The case for a Republican clean sweep in the 2022 midterms

The brutal reality of political risk analysis is that you can never rest on your laurels. However good your predictive call record, there are always more elections to come and more geostrategic risks and opportunities to make sense of. Much as is true with sports, even winning a political risk analytical “championship” just means everyone will be gunning for you come the next season.

In 2020, my firm reached one of its peaks, correctly calling close but clear wins for the Democrats in the House of Representatives and the presidency, as well as precisely predicting the 50-50 split in the Senate. For all our pride in this, the 2022 midterms are just around the corner, with a new set of political imperatives that need to be mastered. So, without further ado, here we go: The 2022 midterms will result in a Republican wipeout of the Democrats, with the GOP gaining upwards of 30 seats in the House and one or two in the Senate, giving them full control of the Congress. Here is the case for our bold prediction.

First, the historical record is squarely against President Joe Biden and the Democrats. Since 1870, only four elections out of 38 resulted in the party holding the White House losing fewer than five seats, which is the size of the party’s present paper-thin majority in the House. Traditionally, the country tends to have so-called buyer’s remorse after the first two years of a presidency, either faulting the new team for failing to live up to its campaign promises or conversely fearing the new White House is trying to do too much. In either case, the opposition party has been supported 34 out of 38 times as an institutional check on the new president’s power.

The rare exceptions to these overwhelming numbers merely prove the rule. Only exceptional circumstances (such as George W. Bush benefiting from the rally-round-the-flag sentiment prevailing after 9/11) or presidents possessing exceptional political skills (such as Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton) buck this historical near-inevitability.

To put it mildly, Biden has neither of these attributes going for him. In the past generation, the best guide to a party’s congressional results has been the president’s approval numbers, as House elections have increasingly become nationalized referendums on the occupant of the White House. The RealClearPolitics’ average of polling finds Biden’s approval ratings under water, with only 42 percent supporting him, while 53 percent disapprove of the job he has been doing. Far from bucking the historical trend, Biden’s polling looks set to make it even worse than usual.

Second, out-of-control 8 percent inflation is seen as by far the most important issue in polling and the Biden White House entirely owns it. No one is buying that this is “Putin’s price hike,” as the president has feebly taken to saying in an effort to pass the policy failure on to the Russian leader. This is not working out in the country for the simple reason that the beast of inflation had already loosed its chains well ahead of the Ukraine war starting in late February. The timing simply does not work for rampant inflation to be anything other than primarily a Western institutional failure.

While spikes in energy and food prices have resulted directly from the conflict, they amount to only the icing on the cake. As former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has made incisively clear, the Biden White House and the Federal Reserve greatly overestimated the damage the COVID-19 pandemic would do. As a result, the overegged economy had to deal with 15 percent extra federal spending even as it quickly bounced back. The obvious result of this pouring gasoline on to a roaring fire is the present 8 percent-plus inflation the US has and the cost-of-living crisis that flows naturally from it. Stagflation (the US economy declined in the first quarter of the year) absolutely destroyed the presidency of Jimmy Carter 40 years ago. It is now doing the same to the hapless Biden White House.

Third, a series of important but secondary issues — all seen as traditional weaknesses of the Democratic Party — are coming back to bite them. A crime wave in American inner cities has been blamed on earlier suicidal calls by the left wing of the party to defund the police. And illegal immigration at the southern border, another traditional weakness of the party, has swollen to a torrent. Finally, America’s families are sick of recalcitrant (overwhelmingly Democratic) teachers’ unions who indefensibly seem to want their members to stay home for ever, however badly the country’s children are doing educationally after years of distance learning. Parents blame the unions for this calamity, along with their woke allegiance to a critical race theory that paints America as irredeemably racist. The self-hatred of the Democratic progressive left is generally a bad political platform; it is badly wounding the party in general.

Worse still for the Democrats, none of these things are likely to change. The historical numbers are what they are; inflation is unlikely to dramatically trend downwards, and immigration and the crime wave will not be greatly altered in the next few months. There is no avoiding the reality that a Democratic Party wipeout in the midterms is by far the most likely outcome of the 2022 race. This call is an easy one to make.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

An unlikely defense of German foreign policy

Germany is a country I came to know well in the 10 years I lived there, in Berlin and Bavaria. Despite the many sterling virtues of its people, lodged deep in the German collective psyche is a characteristic that I cannot abide — schadenfreude.

While not directly translatable into English, it is best thought of as “to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others.” For example, I remember once riding a perpetually late German train and asking the off-duty conductor if he knew where I needed to go, as my route had been altered. He snarled at me: “Yes,” then went back to reading his paper. Exasperated, I asked him: “Are you going to tell me?” He smiled malignantly and said: “No.”

I must admit to feeling a good deal of schadenfreude myself at present, as two decades’ worth of the German political elite’s dim, arrogant, and complacent policymaking has come home to roost because of the war in Ukraine.

For literally 20 years I have pleaded with the Germans to stop free-riding on American defense expenditure, to wean themselves off their strategically dangerous dependence on Russian energy, and to stop drifting toward a mercantilist, isolationist, even neutralist geostrategic position. Insufferably, I was invariably met with a German elite who blandly assured me that trade would tempt Moscow away from revisionism in the international sphere, that war was an unthinkable anachronism in Europe, and that they — rather than the simplistic Americans —knew better how the world really worked. To the legions of German policymakers who said things along these disastrous lines, know that in any reasonably meritocratic society you would be shown the door.

But for all the understandable schadenfreude, I find myself in the oddest of positions: A champion in the defense of current German foreign policy. Where the Ukrainians and many in the Western media decry Germany’s strategic slowness, I see a highly favorable geostrategic shift occurring — and at the speed of light. The Germans have done more strategically in the past two months than they accomplished in the previous two decades.

First, when Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the able Green Energy Minister Robert Habeck immediately scuppered the egregious Nord Stream 2 pipeline. This latest Russo-German energy link-up, the culmination of the disastrous Angela Merkel’s geoeconomic policy, would have left Berlin dependent on Moscow for 70 percent of its natural gas.

Despite earlier US, Eastern European and French pleas to forgo the program (though Joe Biden quietly dropped the Trump administration’s earlier vociferous objections), Merkel had stubbornly refused to reconsider. Habeck, by German terms moving at quantum speed, ended this decade-long potential calamity, which would have left Europe’s most important country entirely at the mercy of Russia.

Second, under the new Scholz administration, a generation’s worth of free riding over defense issues has also abruptly come to an end. When the Cold War finished, Germany was not shy about immediately cashing in on the so-called “peace dividend,” becoming lotus-eaters in the process. Worse, in typical, maddening German fashion, the country’s elite constructed a holier-than-thou ideology as a cover for their short-sighted holiday from history. War was unthinkable, trade was the way to convert possible rivals into allies, and nationalism itself was an outmoded, dying way to think about the world. All of this, of course, was a convenient excuse for the Germans to do precisely as they wanted, and ignore the fact that all of the above was obvious nonsense.

In contrast, a heretofore complicit Scholz (he was finance minister in the last Merkel government) has moved fast — suddenly and dramatically agreeing to NATO’s terms of 2 percent of GDP spent on defense (in Germany it is currently only 1.5 percent, and has often been even lower), and to the establishment of a separate €100 billion fund to update Berlin’s woefully out-of-date defense systems. Incredibly, it has been estimated in the British newspaper The Times that a hollowed-out German military has only enough ammunition to fight for 3-4 days at a Ukraine-style level. From the bottom of the barrel, Scholz has made it clear that his government intends to redress the criminal defense negligence of the Merkel years.

Last, and most importantly, German has acquiesced in the EU’s application of vital energy sanctions on Russia, even though doing so will cost Berlin at least 1 percent of its GDP. Just this past week, EuropeanCommission President Ursula van der Leyen announced ambitious plans by Brussels to stop funding the Russian war machine. Since the invasion began, the EU’s imports of Russian oil have been worth about €22 billion to the Kremlin. Europe is the biggest buyer of Russian crude, accounting for fully 53 percent of the country’s total exports, which are worth a substantial $104 billion a year. Van der Leyen has proposed a full EU embargo on Russian oil within only six months, and all other petroleum products by the end of the year. Only with staunch German backing would such a proposal have been made.

So, despite me wanting to scream: “I told you so!”, here’s to German foreign and security policy awakening from its long hibernation — and not a moment too soon.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Macron and the French establishment are safe… for now

As ever, French President Emmanuel Macron’s hero, Charles de Gaulle, put it perfectly. The imposing founder of the Fifth Republic caustically encapsulated the problem with ruling his perpetually turbulent nation when he said: “How can you govern a country that has 246 different kinds of cheese?”

After the French parliamentary elections of June 12 and 19, that poisoned chalice will assuredly fall almost entirely on Macron’s shoulders. For, despite brave talk from the veteran populist mavericks of the right (Marine Le Pen) and left (Jean-Luc Melenchon), it is certain that mainstream, establishment France will do well enough to govern.

The most likely outcome is that Macron and his La Republique En Marche faction will find itself with a diminished, but workable, majority. The worst-case scenario for the newly reelected president is that he would have to go into coalition with the traditional Gaullist party of the center-right, the Republicans, but that would not amount to any real hardship. Since he was first elected to the Elysee Palace in 2017, Macron — following the French political center of gravity — has been drifting rightwards from his initial centrist ideological position anyway.

There are three basic reasons that the populists are whistling past the political graveyard over their brave assertions of a comeback from their presidential election defeats. First, the momentum of winning the presidency historically sweeps the newly anointed president’s party to a parliamentary majority. No president since 2000 has failed to convert their election triumph into a majority in subsequent legislative elections. Given Macron’s handsome 17-point victory over Le Pen in the second, decisive, round of French presidential voting last week, there is absolutely no reason to suspect that this trend will not hold this time as well.

Second, neither of the populist firebrands has a real party behind them, having only personality-driven factions to support them. A curious trend in French politics over the past decade has been the marked decline of the traditional, mainstream center-left Socialists and center-right Republicans at the presidential level at the expense of individuals, be they Macron, Le Pen or Melenchon.

While this has held true at the national level, it has not been the case in terms of parliamentary elections, where the mainstream has held its own. For example, in 2017, despite Le Pen winning 34 percent of the vote for president in the second round, her National Rally party managed to win only eight of 577 National Assembly seats. Likewise, leftist firebrand Melenchon’s faction managed a minuscule 17 seats.

To do well in France in parliamentary elections requires tools that only a true, established party tends to possess (with Macron’s En Marche being the exception): A strong, traditional local footprint and organizational prowess. This is something that the personality-driven populist factions of both the left and the right almost entirely lack, explaining their past dismal parliamentary results. There is no evidence these systemic patterns are likely to change this time.

Finally, the only way the populists might get around these daunting historical and organizational hurdles would be to cement alliances with their ideological fellow travelers, magnifying their voting impact. This is especially pressing on the fragmented left, which has indulged itself in endless, fratricidal schisms literally since the French Revolution. Melenchon’s supporters, to their credit, are grimly aware of this, knowing that if the other splinter, leftist presidential candidates had withdrawn in favor of their man, he would have beaten Le Pen, moving on to the run-off with Macron, a leader they disdain as “the president of the rich.”

Cleverly, immediately after barely losing out in the first round, Melenchon called for a unified leftist alliance in the parliamentary elections as a way to perhaps overturn Macron’s impending presidential victory. However, his plea has so far fallen on deaf ears, as the schismatic French left has reverted to form.

Unlike Melenchon, Le Pen wants nothing to do with populist unity. Aware that her recent 41.5 percent of the second-round vote marks an all-time high-water mark for the French far right vote total, she wishes to continue to detoxify her brand rather than remind the voters of the French center why many still fear her. That is why, when her even more far-right rival, television pundit Eric Zemmour, suggested an electoral pact, Le Pen quickly and decisively ran a mile. With Macron into his second, and last, presidential term and with the far right continuing to make steady national progress, Le Pen is playing for the future, not the present.

So, for the moment, for all these reasons, it is beyond unlikely that the populists of the left or the right will stop Macron from having a governing parliamentary majority of some sort. However, with a decisive presidential win behind him, and with a clear parliamentary mandate set to follow, Macron now “owns” what happens next in France. Given that endemic inflation is taking root, with stubbornly low growth rates also on the horizon and a cost-of-living crisis brewing, it is a bad time to “own” policy outcomes. Macron’s political success is now also his political risk. Whatever comes next will be seen as down to him.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Biden’s bizarre presidency limps toward electoral shellacking

As Richard Adams, the author of the beloved children’s book Watership Down, put it: “Bunnies … are like human beings in many ways.” This quotation popped into my head last week during the latest bizarre episode in the increasingly bizarre presidency of Joe Biden.

Fulfilling the ceremonial side of his job —the president is both head of state (like the British queen) and head of government (like the prime minister) —Biden was called upon to officiate at the annual Easter egg roll, a tradition in which children push an egg along the White House lawn with a long-handled spoon. Festivities include appearances by the president and the first lady, staffers dressed up in Easter Bunny costumes, and exhibits of elaborately decorated eggs. This would seem to be a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and certainly not any public relations danger. However, such a seemingly placid event failed to reckon with this administration’s painful and growing disarray.

For, as we have said here before, Biden has lost an intellectual step since the time I knew him during his frequent visits to Europe as both a senator and vice president. Stiff gaited, peering off into the horizon, and perpetually distracted, the president is a public relations disaster always waiting to happen. In this case, reporters started quizzing him about foreign policy, even as the president and the first lady were standing somewhat uncomfortably with a 6ft rabbit, supposedly a White House press aide, dancing next to them. While the rabbit and the children were raising their arms and dancing, Jill Biden whispered to the president to do the same. Bewildered, he followed her orders.

But even worse was to come. While officiating over the Easter egg roll, the president was asked questions about foreign policy by the White House press corps. Confused, he began to talk off the cuff about Afghanistan and Pakistan … only to be firmly led away by the rabbit, who may have forgotten what he was wearing but not his role as press aide — above all, do not let the president attempt to answer unscripted questions.

Writing this seems cruel, but it is surely not so. Rather, it confirms for many the fears that Biden is not up to the job. Worse, he wants to run for another term. The president, now 79, would be 82 at the time of his next inauguration should he win re-election. Nevertheless, acording to The Hill, the venerable newspaper of record for those around Congress, re-election is precisely what Biden is aiming at. They have gone on record with two sources saying the president told his former boss, Barack Obama, that he is indeed planning to run again in 2022, a prospect that sent shudders up the spine of much of the country.

The Real Clear Politics average of polling finds the president with a current job approval rating of only 41 percent, while a majority 52 percent disapprove of his performance. Given that the president’s job performance is the most reliable indicator to the outcome of the mid-term elections in November, the result looks set to be somewhere between a decisive defeat for the Democrats and an outright political tsunami.

Historically, first term mid-terms are always a trial for the White House, as the voters tend to experience a severe case of buyers’ remorse. For example, the Clinton administration lost a net 54 House seats in 1994, while even more Democrats (63 in net terms) lost seats at the 2010 mid-terms during the Obama administration. Given the carved-out safe districts put in place for both parties since, there is no chance the absolute numbers will be as bad for the Biden White House this time around.

Saying this, I have yet to find a single political operative who privately thinks the Democrats will retain control of the House, while the Senate (to my eyes) also looks like it will end up with slim Republican control. Loss of both chambers of Congress would surely signal the definitive end of the Biden administration’s domestic agenda in early 2023.

Of the many issues working against him, dramatically rising inflation is the most important issue to most Americans, putting the administration behind the policy eight ball. Rising to a stratospheric 8.5 percent in March, inflation is at its highest level since faraway 1981. Nor do the White House’s feeble efforts to blame price rises on Vladimir Putin seem to be working; significant increases were already in the works before the Ukraine war, which began only in late February.

Rather, the simple, unvarnished truth is that, at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, the administration miscalculated how quickly the resilient US economy would bounce back — over-egging the economy with an additional, gargantuan 15 percent in federal spending, even as the economy quickly returned to normal. The math is simply the math. Vast new federal spending is to blame for raging inflation. Despite his recent familiarity with bunnies, Biden will not be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat here; his mid-term electoral shellacking awaits.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Putin’s mistakes birth a new world order

There is little doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s miscalculations have birthed a new world order. At the strategic level, the Russian President is guilty of three fatal strategic errors.

First, his battle plan for invading Ukraine was far too byzantine, a fussy three-pronged assault that quickly bogged down partly as a result of this complexity.

Second, Putin didn’t believe that Ukraine was truly a nation, that the country (particularly its Russian-speaking eastern portion) would rally around its beleaguered government in Kiev, let alone fight heroically for it. In line with this, the Russian President had no idea that Ukrainian President Voldomyr Zelensky, frankly a bit of a failure in dealing with Ukraine’s daunting domestic problems, would prove to be a war leader of Churchillian caliber.

Third, the Kremlin did not count on quick and decisive Western support for Ukraine, embodied in the crippling sanctions imposed on a furious Russia, as the EU and Germany awoke from a generation’s strategic nap, rediscovering the seminal point that history has not yet come to an end, and that military might remains (and always will) a major tool of international relations, whether one likes it or not. These three dramatic miscalculations led to the failure of Russia’s blitzkrieg.

Crises clarify

The arch-realist Otto von Bismarck, as ever, put it perfectly, “When you draw the sword you roll the dice,” meaning that all sorts of unforeseen strategic consequences result when war is declared. War is the ultimate geopolitical crisis; they both change history and (even more importantly) illuminates history. War is the flash of lightning that suddenly makes the terrain clear to even the dimmest of analysts, such as those Europeans who have mocked a generation’s worth of pleas that they get serious about both military spending and having a sane energy policy.

For at the higher global geopolitical level, Putin’s failed gamble is also of the utmost importance, as it clarifies the great power division of the new era that we live in. On its own, the war in Ukraine has moved two of the great powers – the EU/Germany and Russia – from a neutralist position, and into (respectively) the US and Chinese superpower camps. Gone were the days of Brussels and Beijing strategically hedging as to their overall strategic orientation. The war reminded Europeans that freedom is not free; that it requires an autonomous military and energy policy, rather than merely free-riding (while often lazily criticizing) off the Americans.

But the war has also chastened the wounded Russian bear into being forced to wholly throw in its lot with China, as it has no other geostrategic options. Amongst great powers, there is now a clear alliance of revisionist autocracies (China and Russia) confronting a compact of status quo democracies (the US, EU, Japan, and the Anglosphere countries). While Washington is far from out of the woods, such a constellation of forces favors the West remaining the dominant political alliance of the new era. Ukraine has revealed all this, much as we have been saying for several years, in the past momentous time where (to paraphrase Lenin) the weeks have been where decades happen.

The West is newly united; the world is not

So far, so analytically good. But there is more ambiguous, even ominous news beneath this geopolitical headline. At the next layer down from the great powers, looking at regional power configurations across the globe, the West’s dominance is not the real story. Beguiling India, here, is the canary in the coal mine, illustrating that all is not well for the West.

Since the end of the Cold War, and with the subsequent rise of China, New Delhi has steadily drifted towards the American orbit. Shared fears of Chinese adventurism, exacerbated after Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013, have knitted the anti-Chinese Quadrilateral Initiative together, composed of superpower America, and great powers India, Japan, and the Anglosphere (Australia). New Delhi’s strategic fears were decisively confirmed when Beijing attacked India along their de facto border in the Himalayas in May 2020, a clear act of Chinese aggression. Before Ukraine, India has been increasingly confidently seen as fitting snugly in the US-dominated democratic great power camp.

But the subcontinent has a way of upending facile Western characterizations. Over the Ukraine War, New Delhi – despite a lot of American and European diplomatic pressure – has steadfastly clung to a policy of neutrality, refusing to castigate Russia for its obvious aggression. Strikingly, India (unlike Japan, the EU, and the Anglosphere countries) has not quickly and reflexively jumped on Washington’s pro-Ukrainian bandwagon.

There are numerous interest-based reasons for this strategic divergence. First, historically, India long sided with the USSR during the Cold War; support for Russia even after 1991 is a long-ingrained habit. Second, Russia remains New Delhi’s largest source of weapons imports, even as the US, Israel and France have gained market share. Third, an oil-hungry and energy-poor India has spotted the chance to obtain Russian oil and natural gas at bargain basement prices, as the US and UK energy blockade of Moscow comes into effect, and the Kremlin looks to divert its overall energy supply from a suddenly hostile West.

These basic points of national interest were all present before the Russian invasion, but it took the crucible of war for the world to see that maybe India was not yet prepared to march in lock-step with the American-dominated world, after all.

A complicated, multipolar menage awaits the West

Worse, from a Western perspective, India is not alone in disdaining the American lead. Significant regional powers in the Middle East (including traditional US allies Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, as well as usual suspect Iran), and outliers North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba and much of Africa, have studiously clung to a path of neutrality regarding the conflict. In fact, over Ukraine, it would be far more accurate to say that – while at the great power level the West is presently dominant and that it is united around a pro-Ukrainian policy over the war –the rest of the developing world, epitomized by emerging great power India, are far from being in the Western camp.

The good news for the West then, is that it is surprisingly united as the new era dawns. The bad news is that the rest of the world has yet to follow its lead. Worse still, the developing world’s two great power champions, China and India, while increasingly hostile to one another, share an antipathy for merely going along with the West in our new era. It will take realism, and a Bismarck, for the West to maintain its dominance in our new era. But it can and must be done.

This post was originally published on Aspenia Online.

Putin’s war casts a bright, cold light on a new geopolitical era

Crises clarify, and none more so than the tragedy of war. Wars sometimes directly change the geopolitical trajectory of the world. But they always, as a bolt of lightning illuminating the darkness, make clear the geostrategic landscape around us.

Crises clarify, and none more so than the tragedy of war. Wars sometimes directly change the geopolitical trajectory of the world. But they always, as a bolt of lightning illuminating the darkness, make clear the geostrategic landscape around us.

The seminal global competition of the age was a bipolar conflict between the world’s only two superpowers, the only two countries with a genuine global reach: the United States and China.

However, infinitely complicating things, beneath this overarching contest a series of great powers (unlike in the 1945-1991 Cold War) had a good deal of strategic autonomy, having it in their power to either side with one of the superpowers or follow their own independent/neutralist path.

Before the fighting, great powers Japan, India, and the UK/Anglosphere firmly sided with the US while the EU veered between neutralism and its traditional ties with America, even as Russia oscillated between neutralism and a junior role alongside China.

But war, as ever, has scrambled things, as geopolitics – so often glacially slow – has moved along at a torrid pace where recently weeks have felt like decades.

Three changes in the global order

With the coming of the war, three decisive geopolitical trajectories have changed at the global great power level. The wobbling of both Russia and Europe has come to an end, definitively ending their collective flirtation with neutralism.

First, a vengeful, humiliated, cornered, and economically threatened Russia now has no choice but to definitively side with China, needing Beijing’s help to economically survive the overwhelming American-inspired global sanctions put in place against it, and the effective weaponization of the dollar.

As we recently wrote here, for Putin it is better to be China’s junior partner – Robin to Beijing’s Batman – than to be isolated as an international pariah. So, Russia has moved definitively into Beijing’s superpower camp.

Second, and at the same time, the EU, shockingly, has at last awoken from its generations-long strategic slumber. Pivotal Germany has, incredibly, committed to re-arm (along with Poland and Sweden) which, if carried out in the medium-term, gives the continent the combined military dimension it has sorely lacked since the 1950s.

After years of former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s disastrous, somnambulant energy policy, leaving Berlin utterly dependent on Russian natural gas, painfully a new EU-wide approach to energy—at last taking security of supply into account—is in the works, with natural gas from the US, Qatar and Norway diluting Russia’s stranglehold on a heretofore-oblivious Europe.

Finally, and profoundly, after Merkel’s ruinous flirtation with mercantilist isolationist neutralism, the new government of Olaf Scholz is firmly back into the Atlantic camp, in a way that was unthinkable, even just months ago. The West, with US, Japan, the Anglosphere, and the EU all onside, has a decisive edge over the revisionist autocracies of China and Russia.

For those of us who prefer to live in such a Western-dominated order this is very good news, indeed.

And now the bad news

But there is more ambiguous, even ominous, news beneath this positive geopolitical headline. At the next layer down from the great powers, looking at regional power configurations across the globe, the West’s dominance is not the real story.

For while the West is united, the developing world is hedging over the Ukraine war, and its ultimate strategic orientation. Beguiling India – where Boris Johnson is making an official visit as we speak – is the canary in the coal mine, illustrating that all is not well.

Since the end of the Cold War, and with the subsequent rise of China, New Delhi has steadily drifted towards the American orbit. New Delhi’s strategic fears regarding the threat of Chinese adventurism were decisively confirmed when Beijing attacked India along their de facto border in the Himalayas in May 2020, a clear act of Chinese aggression.

Before Ukraine, due to their developing ties in the Indo-Pacific balancing against the common Chinese foe, India has been increasingly confidently seen as fitting snugly in the overall US-dominated, democratic great power camp.

But the subcontinent has a way of upending facile Western characterizations. Over the Ukraine War, New Delhi – despite a lot of American and European diplomatic pressure – has steadfastly clung to a policy of neutrality, refusing to castigate Russia for its obvious aggression.

Strikingly, India (unlike Japan, the EU, and the Anglosphere countries) has not quickly and reflexively jumped on Washington’s pro-Ukrainian bandwagon.

There are numerous interest-based reasons for this strategic divergence.

First, historically, India long sided with the USSR during the Cold War; support for Russia even after 1991 is a long-ingrained habit.

Second, Russia remains New Delhi’s largest source of weapons imports, even as the US, Israel and France have gained market share.

Third, an oil-hungry and energy-poor India has spotted the chance to obtain Russian oil and natural gas at bargain-basement prices, as the US and UK energy blockade of Moscow comes into effect, and the Kremlin looks to divert its overall energy supply from a suddenly hostile West.

These basic points of national interest were all present before the Russian invasion, but it took the crucible of war for the world to see that maybe India was not yet prepared to march in lock-step with the American-dominated world after all.

Worse, from a Western perspective, India is not alone in disdaining the American lead. Significant regional powers in the Middle East (including traditional US allies Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, as well as usual suspect Iran), and outliers North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, and much of Africa, have studiously clung to a path of neutrality regarding the conflict.

In fact, over Ukraine, it would be far more accurate to say that while at the great power level the West is presently dominant and that it is united around a pro-Ukrainian policy over the war, the rest of the developing world, epitomized by emerging great power India, are far from being in the Western camp.

The good news for the West then, is that it is surprisingly united as the new era dawns. The bad news is that the rest of the world has yet to follow its lead. Worse still, the developing world’s two great power champions, China and India, while increasingly hostile to one another, share an antipathy for merely going along with the West in our new era.

It will take realism, and a Bismarck, for the West to maintain its dominance in the decades ahead. But it can and must be done.

This post was originally published in Conservative Home.

Russia’s Ukraine war is China’s mixed blessing

There has always been one giant intellectual problem with a fully-fledged Sino-Russian revisionist alliance coming to challenge the present Western-dominated world; someone would have to be Batman and someone would have to be Robin.

‘The Batman Problem’ has always stopped these two great powers from fully coalescing into a cohesive alliance.

Yes, they share a hatred of the American-dominated world, as well as the urge to revise it into a more autocratic-friendly multipolar construct, where they are free to dominate their immediate regions: In the case of China, East Asia, in the case of Russia their ‘near abroad’ (the Caucasus, Belarus, and, above all, Ukraine).

Together in power terms, they alone jointly have enough geostrategic wherewithal to actually challenge the present order.

Russia, for all that it is overall a fading great power, has more nuclear weapons than any other country, and – following strategic reforms implemented after the Georgia War of 2008 – was seen as possessing an increasingly capable military.

In Vladimir Putin (and in direct contrast to the Tower of Babel that characterizes EU decision-making) it was also seen to have a ruthless, capable leader at its helm, one not afraid to deploy troops and take casualties, as he did in 1999 in Chechnya, 2008 in Georgia, 2014 in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and 2015 in Syria.

While Russia provided the military muscle, China was simply the world’s most important rising power, with an economy that has increased in size a whopping ten times since only 2000.

At present, only these twin autocracies in tandem pose any real threat to the established order. As both are also revisionist powers, their structural alliance was always a real possibility.

Also, in macroeconomic terms, an energy-ravenous, booming China beautifully complements a one-crop economy like Russia -along with the US, and Saudi Arabia/OPEC, one of the three global energy great powers – even as Chinese manufactured goods can fill the Russian market.

Earlier on, Russia’s sophisticated weapons export market also helped a rising China begin to catch up with a militarily dominant America, as Beijing provided Moscow with desperately needed trade.

So, for ideological, strategic, and macroeconomic reasons, the two seemed to be a geopolitical match.

Yet, practically, while the two did tend to side with one another over the past years, and while the chemistry between Xi Jinping and Putin is very good (oddly, the characteristically unemotional Xi often speaks warmly of their genuine rapport) a fully-fledged alliance has never blossomed.

Much as in the new era (up until the Ukraine war) the EU tilted toward the US while also flirting with a neutralism in the brewing Sino-American conflict – based upon a mixture of French Gaullism, German mercantilist isolationism, and general incoherence – Russia tilted toward China, while maintaining a certain geopolitical distance.

The reason for this is ‘The Batman Problem.’

For Putin’s too-often unremarked-upon domestic popularity (presently the latest independent Levada Center poll gives him a stratospheric 83 percent approval rating) is founded on his ironclad desire to ‘Make Russia Great Again.’

Following in the footsteps of his hero, Peter the Great, Putin has restored Russia to great power status after a weak tsar (Boris Yeltsin) left it a mendicant, even as he has shaved the aristocratic Boyars’ beards, in his case corralling the oligarchs who had run roughshod during the later shambolic days of Yeltsin’s reign.

However, as was true for the Russian Tsar, it is through the cauldron of war (in 2008, 2014, and 2015) that Putin has made it clear that, at least as a regional great power, Russia is once again a force to be reckoned with.

As a true believer in Great Russian nationalism, it was neither in Putin’s own biography or character, or in his political interests, to play second fiddle to China, as assuredly he would have to do in any ironclad alliance, giving the yawning differential in their power capabilities.

At best, Russia is a power on the wane, beset with intractable economic, demographic, corruption and political problems, while China is indisputably a rising superpower. For an alliance to work, Russia would have to play ‘Robin’ to China’s ‘Batman,’ serving as the weaker, less important player in any alliance.

Until the advent or Russia’s catastrophic miscalculation in the Ukraine War, this is something Putin desperately did not want to do, given his Great Russian Nationalism power base, as well as his own inclinations.

Historically, ‘The Batman Problem’ has caused the Sino-Russian alliance trouble before. Following the death of the (in Communist terms) revered Stalin in 1953, Mao broke with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over precisely this issue, no longer content serving as second banana to a USSR with a new, untested leader.

Simply put, Mao was happy to play Robin to Stalin, but not to his lackeys who succeeded him, given China’s own gigantic power potential.

Until Ukraine, the shoe has been very much on the other foot, as Putin refused to swallow the bitter pill that second-class status in any Sino-Russian alliance would make necessary. But that was before Ukraine.

Now, militarily discredited, economically beset by unprecedented sanctions (and with the real threat of the West turning off the natural gas spigots in just a few years), and an international pariah (at least in the West), Putin’s freedom of geopolitical maneuver is extremely limited.

His only real play is to join with China and challenge the present world order. But he is doing so as ‘Robin,’ to China’s ‘Batman,’ from a position of increased weakness. But, for China, at last, Ukraine has solved ‘The Batman Problem’ preventing a formalized Sino-Russian alliance, which will now come into force, very much on Beijing’s terms.

However, for Beijing, Ukraine’s re-ordering of the global power configuration is very much a mixed blessing.

On the one hand it is pleased that its superpower rival, the US, must now keep more military resources in Europe than it would have otherwise, tempering Washington’s ‘pivot to Asia,’ as China strives to expand its power in the Indo-Pacific. America no longer has the luxury of facing only one hostile, revisionist power at a time.

The biggest strategic benefit China and Russia gain from their joint alliance is perhaps that it frees both countries from the necessity of vast military deployments along their shared 4000-kilometer border. This allows Russia up to face Nato in Europe and China to face the US and its allies single-mindedly in the Indo-Pacific, while leaving this critical internal border largely unmanned.

But, far worse for Beijing, the European Union has awoken from its long strategic nap. As a result of the Ukraine War, economic powerhouse Germany has committed to re-arming after two generations, and Brussels (mirror-imaging what is happening in Russia) is firmly back in the western alliance camp, along with the US, the UK/Anglosphere countries, and Japan.

Gaining a quasi-neutralist Russia while losing a quasi-neutralist EU to America is not a good geopolitical outcome from Beijing’s point of view. While the Batman problem has been solved for China, its ‘alliance of autocracies’ is still very much the lesser force at the global level, to the ‘alliance of democracies.’ That is, if they can get their act together.

This post was originally published in Conservative Home.

Why History Matters for 21st Century Liberty

Introduction: Ideas are a very practical thing 

Too often in the modern world we separate ideas from the realm of everyday living, as if the things we were forced to learn in school have little bearing on life as it is actually lived.  

In the course of running a global political risk firm over the past 16 years, I can tell you that nothing is further from the truth. In fact, the success of our work is conditioned on one very important idea, which we put into practice every single day: History informs the world we live in, explaining where we are, and—equally importantly—where we are going. Cicero was right. To not understand history is to remain forever a child, unaware of how the world and human beings genuinely work. 

If history is necessary to make sense of human beings as they have actually lived, then to defend human liberty—perhaps the greatest gift that lived history has endowed us with—can only be accomplished if one can navigate the many perils of the world. Liberty must be protected from international authoritarian forces without, from domestic forces within, and—perhaps most dangerously of all—from the ignorance our current educational system has abetted, whereby whole generations of our future citizens have next to no knowledge about the history of the world that came before them. Consider this essay for the Liberty Fund—fighting the good fight on this crucial front—my modest contribution to winning this battle of battles.

Case Study Number One: The Russian invasion of Ukraine 

As a leading thinker of the realist school of thought in international relations, I can attest to the fact that one of realism’s greatest strengths is its admonition that it is absolutely necessary to ‘understand’ America’s enemies, using knowledge of their history to analyze, assess, and then best them. The question for realists is not ‘What would I do if I were in Castro’s shoes?’ but rather, ‘Given Castro’s history, what would Castro do?’ 

Over the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine my firm—almost uniquely—predicted the invasion would actually happen, ‘calling’ it in November to take place in February. The reason we got this right in political risk terms is not due to some mystical powers (though it can be argued that the Pythia of Delphi in Ancient Greece were the first risk analysts). Rather, it is our focus on history providing the magic elixir of analytical context that gives us our primary edge. 

One must take one’s authoritarian enemies seriously, understanding their biography in an effort to best them. In the case of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he largely means what he says and says what he means. While his intellectual touchstones are far from my own, by really understanding his biography his actions can be assessed in real-time, which is precisely what we did. 

Since surprisingly coming to power in Russia in 1999, Putin has often bemoaned the collapse of the Soviet Union, saying it amounts to the greatest political tragedy of the 20th century. When one considers the historical context of that blood-soaked comment–with tens of millions dying at the hands of monsters such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—to single out the demise of the USSR as a greater tragedy than say, World War II, is striking at best, and very odd at worst. Nonetheless, this is how Putin feels.

For the Russian dictator, the self-immolation of the Soviet Union left Russia humiliated, bereft, and an international laughingstock. Gone were the comforting, comprehensible days of Putin’s rise as an able KGB man in East Germany, when the USSR had been feared, respected, and treated as a superpower. Instead, in the blink of a historical eye, Putin’s comforting world vanished.

Everything he has done since is an effort ‘To Make Russia Great Again.’ Like his hero, Peter the Great, the present Russian Tsar wants to restore Russian prestige by resurrecting a very old, organic geo-political concept that has protected ‘Mother Russia’ for centuries, that of strategic depth. 

When Russia has been successful it has arrayed a series of satellite countries in front of it, providing itself with strategic depth as invaders have come on. In traversing the vast distances from their homelands through the satellites and then at last entering the vast Russian steppes, invaders have been swallowed up in the immensity of the country itself. 

Indeed, the defenders have three times (against Charles XII of Sweden in the 18th century, Napoleon in the 19th century, and Hitler in the 20th century) traded land for time, and then let the Russian winter do its fearful work. It is not odd or anachronistic of Putin to wish to re-establish either Russia’s great power status, or the strategic depth paradigm that underwrites it. 

Again, looking historically, the invasion of Ukraine is not an isolated event. Instead, Putin has been setting about this plan for the entirety of his time in power. He has restored traditional Russian influence in the Balkans. In saving the dictator Alexander Lukashenko from his people last year, he has made Belarus a firm satrapy of Moscow. Following his invasion of Georgia in 2008 and after successfully brokering an end to the Armenia-Azerbaijan war of last year, the Kremlin is back as the dominant force in the Caucasus region. 

Even the old naval base at Tartus has been reclaimed, following Russia’s successful intervention in the bloody Syrian Civil War. But the final piece of the puzzle, the jewel in the crown of any strategic depth strategy, must leave Moscow with a pliant Ukrainian client state next door, rather than the pro-western regime which presently exists there. 

As a convinced Jeffersonian, I certainly do not subscribe to Vladimir Putin’s Tsarist views; but as a political risk analyst informed by history, I do understand them. Better still, in understanding what Putin is trying to do America can best its authoritarian opponents around the world, by knowing and understanding them better than they know and understand us. But we can do none of this without history. Nor can liberty be defended from its many enemies unless we historically can come to know them.

Case Study Number Two: The Covid-19 crisis

During the past twenty years, I have lived all over the world; during this time, I have called Washington, England, Holland, Berlin, and Bavaria my home. But nowhere I have resided has been more delightful than Milan, where I presently spend my time. The cliches about Italy are true; there is a joy of life, a love of culture, history, food and style that makes it unique in the world, and a place for which I retain the greatest fondness. 

But there is a dark underbelly to life here, as there is to much of the Western Europe I know so well. Bluntly put, our Western European friends do not value individual liberty in the same way that we do. While certainly qualifying as democratic, Western Europeans are undeniably more statist, more bureaucratic, and more technocratic than any American Jeffersonian can countenance. Again, knowing history provides the key to understanding this domestic danger, and providing a rationale for combatting it. 

The Covid-19 pandemic struck Italy early and hard. Its response, like most western states, was that of questionable lockdowns, obligatory mask-wearing, and an alarming—and not much discussed—increase in the power of the government at the expense of the individual. Even in those early days, I quoted Dr. Franklin’s wise admonition that those who were content to trade their liberty for security deserve neither.

 But then the unelected Prime Minister of Italy (he serves at the head of a unity government), Mario Draghi, went a step further. His government promulgated the use of a green pass, without which one is not allowed to do the most basic things, like ride the metro, go to work, enter a restaurant, or have access to most of modern life. This pass was only bestowed upon a citizen if it did what the government told it to do; that is, be vaccinated multiple times for Covid-19. While I personally have chosen to be vaccinated, that is really beside the point; the Italian government set about de facto making it obligatory for its citizens to do what they wanted without de jure voting to do so. Armed with my historical understanding of the American founders, I came to see this as technocratic tyranny. 

So instead of using parliamentary open debate to discuss making vaccinations mandatory, the Italian government went around the democratic process, imposing the green pass by decree, a pass that is still (after all this time) necessary.

This gets John Locke back to front. Locke, the great English political philosopher lying behind Jefferson’s grand declaration, made it clear that belief in natural law means rights come from nature or God, and are inalienable to every human being. Particularly, the rights to life, liberty, and property (‘the pursuit of happiness’) are sacrosanct. Individuals, living in a common society, allow a common government to preside (based on popular rule), but do not cede the essence of their individual liberties to it. Rights, then, come from the people and are lent to government, not the other way around. 

Due to this, in Italy and much of Europe, the Green Pass ought to make free people everywhere very nervous. In essence, good technocrat that Draghi is (he used to run the European Central Bank), he is saying, ‘I know better than you about Covid-19 (a fact very much in dispute, given western governments’ doleful record during the pandemic); if you do what I say, and behave well, I will restore your liberty, as those rights come from the all-knowing government.’ Frankly, this is an abomination to any lover of liberty. 

But to know what is wrong with European technocracy, a knowledge of natural law theory is necessary, and to know this, knowledge of the specific history of John Locke is required. To think and to argue against such egregious domestic incursions against liberty, history is our mighty sword. 

Case Study Number Three: My interns and Cicero

The names have been changed here to protect the guilty. I have had the pleasure of working with many hundreds of interns at my political risk firm. In most cases the latent teacher in me (in a previous life I taught courses at St. Andrews University in Scotland and Johns Hopkins SAIS in Washington) emerges and I have greatly enjoyed the intellectual stimulation they have provided, just as I have hoped to start them on their way in their careers. But for all the pleasure, a nagging thought has increasingly come to disrupt my contact with them; bluntly put, many of the interns I have worked with have been shortchanged in attaining their education (despite the fact that most went to universities of great repute) and simply don’t know much of anything. 

This soul-destroying trend has gotten worse as the years have progressed. Finally, a while ago, after working intensely with three quite bright interns I was getting on with, on a whim, I asked them in a conference call if they could name five American secretaries of state. To my horror, none of them could. Silence ensued for at least a minute as I tried to think of what to say without howling at the moon. 

Finally, I managed to stammer out that if you were a chemist, you needed to know what a carbon atom was to be any good at chemistry. To be good at political risk, international relations, or foreign affairs—in precisely the same way—you had to know the basic history of the United States and many other countries, otherwise all you are doing is bluffing your superiors and fooling yourselves. Without censure (though I surely felt angry) I immediately demanded they go back and start reading the basics of the history of the West, before moving on to the rest of the world. 

Do not feel better by thinking this is an isolated case. Many years before in a high-level American foreign policy class at St. Andrews, precisely the same thing happened. Idealistic graduate student that I was, I agreed to teach a ‘Basics of 20th century American history course’ to these fourth years for free, merely because I couldn’t stand having discussions about foreign policy that were grounded in….well, nothing. 

More than Vladimir Putin, more than power-hungry governments (and all governments want to accrue power, just as Jefferson said) it is the acceptance of this ignorance of history that is the greatest danger facing the continued flourishing of freedom in the world. For if the next generation is unaware of how freedom came to be, what it has cost, the many threats to it, and how liberty can be safeguarded, then—as Cicero put it—they are doomed to remain children. 

We must stop giving students good grades when we are aware in our heart of hearts they know precious little; all we are doing is dooming our society to decay. For another abject lesson of history—as I wrote in, To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk–is that most dangers to societies come from within, that countries and liberty fade and fall because of decadence, accepting the unacceptable, tolerating the intolerable. 

For freedom does depend on knowing history. The greatest danger is to simply not teach the young the crucial context of why we are here, that the value of our rights is beyond rubies. In doing so, we tolerate them becoming barbarians, children who have no thought as to why the world is the way it is. It is up to us to do better. For my part, I am going to try.  

This post was originally published on Liberty Matters with the Liberty Fund

Scandal is a new danger to the Biden administration

The great Napoleon put it well when he said: “Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.” By this bracing yardstick, the adrift presidency of Joe Biden is dying every day.

Whether the issue is his failure to enact the whole of his ambitious domestic agenda, dangerous verbal gaffes over the Ukraine War, or loosing the beast of inflation on the unsuspecting American people, the White House is clearly on the policy defensive, a fact increasingly reflected in the president’s job approval numbers.

Despite Biden’s being shielded by an increasingly desperate American mainstream media, who serve as unbelieved apologists for the White House, the American people are not fooled in the least by what is going on; the Real Clear Politics average of polling puts the president’s approval rating at a lowly 41 percent, with 54 percent disapproving of his performance.

As this column has made clear, the best way to read US polling is to think of it as the temperature of the presidential patient. Denizens of Washington — from the lowliest legislative correspondent who answers the mail, to the Secretary of State — look at polls in the same way the rest of the country reads daily baseball scores: Avidly, voraciously, incessantly.

A Washington-insider rule of thumb is that if the president has an approval rating above 60 percent, so popular is he out in the country that he can largely tell Congress what to do, as was the case for Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Ronald Reagan in 1984. However, when a president’s approval rating plummets to the sub-40 percent level, the White House has to spend its time trying to squelch rumors that he is dead, so peripheral is his stature. With Biden just above this perilous number, he is struggling to remain relevant.

Even worse for Biden, beyond the listing domestic agenda, verbal miscues over Ukraine, and the rise of rampant inflation, a new danger to the White House has emerged, a long dormant scandal involving his son, Hunter. The Hunter Biden saga, a story the mainstream press managed to bury during the 2020 campaign, has once again reared its ugly head with news that the president’s ne’er-do-well son is being investigated by a Delaware grand jury for his murky tax and international business dealings.

At best, Hunter Biden has made an unseemly career of merely living off being his famous father’s son. For example, despite not having the credentials in the energy sector to be even an intern, he sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, making several million dollars for seemingly doing nothing. One assumes the company hoped to cash in on Hunter’s father’s position, otherwise there seems no logical reason for him to be hired. Worse, Hunter also engaged in murky work in China — America’s emerging strategic competitor — even hitching a ride with his then vice president father to facilitate business dealings.

A grand jury has been convened to investigate all this, plus his highly possible non-payment of tax. However, the trouble does not stop with Hunter Biden. Leaks from the grand jury’s work appeared in the British newspaper The Times and other reputable sources, confirming what Hunter’s former business partner, Tony Bobulinksi, has repeatedly said: Joe Biden was deeply involved in Hunter’s dodgy business dealings. Particularly damning is one email revealed by Bobulinski that says: “10 held by H for the Big Guy,” a reference to the percentage equity distribution in a venture with a now-defunct Chinese energy company. It does not take a mind reader to glean that “H” may well be Hunter, or who “The Big Guy” is, an obvious supposition confirmed by Bobulinski, who has been voluntarily cooperating with the FBI.

But far worse for the president is that during the campaign he made a number of barely-believable statements, at the time (incredibly) not followed up by the suspiciously incurious mainstream American media. When asked what, if anything, he knew of his son’s business practices, candidate Biden said that they had never spoken of them. I remember at the time yelling at my TV: “Never? Not at Christmas? Thanksgiving? Not when the kids get together? You never asked your son how his business was going or what he was doing in all these far-flung places?” This may have been my knee-jerk, logical reaction to such a likely misstatement, but again, incredibly, Biden was not called out on it. That is, until now.

Forced by the reality of the grand jury and a mountain of unseemly facts, the two great leftist American papers of record, The Washington Post and The New York Times, rather than calling the Hunter Biden story into disrepute as unfounded, have at last grudgingly admitted that it needs to be followed up — more than a year after the New York Post first ran the allegations. Conveniently for the Biden political team at the time, a scandal that might have affected the outcome of the 2020 election was buried. Inconveniently for them, like a vampire, it has risen from the grave, despite the best efforts of an in-the-tank American mainstream media. Look for this story to run and run, dogging the beleaguered Biden administration for years to come.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

The Tsar’s throne trembles – as the consequences of Putin’s war haunt Russia in the Caucasus

It is not too much to say that Vladimir Putin’s miscalculations over Ukraine have birthed a new era. At the strategic level, the Russian President is guilty of three seminal errors.

First, his battle plan for invading Ukraine was far too byzantine – a fussy three-pronged assault that quickly bogged down partly as a result of this very complexity.

Second, he didn’t believe that Ukraine was truly a nation, that the country (particularly its Russian-speaking eastern portion) would rally around its beleaguered government in Kiev, let alone heroically fight for it.

Third, the Kremlin didn’t count on quick and decisive Western support for Ukraine, embodied in the crippling sanctions imposed on a shocked Russia. These three dramatic miscalculations led to the failure of the Russian blitzkrieg.

But the war, far from making little geostrategic sense as much as the British commentariat presently opines – the very same people who blithely assured us that the invasion wouldn’t happen in the first place – is eminently explicable in realist terms.

Like his hero, Peter the Great, the present Russian Tsar wants to restore Russian prestige by resurrecting a very old, organic geo-political concept that has protected ‘Mother Russia’ for centuries, that of strategic depth.

When Russia has been successful in the past, it has arrayed a series of satellite countries in front of it, providing itself with geographic space as invaders have come on. In traversing the great distances from their homelands through the satellites and then, at last, entering the vast Russian steppes, the invaders have been swallowed up by the immensity of the country itself.

Indeed, Russian defenders have three times (against Charles XII of Sweden in the eighteenth century, Napoleon in the nineteenth century, and Hitler in the twentieth century) traded land for time, and then let the Russian winter do its fearful work. It is neither odd nor anachronistic of Putin to wish to re-establish either Russia’s great power status, or the strategic depth paradigm that underwrites it.

Again, looking historically, the invasion of Ukraine is not an isolated event. Instead, Putin has been setting about this plan for the entirety of his time in power. He has restored traditional Russian influence in the Balkans. In saving the dictator Alexander Lukashenko from his people last year, he has made Belarus a firm satrapy of Moscow. Following his invasion of Georgia in 2008 and after successfully brokering an end to the Armenia-Azerbaijan war of last year, the Kremlin was back as the dominant force in the Caucasus region.

Even the old naval base at Tartus has been reclaimed, following Russia’s successful intervention in the bloody Syrian Civil War. But the final piece of the puzzle, the jewel in the crown of any strategic depth strategy, must leave Moscow with a pliant Ukrainian client state next door, rather than the pro-western regime which presently exists there. That is why Putin raised the sword and rolled the dice; but in failing in his initial blitzkrieg, he has greatly endangered his other quasi-imperial gains.

In settling the Armenian-Azerbaijani war of 2021, Putin emerged as the kingmaker of the Caucasus. Its recent slide back to tension reflects the waning of Russian influence over the region.

The six-week war of last year over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh—an Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan that has been dominated for a generation by Yerevan—resulted in a surprising Azerbaijani victory. The bloody conflict (up to 6600 were killed) was dominated by Baku’s use of new technology, specifically Israeli- and Turkish-manufactured drones, which routed the antiquated Armenian forces. Much of Nagorno-Karabakh, de facto in Armenian hands since the 1990s, reverted to Azerbaijani control.

Before its traditional ally, Armenia, was wholly militarily humiliated, Putin jumped into the fray, organising a ceasefire, which was secured by Russia placing 2000 soldiers along the line of contact between the two sides during a cooling off period.

Further, Putin has cleverly managed the diplomacy so that both sides are beholden to Moscow, with the Kremlin emerging as the steadfast friend of Yerevan, and the newfound friend of Baku, traditionally the ally of Turkey.

However, with the Russian cat away, the local mice will play. Clashes on March 24th-25th occurred along the line of control, with Moscow accusing Azerbaijan of violating the truce. While both Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, and Armenia’s Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, agreed to peace talks brokered by Charles Michel, the EU Council President, in Brussels this week, it is likely the old great game in the region is afoot, as Russia’s increasing weakness is palpably clear to all.

Given their substantial losses in Ukraine, Putin has been forced to transfer troops away from its two sponsored, separatist enclaves in the nearby country of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for use as reinforcements in the current war. Surely Azerbaijan is watching like a hawk as to whether the Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh will be the next to go.

Traditionally allied to Turkey, perpetually wary of Moscow’s influence in the Caucasus, and supremely confident after their military victory of last year, it is clear that Azerbaijan is probing Russia’s commitment to the region, given the dumpster fire in Ukraine. With the modern-day Tsar’s powers ebbing, the rest of his satellite strategy for retaining its great power status is increasingly in peril as Baku clearly aspires to finish the job, taking the rest of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

Even in quiescent Georgia, which Putin dismembered following a short war in 2008, recent political tremors are indicative of Russia’s increasing weakness. South Ossetia, a small enclave in the north of the country of only 50,000 people, plans to take steps to formally join next-door Russia itself, to the strenuous objections of Georgia.

Anatoly Bibilov, the President of the breakaway republic, recently announced his intention to hold a referendum ‘linked to the window of opportunity opened in the current situation,’ meaning the Ukraine war. Given that the Russian-speaking enclave has strong historical ties to North Ossetia, already formally a part of Russia, a successful referendum outcome would be a foregone conclusion.

However, it is another symbol of Russian weakness, not strength. In essence, Moscow is engineering this gambit to bank its winnings from 2008, even as it is being forced to withdraw some of the 10,000 troops it put in place in both separatist enclaves following Russia’s successful prosecution of the 2008 war. As its power in the Caucasus wanes, today’s Tsar is trying to salvage what he can from Russia’s strategic depth strategy.

War always brings a myriad of unintended consequences. The strategic irony is that, in this case, even as Putin strove with a successful lightning invasion of Ukraine to complete his life’s work of restoring strategic depth for Russia’s defense, in failing he has imperiled the other satellites he has already managed to dominate. It is not just a pliant Ukraine Putin has lost. Indeed, as events in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia show, the whole Tsarist edifice Putin has painstakingly put in place is now in the greatest of danger.

This post was originally published in Conservative Home