search

Russia & Ukraine: The smartened-up story – Chapter III

{Homoatrox, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons}
{Homoatrox, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons}

As mentioned in the previous chapters of this series, we are witnessing a worrying phenomenon: a type of groupthink – engendered by Western politicians and mainstream media who promote a simplistic, monochromatic version of reality.  The fact that in the current conflagration Russia (and only Russia) is the aggressor should not be used to cover up grave errors committed by other parties (in particular Ukrainian and Western leaders), which paved the way to the present situation. These errors need to be teased out and analyzed – not in order to justify Russia’s invasion, but to learn and derive conclusions for the future.

In this series of articles, I attempt to do just that: expose the dumbed-down narrative; and present a smartened-up account, in all its polychromatic intricacy.

In this episode, we will have a hard look at the Western response to Russia’s aggression: what was that response in practice (that is, beneath the layers of demagoguery and verbal ornaments)? How does that response measure in relation to the West’s moral and legal obligations?

‘Not engaged in the conflict’

On 7 December 2021, when Russian troops were being marshaled on Ukraine’s borders, US President Biden had a video call with Putin. The subsequent White House communiqué makes for some interesting reading:

President Biden voiced the deep concerns of the United States and our European Allies about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine and made clear that the U.S. and our Allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation.

What the docile mainstream media heard (and reported) was a threat of ‘extreme’ sanctions. In reality, however, Putin would have interpreted Biden’s ‘threat’ of “economic and other measures” as a pledge not to intervene militarily. That Russia would have to deal with economic sanctions was already obvious – and repeating that threat was a sign of weakness, not strength. From Putin’s point of view, the ‘threat of sanctions’ was nothing but green light to proceed, with no fear of direct military confrontation with the US or with NATO.

Yet on 22 February (i.e., two days before the Russian invasion began) Biden made this crystal-clear, as if to remove the last shred of a doubt in Putin’s mind:

Our forces are not and will not be engaged in the conflict.

Biden wasn’t the only one that provided Putin with all the reassurance he needed.  European and NATO leaders went out of their way to let Putin know that they won’t intervene militarily. For instance, on 4 February 2022, NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoana declared:

NATO will not get involved militarily in Ukraine.

And why wouldn’t it? As politicians and the servile media hastened to explain, that’s because Ukraine wasn’t a member of NATO.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) said it condemned ‘in the strongest possible terms’ Russia’s attack on Ukraine, but it has not sent any troops to Ukraine.

This is because Ukraine is not a member of the Nato alliance, meaning it is not obligated to launch an armed attack against Russia to protect Ukraine.

This was, to put it mildly, sand thrown in the public’s eyes, as well as turning the reality upside-down: after all, the only reason why Ukraine was not a NATO member was because NATO did not accept her membership – so that it wouldn’t have to defend her in the event of attack. And, as already mentioned, NATO has in the past intervened militarily in non-member countries (like Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia).

In reality, it wasn’t the West ‘threatening’ Putin. It was Putin threatening the West: he ominously warned unspecified countries not to interfere in Ukraine:

If you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history.

So, while our media was dutifully reporting the Western threats of ‘extreme sanctions’, it was the West that backed off, frightened of a possible clash with Russia.

Technically (or ‘legally’) NATO was not obliged to intervene. Morally… now that’s a different story. What is the point of talking about ‘rules-based international order’, if those rules are not enforced (or are not consistently enforced)? The phrase is then not just emptied of any meaning; it becomes a fraud, a way to ‘trick’ countries like Ukraine with false pretenses – and then abandon them to their bitter fate.

But if NATO can at least hide its cowardice behind technicalities, that meagre excuse isn’t available to the US (nor, arguably, to the UK). Let me explain why:

In 1991, when Ukraine won its independence, it was hosting on its territory the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. These were nuclear bombs and missiles, which had been placed there as part of the Soviet Army’s ‘nuclear deterrent’. Ukraine (already traumatized by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster) did not want those weapons; Russia did.

So, through a series of trilateral agreements signed between 1994 and 2009, USA and Russia jointly guaranteed Ukraine’s security, territorial integrity and political independence – in return for the country’s renunciation to nuclear weapons, all of which were ‘returned’ to Russia. Let there be no doubt: these were international agreements (a.k.a. ‘legal obligations’ to those who believe in ‘international law’). And at least one of those agreements was also signed by the UK.

Russia has, of course, cynically violated those guarantees. But USA (and, arguably, the UK as well) also failed to fulfill their side of the bargain. They did not defend Ukraine’s security, territorial integrity and political independence – as they had committed to.

Hold on, I hear you saying – but we enacted ‘extreme sanctions’ against Russia!  Didn’t we?

Well, firstly sanctions (however ‘extreme’) are not what the term ‘guarantee’ is supposed to mean. Guarantees are meant to provide defense against aggression, not to punish the aggressor post-factum. But no one expected sanctions – or the threat thereof – to stop Putin’s aggression. In fact, sanctions (much, much harsher than those imposed on Russia) failed to deter the likes of North Korea, Iran and Syria – countries considerably smaller and poorer than Russia.

And how ‘extreme’ are the sanctions imposed on Russia, anyway? Take for instance the expulsion of seven Russian banks from the SWIFT international payment system – which was ‘sold’ to us as a harsh form of economic punishment. Sure, such ban could have caused Russian companies a few headaches; but the key word in that announcement is ‘seven’. There are no fewer than 330 banks operating in Russia. Now imagine that several large British banks were thrown out of SWIFT. Rather than transferring money via Barclays (banned from SWIFT), I’d have to open an account with – say – Starling or Metro Bank (still in SWIFT). I’d use that account for the international transfers, then execute a domestic transfer to Barclays. Sure, I might be paying a bit more in bank fees, to account for that domestic transfer and for maintaining an additional account…  But this is really a mild inconvenience – not an ‘extreme sanction’.

So why weren’t all Russian banks sanctioned? To answer this, we need to look at the recent trajectory of the Russian currency – the Rouble.

Back in February and the beginning of March, the Western media was gleefully announcing the fast depreciation of Russia’s currency. On 16 February (i.e. before the invasion), 1 Euro was worth circa 85 roubles; on 15 March (after sanctions were imposed), it was 145 roubles. But what we were not told is that, since then, the Russian currency has recovered: by 8 April, it had bounced back to pre-sanctions levels: 86 roubles per Euro.

The Russian rouble bounces back, despite the West’s ‘extreme sanctions’.
{own picture}

So what caused this swift recovery? On 31 March, Putin issued a decree, requiring ‘unfriendly countries’ (no prizes for guessing which countries he meant) to pay… in Russian roubles, if they wish to buy Russian gas.

And they do wish to! Russian natural gas accounts for one third of the EU consumption – but that’s an average across the entire Union; in countries like Germany and Italy, it is a considerably higher proportion. And it’s not just gas: Russia is the source of 34% of Germany’s crude oil and 53% of hard coal (used in power generation, but also to make steel).

Also on 31 March, Western mainstream media carried statements by Europe’s political leaders, rejecting the Russian demand:

Germany and France rejected Vladimir Putin’s demand that foreign purchasers of Russian gas pay in roubles as an unacceptable breach of contract, adding that the manoeuver amounted to ‘blackmail’.

But, interestingly, the whole issue has since disappeared from the news. We are not being told what actually happened: are we still paying in Euros? Or has Europe accepted the “blackmail” and now pays in Russian roubles? The latter would result in a rise in the parity of the Russian currency versus the euro. So which is it? Well, have a look at the rouble’s ‘miraculous’ recovery and take a guess!

I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry: whatever the currency, we know that, while talking of ‘extreme sanctions’, Europe continues to buy Russian coal, oil and (especially) gas, to the tune of hundreds of millions of Euros a day. It has no choice, as our ‘wise’ leaders failed to find alternative sources – even after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, even after the Donbas war.

This, of course, makes a mockery of the ‘extreme sanctions’; what’s more, paying in roubles would force Europe to deal with Russia’s Central Bank – in contravention of their own sanctions!

Of course, the West has sanctioned Putin personally – as well as several of his close associates, such as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Any assets that Putin may hold in the West (for instance, money in Western banks) have been confiscated. Yay! Except that… we are not told what those confiscated assets are. We aren’t even told what is their total worth. I suggest that may be because… their total worth is zero.  Come on! Putin may be many things – but dumb he ain’t. Why would he keep money in Western banks (or any other assets in the West), when he’s been told many times that there will be sanctions?

‘Collective punishment’ and ‘the sins of the fathers’

But at least we grabbed some assets from the ‘Russian oligarchs’: a yacht here, a private jet there, a mansion in London…

Well, I’m sure the oligarchs themselves do not like that. But I’m also pretty sure Putin does not give a damn. But, hold on: the Independent informs us that

The drastic sanctions on Russian oligarchs are designed to put maximum pressure on Putin.

Seldom have I heard something so blatantly stupid. It is not Putin who is beholden to the oligarchs – but the other way around. Those oligarchs made their money (or so we are told) because of favors bestowed on them by Putin and members of his regime. And, however many yachts, planes and mansions we grab in the West, the bulk of their assets (such as shares in Oil & Gas, petrochemical and metallurgic companies) are in Russia. Their families are typically there, as well. In Russia – read: subject to Putin’s decrees; which, let me tell you, are ‘a bit’ more effective than Western sanctions!

And I don’t just question the effectiveness of sanctioning oligarchs – I doubt its morality, as well. Sure, it may be that these oligarchs are indeed awful people. BBC’s Panorama program implied that much, when talking about Roman Abramovich and accusing him of making his money through bribes, Mafia-style threats and other unpleasant methods. That may indeed be so. But I thought we in the West enjoyed something wonderful called ‘Rule of Law’? According to which people are not punished unless/until proven guilty? And, furthermore, according to which that guilt (or lack thereof) is determined in a court of law – read: not by the government, not by the public and not even by the BBC? Any ‘oligarch’ (indeed, any person) suspected of committing an offense should stand trial.

As for whether these ‘oligarchs’ are moral people – isn’t it a bit late to question their ethics, years after they (and their billions) were welcomed with open arms by the UK and other European countries? Isn’t it a bit strange that Western leaders only developed such exacting moral standards once Putin attacked Ukraine?

In addition to his Israeli citizenship, Abramovich is also a national of Portugal  a EU member country. It is that latter citizenship that allowed him to continue to live in the UK, even after Brexit. He obtained by claiming some Sephardic ancestry, in accordance with the Portuguese laws, which offer naturalization to descendants of Sephardi Jews. The law requires those claims to be assessed by experts (who are, of course, themselves Jews). And so, on 12 March, the BBC gleefully reported that one such expert – Rabbi Daniel Litvak (rabbi of the Jewish community in the Portuguese city of Porto)

was detained on Thursday as part of an investigation into how citizenship had been granted.

Nobody thought of questioning Abramovich’s Portuguese-ness before. It is surely a mere coincidence that a challenge was mounted in March 2022, soon after Russia started its invasion of Ukraine!

Rabbi Litvak (and the leaders of his community) deny any wrongdoing and claim that Abramovich’s ancestry was assessed in the usual way, according to criteria

accepted by successive [Portuguese] governments.

Interestingly enough, we were never told what came out of that inquiry. But we know that Abramovich has not been stripped of his Portuguese nationality. Instead, the Portuguese law has been ‘tightened’: instead of just showing Sephardi ancestry, applicants will now have to prove ‘effective connection to Portugal’. Which (in passing be said) may be a bit difficult, given the more than 500 years that passed since the expulsion of Jews from that country!

Of course, I am not inclined to shed many tears for ‘oligarchs’ – I’m sure they’ll be fine. But will we? I am rather concerned that the campaign to ‘persecute’ (but not prosecute) the ‘oligarchs’ is nothing but a set of populist measures designed not to help Ukraine, but to appeal to base instincts such as envy and – in the case of certain ‘oligarchs’ with Jewish names and Premier League associations – antisemitism.

There are also immediate practical consequences – in addition to the moral concerns: the rule of law doesn’t just protect our freedoms; it also attracts investment into the West. Investors from places like China, South America, Africa and the Middle East have traditionally been happy to spend money in the UK, in the knowledge that their property will not be confiscated willy-nilly, without due process. That money, which creates jobs and fuels our prosperity, may now dry out.

But if sanctioning ‘oligarchs’ on the basis of suspicions and allegations is ethically and pragmatically problematic, it is the sanctioning of Russian leaders’ families that really reeks of moral bankruptcy.

A BBC article dated 6 April 2022 announces the sanctioning of Putin’s two daughters and of the daughter of Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. The article merits a bit of analysis, as it is, in my humble opinion, nothing short of disgusting. It says that

[t]he measures follow new revelations of atrocities by Russian troops in Ukraine, including images of bodies of civilians scattered on the streets of Bucha, near the capital Kyiv.

[…]

“Referring to the Bucha murders, US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday: ‘There’s nothing less happening than major war crimes.’

‘Responsible nations have to come together to hold these perpetrators accountable,’ Mr Biden added.

The US said that Mr Putin’s daughters, Katerina Vladimirovna Tikhonova and Maria Vladimirovna Vorontsova, were being put under sanctions ‘for being the adult children of Putin, a person whose property and interests in property are blocked’.

So how are Putin’s daughters linked to the Bucha massacre? They are not in any way, of course; it is incredibly, outrageously misleading for BBC to play with words and string sentences in a way designed to imply that they are. This kind of subliminal manipulation should be repugnant when perpetrated by any media outlet; let alone one that is funded by the public and – as such – is expected to inform the public with due accuracy and impartiality.

But, unethical journalism aside, how about the ‘explanation’ that Putin’s daughters are sanctioned “for being the adult children of Putin”? I always thought that children don’t get to choose their parents – has someone in the US discovered that they do?

Later in the article, the BBC again quotes official US sources listing the ‘crimes’ of Putin’s daughters:

The [US] announcement described Ms Tikhonova as ‘a tech executive whose work supports the GoR [Russian government] and defense industry’.

Her sister, Ms Vorontsova, it went on, ‘leads state-funded programs that have received billions of dollars from the Kremlin toward genetics research and are personally overseen by Putin.’”

Katerina Vladimirovna Tikhonova (Putin’s elder daughter, aged 37) is a mathematician. How exactly her work “supports the GoR [Russian government] and defense industry” is unclear – especially since no other scientists (not even those working in Russia’s extensive nuclear program) have been sanctioned.

As for Maria Vladimirovna Vorontsova (36), she is a doctor and medical researcher, specializing in genetics and endocrinology. It may well be that Putin takes special interest in her research and that, as part of that interest, her programs are abundantly funded. But there is nothing to indicate that those programs have any sort of military dimension.

In fact, the next part of the article presents yet another ‘reason’ for the sanctions:

Asked why the US was targeting Mr Putin’s daughters, a senior Biden administration official said the US thought they could be in control of some of their father’s assets.

‘We have reason to believe that Putin, and many of his cronies, and the oligarchs, hide their wealth, hide their assets, with family members that place their assets and their wealth in the US financial system, and also many other parts of the world,’ the official said.

‘We believe that many of Putin’s assets are hidden with family members, and that’s why we’re targeting them’.

“The US thought…”? “We have reason to believe…”? Since when have we taken to sanctioning individuals on the basis of ‘beliefs’ and mere suspicions?

Not to mention that the article presents – in the space of just a few sentences – three different ‘reasons’ for the sanctions. The ‘journalists’ who wrote it seem totally unconcerned and not inclined to challenge the contradictory character of those US announcements.

And just as unquestionably, the UK joined in those ‘family’ sanctions – just a couple of days later.

As I was writing this, the All-England Club (organizer of the Wimbledon tennis tournament) announced that it will ban Russian and Belarusian players. The AEC justified discriminating against sportsmen and sportswomen on the sole basis of their nationality by stating that

in the circumstances of such unjustified and unprecedented military aggression, it would be unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players with the Championships.

That sounds very assertive. I just don’t get what “benefits” is Putin going to get from World #2 Daniil Medvedev playing at Wimbledon.

The oh-so-wise Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston wanted Russian players to denounce Putin’s regime as a pre-condition for participation. And, just in case you didn’t get it, this is the Sports Minister of the United Kingdom – not of Russia, China or Burma!

We must start telling our dear leaders that this is patently wrong. Individuals should not be discriminated because of their country of origin, or because of their opinions. There is no such thing as ‘crime of opinion’. Mr. Huddleston may think he fights the Putins of this world: in fact, he is becoming one.

No-fly and what might fly

One of the keenest Ukrainian demands was the institution of a no-fly zone over Ukraine (or parts thereof). NATO (and the various Western leaders) flatly refused that Ukrainian request. As British Prime Minister Boris Johnson explained:

When it comes to a no-fly zone in the skies above Ukraine, we have to accept the reality of that involves shooting down Russian planes…it’s simply not on the agenda of any Nato country.

That much is true, especially if the putative no-fly zone covered the entire Ukrainian territory or a considerable portion thereof. In fact, the ‘official’ Ukrainian demand (as expressed by President Zelenskyy and some of his entourage) had precisely that purpose: to draw NATO into the conflict via the creation of ‘incidents’ between Russian and NATO combat planes.

But who says that the no-fly zone has to be extensive? And who said it needed to be enforced by NATO planes? Why not designate a relatively small area in Western Ukraine (say from Chernivtsi to Lviv) as a refuge area, policed from the air and on the ground by contingents from neutral countries? Closed to the movement of military equipment and personnel (with the exception of those belonging to the Neutral Police Force) but provided with international humanitarian aid the Refuge Area should be designed as a safe haven for refugees fleeing the ravages of war in Ukraine’s other regions. After all, what is a point of (to use that worn-out slogan) ‘opening our borders to Ukrainian refugees’? Why expect war-battered, fleeing refugees (or those who are willing and able to) to cross borders and potentially travel as far as the UK – rather than secure a safe area for them and provide them with a decent life in their own country, amongst a population they feel connected to?

Of course, Putin might not agree to all this – though I don’t see much downside from his point of view. But why not try? If you’re US President Biden, UK Prime Minister Johnson, French President Macron or German Kanzler Scholz, why not make a formal proposal to that effect? Is it perhaps that building up public hostility by exposing Russian war crimes is politically more useful than actually helping civilians survive?

Avoiding World War III

But let’s come back to the initial response – to the repeated Western statements that NATO won’t get involved.

‘It’s easy to criticize,’ I hear you saying. ‘But what do you want us to do – start World War III?’

No, I don’t really want that. But excessive Western timidity does nothing to avoid that terrible outcome; it made it more likely. Showing fear never appeases a bully – it emboldens him. Those who are not streetwise enough to understand that fact, should at least learn it from history:

In a bid to create a ‘buffer zone’ against future German aggression, the Treaty of Versailles (which formally ended World War I) declared Germany’s western-most region – the Rhineland – a demilitarized zone. German military equipment and personnel were banned from that area. Yet on 8 March 1936, Hitler ordered 20,000 German soldiers to march into the Rheinland. This was a blatant violation of the peace treaty. Documents from the Nazi archives clearly show that at the time the Wehrmacht was still unprepared for war. Warned by his generals, Hitler was apprehensive – he very nearly ordered the German soldiers to pull back from the Rheinland when it was reported that the French soldiers were gathering at the border with Germany.

But it soon became clear that the French and British governments had no intention to enforce the Versailles treaty, they meekly acquiesced in its violation. Had they confronted Hitler at that point, they might have prevented the war that was to start three and a half years later. In the words of American author William L. Shirer:

… in March 1936 the two Western democracies, were given their last chance to halt, without the risk of a serious war, the rise of a militarized, aggressive, totalitarian Germany and, in fact – as we have seen Hitler admitting – bring the Nazi dictator and his regime tumbling down. They let the chance slip.

Almost exactly two years after the remilitarization of Rhineland, Hitler manoeuvred Austria into ‘joining’ Nazi Germany. Again, France and Britain did not react, because (as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared):

The hard fact is that nothing could have arrested what has actually happened [in Austria] unless this country and other countries had been prepared to use force.

Which, they clearly were not prepared to do. What wonderful reassurance for the ever-more-confident Führer!

No wonder that the next crisis arrived just a few months later – in September the same year (1938)! Rather than defending Czechoslovakia, as they had committed to do, the British and French leaders gave Hitler green light (through the Munich Agreement) to take over a significant portion of that country. He, of course, went on and occupied the whole lot. Many historians agree that, had Britain and France stood firm at that point – Hitler might not have attacked Czechoslovakia or may have been defeated if he did: the German army was still not fully prepared for war, while the Czechs’ smaller but well-equipped army was ready for combat and entrenched in fortified positions. The Nazi Germany (which at the time still did not yet have access to the resources of an entire continent) would have had to fight on two fronts.

Instead, upon arrival back to England, Chamberlain infamously waved the Munich Agreement as an achievement and boasted that he had attained “peace for our time”.  But “our time” was to last exactly 11 months: on 1 September 1939, Hitler (this time in cahoots with Stalin) attacked Poland. What followed was 6 years of devastating war. Even then, Nazi Germany and its allies were defeated only at the cost of huge human and material sacrifices.

Despite their good intentions, appeasers like Chamberlain did not avoid the war. All they achieved was to make war more likely – and ultimately conduct it from a less favorable position.

As mentioned before, Putin is no Hitler. But that does not mean that we cannot draw some conclusions from the events that preceded World War II. Those who do not learn from historical errors, tend to repeat them.

The West has already stood by when Russia attacked Georgia; it allowed Putin to grab Georgian territory (via the old tactic of creating the ‘independent republics’ of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), as well as subvert Georgia’s political trajectory.

The West once again stood by (with only the economic and political equivalent of frowning) while Russia gobbled up Crimea and parts of the Donbas.

It should be remembered that Russia also supports militarily the ‘independent republic’ of Transnistria – which all other countries view as part of the territory of Moldova.

And now, ‘extreme sanctions’ and political posturing notwithstanding, the West is standing by once more, in practical terms allowing Putin freedom of action in Ukraine.

So one needs to ask: what next? At which point do we draw the line? And will we be in a better or worse position – when we finally are forced to confront the bully?

US and NATO should never have provided Putin with reassurance that they will not intervene militarily in Ukraine. Quite the opposite: they should have stressed the US (and by extension NATO’s) legal status as guarantor of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political independence – while at the same time admitting that there are issues related to borders and the status of minorities, which need to be resolved through negotiations and accommodation. Rather than insisting that joining NATO is ‘ultimately a Ukrainian decision’ (it is not, otherwise the country would already be a member of the alliance) the West should have indicated that this is one more issue to be included in the negotiations.

And, of course, the West should show (and not just to Russia) better preparedness to defend itself and its values. Reasonable military budgets being a simple but effective way to demonstrate such preparedness. If two thirds of NATO member states can’t be bothered to spend 2% of their GDP on self-defense – what does that tell a potential aggressor?

The Romans had a saying: si vis pacem, para bellum. There is only one way to avoid a war: by showing willingness to fight it and capacity to win it – alongside desire for peaceful solutions and flexibility to find them. This isn’t a game for the faint-hearted – but it’s the only game in town.

In the next instalment of our saga, we will focus on probable outcomes and consequences (direct and indirect, immediate and remote) of this conflict.

About the Author
Noru served in the IDF as a regular soldier and reservist. Currently a management consultant, in his spare time he engages in pro-Israel advocacy, especially in interfaith environments. He presented in front of Church of England and Quaker audiences and provides support to Methodist Friends of Israel. Noru is the Editor-in-Chief of 'Politically-incorrect Politics' (www.Pol-inc-Pol.com). Translated into Polish, his articles are also published by the Polish portal 'Listy z naszego sadu.'
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments