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Reflections on the War in Ukraine. Louis Capstick

The End of the Beginning


(Oxford, 31st March 2022)


‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’


Winston Churchill, 1942


Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is the most momentous geopolitical flashpoint of this author’s lifetime, the ramifications of which are still beyond the scope of calculation. The conflict (in reality an escalation, albeit an enormous one, of a war that began in 2014 and never ceased) has dragged on for over a month at the time of writing, with no clear end in sight and no obvious exit plan available for either side. The key thing to remember here is that we do not and cannot know if the carnage in Ukraine will turn out to be a local conflagration or just the foothills of a larger war, one which will undoubtedly involve NATO. The threat of WMDs, the hideous scale of Putin’s war crimes, the increasing desperation of the Russian military and the strategic untenability of a Russian victory for both sides all seem to suggest the latter is a distinct possibility. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz unambiguously declared on the 24th of February that peace in Europe is incompatible with a Russian military presence in Ukraine. The similarities with 1939-45 are obvious and terrifying: historian Victor Davis Hanson points out that the phrase “World War II” wasn’t popularised until December 1941, when America joined the war in both the European and Pacific theatres. Up until that point, Hitler’s blitzkrieg and the Japanese campaigns in Asia were seen by most as regional conflicts motivated by regional political factors. Only looking backwards can we see the causal links between Poland and the fall of Berlin; between Manchuria and Nagasaki. Too few decision makers at the time realised they were stumbling into a global battle. Fewer still saw how the reverberations of that conflict would violently up-end the world system for decades and centuries to come. Livy’s famous maxim should be at the forefront of all our minds: ‘The outcome corresponds less to expectations in war than in any other case whatsoever’. As with the greatest conflict in human history, the current crisis is not just a war. Economic, environmental and political factors will all play their part. India faced simultaneously the threat of Japanese invasion, political turmoil over independence, and a hurricane in the Bay of Bengal that destroyed the rice crop of 1943 and triggered mass famine. Today such a perfect storm could confront not just one nation, but the entire world.


What forecasts, if any, can we make for the consequences of this awful moment? We might start with the most fortunate outcome of the war, namely the revivification of NATO and the strengthening of military power and political resolve across Europe. Before Ukraine the situation could not have been much worse. At home Boris Johnson’s government was literally disintegrating before our eyes, rocked with scandals, back-bencher mutiny and incompetence. In early February five of Johnson’s aides resigned in a single day, “Levelling Up” had not just ground to a halt but ultimately never began, and in January the prime minister polled the lowest approval ratings since the start of his premiership. In the USA most pundits considered Biden at best to be confused, and at worst to be a walking corpse at the helm of a zombie administration. In the largest fossil fuel producer on earth oil prices had doubled, and natural gas more than doubled, supply chain issues riddled the country for the first time in living memory, and money was being printed at an obviously unsustainable rate to inflate the economy out of the pandemic. The invasion transformed the political landscape of the West overnight. Johnson gave a rousing speech in the Commons on the 24th and was met with unprecedented unity in the House, and Biden has unleashed an extraordinary package of sanctions against Russia and is supplying Ukraine with a steady stream of state-of-the-art weaponry. Germany is rearming and with its trade surpluses, enormous industrial capacity, large population and expertise in machine engineering it could easily become the dominant military power on the continent very quickly. Combine that with America’s overwhelming preponderance of bases and materiel in Eastern Europe and the Central European Plain will become essentially impassable for any Russian force attempting an incursion into NATO territory. The transformation is largely rhetorical in nature, but rhetoric is important. Johnson wasted no time in painting himself as an anti-Chamberlain, declaring ponderously that ‘this is not, in the infamous phrase, some faraway country of which we know little’. While tiptoeing around the true nature of the comparison and never actually using the word “appeasement”, Johnson has at least admitted that previous Conservative attempts to thwart Putin have been woefully inadequate (while simultaneously ignoring his own involvement in those past decisions). The Churchill playbook is well and truly open: ‘However long it takes, that will be the steadfast and unflinching goal of the United Kingdom, I hope of every Honourable Member of this House, and of every one of our great allies’ could have come straight from the mouth of Sir Winston himself. We might come to regret how this crisis could save Johnson’s regime and ensure a continuation of Conservative mismanagement of this country for years to come, yet resolution and unity in the face of such a disaster can only be a good thing in the short term.


The mighty mood that Europe is now in could easily go down a very dark path; it is simply too early to say. Nationalism is never truly dead nor can it ever truly die, at least not in this age of the world. It is only ever asleep, and unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) it is a very light sleeper. The war in Ukraine is waking it up. Fundamentally this is an ideological conflict between an imperialist dictator and a people bent on asserting and preserving their national sovereignty and identity. Putin has made it abundantly clear that he does not believe this sovereignty and identity is valid or that it even exists in the first place. Such a profound miscalculation will ultimately prove to be fatal. The whole conversation around the conflict is essentially nationalistic, and with good reason: this is a war about the idea of Ukraine, and its citizens and soldiers are laying down their lives to defend that idea from conquest and dissolution. I don’t mean “nationalistic” here in a pejorative sense, because I believe that perhaps the deepest and subtlest outcome of this moment might be a re-evaluation of attitudes to nationhood and what it can mean. Nationalism is the most powerful force in the universe. In the post-war era it is either active or latent in every corner of the globe. It can drive people towards atrocities or towards peaceful coexistence. It triggered the greatest moments in modern history and its greatest failures. It animated both National Socialism and decolonisation; it is the banner of Kurdish independence and of the English Defence League. Besides religion, no stronger impulse has ever moved in the hearts of men or shaped the destiny of mankind so violently. This extraordinary energy is being brought back into the world, and it could very easily define the future of this century. Supranational ideas and organisations are also making a concerted comeback, at least in the West. Much has been made about the revival of pan-European identity: Johnson repeatedly referred to Europe as ‘our European continent’, and the violation of its sacred peace has been met with universal revulsion from leaders everywhere. The military and political strengthening of NATO that the war has triggered (Finland is now eager to join the alliance) is a similar process. Yet underpinning all these organisations, and ultimately far more powerful than them, is the fundamental idea of a nation composed of a people indelibly connected to their land, with one rich and complex society that is inviolable by other states. It is difficult to articulate, in part because it is an emotional phenomenon, yet the word “home” captures most of its connotations. This, of course, does not deny or demean the wonderful plurality of many modern countries, but it does assert that core to the idea of nationhood is a single, intangible identity which can contain multitudes and yet remain recognisably itself. Modern England is an exceptionally diverse place and is made all the richer and more beautiful for it, and yet it is still England and we are all still English. Orwell asked during the war ‘What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person’. A nation changes and yet remains the same: this process is perhaps not fully understood. It transcends language, race, culture or religion. It can be harnessed to achieve wonders or to do enormous harm. We must ensure that it accomplishes the former.


Like the Conservatives Chamberlain and Baldwin before them, the Conservative Party of this century has consistently appeased Putin at nearly every juncture. Georgia, Crimea, Syria, the attempted coup in Montenegro and separatism in the Donbas were all met with minimal effective resistance or counterattack from Cameron, May or Johnson. Yet the most timid and disgraceful incident, at least from the perspective of the United Kingdom, was the response to the attempted assassination in Salisbury of Sergei and Yulia Skripal that left Dawn Sturgess dead and her partner Charlie Rowey severely sick. It’s difficult to overstate the enormity of this crime: a foreign power used chemical weapons on British soil and murdered an innocent citizen of the United Kingdom in cold blood. Theresa May responded by issuing a European arrest warrant for the two GRU assassins responsible (they were never apprehended), expelled 23 Russian diplomats in the UK proven to be undercover intelligence agents (which should’ve happened anyway), promised plans to strengthen measures against illegal Russian finance (which also should’ve happened anyway), and deployed various superficial measures like withdrawing a state invitation to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and offering vaccinations against Anthrax to British troops. The Royal Family did not attend the 2018 Russian World Cup, if that matters. Of course, England still competed. Thus, the murder of a British citizen in a British town with a cruel and lethal nerve poison went effectively unanswered. Crucially, none of the blame was placed on Putin himself and May didn’t even mention him in her statement to the House. Boris Johnson was foreign secretary at the time, which he seems to have conveniently forgotten.


Appeasement from a position of military strength is the worst diplomatic strategy a state can employ when attempting to avert war with a hostile and irrational power. Strength without deterrence is useless: the primary purpose of a military should not be to win wars but to avoid them. ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting’ (Sun Tzu). Putin himself has repeatedly admitted that, in a conventional war with NATO, Russia stands absolutely no chance. The same is still probably true of China, Iran, North Korea and other belligerents. Even a cursory review of NATO’s strategic position proves this invariably. The USA has over 150,000 troops deployed in over 800 military bases in over 150 countries across the globe. It has eleven nuclear powered carrier groups patrolling the oceans. It has close to 1,400,000 of the best trained, best equipped and most experienced soldiers on Earth with a nearly flawless battlefield record. To top all that off the USA itself is uninvadable, defended on either side by thousands of miles of ocean, arctic mountains to the north and choking deserts to the south (both held by allies), and a violently patriotic, war-like population more than twice the size of Russia’s with an average of just over one firearm per citizen. This doesn’t even take into account the forces of NATO’s 29 other member states, nor of other US allies like Australia, Israel and Japan. If war broke out and nuclear weapons remained off the table, then it is entirely reasonable to assume NATO must eventually win and win decisively. Yet the whole point of all these missiles and tanks and warships is to ensure that war never breaks out in the first place, and this objective is severely compromised if we continue to project weakness in the political sphere. Britain is not the only Western power guilty of appeasing Putin and his allies: Obama drew a red line against the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War, and promptly did nothing when Assad (backed by Russia) gassed rebel forces. When Hitler returned to Berlin after the Munich conference his generals repeatedly told him how hopeless his plans for conquest were. The material difference between Germany and France, let alone with the Soviet Union and its eleven million soldiers or America’s colossal industrial capacity, was simply too vast for Germany to ever overcome. Yet he still attempted war, because he steadfastly believed his enemies lacked the will to resist him.


The principal characteristics of tyrants everywhere are a vicious hatred of weakness, limitless ambition, great daring and little fear of bloodshed. All of these conspire to convince the tyrant that, against foes he considers too meek to retaliate effectively, a quick and brutal war can achieve victory regardless of material factors. This almost always proves to be false, but how many lives must be lost to demonstrate the obvious truth? War should have been impossible for Germany in 1939, yet the world was dragged into the most appalling slaughter in history because Hitler, in his own words, staunchly believed the allies were ‘worms’. Exacerbating this is that, deluded as his hopes of victory may be, the tyrant still knows his enemies are powerful. Thus, he has to bring to bear the whole weight of his strength against them, immediately and unwaveringly, until victory is achieved or he is completely destroyed. Allied military strength therefore only serves to ensure that the war will not just be ferocious but total, and that in order to bring about peace the allies will have to annihilate the enemy’s ability to continue the conflict. Hence, Germany was reduced to a smouldering ruin before Nazism was finally toppled, with enormous carnage on both sides, and American B-29s had to raze sixty percent of Japan’s urban area with firebombs and nuclear weapons until the government finally capitulated. In this kind of desperate conflict compromise is impossible. Tyrants don’t sue for peace or try to spare their citizens a military occupation: they have contempt both for peace and for their own people. Add Putin’s nuclear stockpiles to this psychopathological cocktail and you have the recipe for a total war from which there can be neither victory nor survival.


-


Ouroboros


(London, 15th November 2022)


‘secular cycles - demographic-social-political oscillations of very long period (centuries long) - are the rule rather than the exception’.


Peter Turchin, Secular Cycles


I began this commentary in the first few weeks of hostilities in Eastern Europe. Much and more has happened since: Kyiv was spared an occupation; Ukraine counterattacked brilliantly and Kherson has been liberated; partial mobilisation was called in Russia. Zelenskyy (“The Iron Joker”) has outlined a 10-point peace plan at the G20 summit in Bali, and continues to call for Moscow to come to the negotiating table. Xi Jinping also supports a peaceful resolution, yet tactfully avoids condemning Russia. A Soviet-made missile of uncertain origin landed in Poland, killing two civilians. Tactical developments in Ukraine are promising, yet much that I asserted back in March remains true. A strategic victory for Putin is now impossible (indeed, was probably impossible before the war began), yet what a strategic victory for the Ukrainians might look like is increasingly obscure. Total liberation of the country, including Crimea, and defeat of the Russian armies might now be on the table, yet what is Putin’s endgame? From the outset this was an all-or-nothing gamble, and now the cat is well and truly out of the bag. The die is cast, the horse has been shot, the girl is pregnant. The world has seen him for what he is, and is unlikely to forgive or forget. From the beginning I have proposed the most likely outcome is a military coup in the Kremlin, Putin either assassinated or sent to the Hague in chains, and a relatively generous compromise between Kyiv and Moscow. This is perhaps wishful thinking, yet the growing resentment between Vladimir the Impaler and his general staff is no secret. Ultimately no one can tell what may or may not end the slaughter and I have no wish to further speculate here. What I now want to do, with the perspective gained after months of constant fighting and the geopolitical developments of an extraordinary year, is further contextualise this war within what is starting to look like the Crisis of the 21st Century.


Our secular cycle is ending. This apocalypse was heralded by many commentators long before Ukraine, yet only now does it really feel like we are passing through the headwinds of the storm. When I am seventy some luminary at the Oxford history department will publish a ten-volume masterpiece about the crisis of the early century, beginning on 9/11 and reaching its climax long after, and my generation will finally understand what happened to the Long Peace, the endless sit-com of the Pax Americana that was our cradle and our testing ground. It has long been observed that the story of the world moves in cycles. ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes’, quipped Mark Twain, because as the years spin by the fundamental nature of man, with all his kindness and his caprice, remains unchanged. This was never more obvious than on the 24th of February, when Putin revealed himself to be so utterly old-fashioned. At his core he is a tsar of the 18th Century, imperialistic, paranoid and expansionist. One of the reasons the invasion blindsided so many is because it has happened so many times before. It is the oldest play in Russian Grand Strategy: attack-as-defence, push the border across the Central Plain, create strategic depth. Russia may be a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, yet in this it is entirely predictable. It is an egregious example of our decadence that we believed Putin incapable of the course pursued by so many of his predecessors, yet for a man like him it makes perfect sense and the reasons are the same as they have always been. We must remove the veil that comfort has drawn over our eyes. One feature of the world today is an enduring perception that we live in a uniquely enlightened age. This is patently not true. Our tools have changed, but we have not changed. We probably never will.


I can now begin to approach the point. A long view of history is desperately needed, and our arrogance must be discarded at once. Conditions today resemble almost exactly those at the apex of Medieval European civilisation. Population, and population density, was high (the eight billionth living human has been born on the very day I am writing). Under this Malthusian pressure prices rose, yet an abundance of labour led to stagnant wages, triggering revolts and unrest. A centuries-long warm period reached its apogee until the climate suddenly nose-dived: for seven long years incessant rains battered down and drowned European crops. In all this wet and cold and hunger the Black Death massacred the huddled peoples of Europe: perhaps as much as sixty percent of the population simply rotted away before the contagion had run its course. The supply of labour dropped, wages rose, prices fell, and the cycle began anew until the Little Ice Age, the Thirty Years’ War, and all that came after. This is the Great Wave of history that David Hackett Fischer discusses in his book of the same name. The symptoms are always identical, in any society and at any point in history: population; prices; wages; climate change. Sound familiar?


‘That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun.’


Ecclesiastes


-


The First Horseman


(London, November 16th 2022)


The First Horseman upon his white horse carries a bow and wears a crown, setting out to conquer. The First Horseman is War. As has been discussed, the war has already begun. But now I am not talking about the war. I am talking about The War.


Where, when and how The War will begin is a point of contention, but a number of possibilities present themselves. That The War will begin at all seems increasingly likely. One can track the various Thucydides Traps that have occurred throughout history, when two or more Great Powers compete for hegemonic influence. The rate at which these competitions devolve into conflicts is greater than fifty percent, suggesting at least superficially that our current Cold War is more likely to go hot than not. As has also been discussed, The War does not look optimistic for the Chinese coalition, and yet this does not necessarily preclude a conflict and perhaps makes one even more likely. Taiwan is the most probable location for the outbreak, and at a glance the reasons why are obvious.


It has become a depressingly boring ritual in China to open every five-year party congress with a reaffirmation of unification. Taiwan must be “reunited” with the mainland for the Revolution to finally be complete – and thus enter its next stage. Control and influence in Taiwan are central to all of historian Stephen Kotkin’s three main Chinese strategic aims:


1) The continuation of Communist Party rule in China.

2) Regional hegemony in East/South-East Asia (a Greater Eastern Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, if you will).

3) Reorientation of the economic, cultural, and political world order away from a US-centric, oceanic “Atlanticism” to a land-based, Sino-centric model (think One Belt One Road).


Democratic, open-minded Taiwan is in total opposition to the Communist Party’s authoritarian and ethno-nationalist world view. It is a Han majority state that rejects the Party’s right to rule – an open wound in the Revolution since Chiang Kai-Shek first retreated to the island in 1949. Its existence is a living reminder that a true Republic of China would not just survive but thrive. Similarly, it is a direct challenge to China’s domination of her immediate political and geographic sphere of influence, creating a strategic weakness in the South China Sea that, until closed, will guarantee a hamstrung Pacific Front against the mighty US Navy. And it is a key economic ally of the West, providing high-tech microchips and superconductors to the democracies of the world. Taiwan is therefore the fly in all three of Xi Jinping’s ointments, and a confrontation over the island seems inevitable. Any military action would require an immediate and vigorous US response. Niall Ferguson points out that a successful Chinese invasion would be America’s Suez Crisis: it would precipitate a collapse in reputation, a possible run on government bonds and US dollars, and an extraordinary emboldening of our enemies across the globe. North Korea might shell Seoul to rubble, Iran might invade Saudi Arabia, and things would begin to unravel very quickly. Taiwan is therefore the cornerstone of the trembling global edifice.


An actual Chinese invasion would be very difficult; more difficult than Ukraine. The Taiwan strait is one hundred miles of busy commercial shipping lanes, every inch of water covered by surface-to-sea missile launchers on the island. The terrain is mountainous and perfectly suited to guerrilla resistance. A more effective Chinese strategy might be the triggering of some political crisis that necessitates military intervention, and then an extensive blockade of the island and mine-laying in the strait. Disabling the shipping lanes would cripple global trade, putting incredible pressure on all parties to resolve the issue quickly – in such a crisis the US might accept some kind of settlement between Taipei and Beijing, perhaps closer political and economic ties with China. Yet ultimately, according to the Party’s own doctrine, nothing short of the total annexation of Taiwan into the People’s Republic will satisfy the needs of the Revolution. And here we arrive at an important point about the Middle Kingdom of the Sons of Han.


It is a frequent misconception in the West that China is not, or at least is no longer, a communist country. In some senses this is true: there is certainly no equality of wealth nor any impulse to bring it about, nor is there an explicit call for world-wide revolution. Yet in every key political area the Marxist-Leninist power structures remain intact, and this is what is actually important to the Chinese Communist Party (and at the end of the day, the Party is what communism is really all about). Every major corporation in China is under strict political oversight. If a Chinese citizen wants to become a university professor, administrator of a hospital, or overseer of a large factory, they require state vetting and approval. Xi Jinping has cemented his control of the country for an unprecedented third term, and will now almost certainly rule for life. The 20th Party Congress in October positioned him at the centre of the party solar system and “Xi Jinping Thought” as the undisputed ideological position of the Chinese state. As of October, Xi is the most powerful authoritarian ruler in history and perhaps the most powerful human who has ever lived. Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia, observed before the Congress that despite all the major setbacks that China faces (falling exports, soon-to-be falling population, rising relative labour costs and much more), Xi continues to prioritise party control and military spending over economic growth. This is a clear departure from the politics of Deng Xiaoping and a return to the Maoist, Leninist power matrix of old-school communism: less glasnost, more perestroika. Xi is ambitious, ruthless, and intelligent, yet first and foremost he is a party man. This September I had the great privilege of meeting a retired US Navy Admiral. We discussed China at length, and I asked him if he thought Xi saw himself as a man of Destiny. His answer was a resounding ‘yes’. Part of this great Destiny, as Xi rarely fails to reiterate, is a resolution to the Taiwanese problem. At the 20th Congress he once again emphasised his hope for a ‘peaceful reunification’ yet refused to rule out force. To understand why this island might cause a global war one needs to grasp this crucial fact: for China and for Xi, reunification is more than just a strategic goal. It is an ideological goal, just as the war in Ukraine is largely ideological, and so long as we refuse to recognise this truth we will consistently underestimate the danger.


Putin and Xi, despite their temperamental differences, are thus cut from the same cloth. They are both ideologues, both experienced players in the cutthroat world of Leninist party politics, and they both have inflated senses of their own importance. Putin believes he will restore Russia to the great territorial majesty and world influence it wielded in his youth; Xi believes he will finally complete the Revolution, end the Century of Humiliation and realise the inevitable Chinese ascendancy. The only thing that really stands in their way is the Great Satan.

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