Notes From the Margins…

The Russians are coming!

  • February 20, 2015
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Fancy a war with Russia, chaps?     After more than two decades in which Western leaders have staggered from one foreign policy train wreck to another with the reckless indifference of stag night drinkers on an epic pub brawl, it now looks as though they are lurching dimly towards exactly that outcome.

Of course it’s not their fault, because nothing ever is.   This is why British defence secretary Michael Fallon has warned that Putin could ‘repeat the tactics used to destabilise Ukraine in Baltic members of the Nato alliance.’

Some might suggest that the EU/NATO’s disastrous decision to draw Ukraine into their sphere of influence also played a part in destabilising Ukraine.   But not   Fallon, who now says that ‘Nato has to be ready for any kind of aggression from Russia, whatever form it takes. Nato is getting ready.’

Good to know.   But the problem is that NATO has been ‘getting ready’ for a long time, and Russia also interprets this readiness as a form of aggression, which is one of the reasons why it has reacted the way it has in Ukraine.     It’s one thing to criticize Russia’s ruthless manipulation of the Ukrainian crisis, but it’s quite another to portray its support for Russian separatists as part of some Hitleresque attempt to reestablish the Soviet Union or the Tsarist Empire.

But this is now what virtually everyone seems to be doing, whether it’s more serious commentators like Timothy Garton Ash or the frothing imbeciles at the Daily Mail, which screeched ‘Britain at the mercy of Putin’s planes,’ today in one of the most cretinous frontpages in the paper’s long and inglorious history.     Supported by photographs illustrating the ‘aggression of the Russian bear’   the Mail described how ‘RAF fighter jets scrambled to intercept two Russian bombers capable of carrying nuclear missiles as they flew menacingly off the coast of Cornwall.’

Off the coast of Cornwall I tell you!   And what were the Ruskies doing?   They were ‘lurking’ with evil intent, perhaps looking to encourage Cornish separatists and annexe a bit of the UK while they’re at it.     And Russian submarines are also ‘lurking’ near Scotland, probably waiting to bring the Yes voters back into the streets so that they can populate the Highlands with little green men.

It’s a damned cheek I tell you.   But even worse it turns out that Britain is ‘defenceless’, according to the   ‘top brass’ and ‘military chiefs’ who the Mail  loves so much.   According to Sir Michael Graydon, former head of the RAF, defence cuts have ‘decimated’ our capabilities to the point when: “I very much doubt whether the UK could sustain a shooting war against Russia. We are at half the capabilities we had previously.They know it is provocative and they are doing it at a time when defence in the west is pretty wet compared to where they are.”

Well the sound of wood and willow echoing from the playing fields of Eton can definitely be heard in that description of our bombers and nuclear missiles and submarines as ‘pretty wet.’

All this would be good for a laugh, if it weren’t so bleakly disturbing.   Because wars sometimes happen because of political calculation, but they also take place because of paranoia, stupidity and pigheadedness, or because heavily-armed states engage in tests of geopolitical strength or fatally misunderstand the motivations of each side, compounding the worst expectations of their opponent to the point when war seems logical and inevitable.

This process appears to be unfolding now.   There is no doubt that Russia has carried out frequent incursions into the air space of its neighbors, even though it didn’t in this case.   But only last month Russia condemned NATO’s decision to deploy its forces in six East European states, declaring that

‘Along with other measures already being undertaken, including a series of ceaseless exercises, continuous rotation of the US and its allies” forces, reinforcement of naval and air groups in the Baltic States and in the Black Sea, creation of missile defense sites and strongholds of the alliance for various purposes – all this will substantially weaken the military stability and security in the region.’

In the eyes of the West and its supporters, such arguments are only lies and excuses, because when it comes to Russia – and pretty much everyone else for that matter –   ‘aggression’ is only ever on one side.

The dangers of this dynamic cannot be overstated.     In the early years of the Cold War the cooperation between the World War II coalition broke down in part, because Western leaders were unable or unwilling to understand why the Soviet Union was so determined to surround itself with a security ‘buffer zone’ of the states that it liberated/conquered.

Russian security objectives certainly had an imperialist dimension, particularly when pursued by a leader like Stalin, but there is an abundance of evidence to show that global military conquest – or even the domination of Western Europe was not their intention.   Has the West recognized this, it might have responded differently.

Western leaders are rapidly slipping into a similar misreading of Russia’s intentions.   To point this out does not mean that Russia is the ‘good guy’ in this confrontation.   There is no doubt that Russia has supported separatists in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine militarily, even if the degree of control that Putin has over events in Ukraine is sometimes overstated.

But it is also clear that   the US/EU/NATO were incredibly stupid, naive and shortsighted in thinking that Russia would not oppose their attempts to bring Ukraine into the Western sphere of interest – politically, economically and militarily, let alone that it would accept a government in Ukraine that almost immediately alienated its Russian-speaking minorities.

Even Henry Kissinger recognizes this, for god’s sake, and has pointed out how the EU’s ‘bureaucratic dilatoriness and subordination of the strategic element to domestic politics in negotiating Ukraine”s relationship to Europe contributed to turning a negotiation into a crisis.

In this situation we don’t have to choose between Moscow and Washington/Brussels, and nor should Ukraine be forced to make this choice.   But to achieve a better outcome   we do need cool heads.   We need a critical media, and politicians and commentators willing to question the hysterical Russophobia that was on display today, and hold the self-serving delusions behind it up to scrutiny.

And we must not, we cannot, allow our leaders to take us into a war that would make all the disasters and conflicts of the last two decades look like minor quarrels by comparison.





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  1. Eric Randolph

    20th Feb 2015 - 11:53 am

    I broadly agree with the thrust of your argument here, but having spent a few weeks in Kiev late last year, I can tell you that many Ukrainians get very angry when anyone suggests their revolution was orchestrated by Brussels/Washington, and was not a popular uprising against the corruption of the Yanukovych regime and its refusal to align more closely with the EU. You could argue that the EU should never have offered them the choice to align with it, but that seems difficult to justify too

    • Matt

      20th Feb 2015 - 12:22 pm

      I didn’t use the word ‘orchestrate’, which is too strong a term. Nevertheless I certainly think Brussels/Washington sought to manipulate and take advantage of the crisis that followed Yanukovych’s change of heart, the way it always does with ‘colour revolutions’ that the West thinks it can gain strategic advantage from. I have no problem with corrupt oligarchs being toppled, but this would have happened in Ukraine anyway – in elections. Instead the ‘revolution’ that overthrew him quickly adopted the characteristics of a coup, installing a pro-Western, anti-Russian government that contained Svoboda nationalists w/Right Sector fascists on the fringes that was bound to alienate the Russian-speaking minorities in the Crimea and East. If the Ukraine revolution was popular, then the same could be said of the separatist movements that sprang up in those areas

      No, I don’t think the EU should have offered Ukraine a ‘choice’ that was bound to lead to conflict both inside and outside Ukraine. It was arrogant and stupid to to do this, though I can understand why so many people in a country that is poor, desperate and run by corrupt rulers who don’t care about them should have thought that it offered them a positive alternative. The tragedy is that even apart from the civil war that is now unfolding, the EU’s ‘choice’ demanded a savage austerity package that would have punished ordinary Ukrainians even more than the Greeks have been punished.

      • Nigel Hunt

        20th Feb 2015 - 2:57 pm

        The difference between Eastern Ukraine and Crimea is important. Crimea was part of Russia until the 1950s, is populated largely by Russians, and it is no wonder that was a virtually bloodless takeover. Furthermore, the border between Crimea and Ukraine is very short and hardly disputable. It is different in Eastern Ukraine; the population is more mixed, and recent events are a reminder of the Balkan disaster of the 1990s – difficult to resolve because both sides believe they are just so right. The problem is that Bosnia was resolved by US force, and the West is deluded if it thinks a similar solution is possible here

  2. Richard Carter

    22nd Feb 2015 - 11:17 am

    Whilst we’re talking about cretinous comments, here comes General Sir Adrian Bradshaw, the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who claims that the West faces a possible “existential threat to our whole being.” What a ludicrously hysterical reaction! has he lost his senses (more likely, never found them)? Really, you do expect idiocy from the military mind but this beats all I’ve read so far:

  3. Mike

    24th Feb 2015 - 8:48 pm

    Since when Britain is afraid to confront evil? Russia is attacking a soverien country for a land grab and we are with our hand in the arses doing nothing ? Well no more ! We need to start doing more than just talk, or history will repeat it self!!!

    • Matt

      24th Feb 2015 - 9:12 pm

      A remarkably ignorant comment I’m afraid. Anyone who thinks that what is happening in Ukraine is the result of ‘evil’ clearly has no understanding of geopolitics, foreign policy or history. Over-excitable, hysterical nonsense.

      • Nik

        25th Feb 2015 - 11:23 pm

        Well where does all this hysteria in the west come from? Quite simple: We do not like to get fed the medicine we usually force down other peoples/nations throats. So when all of a sudden someone starts arming and supporting rebels and play the coldhearted game of geopolitics the rough way our “leaders” tremble and start talking about western values being in danger.

        In no way do I agree with what Putin did to Ukraine and I am also against the annexation of Crimea, however compared to our “values”-ridden bonanzas from Kosovo, Afghanstian, Iraq over to Libya the acts of Putin are a mere a kindergarten-birthdayparty. It’s so pathetic and hypocritical it almost hurts that one even has to point that out.

        What also strikes me is this whole new rhetoric about shooting wars etc. Did I miss something or are the nukes off the table? As far as I remember one thing was always guaranteed: There are enough ICBMs for everybody on this planet to die like the fool we are – just in team for the 100th anniversary of the Great War. So why all this talk about who has how many planes, tanks and divisions etc. that is just utter nonsense in case of a real confrontation. And my god, even if that would count the last time I checked the US alone spends more on military toys than the next 10 countries combined.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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