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.

Re-opening to the virus? How the UK government’s conditions for ending the lockdown differ from the WHO.

These are the WHO’s conditions for a safe ending to lockdowns These are very clear and are aimed at eliminating the virus.

  1. Disease transmission is under control
  2. Health systems are able to “detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact”
  3. Hot spot risks are minimized in vulnerable places, such as nursing homes
  4. Schools, workplaces and other essential places have established preventive measures
  5. The risk of importing new cases “can be managed”
  6. Communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal

These are very clear and are aimed at eliminating the virus. In China, the point at which disease transmission was under control was when deaths were down to single figures.

As in China, at that point the Health system has to know where any new infection takes place and have the equipment and infrastructure to rapidly intervene, test, contact trace and isolate to prevent it getting out again. This virus is very infectious and spreads very quickly.

At that point, anyone coming in from an area where the virus is still in spate will need to be tested and quarantined if need be and all schools and workplaces will have to have the appropriate preventive measures in place and be fully equipped.

The last point is as crucial as the others. Communities have to know the risks, know the procedures and recognise that this is not a blip that will “disappear like a miracle” (D.Trump) but a threat that will still be lurking at least until a vaccine is produced – which is scheduled to take 18 months if all goes well. So, even when we are out of the woods, we could still meet a wolf; and have to be on our guard.

The UK government puts different conditions. They say

  1. The government must have confidence that the NHS can still provide sufficient critical care and specialist treatment across the UK.
  2. Secondly, there is a need to see a sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rate to be confident the UK is beyond the peak of the outbreak.
  3. There also must be reliable data from SAGE that the infection rate has decreased to manageable levels.
  4. Testing capacity and PPE must be in hand to meet supply for future demand.
  5. There also must not be a risk of a second peak of infection that could overwhelm the NHS.

As the words are not the same, the differences must be deliberate. While some of them sound similar, the devil is in the detail.

  • Being “beyond the peak” can be any time from when death rates start to decline in a “sustained and consistent” way. It does not necessarily mean that the death or infection rate would be under control if the restrictions were lifted.
  • There is no specific mention of schools or workplaces, no mention of imported cases, no mention of having to minimise the risks in vulnerable hot spots.
  • There is an emphasis instead on making sure that the NHS is not overwhelmed. A laudable aim in itself, but when you consider that it is currently being achieved by pre-triage on the one hand and rapid removal of the elderly into hotspots like care homes on the other, you can see its limitations.
  • There is no mention of communities being fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal, which reflects the UK’s relatively lackadaisical lockdown.
  • Having infection rates at “manageable levels” does not mean the same as having them “under control.” “Under control” means on the path to elimination. Manageable means copeable with, not overwhelming.
  • Avoiding the “risk of a second peak” is not the same as eliminating the virus. Their bottom line is that the second peak should not be so great as to overwhelm the NHS. That could describe the current situation. The NHS is not being overwhelmed, but the UK has the second highest daily death rate in the world.
  • The phrase “testing capacity and PPE must be in hand to meet supply for future demand” implies that there is going to be a future demand. This is not the same as having a system ready and primed to “detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact”. Managing. Not eliminating.

So, we have a half way house policy here. Just as the UK “lockdown” is half a lockdown.

The danger is that there will be a return with infections at too high a level; so the rate of infection will go up again, without adequate PPE, without a testing and contact tracing system in place – with schools one of the first places to open simply to have kids taken care of during the day so the economy can “open” (in Trump’s phrase) and their mums and dads can go back to work.

This would let the genie back out of the bottle and then require restrictions to come back in to stop it running out of control. So instead of getting a grip and crushing the virus in one determined go, we end up with a reactive yo yo of restrictions going up and down; with the presumption that a vaccine will arrive like the cavalry coming over the hill. The problem with this – of course – is that it might not.

So, an apposite question for Labour (and others) to be asking is why it is that the government is not adopting the WHO guidelines without equivocation.

Lives rest on this.

Are we in a “hokey-cokey” lockdown?

I suspect that we are being subject to “herd immunity” by stealth.

A failure to get a grip.

  • An absence of open source public data in the UK is an indication of this.
  • Publishing data is secondary to knowing what the situation is in the first place. Any data the government publishes – and they should – is just what Donald Rumsfeld would have called the known knowns.
  • Chris Whitty said – rather airily – at the point they abandoned what limited community testing they were doing, that there could have been ten times as many cases out there that they didn’t know about. Almost with a shrug. They didn’t test comprehensively in any targeted way from the outset; so had no idea who had it, or where they were. Put simply, they didn’t, and don’t, have a grip. Laura Kuensberg on the BBC – with her usual direct line to government thinking – has just revealed (World at One, 2 April) that they expected the virus to develop more slowly – giving them up to the middle of May before it hit hard. How they could have such a view in the face of how quickly it actually did develop in China, Iran and elsewhere beggars belief.
  • Further, the only figures they count as coronavirus related deaths are those that happen in hospital after a definite diagnosis and test. People who may die of it at home are not being counted in the official stats. Its all about the numbers and, as the relatively lax UK approach is likely to lead to many more deaths than those in Italy and Spain, you can see why they’d want to keep them as low as possible. Accuracy is a secondary consideration.

 

Alternative facts – or do you trust Mike Pence more than the WHO?

  • Its important to have data to limit the degree to which malignant interpretations of them can be made. As the US death toll rises above the Chinese number – in absolute terms let alone per capita* – it becomes a political imperative for the US administration to cast doubt on the Chinese figures; and/or accuse China of not sharing information in a timely way; even though they had alerted the WHO on Dec 8th and given a full alert on what the virus is and the scale of the danger it presents on Dec 31st; giving the US (and UK) governments two months to get prepared; which both squandered. This is the “alternative facts” strategy; which has to rely on people being prepared to trust Mike Pence and US Intelligence – who have never been known to fib – more than the World Health Organisation; or hoping that broadcasting the accusation loudly and widely enough will be sufficient to bury the facts.
Preparing for a Hokey Cokey half Lockdown.
There’s a rather chilling article on the BBC site today which argues the following.
  1. That most of the people dying with coronavirus are probably dying of something else. The virus is just the final straw and they would most likely have been dead within three months anyway. So the problem isn’t the deaths themselves, its that they will all happen at once, leading to knock on effects that cause more deaths as the hospitals are overwhelmed. Therefore its about managing the virus not suppressing it. This is the logic of the government’s initial declared “herd immunity” strategy in a new form.
  2. The effects of a lockdown will lead to a significant number of deaths anyway. This isn’t quantified. Nor is it related to the actual experience of lockdown in Wuhan. Its speculation designed to make people shrug at the accelerating rate of deaths that are happening. 560 in one day yesterday on a terrifying exponential curve that could double in three days at the current rate, and again three days after that.
  3. The point at which the economy collapses to a point at which more deaths are likely from lockdown than letting it rip is quantified in the article as a 6.8% drop in economic activity (which is about the same as the 2008 crash). I suspect that this is the rule of thumb being used by the government. In China the drop in economic activity was about 20% overall for the quarter affected by the lockdown. That is putting lives ahead of economic returns in a way that the UK government looks very reluctant to do.

We can therefore assume that the UK government will try to play a kind of hokey-cokey part lockdown in an attempt to limit the damage to “the economy” while “managing” the number of excess deaths and the pressure on the Health Service. Given that this government is considerably more adept at coming up with excuses for why they haven’t done things than doing them, I can’t see this working for either.

*As China has four times the US population, a more appropriate comparison.