nonetheless, they each represent important lessons that can help strengthen efforts towards present international nuclear security.

The Kazakh case is particularly noteworthy in terms of a new country that had emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union and found itself in possession of the world’s fourth largest arsenal. Hundreds of thousands died of radiation poisoning or developed cancer and mutations as a results of over 450 Soviet nuclear tests in the massive Semey (Semipalatinsk) nuclear testing ground during the Cold War.

Not only did the Eurasian nation renounce nuclear weapons, but it also emerged as a leader in international denuclearization efforts, as is evident from the first executive order of the former President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, upon independence: to shut down Semey. Unlike other sites, it has remained shuttered forever.

Nazarbayev’s 2009 initiative to get the United Nations to declare August 29 as the International Day against Nuclear Tests was unanimously adopted General Assembly resolution. The world recently commemorated this important date.

Though symbolic in nature, such moves go a long way in mobilising the collective action necessary to enhance international norms critical to global non-proliferation. They augment the usual multilateral diplomacy that is faced with serious limitations with regard to constraining the behavior of states that find themselves in existential situations. Leaders of malign regimes will be far more likely to be deterred from a nuclear escalation if they know that the international community is unlikely to let them get away with their decisions.

Here is where the Nobel Peace Prize can once again play a key role in shaping the global conversation: after all, it was created in the first place to foster the global pursuit of peace. In the past three decades, however, the annual prize has only twice been awarded in recognition of efforts towards nuclear security. The first was in 2005 when the International Atomic Energy Agency and its then director, Mohamed El-Baradei, received the vaunted peace award, and in 2017 when the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was the recipients of the prestigious prize.

There is no greater present threat to global security than the potential for nuclear war – the risk of which is likely to rise in an increasingly multi-polar global environment, especially with the dangerous degradation the rules-based international order. In of itself the Nobel Peace Prize is a recognition of the efforts of individuals and institutions furthering international peace. The norms that it shapes in the process are even more important. Today it is critical that the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee help counters the escalating threats of nuclear conflict, remembering the pioneers who bravely have forsaken developing nuclear arsenals.

This piece was originally published in Conservative Home

The EU, not Meloni, is the threat to democracy

I have found through my constant exposure to them through the years that the EU’s intellectual cheerleaders among geopolitical analysts — funded as they so often are by the very institution they are supposed to be impartially analyzing — are as numerous as they are clueless.

At my political risk firm, the joke goes that if Brussels is “for” something — entrusting its energy security to the Russians, confidently predicting that Europe will emerge as the dominant superpower in our new era, or ignoring the threat that China poses — we should instinctively bet against them, so often and regularly are they proved mistaken. Beyond the mirth, there are two concrete reasons EU analysts are so unerringly wrong.

First, the corkscrew way EU cheerleaders reason dooms them from the start. In a sort of Kafkaesque example of magical thinking, they believe that while EU policy success confirms the upward trajectory of Brussels, failure also somehow means the bloc is about to arrive. Success obviously means the EU is headed in the right direction; failure, in a bizarre form of Hegelianism, means Brussels will inevitably “learn” from whatever it has done wrong, immediately and rationally make the necessary corrections, and move onward unto sunlit uplands. As ever with wish-fulfillment, these cheerleaders fool no one so much as themselves.

Their second major intellectual mistake is to confuse analysis with what they would like to happen. Brussels advocates invariably tout the death knell of populism, the EU’s sworn enemy, because across Europe it embodies the very things Brussels most hates — it is nationalistic, suspicious of experts, and democratic rather than elite-driven.

So, EU cheerleaders excitedly (but wrongly) thought European populism would be extinguished as a result of the pandemic crisis, when the vital need for the supremacy of technocrats became self-evident (at least to them). Instead, these experts were proved wrong time and again — from vastly overstating the efficacy of lockdowns, to the quasi-religious primacy of mask-wearing, to wholly subordinating economic, social and democratic rights, all in the myopic service of a health dictatorship.

Next, with the invasion of Ukraine, these same experts felt populism would come to an end, because the overriding imperative of international cooperation (a supposed strength of Brussels) over the conflict was self-evident. Once again the EU’s cheerleaders got it wrong, while populists learned the realist lesson that a country’s specific national and geostrategic interests are paramount; plus actually having an army — neither of which are policy areas in which the EU is anything other than a pipsqueak.

Recent political facts confirm my political risk call, rather than that of my cheerleader foes. In Sweden, the rightist populist Sweden Democrats, rather than disappearing as most EU analysts had confidently predicted, now hold the balance of power. Even more importantly, last week in Italy there was an overwhelming populist rightist electoral victory over the remnants of the Brussels-installed center-left political establishment. One of the great powers of Europe, contrary to the fever-dream of the EU’s favored pundits, decisively elected a government deeply skeptical about the very nature of Brussels itself.

Of course, confronted by the imminent election of a government not to its tastes, the EU’s authoritarian visage, so often hidden behind banal verities about its innate goodness, became plain for all to see. Just a week before the Italian election, a grim European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, referencing serial troublemakers Poland and Hungary, threatened that Brussels had “the tools” to deal with wayward members not content to sing along with the EU’s supranational, elite-driven hymnal.

What did Italy’s newly victorious Giorgia Meloni do, even before coming to power, that so threatens the Brussels establishment? Or, to put it another way, what explains the meteoric rise of her rightist populist Brothers of Italy party from 4 percent of the vote in 2018 to a dominant 26 percent now? First and foremost, Meloni crucially decided to stay out of the EU-imposed government of national unity run by Brussels darling Mario Draghi, which managed to last for only 18 storm-tossed months.

Meloni proved to be highly effective in opposition, artfully questioning whether Draghi’s authoritarian response to COVID was serving basic democratic ends, given his habitual governing by authoritarian decree rather than the usual parliamentary process. As ever, biography proved to be destiny; Draghi, a technocrat to his fingertips, thought the pandemic crisis too important to be left to the vagaries of democratic scrutiny. Meloni brilliantly made her commitment to democracy (despite the present hyperventilating of the mainstream media) abundantly clear, while yet another unelected, Brussels-imposed prime minister ignored any shred of democratic practice.

Second, this Brussels-imposed elite (incredibly, Meloni will be Italy’s first elected prime minister since the odious Silvio Berlusconi was ousted by the EU in 2011) has utterly failed at the policy level. Extraordinarily, Italian GDP per capita is lower now than it was before the country adopted the euro in 1999. This lost economic generation is only a few years away from irrelevance, more likely to end up a crumbling, irrelevant Greece than to emerge as the new Germany.

In just practical terms, EU tutelage has been an absolute disaster for Italy, and for a long while. It is little wonder its citizens have revolted against its EU-shackled establishment.

The piece was originally published in Arab News.

US Republicans challenge the foreign policy ‘blob’

In my experience, the widely quoted adage about America’s capital — “You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog” — makes a fair point; imagine a city populated entirely by high school student council presidents. Nevertheless, in my glory days in D.C. I managed to buck the odds and acquire a number of great colleagues who I have remained close to over the 16 years I have run my political risk firm.

I’ve just checked in with them over a marathon week, with 16 intensive meetings in five days. This concentrated process is by far the best way to take a mental snapshot of what is really going on in what remains the most important country in the world.

There are two major political risk takeaways from the week. Point one is that the current Western unity over the Ukraine war is misleading. It was pointed out to me by many that there are three strands of Western thinking on Russia, and they do not strategically agree.

First, the Eastern Europeans and the UK (for rather odd and specific reasons) want to roll back all Russian gains at almost any cost. But it is also true that of the three strands, those advocating total rollback are geopolitically the weakest.

Second, the Biden administration finds itself in a balancing position, writing Ukraine a series of blank checks, with the US having no specific war aims of its own but working hard to limit the conflict. The Biden team have a studied aversion to the no-fly zones that Western hawks are screaming for, as they could lead to a direct confrontation between superpower America and great power Russia — a breach of the “Kennedy Rules” that nuclear powers do not ever directly fight one another.

Third, European Council on Foreign Relations polling makes clear that Western European publics increasingly favor “peace” (the war stopping now so as to stem the looming tsunami of the cost-of-living crisis and rampant inflation brought on by Europe’s feckless energy policy) over “justice” (Ukraine regaining every yard of its territory, but at great economic cost to the continent).

In other words, there is trouble ahead for the Western alliance over the war, as strategically these fundamental differences become apparent to even the dimmest analyst.

Beyond the coming possible schisms in Western unity over the war, there was a second, vastly underreported takeaway from my fascinating trip — namely the coming rejuvenation of the Republican Party in foreign policy terms.

In Washington I met with every branch of foreign policy opinion formers for the GOP. They included the Heritage Foundation, the largest think tank in the world and the most important on the right in the US; the Congressional Research Service, Congress’s own in-house think tank; the over-arching and increasingly powerful Stand Together Alliance, which unites the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian wings of the GOP around a realist orientation; and two venerable establishment pillars, the Center for the National Interest and the Atlantic Council. I also had private meetings with senior foreign policy grandees. All the above testified to the fact that there is a revolt catching fire in the party to do away with its longstanding links to the foreign policy “blob,” the disastrous, overly interventionist elite that gave us the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

It is far less likely the Republican Party will remain linked to the discredited foreign policy establishment if it comes back to power in 2024, as it is embracing a new, more skeptical and realist orientation, having under Trump jettisoned from positions of power in the party the fantasist, hyper-interventionist neo-conservatives who futilely and fatally wanted to impose democracy around the world — nation building at the point of a gun.

In essence, this new realist alliance between Jeffersonians (the Stand Together Alliance) and Jacksonians (Heritage) is fused around a more realist orientation, whereby the GOP is no longer content to serve as the junior interventionist member of the Washington foreign policy establishment, in lockstep with the liberal Wilsonian hawks who perpetually dominate the Democratic Party. Instead, they believe the US should focus its strategic engagement in regions where its primary interests are at stake, as in the Indo-Pacific, the source of most of the world’s coming economic growth and much of its political risk peril.

For them, Ukraine is a sideshow, and a terribly expensive one at that — obscuring America’s necessary pivot to Asia. It should be supported, but with clear limits to that support, as the US cannot care more about European security than Europeans do. At present America is responsible for about 70 percent of the military wherewithal heading to Kyiv, while Germany does as little as possible. While Biden is spending tens of billions of dollars on secondary-interest Ukraine, what should be the obvious, overriding focus on the Indo-Pacific is being lost. What I learned in my fascinating week in D.C. is that at last the karmic wheel is turning, as the Republican Party forsakes its disastrous adherence to the foreign policy blob and rediscovers its precious realist heritage.

This piece was originally published in Arab News.

The Ukraine war reaches its Gettysburg moment. Will we see a draft that could end Putin, or the disintegration of western unity?

The early 1900s baseball star (and sometime philosopher, they often go together) ‘Wee’ Willie Keeler put it perfectly – that the key to the sport is to ‘hit ‘em where they ain’t.’

The same simple, effective philosophy, to an even larger extent, explains Ukraine’s dramatic strategic offensive of last week to the northeast of the country, relieving the pressure on its second city, Kharkiv.

While the world, including the Russian general staff, was engrossed by the much-advertised Ukrainian offensive in the south around Kherson – a centre of over 200,000 people and the largest city to be captured by the Russians so far – the Ukrainians adroitly followed Keeler’s maxim. So when Russian troops were dispatched from the Kharkiv area to support its defenders in Kherson, the Zelensky government masterfully struck the suddenly-undermanned northeast.

In the space of just as few days, the front lines – which had stabilized into almost World War I-style trench warfare following the petering out of the Russian offensive in the Donbas in June – were magically opened up by Ukraine’s surprise attack.

In the course of just the past few days, Kiev has retaken up to 700 square miles of territory in the northeast, even as the Russians have scrambled to repair the breach in the line. At a tactical minimum, it is the greatest Ukrainian victory in the war since March, when it dramatically turned Russian forces away from the gates of Kiev itself.

So is this Ukraine’s ‘Gettysburg Moment’ – the decisive battle that will determine not just the immediate and tactical, but the outcome of the war itself?

More than a few caveats are in order before we answer this central political risk question. For while what is strategically going on is momentous, there is a lot of terrible fighting still to come. It must be remembered that, as of this morning, Russia still controls a significant 20 per cent of Ukrainian territory. For all of Kiev’s undoubted heroics, all it has managed to do up, until the present, is to show its vital western backers it can heroically lose the war at a far slower pace than had been expected.

Furthermore, geography matters mightily in evaluating the (relatively) good news. Liberating the northeast is important, but it is not the key to the present situation; the struggle for Kherson has far more strategic impact, since re-taking this major city would upend Vladimir Putin’s current ‘southern strategy’ in Ukraine.

While stopped in his earlier blitzkrieg effort to quickly decapitate the Ukrainian government, take Kiev, and make the country a genuine colony of the Kremlin, Putin has been far more successful in the south.

He has largely succeeded in militarily establishing a land bridge – connecting Rostov on Don in Russia itself, much of the Donbas, and the City of Mariupol (making the Sea of Azov a Russian lake), linking a good portion of the north coast of the Black Sea to already-held Crimea.

If Putin can stabilise the Donbas, he may settle for this major bite of the Ukrainian apple, declare victory and initiate a cease-fire – in essence partitioning Ukraine itself. This is the major strategic gambit of the war at present; comparatively, the Kharkiv region is a sideshow.

But for all these necessary caveats, the Ukrainian offensive might just herald the climax of the present conflict. There are two major – and woefully undiscussed – reasons for my bold political risk call (and do remember that my firm said there would be an invasion in the near term in November of last year).

First, the strategic initiative in a war matters; someone is always on the offensive and someone on the defensive. Since the Ukrainian army’s heroism before the gates of Kiev in March, the strategic initiative has been largely with the Russian army. They have glacially, and at great loss, inched their way forward in the Donbas, taking the whole of Luhansk, and much of Donetsk in the late Spring-early Summer of this year. It is been slow, ugly, and unedifying, but the Russians have retained the initiative until their latest June offensive petered out over the summer.

Now, beyond doubt, in both the northeast around Kharkiv and the south around Kherson, the strategic initiative has gone over the Ukrainians; they are in the offensive driver’s seat now. While it is true that this may be a short-lived phenomenon (winter will likely put on end to both armies’ freedom to manoeuvre and stage large-scale operations), for the present the momentum of the war has swung back in the Ukrainians favor. This is a truly momentous development.

Second, as the great Prussian military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, put it, war is politics by other means. Both Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky have real political challenges ahead, which amount to the decisive factors as to which side will ultimately emerge victorious in the conflict. The present Ukrainian offensive amplifies their present political difficulties, throwing into stark relief the political risk factors that will determine the outcome of the war.

For the Kremlin, their choice of words about the Ukrainian conflict is instructive; they call their barbarity a ‘special military operation;’ God forbid it is discussed as a war. This is not just the usual Orwellian pronouncements of an increasingly totalitarian state. For were Putin to admit that his dreams of federation with Ukraine had been this terribly miscalculated, that the country did not welcome the invading Russian forces with open arms, but instead fought them tooth and nail for control of the country, would be to call Putin’s strategic judgement, and Putin alone, into dangerous question.

A ‘war’ would require a general draft of the Russian people – another hardship visited upon them by their beleaguered leadership. The political risk trap for Putin is that he has to finish his invasion of Ukraine with one hand tied behind his back. For him to unleash total war, which he may have to do to actually conquer a country as vast and well-defended as Ukraine, would be to admit his great miscalculations in the first place. The all-out draft he needs to win could paradoxically bring about his end.

On the other hand, in the words of Tennesse Williams’s tragic heroine, Blanche DuBois, the Ukrainians are dependent on the kindness of strangers – particularly the United States, which has accounted for a decisive 70 percent of all military aid given to Kiev. It is estimated that Ukraine, a political and economic basket case even before the war, needs around $9 billion a month just to keep going.

The political risk danger point is the West is afflicted with a serious cost-of-living crisis, with the beast of inflation loosed from its cage, and with an energy-induced recession about to hit the European continent. It is an open question, as energy is rationed in Europe and America has to weather significant economic troubles of its own, how long Washington and the others are prepared to write tens of billions dollars of open-ended checks for a Ukraine unable to re-take ground in its own country (in essence, just losing gallantly) as its own people suffer for a strategic cause that is secondary at best.

It is in this larger political and strategic context that the present Ukrainian offensive must be seen. If Zelensky’s forces can re-take ground around Kharkiv, the political pressure on the Biden White House lessens, and the necessary cheques will keep being written.

In such a situation, the pressure on Putin to institute a wide-ranging draft to avoid disaster becomes almost unbearable. On the other hand, a stalled offensive would keep the political heat on western leaders from their increasingly restive publics, even as Putin has time to put his announced new 130,000 men in the field by the Spring.  It is for these other, whispered, political risk factors that we have indeed arrived at our ‘Gettysburg Moment’ in Ukraine.

A global food crisis could spell a bigger catastrophe than Vladimir Putin’s war

You always knew you had reached an intellectual dead end when foreign policy grandees sat around a table and recommended sanctions as an all-purpose answer to any problem.

While such an initiative almost never practically worked in terms of changing the policy of the offending country, it made political sense in a Washington sort of way. ­­­­The beauty of such an outcome is that countries that enact sanctions are seen to be “doing something” about an important foreign policy problem while at the same time not doing enough to risk an escalation of the crisis. However, more often than not, it led to unintended consequences that made the sanctions cure worse than the original disease.  

Alarmingly, a recent example of this doleful pattern is brewing. The prospects of a food crisis, as a result of Western sanctions on those companies connected to the agribusiness and fertiliser industry, could unwittingly damage the fragile global ecosystem. Such a crunch is increasingly likely, primarily caused by skyrocketing prices for fertilisers previously supplied from Russia and Belarus.

For the past three generations, mineral fertiliser has played a decisive role in alleviating global famine. According to the UN, since 1960, global food production has skyrocketed by 211 percent. The clear reason for this is the industrialization of ammonia production, the game-changer in terms of the world feeding itself. Today, roughly half of the world’s population (48 per cent) depends on fertiliser use.  

There is no getting away from its importance, or from the fact that at present Russia and Belarus are both key players in the global fertiliser market, with a combined share of 16 percent of global production of mineral fertilisers and 22 percent of their export. Globally, 2 billion people depend on the import of fertilisers, with the two sanctioned states feeding a substantial 450 million of this number in 2019.

The EU’s feel-good sanctions have already heavily affected the global supply of mineral fertilisers, but the trade off is unclear. In Ukraine, the war wages on.

One example will suffice. Eurochem, headquartered in Switzerland and founded by Russian businessman Andrey Melnichenko, is the world’s second largest mineral fertiliser company by sales­­. European sanctions have hit the company at almost every conceivable level, in terms of finance, sales, logistics, production, and procurement, decimating this vital conduit for food production. As a result, the company has been forced to close two critical fertiliser plants in Belgium and Lithuania, which stands to hurt the neediest people in the world.

In fact, so far sanctions have led to a decrease in Russian fertiliser exports of 34 per cent in the first three months since their imposition, sufficient to feed 134 million people on an annual basis. And this is just the beginning. Overall, due to EU sanctions, more than 20 per cent of the global fertiliser trade is under threat, potentially affecting an astounding 750 million people.

Of course, there is a distinct geopolitical component to such folly. Limiting the fertiliser supply could lead to the threat of crop failures and famine in the most fragile countries in the tottering Middle East and North Africa, with catastrophic consequences for Europe itself. Refugees could then well flood across the Mediterranean, leading to further political radicalization in an already shaky southern Europe.

As for North Africa, anarchy and chaos worse than the 2011 Arab Spring could easily take place in famine-stricken countries if the food crisis gathers pace. Radical Islamists under the banner of jihad are well trained in using hardship to buoy themselves to power – a nightmare scenario for Europe and the world. Beyond the horrendous human suffering, Europe may well come to reap the whirlwind of its sanctions-happy folly.

What should the UK do about all this? First, the new government should encourage its European partners (and to do so itself) to look specifically at every sanctions plank and package from the commonsense realist notion of whether it helps or hinders global stability. Sanctions are neither always useful nor always disastrous. In the case of indirectly sanctioning the mineral fertiliser industry, London should strongly encourage Brussels to look at fertiliser and food security as a humanitarian issue and remove such strictures from imperiling the global food ecosystem.

No one is doubting that the Putin regime must be checked, or that some specific sanctions on Moscow are absolutely necessary. The question is one of policy, of how to do this in the most effective way, one which will not leave millions of people in danger of starvation.

This piece was originally published in The Hill.

A terror network’s struggle for influence in Afghanistan

The presence of al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, under the protection of the Taliban in a luxury villa in Kabul raises important questions about who is actually running the country and what this means for U.S. and allied interests. 

When U.S. forces killed al-Zawahiri on July 31, he was not just visiting Afghanistan’s capital city. He and his family were staying in a home owned by the family of Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has emerged as Afghanistan’s most important and lethal power broker. As one of two deputies to the Taliban’s senior leader, Haqqani wields oversized influence in the government’s senior councils, with the power to appoint the governors of Afghanistan’s eastern provinces.  

His position as interior minister gives him control over Kabul, Afghanistan’s internal security forces and its intelligence apparatus. In short, Haqqani runs the country’s “power ministries.” The clan’s personal army, the powerful Haqqani network, is a radical Afghan Islamist group that was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department in 2012, and the FBI offers a reward of up to $10 million for information that leads to Haqqani’s arrest. 

One year on from its return to power, the Taliban predictably has run Afghanistan into a ditch. More than half the population requires urgent food aid, including more than a million malnourished children. The health sector is collapsing. International donors, who had funded almost 80 percent of the country’s economy, have ceased their financial support. The United Nations estimates that as much as 97 percent of the country may fall below the poverty line by the second half of this year.

Afghanistan’s political struggles have exacerbated this humanitarian tragedy. Haqqani’s power grab appears to have sidelined the Taliban old guard, epitomized by Abdul Ghani Baradar, who led the Taliban’s negotiations with the United States in Doha to end the war. Last September, the increasingly confident Haqqani faction forced Baradar and Defense Minister Yaqoob Omar, son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, to flee Kabul to the safety of their home base in Kandahar in a dispute over ministerial appointments. In the ensuing struggle for control of the government, the head of Pakistan’s intelligence service traveled to Kabul to ensure that the key positions went to Pakistani loyalists from the hardline Haqqani network, not those who led the Doha negotiations.

While Baradar and the Kandahari faction are attempting to broadly abide by the Doha Accord — in which the Taliban committed to preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists in order to secure the release of $7 billion of Afghan foreign reserves frozen by the United States and its allies — the former commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) recently acknowledged: “They’re finding it difficult to do.” 

According to a recent U.N. report, the reason for this failure is clear: “The Haqqani Network remains a hub for outreach and cooperation with regional foreign terrorist groups and is the primary liaison between the Taliban and al Qaeda.” Counterterrorism experts also assess that the Haqqani Network is using the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) as another tool to consolidate its power. 

As long as the Haqqanis remain Afghanistan’s ascendant power, international recognition of the country, containment of jihadist extremists and alleviation of Afghanistan’s accelerating humanitarian crisis will prove impossible. 

Two countries in particular bear a significant share of responsibility for this state of affairs: Pakistan long has provided sanctuary for the Haqqanis, as well as logistical and political support for the network. It is a notoriously two-faced U.S. ally whose military and security services work at cross-purposes to U.S. interests throughout the region. As one noted expert observed: “The removal of the Haqqanis from Afghanistan is an ambition which would unite most regional powers as well as the Kandaharis. However, it is difficult to see how it could possibly happen even if the support of Pakistan could be secured. The Haqqanis control Kabul, are heavily armed and intend to stay.”

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) also plays an unhelpful role in support of the Haqqanis. Senior members of the Haqqani network, including Afghanistan’s current minister of refugees, Khalil al Haqqani, have relied on sources in the UAE for fundraising and have used the UAE as a base for their front companies. Emirati banks hold the accounts of senior Haqqani members. In return, this year the Haqqanis awarded the Emiratis a no-bid contract to run Kabul airport, which they control. In short, the UAE provides an essential financial lifeline to the Haqqani network. 

If the Biden administration is truly serious about fighting terror and helping the people of Afghanistan, it will have to adopt a tougher approach to putative allies such as Pakistan and the UAE. They are enabling a known terrorist enemy, in open contravention of both U.S. interests and international commitments. Enabling evil never works; it merely spawns more evil.  

This piece was originally published in The Hill.