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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Present Truths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece was originally published in Conservative Home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece was originally published in City A.M.

Putin’s 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.

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

Biden has only himself to blame for Gulf hesitancy

As I can attest to from my Washington days, the art of alliance management is a tedious, dreary process. Much as is true of personal friendships, alliances between countries require both parties to see but overlook the flaws in one another, all in the cause that, on balance, the link is worth it. Or, to put it in realist terms, the only thing worse than having allies is not having allies.

Further, both personal friendships and alliances require patient, endless tending; like gardening, it is an endless process. Bursts of energy and attention are not enough to sustain an alliance. What is necessary is a patient, long-standing effort to look at the common interests between countries, looking for where they can work together, while at the same time minimizing interest-based differences so that the alliance does not turn toxic, becoming endangered. Worst of all, alliances cannot be taken for granted; if they are, the neglect inherent in this mindset will come back to bite the neglectful country.

When Joe Biden came to the White House, the necessary, unglamorous art of alliance management was exactly the sort of thing he was supposed to be good at. A foreign policy veteran, as a legislator he had long served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the select group overseeing America’s international relations. Doing the hard, grown-up heavy lifting inherent in alliance management seemed to suit the new president’s temperament and, more, his biography.

So, it has come as a shock that Biden’s frenzied efforts to craft a new energy policy in the wake of US energy sanctions levied against Russia have run into a brick wall, with allies the UAE and Saudi Arabia apparently shunning his entreaties of the need to pump more oil in an effort to lessen the looming global supply shock that is a consequence of the war in Ukraine. Practically, these two countries can uniquely quickly ramp up production, making up for the Russian exclusion. That they have yet to do so speaks karmic volumes — not about the merits of Biden’s “ask,” but about his diplomatic neglect of these two traditional bastions of America’s global alliance system.

In 2021, the US imported nearly 700,000 barrels a day of crude oil and liquefied petroleum products from Russia, about 8 percent of its total oil imports. While it is far less dependent on Russian energy than its European allies, this not insignificant total is sure to send US energy prices higher in the short run. This is particularly devastating for the White House in that inflation is already an alarming 7.9 percent, the highest rate in 40 years.

Biden’s economic team made a fundamental error in throwing too much public sector money at the COVID-19 crisis, even as the US economy bounced back stronger and more quickly than expected. As former Clinton era Treasury Secretary Larry Summers made brilliantly clear, you cannot increase federal spending by 14 to 15 percent of gross domestic product without triggering seriously higher rates of inflation. All this was happening even before the global energy supply shock that is a consequence of the Ukraine war. This is the context that sent a complacent Biden off to ask Saudi Arabia and the UAE for immediate and dramatic help in increasing global energy production to cushion the US from this foreseeable blow.

That the two countries have not been immediately receptive is reportedly a consequence of having been taken for granted throughout the Biden presidency — his neglect of alliance management has come home to roost. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been alarmed at the Biden White House’s headlong rush to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal with Iran. Their concerns have fallen on largely deaf ears, as the US moves close to reviving this disastrous deal.

Second, both the Saudis and the Emiratis were angered by the withdrawal of the US’ terrorist designation status from the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, who are fighting government forces backed by both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Further, the Saudis want more American support regarding the war as a whole. To put it mildly, this has not been forthcoming from the Biden White House, which seemingly cared as little about the core Saudi interest as it was passionate about the Iran deal.

Third, in trying to (somehow) sideline US relations with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Biden White House fundamentally misunderstands how the Saudi system works. In neglecting, ignoring and taking the Saudi and UAE alliances for granted, Biden is reaping what he sowed.

At last aware of the damage done, White House officials are scrambling to set up a visit by the president to Riyadh to try to calm the waters as he pushes for greater oil production. There are indications that the UAE is now open to such an increase. But, to put it mildly, it is a bad time to ask an estranged friend for help, after neglecting that very relationship in the first place. It is the price Biden pays for failing at alliance management.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Defence and security. If the Germans can rid themselves of their sacred cows, then so can the British.

In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway famously said that people go broke “gradually, then suddenly.” History works like this, too. For long periods of time, things continue along a well-travelled analytical path, where little happens, and little changes. Then in a bolt from the blue – gradually, then suddenly – more is altered in days and weeks than has been the case for months and years.

So it is with the Ukraine crisis, as the tectonic plates underlying how the world works are shifting quickly. The EU and Germany are a case in point. For decades, by far the easiest political risk call I made involved Brussels and the major European states over-promising and under-delivering.

That was due to the basic structural fact that, despite having one of the world’s largest economic markets, the EU perpetually punched below its potential strategic weight. Economically sclerotic, militarily impotent, and strategically confused, Brussels almost always amounted to less than the sum of its parts. As I often said during political risk speeches to my clients, my predictive call record has never been hurt by betting against the European Union.

Germany, as ever, lay at the root of Europe’s problems. As Henry Kissinger has sagely pointed out, the structural tragedy for Germany is that it is too important a country merely to be one of a series of great European powers, and too small a power to dominate the whole of the continent. After World War II, this old German problem manifested itself in a new, intractable form. Germany, following the abject horrors of Nazism, simply took a holiday from history, one that the other exhausted European powers initially encouraged.

But, as generations passed, and the continent’s economic motor showed no signs of waking from its strategic slumber, what had provided a respite for the world increasingly became a very large problem, as without real German strategic engagement in the wider world any sort of common EU foreign and security policy was bound to be stillborn.

Over the past 20 years, during my time running my own global political risk firm, I have headed to Germany literally scores of times. Arrestingly, during these two decades, the issues discussed with its governments have never changed. In the case of Germany, rather than solving problems, bringing them up became a sort of fruitless mantra, a repetitive catechism that was merely invoked, but absolutely never acted upon.

Could you spend an appropriate level of GDP on defence?”

“Impossible, given our peculiar history and the pacifist leanings of our people.”

‘Can you lessen your addiction to Russian natural gas, which accounts for a debilitating 35 percent of your total–skyrocketing to over 70 percent if the mammoth Nord Stream 2 pipeline comes online?

“Impossible, our gas imports are an economic, not a strategic, concern, and we have a shared and tragic history with the Russians.”

‘(Sigh) Let’s meet next year.’

And so the intellectual merry-go-round went round and round, a string of reasonable strategic questions being unfailingly met with the word ‘impossible.’ Betting against Germany and Europe was the easiest strategic call out there. Until, all of a sudden, everything changed.

For German strategic culture has altered more in the past ten days than in the past 20 years. Suddenly every strategic ‘ask’ I ever made has all come to pass, with the newly-minted Prime Minister, Olaf Scholz, obliterating 16 years of do-nothing Merkellism in a blink of an eye. At last alerted to the longstanding fact that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a revolutionary power, intent on undoing the post-Cold War strategic outcome, Germany acted, and with wholly uncharacteristic speed.

Nord Stream 2 has been suspended, and is de facto dead. Germany (it wasn’t impossible after all) has agreed to spend the NATO-required two percent of GDP on defense, and has allocated a 100 billion euro defence budget to upgrade its antiquated weapons systems. Every European now finally sees that the purpose of NATO remains vital and unchanging, life insurance in an historically dangerous world. With strong German backing, the EU has agreed to collectively buy defensive weapons, and then given them to the hard-pressed Ukrainians. Germany (and thus, Europe) has awoken from its long strategic nap.

Conclusion: the UK Must Follow

Brexit freed the UK from the clutches of a strategically clueless EU. But what has it done with its newfound independence? John Bew’s analysis for Boris Johnson got the country off to the correct geo-strategic start; the new era is indeed going to be characterized by great power competition.

But speed and strategic clarity also matter. In the time it took Bew and Johnson to recognize the glaringly obvious, drilling down to the operational level (the tactics informed by an overall strategy) has proceeded at a glacial pace.

It is not nearly enough to say that great power competition characterizes our age. The next vital step is to name who the great powers on the chessboard are, and what the arena is that the contest will be played in.

Again, Bew and Johnson are correct in that the Sino-American Cold War – a superpower competition for primacy – is the overriding strategic fact of our age. They are also correct in that the Indo-Pacific is rapidly transforming itself into the world’s pivotal region, where most of the world’s future economic growth as well as much of the world’s political risk come from.

So far, so good, but not enough. For the great powers just beneath the superpowers – who maintain a great deal of room for independent strategic manoeuvre – must also be taken into analytical account. Here is the hidden good news for both the West and the UK, particularly after the momentous events in Ukraine, which have seen a hardening of this evolving strategic picture.

While a wounded, vengeful Russia is now firmly a stooge to superpower China, Robin to Beijing’s Batman, all the other great powers line up firmly in the western-dominated order. Russia and China must contend with the US, India, Japan, and a repurposed EU, as well as Britain and the other Anglosphere countries. The very good news is that the emerging basic power structure of the world favors the UK and an order we can all happily live in.

Practically, this more accurate look at geo-strategy lends itself organically to some practical policy outputs. If even the EU can throw off its shibboleths in a matter of days, now is the time for the Johnson government to do so in the matter of hosting and cosseting Russian oligarchs, as London has shamefully built a pin-striped ecosystem of lawyers, accountants, and PR consultants who allowed the de facto laundering of pilfered Russian money as well as the laundering of reputations for Putin’s cronies.

It is not for nothing that the capital is nicknamed ‘Londongrad.’ This must come to a stop, not in six months, but immediately. If the Germans can throw off their sacred cows, so can the British. It is not impossible.

But at a deeper level, what is required is a rapid change in British strategic thinking. Britain’s calling is to lead the Anglosphere, a great power almost no one has given nearly enough thought about. It must shift its gaze to the dominant Indo-Pacific region. Britain can become a vital player on the world stage, the closest ally of the world’s ordering superpower. If Britain does all this quickly and decisively it will emerge as a major force in the dominant new great power coalition. It is all in Britain’s grasp, but it must do that hardest of things; it must act fast and keep up with history.

This post was originally published in Conservative Home.

Ukraine is the victim of Europe’s refusal to wean itself off of Russian gas

Either you master history or history masters you. Decades worth of political risk analysis can almost always be boiled down to this aphorism.

In the case of Europe’s dealings with Vladimir Putin, rather than mastering history, Europe has vainly tried to take a holiday from it; we’re now watching the doleful results.

First, let’s dispense with Prime Minister Johnson’s speculation that the Russian President is somehow an “irrational actor”.

While his methods are odious, there is nothing in political risk terms regarding Putin’s strategy that strikes me as remotely irrational. Forget the smoke and mirrors about Ukraine’s possible NATO expansion; Putin knows this is not going to happen in his lifetime, if at all. The real reason for Russia’s aggressive actions could not be either more organic or reasonable from the Kremlin’s point of view.

Putin, in his Peter the Great Tsarist pose, wants to restore Russia’s strategic depth, the force that has been the cornerstone of the country’s strategic playbook for the past 300 years.

Mother Russia managed to see off wars of annihilation with Charles XII of Sweden in the 18 century, Napoleon in the 19 century, and the Kaiser and Hitler in the 20th century, all by trading land for time. Surrounded by pliant client states, Russia’s leaders let the invading armies march into the vastness of their country, all the while waiting for time to pass and Russia’s game-changing winter to come. Rather than being irrational, this has formed the basis of a very successful strategic orientation since time immemorial.

With the demise of the USSR, all this was lost, as Russia was weak, led by the chaotic Boris Yeltsin, and NATO expansion proceeded ever closer to Moscow. Upon taking over in late 1999, Putin has made it his life’s mission to restore Russia to at least great power status, even if it will never play in the superpower league as the US and China. To do so, the plan is to restore the country’s lost strategic depth.

This Putin has begun to do. Russian influence in the Balkans has grown, even as Belarus and the Caucasus states (following the Azerbaijani-Armenian war) are now firmly in Moscow’s orbit. But Ukraine remains the jewel in the crown of the strategic depth strategy, for without it in the political fold, as Putin himself remarked in his national address, hypersonic missiles can strike Moscow in just minutes time.

So, Putin looks around, and what does he see? He sees a distracted America pivoting to the Indo-Pacific, where much of the strategic risk is a contest with China and much of the economic reward of the world’s future growth are both lodged.

Then he turns to the EU, and he sees absolutely no threat. The EU is economically sclerotic, politically divided, and militarily impotent. Above all an isolationist Germany, the economic motor of the continent, is addicted to Russian energy, getting over one-third of all its natural gas from Russia. With the addition of the mammoth Nord Stream 2 pipeline this economic dependence was set to become servitude. It is hard to expect the Germans to be tough with anyone who can make them very cold in the winter.

There have been warnings about this for decades, which predictably fell on deaf ears. In political war games I did to help the EU grapple with its energy dependence on Russia there was a predictable outcome: Europe needed to diversify its gas imports, taking more from Norway, Algeria (Europe’s other two major suppliers) as well as Qatar and the US. I was profusely thanked for my efforts, paid in a timely manner. And of course, nothing happened.

If the UK truly wants to “do something” about Putin, even at this late date, it must join with Europe in crafting a dramatically new energy policy, where the sources of supply are finally taken into primary account in political risk terms. The UK has avoided the Russian energy trap, getting less than five percent of its total from Putin. It can and must team up with a befuddled Europe, looking at an energy plan that does not castrate the continent, particularly when it is necessary for it to stand strong in relation to the Kremlin. Putin’s adventurism is not irrational; Europe’s energy policy is. 

This post was originally published in City A.M.