Faced with a collapsing climate, the most powerful country on the planet is spending colossal sums of money on keeping the war in Ukraine going rather than seeking a peace, while only committing to a tenth of its $11 billion pledge to the Global South for funding to avert climate breakdown.
These figures show a set of priorities that spell disaster for humanity unless reversed.
There is no way to dress this up. If you look at the figures for investment in military spending as a ratio of investment in domestic green transition it becomes obvious what each country’s priorities are.
The agreed US military budget for 2023 is $858 billion. The investment in green transition earmarked by the Inflation Reduction Act is $369 billion between now and 2030. So, 858 multiplied by 8 years gives a total spend of $6864 billion by 2030. Divide that by the 369 billion to be invested in green transition and you get a ratio of 18.6:1. So, for every dollar spent on green transition in the United States, $18.60 is spent on the armed forces.
China’s military budget for 2022 was $229 billion, according to Jane’s. The investment earmarked for green transition – for a carbon peak before 2030 and neutrality by 2060 – is $450 – 570 billion a year, according to China Briefing. That gives a ratio of between just under 2:1 and 2.5:1, so on average more than twice as much being invested in green transition as on the military.
So, the US, eighteen times as much on the military. China, twice as much on greening. It’s quite obvious from this which country’s investment is more beneficial to the world making a viable transition to sustainability.
These calculations assume flat military budgets. An additional reason that none of us can afford the new cold war that the US is determined to pursue is that China will be forced to devote more resources to defence, which will slow the transition. A reduced US military budget, on the other hand, would allow both countries to transition quicker and allow greater cooperation to that end.
Lists of military spending are usually done in absolute figures.
Using these, the UK spends more on its military than every other country in the world apart from the USA, China and India. More than Russia, more than Germany. More than France. More than Japan. The sixth largest economy, but the fourth biggest military spender.
When you look at per capita military spending however, that’s the burden that that spending puts on each individual citizen, the UK comes in at number three.
For 2022 that looks like this for the ten countries that spend the most in absolute terms.
Per capita military spending
In US Dollars
So, the burden of military spending on every UK citizen is more than double that of every Russian citizen, and over five times that on every Chinese citizen. So, to match the Russian level of per capita spending, we could cut our expenditure by half. If we wanted parity with China’s spending per citizen, we could cut down to a fifth of the current level.
It should also be noted 1) that the top six of these countries, plus Japan, are allies of the United States and 2) there is not majority support in the UK to increase military spending. A poll by yougov/datapraxis in May which asked voters to choose between
(a) ‘The war in Ukraine has showed that my country should be spending more on defence, even if that means that we must cut money on other areas like health, education and crime prevention’, and
(b) ‘Despite the war in Ukraine, my country should not be increasing spending on defence as that could require cutting money on other areas like health, education and crime prevention’.
showed 36% against increased expenditure to 25% in favour.
The figures for absolute military spending that these calculations are based on come from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute for 2022. The figures for population are from UN figures for 2019, so the calculation won’t be exact, but aren’t likely to be significantly different.
Simon Pirani’s article, “the causes of the war in Ukraine” is posed as a reply to John Bellamy Foster’s brilliant and terrifying Notes on Exterminism” but simply doesn’t address what Bellamy Foster is saying about the connections between US nuclear war posture, its policy towards Russia and the connection with climate breakdown but talks primarily about Gazprom instead. It’s also odd that Simon states that it’s important to understand the background “in order to understand what happens next, and how this relates to the western powers’ historic failure to deal with climate change,” and then completely fails to explore either. There is no vision for what the end of the war might look like if his section of the Left’s backing for Ukraine and NATO leads to a Russian defeat – either for Ukraine or for the world. Nor is there any examination of how the US war drive connects with their failure on climate breakdown. For any insight into this, readers would be better off reading Bellamy Foster, or the companion article from John Ross, which does explain how the war fits into the totality of current geopolitical struggles in a way that makes sense of it.
This is particularly significant because the USA is spending 14 times as much on its armed forces as it plans to invest in climate transition. As Meehan Crist put it in the London Review of Books in March “One of the worst outcomes of the war in Ukraine would be an increasingly militarised response to climate breakdown, in which Western armies, their budgets ballooning in the name of “national security” seek to control not only the outcome of conflicts but the flow of energy, water, food, key minerals and other natural resources. One does not have to work particularly hard to imagine how barbarous that future would be”. Not hard to imagine because that’s pretty much the world we already have under the Pax Americana, but a bit more so.
Simon seems to assume that the “popular resistance” represented by mass conscription in Ukraine hints at a progressive outcome if the Oligarchy in power and its NATO overlords achieve their war aims. To be fair, this is not explicitly stated, just presumed. Leaving aside reports of WhatsApp groups in Ukraine set up to warn people of when the press gangs are in the neighbourhood, and that 7% of the conscripts sent to the West for training have deserted; the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Since the start of the war the Ukrainian government has moved sharp and hard against the rights of the workers they are calling up to fight, and they have drawn up a post war reconstruction plan with western capital that would make Ukraine even more of a dystopian neo liberal laboratory than it already is. Not a land fit for heroes. Before the war, the combination of low wages and corruption with the pending threat of conscription to fight in the Donbass led to one of the lowest birth rates in Europe and 600,000 people a year leaving the country for a better life; some to Russia, more since 2014 to the EU.
Simon asserts that “until 2014, western policy was focused on integrating Russia into the world economy on the west’s terms: even after the Kremlin’s military intervention in Ukraine, the western response remained reactive.” The USA is always reactive, in the sense that it will intervene in any situation anywhere, anytime that it can take advantage of; but it is also invariably pushing things along, actively seeking contradictions and fissures that it can insert itself in to shift things its way. Staying global hegemon takes work, and there are US Embassies full of active agents and 800 US military bases all over the world either doing it or waiting to join in, an inner space full of satellites keeping tabs on things and a cyberspace dominated by US tech companies intimately linked to the security state.
Think about what “integrating Russia into the world economy on the west’s terms” means. “Integrating Russia into the world economy on the west’s terms” means subordinating Russia to the West. Not partnership. Not multipolarity and a deal among equals, but subordination. The US applied the same presumption to China, that participation in the WTO would make it more western, allow the private sector to dominate over the state, ease into a political system that could be bought up by the ruling class; just like ours is. The 2008 crash put paid to any prospect of that. Pro US voices have been marginal since then.
The US is no longer trying to incorporate China, or, now, Russia, on its terms, because it knows it can’t. Its policy now is to break the world economy apart and try to retain domination of as much of it as it still can. In most of the Global South, it is losing ground, quite quickly. That makes continuing to dominate Europe very important. If the European economies suffer as a result, that’s a price to be paid and ridden out politically.
Simon’s core argument is that “the West” was interested in getting cheap Russian energy and therefore had an essentially pacific intent towards it until the invasion on 24th February came out of a clear blue sky and forced them to reassess. This requires almost complete amnesia for anything that actually happened in the run up to 24th Feb – Russia’s continual appeal for negotiations on a “Mutual Security Pact” that NATO could have agreed to and spun out forever to avoid getting to the crunch point had they wanted to instead of spurning with imperial contempt – and a presumption that all of “the West” had the same interests, rather than there being a rift between the US and Germany that was resolved in the former’s favour at the NATO Summit the week before the invasion, with Germany coming to heel and refusing to open up Nordstream 2, putting NATO on an economic war footing. This was almost certainly a tipping factor in Russia’s decision to intervene.
Because, the term “the West” in this context, covers some real contradictions, particularly between the economic interests of the USA and those of the EU, and Germany in particular, which partly explain why Russia was never simply taken into NATO or ever considered a possible EU member even at the point it was considered a “strategic partner”.
Lenin always argued that politics trumps economics. And so we have seen in the case of Germany. It is not in Germany’s economic interests for this war to continue, nor for cheap Russian gas to be cut off from its industries and domestic consumption. This is also true across Europe. The Prime Minister of Belgium has spoken of fears of “deindustrialisation” as a result of this sudden rupture in energy supplies. Political turmoil is rising across Europe, not least in the UK.
The struggle over whether Nordstream 2 would be opened up last winter illuminates the fault lines here. The US was against it, for the same reasons it wouldn’t consider letting Russia into NATO. A close relationship between Germany and Russia undermines US dominance across the whole EU. Russia in NATO would have a similar centrifugal effect on the alliance. Blowing the pipelines up just as demonstrations were starting up in Germany and elsewhere to get them put back on stream to cut energy bills is a completely logical thing for the US to do. Burning the boats. Cutting off the options. Trying to stop a connection being more widely made between the cost of living crisis and ongoing support for the war. The idea that the Russians would blow up their own pipelines, when resupply of gas though them is such a huge diplomatic carrot, is as absurd as the idea that they would shell a nuclear power station occupied by their own troops or convoys of cars full of civilians trying to get out of Ukraine into Russian controlled territory (which they are supposed to have done twice in recent weeks if you believe our objective, reliable media).
The US attempt to subordinate Russia has never been a passive policy, not least in Ukraine and to describe it, either in or after 2014, as “reactive”, as a synonym for defensive, implying that it is a dozy, passive force, only taking action when severely provoked, dulls our understanding of just how proactive they are. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenburg has no such delusions and his comment “we have been preparing for this since 2014” should be taken at face value.
And it’s quite clear from this article that preparations for sanctions against Russia were being actively negotiated between the USA and EU from November last year which knocks a big hole in Simon’s main contention that the economic war was a defensive reaction to the Russian intervention. All part of the game plan.
Simon describes the Maidan movement of 2014 as though it was a simply popular uprising against corrupt oligarchs. This is as simplistic as describing Brexit as a popular revolt against “elites”. There is no recognition of the role of the far right, the division in the country leading to civil war is elided, nor is there any acknowledgement of the active intervention of the US and EU to try to mould the outcome in their favour, nor of the tussle for influence between them. The active role of the US in the Maidan movement alongside the far right isn’t mentioned. John McCain addressing a rally in the square is neither a figment of anyone’s imagination nor a “reactive” intervention. The role of Victoria Nuland, one of the architects of neo conservative interventionism and an active participant in many such interventions is almost too well documented, but Simon passes them by without a nod, or a word, or any acknowledgement at all.
The replacement of one corrupt oligarch, Yanukovitch, with another, Poroshenko, who collaborated with the far right throughout his Presidency and oversaw neo liberal reforms, opening up Ukrainian farmland to Western Agribusiness, rather undermines Simon’s assessment. Popular participation in the Maidan in the West of Ukraine did not determine a popular outcome.
Since at least the Orange Revolution (the clue is in the colours, the US can’t help itself when it comes to branding its products) in 2004 there was an open struggle for where Ukraine would align. None of this is unknown. None of it “reactive”.
This is paradoxical because Simon recognises that “in 2013, the Kremlin offered a substantial discount on gas sales as part of a generous trade package, conditional on Ukraine abandoning its talks on an association agreement with the EU; Yanukovych’s support for that package was among the sparks that set off the Maidan revolt.” This package was rather positive for Ukraine, but not at all in the interests of the EU or US. As we know with sparks, the flame has to be fanned.
We are now in a situation in which criticism of NATO is an expulsion offence for Labour MPs. The GMB is campaigning for increases in military spending, when the UK already spends more on its military than every other country in the world apart from the USA, China and India, and, through NATO and AUKUS, is allied to countries responsible for two thirds of global military spending, with the USA at their core. The US is fast losing ground economically and so is trying to reassert itself militarily, even if this leads to war with other nuclear armed powers. Increased arms spending by the UK signs us up for that. Not recognising this drive, or flinching away from the consequences of it, disarms the Labour movement in the face of the greatest short-term threat to human survival.
To invert one of Simon’s sentences; those in the western ‘left’ who don’t recognise that ‘NATO expansion’ is the chief cause of the military conflict and that Ukraine is fighting a ‘proxy war’ for the US with $53 billion worth of US weapons and $12 billion more to come… act in effect as apologists for the USA’s dangerous brinkmanship that could lead to nuclear war and the end of human civilisation.
The war in Ukraine is indeed a historical turning point. Its result will determine whether we move into a New American Century – with a NATO victory, a US backed colour revolution in Russia, possible partition of the country into at least three parts, as some of the more hawkish neo cons planned in 1991, and the decoupling of Russia from China to facilitate the war US hawks want in the South China Sea before the Chinese economy gets too big for it to deal with – or not.
This prospect makes it a matter of principle that the Left and civil society should resist this war drive.
More people think that the Biden Administration should do more to initiate peace talks than think it has done enough.
More people think that continuing US military aid – amounting to $53 Billion so far with another $12 Billion under discussion – should be not continue unless there is ongoing diplomacy to end the war than those who think it should be unconditional.
There is a similar level of opposition to continuing support at current levels if this leads to long term global and US economic hardship.
This is made even stronger when specific examples of domestic hardship are identified, with a strong majority opposing continued support at current levels if it leads to increases in gas (petrol) and good prices in the US.
Trita Parsi, executive vice president at the Quincy Institute, put it rather well, “Americans recognize what many in Washington don’t: Russia’s war in Ukraine is more likely to end at the negotiating table than on the battlefield. And there is a brewing skepticism of Washington’s approach to this war, which has been heavy on tough talk and military aid, but light on diplomatic strategy and engagement.
‘As long as it takes’ isn’t a strategy, it’s a recipe for years of disastrous and destructive war — conflict that will likely bring us no closer to the goal of securing a prosperous, independent Ukraine. US leaders need to show their work: explain to the American people how you plan to use your considerable diplomatic leverage to bring this war to an end.”
It should also be noted that only 6% considered that the war in Ukraine is a top 3 issue for the US, with 94% disagreeing.
Atlanticist Labour Shadow Foreign Secretaries have the difficult job of squaring the circle between the reality of UK subordination to US global dominance – with everything that flows from that – with the desire of the Party membership to be – and to be seen to be – “ethical”. This is usually covered by rhetorical devices that touch nerves and mobilise emotions, while obscuring awkward realities. A classic of its kind was Emily Thornberry’s speech in 2019 in which she included Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro in a list of “Trump inspired strongmen” that the Party had to oppose, sliding over the awkward fact that, far from being one of Trump’s acolytes, Maduro was one of his targets, and Venezuela to object of ruthless US sanctions that were responsible for the deaths of over 40,000 people. Details, details…
With the banishment of that awkward internationalist Jeremy Corbyn and the reassertion of a new era of unapologetic Atlanticism from the front bench, David Lammy has gone further.
He did not reflect, in his foreign policy speech to Labour conference this year, that the role of “Britain in the World” has historically been rather like that of the policemen he mentions who used to stop and search him when he was “a skinny kid in NHS glasseson the streets of Tottenham“; and for very similar reasons. At one time as dominant world cop and enforcer, latterly as the new world cop’s most eager henchman.
His speech provides a cover for it to continue to do so.
His list of challenges faced by the world is odd, and in a strange order.
Conference, the world faces more challenges today than at any other time in my 22 years in parliament. The rise of China. Conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia and South Sudan. A global food crisis. And a climate crisis.
“And a climate crisis”. The climate crisis is the framework in which everything else takes place – or doesn’t. It’s not an item on a list. Least of all the last item. And the central problem is that the world’s most powerful state is prioritising military interventionism over dealing with it. The USA is spending more than 20 times as much on its military as it is on dealing with climate change, claims to “global leadership” notwithstanding.
China, by contrast, is spending one and a half times as much on climate change as on its military.
Who is doing the right thing?
The UK already spends more on its military than every other country in the world apart from the USA, China and India. It spends more than Russia. Through NATO and AUKUS it is in direct alliance with countries that account for two thirds of total global military spending. But the Truss government wants to increase spending by 50% by 2030 and the Labour front bench is going along with this. This is not a polict that tends to peace.
Lammy’s “green dimension” is subordinate to Cold War imperatives and inwardly oriented. The UK should not be dependent of “fossil fuel dictators” he says. Which ones does he mean? Will imports be stopping from Saudi Arabia any time soon?
And “we will seek to work with allies and partners to create a new international law of ecocide to criminalise the wanton and widespread destruction of the environment.” There’s that presumption of leadership from the Global North again, Britain’s “allies and partners” in setting and policing the ecological rule book for everyone else.
And note the weasel words – “we will seek to…” This will be rather tricky for the Global North because most of the fossil fuel companies seeking to develop the 350 carbon Bombs (projects which each have a carbon footprint of over a billion tonnes of CO2) that will bust us well beyond 1.5C on their own are companies that are based here; and so are most of the banks that finance them.
This also applies to the specific crisis that Lammy uses to frame his speech. The USA has for years explained to the Global South how hard it is to squeeze out a few billion dollars to help get to the 2020 target of $100 billion a year agreed at Copenhagen ten years earlier which has still not been met and that, with a bit of luck and a following wind (and a bit of redefinition of private sector loans) they might be good enough to get up to the target by 2024. Maybe. If the Global South is good. And nothing else comes along that is more urgent.
By contrast, they have magicked up $53 billion to fuel the Ukraine war in 6 months. Just like that. Easy. Whatever your view of the rights and wrongs of the war in Ukraine, and more on this later, it’s shocking how both the quantity and the speed are so dramatically different and provide such a clear demonstration of US priorities. Perhaps the way that a lot of this aid will go in orders for munitions and ammunition from US arms manufacturers may have something to do with that, but most of it reflects the war drive the USA is carrying out to try to shore up its economic decline relative to China.
In this framing, its odd that Lammy poses “the rise of China” as a challenge “for the world”. It is certainly a challenge for the US world order, Pax Americana, New American Century, Unipolar US domination; call it what you like. But that’s not the same as a challenge “for the world”.
For most of the world, benefitting from Chinese investment and trade, it looks more like an opportunity; and this is explicitly embraced by the Left in the Global South, Latin America particularly; where they are very clear about who runs the “Empire” and who has carried out coup after coup to install “dictatorships” across the continent.
It is peculiarly bizarre when considering that UK overseas aid is lauded for raising 3 million people a year out of poverty. This is not a figure I have seen anywhere else and have not been able to find online. It would be odd if true, because the impact of the COVID pandemic everywhere in the Global South outside China has been to throw back development and increase poverty. It would, of course, be a good thing if true, but pales into insignificance compared to China’s record as a developing country of raising 850 million people out of poverty in 40 years (21 million a year); seven times the rate. This was described in a Labour Foreign Policy Group document, generally rather hostile to China, as “perhaps the single most significant contribution to human wellbeing in world history”. But let’s not dwell on that. Let’s move swiftly on and not think about how this statistic is actual people whose lives have been immeasurably improved. It’s only the same number of people as the entire UK population thirteen times over. Just think of how many people that is. In forty years. And that includes everyone in Xinjiang, whose living standards are rising by 6% a year and whose labour is no more forced than that of anyone else who works in a factory.
It is also odd that Lammy does not mention that the “conflict in Yemen” is fueled by British made arms, of the sort that Conference sadly voted to boost, and the Saudi Air Force and Navy are trained to bomb and blockade ports by the RAF and Royal Navy – leading to famine and the world’s worst cholera epidemic. Nothing to see here. Let’s talk about Ukraine instead.
Lammy says “No act of imperialism is ever the same. But Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine this year was just the latest front in an age-old war between democracy and dictatorship. Freedom and subjugation. Empire and independence.” From the country and allies that have – just since 1990 -brought us two wars each in Iraq and Yugoslavia, the invasion and twenty year occupation of Afghanistan and the reduction of Libya from the most prosperous country in North Africa to a war ravaged basket case, this might be considered a little ironic. Quite what kind of “act of imperialism” Lammy considers these to be is unclear, who was fighting for “freedom” and who for “subjugation”, who for “Empire” and who for “independence“, he doesn’t say. Possibly because it’s too obvious if you think about it for a moment. Does he have no self-awareness at all?
“Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine” is an oft repeated mantra that conceals more than it explains. Deliberately. The war in Ukraine did not start with the Russian intervention this February. It started with the overthrow of a democratically elected President in 2014, aided and abetted by the considerable resources of the USA and EU, in cahoots with the local far right. This led to a rebellion on the Donbass region and an eight year civil war. As Sir Richard Sherriff, the former NATO Deputy Commander, remarked, a little off script, “this war started in 2014”.
The invasion this February followed attempts by the Russians to get an agreed mutual security arrangement that was spurned with complete contempt by NATO.
The Russian decision to recognise the Donbass Republics in February was not carried out by Putin alone but had the support of the overwhelming majority of the State Duma, including the main opposition Party, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, reflecting concerns at the failure to implement the Minsk Agreement, refusal of NATO to engage in any talks about mutual security, and a build up of 130,000 Ukrainian troops – whose pay was tripled in December – opposite Donetsk and Lugansk threatening their liquidation.
All war is barbaric, but it may seem odd to viewers of the atrocity porn produced by Feargal Keene and the like that by comparison with what the Americans do, the Russians have been relatively restrained. There have been a number of specific strikes on infrastructure like power stations or dams, but in US air campaigns they aim to smash the entire power and water treatment systems on day one to reduce the population to a state of rebellious despair. “Shock and Awe”*. In fact, the US dropped as much explosives on Iraq on the first day of the second Iraq war as it took the Russians a month and half to do in Ukraine. All relative? Up to a point. But not if you’re underneath it.
The term “Special Military Operation” incidentally, is not a weaselly euphemism to cover all out war, but an internationally accepted definition of a particular sort of limited war, and everyone who reports on this knows it. This is now escalating and will continue to do unless peace negotiations can get going.
Worse, Lammy’s way forward is both delusory and condemns Ukraine and its people to being a permanent proxy war zone for NATO. “Whether it takes six months, three years or ten, Ukraine will win.” Ten years of war? Seriously? “Ukraine will win“? With Russia incorporating the South and East into the Russian Federation and mobilising accordingly, I can’t see that. Lammy is calling for war without end.
At a point that even EU Foreign Representative Jose Barroso is calling for a negotiated peace acceptable to both sides – “we stand ready to assist the peace plan just launched and we urge all parties to seize this opportunity to de-escalate the crisis and end violence of this developing tragedy,” it is deeply depressing that Labour’s Foreign policy spokesperson striking the same sort of bellicose posture that Boris Johnson did when he intervened to sabotage the last serious attempts at peace talks back in April.
If he wants the “global food crisis”, not to mention the energy crisis that he, again oddly, didn’t mention, to end, we need to end the war. That starts with pushing for peace, not a ten year war.
Lammy envisages a war crimes tribunal for Putin. On the model of the sort we have seen for George W Bush and Tony Blair for the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq that their war led to? One like that? Or perhaps the one for Putin after the Chechen war, at a time he was considered a “strategic partner” by NATO? War crimes, it seems, are always committed by our enemies. Never by us, or anyone allied with us. The numbers don’t count. Especially if they are in the Global South.
Lammy is also right that the Tories tend to craft a Foreign Policy that is a wolf in wolf’s clothing and that the current government, delirious on Brexit Kool Aid is picking fights with everyone and thinking it can get away with it. It won’t. But his version of looking outward is simply to reassert traditional alliances with the rest of the Global North as it rearms on a colossal scale, while hoping a wee bit of extra aid will keep the Global South sweet enough not to start lining up with the Chinese model of development.
While Lammy is right to argue for restoring overseas aid to 0.7% of GDP, his argument is less that this is the right thing to do as partial reparations for the damage and exploitation done by the Empire and slave trade, more about enhancing the “soft power” of the UK as the beneficiary of it, even though, as he said his “ancestors knew what it was like to have their freedom taken away. They heard the twisted lies of imperialism as they were stolen from their homes in shackles and turned into slaves.” Quite so.
“A voice for peace, development and freedom across the globe” is sorely needed. A voice for expanded UK military expenditure, for an unquestioning alliance with the USA in its provocative militarist dotage as it pushes for wars it thinks it can win in Ukraine and the South China Sea, won’t provide any of that.
“Shock and awe” marries the two US bombing traditions of precision targeting with colossal force. But, unlike the initial advocates of precise targeting, who argued for overwhelming strikes on key targets of military significance, “choke points” like the Schweinfurt ball bearing factory in the case of Nazi Germany, these strikes combine taking out military HQs but also decisive civilian infrastructure. So, from day 1, there is no power, no clean water, no functioning sewage system. It seems odd that advocates of this approach are trying to argue that “the Russian way of making war” is more barbaric than that.
The idea that destroying civilian infrastructure makes a population less inclined to resist has never been vindicated in practice; unless it reaches the almost genocidal scale of the B29 raids on Japan in 1945 led by Curtis LeMay, who went on to bomb North Korea “back to the Stone Age” a few years later; in which the state of mind of the shattered survivors barely counts. In the initial argument in WW2 between the US Air Force, who thought they could “hit a pickle barrel from 6 miles up” using a precision bombsight in daylight (they couldn’t) and the RAF, which went into carpet bombing wide civilian areas at night, the British side disregarded its own experience during the Blitz, that the raids had made the civilian population hate the bombers harder and strengthened resistance to them, thinking this wouldn’t apply in Germany because the people were “a different sort”. No stiff upper…A racialised argument within white supremacy, indicating that the British took it for granted they were ubermensch, but that it was rather vulgar to proclaim it.
All quotes from “The Bomber Mafia” by Malcolm Gladwell.
While there is majority support for supporting Ukraine at least at the current level about a quarter of people think that it is too much, balancing similar numbers who think it too little (graph 3) but there is equally strong opposition to specific escalation (graph 4).
Opinion in the UK – with less dependence on Russian gas and a bigger role for the military in its national psyche – is more bellicose, but the strong sentiment for the sort of peace negotiations that China and India have called for in the key state in the EU indicates that its government will face increasing difficulties in maintaining a pro war stance as the winter crisis unravels.
“…military press releases tend to be loaded with so many euphemisms, elaborations and aggressive improvements on the truth that if placed in any body of water, they would sink immediately to the bottom” Malcolm Gladwell in The Bomber Mafia.
Information in wars is even more heavily controlled than it is in peacetime*. This is partly about what is reported and partly how. This is sometimes deliberate, sometimes an unconscious function of a set of ideas so taken for granted that contrary information becomes impossible to process. This can therefore be profoundly misleading. Reliance on solely Western/Global North/NATO sources for news on the Ukraine war produces a disorienting bubble in which it becomes necessary to believe that the Russians would shell a nuclear power station occupied by their own troops; because accepting that the Ukrainians are doing it disturbs an otherwise untroubled moral compass. As a trigger warning, this blog contains info from sources like the Military Summary channel and the Duran, which take info from both Russian and Ukrainian official statements as well as info sent in from people on the ground.
This is supplemented by analyses in specialised journals, like this one, which originally appeared in the Journal of the US Marine Corps, and is essential reading to understand both how the Russians have operated on all three fronts, and how this is viewed from within sections of the US military establishment – when they are not spinning a line for popular consumption as a TV talking head. This analysis is illuminating because it is not distorted by a need to emotionally manipulate its readers. A debate among serious military leaders has to be more objective than that, so they can be clear eyed about what they are dealing with; so the information given will be more objective than the prolefeed in the mass media.
However, Western media imperatives can lead to catastrophic developments on the ground if military actions are taken to provide raw material for politically necessary myths.
The current Kherson offensive is a case in point. At the time of writing (evening 5th September) it is unclear if the current stabilisation of the front line reflects the culmination of the attack, the point at which it runs out of steam, or whether it is an operational pause before another attempt to push forward.
In a Blog last week, I noted that this long heralded Ukrainian counter offensive to retake Kherson Region had not materialised and opined that it probably wouldn’t. I had quite a lot of company at the time. The day before it started, the Daily Telegraph – which has a huge retired military readership much in evidence in its letter columns actively taking a keen professional interest – published an article citing Ukrainian military sources saying that such an offensive was off the cards, because they didn’t have the air or artillery cover to make it viable.
While this may have been classic wartime misdirection – on the presumption that the Russian General Staff would read the Telegraph, relax and let their guard down – that assessment seems to be accurate and have borne out by events so far.
The Press Release from the British Ministry of Defence on Saturday that redefined this offensive as having “strictly limited tactical objectives” might be seen as a post facto rationalisation that, whatever the objectives at the outset, strictly limited tactical objectives appears to be all that it is achieving – at enormous cost to the soldiers sent into it; while seriously depleting Ukraine’s already limited stock of armoured vehicles at the same time. Gains of a few kilometers. Thousands of men dead to gain them. Like the Somme. Or Passchendaele. President Zelensky yesterday proudly proclaimed the reconquest of four small settlements – and a “marines at Iwo Jima” type photo of a soldier putting a flag up is doing the rounds – while the hospitals in every city behind the front line are full of wounded soldiers.
Sending thousands of infantrymen with limited and vulnerable armoured support across open fields without air cover or sufficient artillery backing, and expecting them to press on regardless potentially for 50 kilometres to reach the Dnieper River, is a forlorn hope. The terrain for the attack is doubly unfavourable because it is so open and flat. Very little in the way of woodland or built up areas. No cover. This is a contrast to the Donbass, which is heavily urbanised, with the main roads between major towns strung out with linear settlements almost all the way along.
Speculation that this offensive was ordered for political reasons against the advice of the General Staff appears vindicated by the way the Ukrainian military have published no bulletins at all about what’s going on – theirs not to reason why, but also theirs to reserve their right not to put a positive spin on it. A sort of silent protest.
The political reason for it being the need to give some backing to stories in the West/Global North that “the Ukrainians have the initiative”, as General Petraeus put it on one US News programme a day or two before the offensive went in. This is not because support from the ruling class in the West/Global North is in any question, as the Ukrainians are acting as proxy fighters for them, but support among their populations might. A couple of months in which the Russians have consolidated in Luhansk and made steady progress in Donetsk, and appear to be gearing up to push on to Mykolaiv, is not conducive to keeping NATO populations geared up for sustaining the cost of the war with their fuel bills over the Winter. The 70,000 strong demonstration in Prague on Sunday against energy prices and NATO being the first of many in prospect. If its all going tits up, the feeling that its time to cut losses becomes stronger; whatever anyone’s sympathies.
Nevertheless, an offensive which would require a minor miracle to be successful does not seem a very good way to try to go about this; and indicates a certain desperation.
Petraeus, in the same programme, used the revealing phrase “IF Europe can survive this Winter”… (my emphasis) all will be well because the EU will have weaned itself off Russian gas and oil, which will hit Russia’s economy hard. He hasn’t noticed that the Russians are selling gas and oil east and south and will continue to do so, that their income from this has strengthened the rouble, and that some of this oil and gas is finding its way back to Europe; having been sold on at a mark up by countries like India and China. With the US itself now less willing to sell its own oil and gas overseas, to keep domestic prices down, whether Europe can survive this Winter without unpredictable upheavals that will bring down governments and put all sorts of issues up for question is doubtful. But it is also overshadowed by a deeper shift, that, having started out thinking they still held the whip hand that they are used to in weaponising energy, NATO countries find that they have accelerated a shift in global trade patterns and energy supply to their own disadvantage and the cost of their populations. Backing down would be a destabilising humiliating defeat, but not doing so risks upheavals that may be beyond their control in their own heartlands.
Back in Kherson, so far, these attacks have either gained a few kilometres, been held off, or driven back; or, in the case of one salient in the centre of the line south of the Ingulets river that defines the front line for quite some way, could have become a trap – with the three pontoon bridges that enabled the troops and their vehicles to get across, and provided their only escape route too, blown up – and the soldiers in it coming under ferocious bombardment; which has left the area littered with burnt out armour.
This offensive is beginning to look more like the last effort of the Iranian military in the Iran Iraq war – in which a comparable superiority in manpower enabled a push into an sparsely populated area of Southern Iraq, which then became a killing zone for superior Iraqi artillery – than the successful Croatian offensive into the Krajina in 1995 – in which better trained troops with superiority in artillery and tanks overwhelmed a strong but outclassed militia. The Ukrainians don’t have this.
A Russian push north of the same river on the edge of the pocket, has nevertheless been driven back by the Ukrainians, and they have captured the pontoon bridge the Russians constructed to get across. They will presumably now try to get resources across this bridge, either to reinforce or resupply the soldiers trapped in the pocket; or will have to try to use it to extricate them from an impossible position. Either way, this is a slender thread to be relying on, as anything moving across it in either direction will be a sitting duck for attack from the air or from artillery which will have it in their sights. And the bridge itself could be destroyed quite easily, unless the Russians calculate that it is to their advantage to keep it in being as a magnet for targets; as supplies, reinforcements or retreating troops are funnelled narrowly towards it.
So, it looks as though this attack will achieve neither its military nor its political objectives. If you listen solely to the news here, reporting of developments has been very limited, bigging up limited gains, within a framework of an upbeat view of the Ukrainian military’s potential for ultimate victory that fits rather well with Malcolm Gladwell’s comments at the top of this blog. The latest line from MiniDef is that the Russian army will mutiny this Winter; which reads very like wishful thinking.
How long they can keep this up with any credibility remains to be seen.
*Orwellian post script.
The description in Orwell’s 1984 of Winston Smith’s job falsifying propaganda – a real event eliminated here, a totally fictional one broadcast as truth there – drew directly on his experience of working for the British Ministry of Information during WW2.
This was housed in the University of London’s Senate House – then the tallest building in London and a model for the Ministry of Truth – and, as the University history puts it, was “responsible for subterfuge, censorship and propaganda” for the duration.
Plus ca change…so, pinches of salt all round I think.
“This coming winter will bring a reckoning. Western governments must either invite economic misery on a scale that would test the fabric of democratic politics in any country, or face the fact that energy supply constrains the means by which Ukraine can be defended.”
Put more bluntly, this means that the cost of energy is now so high – a recent email from Octopus Energy to its customers stated that wholesale natural gas is now eight times more expensive than it was before the war – that unless it is stopped soon, the economic and political consequences will be catastrophic.
We can have war, or social stability. We can’t have both.
This is already unfolding in parts of the Global South, which has nothing to do with fuelling this war either way, but as always suffers the blowback first and hardest. Sri Lanka is an example.
This means that “Western governments”, should they decide to keep fuelling the war with loans, munitions and rhetoric, will face the blowback of an economic crisis beyond their control; with unpredictable political consequences and an unprecedented level of turmoil.
A straw in the wind for this is advice given to their workers by the Austrian Supermarket chain SPAR, not to intervene to try to stop mass looting in the event of energy blackouts this Winter, on the grounds that the looters would then become enraged and smash the shops.
Governments, like Italy’s, or, in Boris Johnson’s case, Prime Ministers, are already beginning to topple. Olaf Scholtz is looking shaky. Ukraine is the Trojan Horse for the Latin Americanisation of Europe. Local instability the price for an increased US grip.
Recent moves, reported in the FT but not much more widely, that the US had pressured the EU to ease off on sanctioning insurance for Russian oil shipments, indicates that the impact of the price of gasoline at petrol stations on how people vote in the mid term elections is a material consideration for the Biden administration. So, they will soft pedal aspects of sanctions which are too much to bear; for them.
But, this is a tactical nudge within a framework of seeking a long war “to weaken Russia” on the lines of the Afghan war in the 1980s; so, there’s the tension.
The problem for the “West”/Global North/NATO is that anything less than a sudden Russian collapse this Autumn will see such a severe level of economic blowback that they may not be able to sustain it.
There is no sign that such a Russian collapse is on the cards. Quite the contrary. The most optimistic assessment from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence this week is that the war is at a “strategic stalemate”. This is not the case, but, even if it were, Winter is coming, and a frozen conflict would freeze the economic crisis into place; with everything that flows from it. There needs to be a quick resolution.
Even when looking through the filtered reports in the media here, the military situation on the ground appears to be one of continuing incremental Russian advances in the Donbass, where they seem to be punching through both flanks of the fortified Ukrainian defences opposite Donetsk City, with the infantry trying to hold the line taking heavy casualties; as well as making advances around Kharkiv in the North. The massive Ukrainian counter offensive to retake Kherson in the South, that was widely broadcast as in the offing at the end of July, has not materialised, and is unlikely to; being replaced with small but spectacular sabotage operations, or possibly drone strikes, in Crimea. This could continue for a horribly long time.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian economy is in a state of collapse (60% down even from the beginning of the year, when the Ministry of Finance was warning of its then unviability). The response has been to organise a massive fire sale of state assets to the private sector and cement in place legislation that removes the trade union and contract rights of the workers the government is conscripting to fight at the front. While the military conflict is going badly for Ukrainian oligarchs, the class war within Ukraine is all in their favour. But short term gains of this sort have no long term viability if the war continues to degrade the country.
More to the point, aiming to reconquer the Donbass and Crimea is beyond Ukraine’s current capacity. It implies a war without end, requiring permanent Western loans to keep the economy functioning on life support level. This would reduce Ukraine to even more of a client/frontiersman state than it already is – a source of raw materials and foot soldiers, and assets to be gobbled up, but not a genuinely independent sovereign nation on any part of its territory.
So, a continuation of the war is far more disastrous to Ukraine than it is to Russia; in the short, medium and long terms.
The G20 in Indonesia on 15/16th November, with the NATO powers, Putin, Xi Xinping and the Presidents of the BRIC countries and Turkiye attending could be a point at which the outlines of a cease fire and peace deal could be set up, global tensions reduced, food and energy supplies boosted, the suffering in the war stopped and the world’s attention turned back to cooperation to deal with climate breakdown and global poverty. Or not.
For that to happen, we need countries currently pushing and fueling the war to start pushing for a solution to it instead. This is difficult, because they have invested so much face in it – and bluff is nine tenths of power. The first instinct of government’s like the one we can expect from Liz Truss will be to brass it out – having already signalled that they will promote the war, expect workers to see their living standards fall “in the national interest”, face down any domestic unrest, pass laws to make lawful strikes or protest harder. And that’s just for starters.
The issue for the labour movement therefore, is whether it allows itself to be dragged behind such a policy. We can expect enormous pressure to be put on “enemies within”, dissent interpreted as treason, peace campaigns put on proscription lists.
We can also expect an even louder emphasis on atrocity stories, as, if you are going to mobilise a population behind a war, you need them to fear and loathe the other side. The argument is essentially that the suffering in the war has been, and is, so bad that we should keep it going until the Russians are punished for “starting” it. The continuing suffering of everyone involved as the fighting drags on is somehow collateral damage that can be disregarded. News of the last atrocity fuels the next one, and the one after that.
It is essential in stories like these to project the other side as the sole source of atrocities, or morally culpable for all of them. Hence the need to talk about “Russia’s unprovoked attack” – a constantly repeated phrase used by everyone from President Biden to the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign aimed to mesmerise anyone listening into ignoring everything that happened in Ukraine from 2014 onwards.
You don’t have to agree with Sergei Lavrov that all accusations of Russian atrocities are made up – because all armies commit atrocities in war, which is why the UK government recently passed legislation making British soldiers immune from prosecution for the war crimes the same government likes to pretend they wouldn’t dream of committing – to recognise that many of them have been exaggerated (in exactly the same sort of way that those committed by German soldiers in Belgium in 1914 were) to moralise the public response behind the war drive. But it is helpful to be oblivious that the scale of Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine has been limited compared to what the Americans do in “Shock and Awe” attacks – in which all power stations and water treatment plants are smashed on Day 1.
The need to moralise the public response also requires that people are guided away from any awareness of atrocities committed by the side that “we” support. In the interests of balance, here’s four.
In recent weeks the Ukrainian army has taken to firing thousands of petal mines into Dontesk City. This is an anti personal mine designed to maim; essentially to blow people’s legs off. Firing them into a city is targeting civilians in an indiscriminate way. Thousands of them. We can be sure that any victims of this won’t be given the full Feargal Keene treatment. No instrumentally useful sympathy due there.
In the last fortnight, Ukrainian artillery has been shelling the Zaporozhzhia nuclear power station. The potential consequences of this hardly need spelling out. This is unhinged. But, instead of a simple demand that this stops, we have had surreal reports in the press here echoing Ukrainian claims that the Russians themselves are actually shelling a power station that they control, before moving quickly on before anyone has a chance to reflect on how absurd this is; the same sort of ludicrous stretch in credulity that conspiracy thinking depends on. Everything bad must be done by the bad people so we can stay comfortable in our moral certainty.
In the case of the Bucha massacre, the public claim by the Press Officer of the Azov battalion that their troops were moving through Bucha after the Russian withdrawal to “cleanse” the town of “saboteurs and collaborators” would account for why so many of the victims were found with Russian ration packs or water bottles. This does not mean that no civilians were killed by the Russians, but it takes a real act of will not to conclude that many of them were killed by Azov. This is dismissed in Western media, but, as its a public statement by them on Twitter, I think we can take them at their word.
And there are over 1000 warrants out for treason, and dissidents have been “disappeared” or just shot (and their bodies posted on social media with tags like “one less traitor”).
The bottom line here is that war brings out the worst in everyone. Which underlines why we need to end it.
To conclude. The war is slowly going Russia’s way. Ukraine’s economy is collapsing. Continued NATO arms and financial support won’t change the dynamic of either. Without a resolution – or basis for it – at the latest by the G20, we face a scale of economic and political crisis – even in the wealthiest countries – that is off the map.
We need to campaign for opposition Parties to break with the government line of fuelling the war if we want to avoid economic misery on a scale that would test the fabric of democratic politics.
Sometimes in these discussions, people put the argument that Ukraine has been struggling for independence against Russia for over 100 years. This map from time of the Treaty of Brest Litovsk in 1918 is very interesting when you compare it with the map showing votes in the 2010 Presidential election. Leaving aside the parts of Western Ukraine that were still parts of the Austro Hungarian Empire in 1918, the division between the rest of Western Ukraine and the areas in the South and East that formed Soviet Republics foreshadows almost exactly the political/national fault line shown up by the way people voted in 2010.This shows that the Nationalist movements thatare presented as the representation of the people of Ukraine as a whole are not representative of all of it, and never were.
This map from 2019 showing an aspirational Greater Ukraine, incorporating both Novaya Rossiya and the lands of the Don Cossacks as far as the Caspian Sea, shows that inside every thin nation struggling for self determination, yearning to breathe free, there can be a bloated expansionist version busting to get out and impose itself on others if given the chance.
These are the new projections for energy price rises over the winter.
The projection for Oct 22 is more than double the price from Oct 21.
This could be an underestimate because the future projections are always being revised up, with some estimate already projecting £3850 by January.
The government’s one off £400 rebate will barely put a dent in that.
The scale of the increase imposed on households is extreme by comparison with the 4% capped increase on bills in France. France has a nationalised energy supply system and the recent experience of the Gilets Jaunes protests.
With supermarket chains in Austria issuing advice to staff over what to do if mass looting breaks out during winter blackouts, its hard to avoid the conclusion that we have a government here that is drifting to a scale of disaster it can barely comprehend.
The price of energy is being driven partly by rising global demand after COVID safeguards have been largely abandoned, but is given a vicious upward twist by the war in Ukraine.
The longer the war goes on, the higher the bills will be and the longer they will stay high.
The UK government is actively seeking to prolong the war. The Labour movement should be campaigning for the earliest possible negotiated peace – both to resolve the conflict and relieve the economic pressure here and across the world.
Meanwhile, the TUC has produced a very serious plan for affordable energy which everyone should read and spread about, noting that the projected cost of nationalising the big five energy suppliers is no more than this government has spent on bailing out the weaker private sector suppliers so far.