Category Archives: War

Putin, Paranoia and Populism

Putin’s reckless and brutal invasion of Ukraine is looking increasingly like it has failed. It has certainly failed in the sense that a quick and relatively bloodless takeover of the country has not happened. Putin has made a massive error. The situation could result in military failure in Ukraine, possibly the break-up of the Russian Federation and for Putin personally, either death or the International Criminal Court in The Hague. On the other hand there could be some kind of eventual Russian victory and if so Putin could remain in power for years to come. Of course these are dangerous and uncertain times. We could end up having a nuclear war, or a random missile could shatter a nuclear reactor. The current situation is resulting in terrible suffering on a daily basis for the people of Ukraine. This week we have on show the best and worst that humanity has to offer.

The EU has found a renewed sense of unity, a spirit and an ability to cooperate and lead on sanctions and practical support. Ordinary citizens in Poland, Germany, Moldova and many other member states are opening their homes to Ukrainian refugees. The spirit of the Ukrainian people has been galvanized and in Volodymyr Zelenskyy they have found a leader who is inspirational, heroic and humane. In June 1940 Churchill stood up to Hitler’s overwhelming military superiority. Now Zelenskyy is standing up to Putin’s massive military onslaught, and he might yet succeed.

Putin embodies so much that is evil, bad and outdated. Putin’s background in the KGB trained him in the ruthless pursuit of the power of the state and preparedness to eliminate any opposition. As he rose to power he used a wide network of mafia style groups to exert power and create a class of wealthy oligarchs who bore him personal loyalty. The ordinary citizens of Russia remain remarkably poor, given that Russia is nominally a superpower. It is a hollowed out economy, massively dependent on oil and gas exports. It has a big military, yet Russia’s total economy is only about the same size as Italy’s.

Putin represents a real danger to peace and democracy everywhere. His influence is extraordinary. He has played a long game, destabilising and weakening western democracies for decades. He funded and backed the whole Brexit process from start to finish and he was instrumental in getting Trump elected. Many in the Conservative party have been financed by him and his network of fellow Russians, who have laundered vast quantities of money in London, and now own much of London’s prime real estate. (Do watch this video)

Putin has a long history of brutally suppressing any opposition. Climate and pro-democracy activists are frequently arrested and imprisoned. A few days ago a group of small children and their mothers were putting flowers outside the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow and they were arrested and imprisoned, with children as young as seven locked up and separated from their mothers. He has intervened militarily, for example in Chechnya in the 1990’s, Georgia in 2008, in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014 and in Syria from 2015 to the present. In recent months he has been propping up unpopular tyrants in Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Sergej Sumlenny, a former director of the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Kyiv, sees a Russian collapse as potentially imminent, and if this were to be the case breakaway movements in many regions of Russia would likely rebel against domination from Moscow. Much of the Russian military equipment is in poor repair, the invasion force lacks food and fuel, and the soldiers are unprepared, confused and poorly motivated. Morale on the Ukrainian side is strong and determined, and their equipment just about adequate to hold back the larger Russian forces.

On Twitter I now follow dozens of Ukrainian journalists, politicians and ordinary citizens giving excellent on the ground commentary. I also follow a number of academics well versed in the region and thoughtful in their analysis. Many on the left of politics in the USA and UK seem to attribute blame for Putin’s actions to Nato for what they see as it’s expansionist agenda. Janne M Korhonen is a Finnish writer and researcher at Aalto University in Finland, and his Twitter thread posted two days before the invasion I find a compelling rebuttal of this view. Putin’s motivation is primarily a fear and hatred of free open democratic government, and the striving for it in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Georgia and further afield, in Syria and globally. Tied-in with this is his dependence on oil and gas exports. He has been one of the key blocks against strong climate action.

Putin’s action has made all of Europe, but especially his neighbours, keen to strengthen their defences. The EU offers a very different model of governance. It does not have a single person or country leading it. It is a complex collegiate system with many countries, political parties and networks of empowered local and regional governments, linked together in collaborative structures. Traditionally the EU did not focus much on defence. In part this was because Nato existed to resist external threats, and partly because of a strongly held belief that negotiations and cooperation were the modern way forward.

Putin’s actions of the last ten days have changed all this. The EU is acting decisively and taking a leadership role. Biden is playing a role of background support, but it is the various institutions of the EU that are leading. The EU looks stronger and more united than ever. This week Ukraine and Georgia have both applied to join. Switzerland and Sweden have abandoned their traditional neutrality and moved more in-line with EU common action. Many people in Belarus and Russia would love a more democratic system, and to join the EU and to join in with action on the climate. All of that becomes possible for Russia and Belarus, but only in a post Putin era. That era may be sooner than many commentators think.

Putin is becoming ever more paranoid and delusional, as people who hold too much power for too long often do. Ben Judah argues that personalized dictatorships are more erratic and dangerous than collegiate autocracies. There are now very few if any checks and balances on Putin, allowing him the freedom to act on a whim, but increasing the number of people, possibly including some among the oligarchs, who would like to see him gone. The longer the war drags on, the more casualties and the more economic collapse occurs the greater the desire to end the Putin era is likely to become.

War & Peace

A missile crosses the night sky over Damascus

A missile crosses the night sky over Damascus

The UK is yet again intervening militarily in the Middle East. The actions this week in Syria are as unlikely to bring lasting peace to the region as our previous interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. Tensions with Russia are as bad as during the Cold War.  Theresa May ordered these current attacks without debate or a vote in Parliament.

The global armaments businesses are always looking for opportunities to battle test their weapons systems. There is a remorseless logic to the military industrial complex. A peaceful world would be the death knell for their business model. Many of our global political leaders see the world in frighteningly adversarial terms. Each military action ramps up the dangers of further escalation, and with nuclear weapons in the hands of unstable world leaders the prospect of total global devastation is all too real.

Can we envisage a more peaceful world?

There are parallels with action on climate change. Many people struggle to imagine how the modern world would function without fossil fuels. As I keep stressing in numerous blogs, technologically and philosophically a radically less polluted world is possible. The fact that the fossil fuel industry is forever seeking to sow doubt in this fact has greatly slowed progress. Likewise, a very much more peaceful world is possible. It requires politicians very much more strongly committed to cooperation and to building social solidarity. The military industrial industries seek to undermine such a worldview. When neither an ecologically sustainable future or a peaceful future are in the interests of certain industries it is time to change the economy that promotes such suicidal business models. To do that requires a different breed of politicians.

The European Union is far from perfect but it has probably been the greatest example of cooperation replacing conflict in human history. It is also leading the world in action on climate change. Local communities across Europe are cooperating on peace and sustainability through processes like the Aalborg Commitments. Ramping up such initiatives globally would be a vital step toward a better and more peaceful future. The UK should put itself at the heart of such a process, and of course the nonsense of Brexit needs to be reversed.

The UK has local elections on 3rd May. Issues like international military action and Brexit may not be the responsibility of local government, but they certainly effect all local governments in myriad ways. It seems to me that UKIP, the Tories and Labour are all wedded to an isolationist and adversarial mindset. Electing more local councillors from the Greens, Lib Dems, SNP and Plaid Cymru might be a way to open up a spirit of greater cross party cooperation and peaceful international cooperation and engagement. It would certainly be a powerful message on Brexit. Caroline Lucas is a voice of sanity on this latest attack on Syria, as on so much else. We desperately need more politicians like her at every level of government.

It often feels like we as individual can’t do much about huge global issues, from climate change to world peace, from hunger and poverty to biodiversity loss. Voting is one thing that we can do. Today, make sure you’ve registered to vote, and if your council is up for election on 3rd May do please vote. Of course to create meaningful change we need to do so much more than just voting, but voting does matter: one tiny step on the long road to a more peaceful future.

Politics: Violence & Hope

Norm Chomsky

I’ve just finished reading Norm Chomsky’s book ‘Who rules the World?’ He charts the development of American imperialist expansionism from the Founding Fathers, through the Monroe Doctrine to the ‘War on Terror’ and reiterates his view that the USA is the greatest sponsor and perpetrator of state terror. Much of what he says seems true to me, but he tends to overlook or downplay the imperialistic expansionism of other major powers, and the terror they inflict in their own spheres of influence. From China’s annexation of Tibet in the 1950’s to its current island building ventures in the South China Sea doesn’t look too different from America’s atrocities in Latin America and South East Asia. The best comparison is with Russia, whose continuity of territorial expansionism dates from the Sixteenth Century and has remained horribly unchanging through many Tsars, through the Soviet era and continues under Putin. A couple of weeks ago the BBC screened an excellent if terrifying documentary ‘Putin: The New Tsar’. One highlight was the contribution of Dr Ian Robertson on the psychological impacts of achieving too much power. In China President Xi Jinping’s personal concentration of power looks increasingly ominous.

Geopolitical rivalry between USA, Russia and China provides much cause for concern. On these blogs I always try and identify reasons for hope. My last blog was entitled Towards an Ecological Civilization. I am firmly of the opinion that most people would like a more peaceful, fairer and less polluted world to pass on to the next generation, but they are often at a loss as to how to get to this more hopeful outcome. So much of our media encourages fear and apathy, in part because they concentrate on reporting the rhetoric of the most divisive politicians. On this blog I try and encourage engagement and activism for a more hopeful future, and I will just stress three points.

The first is that countries can and do change. Think of Germany. Emerging from the horrors of the Nazi era it has remade itself as one of the most peaceful, responsible and best governed countries on Earth. I’ve blogged before about what Uruguay has achieved. Nowhere is perfect, but rapid and radical improvement is possible.

The second point is that the most interesting role models for positive change are often the least reported. So, while Trump’s idiotic pronouncements about energy make headline news I’ve never once seen coverage of the Danish District Heating Association, who continuously develop sensible practical solutions. More generally the Nordic Model offers so much more to learn from than USA, Russia or China, yet gets very much less press coverage. The world’s happiest and best run countries are the five Nordic countries: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. I’m just about to read ‘The Nordic Theory of Everything’ by Anu Partanen, which I think will be a much more cheerful read than Chomsky, and a much more practical guide to a better future!

The third point I want to make is about engagement and activism. If you feel something is wrong, where possible, don’t just bemoan the situation, get active with others and work on solutions. After the horrors of the latest mass school shooting in Parkland Florida it is heartening to see American youth organising the March for Our Lives. To reduce gun crime in American schools, or reduce American state terrorism, will require much effort, but don’t forget Bernie Saunders could have beaten Trump and that could have set America on a very different path. One worth striving for!

War, Atonement & Healing

Ken Burns

Ken Burns, whose documentary on the Vietnam War helps our understanding of it, so making possible atonement and healing.

Last night I watched another absolutely gripping double bill of the epic ten part TV documentary on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. They interviewed a thousand people and spent ten years making the series. Eighty of those interviews are included and they reveal the deepest feelings and thoughts of American soldiers, generals and anti war protestors as well as Viet Cong, South and North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, all reflecting on the conflict many years later. There was also a very powerful selection of contemporary footage. Quite the best television I’ve seen in years. The current deep divisions in American Society, exemplified by the support for and resistance to Donald Trump, have, at least in part, their origins in the divisions created by the Vietnam War.

Ken Burns talks about these divisions in American Society in an interesting interview in the Guardian. His film was intended to help heal the scars of Vietnam. Burns is optimistic that the institutions of American democracy are, and will continue to be, reinvigorated as they rise to the challenges that Trump represents. I hope he is right. In my darker moments I fear USA is teetering on the verge of civil war.

An interesting parallel exists with Germany and how they came to terms with their own dreadful responsibility for Nazism. In West Germany there was a deep period of self reflection in the decades following the Second World War. This laid the foundations for their very sensible and mature style of democracy of these last seventy years. In communist East Germany there was much more of an institutional and personal denial of guilt, responsibility being shifted onto the capitalist west. The recent election results in Germany mirror this history, with support for the racist AfD strongest in the former East Germany.

All warfare inevitably involves atrocities by all sides. People are traumatized, and often brutalized, by the experience of war, as some of the interviews in Ken Burns documentary show. They commit acts that are essentially insane. The period of healing, for individuals, nations and for our species is long and complex. At the core of it is recognising the horrors of our individual and collective histories. If we fail to acknowledge and take responsibility for them, we are much more likely to repeat more conflict, warfare and collective insanity.