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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Russian Sovereignty and the Fearful Nation

All nations have red lines which must be respected.  When nations fail to respect the integrity (whether historical memory or physical borders) of nations then we have conflict and inevitably it is this failure to appreciate red lines that escalates past the point of confrontation into military conflict.

In Western Europe and the USA we have failed to acknowledge Russian history and it is this failure of ours that has created the latest crisis in Crimea.

Sevastopol has been the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet since 1783. We study history to understand and we would hope, to learn from the past. When Hitler invaded Russia in Operation Barbarossa he opened up an Eastern Front that stretched from Estonia in the North down to Crimea in the South. That invasion was along the entire borderline of Western Russia – a distance of some 2,000 kilometers.  According to Nazi Germany’s “Generalplan Ost” or the “Master Plan for the East” first the Slav’s deemed racially ‘acceptable’ were destined for enslavement (Germanic people would colonize the Central and Eastern European territories) and the rest would be murdered.  So nearly all Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Serbs, and Croats – in fact most of Central and Eastern Europe, was to be ‘cleared’ of what the Nazis called “Untermenschen” or sub-humans.

Russia has a long history of conflict, war and conquest.  If this is viewed as expansionism then Napoleons’ invasion of Russia, the Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Russian Civil War and the Second World War are all poignant reminders that even if Russia wins, in terms of casualties it always loses.

When empires collapse they usually leave the centre intact. The mother (or father) land retains its sovereign, national home.  Russia’s fatherland is a multi-ethnic federation.  When we disregard history, for whatever reason, we fail to appreciate that even a nuclear armed Russia can be vulnerable and therefore can fear for its safety.  With the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia has seen its empire disintegrate and its closest allies defect to the European Union.  Why then do we ignore the Russian suspicion that both the Western world and Islamic forces desire the disintegration of the Russian Federation?

Again, I do not understand why we in the West assumed that the coup d’état against the legitimately elected ruler of Ukraine would be acceptable to Vladimir Putin?  Diplomatic intimidation has never worked with Russia.  It is only the perception that Russia was and is weak that could have tempted the West to support the Ukrainian coup.   The choice for the West was understandably going to be Yulia Tymoshenko.  She served as Prime Minster in 2005 and again from December 2007 until March 2010.  She not only wanted to join the EU but also NATO. Statements she made indicated her wish to abrogate treaties the Ukraine had with Russia.  The Russian Black Sea Fleet would no longer enjoy access to Ukrainian port facilities and security protocols would be drawn up to both guarantee Ukrainian independence and to block “Russian Expansionism” – as Tymoshenko saw it.

The journalist Nahum Barnea wrote that “Ukraine is a failed state, slowly, inextricably crumbling due to rampant corruption and ethnic and religious tension.” Former President Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010, defeating Yulia Tymoshenko. Yanukovych rejected a proposed agreement for closer ties with the EU (in November 2013) and what followed were protests that were centered on Kiev. As the civil unrest spread across the Ukraine the specter of civil war grew with the casualties. President Yanukovych fled to Russia in late February 2014. He left behind a 340 acre Estate with its own palace that was packed with priceless treasures.  So he was a gold plated thief who seems to have stolen wholesale from his people. But he was Putin’s gold plated thief and he opposed whatever Tymoshenko the Capitalist believed in.

If we truly understood Russia then the best case scenario is Ukrainian neutrality and Russian indirect authority over its neighbours.  The USA and Europe can continue to confront Russian power or they can engage in and create a practical compromise by which all parties gain confidence and long term security through military de-escalation and economic and social integration. But this will only occur if a buffer is created between Russia and its perceived antagonists.

We cannot continue to seek to contain Russia as if the Cold War had moved eastward into the Russian Federation itself because it is clear that under those conditions Russia will fight back. The only beneficiary in this latest conflict is going to be the world’s other superpower, China, which can happily watch as Europe, America and Central Asia descend into another bleak period of uncertainty and instability.

Global economic dislocation has created opportunities to realign superpower interests. After the fall of the Soviet Empire the world was briefly held together by US unipolarity.  It may not be a bad thing if Russian intervention in Ukraine has forced the EU to re-consider its role in global affairs.  It has rarely demonstrated a position that differed from the USA because its economic and political interests were congruent with American interests. And Europe would have been the primary beneficiary in any diminution of Russian economic power because of its proximity to and its geographical accessibility to Eastern Europe.

In “Syria, a Russian–American failure” (29/6/2013) I wrote that “Big Power cooperation would cause others to pause before interfering militarily, and may even constrain the colonial ambitions of other nations.” My criticism was then, and is now that “this is an area where America has failed to grasp an historic opportunity to create a strategic partnership with Russia ….. Cooperation rather than competition (between the USA and Russia) is the only way to defuse tensions….”

Détente between the two great nations could mark the next transformative stage in global international diplomacy.  It would lead to peaceful cooperation between former enemies and it could lead to less robust Chinese expansionism in the South East Asian region.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Crimea a Game of Lost Opportunities

I attended the debate in the House of Commons (the British Lower House of Parliament) on 18th March 2014 as the honorable members debated the Russian Anschluss. Technically, the political union between the Crimea and Russia is a work in progress but with the issuance of passports for Crimean citizens already talking place the administrative protocols are no more than an ongoing technicality.

It might sound from the above that I am against this unilateral move by President Putin and I am, but only because of the unilateralism of the current Russian machinations. They neither encourage détente (perhaps they were never meant to) nor do they bode well for future pan European relations which must put Russia at its centre stage in spite of it being geographically peripheral.

In fact geography is the only means by which we can afford to describe Russia as somehow peripheral! Russia is central to Europe and Asia. It is the largest country in the world, (considerably more than double the size of contiguous USA), it is the world’s 9th most populous nation (143 million people), and the 8th largest economy in the world (2 trillion dollars). Militarily it is the world’s 3rd largest defense spender ($91 Billion in 2012) which even so, amounts to 4.4% of its GDP. It retains the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

I provide the above because on a superficial level we cannot ignore Russia or feign concern for its difficulties or its history. And yet, the British debate on the Russia – Ukraine crisis has been facile, shallow, and insincere. If it was possible to do so, it has created greater animus between Russia and its acolytes on the one side and the Western World, on the other side. And while the incipient nature of this reinvigorated Cold War should not deter us from trying to find a way out of the mess that has been created, it is truly frightening to observe the pack mentality displayed by the press, by Western governments and by our British parliamentarians. 

That debate I witnessed in London displayed near unanimity of condemnation accompanied by bluster and threats of sanctions against Russian interests in the UK “Let him (Putin) feel the cold wind of isolation” said Ben Wallace MP. Future historians will refer to those parliamentary deliberations as borderline racist incitement.  Almost every speaker referred to the “Russians in our schools” and “the Russians buying up our London properties” etc.  This came from British MP’s, both Left wing and Right wing.  The Shadow Leader of the House, Angela Eagle threatened to “hit the oligarchs in their pockets” and opined that “Russia is acting out of weakness”.  It took a conservative member of parliament to be the sole voice of verbal restraint. Sir Edward Leigh MP first explained that he was not a disinterested party, that his wife is Russian Orthodox.  Nevertheless he reminded his fellow MPs that the Ukraine is “an extraordinarily divided country.”

The President of Russia is portrayed as a caricature.  Vladimir Putin, the former KGB colonel is portrayed by the media as the neighborhood bully, an uncivilized street thug and either dismissed as a joke to be deprived (unsuccessfully) of media attention, or feared like a lunatic.

Russia is a country with a complex identity and I identify three principal attributes to that identity: nationalism, orthodoxy and autocracy.  Religious identity (orthodox) has never returned to its 1917, pre revolutionary popularity. If Marxism-Leninism was the new orthodoxy post 1917 then what may have replaced it post 1991 was alcoholism and loss of national status.  Alcoholism is Russia’s biggest killer. The world is in a process of rejecting internationalism even as we embrace the global economy. So nationalism is increasing, which as a source of identity is problematic but only if it becomes jingoism.  And global identity politics are going to be the source of increasing international tensions as the global economy expands. Russia has rarely if ever known anything aside from autocratic government.   The threat of conflict is used to consolidate national identity and to suppress opposition to unpopular policies that are not in the interests of a free economy, free speech or political and social pluralism.

So why would we think that abusing the leader of the Russian Federation is the right way to encourage dialogue with that leader?  Russia does have legitimate national interests in Ukraine even if its recent conduct over Crimea is regarded as revanchist and therefore illegal. People are comparing Putin to Hitler and Crimea to Czechoslovakia in 1938.  This is wrong.  The Sudetenland is neither Crimea nor is it Sevastopol. Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolph Hitler did not bring “Peace in our time”, nor will all the bluster from President Obama for the USA and the European Union’s foreign policy leaders.

I am not condoning Russian misbehavior in the Ukraine nor its nuclear threats against the USA.  But we are not offering anything like a realistic path to future peace, or even an opening gambit to engagement.  Our response is panicked, ill conceived and ill thought out.  That should worry us all.

With instability in the Near East creating the potential loss of Russia’s naval facilities at Tartus (due to the ongoing Syrian civil war), Russia may potentially lose its only military facility outside of the former Soviet Union. Tartus is Russia’s only Mediterranean facility. Therefore Sevastopol takes on greater significance as the only other stock and repair base on its Southern flank.

The possibility, even suggestion, that Ukraine could join NATO or become part of the European Union was never going to sit well with Russia. Memories of war may  have receded into the distant past for us in Western Europe and for the USA but those memories inform Russian thinking and therefore remain central to its geomilitary strategic policy.  Just as the US would not tolerate missiles on Cuban territory in 1962 so it is infantile to consider that Russia would happily embrace a potential Western military presence in its strategically important underbelly.

Instead of wooing Russia and nurturing the relationship we have jumped in without considering that Russia is still a superpower. We neither appreciated Russian history nor offered any alternative to the threatening scenarios that were on offer.  If we anticipated compliance we returned instead to insecurity and fear.

In a world of increasing tensions based on irreconcilable but competing, too often clashing community interests, we have also alienation and unemployment.  And they breed twin demons of xenophobia and hate, chaos and despair.

Instead of economic assistance to Western Ukraine (in terms of sheer size Ukraine is huge) I would offer both Western and Eastern Ukraine a free-trade Zone following Hong Kong’s example.  Sevastopol is the home to both the Russian and Ukrainian Black Sea Naval Fleet. It is Russia’s only warm water port. (Odessa, while part of the former Imperial Russian State, is now part of Ukraine and Yalta is not a naval base).  While the example of the sovereign city-state of Singapore is a poor example of a possible solution for Sevastopol, it is possible for two nations to share the administration of an autonomous city particularly one that is both strategically and geopolitically so important to Russia.

Suspicion and mistrust are byproducts of bad faith initiatives.

Instead of intelligence our leaders have fallen back on old world rancor. It seems that strategic policy initiatives are an ‘after-the-fact’ crisis management tool. My fear is that we seem to have reverted to pre-21st Century methods of dealing with international conflict as if nothing that happened in the last century taught us anything.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Education and Pop Culture

News reporting is usually politically subjective and rarely does it convey any depth of information. It should not be a surprise to anyone that we then discuss current events without possessing either knowledge or familiarity, except perhaps through popular cultural references.

One of the issues that society faces is the competition between ‘high-culture’ and what is derogatorily referred to as ‘low-culture’ in what is traditionally viewed as two opposing sides to the class war.  What is problematic is that Pop-culture legitimises a reductive approach to everything.  It decomplexifies the irreducible to a sound bite. When an English rose twittered that Barraco Barner was our President (the UK has a Prime Minister and his name is David Cameron) and asked why we were getting involved with Russia (!) she was simply demonstrating her lack of knowledge.  Ignorance has an appeal to many. If we discount the trolls that abused our internet lass, we truly live in a world that celebrates it. To many people the claim that we are ‘dumbing’ down society is contentious because it assumes a judgment on taste that remains relatively static or is complex. To the critic of high culture the simplification of cultural values nullifies class distinction.  My fear is that if you give em what they want and they are happy with what they have, ‘doing’ it cheap is fine, except that ‘cheap’ is too often a by-product of exploitation.  In a degraded society people who are easily satisfied are as easily controlled by government.

We are living in an age of unparalleled communications and this excited mass of electrons surging around us soaks us with a shower of enormous amounts of knowledge. That knowledge floats around us, through us and over us without really giving us any insight into its significance. And here is the problem. Without a basic grounding in history and geography the world truly is just around the corner and over the next hill. 

Unless we are grounded in knowledge of our past we cannot understand  the present and because we live in a world of transparent borders there are multiple ‘presents’ from which to choose.  It is part of the reason that our contemporary identities are diverse but for many people, fractured.  People who believe themselves to be above history have no identity to define them and will seek out a new one. Often it is they who are vulnerable to extremism because the ‘soul’ is a book whose blank pages we may choose to drench in wisdom or soak in poison. Too often, it is those people who have an opinion and given the opportunity to spread knowledge, subvert knowledge instead with their sullied enthusiasm and their bullying tactics.

Knowing history is the key to unlocking the reason behind events as they unfold.  Understanding the geography behind the development of societies and nations creates the background for understanding history.

But we live in a world of some 200 countries and each has its own story. It does not mean that we cannot try to understand but if a lifetime does not prepare us for knowing everything there is to know then certainly twelve years allocated to our full time education must be treated with care and respect. And yet, education is something that we abuse constantly – we use our children as objects of experimentation; we study them as much as we study the subject matter to be taught.  A change in the education system creates a generation of children whose education is disrupted.  Systems regularly change.  New books are not the result of greater knowledge but too often the result of political interference. And they cost tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds in publishing costs, the cost of withdrawing text books, and training because often the teachers must be taught a new truth.

If our education system is an exercise in Social Darwinism then logically, private schools will always win out over state schools if only because they have reduced class sizes. This enables greater focus on creating understanding.  State schools are temples to mass-production and so, they will always fail the majority of their students. Education is Darwinian competition in which case, perhaps we are phrasing the debate badly.  Society has become such an expensive beast to maintain we inevitably defer consideration of the outcome of the education debate to a mythical future time where resources may magically become available and meanwhile, we experiment with our children’s future.

From time to time we ‘go back to basics’ which means we strip off the accumulation of current social fashion that surrounds our education system, we endeavor to teach our children in a way that actually makes sense and delivers results that benefit both our children and society.  It is when we add layers of complexity that we lose sight of the child we are meant to be educating.  Part of that process seems to have been lost so long ago that I do not know if we can ever regain it.

We teach history and geography, the two cannot be separated; geography defines us and it is the bedrock onto which our history is built. For instance the major economic powers of the modern era have all been served by extensive water based transport systems.  The ‘Cradle of (Western) Civilization’ arose within the perimeters of the Fertile Crescent, an area of rivers and marshlands.

But what we teach is suitably banal – it does not assist us in understanding our world better or prepare us for future confrontations.  The enormous diversity that is the source of so much of our inspiration as well as our conflict can teach us greater tolerance but only if that knowledge is taught without censorship.  It is not possible to appreciate even a basic understanding of the world around us if we have only partial familiarity with the facts.  But this is the way that propaganda is delivered.  Why do we fail in our responsibility to educate? In part it is fear.  What history should we teach and why? Do we teach about Mohammed the predatory prophet and his legacy of conquest? Is King David’s adultery relevant? How do we teach the sexual oppression of women throughout history? Why do we not teach that slavery was a global institution and that almost thirty million people are enslaved even now? At what age do we teach children about war, and which ones? Define a moral war, in which case, who defines an immoral war?

Our history frames our identity. If we have a secure identity then no question will be so difficult we cannot respond to it.  We create a human encyclopaedia by building layers of understanding and not by throwing thousands of pages of unrelated garbage together and then expecting the child to sort through mountains of detritus.

Our education system has provided us with a generation that idolises inanity; that worships the mundane.  ‘Hello Magazine’ and the latest batch of reality TV shows are what drive society.  And that is a frightening fact.  It is frightening because it leaves the management of people in society to those who manipulate reality: entertainers, journalists and politicians, media managers all.

We as a species are supposed to continuously develop as human beings.  But this generation has given us insights into the cosmos without progressing in our understanding of humanity. The education system is failing society. Knowledge and understanding should give us purpose, and with purpose, hope for a better future. Here, overwhelmingly, lies our present failure.  We continue as if the last few centuries were not numerically, the bloodiest in human history.  If our education system does not help us to understand why things happen in the world how can we avoid further human conflict?