Monday, 29 September 2014

David Cameron had just finished cooking Saturday lunch

From Dan Hodges' blog today:
"David Cameron had just finished cooking Saturday lunch when he first learnt of the Mark Reckless defection." 
I suppose this is true - Mr. Cameron cooking lunch, I mean - and not something intended to win women voters, who the papers say do not like Mr. Cameron. 

I still think it very strange for men to cook for their families, even though I loved and was good at cooking before I came to Romania - I no longer have a big enough kitchen - and my brother-in-law does all the cooking in his house. As my mother always told me, all the great cooks in the world are men. 

Still, sex roles apart, I am surprised Prime Ministers have time for household tasks. In Ted Heath's time he had time to spend the weekends yachting but those days are gone, I thought. I remember reading with disgust that the Deputy Prime Minister finds time to drive his children to school. This I would have thought is something he should pay someone to do. But perhaps he likes talking to them in the morning. 

How far we have moved from Harold Macmillan's day. One can't imagine him cooking lunch for Lady Dorothy or driving his children to school - but of course they boarded. 

Did any previous Tory leader cook his own Saturday lunch? Margaret Thatcher probably. Edward Heath the bachelor is another obvious possibility, but he had staff and I can't picture it. Saturday lunch at home is not something bachelors do, but in any case I can't see Ted cooking. 

I somehow doubt any Labour Prime Ministers did either, except possibly Ramsay McDonald, who found delegating so hard that he looked up train times for his secretary. 

I do not imagine Vladimir Putin doing the school run or cooking lunch. I do not share many social conservatives' liking for Mr. Putin but I smiled when I read palao-conservative writer Paul Gottfried say,

"Allow me to explain why so many of us on the Old Right are noticeably indulgent of the former KGB honcho. Putin is conspicuously manly, unlike the feminised eunuchs who "administer" "liberal democratic " politics in the "democratic West." ...
Although I would not like to live under Putin, any more than Lessing wanted to savor the rule of the enlightened despot Frederick the Great, I applaud him for being so different from the PC robots who rise to the top of the political ladder in the US and Western Europe. At the very least Putin gives the exhilarating impression of being a non-reconstructed, non-sensitized MAN." 


The cold war never ended


“Rationally Russia cannot be understood, one has to believe in it.” Fyodor Tiutchev (1803-1873)
What is clear is that the cold war never ended - it simply went underground. This review by Oleg Gordievsky, once KGB station chief in London, of Edward Lucas's prescient book, The New Cold War, makes this point. The Kremlin even under Yeltsin kept its arms directed at NATO and prepared for an invasion from the West, which is where every invasion came from after those of the Mongols. In 2009 Russian war games simulated an attack on Poland using nuclear weapons. 

For its part, NATO prepared for conflict with Russia. By accepting former Warsaw pact countries and the Baltic States as members, NATO implicitly did so to protect them from a future revanchist Russia. The USA helped inspire a series of colour revolutions across the former USSR aimed at removing pro-Kremlin governments, including the Orange Revolution in Ukraine which toppled Viktor Yanukovych for the first time, in 2004.


Spies tend to be cynical, alarmist and expect the worst because this is what they are trained to do. This goes not just for Gordievsky but for his former colleagues who now run Russia, including Vladimir Putin, whose KGB career was stymied because he was thought to have too little sense of danger. But just because they are paranoid does not necessarily mean that they are not right and Gordievsky understands Russia and the KGB better than anyone who has not served in the KGB. Gordievsky is certainly right when he says that Russia is the first country ruled by its secret service. Another spy chief who defected, Ion Mihai Pacepa, who ran the Romanian secret service (and allegedly worked for the KGB) before defecting to the USA, has said the same thing. Under the Czars and the Communists the secret service were subordinated to the government - now it seems to be the other way around, a big difference. 

What is remarkable is the number of ways in which Soviet Union had characteristics in common with Czarist Russia. They included considering that people who did not think Russia the most advanced society in the world had psychological problems and committing them to institutions - Nicholas I's Russia did this as well as Brezhnev's Russia. Do not minimise the extent to which Russians who grew up under Brezhnev or Khrushchev thought Russia more advanced than the West. Another is the intense strain of paranoia about the west and about foreigners that has always informed Russian thinking about the outside world and Russian foreign policy. Stalin really did believe in Leninism but he behaved in foreign policy very much like a Czar. Putin is not a Leninist but he continues a foreign policy similar to Stalin's and the Czars', born of fear of the West and desire for great power status, laced with a sense of Russia's messianic mission. This is the light in which Putin likes to see Russia as the protector of Christians against Sunni extremists and homosexual activists.

Russians, of course, are an intensely spiritual people - only a very spiritual people could have embraced atheism as an official policy. It is obvious now, in the age of ISIS and Al Qaeda, that Marxism, especially in its Leninist version, was always a religion, thankfully one that is dwindling away.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

George Kennan opposed the expansion of NATO in 1998

I am reading about George Kennan, who invented the containment policy that guided U.S. relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but who did not think the Cold War was necessary. He is a fascinating man, who lived to a great age.

In his late 90s he opposed the extension of NATO in 1998 saying it
...is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs." ... 

I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.

I am sure Kennan was right that Communist Russia was not a threat to Western Europe. He backed detente. He also thought Vietnam was not of strategic importance to the USA and opposed the Vietnamese War, though not the Korean war. He was angry with Eisenhower for letting down Britain and France over Suez and he thought mass immigration a great threat to America and Europe. That's a lot of things to have been right about. Whether he was right to oppose NATO expansion in 1998 is harder to say. Would this have kept good relations with Russia? If not it would have made the Baltic States much more vulnerable than they already are to Russian aggression - although it would also have made NATO less exposed. I suspect that Kennan might have argued that they are not of strategic importance to the USA or Western Europe. 

Vaclav Klaus and Henry Kissinger don't think we should demonise Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin has invaded a sovereign state and doesn't intend to disgorge his ill-gotten gains. He is a compulsive liar and a thug but we live in a very thuggish world. He is not Brezhnev, luckily for everyone, invading Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan. As I try to make up my mind about what to think, here are two eminent men quoted this weekend on the subject of the Russian leader. I admire very much Dr Kissinger. I have more mixed feelings about Mr Klaus.

Vaclav Klaus, the Eurosceptic former Czech Prime Minister and President puts a word in for Vladimir Putin in an interview in the latest Spectator.

I spent most of my life in a communist Czechoslovakia under Soviet domination. But I differentiate between the Soviet Union and Russia. Those who are not able to understand the difference are simply not looking with open eyes. I always argue with my American and British friends that although the political system in Russia is different from the system in our countries and we wouldn’t be happy to live in such a system, to compare the current Russia with Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union is stupid. The US/EU propaganda against Russia is really ridiculous and I can’t accept it.

Henry Kissinger in an interview in the Independent to plug his book also does not think we should demonise Mr Putin

It's easy to demonise Putin. Of course he's not easy, but one has seen that type of Russian leader before – and he's not a Hitler. One shouldn't discuss it in terms of one Russian leader. The question is how does one visualise the long-term relationship of Russia to the West at a moment when Asia is transforming itself and Islam is in permanent upheaval?

I warmly agree when he paraphrases Goethe:

If I had to choose between justice and disorder, on the one hand, and injustice and order, on the other, I would always choose the latter.

ISIS driving out Assyrians from their ancestral home and destroying ancient religious sites




Sunni Extremists Are Destroying Ancient Religious Sites in and around Mosul.




In 2010 I was at the beautiful monastery of Mar Mattei, overlooking the plains of Nineveh, just inside the Kurdish region. I hope it's not harmed and so far there is no sign on the internet that it has been. I do wish I had pushed across the border into the not very safe non-Kurdish area to visit Mosul itself and see it as it was before ISIS arrived. I hadn't realised that Nineveh is now part of Mosul. Imagine standing in Nineveh, though no doubt it is not as remarkable as the thoughts it conjures up.


It is important to note that iraqi Christians are not just an religious group threatened with conversion or expulsion but most are an ethnic group, the Assyrians.


What a terrible shame it was that the hanging chads in Florida did not hang the other way and spare us President George W. Bush. What a shame he was ever born. Had we had President Al Gore, Saddam would still be in power in Baghdad and the word a much happier place. But that's in the past. The war that started yesterday, unlike the one in 2003, is both just and necessary, though I hope the Kurds will do the fighting and win any spoils there might be.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Bucharest's City Gates at dusk



A wonderful photograph taken by Adrian Savin and reproduced with his permission.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Bloodlands: Timothy Snyder's book and Daniel Lazare's violent attack on it



A joint Soviet-Nazi victory parade was held in Brest seventy-five years ago today to celebrate their invasion of Poland. 



I have been reading Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands, a book which at first I gave up on because I found it an unreadable catalogue of death in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states: first famines and massacres caused by the Bolsheviks, then killings by the German army and the SS. It seems like an account of hell, the historical equivalent of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.


Unlike most middle aged Englishmen I am not a fan of military history or what a friend of mine calls 'Hitler porn', which seems to go with rattling ones car keys and opining on the best way to get to Luton. But I persevered and found that Snyder's book, though very painful, told me much that I didn't know. It benefits from the many languages he reads. What he christens 'the Bloodlands' do not really form a natural unit but by combining a distressing account of the famine and terror that Stalin instituted with the heart-wrenching accounts of the killings by the Germans he brings both into focus. Best it enables him to look at the killings outside the confines of national history or of a book on either the holocaust or on Stalin's killings.


The juxtaposition angers one very left-wing writer, Daniel Lazare, an apologist for Vladimir Putin, who this month published an oddly vitriolic attack on Bloodlands. He never makes it clear why he is so very angry but his bile almost reminds me of the pamphleting style of Marx or Lenin. Lazare seems to be offended because the killing of the Jews by the Germans is implicitly being compared to the killings for which Stalin was responsible. Professor Snyder puts Mr. Lazare in mind of the ideas of German historian Ernst Nolte, who in a 1986 essay asked:
"Did the National Socialists or Hitler perhaps commit an 'Asiatic' deed [of mass killing] merely because they and their ilk considered themselves to be potential victims of an 'Asiatic' deed [by the Soviets]? 
The answer to this question is no but it is a very stimulating question to debate. I thought no-one these days imagined there was very much to choose between Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot, but it seems I was wrong. 

In Mr. Lazare's world view equating Hitler and Stalin leads one to blame Lenin for the Holocaust. This of course is not the case - Lenin is not to blame for the murder of the Jews or even the millions whose deaths were caused by Stalin and other Leninists. It is enough that he is to blame for possibly millions who died in famine caused by his economic or (as Richard Pipes describes it) his anti-economic policy. What is clear, however, is that Lenin was an evil genius and the spiritual father of fascism and Nazism. Mussolini, an ex-socialist, copied Lenin. 

In Mr. Lazare's view conflating German and Russian killings, while ignoring many appalling deeds by Poles, Ukrainians and Balts, makes Russia a bogeyman. From there, he thinks, before you know it you find yourself objecting to the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, which was, he says, a response to American aggression. This sounds like the sort of thing far left Western writers said before Mr. Gorbachev came to power.

One of the things I liked about Timothy Snyder's book is that it points out the moral ambiguity of Communist partisans carrying out attacks on the Germans in full knowledge of the terrible reprisals that would follow. This is the reason why the Communist resistance in Yugoslavia, Albania and France was effective and why Churchill and Britain ended up supporting the future tyrants, Tito and Hoxha. 
Mr. Lazare thinks there was no alternative. Perhaps he is right. And he is furious that the role of the partisans should be questioned - here he is not right.

He is very shocked that Professor Snyder defends the Polish Home Army's reluctance to help the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. It is shocking, but everything in this story is shocking. 
Warsaw Home Army commanders had strategic concerns that militated against giving the Jews any weapons at all. Although the Home Army was moving in the direction of partisan action, it feared that a rebellion in the ghetto would provoke a general uprising in the city, which the Germans would crush. The Home Army was not ready for such a fight in late 1942. Home Army commanders saw a premature uprising as a communist temptation to be avoided. They knew that the Soviets, and thus the Polish communists, were urging the local population to take up arms immediately against the Germans.
The Soviets wanted to provoke partisan warfare in Poland in order to weaken the Germans — but also to hinder any future Polish resistance to their own rule when it came. The Red Army’s task would be easier if German troops were killed by partisan warfare as would the NKVD’s if Polish elites were killed for resisting Germans. The Jewish Combat Organisation included the communists, who were following the Soviet line, and believed that Poland should be subordinated to the Soviet Union. As the Home Army command could not forget, the Second World War had begun when both the Germans and the Soviets had invaded Poland. Half of Poland had spent half of the war inside the Soviet Union. The Soviets wanted eastern Poland back, and perhaps even more. 

From the perspective of the Home Army, rule by the Soviets was little better than rule by the Nazis. Its goal was independence. There were hardly any circumstances that would seem to justify a Polish independence organisation arming communists inside Poland. Despite these reservations, the Home Army did give the Jewish Combat Organisation a few pistols in December 1942.

Mr. Lazare considers that Professor Snyder wants the reader to think that the blame for the Nazi genocide should be shared between Hitler and Stalin, though Mr. Lazare concedes that Professor Snyder does not say or hint this. 

Mr. Lazare, for his part, seems to want to share the blame with the Poles instead. Unfortunately, although the Poles are not to blame, there is some truth in the idea that Poles were ambivalent about the fate of the Jews. How complicated history written for grown-up people is. He quotes the following Polish Home Army declaration from 1942, which is not quoted by Professor Snyder:
Whether we like it or not, Communism is attacking us. The extermination of the Jews in Europe by the Germans, which will be the final result of the German–Jewish war, represents from our point of view an undoubtedly favourable development, for it will weaken the explosive power of Communism at the moment of the German collapse — or earlier. Let us have no illusions. The liquidation of the Jews is not tantamount to the liquidation of the Commune, behind which is the Comintern and through which the Jews want to take their revenge on us.
Mr. Lazare draws attention to something that startled me when I came across it in Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder's statement that 
“forty percent of high-ranking NKVD officers had Jewish nationality recorded in their identity documents, as did more than half of the NKVD generals.”
Mr. Lazare comments
the implication is that left-wing Jews played a major role in developing the techniques that would later be their undoing at the hands of the ultra-right.
Bloodlands does not imply anything of the sort. In any case, most Jews were not Communists until the time came when everyone had to be.

His argument is not only with Professor Snyder's book but with his backing for the revolution in Kiev:
In May, he accused Russia of sending troops to Donetsk and Luhansk, a deployment that no other journalist has been able to detect. A few days later, he accused Putin of not only seeking to destabilise Ukraine, but the EU as well.  
....the best way to understand such arguments is as a case of psychological projection in which the aggression that Snyder attributes to Russia is really a reflection of his own. After all, NATO has added a dozen countries to its roster since the collapse of the USSR, all within the former Soviet sphere of influence. Neocons such as Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, Kenneth Adelman, Midge Decter, Frank Gaffney, Michael Ledeen, and James Woolsey attempted to drum up support for the Chechen rebels beginning in the 1990s while, in August 2008, John McCain encouraged Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili to launch an “ill-planned reconquista” of the breakaway province of South Ossetia, which, had it proved successful, might well have led to the unravelling of Russia’s entire southern tier.
I am not impressed by any of Mr. Lazare's ideas and he obviously has agenda which he does not explain. He is not really arguing about the Second World War but something else, though he does not state what - rather as he thinks Professor Snyder is rehashing Professor Nolte's ideas without saying so. I think Mr. Lazare is defending Communism and Vladimir Putin - but he doesn't say this. He settles for attacking instead.

People do not have to blame Stalin for the holocaust to dislike Vladimir Putin. Superficial thinkers see Mr. Putin as another Hitler without bringing Stalin into it. I do not agree with G.K. Chesterton that the superficial view is always the most profound, but superficial thinkers are almost always right up to a certain point.

By the way, I recommend Timothy Snyder on Stepan Bandera, whose statues dot Western Ukraine. Terrorism started long before September 11 or the IRA. Bandera was a terrorist and so were the Communists and the Nazis. Superficial thinkers would argue that so were the RAF at Dresden and the Americans at Hiroshima. I would not go that far.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Jesus thought sodomy a sin - and witchcraft too

Clearly Jesus, a first century rabbi, did not approve of the sin of Sodom - or witchcraft - and thought both deserving of death. He wasn't against the death penalty and didn't disapprove of slavery, though He advised a rich young man to give away his worldly goods, which probably would have included his slaves.

I wonder what people would say if the Second Coming happens anytime soon. I considered this here.

I celebrate 16 years in Bucharest

Nice of Bucharest to celebrate my 16 years here with fireworks and concert last night. 

Sixteen years. Gulp.

I watched and listened from my terrace overlooking Lipscani which day by day becomes more artificial and less congenial. But asa e viata, as Romanians say. It means 'that's life', but in a melancholy, resigned way, definitely not in a zen way.

How long twenty years seemed when aged eight I read Dumas's Twenty Years After and how old D'Artagnan and the musketeers seemed in that book when they tried in vain to save the life of King Charles I  of England and Scotland. They were forty.

However  I am the same age as they were twelve years after that when they restored his son, King Charles II to the English throne. So onward.

My friend Matt dug up and sent me this a week or so again in a mail saying 


Came across this last night. A young and rather dreamy looking man is captaining the Queens team

It was painful for me to see how perfectly nice looking and even impressive I was when I felt at the time that I was nothing of the sort. Asking around my friends it seems though that most people were blancmanges of self doubt at 22. Even my incredibly hot friend Alina told me she didn't know at 22 that she was anything special. So any young person reading this please profit by this to know that you are much better than you think. Unless you are a psychopath, in which case you are not and anyway already have a high self regard.


It is exactly 30 years ago since I was in University Challenge -  and walking home I was stunned to realise that more than half of those years I have spent in Bucharest. Which is a very good place to spend them, but how time flies when you're having fun.

London notes: 4 - Temple Bar



I couldn't work out what this extraordinarily beautiful gate was. I knew it wasn't there when I lived in London and yet it is so old. When I asked, I discovered it was Temple Bar, the last surviving gate to the once walled City of London, which until Victorian road-widening stood in Fleet St. After a very long absence from London it has returned and was placed close to St. Paul's in 2004. How out of touch I am.

I remembered that traitors' heads once adorned it, if adorned is the right word.



And then it all came back to me. I remembered reading often as a schoolboy in the Peterborough column in the Telegraph about Temple Bar resting in a field in Hertfordshire. The full story is here.

I remember one Victorian memoirist - I was an insatiable but very unselective reader in my early 20s -  said Somerset House is the most beautiful building in London. Norman Collins thought St. James's Palace was the building most typical of LONDON and I fully understand what he meant. I have enjoyed shocking people by saying the Lloyd's Building was my favourite and in fact it for a long time was. I love Westminster Cathedral too even if it does, like the man said, resemble the bathroom department at Harrod's. But Temple Bar is now I think the loveliest building in central London. It is by Wren and is second only to his sublime Royal Maritime College, Greenwich, which is nowadays in London but once was not.

Almost equally wonderful is the demolition of the horrible 1960s buildings which I remember standing north of St. Paul's. Almost too good to be true. Let's pull down Centre Point next, even if it is listed.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

London notes 3



Above is a wonderful Miro print that I saw and loved in a shop in Cecil Court, off the Charing Cross Road, when I was in London recently.

A very intelligent Jewish American friend I dined with said two very interesting things about the Arab Israeli conflict. He said that Netanyahu doesn't want to make peace. He has everything he wants as things are - with settlers steadily encroaching on the West Bank. This, I saw as he spoke, is true. And he added
There's a strong case to be made by the Israelis and by the Arabs. Which you side with ultimately comes down to which you find more congenial.
I think there is a lot of truth in this too. 

I wonder which I find more congenial. I feel I love both. 

I saw a friend from college, now a frightfully well-paid City solicitor, who said to me that once you reach fifty you stop thinking that one day you'll do such and such and realise suddenly that this is it. Yes.

A charming Catholic priest told me from the depths of his armchair in his club that
When I was twenty all I wanted to do was find a way of spending my life drinking champagne every day and now I do.
How can he afford it? 
Simple. I don't have a car.
What a wise man. I rejoice that I don't have one. If one does not marry and does not drive life can be sweet.

Dinner at Buck's with two young fogeys one of whom did his Finals at Cambridge wearing white tie - something which everyone does at Oxford but long ago fell into desuetude at Cambridge. His friend who is twenty years his junior works in Turnbull and Asser but will start university. He could almost have been forty but is really twenty. They seemed the same age - for young fogeys are ageless. The younger man reminded me of Claud Hulbert. He seems to have always had a psychological urge to be a figure from the 1930s. He says members of the working class who meet him on buses and at stations treat him with kindness and politeness and understand what he is about, that he is a figure from another age.

As always my abiding impression of England is of how much nicer and more polite people are than in the 1980s. London does not seem any more cosmopolitan than it did then but that's because I stay in the very centre - Trafalgar Sq. and Piccadilly Circus always were full of tourists and St James's is the last redoubt of Edwardian England. But Jermyn St. no longer feels as exclusive as it did, which is sad. Jermyn St. shirt shops in the 1980s were all about snobbery but now are not at all except for the last four real ones. Exclusivity is perhaps something which has become democratised. The clubs of St. James's have women in the libraries which is where one feels their presence as most intrusive and young men tieless and in jeans at the weekends. What would Monsignor Gilbey have thought? 

Only the Charing Cross Road's second hand bookshops and the Brompton Oratory seem eternal and changeless.

The English quite like the Scots but much prefer the Irish

I am a passionate Unionist because I love Great Britain including Scotland, though I have never been there. Of course I like Ireland more, but that's a different kind of love. The English are affectionately amused by foreigners, are mildly fond but fairly indifferent to the Scots and Welsh but, despite the IRA bombs, they love they Irish (the Celts, not the Northern Ireland Prods). But Scots are part of the family - like Geordies or the Manx.

I do sympathise with the more romantic nationalists, the ones who love the monarchy, not the ones who hate the Tories and the lairds, but I am not sure about nationalists who want an independent Scotland to attract large numbers of immigrants from around the world and are happy to be ruled by the European Union. And I am aware of a contradiction in my attitudes. I want Belgium and Italy to split up except for fear it would lead Scotland to leave, just as the Easter rising led to independence for India.  But now that danger has been removed, for at least a generation, long live the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies!

My friend Alex Woodcock-Clark who is Scottishish - at least he lives in Scotland - put it beautifully on Facebook


One of the sad things about the aftermath of the referendum is that ill-feelings still subsist though the debate and discussion are now over. So many friends have communicated to me, both publicly and privately, including my postman, that their feelings towards me can never be as warm as once they were since they felt it wrong of me to end my every sentence I addressed to them '...,you traitor'.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Three fifths of Romanians think things were better under communism

31% of Romanians think life is better now than before the 1989 revolution, while 60.5% don’t agree.

My unscientific poll of Bucharest taxi drivers would suggest at least 80% and perhaps 90% of those old enough to remember think things were better in the 1980s.

In some respects they were of course, especially for the less intelligent classes. And not just them. The parties were much better then and everyone had time for books and conversation. Only two hours television a day was a great blessing. I imagine rather a lot of things were better but this does not stop me hating communism. And of course the taxi drivers I polled were thirty years younger in the early 1980s. Youth's sweet scented manuscript had in most cases not yet closed for them.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

What psychologists call 'projection'

Ken Livingstone on Boris Johnson in this week's Spectator: 
‘Everybody who’s never met him loves him and the people closest to him loathe him.’

Neil Kinnock a quarter of a century ago:
'Everyone loves Ken except those who know him.'

Monday, 15 September 2014

Is Putin playing chess or poker?

James Stavridis, Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, which is the oldest American postgraduate college specialising in international affairs, said in a New York Times article, on September 1 


The really ironic aspect here is that a re-energized, restrengthened NATO is Vladimir Putin’s worst nightmare, and yet it’s his tactical actions that have done just that.

This is why, when fans of Putin tell me he is very intelligent I hold to my view that he is very cunning but not very clever. 

Tactical, not strategic is perhaps saying the same thing. Masha Gassen says something like that when she says he only thinks six weeks ahead.


Henry Kissinger said last week that


The Russians play chess; we play poker.

For a Russian who admires Putin's strategic vision, click here.


But others disagree.  Edward Lucas said recently that
...we're playing chess and Putin's playing poker
but didn't elaborate in the interview I read. This article agrees.  

Back in April so did Gary Kasparov, who ought to know:


He’s very good at raising the stakes all the time. I believe he has a very weak hand, but he’s very good at bluffing... The rule in dealing with these kind of people is very simple: The sooner you stop them, the less the price you will pay.

As I play neither chess nor poker I cannot judge very well, but I do wonder if Dr Kissinger is thinking of Gromyko. 




Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/04/02/223221/kasparov-says-of-putins-gamesmanship.html#storylink=cpy


Friday, 12 September 2014

Vladimir Putin is not a conservative but is trying on social conservative clothes


Here is an interesting article by Sir Anthony Brenton, former British Ambassador to Russia, (like the Prime Minister he served he prefers to use the chummy cognomen, Tony) arguing that Western countries handled Ukraine very clumsily, sanctions against Russia won't work and that Russia is entitled to insist that Ukraine not join NATO. I agree with him on the first and third points and on the desirability of calming things down to a certain point, but some sort of sanctions are certainly needed. 

He is right when he says


Negotiating an acceptable level of autonomy for East Ukraine will be much harder. The Russians are in possession, and will not let go until their concerns are met. Meanwhile Ukraine’s President Poroshenko has to deal with a nationalist Right whom every concession will enrage. Here, finally, sanctions could be of some use, with the offer to lift them helping to lubricate the way towards an agreement.
The whole affair raises serious questions about the competence of Western policymaking towards Russia. The one route out of this mess has been visible for months. But let us not recriminate. There are still big prizes to play for. A democratic, prosperous, Western-leaning (but not allied) Ukraine is bound to become an important exemplar for the Russians next door. And the reopening of Western economic ties with Russia is crucial to the process of pulling that country, however slowly and erratically, towards European normality too.
 
I have given the view that Putin is a conservative more thought. 

Marxism is inherently violent but the brutality of Lenin and Stalin is specifically Russian. So was the brutality of the Tsars and the far sighted Stolypin, who came close to making Russia a modern economy, with a constitutional monarchy and representative government. Stolypin, bloodstained as he was, was the only important Russian figure who does deserve to be called a conservative.

Clearly Mr Putin, who has a portrait of Czar Peter the Great in his room, is no more a conservative than the Czars were. They were reactionaries, which is something else, and very brutal, absolutist reactionaries, not nostalgic reactionary-aesthete-fogeys like me. Mr. Putin is a brutal reactionary too, if only because democracy threatens his regime as freedom threatened the Communists and the Tsars. Increasingly he has created an ideology of traditionalist social conservatism but, though no doubt his contempt for much of what in the West are called human rights is sincere, the former KGB do not become conservatives so easily. 

I don't think it is useful to call him a fascist because he is not one, but he is as antidemocratic as a fascist or any communist.

The principle objection of conservatives to many of the misnamed human rights which nowadays obtain in the EU is that they restrict freedoms (the freedom to say what you like about various sensitive subjects, for example). Freedom of speech is not something that Vladimir Putin can credibly defend, though he did it when he sheltered Edward Snowden, nor are other freedoms.

Conservatives do not only believe in freedom, of course, or they would be (classical) liberals. Conservatives also believe in hierarchy and tradition and a divine order in the world - which is why most conservatives dislike, for example, single-sex marriage - but no Burkean or Disraelian can like the hierarchy of the former KGB, turned business leaders, or a tradition that includes Stalin as the hero of the Great Patriotic War. Owen Matthews finds Strelkov, the Russian who ran the Donetsk 'republic' more frightening than Putin and he probably is, but does, at least, seem genuinely to believe in a Christian, anti-Communist tradition and he knows Putin is a corrupt KGB man. 

Mr Putin says that the Americans provoked war in Ukraine to revive NATO - an interesting idea that he may well really believe.  Whether this was the intention, it is certainly the effect. Interestingly, unlike the Americans, the EU probably didn't really have much interest in Ukraine. The EU has its problems, including with Eastern European immigrants, especially Romanian gypsies, and doesn't want more enlargement for a long time to come. 

Mr Putin does not understand that for America spreading democracy and spreading American influence come to much the same thing. Or rather he does.

The truth is that American attempts to help Ukraine be a free democratic society succeeded far better than anyone dared hope - at one point there were said to be a million people in the Maidan. They were people wanting the whole corrupt system to go, as people in Romania want the whole corrupt system to go, which is why I had demonstrators encamped near my flat for weeks in early 2012 and had to walk home through tear gas. I am with those people, who included some fascists, some leftists, some homosexual activists and a very wide spectrum of hopeful people, rather than with the Kremlin or the KGB or the foreigners who back the Kremlin - or, for that matter, with the American hawks or neo-cons either.

In the end, this is not 1938 all over again, as Edward Lucas, Anne Applebaum and Ben Judah think, but one thing does stand out - that Putin is a brutal and authoritarian leader, not any sort of democrat. Russia may never become a democracy, her tradition is autocracy, but if Eastern Europe prospers within the EU it will in the long term be hard for Russia to take another path. For Ukraine I think things look more hopeful. 

There is a good chance that Ukraine will move towards Europe and away from Moscow, thanks partly to Putin's invasion, but the problem remains that a good outcome for Ukraine - some degree of prosperity, democracy and clean government - is a grave threat to Putin's own hold on power in Russia and he is in a position to do a lot to prevent this outcome.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Ukrainians are better off without rust belt

This is an interesting article about what people in Donetsk think, included this piece of information.


In the first half of 2013, Donetsk region contributed 3.85 billion hryvnia to government revenues but received 13.1 billion in spending including grants and subsidies. The region thus received about 720 million US dollars (at the present exchange rate) more than it contributed over that six-month period. 

For comparison, the Lviv region of western Ukraine made a net contribution of more than 356 million hryvnia (28 million dollars) to the treasury over the same period. According to the government’s official gazette, that means that someone living in a place like Makiyivka effectively benefited from 142 dollars in government spending, while a Lviv resident handed over ten dollars.

Ukrainians should not concentrate on getting back this rust belt, but look westwards - which has the attraction of being precisely what Vladimir Putin does not want them to do. 


Gwynne Dyer takes the same view here.
Let the rebels run the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk (Kiev has no choice in that), but DON’T integrate them into some rejigged federal state where they would hold a veto. And DON’T recognise their legitimacy if they declare independence or join Russia either. Treat them as another Crimea, in other words.
Leave the Russians the task of pouring huge, ongoing subsidies into what is really an immense open-air industrial museum, and concentrate instead on making an economic and political success of the rest of Ukraine – which would still have 90 per cent of the population. 
And wait. Wait for corruption to dwindle and prosperity to grow in Ukraine, as it probably will when the country gets closer to the European Union. Wait for Putin to grow old and/or for Russia to get distracted by events elsewhere. And don’t get any more people killed when further fighting will just lose you more territory.
And a very good article in Deutsche Welle also agrees.

On the other hand, Ukrainians need to be very careful not to tempt Mr. Putin to take more of their territory. I am surprised and relieved that he has not gone further this time, but he can always do so in the future, perhaps to create a useful land bridge between Russia and Crimea. Even if Ukraine can live with frozen conflicts, she also has an unpredictable and violent neighbour and no global policeman will come to the rescue if Russia attacks again. It is this, rather than Mr Putin's military victory, which is the reason why Russia has won this conflict, for the time being. 

But he has lost the hearts and minds of Ukrainians in Kiev and this will count in the long run, as will sanctions and lost investments. It is true that Russians are inured to suffering but the generation that suffered during the war and under Khrushchev and Brezhnev is giving way to one that wants to consume, rather than go without. 

Just like young Ukrainians. 

I cannot see Putin's extraordinarily corrupt system of government standing up in the long-term against the success of free market economics. Russians too will want something better, despite their perennial tradition of autocracy and isolation from the West. Looking at her history, I do not know if Russia will ever have free institutions, but if Eastern Europe is a success it is hard to see why Russia will not copy parts of the EU model, with adaptations. 

But, in any case, in the long term we are all dead.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Vladimir Putin is not Hitler nor a conservative


“Russia has 1.2 million soldiers, it has one of the most modern armies in the world. By this logic, as Russia can take Kiev, Russia can take Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, Bucharest and any other city, if we are not united.” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko 

We should all educate ourselves about Vladimir Putin and Russia and I try to do so, by reading and speaking to people who hold pro- and anti -Putin views and better still to people who have lived in Russia. Most important of all, though, is to think.

Much is unclear but some things are clear. Vladimir Putin is not Hitler. He does not intend to recapture the former Soviet republics which became independent. He has done nothing much about this in his fifteen years in power except the short war with Georgia which brought him little benefit. He was provoked by American attempts to spread democracy and human rights to Ukraine, which played some, perhaps a crucial, part in the revolution there. Though that revolution had and has huge popular support. At times a million people are said to have been at the Maidan. In response, Mr. Putin invaded Crimea, held a rigged referendum there in which about a third of the population voted and, of course, instigated and controls the 'rebellions' in Donetsk and Luhansk. War crimes have been committed by the rebels and people on the Ukrainian side. 

Vladimir Putin is not a nice or good man. He is, as the British Ambassador in Moscow said, somewhat undiplomatically, 'a thug and a liar'. He is alleged to have people he doesn't like killed, although the evidence is circumstantial. He is not clever, but he is cunning and completely ruthless. So, of course, was Peter the Great, whom Mr. Putin resembles. Under him, Russia is to a large extent run by the former KGB, which is extremely corrupt. It forms the basis of the 'deep state', to borrow the Turkish expression, which has close links to organised crime. Much of the mafia is said to be run by former KGB men.

Russians are refreshingly lacking in political correctness, or, depending how you look at it, racist, anti-semitic homophobes. This is why the social conservatives in the West like Mr. Putin, sensing that he is one of them. He has cleverly passed a law banning homosexual propaganda in order to garner support at home and abroad. It had the unintended consequence that he thereby lost forever the sympathy of Western leftists and liberals, despite his antagonism to the USA, but you can't have everything.

There is surprisingly strong circumstantial evidence that the former KGB blew up a Moscow apartment block and blamed it on the Chechens. The bombing happened four weeks after Mr. Putin became Prime Minister in 1999.

The West should want to do a deal with Mr. Putin, but he has shown himself to be a pathological liar, so the West probably won't. We should nevertheless aim at finding a modus vivendi that does not humiliate ourselves or him, yet, while he occupies Crimea, something rather like another Cold War looks pretty likely, which is a great opportunity for China. It's also a great opportunity for the United States to hold the NATO alliance together, or, depending on how you look at it, to control Europe.

We have to do business with countries much more unpleasant than Russia, including barbaric tyrannies like Saudi Arabia and Communist dictatorships like China. But we cannot shrug our shoulders when borders, especially in Europe, are rewritten by force, because first this would be wrong and secondly this would encourage further Russian aggression.


I thought I'd post some more links I recommend.

First, let's remind ourselves of what Wikileaks told us the US Embassy was thinking in 2011 about Putin's mafia state. The leaked CIA documents yield such insights as:
Russian spies use senior mafia bosses to carry out criminal operations such as arms trafficking.
• Law enforcement agencies such as the police, spy agencies and the prosecutor's office operate a de facto protection racket for criminal networks.
• Rampant bribery acts like a parallel tax system for the personal enrichment of police, officials and the KGB's successor, the federal security service (FSB).
• Investigators looking into Russian mafia links to Spain have compiled a list of Russian prosecutors, military officers and politicians who have dealings with organised crime networks.
Putin is accused of amassing "illicit proceeds" from his time in office, which various sources allege are hidden overseas.
I have had Timothy Snyder very highly recommended to me by a British friend of Thatcherite politics who lived for years in Russia and Ukraine and speaks Russian well. This review of his recent book reminds us of how the Ukraine crisis started. There's not much point Mr Snyder or anyone else accusing Russians or Ukrainians of fascism, his enthusiasm for the European Union will repel some readers and it doesn't mention what contribution to the groundwork for the revolution in Kiev was laid by American NGOs. Still the article is very illuminating and captures the idealism of the people in the Maidan. 

The revolution in Kiev was an upswelling of hope and gave Ukraine a second chance to have a decent future. No doubt the new people in power will turn out to be compromised and corrupt but let's hope they pull Ukraine together. It reminds older readers of the revolutions of 1989, but these were probably arranged by the KGB not the CIA.

Here is a very interesting article by Angus Roxburgh from April about the mood in Moscow among the well to do and rich. Many Russians on Facebook - friends of friends - resemble these pro Putin nouveaux riches. I suspect they are ringing the bells now but they'll be wringing their hands soon, but no-one knows for sure.


The young, clever, idealistic people who mail journalist Ben Judah to tell him they want to leave Russia are significant but I am sure a small minority. Foreign correspondents are friends with people like themselves, which usually mean Western minded and deracinated. This is why British journalists convinced themselves ten or more years ago that Israel was becoming softer.

A Russian student I met a couple of years ago told me nonchalantly that: 

I have to admit most Russians are extreme racist. 
The Ukrainians are apparently more so, according to a recent poll. I suspect that in fact the percentages in the poll are misleadingly low. The same British friend who lived in Moscow told me
Scratch any Russian and you find an anti-Semite.
This is a very good piece by Angus Roxburgh from March, entitled


Russia's revenge: why the west will never understand the Kremlin  

and here is a recent piece by him counselling against sanctions.


Facebook is an interesting source of information and misinformation. I was struck by these comments by a foreign investment banker long resident in Moscow, a man who passionately admires both Vladimir Putin and Marine Le Pen:

Several weeks ago several of us were very worried that Russia had abandoned Novorossyia. That the proto-Fascist Kievan armies were going to be allowed to crush the resistance, that Russia would look away while war crimes were committed. that NATO's coup d'état had been allowed to succeed. How wrong we were!Mr Putin has once again shown himself to be the consummate political strategist, and played a very weak hand brilliantly, Poroshenko is neutralised, Washington humiliated and fuming, the EU confirmed in its irrelevance, and Russia has, at least, avoided the worst outcomes, and now has a leading roll to play in the establishment of the post-war order.
I am very glad I do not have to play against Vladimir Vladimirovich and I pity those who do.
While an American posted this:

Ukraine is not NATO and we need to be careful stepping into a dog fight when we don't have a dog in the fight. Russia has done more to unify Europe and Nato in last 6 months than than we have been able to accomplish in 6 years. Even France is feeling the need to act and we can expect Germany to start looking very hard for non-Russian energy and every country will be rearming now. So far this has been a big success at very little cost to the U.S.
The truth is that a democratic Ukraine is a direct threat to Mr Putin personally - so he is right that America is seeking to undermine Russia, since he naturally identifies Russia with himself. The crisis gives both Russia and America that useful thing, an external enemy against whom to rally. One has the impression, however, that most Europeans are much more angry with Israel than concerned about Russia. 

America is in relative decline, Europe is in greater decline, Russia is in still greater decline, weak and short of cash. China is rising. Perhaps 1989 was the start of the decline and fall of Western civilisation.



Friday, 5 September 2014

Is it 1938 all over again?

As Paul Gottfried said, 
for the neo-cons it is always 1938.
It is interesting how Ukraine reopens the history of 1936-41 - the other analogy is Vietnam and the domino theory. So we ought to decide what we think about the Munich agreement, especially à propos of whether NATO should fight a proxy war in Ukraine.

A.J.P. Taylor once asked this question:
In 1938 Czechoslovakia was betrayed. In 1939 Poland was saved. Less than one hundred thousand Czechs died during the war. Six and a half million Poles were killed. Which was better – to be a betrayed Czech or a saved Pole?
I do not want us to be fighting Russia by proxy in Ukraine for our sake or for that of the Ukrainians on both sides who will be killed in a war that might last no one knows how long.

With the benefit of hindsight, had the UK and France not guaranteed Poland in 1939 and had Poland given away the Polish Corridor, without the need for Germany to ally with Stalin, things would have been better for the UK, France and Poland. 

Ben Judah, who is only 25, is certainly one of the 1938-ers. He recently wrote a very eloquent, well-argued and mistaken article in the New York Times, entitled 'Arm Ukraine or Surrender', arguing for NATO arming Ukraine. His advice would lead to a proxy war between NATO and Russia that could last years, cost many lives and if NATO and Ukraine won a complete victory could end in Vladimir Putin being replaced by people whom the Quai D'Orsay and Foreign Office found less tractable.

Peter Hitchens answers Ben Judah here. 


The same people who have turned much of Syria into a smoking, gore-encrusted rubble-heap, and Libya into a cauldron of blood and fire,  are hard at work here, making a very similar mistake to the ones they made in Damascus and Tripoli. First, they think that because the Russian government is bad (beyond dispute) , whatever replaces it will be better (very questionable). 

Peter Hitchens goes too far in blaming the EU as if Ukrainians had no say in their own revolution. He seems to think Ukrainians should not be able to decide their own future, but he is right that in fact they cannot. 

Judah's article betrays his youth and is wrong, though wrong for all the right reasons. Interpretations of 1933-39 are misleading us. Putin does not want to conquer Poland. He does want to retain Ukraine, Moldova and other parts of the former Soviet Union under his thumb and the best way for Ukraine to escape and have a European future is to be prepared to detach themselves emotionally from territories occupied by the 'rebels' - Putin wants frozen conflicts. 

Putin is no more Hitler than Saddam was or Nasser was - or an even more evil man than Saddam, Ho Chi Minh. Mr. Judah and others who think like him are proposing the domino theory that was such a disastrous idea for Laos and Cambodia.


It is clear that some individual NATO countries have been giving Kiev military support but this has been done discreetly. Kiev should not be allowed to imagine that it can rely on unlimited NATO support in the way that Western and Communist satellites did during the Cold War. This is how the Korean war started and almost brought the world to war over Cuba.
Anne Applebaum, the Polish-American-Jewish journalist and historian, who is married to the Polish Foreign Secretary and Bullingdon Club member Mr. Sikorsky, backs Mr. Judah. She argues that Ukraine is far bigger and far closer to us than Georgia. She might have added that because Georgia is not in Europe - though it feels European when you go there - it counts much less. She says

There are no natural borders between Kiev and Berlin. A permanent "frozen conflict" inside Ukraine will be a source of instability, disrupting Ukrainian and indeed European politics for many years to come: If Putin doesn't like something Kiev does - or Brussels does - he can move the border again.
But yes, there is one analogy: in Georgia, Putin did learn that if he waits long enough, Western ire disappears, the Western media becomes distracted - and then he can strike again. We are complacent about what is happening in eastern Ukraine, and the price of that complacency will be very high. 

I agree that we cannot be complacent, as we were after the Georgian war. I confess that I am not sure what we should do but though we underreacted to the war in Georgia it is not true that Georgia was much of a victory for Putin. He intended to achieve regime change in Tbilisi but Mr. Saakashvili served out his term of office. 
'Hitler was a rational, though no doubt a wicked statesman', 
said AJP Taylor. This applies to Putin too , but I do not see a good outcome for Russia or the E.U. from the events that started with the revolution in Kiev. The Americans were playing with fire and Ukraine got burnt but in the long run Ukraine might be the gainer all the same.