Kherson Quagmire bodes ill for NATO Narrative

“…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.

Senate House – The Ministry of Truth Photo David Alves. https://www.flickr.com/photos/64097751@N00/33631514211

Stats for Socialists: Why the Tories will cost the Earth – in both ways.

Both candidates for Conservative leader, and therefore Prime Minister, oppose onshore wind and favour new oil and gas exploration in the North Sea. This is motivated by the current increase in costs for oil and gas – which makes them expensive for consumers and profitable for producers.

The TUC released figures showing excess profits for UK based fossil fuel producers of £170 billion in the next two years. We could do an awful lot with a windfall tax on that. A rate of 56%, as currently used in Norway, would raise £90 billion. The projected prospective Norwegian rate of 78% more like £132 billion. And these are excess profits; so, taxing the lot wouldn’t be unreasonable, even for opponents of public ownership.

Even the lowest amount would pay for Labour’s proposed £26 billion investment to insulate our housing stock by 2035 three times over, with £12 billion left over to do the schools and hospitals too.

It is now 9 times more expensive to produce energy from gas than it is from renewables. But energy prices are set by the gas price. The EU is planning to cut that link so the cheaper energy from renewables can be reflected in prices. Keeping the link here in Brexit Britain would make energy here qualitatively more expensive than in the rest of Europe. The IMF reports that this is already the case.

Its hard to avoid the conclusion that the consensus resistance to insulation on the Right is because insulated homes reduce bills by reducing demand for an otherwise profitable product. And that would never do, would it?

It takes 28 years to bring new Oil and Gas fields on stream, compared to under two years for onshore wind and five for offshore.

Another way to put this is that we can have new onshore wind farms in operation by 2024.

Offshore wind projects starting now will come on stream in 2027.

New Oil and Gas fields given the go ahead now will take until 2050 – by which time we should have very little use for them if we want to survive.

Nuclear power plants take 7.5 years on average just to construct. Hinckley C is scheduled to take 9. The energy they produce is significantly more expensive than renewables. The government’s proposed Small Modular Reactors are even more expensive and not due to be rolled out until the 2030s.

Reports in the FT have indicated that new “agile” companies hoping to exploit North Seas fossil fuel reserves will bring them into production faster than has been the case hitherto. Which, presumably, is where the proposed scrapping of health, safety and environment regulations come in; so we can have a regime of deep sea oil drilling rigs as lightly regulated as the banks were before 2008.

What could possibly go wrong?

This Winter’s Reckoning.

A recent article in the Financial Times puts things very starkly, albeit in very restrained language.

“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.

Historical Note

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 that are presented as the representation of the people of Ukraine as a whole are not representative of all of it, and never were.

https://www.edmaps.com/html/ukraine_march_1918.html
http://antifon.blogspot.com/2014_11_01_archive.html
https://www.edmaps.com/html/ukraine_claims_1919.html

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.

Where’s Mr Flint when you need him?

We live in a distinctive but tutti putti flat; designed and built by a locally famous architect and builder called Ernest Trobridge in the late 1920s. Trobridge believed in using natural, local materials and had a real thing about compressed wood. His houses and flats are scattered around NW9, the earliest ones heavily thatched, and include the Castle Flats on the corner of our road; which appeared with Sir John Betjeman standing on top of them in his Metroland documentary in 1973 (and the Madness “Our House” video nine years later… from what feels like a very different time). His designs are part Tudor, part medieval, with imaginative twists – particularly tall, spirally chimneys – that make me wonder how many spoons of magic mushrooms he took in his tea. All the fireplaces in our row of flats are variations on a theme of decorative brick that look hefty and solid. But, the structure of interior walls (and some exterior walls) was described in our pre sale survey as “exceptionally flimsy”. So, though they don’t look just the same, they are, in parts, definitely made out of ticky tacky.

A while back, one of us knocked into one of the bedroom walls and a hole appeared. Pulling away a layer of wallpaper revealed a 6″ x 9″ rectangular cavity with an air brick at the end, that the previous owners had just papered over. Brushing out the dust and cobwebs revealed several rusted nails left over from 1927 and an air brick at a visibly wonky angle; implying that 1920s craftsmanship wasn’t all that it has been cracked up to be. Definite sense of “that’ll do” combined with an undue haste to get done. With the impending energy price rise putting a premium on closing off sources of drafts, I bought an air brick grille. This, like all good Christmas toys that arrive without batteries, arrived without screws; but with the instruction to use “Grade 6 round headed screws of appropriate length”. I needed four of them. The only packs they had in Wickes contained 50. So, having screwed them in, I am left with 46 spare. In the absence of another 11 and a half grilles to put in, I’ve just put them in the tin box that contains all the other packs of screws and nails; where they will stay unused, possibly forever.

When I was growing up in Grays, there was a tiny shop on the corner of Orsett Road and Derby Road that was run by Mr Flint. Flints was a bit like the shop in the 2 Ronnies “For…k…andles” sketch, but much smaller and qualitatively neater. In fact, it might be best described as a shrine to the most anally retentive possible kind of man cave. Presided over by Mr Flint: a small, bald, bird faced man in one of those brown coats that proclaimed that he was a tradesman and proud of it. He sold all sorts of DIY related bits and bobs, and a nice little side line in Airfix plastic models and armies in a box, and the dinky little tins of Humbrol paints needed to paint them. One line that seemed to sell quite well was models of the ships involved in the Battle of the River Plate – probably recalled in plastic because it was a moral boosting early victory for the Royal Navy at a time when everything else was bleak; or, given that it was on Dec 13th 1939, hadn’t properly kicked off yet. The German pocket battleship Graf Spee and the British and New Zealand light cruisers Ajax, Achilles and (rather more prosaically) Exeter; of the sort that were strikingly described as “eggshells armed with hammers”. I’ve known people like that. Me, sometimes. These were on display above the counter, as a sort of decorative flourish. But the main trade of the shop was tools, screws, nails, nuts and bolts and such. You could buy these in exactly the quantity you needed. If you wanted 4 Grade 6 Round headed screws, Mr Flint would sell you 4 Grade 6 round headed screws. And charge you a ha’penny for it. So, you got what you needed, no more, no less; no waste, no overconsumption, no pointless storage.

Mr Flint from memory circa 1964

In the middle of the parade of shops in Kingsbury, there is a large store to let. That is the sort of space that we need for a Library of Things, one of the Repair Workshops the Council is planning and possibly a free book exchange. The main shopping drag is part of the Roe Green Green Zone, along with the Park, the Primary and Secondary Schools and the streets to the North, which will be the prototype for local transformation. Early days and the Council has limited resources, but we should be thinking big.

Reflections from not such Muddy Waters

The view from the Bridge at Wallingford looking East towards an Estuary that feels a world away.

Walking up the Ridgeway from Goring towards Wallingford with Jamie, its hard to believe that this limpid stream is the same river as the slow, sludgy, salty, ship laden delta of the North Sea I grew up with. The cleanliness of the water – so clear you can see small fry fish darting in the shallows by the banks, with the “Prince of Wales Angler Club” signs everywhere warning off casual fishers and showing that the age old aristocratic war against the poacher is alive and well (“Day Passes NOT available”)- is complemented by people paddling punt like boats and inflatables, and one swimmer. Swim in the river off Grays and you’d need several injections and a stomach pump. Large, comfortable looking houses the size of small hotels are lazing on this sunny afternoon in Summertime; with elegant motor cruisers tethered at the bottom of their immaculate lawns; and I’m sure the people in them love to live so pleasantly, live this life of luxury…(1)

Something dream like about these houses, with their tall slim Tudor style chimneys in red brick; some of them with thatched barns where they might keep pet Hobbits. Live in this part of the world and it would be hard to imagine there is very much wrong with it – at least in so far as it impinges on your own life. Troubles elsewhere are “noises off”. The downside of course is that, living in a place like this, all such noises are implicitly threatening.

The Ridgeway is said to be the oldest continually travelled route in England. Going back well before the Romans, it runs alongside the Thames for a bit, then up and across the Chiltern hills, hence Ridgeway, past the Vale of White Horse and ending up (or starting) just under a hundred miles on at Avebury, the largest stone circle in the world, that late Stone Age people started building 5,000 years ago. So, this has been a highway of sorts since at least then, at least half the time since people first started edging into the country as the glaciers retreated 12,000 years back. In continuous use throughout the Holocene.

Its now mostly a footpath, mercifully inaccessible to motor vehicles but much used as a Bridleway. We stand back to let pass a couple of riders coming the other way. The horses are enormous close up, which reinforces how daunting cavalry must have been to foot soldiers for so long.

Partly overgrown like a tunnel through trees; further on parts of it are a classic Hollow Way where continuous erosion from walking feet and the hooves of driven animals and carts have worn it down to well below the level of the surrounding fields, but where we were there were just some cool, shady, green lit avenues over arched by trees, like the naves of a living cathedral, followed by exposed paths alongside burnt out fields of stunted wheat, fried in a merciless sun.

Dragonflies cruise and flit like predator drones. J points out that dragonflies have the highest successful predation rate of any insect. The sensitive vision of their huge eyes complemented by their capacity to hover and fly fast gives them an 80% successful hunt rate.

Wallingford was not our target. The original idea was to get up onto the hills, but after about four hours of walking, our strategy of stamina through dehydration was hitting its limits, so we headed for it as the nearest town; in the process testing the limits of online navigation well beyond its (or possibly our) capacity. Overshooting it to the East, we had to cut back and approach it from the North. In doing so we passed the house in Crowmarsh that Jethro Tull (1674 – 1741) had lived in. This was the inventor of the horse drawn seed drill in 1701 after being partly inspired by the mechanics of musical organs when he was just 27. Not to be confused with the highly successful and distinctive band of the same name, who were monikered by a history loving agent; who wanted something that stuck out from the morass of common or garden band names on a poster. 2. Hey aqualung!

Wallingford is a tight little town; still inside the neat square of its medieval wall boundaries and evidently wanting to stay that way. Incorporated as a Borough in 1155, under Henry II, its Jubilee Union Jack bunting is complemented by flags displaying the town arms. It has the feel of a place that might just issue its own passports if provoked enough. It is twinned with two similarly prosperous small towns, one in Germany, one in France: showing that the rest of the world that’s worth knowing is “people like us” and nothing to scare the pony club. No riff raff.

Established early around a strategic river crossing, it had an Anglo Saxon earthwork on the higher ground overlooking the ford, then a powerful medieval castle doing the same for the bridge; which was first mentioned in the historical record in 1141. The castle was enough of a strategic stronghold for the Empress Maud for it to be put under siege by King Stephen during the “Years of Anarchy” in the 12th century; but never taken. It was the last Royalist Fortress to surrender to Parliamentary forces in the Civil War – underlining the oft made comment that Oxfordshire has often been the last home of lost causes – and then demolished. Only the mound for the keep and a few bits of wall and buttress remain, alongside a sheltered graveyard left over from a Priory alongside that Henry VIII dissolved before Cromwell could knock it about a bit.

Alongside the mound is an information board that notes all this and adds a couple of odd stories about a local pub designed to make people have a drink in it with an added historical frisson.

1. That the sweetheart of a Royalist officer killed after a row in the bar mixed her tears with soot from the fireplace and smeared them on a wall – tears that are both enormous and still visible. Touching them up probably comes with the landlord agreement.

2. That infamous Highwayman Dick Turpin, jumped out of the first floor window neatly onto the back of his waiting horse to spur himself away from pursuers; just like he reputedly did in many other pubs in the South of England that were standing at the time.

We rather wearily climb to the top of the mound and watch a red faced toddler with curly hair fire off a foam rocket from the summit with a foot pump powered device, then bump down the slope on his bottom after it; but instead of retrieving it imperiously order his patient grandparents to “fetch that rocket”. It looks like a vision of Boris Johnson’s childhood. In an archetype of conversations with toddlers the world over they wearily riposte with, “If you don’t say please…”

Instead of a castle and priory, it now has a very large and swish Waitrose, which we visit for a while to take advantage of its air conditioning, and lots of “Antique” shops; which have window displays full of stuff that look like they’ve actually been retrieved from house clearances and polished up. Old tat, but OLD tat. None of these shops are owned by the apocryphal antique dealer Robin Bastard, but probably should be.

On the West side of the bridge there is a small children’s playground and a tiny, but perfectly formed, Lido doing a roaring trade with loads of families and small children splashing, jumping and screaming in a happy sort of way. A little vision of heaven. On the river itself boats are up for hire and people are messing about in them with a joyful abandon that we observe warily as we much our Quorn burgers in the shade of one of the bridge’s mighty stone arches.

With our feet about to drop off, we decide a bus journey is preferable to a two hour walk along the Riverside path back to Goring. Waiting for a bus in the tiny market square behind a war memorial that looks more pacific than most – topped with a wreathed female figure that could be a goddess of peace, or victory, or both; the two being indivisible in most British remembrance – in front of a courthouse with a memorial plaque to Sir William Blackstone, he of the Common Law Commentaries that are still updated and used in UK and US Law – who presided there in the early Eighteenth Century. Just before the bus arrives, the church clock strikes five. Five clear, single notes with a mellow tone, but audible across the whole town for people who could count up to twelve to be able to work out how late it was. 5 bells and all’s well.

Back in Reading, as the Friday evening festivities are getting under way, loud music from the pub on the corner, people eating and drinking out on tables on the street, we pass a youngish bloke holding up a large Ukraine flag alongside a cluster of LGBT rainbow flags; an irony given how hostile the Ukrainian far right – who are now the backbone of their country’s military – are to gay rights of any description, and how many violent attacks they have launched on attempts to have Pride events there. Putin’s hostility is well known and energetically publicised here. That of Azov, C14 and the Right Sector not so much.

Cinematic post script

Taking the weight off our feet, and drinking vast quantities of water, we plump to watch American Graffiti rather than 7 Samurai; much more summery. I’d previously seen this as an undergrad in 1974 or 5 in a lecture theatre in York full of slightly drunk students; who added a dimension of audience participation I’ve not experienced before or since. I hadn’t realised it was a George Lucas, nor that it had Harrison Ford in it; looking younger and more svelte than he has ever managed since. Worth watching for the soundtrack alone, with a generous range of tracks from Rock Around the Clock by Bill Hailey (1952) to Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs (1962) and everything in between; and for the vintage cars cruising the strip, each of them characters in their own right – the sort you’d expect Jerry Seinfeld to step out of with a fellow comedian in search of coffee.

“The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only as dusk is falling”, Marx citing Hegel arguing that we can only properly understand events after they have happened. Carved owls in Goring.
  1. Sunny Afternoon by the Kinks. A song I have always associated with this part of the world after a holiday on a boat up the Thames between Shepperton Lock and Henley on Thames with my family in the late 60s. It was played a lot on the Radio at the time, and it seemed to fit the world I could see on the banks of the river. One of the happiest weeks of my life.
  2. Hey Aqualung by Jethro Tull – track that would make a great theme tune for a series of talks about Stranger Danger.

Tony Blair – Yesterday’s Man in Tomorrow’s World

If you read the speech by Sir Anthony Charles Lynton Blair KG on “After Ukraine – what lessons for Western leadership” , take a moment or two to contemplate his photograph. Right down to the washed out tones, this is the face of a man who has split his soul into many parts and scattered them like depleted uranium shells all over the world; a tightened mask showing the strain of a twenty year struggle to suppress the self awareness of the consequences of his decisions that is nagging away at the back of his mind. As a practicing Anglo Catholic, he must have confessed to some of them, and worn out a few rosary beads, all the better to double down on the world view that led him to make them in the first place.

His central argument is that, like 1945 and 1980, 2022 “the West is at an inflection point”. He says “the West” because the rest of the world is defined in relation to it and only comes into the picture as an object for “Western Strategy” to manipulate. As always with Blair, his use of language is designed to obscure as much as it illuminates. “The West” is a shorthand phrase that he uses because it has largely positive associations (in “the West”). Try substituting “The Global North” throughout, and there is a jarring dissonance in his message. The “Global North” is redolent of Global inequities in wealth and power, ruthlessly maintained by its members, is therefore a more accurate label for the powers he is talking about, and this undermines the foundations of his argument; which is why he doesn’t use it.

This can be seen in his opaque description of 1945 as his first “inflection point”. At this time “the West had to create new institutions of international governance, of defence, of European cooperation in place of not one but two world wars caused by conflict between European powers”. This awkward phrasing is designed to skim over the nature of those World Wars – as inter imperialist conflicts between Global European Empires, the result of which was the crushing of a challenge from Wilhelmine, then Nazi Germany and replacement of the weakening Global dominion of the British Empire with the Pax Americana. Nor does he examine the beginning of a breakdown in global imperial dominion in the Russian revolution and foundation of the USSR, nor growing movements for colonial freedom. Nor the way that the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was dependent on the Red Army and largely Communist led Partisan movements in Europe; and the people of China in Asia; both Nationalist and Communist. This is the context for the West’s strategic choices at that point. Blair’s “new institutions” were those required to coral weaker European imperialisms beneath the USA’s new dominion. In 1945, the USA was producing 50% of global GDP and was able to afford to rebuild its rivals as subordinate powers, drive the Communist Left out of post war coalitions in Western Europe by 1947, and cement them into NATO by 1949. These were the initial moves in the first Cold War; predating the formation of the People’s Republics in Eastern Europe in 1948, and the formation of the Warsaw Pact in 1955.

Blair goes on to argue that the strategy for the 1945 “inflection point” in Europe was broadly Social Democratic, building welfare states, modern infrastructure for health and education “to make available to the broad mass of the people what had hitherto been restricted to a privileged few”. He can no more bring himself to say “for the many not the few” than he can note the nationalisation of significant industries, but this is broadly right. What it misses is why this was done. Marshall Aid was not charity. The calculation in the USA was that if the US did not rebuild Western Europe on its own model, and provide some hope and prosperity, the civil war against Nazi collaborators led by Communist Partisans in countries like Italy would re- erupt and the USA could “lose Europe” in the way it “lost China” by 1949.

In 1980, by contrast, the “inflection point” overturned that settlement. “In 1980, after years of nuclear proliferation, we (sic) sought the final collapse of the Soviet Union and the triumph of liberal democratic values.” This was via the Reagan/Thatcher “revolution in favour of markets and private enterprise” against “a burgeoning state power that seemed to hold back the enterprise of the people, not nurture it.” It should be noted that Blair declares himself quite agnostic about the character of the strategy launched at these inflection points, so long as there was “a governing project” whatever it might be “, a plan, a way of looking at the world which sought to make sense of it and provide for the advancement of the people.”

His problem here is that the results of the “triumph of liberal democratic values” and “revolution in favour of free markets and private enterprise” has been a shift in wealth and power from “the broad mass of the people” to “the privileged few”. As he notes, “living standards are stagnating”, while “inflation is causing real wages to fall” and public services like the NHS are “pretty much on its knees”. We could add that in countries like the UK and USA, life expectancy is now actually declining. He further notes that the 2008 crash led to emergency economic measures that “rewarded those with assets” while “penalising those without.” The polarisation of wealth has become dizzying. The mass of young people today do not expect to live as well, or as long, as their parents. Even leaving aside climate breakdown, the future looks less like a promise than a threat. Needless to say, Blair doesn’t propose anything that would change this.

Instead, he bemoans the way that “the broad mass of the people” have become susceptible to “rampant populism” and “laying the blame for the condition of the people onto ‘elites'” Perish the thought that the stagnant living standards of the many should have anything to do with the grotesque over accumulation of the few. With no answers, Blair simply bemoans the decline of centrist, consensual managerialism of the sort he embodied in government.

He goes on to argue that the “partisan, ugly and unproductive” domestic politics is destabilising for “the West’s” projection of power internationally; but with no answers to provide hope or decent living standards and, in fact supporting polices that will make the economic attack on “the broad mass of the people” worse, he has simply put his finger on an unresolvable conundrum for anyone with his politics.

He argues that as US global engagement is “determined” by domestic politics, it lacks consistency and coherence. “Foreign policy looks unpredictable”. This is nonsense, as there is a direct continuity in US foreign policy in the “tilt to Asia” and preoccupation with containing China. The tactics may change, but the strategic objective has been consistent.

In ringing the alarm that “domestic politics appears dysfunctional” he does not reflect that the economic basis no longer exists for it not to be. In an attempt to stimulate the economy to prevent it being outgrown by China, the Biden administration put in a huge economic stimulus package – $1.9 billion in 2021 – 96% of which went on consumption and only 4% on investment. The net effect of that has been stagflation; GDP growth of 0.4% in the first quarter of 2022 with inflation eating away at wages and pensions at 9.1% and a dramatic knock on effect destabilising the rest of the world. It should be noted that 75% of the price increases in the US predated the start of the war in Ukraine. With the “American dream” faltering for so much of its population, the approach of the increasingly fabulously rich billionaire class is to fund massive campaigns of online distraction designed to divide the unity of the population; racism, “anti woke”, encouraging nationalist militias like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, alongside poisonous anti feminist currents like the Incel movement, and spiced up with wild conspiracy theories like QAnon; with its tepid British echoes in the debacle of the Brexit delusion. This “turmoil” is a function of the gross inequality that Blair is unwilling to challenge, because the people pulling the strings are the milieu he moves in now. Whether he did or did not have an affair with Wendi Deng, the rumour that he might have illuminates the world he lives in.

Blair has no answers to the reasons for this crisis, so he moves swiftly on to something “new”. “Western democracy needs a new project. Something which gives direction, inspires hope, is a credible explanation of the way the world is changing and how we succeed within it”.

Now, what might that possibly be? Is there an existential threat facing the whole of humanity that’s crying out for global leadership, that countries with wealth and technology have contributed to more than anyone which requires urgent and immediate action if the despair felt by the 54% of young people who feel that “humanity is doomed” is to be turned to hope, respond to the credible explanation for why the world is heating up and give direction to everyone in overcoming it? A look out of his air conditioned apartment at the Red Heat conditions, or a quick look at the wild fires across Europe, the drought that has reduced the Po to a trickle in places and lowered the water level in the Rhine to a point that shipping barges up and down it is now in question might give him a clue. You’d think Climate Breakdown would be a no brainer. There is no bigger issue. It has the potential to unite humanity in creating a better world, because we will need one to keep temperatures down and survive it. Blair does not go for it. This is not because he is dim, but because the sort of leadership required from the world’s wealthiest countries would be as difficult for them as a camel threading the eye of a needle; as its the polarisation of wealth, domestically and internationally, and the over consumption of the top global 10% – most of whom live in “the West” – that is accelerating us beyond 1.5C. Rather than take that on, Blair, and the class he represents, ducks the biggest issue of our time. These people are no longer even in a position to pretend to be leading humanity.

He rather lamely mentions climate change in one other place, saying “we should continue to lead in the climate debate.” Debate?! How about leading in climate action? His problem here is that the West/North seeks to carry on with its current “way of life” and hopes to get away with its gigantic carbon footprints by dumping the costs of transition onto those parts of the world that have done least to cause the problem and are already suffering the most from it. Now that Senator Joe Manchin has finally scuttled the last feeble twitchings of Joe Biden’s massively watered down Green New Deal – killed it stone dead – the United States is now naked in the COP Conference Chamber; and, again, can no longer get away with even pretending to lead on the greatest challenge facing us. The prospect of a Republican controlled Congress and Presidency after 2024 (whether it is the horror of a disinterred Donald Trump or a smoother Trumpite like Ron Desantis) means that the US may be moving back to outright denial and sabotage of Global cooperation. Blair averts his eyes from the reality here, because, for him, being in a bloc with the USA is an imperative, averting climate breakdown somehow optional.

So, having ducked the global imperative, Blair fishes around and decides that the West’s domestic mission has to be “all about harnessing the technology revolution”. As Eccles once said in the Goon Show, “I’m the anti-climax”. This is no more than a re-tread of Harold Wilson’s “white heat of the technological revolution” as the solution to all ills in the 1960s. So, not so new.

Its also quite clear that its more about making the world safe for Google, Facebook and surveillance capitalism in general than providing a genuine global vision, as, having make a token genuflection to “legitimate concerns around data protection and privacy” he confirms that these concerns should not “shackle innovation or lose us competitive advantage”.

The attraction of a technological/technocratic way forward for Blair is that the “20th-century politics of right and left don’t really fit with it”; which is a wonderfully confident declaration that simply isn’t true. His problem here is that investment in general, and in R&D in particular, in neo liberal capitalist economies is very low. UK business investment is still below what it was in 2008 for example. Technology is only deployed when it is profitable to do so. Without “a burgeoning state power” to “nurture” investment, on the Chinese model, there won’t be enough of it to break out of Blair’s doldrums. But doing so would require a break with the “triumph of liberal democratic values” and “revolution in favour of free markets and private enterprise” that Blair is in favour of. So, snookered.

So far, so stuck.

Moving into foreign policy its impossible to read a sentence like “Ukraine should be a pivot point, reviving our sense of mission” without realising that – far from learning anything from Iraq – he wants to do it all over again, all over the world.

His lack of self awareness is illustrated by his argument that the Russian invasion means that “we” can no longer believe in “big power rationality” ; as the Russian invasion is “a brutal and unjustified act of aggression…on the absurd pretext that (Ukraine) somehow threatened the aggressor”. Let’s go back to 2003. The UK, along with the USA and others, invaded Iraq, on two pretexts. 1. That it was involved in the 9/11 attacks – which everyone knew it wasn’t – and 2. That it had “weapons of mass destruction” capable of being deployed against the UK in 45 minutes. These WMD turned out to be a work of fiction concocted by our Intelligence Services to make the invasion sellable to the public; which should make us take anything else they say with at least a pinch of salt. More to the point, this was precisely an “absurd pretext that (Iraq) somehow threatened the aggressor” (in this case us). When you compare that with the Russian fear that 1. NATO, the most powerful military alliance in the world, spending over 60% of global arms spending, and $19 to every $1 spent by Russia, has expanded right up to their borders and 2. has started the process of incorporating Ukraine, training its troops from 2014 on, and 3.has refused to discuss mutual security guarantees and 4. NATO missiles stationed in Ukraine could hit Moscow in less than 5 minutes (not 45) you might begin to wonder whose fear of being threatened was more “absurd” and whose “big power rationality” should be subject to question. For Blair, of course, reason is compliance with the most powerful force. All else is subordinate to that.

His view that Ukraine should be seen as a “pivot” is, however, not primarily directed at Russia, but China. After all, as he says, inadvertently revealing how how “absurd” are NATO claims that Russia is poised to steamroller all over its neighbouring countries, Russia has an economy “70% the size of Italy”.

China is a different kettle of fish. China has an economy already larger than the US in PPP terms and is growing significantly faster, which means “We are coming to the end of Western political and economic dominance.” Even on Blair’s chosen field of the technological mission, “China has caught up with America in many fields of technology and could surpass it in others”. 5G a case in point.

Us dominance is already unravelling. As Blair acknowledges, “China…has pursued an active and successful engagement with the world, building connections in respect of which, as far as I can witness, there is a deep reluctance, even on the part of traditional American allies, to give up” whereas “the West and the international institutions it controls have been bureaucratic, unimaginative and often politically intrusive without being politically effective”.

So, the difference with 1945 and 1980 is that the West is no longer ascendent and “for the first time in modern History the East can be on equal terms with the West”. This is a bit exaggerated. We’re not there yet, but Blair can see the writing on the wall.

What concerns Blair is that after 2008, President Xi has “re-established the supreme power of the Communist Party”. We should note that this is a Party of 90 million members and enjoys around 95% support from the population, according to studies from Harvard University; which has no reason to inflate or prettify these figures.

The 2008 crash was indeed a moment at which a lot of people in China took a hard look at the neo-liberal model and saw through its failings, supporters of being more like the US, and accepting a role within a US dominated global system, got a lot quieter and, as Blair notes, now “China will compete not just for power, but against our system, our way of governing and living.” Given that “our way of living” is unsustainable, that’s probably just as well.

Again, Blair argues “we cannot rely on the Chinese leadership to behave in the way we would consider rational”. This translates as, we can’t rely on them to do what we tell them, and they are big and powerful enough to be able to get away with that sometimes.

His argument that an invasion of Taiwan should not be ruled out because peaceful re-unification is inconceivable shows a poverty of imagination, unable to project forwards to a point at which China is constructing a prosperous “ecological civilisation”, as Xi puts it, and becomes a relatively attractive prospect for people on that island.

His presumption that divisions can be fostered and pro Western/Global North forces cultivated would require “the West” to be able to offer a more positive alternative. The example he chooses is almost surreal. “As his Covid strategy has shown, strongman leadership carries inherent weaknesses when people fear to challenge what should be challenged.” As China’s Covid policy has kept deaths there below 5,000, compared to over a million in the US and 200,000 in the UK, you might be forgiven for wondering who should be challenging what. Had China modelled its response on the chaotic insanity of Donald Trump and busines first approach of Joe Biden and had a similar death rate, they have lost over 4.7 million people by now. Clearly people must be mad not to be demonstrating in the streets to follow “our way of governing”.

Blair’s strategy for dealing with a world in which “China is not rising, its risen” is to consolidate primarily around core military alliances, NATO SEATO, AUKUS, 5 eyes, increase military spending, invest in cyberwarfare and attempt to promote “soft power”. Increasing military expenditure at a time of declining wages and life expectancy, is likely to be unpopular in the medium term. Hence his statement that “we need political leaders prepared to stand up to domestic political pressure”. There is an undemocratic logic in this, as one way of standing up to domestic pressure is to restrict and remove the levers available for people to express it.

He favours hanging tough. Once committed to an intervention, whether in Afghanistan or Libya or Iraq, it becomes imperative to sustain it. There is a strong whiff of wishful thinking about this. Permanent occupation propping up corrupt puppet regimes was unsustainable in Afghanistan and Iraq, and not primarily for domestic reasons. An armed forces permanently bogged down in two, three many Afghanistans, is not going to be capable of intervening elsewhere when needed. Blair wants his cake and eat it.

His resounding liberal human rights mission also falls foul of some of his key alliances. Even taking “the West” at its own self estimation, Joe Biden fist bumping Mohamed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia underlines the point that the USA has never been squeamish about the regimes it allies with, promotes and defends. As FDR said of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s OUR son of a bitch”. As Blair puts it “if we have disagreements about human rights we should say so, but that shouldn’t prevent us supporting them when they’re faced with threats common to all of us”. “All of us” here meaning the Global 1%.

As Blair notes, “the human spirit wants to be free”. In large parts of the world that takes the form of wanting to be free of US sponsored coups and the conditions of IMF finance that act a lot like pay day loans and sabotage development.

His final point is that “the craziness in our own politics has to stop”. He cites the influence of Nigel Farage (an agent of Trump) and Jeremy Corbyn (a rare blast of sense and decency) in the UK, but is oddly silent about Donald Trump. With the US Supreme Court on an evangelical end of times rampage against abortion rights, environmental protection, and gun control, he does not mention the January 6th attempted coup, nor the pending Supreme Court case slated to hand State Legislatures the right to ignore the popular vote in the next Presidential election and choose their own slate of electors just like Trump wanted them to last time; nor the measures being driven through Republican controlled States to disenfranchise global majority voters. The “craziness” in the USA is just getting started. Blair will no doubt find a way to accommodate to that, but those who have thought like him in the past, confronted by the increasing “craziness” and rogue state aggression coming from the USA, will have to resolve a political crisis of their own.

Class Struggle inside Ukraine

Two recent articles in Open Democracy report responses from Ukrainian trade unions to the “Lugano Declaration”, which came out of a conference between high Western and Ukrainian officials in Switzerland last week and sets out plans for economic reconstruction “after the war is over” by the Ukrainian Oligarchy* and its major imperial sponsors; the US, UK and EU.

This exposes the way that Ukrainian Oligarchs are ruthlessly using the war to entrench their position against the working class.

Natalia Zemlyanska, head of Ukraine’s Union of Manufacturers and Entrepreneurs commented, “No representatives from Ukrainian trade unions, nor our social partners from the employers’ side, were invited to help develop the reconstruction plan.

Thus, Ukrainian unions are not considered by their ruling class to be a significantly valuable part of their nation to deserve any voice in discussions about helping shape its future economy. This is not new. As Zemlanskya noted, the principle of social dialogue “died in Ukraine long before the Russian invasion”.

Its worth bearing in mind what the pre war baseline they are “reconstructing” was. Overall, Ukraine was a country in structural crisis and decline. In 2019 the population was down 10 million from the level of 1993, declining at about half a million a year. Its GDP was lower than it was in 1989, with an aging population despite a low life expectancy of just 71.76 years (67 for men) and the shortest healthy life expectancy in Europe. Unemployment was consistently around 9%. It was 88th out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index – well below Russian and Belarus, just below China, Ecuador and Azerbaijan; and just above the Dominican Republic, Saint Lucia and Tunisia.

The reconstruction planned at Lugano will entrench these trends by consolidating the liberalisation of labour legislation that has accelerated since the Maidan events in 2014 – which has now been entrenched by emergency wartime regulations – to further squeeze the space for trade unions to operate, to give employers a free hand, and remove state oversight of the labour market.

This has been supported by countries like the UK for some years. Alongside the military training delivered since 2014, in 2021 the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office funded a propaganda project to make labour deregulation popularly acceptable; in a clear demonstration of what making “development” subordinate to foreign policy imperatives looks like.

This highlights something that at first sight looks paradoxical. While seeking EU membership, Ukraine is moving sharply away from EU labour standards. In October 2020, eighteen months before the Russian invasion, the joint report of the Ukrainian unions and the European TUC , noted that obligations to enshrine “international labour norms in law and in practice, ensure freedom of association and collective bargaining in particular, strengthen social dialogue and capacities of social partners, and gradually align its legislation with the EU Acquis in the field of employment, remuneration, social policies and equal opportunitieswere just not being done. As they noted, “no reasonable progress has been achieved“.

Now that the EU powers like Germany and France, which previously might have aimed for a modus operandi with Russia, both militarily and economically, have been brought to heel by the US and will be paying the economic price both for increased arms expenditure and being forcibly weaned off relatively cheap Russian energy supplies, negotiations on labour standards with Ukraine could well be used by neo liberal forces in the EU to leverage a weakening of its own current levels as an unaffordable luxury in straightened times – in an odd mirror image of the downward pressure exerted by the UKs trajectory of a post Brexit race to the bottom.

Before the war, wage levels were already among the lowest in Europe, with one quarter of the population receiving an income lower than the actual living wage, fuelling a persistent and massive exodus of younger workers in a search of better pay in the EU, particularly in the neighbouring countries, and avoiding being conscripted to fight in the Donbass at the same time.

It has got worse since. Employers are now able to suspend employment contracts: so employees do not receive wages, but are still considered employed. And this is being widely used. By 1 April, roughly five million citizens had applied for income loss benefits – 16 times more than the 308,000 registered number of unemployed at the end of May.

This gives carte blanche for ‘shadow employers’ who do not employ people officially. The state now no longer monitors wage debts – a long term problem in Ukraine.

In response to the war Parliament has further suspended parts of workplace protections and collective agreements, put forward legislation to take employees of small and medium-sized enterprises – 70% of Ukraine’s workforce –outside of the scope of current labour legislation and given employers the right to terminate employment contracts at will.

Wages fell by an average of 10% in May, compared to the pre-war period. Wages in raw material extraction, security and manual labour have almost halved.

Future Faking?

Right now, under the impact of the war, six million people, mostly women, have left the country. In Europe, many of them are now living in countries where wages are higher, laws are largely obeyed, and housing and Nurseries are affordable. Their return en masse gets less likely the longer the war goes on, and, after the end of martial law, which forbids men under the age of 60 from leaving the country, many who can will leave the country to join them. A long war will create tensions on this front too.

In the immediate term the state wants to develop microbusinesses to relaunch the economy: which amounts to lending to micro-entrepreneurs or training people in IT skills. This will be hampered by the destruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure, low purchasing power and general instability which present small businesses with enormous problems in setting up supply chains or finding customers.

The Lugano Declaration rests heavily on ‘A Blueprint for the Reconstruction of Ukraine’, published by a group of international economists in April, which aims to:

1) introduce more flexible employment contracts and eliminate labour legislation that precludes the development of liberal economic policy;

2) provide government subsidies for foreign companies;

3) large-scale privatisation, including Ukraine’s biggest banks;

4) priority credit support for export sector;

5) use of low-skilled and labour-intensive public works to fix infrastructure;

6) establish a technocratic agency that will distribute international aid.

The kind of future society envisaged here is quite clear.

And this is beginning to generate tensions. As Vitaliy Dudin notes, “Ukrainians were ready to endure any difficulties in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion. But as the tide of the war has changed, not everyone thinks the current situation – where business has advantages over workers – is fair”.

The extent to which this finds expression remains to be seen. This is a very important perception. “As the tide of the war has changed”. A spirit of unquestioning national unity might be viable in the immediate shock of an invasion, or when it looked, briefly, as though the Russian withdrawal from Kyiv might be the prelude for a general victory for Ukraine in the short term. But, the longer the war drags on, and the more Russia advances, the more the class contradiction on the Ukrainian side is likely to find expression.

Dudin’s argument that an alternative based on state investment to create secure, sustainable jobs, with popular engagement and trade union involvement, skills training, proper state scrutiny and regulation of employer practice because, as he puts it post-war Ukrainian society needs integration, and that will be ensured by the development of state-owned and cooperative enterprises that do not make profits to the detriment of society and environment, and this requires policies of redistribution through taxation and the confiscation of surplus wealth from Ukraine’s richest people runs counter the interests of those running the state – who are precisely “Ukraine’s richest people” – and contrary to the kind of society they are fighting the war for; in alliance with the most predatory imperialisms on the planet.

Achieving a programme like Dudin’s won’t be done with the Oligarchs in power, nor with NATO backing them. Zemlanskaya’s argument that “The most important thing is to win – and then to see in what form Ukraine has ended the war, and what the future will look like,” is declaring a class truce while the war lasts – a truce that is not being respected by the ruling class. It also begs two questions

  1. Is the neo liberal dystopia the Oligarchs and NATO have in mind worth fighting and dying for?
  2. When and in what circumstances will the war be over, and what interest do the working class in Ukraine have in the circumstances in which that happens? The US, UK and the gung ho wing of NATO are for fuelling it for as long as possible, years not months; and are quite insouciant what might be left of Ukraine at the end of it. They are pre-emptively opposing diplomatic negotiations.

This is also a question for the international labour movement, being hit increasingly hard by the economic blowback from the war itself and, more severely, the sanctions the US has imposed to pursue it by other means. None of us has an interest in this war continuing.

Arguing against negotiations on the grounds that this would “reward” Russia should bear in mind the consequences for all concerned if the war continues. And that peace on the Russian terms – Crimea and Donbass not part of nationalist Ukraine, Ukraine not in NATO, Mutual Security arrangement (or even long drawn out negotiations around them) – would be better than a resolution on NATO’s terms – forcible reconquest of Crimea and Donbass, Ukraine fully integrated into a triumphant and triumphalist NATO with rapidly increasing military budgets, readying its new 300,000 strong strike force for interventions further east against countries they would consider ripe for plucking.

*Ukraine, we should note, had more politicians named in the Pandora Papers than any other country; 38, twice as many as Russia’s 19. President Zelensky was one of them.

Don’t mention the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

In his latest piece for Labour Hub, Mike Phipps argues that it would be better to have an anti war movement that is not actually against the war aims of our own ruling class. His argument, and attempted intervention into the anti-war movement, rests on two dubious assertions.

  1. That NATO expansion and US militarism have nothing to do with the origins of this phase of the war in Ukraine and therefore the anti war movement should ignore it.
  2. That Ukrainian nationalism is a progressive “anti-colonial” current fighting for liberation from Russia as an imperial oppressor and therefore the anti war movement should support it.

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

1 NATO

The NATO summit that has just concluded has agreed to expand its membership, increase its arms expenditure, get 300,000 troops at a permanent state of “readiness” and forward deploy more of them to the frontier with Russia and to sustain a long war in Ukraine.

This is motivated as a way to “defend” members of the alliance from a Russian threat that they are very careful not to quantify. That is because Russian military expenditure is less than Britain’s and one twentieth that of NATO. The projected expansion of the alliance and large increases in expenditure will make NATO’s military dominance even more extreme. So, a reasonable question might be, who is threatening whom?

So, when the new chief of staff for the British armed forces, Sir Patrick Sanders, argues that we have to be ready to fight World War 3 in on land in Europe, its quite clear what that “readiness” is for, and who is on the offensive. His argument that if you want to preserve the peace you have to prepare for war, was exactly what all sides were arguing in 1914. It was an argument that worked very well. Until it didn’t.

Mike doesn’t engage at all with what NATO has been doing in Eastern Europe since 1991, or more particularly in Ukraine since 2014. Simply ignores it and tries to waft it away with an airy “I don’t see this as a central factor at all”. Jens Stoltenburg, NATO Secretary General, however, is very proud of what they have done and quite candid about it. “The reality is that we have been preparing for this since 2014…that is the reason we have increased our presence in the eastern part of the alliance, why NATO allies have started to invest more in defence, why we have increased our readiness”. My emphasis. I suspect that Stoltenburg has a better grasp of what he’s doing – and the significance of it – than Mike does, unless there is some conscious disavowal going on; seeing, understanding, but choosing not to acknowledge.

Stoltenburg’s comment is underlined by the remark of Sir Richard Shirreff, former NATO Deputy commander, on Radio 4 recently that “this war started in 2014”.

2014. Not on February 24th 2022. It has been noted widely that while Ukraine has not been in NATO, NATO has certainly been in Ukraine: training, re-equipping, getting the Ukrainian army ready to go beyond the shelling of the Donbass to try to retake it.

It takes a real act of will not to look at NATO, or the USA, and what it is trying to do, and how the war in Ukraine fits into it. Mike draws rage from the horrors of the war – in a determinedly one sided way that implies total barbarity on one side and saintliness on the other (because no lies have been told, butter wouldn’t melt in the Azov battalion’s mouth, issuing a decree to arm civilians en masse doesn’t erase the distinction between them and combatants, and no oppositionists have been “disappeared” or assassinated) – and is averse to looking up at the strategic picture because it is so obvious what’s happening when you do.

He reflects least of all on what NATO is.

NATO is a military alliance of the world’s major predatory imperial powers, under the aegis of the United States, pledged to defend a “rules based” imperial world order in which the rules are written in Washington. The European powers are part of it because they can’t take the US on, and do better being subordinate members of its global gang than trying to act as lone wolves. This maintains domination of the Global South, with $2 trillion flowing from it to the Global North in 2013 alone. NATO is the armed guarantee that that will keep happening. That’s why people like Paul Mason, who thinks that the working class in the rich countries should prosper at the expense of the peoples of the majority world, support it.

That means that taking active steps to join NATO – as US influenced Ukrainian governments have done -is not a neutral act. It is the repudiation of neutrality by definition. It is also a self limitation on national sovereignty. It is ganging up with the USA – essentially taking up a job as a henchman – and will be understood as a threatening act by any country in its sights, especially any nearby.

NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe to pressure Russia serves two purposes – setting up the preconditions for a regime change colour revolution in Russia itself, so a more compliant Yeltsin like leadership can be brought in – and in the immediate term also to decouple Russia from the EU; the better to cement control of the rest of Europe, particularly Germany.

This explains the refusal of the US and NATO to even discuss Russia’s proposal for mutual security guarantees when the Ukraine crisis started brewing up from November last year onward. You’d think we’d all have an interest in that. But mutual security and reduction in tension – which would be good for all of us – would increase Russia’s weight in Europe with the EU, and make it harder for the US to dominate it. No chance to deploy those troops, sell those arms, export that fracked Liquid Natural Gas. So, we can’t have that, can we?

The demonstrative mobilisation of the Russian armed forces throughout the winter in response, was an attempt to show how seriously they took what they saw as an existential threat. It seems to me that what triggered the actual invasion was the NATO summit the week before in Munich, at which those European powers, principally Germany and France, that had been pushing for easing off on confrontation and continued negotiations within the Minsk framework, were very visibly brought to heel by the USA. A partial withdrawal of Russian forces in Belarus that week was taken not as a welcome gesture that could lead to a reciprocal step towards negotiation; but a sign of weakness to be exploited. Watching the news of that, I had a real sinking feeling. It sent a very clear message. Crowing on the news combined with Russian fears that the Ukrainian military build up in the Donbass heralded an imminent intervention to snuff out the Donbass republics with NATO backing. It seemed that war was inevitable. It was just a matter of when, and who struck first.

This war was generated in neither Kyiv nor Moscow, but Washington.

2 Ukrainian Nationalism

Mike’s attempt to ignore the entire geo-political context of the NATO build up and the self subordination to it by the Ukrainian government, means that he simply buys into the narrative of Ukrainian nationalism – effortlessly erasing from historical significance the large Russian population living in what is now part of Ukraine, but was Noviya Rossiya (New Russia) from the eighteenth century onwards – that the whole Ukrainian people have been engaged in a long term struggle to liberate themselves from Russian oppression. Small left currents in Ukraine put this in anti-colonial terms, and Mike quotes one of them. But the mainstream dominant tradition here is not anti colonial, but pro colonial; the far right. These were the hegemonic street forces in the Maidan movement. They have since become entrenched in the Ukrainian military; and wield an influence on the streets far greater than their formal electoral representation.

Again, it requires real disavowal to ignore this, to look and not see. But to give an indication of just how bad this is, here are some headlines from western media from before February 24th, when they weren’t trying to cover this up.

Ukraine celebrates Nazi collaborator; bans book critical of pogroms leader.

Ukraine’s got a real problem with far right violence (and, no, RT did not write this headline).

Hundreds march in Ukraine in annual tribute to Nazi collaborator.

Violent Anti-Semitism is gripping Ukraine – and the government is standing idly by.

Ukraine conflict: “White Power warrior” from Sweden.

Ukraine conflict: child soldiers join the fight.

Far- Right fighters from Europe fight for Ukraine.

Nazi symbols. salutes on display at Ukrainian nationalist march.

Yes. Its (still) OK to call Ukraine’s C14 neo Nazi.

A new Eurasian far right rising.

Far Right extremists in Ukrainian military bragged about Canadian training.

German TV shows Nazi symbols on helmets of Ukrainian soldiers.

Ukraine designates national holiday to commemorate Nazi collaborator.

Kiev’s far right groups refuse to disarm.

FBI: Militia trained by US military in Ukraine now training US White Supremacists

Ukrainian Neo Nazi C14 vigilantes drive out Roma families, burn their camp

Ukraine underplays role of far right in conflict

New “Glory to Ukraine” army chant invokes nationalist past

Britons join neo Nazi militia in Ukraine

Neo-Nazis and the far right are on the march in Ukraine

How the far right took top positions in power vacuum

Ukraine’s far right menace

With axes and hammers far right vigilantes destroy another Romany camp in Kyiv

“Defend the White Race” American extremists being targeted by Ukraine’s far right

Paints a picture that the BBC and others are now trying to consign to the memory hole.

A leader of the C14 far right militia group expressed a core belief of this movement when he said that the problem in Ukraine is that “certain people” had too much power and money. When pressed on who he meant, he said, “you know, Russians and Jews”.

Nationalism takes many forms. When fighting imperial domination, it can be progressive. When allying with a dominant imperialism against others, it is reactionary. Ukrainian nationalism – in its dominant tradition – lionises Stepan Bandera; who was a Nazi collaborator. Since 2014, he has, grotesquely, been celebrated as a hero across the country, had statues put up and the road leading to Babi Yar named after him. This is like, but even more offensive than, renaming the Finchley Road up to Golders Green Sir Oswald Mosley Way. Similarly, the renaming of the Molotov Cocktail as the Bandera Smoothie, is comparable to an Italian movement calling them Mussolini Milkshakes. Ukrainian nationalism, in its conscious subordination to greater imperial powers, Austria Hungary, Nazi Germany and now the USA, is not a progressive movement; and the small left wing currents that tried to take part in the Maidan were smashed out of it as surely as a Lexit contingent would have been on an EDL march.

It was when they took this south and burned down the trade union HQ in Odessa, killing 42 people, that the Donbass rebelled, Russia annexed Crimea with overwhelming local popular support; and the war in the East started.

The debacle of the “broad anti war movement”

In pursuit of the “broad anti war movement” that Mike proposed, a demonstration was called for 9 April with Paul Mason, recently exposed for having connections with the intelligence services, Peter Tatchell and others speaking, and supported by currents like the AWL. This was intended to eclipse Stop the War, so there could be an “anti war” movement at peace with the ruling class. One of the main chants was “Arm! Arm! Arm Ukraine!” – which is exactly what the British state is doing, what the Tory government and Labour front bench want to carry on doing. This is not “anti war”. It is pro war. A comparable position in 1991 would have been to support the 1991 war after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, and organise demonstrations with chants of “Arm! Arm! Arm Kuwait!” Despite having the formal support of a number of unions, it was very small. A couple of hundred. This is not a “broad anti war movement”. It is a fig leaf for the ruling class and has no independence from it.

As such, it is comfortably aligned with the Labour front bench which, instead of calling for a ceasefire, a negotiated settlement, and a redirection of “defence” spending to meet the cost of living and climate crises, never misses an opportunity to try to polish its patriotic credentials by calling for guns not butter. John Healey, Shadow Defence Secretary bemoaned a short term cut in army numbers like this.

“Now, this is embarrassing. It’s not responding to the growing threats we face, and it is putting into question Britain’s ability to fulfil our NATO obligations when I want Britain to continue to be the leading European nation within NATO” noting that the 1,000 additional soldiers committed to NATO’s new 300,000 strike force “might not even be based on the border with Russia, but back in Britain”. Forward, he cried, from the rear.

The Left – all of it, whatever its views on this war – should be opposing these increases in military expenditure and the deployments that go with them.

As the NATO war drive ups a gear, with no end in prospect, with the UK an enthusiastic participant, with “war austerity” already with us, and hitting the Global South very hard indeed, the anti war movement here will gain strength from opposing it, and clarity from analysing it. Hopefully we will build up enough strength to divert it from killing us all.

Post Script

I sent this Blog to Mike suggesting that it could go up on Labour Hub as a contribution to debate. This was turned down on the grounds that the views expressed were very much a minority on the Hub WhatsApp: which begs the question; who do you debate if not a minority? We had a thoughtful exchange of emails over whether I had misrepresented Mike’s view. I don’t believe I have. This Blog is open for any comments Mike, or anyone else, wishes to make.

Stats for Socialists: Public support for the Rail Workers

Government attempts to divide the Rail workers from others are falling flat. An independent poll by Opinium shows strong public support for the workers’ case.

On pay, there is overwhelming support for rail workers to get a pay rise that reflects the increase in the cost of living. This is an interest we all have in common and its becoming increasingly plain that the government does not agree. They now explicitly state that wage claims should be BELOW the rate of inflation. This is the death knell for any claim that they want to “level up”, or believe in a “high wage economy”.

Three out of five support the right to go on strike if negotiations fail. Government sabre rattling about restricting the right to strike is not cutting with the grain.

The weakest part of the government’s case is their belief in privatisation and the sacrosanct character of profits and dividends, with overwhelming support for profits from rail services to be reinvested in protecting jobs and improving services. This reflects a growing awareness that the share of the economy being taken by owners of capital is rocketing at a time that the rest of us are being squeezed until our pips squeak.

This takes a specific form in large majorities opposing cuts to jobs on trains and stations.

And even more opposing cuts to staff inspecting and maintaining safety on the tracks.

Given that the government is very evidently intervening to make sure that the rail companies do NOT meet the concerns of the workers, they are doing the opposite of what the public wants them to do.

Labour should take note. We are heading into a summer and autumn in which the rising costs of food and energy are propelling workers to turn to their unions to try to stop themselves being forced under. This affects all of us. Most of of the public support the workers taking action. If Labour front benchers give “a categorical no” to support for that action, as David Lammy did for airline workers in UNITE and GMB on Sunday, the Party will be acting as a human shield for the government (and giving it a lifeline).

See you on a picket line some time soon.

Park and Street Life ’22.

On the blasted tree in the middle of Kingsbury Mall roundabout, a grim posse of brooding pigeons stare down, playing at being vultures.

In the Park in the drizzle, a young black woman from the Charismatic Evangelical Church on Princes Avenue is singing into her phone while shimmying along the path by the High School, wearing a striking magenta dress that is a celebration of life; and would therefore be considered suspect in staider denominations. Very gospel. Hands and eyes looking up to heaven, hips swaying, open lunged and full throated. Religious high. Looks more fun than the C of E.

A new Oak sapling has been planted near the kids playground. A plaque identifies it as being part of the Jubilee Green Canopy and to have been donated by the Jewish Refugee Council in memory of the refugees allowed in from Nazi Germany. This is in the same weekend that all the commentators on The World In Westminster on Sunday night congratulated themselves on how comfortably diverse we have become, the Queen took tea with Paddington Bear (a refugee who somehow managed not to be held in a detention centre by “Border Security”) and the flights to Rwanda for refugees from other countries were postponed to the following week. So, we have become symbolically accepting of diversity, while taking ever stronger measures to stop it increasing; our border policy now as enlightened and deserving of a pat on the back as Australia’s. How Priti Patel and her ilk could look at a tree like that without a flicker of conscience is beyond me. No self awareness, some people. And no one should comfort themselves that the UK had a better record in the 1930s; with anti Jewish refugee campaigns in the Daily Mail and such just as virulent as their campaigns today. Many thousands were kept out, and died as a result. The tree, nevertheless, looks hopeful. As trees tend to do. They take root. They grow. They provide peace and shade.

We have very broad pavements in the High Street, and happily the upgrade from TFL money in the last couple of years managed to keep the cars confined to a narrow stream in the middle; though they missed the trick of paving over the entrances to side roads with distinctive surfaces so they force cars to slow down and give pedestrians priority. The saplings put in at the time are beginning to have healthy crowns, so in a few years, if we get through them, the High Street will look positively bosky. Just down from Bombay Spice a temporary open seating arrangement has been put in for the Summer – and just in time for four successive days of heavy rain. Seemingly modelled on the pop up parks that are used to take over parking spaces in low traffic neighbourhoods – clawing back more space for people from the dominance of the motor vehicle – or sometimes outside Shisha bars – it is made of narrow removable wooden flower beds arranged in a rectangle with seating around the inside. It has already been colonised by the old Gujerati guys who previously gathered in circles outside the library to put the world to rights. A few more of these and we’d have a very different vibe along the street. The opposite of the seating in malls that is deliberately made uncomfortable so shoppers get on with their shopping quicker.

The earthwork mounds the Council dug up along the Kingsbury Road side of the Park that looked so ugly last year, like an unfinished building project with no purpose, are now covered in an uplifting rush of poppies and other wild flowers that proclaim life in a wild riot of colour and shapes waving in the breeze as the buses swoosh past.