2 Mar 2014

Will a Russian invasion of Ukraine push the west into an economic war?

I came home on a London bus last night.

Everybody was engrossed in the normal: the plays they’d seen, the football results.

Few people betrayed any grasp of the odds that they were living through the last days of globalisation and multilateral order – but they are high.


Here’s why. Russia has resolved to use military power, and if necessary force, in Ukraine.

Its likely goals are to occupy Crimea and to bolster the possibility of an eastern Ukraine secession towards the Russian Federation itself.

The west – morally bankrupted by the Iraq war, Guantanamo and serial human rights violations – in August 2013 gave a major signal to Vladimir Putin that it would not intervene in Syria.

Leave aside military action, the west would not even pursue its own objectives by diplomatic force.   He took it as a signal that it would not intervene anywhere.

Implicitly, from that moment on, the idea of America as a superpower enforcing international law was over.   If Russia now invades Ukraine the west will protest about territorial integrity.

But the Ukraine government was overthrown by armed force. In reality everything is about practicality, not principle.

There are dangers, on both sides, of emotion and principle forcing events beyond the control of the main players – Putin, Obama, and an EU so disunited that it has to rely on the Polish foreign minister to display any kind of leadership.

Where we are right now is the result of a huge failure of diplomacy.

If we attribute that failure to the west – Nato, the UN, the EU – it is because Putin’s diplomacy is transparently based on force and injustice.

The jailing and later tactical pardoning of political opponents; the use of polonium to poison dissidents; the assassination of troublesome journalists – Putin has made no pretense of observing the rule of law.

The west – run by a generation that believes the market is the solution to everything – suddenly found you cannot outsource strategy; that there are situations in which the boss of JP Morgan cannot help you; and that the pursuit of legally dubious wars of conquest, by legally indefensible means, flattens the public appetite for force for a generation.

If Russia invades Ukraine its likely aim will be to partition it; its longer term aim will be to get the west to accept that partition and carry on as normal.

The epoch making nature of this crisis lies, then, in the west’s response.   Few in the west beyond Poland will have the appetite for a military confrontation with Russia.

The two big armies in Europe are Polish and German.

But Germany, Europe’s dominant power, has an aversion to diplomatic responsibility matched only by its addiction to fiscal parsimony.

So the likely response of the west will be economic: the sudden end to toleration of of the dodgy Russian money that has flooded into its finance, football and energy systems.

The seizure of certain mansions in north London. The closure of bank accounts in Cyprus and the Caymans.

Then the ball is not in Russia’s court but China’s.  China has played the role of sleeping partner in global diplomacy during its economic rise. Generally it has worked to limit and disrupt the west’s political and economic power.

If an economic proxy war breaks out between the EU, USA and Russia, and China backs the latter, then you can kiss globalisation goodbye.

That is why, as we wake up, come out of the theatre, or the shower, and pick up our smartphones, the sensible thing to check for is not the outbreak of world war three, but the end of the global order.

Its fragmentation – and the slow realisation that everything from wages, to production networks, to energy policy has to change on the morrow of Russian troops arriving in Lugansk or Kharkov.

The Russian people have been living in a world that oscillates between dream and nightmare since 1991.

Putin offered them a dream: a revived economy and the kind of macho power that tramples on gay rights, makes America look powerless in Syria, jails a punk band, convicts a dead attorney, jails every political opposition leader.

It was not subtextual. Every second of the Sochi opening ceremony spelled it out, just as every meeting Putin has had with football hooligan groups, or every bare chested media stunt, also spelled it out.

Large numbers of Russian people reject this vision, bury their noses in their iPads on the metro and make money, hoping the worst will go away and that their savings will be safe in London, or Switzerland.

That is another dream that will die if shots are fired between Ukraine and Russia.

Our political leaders are having to pinch themselves; the country they thought they’d brought into the fold by making themselves dependent on its energy and merely scolding its human rights violations is on the verge of making their entire strategy look foolish.

But that’s only their secondary problem. Their biggest problem is that China, the country they exported 250 million industrial jobs to, and whose human rights violations they have ignored, and whose strange, incommunicative elite they have cheered on, does not care.

If the worst does happen, and this crisis becomes a war, the only positives lie in ordinary people’s revulsion to war; their determination to live by, and assert, the principles of human rights.

That’s ultimately what made people take tin shields up against .50 cal sniper rifles in Kiev, and what made hundreds of thousands of Russians go on the streets against Putin in late 2011.

In 2012 I wrote that Putin’s fate is intertwined with those of mass movements:

“To lose Syria and Iran would be the diplomatic equivalent of the (1905) battle of Tsushima… Revolution in Syria and Iran would leave Russia’s power in the world severely curtailed.

“But with every speech, every veto, every attack helicopter shipped to his failing allies, Putin seems determined to prepare this diplomatic Tsushima thus are the global revolutions and the Russian struggle for democracy linked.

The White Ribbon revolution is not just a local reflection of uprisings elsewhere: its fate is intertwined with them.” (Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, London 2013)

Having reported from Ukraine, seen the venality of its pro-western politicians and the atomization of democratic forces, I did not even consider the possibility that it would be revolution in Ukraine that triggered a diplomatic Tsushima for Vladimir Vladimirovich.

I was short sighted. Whatever the military and political outcome in Ukraine, the diplomatic Tsushima is under way.

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