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.

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.

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

As it defies Putin’s pressure, Britain should back Kazakhstan

Shrewd, knowing, screen legend Marelene Dietrich put it well when she said, “It’s the friends you can call up at 4m that matter.” Having just emerged from its own crisis, the government of Kazakhstan has – to the surprise of many – answered the world’s wake-up call.

Despite its close ties to Russia, it has steadfastly refused to align itself with Moscow over the Ukrainian war, instead neutrally offering its offices to broker a peace deal, even as it refuses to recognize the two breakaway Ukrainian provinces, Luhansk and Donetsk, as separate countries as the Kremlin desires. Instead, Kazakhstan has called for Russia to consider dialogue and peaceful settlement of the war, noting its close ties to both belligerents.

To put it mildly, this is not what Vladimir Putin expected to happen.

Going even further, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the Kazakh president, has decisively stated that he is cooperating with Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in coordinating humanitarian programs, while at the same time urging Putin to consider an immediate cease-fire.

In wisely stating that “a bad peace is better than a good war”, Tokayev has somehow kept his country’s traditional, multi-vector foreign policy intact, stressing Kazakhstan’s strategic autonomy despite the immense pressures of a war next door.

However, in turn, Kazakhstan has recently sent London a middle-of-the-night wakeup call of its own. How it responds will condition the UK’s relationship with this pivotal, resource-rich state, and the whole of the strategic Central Asian region, for decades to come.

Kazakhstan has had many achievements over the first 30 years of its independence. With its first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, at the helm, the country embarked on a programme of strong economic reform and (as a consequence) enjoyed sustained growth.

Equally importantly, Nazarbayev fashioned a true multi-vector foreign policy (with Kazakhstan keeping Russia, China, and the West at arm’s length) despite living in the rough and tumble geostrategic neighborhood of Central Asia. In so doing, he safeguarded Kazakhstan’s strategic autonomy, despite long odds.

Nevertheless, violent riots erupted in the country on 2 January, tragically claiming over 200 lives before they were quelled. While the immediate cause of the disturbance was a rise in fuel prices, the underlying reasons for the unrest also included income disparities, crime, and extremism. Obviously, there is a clear need for further economic reform (moving definitively toward a post-Soviet, market-based economic model) and tackling income disparity, while addressing poverty alleviation and battling corruption.

Yet, as so often is the case, the events of January 2022 are in danger of being grossly misunderstood by a British foreign policy establishment who would rather feel good than do good. In this case, two bastions of old-style, brain-dead, Wilsonian thinking, Chatham House and Dame Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP, have reflexively called for sanctions against Kazakhstan, willfully ignoring what is actually going on in the country.

In the case of Chatham House, in a recent report they admit that the chaotic events of January make it hard to justify specific sanctions on the country due to the violence that occurred. Instead, they confusingly and nonsensically base their preference for sanctions as a policy response on the very income disparity that the Tokayev administration has made it a priority to alleviate.

Disregarding the strategic opportunity that the reformist government of Kazakhstan represents, Chatham instead adopts the usual, dreary paint-by-numbers approach to its domestic upheaval.

As for the scandal-plagued Dame Margaret, the old adage about glass houses and stones would seem to apply.

Rather than discussing her own massive peccadilloes – ranging from making $100 million from the sale of her family’s industrial conglomerate, STEMCOR, in Belarus to China, or to address her horrendous disregard for the horrific abuse of children in Islington’s children’s houses while leader of its council from 1982-92 – somehow, some way, she has the nerve to find Kazakhstan worthy of her moral disapproval.

Instead of seeing further developing ties with Kazakhstan as Britain’s strategic partner in Central Asia, the serially tone-deaf Labour politician is looking for redemption in all the wrong places.

Yet beyond the immediate crisis and the unthinking, censorious comments of its detractors, there is significant, deceptively good political risk news emerging in Kazakhstan. First, despite 30 years’ worth of worries about the durability of the Kazakh state itself, it came through its trial by fire, with the country’s integrity and cohesion never in doubt even as the disturbances raged.

Kazakhstan as a political entity has proven itself to be a genuine, organic country, with a genuine sense of nation and nationhood.

Second, in acting decisively and resolutely in the crisis, Tokayev has made it absolutely clear that he will direct the country’s revived economic reform programme, tackling the very practical underlying issues that people in Kazakhstan most care about, regarding inequality, corruption, and fuel prices.

Moving beyond the first era of Kazakhstan’s independence, it behooves the UK to be part of the second chapter in the country’s ongoing saga. Proposed British sanctions take none of these political risk realities into account, and would only heedlessly damage the UK’s interests.

Kazakstan is doing precisely what every foreign investor has been dreaming of (given its tremendous economic potential and boundless resources of coal, uranium, cotton, and copper), by stabilizing the economy and society. It is committed to maintaining its multi-vector foreign policy, just as the West has great need for friends in Central Asia following the chaotic American pull-out in Afghanistan.

For instance, Kazakhstan has the world’s 12th largest proven oil reserves (approximately amounting to 30 billion barrels), with oil output trebling since 2001, to 1.8 million barrels per day, and going up. Given the grievous need for Europe to find new, safer sources of supply, Kazakhstan amounts to a vital future oil source for a West sorely in need of energy diversification.

Also, in energy terms, Kazakhstan’s uranium will be badly needed as the nuclear industry may experience a renaissance, given the need for clean energy and more, for energy coming from stable, pro-western countries.

Instead of ostracizing Kazakhstan, it is entirely in the UK’s interests to diplomatically ‘lean in’, supporting Kazakhstan’s government. It would seem obvious (though sadly it is not) that when a longstanding ally, through the pressure of overcoming internal crisis, is committed to doing precisely what London urges it to do, more strategic support is both the proper and the practical foreign policy response, not less. It is past time for London to answer Dietrich’s proverbial 4AM phone call.

This post was originally published in Convervative Home.

We must stop pretending the EU is a great power

This is a tale of two delusional think tank meetings I have recently attended, illustrating how far gone is most political risk analysis regarding the status of the EU. Cheerleading has taken the place of thinking, as the simple fact is that Brussels is funding many of the supposedly independent observers at such conclaves. To expect critical thinking from “experts” whose financial imperatives revolve around keeping the EU’s mandarins happy is to expect too much.

At the first meeting, I found myself sitting on a panel with an American Wilsonian. He was representing the Democratic Party view of US relations with China, while I represented the Republican Party view. After a good discussion, questions came from the primarily European audience. The first revolved around the fact that the questioner wanted to know where the EU fits into the strategic picture of the Sino-American cold war, as wasn’t it so that Brussels must be counted as the world’s third great superpower?

Even though it was a Zoom call, my Wilsonian counterpart — whom I agreed with over almost nothing — and I exchanged ironic glances. Finally, for all his innate pro-EU inclinations, he brutally told the questioner the truth: The EU, while a trading superpower and a huge internal market, simply doesn’t play at the global strategic level as a great power (let alone a superpower), as it is less and less economically dynamic, is endemically politically divided and is militarily (other than France) impotent. In the shocked silence that followed, I quipped that I wanted to cede all my time to my Democratic counterpart for having the temerity to tell the brainwashed audience the truth — that the EU simply isn’t a great power.

If this is so, my second think tank meeting focused on the nub of the problem: A mercantilist, neutralist, isolationist-leaning Germany. In standard fashion, the German think tank denizen sent to debate me made all the usual excuses; while I am right to be critical, Germany (in that most galling of phrases) “would now do its homework,” easily overcoming a generation’s-worth of historical and empirical evidence to the contrary, and would decisively right its ship of state over the coming months.

Exasperated, and tired of the analytical lying at cocktail parties, I brutally interjected that the reality is that Germany would do nothing over the next year and change nothing, as its people prefer their cosseted lifestyle (and genteel decline) to the real sacrifices that would be involved in paying for a relevant military and crafting a common European foreign policy. I was met by hateful stares and a sullen, unchallenged silence, for what could they say, given the last decades of Berlin’s holiday from history?

Crises intellectually clarify, even for the most obtuse observers. Two recent challenges to Brussels from the world’s revisionist powers, China and Russia, ought to make plain that wishful thinking has taken the place of facts-based political risk assessments of an EU that is so much less than meets the eye.

First, tiny Lithuania — to the fury of Beijing — has decided to favor Taiwan in the crafting of its foreign and economic policy. China responded by putting pressure on Vilnius and defying the EU, particularly Germany, to do anything about this. While in the past few days, the EU launched a legal action against China at the World Trade Organization (WTO) after Beijing restricted or blocked imports from and exports to Lithuania, Berlin responded precisely as I would have predicted — that is, in a neutralist, isolationist, mercantilist manner — and not as EU cheerleaders would have it. Glumly aware, as an export-driven superpower, that China, for the fifth year in a row, is its largest export destination, Germany is pressing Brussels to tone down its criticism of China and to de-escalate the controversy.

Major German companies, particularly carmakers heavily dependent on trade with Beijing, have warned Vilnius that they will pull out of Lithuania unless the dispute is quickly settled. For, despite all its usual blather about how much the EU means to it, when push comes to shove and with its now economic interests on the line, Berlin has seen to its commercial interests  at the expense of European unity.

Likewise, over the Ukraine crisis, in a basic way President Vladimir Putin is airing his grievances. As such, in the earliest days of the crisis, Moscow met with the US, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, not with the EU.

Why should he? In practical terms, Moscow met great power to superpower (the US), with the world’s most important military alliance (NATO) and with the largest gathering of transatlantic states (the OSCE). The EU simply does not play a major role in strategic terms; for Putin to prioritize meeting with Brussels would have been a colossal waste of time. While a shocked Brussels looked impotently on (and I am shocked that they are shocked), Putin made it clear that, in a crisis, the EU simply does not have the relevance its cheerleaders dream of. Nor is this state of affairs likely to change.

Instead of swallowing comforting, if delusional, fairy tales about its far-flung importance, it is time to analytically shout from the rooftops the obvious: That the EU emperor simply isn’t wearing any clothes.

This post was originally published in Arab News.