The West cannot approach the problems of Syria, Ukraine or Iran without facing up to the question of its relationship with Putin’s Russia. That relationship is now severely dysfunctional and characterised by squabble and acrimony on a range of detail encompassing much of the globe.
Anti-Russian sentiment is now forming part of the ceaseless wave of militarist propaganda to which the media endlessly subjects us. There were particularly pointless pieces two days ago on all British broadcast media about one of the Royal parasites taking the salute at the 100th anniversary of some RAF squadron. Every week some military unit will have some anniversary. Plus the Second World War lasted fully six years, and as the 70th, 75th and 80th anniversaries are each to be commemorated of every happening during that war, there is never a single day with a shortage of excuse for some royal prat in a Ruritanian uniform to take a salute.
Both Sky and the BBC have recently run pieces on how the brave RAF squadrons protect us from the devastating Russian bomber threat. The alleged “problem” was that Russian aircraft fly along in international airspace close to British airspace. In other words, there is a major issue with Russian aircraft behaving perfectly legally. No mention was made of the fact that NATO aircraft do exactly the same thing to Russia, only many times more often. We saw jets scrambled to meet the “emergency” of Russian aircraft who were – err – flying along well North of Scotland and never entering British airspace at all. You were supposed to watch it and think how happy we are that the RAF are keeping us safe. I was left sobbing at the millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money I had just watched wasted for no reason at all.
Which is not to say that Russia is not a threat. Russia plainly is a threat to some of its immediate neighbours. Putin holds that parts of the Former Soviet Union with ethnic Russian populations should be absorbed into Russia. That was the cause of the attack on Georgia, the annexation of Crimea and the de facto annexation of parts of Eastern Ukraine. Putin’s motivation is sometimes hard to fathom, but certainly this use of military power against weak neighbours, with a definite ethnic agenda, is very popular with the Russian public. To Putin, it is more or less cost free, as Western corporate interests would be damaged by any positive action Western governments might take – the “sanctions” are almost entirely token. Putin is not mad enough to take on one of the former Soviet states which is now in NATO or the EU, so his possible future targets are severely limited.
Nor is it plain that Putin is “winning” in a strategic sense. Just three years ago, Russia had a pre-eminent influence throughout all of Ukraine. Now 70% of Ukraine has been lost forever to any Russian influence at all. That is a peculiar kind of victory. The economy of the Crimea plus Donbass is in disarray and even before the crisis, the GDP of the entire region was about the same as the GDP of Dundee. The whole exercise is yet another example of the thesis of J A Hobson, adopted by Lenin, that Imperialism benefits the military and political classes but not the Imperial nation as a whole. The Ukraine civil war has been good for Putin and the Russian military. It has done nothing for Russia.
It is coincidence that the Ukraine confrontation has coincided with a collapse in hydrocarbon prices. But the economic impact of that collapse has been stark and has highlighted Putin’s total failure in the most important task facing him – the diversification of the Russian economy. The failure to develop a viable manufacturing sector and to halt the extreme, Nigerian style levels of capital flight has condemned Russia to continuing Second World economic status. People take issue with my description of the Russian economy as the same size as the Spanish economy. I stand by it. Remember published economic data is historic, rather than reflecting the situation today. I am also unimpressed by attempts to disguise economic failure by using Purchasing Power Parity, rather than actual dollar values. PPP states that as cabbage is extremely cheap in Ekaterinburg, Russians are cabbage rich. So what?
Russia is no superpower. Its economy is the same size as Spain’s, and a good deal less diversified. It is a nationalistic kleptocracy. It has nonetheless a certain residual influence from its imperial past, and continuing Imperial present. Dagestan, Chechnya and Tatarstan remain colonies. Putin is extremely aware of that, which is why peaceful anti-imperial pro-independence campaigners from those countries receive heavy prison sentences, or simply get killed.
Undoubtedly the temporary economic difficulties caused by the oil price collapse have decreased Russian influence for a time. Russia went from being a major player in the Iran nuclear talks (remember the proposals about processing of Iranian fuel in Russia), to being in the end irrelevant. Russia’s impotence over Iran came from a realisation that the prospect of a return of Iranian oil to the open market would depress energy prices still further. But in Ukraine by virtue of force on the ground, and in Syria by simple virtue of being plainly right where the West has been horribly wrong, Russia remains an important player.
I have no time for the Assad regime. The current occupant is not so vicious as his father, but it remains a dictatorship, and I look forward to the day it passes. But you have to be crazed not to accept that the growth of vicious Islamic extremism means that it is necessary for Syria to be reunited under Assad and the dictatorship to survive another decade. That plainly is the lesser of a number of evils. There is no good solution.
Attempts to demonise the Assad regime over use of chemical weapons have been almost entirely unconvincing. The effort by the media to demonise “barrel bombs” – as though being eviscerated by a proper western made technological bomb is preferable to being eviscerated by a homemade bomb – has been bizarre. What is needed is an immediate halt to the funding of combatants by the USA, Saudi Arabia and their allies, and at least an internal acknowledgement that was what created ISIL in the first place. Russia should instead be authorised and funded by the UN to help enforce peace, and Russian troops should wear blue helmets. We then need a comprehensive peace deal which guarantees that the Assad regime will not pursue reprisal, and includes the return of the illegally occupied Golan Heights to Syria.
No other outcome can lead to a sustainable solution which can halt the flow of refugees compelled to leave their homeland. The first step towards such a deal must be a summit meeting between the western powers and Putin. Ideally, Ukraine should also be on the agenda. The obvious solution there is a major UN force followed, after a year of peace, by a genuine referendum on joining Russia in each of the various districts of Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea.
I am not crazy and I realise that none of this will happen. What will happen instead is that the West will intensify the civil war in both Syria and Ukraine. In Syria, the neo-cons of the Tory Party will ally with the Blairite Red Tories and the UK will join in, happily bombing away, killing thousands of civilians. Within three weeks of the parliamentary vote they will be massively bombing the Syrian army too because, we will be told, it is necessary to degrade Syrian ground defences to ensure the safety of our airmen. The flow of refugees will intensify.
One aspect of the refugee crisis nobody wishes directly to address is the ferocious grip that xenophobia and racism has on the cultures of Eastern Europe. This lies behind an interesting article in the Guardian by Irina Molodikova which sought to explain this in terms of resentment of historical conquest by the Ottoman Empire. That is a peculiarly Eastern European line of defence, but fails to wash as it goes nowhere to explain the rampant anti-semitism in countries like Poland, Lithuania and Hungary, nor the abuse suffered by black people.
I have personally witnessed extraordinary degrees of racism throughout Eastern Europe. It is a cultural trait common to the otherwise conflicting nationalisms of Poland and Russia. It should not be forgotten that Russia – which is again officially encouraging its citizens to breed as it needs population – is making no significant offer to accept Syrian refugees. I continually hear stories of the everyday experiences with violent racism and discrimination suffered by Uzbek workers in Russia.
I am conscious this lengthy article rambles through a number of major issues. But the problems we face are organic, complex and linked. Any neat analysis is bound to be false, and any neat dichotomy wrong. Those who believe “Putin Bad, West Good” or “West Bad, Putin Good” are fools, just as those who believe “Islam Good, Christians Bad” or “Christians Good, Islam Bad” are fools. We need a deeper understanding. We are about to face a deluge of war propaganda. A genuine understanding is the true defence against it.