Saturday, February 28, 2015

Boris Nemtsov

When I first met Boris Nemtsov -he was then in his mid thirties- in addition to his obvious intelligence, he also possessed a glamour, which was not just a function of good looks, but also the determined way he had become anti-Soviet. He had begun by leading protests in his home town of Sochi and had steadily progressed so that by the last years of Boris Yeltsin, he had become mayor of Nizhni Novgorod and was in the process of being brought into the Kremlin. As such he might have become part of the corrupt cabal that ultimately- and disastrously- led to the emergence of the Putin regime. Instead, he chose a path that was both more principled and as his tragic assassination today has proven, more dangerous.

Nemtsov spoke for the Western Russia, as opposed to the Scythian one of Stalin and Putin. He believed in rule of law and rule of the people and he held in contempt those who have subverted and stolen Russia for their own personal greed. Nemtsov was not merely a political critic of Vladmir Putin's regime, he was a moral rebuke to it.

His murder today is a tragedy for Russia. 

As always, the "mouth of Sauron", Vladimir Putin's dishonest and highly unsavory press spokesman, Dimitri Peshkov was quick to try to find some angle that might mitigate the damage to his boss, declaring that the murder was a "provocation" and that Putin himself would take charge of the investigation. I suppose that it is a bit like having a fox investigate a murder in the hen house, because the ease with which the assassins were able to escape in a place swarming with police is already pretty suggestive. Even if Putin himself is not individually involved, someone with significant pull in the security services of Russia very likely is.

Tomorrow, March 1st, Boris Nemtsov was scheduled to address a demonstration against the Russian war in Ukraine. he had been blistering in his condemnation of "Putin's war" in the Donbas. His assassination on the eve of the demonstration is significant timing.

Shooting the only major Russian opposition leader still at liberty in the back is clearly intended to underline the danger that liberal, western minded people now face in the dark and paranoid political ghost train of Vladimir Putin's Russia. Yet in a sense Peshkov is right- the murder of Nemtsov is a political message: that the regime is fearful and increasingly divided.

I fear that this cowardly, barbaric act is just another note in the symphonie fantastique of the economic, social and political crack-up of Russia. The damage of Putin's rule is now eroding every part of the state and the nation. The nihilism of the Mafia state may not stop with the opposition, but eventually, and sometime soon, the regime will start to feast on its own children.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The UK stirs...

After the Hollande-Merkel "peace" mission and Michael Fallon's "infelicitous" choice of words about the Russian threat to the Baltic, it seemed that British detachment from both its allies, including the US, and the burgeoning Putin crisis was growing. In fact, the lack of involvement by the UK in the Minsk-2 debacle now looks prescient. Meanwhile the British decision to provide direct military assistance to the Ukrainian government is controversial, but the in face of the dumb insolence of the Putin government it is a pretty small step, albeit one with potentially momentous consequences for the endgame of the crisis.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding the pressure of the Putinist lie machine and the further persecution of Navalny, it is becoming clear that the situation in Russia is deteriorating fast. Russia has chosen a direct challenge to the West, nuclear threats and all. However, the reaction from Washington and it now seems in London, is increasingly to call Putin's bluff. 

There has been cold fury in London to the overflight by Russian bear nuclear bombers, but in a way what is interesting is how understated the reaction has been, Cameron's comment, That the Russians were trying to "make some sort of point" was withering and came with the further comment that more sanctions were likely. Now of course the UK is set to provide the first  military assistance to Ukraine. The British have moved beyond sanctions and are now accepting that the breech with Putin's mafia state is probably irrecoverable for as long as the tyrant stays in the Kremlin.

Some will react with great concern at the potential for an acceleration in the conflict, yet the failure of the Russians to take any of the off ramps of the crisis, indeed to exacerbate the crisis at every turn with propaganda as well as with all out military aggression has ended global patience with Putin. It is the direct aggression of the Kremlin that is solely responsible for this war, and the laughable denials of Russian involvement have not altered the truth: this is a Russian war against Ukraine launched at the express order of Putin himself as an act of revenge against the Ukrainians who dared throw out a thieving and criminal tyrant.

The intervention of the United Kingdom is a drop in the bucket compared to the roughly 9000 Russian troops and all the equipment that Putin has sent into Eastern Ukraine, plus the troops he has used in Crimea. However it signals quite clearly that this is not now about sanctions. It seems likely that sanctions against Putin will indeed be tightened- and that prospective Putin allies, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary will also not be treated gently, witness the American comments about the current government in Budapest

Putin has acted in bad faith throughout this entire crisis, and the repeated lies now longer make him look like a strategic master, but a bare faced liar and untrustworthy negotiator. The UK is recognising that Russia will not abide by any agreement unless it is made to do so. Putin's honour is gone, and his campaign in Ukraine- including the bomb attacks in Kharkiv, that his agents orchestrated- now make him look despicable. 

The deployment of British military advisers is the beginning of a ramp up in pressure against Putin. In my view his regime is fragile and his position increasingly unstable. Time will tell, but by taking Putin's threats seriously for the first time, there is now the potential for them to be countered and ultimately ended.  

Friday, February 20, 2015

Are we in the prelude to a global war?

In his recently published book, Bill Browder gives estimates of how much Vladimir Putin has stolen from his Russian fellow countrymen. The number he gives is a truly staggering $200 billion. If this is even remotely true, it makes Putin one of the greatest thieves in human history. 

We already know that Putin is presiding over a propaganda machine that rivals and even exceeds the worst that Josef Goebbels presided over. The use of propaganda is sophisticated and relativistic- Peter Pomerantsev in his book "Nothing is True and Everything is Possible" outlines just how pervasive and evil the Putinist lie machine has become.

In the UK, the inquiry into the circumstances of the poisoning of Aleksander Litvinenko has revealed that the British government has clear and direct evidence that Russian government agents acting under the orders of "the highest authority" carried out the murder of Litvinenko, even though he was a British citizen, and the murder was carried out in the heart of the British capital. An act of murder that was intended to be an act of intimidation and revenge.

That Vladimir Putin is a warmonger is pretty much self evident. At his order, Russia has conducted open military operations against Moldova, Chechnya, Georgia and now, of course, Ukraine. Russian forces have been implicated in other conflicts- including in Armenia, Tajikistan, Kygyzstan Iraq and elsewhere.

A thief, a liar, a murderer, a warmonger. It is already an infamous record.

Yet worse seems certain to come.

Famously Vladimir Putin was assessed by his KGB handlers as having a reduced sense of danger. This sense of recklessness is allied to a ruthless perception of his own interests. He has not hesitated to use murder to achieve his goals. 

The agreement that Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel thought they had negotiated in Minsk has clearly failed. Far from halting the fighting, the Russian army has expanded its rearmament in Ukraine and forced the Ukrainian army to withdraw further, not just from Debaltseve, but now from Mariupol. Putin has continued to act in bad faith, even to the leaders of the peacemaking process.


There is now a consistent pattern of aggression and hostility from the Putinist regime. A pattern of bad faith and dishonour. There can be no doubt about what we are facing, and also little doubt that Russia, hostile and heavily rearmed, with troops practicing conventional and nuclear attacks against NATO is now a threat to democracy and freedom around the world. 

I believe the evidence is now quite clear that Putin intends to expand his war against the West and its values. He will not back down, and he will not stop, unless he is stopped. 

The failure, indeed the humiliation, of President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel in the face of the hostile intent of the Russian tyrant indicates that Russia no longer cares about what Europe thinks. The implication is that Putin is now prepared to launch open attacks directly against the West and particularly NATO.

The crisis is about to head into a far more dangerous direction. In fact, unless we arm Ukraine sufficiently to tie down Russian forces we could be facing a direct attack within weeks which will lead to a European or even a global conflict.

Vladimir Putin is already one of the greatest mafia dons- a proven liar, a proven thief on an historic scale, the author of state-sponsored murder. Some might say that his crimes- even his wars- are still on a small scale, yet in an afternoon a Putin ordered nuclear attack would make him the greatest murderer in human history too.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Fighting the last war

In the 1930s there were many heated debates about issues which in retrospect seem rather beside the point. The role of the League of Nations was hotly debated, but in the face of the unrelenting aggression of the dictators, the whole idea of peace-based policies fell apart in the face of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. There were many rational arguments as to why a second Great War was unthinkable: war itself had become the ultimate evil. Surely, no matter what the grievance, a rational and peaceful solution could be found? In the end such enlightened humanity lead to the disaster of Munich and the general slide to a second global conflict. Many reasons might be found after the event- the policy mistakes after 1918, reparations and so on, but actually the malign and festering sense of grievance that Hitler fostered in the German people was not a rational policy and led directly to the war. In the end, the tyrant launched a second two front war which led not merely to a second defeat for Germany but a total and unconditional defeat. The costs however were almost unbearable: the death of millions, the total destruction of cities across Europe and the end of a way of life that had survived in Europe for centuries.

And in the end all that had happened was that in Eastern Europe one tyranny supplanted the other, and for millions caught between Russia and Germany the tyranny of Stalin was as bad as that of Hitler. So the myth that the victors of the Second World War leave themselves is that it was all worth it because good triumphed over evil. Except in Central and Eastern Europe that was not true: evil triumphed over evil, and it was barely possible to tell who was worse. We are still paying the price for that self delusion today. We do not say that Soviet and Nazi are moral equivalents even though they clearly are, and this blindness allowed us to ignore the fact that Putin became an apologist for Stalin.

Now 70 years after the end of the Hitler war, another war is raging in Europe. It is not, as were the wars in the Western Balkans a matter of civil conflict, but an outright invasion. The Russian attack on Ukraine is illegal under all the rules that the world created after the fall of the Nazis. The United Nations was specifically created to prevent such aggression, but it cannot act, because at the very heart of the UN, Russia plots to resist condemnation or even discussion of its crimes within the Security Council. Russia seeks to subvert or browbeat any opposition to its power, and in its unrelenting violence it now quite closely resembles the Hitler tyranny. Laws are to be ignored, justice is a mere relative point of view, truth merely the words of the Tyrant.

It is sometimes said that when you compare someone to Hitler you yourself have already lost the argument. However for me, the problem is that the war that Vladimir Putin is planning for and practicing will make the crimes of Hitler look as paltry as the crimes of the Kaiser seemed compared to monstrosity of Nazism.

The nuclear armed bombers cruising off the English Channel last week are just the latest in a set of provocations that have become as routine as they have become outrageous. The Russian army exercises with battlefield nuclear weapons, The Russian air force breaks the INF treaty by dispersing their strike force and then practicing attacks against Sweden, Poland, Finland, the Baltic and the United Kingdom. The Russian navy practices the launch of strategic nuclear weapons. Diplomatically Russia has made it clear that it will not necessarily be bound by the nuclear arms treaties that the USSR entered into- and in any event is now in clear breach of the INF treaty, the Cafe treaty and quite probably the START treaty too.

The fact is that Vladimir Putin has the capacity to be a monster that would put Hitler or Stalin to shame- his reckless intent seems set to launch not merely a series of conventional conflicts, but potentially a nuclear conflict too. In a single afternoon Putin could kill more people than Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined killed in their whole careers of infamy.

Some would argue that in the face of this nuclear blackmail, we should retreat. However the fact is that even the most craven appeasement may not satisfy Putin. The most dangerous places these days are those that historically have been closest and most friendly to Russia. If the choice is slavery or enmity, it is pretty clear where free men and women should stand. The threats that Putin is making are not materially different from the threats of the Soviet Union, and our response should be precisely the same: stop Russian subversion and seal-off the territory they have seized in Ukraine and then turn the rest of Ukraine into the new front line: the West Germany of the Second Cold War. Offer assistance to all those who are ready to resist Russian aggression or subversion- perhaps even including Belarus, which is clearly seeking greater distance from the moral implosion of Russia.

Putin may be actively seeking conflict, but our response of fighting the second cold war should be determined. As the Russian aggression is being fought all out, so our response should be fought at all levels: propaganda should be answered with truth- including investment in Russian language media. Subversion should be answered with the expulsion of spies and economic sanctions; and aggression should be met with containment- including military containment.

If we want to avoid a replay of the 1930s we need to replay the 1950s.

The crisis is upon us, do we have the moral strength and the will to answer the barbarians at the gate?  

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

After Mariupol

Russia is refusing to back down in Ukraine.

All out military force is being used in order to support the declared Russian military objective that Ukraine be defeated and divided. Civilians are being deliberately targeted and the attacks on a major power station and other industrial operations is a clear attempt to destroy the Ukrainian economy.

Put simply, the Russian Federation is engaged in a huge act of aggression against a peaceful neighbour. Despite sanctions, and despite increasing economic weakness Vladimir Putin stands defiant.

In Britain, the evidence of state sponsored murder of a British citizen is now revealed and is both clear and overwhelming. 

Russia is seeking by overt aggression and covert subversion to attack the West. The astonishing lies put out by the Russian propaganda machine are feeding a frenzy of anti-Western hatred. Some countries- including Greece- have been severely compromised by a large scale and long term Russian espionage penetration. Russian espionage activity is higher than it has been at any time in history.

All of this is in support of a regime that is criminal to its very heart. Theft, murder, corruption on the widest scale in human history, backed by an unlimited greed and with no moral brake whatsoever. There are no rules that Russia will observe, there is no taboo- including the use of nuclear weapons- that they will not break.

In short Russia is a declared hostile power that intends to weaken or destroy both the EU and NATO. 

Once this critical fact is understood, it becomes very clear that the West must answer the threat from this barbarian state or risk following Rome into a dark ages of similar criminality and violence.

Firstly, after the escalation of the war by the Russian armed forces, all pretense that Russia intends to abide by any agreement not backed by force must now cease. In short, the time has come to give full military assistance to Ukraine. The equipment and training requested by the Ukrainian government should now be provided to enable Kiev to defend itself. Meanwhile warrants should be put out for the arrest of weapons buyers acting on behalf of the so-called rebels. Supply of such weapons comes largely from Russia, of course, but it will limit the deniability still available to the Russian army. 

Secondly, despite the fears of the impact on the EU of Russian economic collapse, the fears of the impact of war now loom far larger. Russia has launched a war of aggression that must be stopped and therefore this aggression must be met by sanctions that actually limit the freedom of action of the Putin regime. All out economic sanctions must be a part of this. The UK did not continue to trade with Nazi Germany after the outbreak of the Second World War, and neither should the West continue to provide any assistance to a government that is using all its energies against us. 

Putin is seeking through his spy networks, propaganda allies and all the unconventional forces at his disposal to blunt the response of the West. Some Quislings may yet appear, even amongst NATO allies, and we need to be prepared to deal with this possibility in the most ruthless terms. Nevertheless, Putinism must not prevail. The idea of the criminal state must not succeed and the democratic will of Europeans- including Ukrainians- can not be undermined by the thuggish criminality of the despicable bunch of murders in the Kremlin. 

Finally the time has come to publicly expel Russian citizens, including diplomats, that are working to support the espionage activity of the Putinist regime. Russia is already fighting a war against us, the least we can do is make that war more difficult to prosecute in Western capitals. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Next Coalition and the fight for Liberalism and Reform

The UK opinion polls are volatile and extremely difficult to read. it has become a cliche that the next election is both uncertain and very open. The only certainty is that the chances of a hung Parliament seem very high. In fact in the face of such uncertainty I can claim no special knowledge ahead of the result. Yet I think that there are actually some significant shifts which are now on the political agenda.

There is still a chance that at the last gasp either the Tories or more likely Labour can snatch a single party mandate under the current system. Nevertheless although Labour have an advantage in that it takes far fewer votes for them to win each seat, there remains the imponderable of what impact any SNP surge might have on their overall total. For what its worth, I think that, as in the referendum itself, and as so often before, the SNP confidence will prove highly misplaced, and what might be a quite promising result of -say- 15 seats will be deemed a relative failure and the bombast and economic contradictions of the SNP will make the 2015 election their high tide for at least another generation. So, in principle Labour are likely to have an advantage, should the vote, as the polls suggest, split pretty evenly. 

Yet the Tories also have some hidden strengths. There is credible polling evidence that the UKIP surge peaked in 2014, and the sustained attack on that party in the media is eroding their support. Furthermore, the evidence is that that in only a very few seats does UKIP actually look like a credible contender. Therefore it seems entirely possible that over the coming weeks there will be a swing-back to the Conservatives. Nevertheless, at no stage have the pollsters shown a Conservative lead that would allow them to match the structural Labour advantage under the current system. The Tories could win quite a few more votes, but still be behind on seats.


What then of the Liberal Democrats?

The latest polling surge of the Greens has pushed the party back into single figures, and on such numbers, no matter what the advantage of incumbancy and popular local MPs, the Liberal Democrats are on a knife edge. As in a series of council elections, in the Scottish and Welsh elections and in the European elections, the party may face very painful losses and in some areas possible obliteration. 

The implications of this in wider politics are far more profound than they may first appear.

Firstly, if the Lib Dems do not confound their dire poll ratings and do indeed lose more than half their seats, then it is going to be much harder to form a coalition, should one be needed after the election. The message to any other party-UKIP or the SNP, for example- that might be asked to join a coalition, is that there are huge risks to the junior coalition party. The novelty of the situation in 2010, would not be there in 2015- and neither would the immediate economic crisis, so the pressure would be less. It is also probable that a three-party or even four or five party arrangement could be needed, so clearly the negotiations would inevitably take a lot longer- and may not be successful which could lead to new elections or even far reaching constitutional change- a  subject for a different blog.

The second implication is for the Liberal Democrats themselves. Even if it would still be possible for a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition to continue in office after the election, I do not believe that it would necessarily happen. For the fact is that the agreed programme of the coalition -forged in the heat of an unprecedented economic mess- has in fact largely been executed. There is now ever less that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats can agree on- certainly not Europe- and unless full throated constitutional reform is on the agenda, the timid managerial brake on the Conservatives that Nick Clegg likes to think he supplies to mitigate Tory wrongs, is simply not enough for the Liberal Democrat members to give the leadership a mandate to rejoin a Tory-led coalition. If Mr Cameron emerges as the leader of the largest party in May, the most he can hope for from the Liberal Democrats is a confidence and supply arrangement. The options for a coalition itself would probably only be with whatever UKIP MPs get elected- and it may be less than a handful- and the Ulster Unionists.

What then of a Labour led coalition?

Once again, Mr Miliband- despite his own pretty awful personal ratings- has an extra card: The Scottish Nationalists have already said that they would only join a Labour, not a Conservative coalition. This is despite the fact that if the SNP are to make the breakthrough they already believe they have achieved (before a single vote is cast, let alone counted), it must come at the expense of Labour. A Labour-SNP coalition maybe possible, but it would be fractious, and given the SNP propensity for grandstanding, it could be unstable and volatile too.

Yet the personal relationship between the Liberal Democrats and Labour could hardly be worse. The Lib Dem leaders who actually survive the election- even those more sympathetic to Labour than the Conservatives- have endured five years of bruising, and often highly personal and unfair criticism from the Labour front bench. Some figures, such as Ed Balls, are held in little short of contempt by the Liberal Democrats because of their arrogant and duplicitous attitude towards the Liberal Democrats as a whole. 

Even if the Liberal Democrats emerge from the next election without the losses that the current polls must lead us to expect, it is clearly going to be difficult for the party to form a coalition. Clearly Nick Clegg will downplay these difficulties during the campaign, for to focus too heavily on these difficulties implicitly suggests the party is less of a contender and therefore less relevant to the final outcome.

Frankly, there are many ex-Lib Dem members who have already drawn that conclusion and so left the party. For myself, however, as a convinced Liberal, I see a new phase emerging in the battle for reform. There will be a need to recapitulate fundamental Liberal values and restate the ideological- not merely the managerial- relevance of the Liberal agenda of a reformed and open politics within a reformed and open society. That battle is already beginning, and whether or not the party forms part of any coalition in the next Parliament, we need to renew the Liberal compact.

Externally, Vladimir Putin and Islamo-nihilists, and internally, misused surveillance technology and unaccountable corporate and government interests, are creating new threats to the open society. 

The Conservatives, despite their drastic loss of members, have had no corresponding loss of funding: they have become the prisoners of a narrow and self interested corporate lobby. The Labour Party has lost its ideological soul and become the populist mouthpiece of state employed cronyism. It is not a wonder that the electorate seems poised to reject these two ugly sisters in unprecedented numbers.

The core Liberal agenda of diversity, anti-conformity and freedom is winning converts across wider society. It is something of an irony that only in the political sphere is Liberalism still a beleaguered ideology. The party needs to recover its emotional and intellectual zeal and to push back against the enduring threats of poverty ignorance and conformity and to broaden the sphere of freedom in our society.  

The Liberal Democrats are more relevant than ever. 

The battle for the renewal of the party starts now, ahead of the election. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Fighting the New Cold War

A piece in today's FT by Ivan Krastev, suggests that far from backing down, the Putinist government in Moscow may be considering stirring up trouble for the West on a new front: the Balkans. Given the nihilist Russian position on Syria, which has essentially destroyed that country, it is quite possible that Putin could meddle in the region, with some attempt to reward Serbia's more friendly position to Russia by dismembering Bosnia. Yet the economic crisis of Russia is causing a rapid erosion of Russian soft power, and the collusion of corruption, which Krastev identifies as the primary source of Russian leverage is dwarfed by the attractions of European integration. Although Russia is now seeking public spending cuts- with the glaring exception of defence spending, the economic situation in Moscow is looking increasingly bleak. That Putin has a weak grasp of economics has been obvious for some time, and thus he fails to understand the serious and permanent damage his policies are inflicting on his country.

Despite the major economic crisis that Putin's aggression has got Russia into, there is, as Adam Smith once said "a great deal of ruin in a nation". The crisis, as bad as it is, could take several years before it leads to a change of mind in the Kremlin.

Under such circumstances, the West must take Russian hostility and its attempts to disrupt the international order as the "new normal", and respond accordingly. Too many leaders in the European Union regard the crisis as one that should be circumvented, and the new EU representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini is either naive, deluded or corrupted if she thinks that this is in any way an appropriate time to restore friendly relations with Russia. 

As yet another military assault by Russia against Ukraine seems in prospect, and as the democratic government of Ukraine struggles with its own economic crisis, the West may find that the dismemberment of Ukraine leads to complete collapse, with consequences that could include the break up of the EU and even NATO.

In fact NATO offers the best template for the defence of Europe and Ukraine. After the division of Germany, at the hands of the Soviet Union, the West did not delay the reconstruction of West Germany in order to wait for some unity of Germany that only the USSR could provide. The Federal Republic of Germany was given Marshall aid and military support that allowed the country to become a power in its own right and in its own defence. Eventually the puppet state of East Germany collapsed and Germany was triumphantly reunited.

If we want that scenario for Ukraine, then we need to seal the border, in order to prevent further Russian incursion. It seems to me that making further Russian advance into Ukraine as costly as an incursion into Western Germany would have been will help to give the Artseniuk government sufficient breathing space to get to grips with the economic crisis. Clearly some major debt restructuring is required- and the assistance of further transfers from the EU and the USA will be critical to the prospects of the Ukrainian economy, as Marshall aid was to the German economy. 

The front line for the West is no long the Fulda gap, but the Airport at Donetsk. The new generation of European leaders must accept the same responsibilities as Adenauer, De Gaulle, De Gasperi, Schuman. Meanwhile in the United States, the same vision as Truman or indeed General Marshall himself is still very much needed.

Russia has become a rogue state, and its aggression against Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and its brutal threats against several other neighbours should make it clear that it is extremely dangerous to world peace. Although it is economically weak, as a result of the current oil crash, the incredible concentration of wealth into a few tens of hands has made the country the nexus of virtually limitless corruption. The enemy is quite clear. the problem is how to face the challenge that the lethal combination of malevolence, aggression and corruption poses to the open society on the Western model.

If we face a new cold war, we should take the lessons of the first cold war: good fences make good neighbours and shut down the Russian aggression in Ukraine.