A Dangerous Stare-down

Filed in Opinion by on 24th Jan 2022 11 Comments

Money and Power versus Principles

The international political economy is a discipline whose essential element is how political forces (states, institutions, individual actors ) set up the systems through which they conduct and control economies and commerce. It also works the other way around where economic actions affect politics. Indeed, it is the interaction between the two. The international political economy includes international trade, world markets, international finance, international development, the role of institutions in development, cooperation between states, the process of globalisation, and how to deal with the problems that arise in all these interactions. In short, everything that affects economic and political power, and by extension, you. What creates tension in international economic and political relations is the ebb and flow of strategic advantage between the great powers, and their allies.

Imagine a planet full of exotic animals. There are hungry dragons, wary eagles, ferocious bears, preying tigers, and a host of other animals. This planet has enough wealth to provide a good life for everyone, if only the animals could get along. However, with cycles of drought and famine, resulting shortages lead to one animal battling another in a contest of wills. Given this worldwide pandemic, market shifts, unemployment and disruption to the international supply chain, which country do you think is the most dangerous on the international scene right now? Is it Russia? China? The United States? Perhaps North Korea? Iran?

Truth or Propaganda

For the past two years the number one story everywhere in the world has been about the pandemic with daily reports on how many people have contracted COVID or one of its variants, how healthcare workers and hospitals are overwhelmed with the growing number of COVID patients, how many are dying and how many are vaccinated against it or refuse to be vaccinated. Then, all of a sudden as 2022 is barely underway, stories about the virus drop to second place and it’s one report after another about the United States saying Russia plans to invade Ukraine, and how Moscow will receive swift retribution from the west if it does. It seems you can’t turn on the radio, TV or look at various news services on the Internet without hearing how the US and the United Kingdom are sending arms to Ukraine, and NATO is sending more matériel to its forces in Europe in states bordering Russia, and deploying ships to patrol the Baltic and Black Seas. The speed with which this story suddenly appeared strikes me as part of a strategy to engage in war, not prevent it. I’ve been to too many countries where leaders use the media to shape people’s beliefs in the direction of what they want rather than what the people need. This comes across as the US beating the drum to attract more people to the cause. I do admit, however, that the dream of putting one’s homeland back together must be a strong temptation for Vladimir Putin. The whole exercise looks like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

NATO, Ukraine and Russia

This is a chess game of conflicting narratives in an age-old power game. I recall the promise the west made after the Soviet Union dissolved, that NATO would NOT move further east than its new member states in eastern Europe. While the west highlighted the so-called “Peace Dividend” at the end of the Cold War, NATO slowly proceeded to deploy missiles on the border between the two, and then stationed extra troops from the Baltic states down through what used to be East Germany, the former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and into the former Yugoslav states. I don’t have any love for President Putin but if you put yourself in his place, it’s only natural that he want his Motherland to be respected in the world. The head of the German navy resigned for saying as much. Kay-Achim Schönbach said the idea that Russia wanted to invade Ukraine was nonsense, and that all Putin wanted was respect.

President Putin’s annexation of Crimea came four days after the Maidan riots in Kiev in February 2014.  Some 130 people died when gunmen opened fire on them. Some blame the special Berkut police units that tried to control the protesters, even though four police were killed by unknown gunmen. Government sharpshooters were called in to quell the violence but arrived only after the shooting stopped. Testimony from several people at the protest that the firing came from government-controlled buildings was discounted. It remains a mystery but it appears that pro-Ukrainians and pro-Russians ignored diplomacy and took matters into their own hands.

Weeks before, western media carried reports of the US backing hardline parties like Pravi Sektor and Svoboda in its efforts to gain a greater influence in the country. The European Union warned about US support of parties with such extremist views. The parties had a NAZI background, were anti-semitic and against immigration. Svoboda, which means freedom, was originally called the Social-National Party of Ukraine, and known for recruiting skinheads and using Neo-Nazi symbols. On the 4th of February 2014, Russian intelligence bugged a phone call by the American ambassador, Victoria Nuland, with the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, in which she said “Fuck the EU”. The Russians released the recording to international media. It became headline news everywhere, but despite its sensational impact, it was just another move in a dangerous game of chess.

Totalitarian, Authoritarian or Democracy
for and by the People

We often hear of protests and mass arrests in countries that suppress human rights, such as the 2020-2021 protests in Belarus which resulted in the arrest of almost 7000 people. When protests erupted in Almaty on the 2nd of January 2022 over a sharp rise in the price of gas, Kazakhstan called in Russian forces to restore order after having ordered police to fire on the protesters. CNN reports that 164 people died and thousands were arrested. However, over the years we’ve also heard about repressive policies the west has engaged in. Look back over the past 20 years and you’ll find ample evidence of a hardline element in the US involved in one war after another. Such people as Paul Wolfowitz and Lee Strauss wielded power behind the scenes. Let’s not forget General Wesley Clark’s statement when he went to the Pentagon, only to learn that the US had plans to invade seven countries over five years (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran). Remember how President Bush W. Bush started conflating Afghanistan with Iraq while drawing together a coalition of countries willing to back the US attack on Baghdad in 2003. His actions are like a page from Noam Chomsky’s book ‘Manufacturing Consent’. Unfortunately it appears the US is doing the same with its allegations of Russian plans to attack Ukraine. We naturally want to believe something we keep hearing day after day. It’s the same technique advertisers use to persuade us to buy their products. Joseph Goebbels said it differently: If you repeat a lie often enough people will believe it, and you will come to believe it yourself.

Presidents Biden and Putin are playing a dangerous game. Media reports in the west now talk constantly about Russia planning to attack Ukraine, especially since Russian troops are also in Belarus directly north of Ukraine, as well as being deployed along the Russian border east of Ukraine. Putin is basically doing the same as NATO. Both sides are pushing the envelope. In basic military strategy, the most dangerous thing any army can do is to station troops along a border with opposing forces on the other side.

On the 21st of January Biden said he would bring in sanctions IF Russia moves into Ukraine, yet a day later he levied pre-emptive sanctions on four Ukrainians linked to Russia and justified it as an action in case of a Russian attack. Since there are far fewer wars than before, arms dealers have a vested interest in increasing their sales. A war economy is known to be highly profitable. So, who is telling the truth? Whose narrative are you going to believe? If Russia weren’t authoritarian, it might be easier for people in the west to understand what’s happening. If the United States weren’t so divided between the Democrat’s efforts to restore a Liberal Democracy and the Republican’s increasingly authoritarian approach, maybe they and their allies would begin to understand the danger behind what’s happening. Alas an uninformed public seems more interested in reality TV and celebrity worship than what’s happening on the other side of the world.

Many say force is the only thing Putin understands, and that the west has to act now before he overruns Western Europe. I think it won’t be a question of Russian soldiers overrunning Europe so much as future European commerce eventually opting for greater trade with China. They would most likely favour those freight trains between Beijing and Europe to transport merchandise rather than solders from the people’s Liberation Army. This talk of a possible Russian attack strikes me as a tactic in a much larger strategy. President Biden uses the same argument as President Reagan did, that Moscow wants to control Germany by controlling its energy. Mr. Biden has persuaded Germany to not approve the Nordstrom 2 Russian gas line under the Baltic Sea. This has led to a dramatic increase in gas prices for German industry which already depends on Russian gas for approximately 40 per cent  of its needs. Moscow denies withholding gas from Europe this year for political leverage. However, in December 2021, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Alexander Novak, said that “early completion of the certification” for Nord Stream 2 would help “cool off the current situation.”

China and the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement

Meanwhile, China proceeds with negotiations for a tighter alliance with Russia, which would undoubtedly include greater military cooperation. It’s another step in a strategy that began more than a decade ago. China, Russia and 70 other countries joined the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement, which was set up to counter western-dominated trade, and the use of the US dollar as a world reserve currency. The Shanghai agreement set up BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) and several other organisations as alternatives to the IMF and other western financial and trade institutions. South Africa has a strategic role in this trade group since it contains 60 per cent of the world’s platinum, half the world’s reserves of manganese and vanadium, 25 per cent of Uranium and 65 per cent of the world’s gold, all of which are needed in high-speed circuits, satellites, combat jets, naval ships, submarines and nuclear missiles.

In 2013 Beijing started building a new silk road (the BELT road initiative) which now extends from western China to the Middle East to Western Europe. China has also built or gained control over ports, the string of pearls, extending westward from the Malacca Strait to the Persian Gulf, in addition to gaining control over several ports in the Mediterranean. As part of the BELT road initiative, China now operates freight trains between Beijing, London, Frankfurt and Madrid. Also in 2013 China started building several islands throughout the South China sea and turned them into military outposts, while claiming sovereignty over the area within the so-called Nine-Dash line in the middle of one of the world’s strategic maritime waterways. Western and Chinese navies eye each other warily as they play daily cat and mouse games to support their competing claims. Russia, meanwhile, has a port in the Mediterranean, Tartus on the Syrian coast, and can move ships from its fleet in Sebastopol in Crimea to the Mediterranean. For Russia, Crimea has always been a strategic asset.

President Joe Biden, who has been trying to reestablish the Liberal Democracy that helped maintain international commerce and good living conditions for the United States and its allies, has to deal not only with Russia on one hand, and China on the other, but also with more than 70 million Republicans whose actions show they want a different version of the United States, one that favours them and their conservative and religious convictions. They are mainly white and Christian evangelicals. Some 21 states have passed laws restricting voting rights by making it harder for those who favour the Democrats to vote. Every thing Biden has done has improved the US economy yet Republicans refuse a Liberal Democracy for all in favour of a system that favours them and no one else. Clearly the Republicans who back former President Donald Trump are trying to hinder President Biden in everything he tries to accomplish.

If you want peace, think peace!

What’s too often overlooked is that you get what you focus on and the US focus on its ‘war on terror’ resulted in more terror over the years than less. Although some might say all’s fair in love and war, the approach led to more terrorist attacks, violations of the law, black ops and renditions. Since the withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan and the partial negotiated withdrawal of US forces from Iraq (25-hundred remain to counter Islamic terrorists), President Biden has all but eliminated the US use of drone and airstrikes. President Trump authorised 1600 airstrikes in his first eleven months as part of the war on terror. President Biden has been in office a year and has authorised only four, and terrorist strikes have diminished dramatically. Are hardliners in the west’s military industrial complex thinking of extending and defending Liberal Democracy, even though millions of American Republicans don’t want it, or are they thinking more in terms of profit. Hardliners in Russia and China may be thinking the same thing but in terms of world trade which they want to control. Focussing on international cooperation and sharing power and ressources would be much better for all if only leaders did it.

It’s my understanding that Russia suffered greater loss of life in the Second World War than the west, so my reaction on hearing so many reports warning Russia not to attack Ukraine or face retaliation, was that no country in its right mind wants war. The loss of life in the Second World War gave way to Canada’s peace-keeping tradition in the years before the Conservative government under Stephen Harper came to power. Russian support of separatists in eastern Ukraine supported Russian-speakers who make up 24 per cent of the population, and wanted to break away from Ukraine after the Maidan loss of life when Kiev ordered that the Russian language could no longer be used in the country. That has since been rescinded. President Putin has used the intervening time to build a bridge to Crimea, essentially making the Sea of Azov and the south-east coast of Ukraine Russian.

At a time when most business and defence analysts foresee China as the major world power by 2050, and some even suggest 2040, President Biden has a lot on his plate. Perhaps the powers that be leave him little choice. When faced with the inevitable, perhaps the best defence is a good offence : Act now rather than be subjugated later. History shows periods of war interspersed by periods of peace. It also shows us how built-up hostilities can be resolved through consistent constructive diplomacy. I believe that what you think is what you get. Concentrate on war and over time it’s yours. The same is true for those who concentrate on peace. Instead we hear such phrases as war if necessary but not necessarily war. As realistic as it may seem in such circumstances, it has too often led to death and destruction. It seems clear that we need a more positive approach, although many would see that as little more than wishful thinking.

Freedom, democracy and justice are basic principles. Unfortunately, a growing trend over the past three, possibly four decades, of focusing on cut-throat capitalism, business expansion and profits has tipped the underlying balance of losses and gains in favour of economics over basic rights, giving a skewed perception that is counter to basic principles. Strategic and military goals behind civil wars in such countries as Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan in the Middle East; Somalia, southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa; and in southern Asia where India and Pakistan regularly skirmish over Jammu and Kashmir as proxies for the United States, Russia and China, have led to a devaluation of human life. Moral principles such as truth, the first casualty of war, appear to have been thrown by the wayside, compromising the future.

Meanwhile, American media are also raising questions about Hillary Clinton. Will she or will she not run in the next presidential election? Who knows? Expect to see more of this campaign to drive up her popularity. Joe Biden says he intends to run in the 2024 campaign, although he comes across as quickly aging and frail leaving me with the impression he won’t make it past this year. I doubt Kamala Harris has enough experience to handle an international conflict, and given what’s happening, we shouldn’t be surprised that the powers that be prefer a seasoned former Secretary of State as president.

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Comments (11)

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  1. Ian Porter says:

    Talk about a tour d’horizon! Includes a fair bit of archaeology for added perspective. It would be nice to think that the past few months have all been play-acting for domestic audiences and that the script writers will wrap it up with some sort of obscure resolution that will have us coming back in due course for Season 2 . . . or however long this series has been running. Sort of like a serial take-off on Wag the Dog.
    Maybe that’s what Biden and Blinken think they’re doing. Biden has been around to see all the tricks from Cold War days and clearly understands the political value of re-directing public attention to a foreign enemy.
    What’re not so clear are the odds on the other side. Evidently, Putin would like to re-assemble as much as possible of the old Soviet empire but can he unite Russia’s various communities and ethnicities behind this project? Is there anyone providing coverage of the current situation who knows enough about the reality of Russia today to give us more than that NATO is facing a repressive kleptocracy?
    That line leads to the notion that the remake in question is ‘Triumph of the Will’. What seems closer to reality is that we have a bunch of loose parts any two or three of which could suddenly collide and set off a chain reaction. You don’t have to dig too far back to find out what happens then.

  2. Cameron says:

    Well expressed and a good angle to take at the current stand-off between what is in essence NATO and Russia.

    Time will tell on Putin’s plans for Ukraine and how NATO, and in particular the US, will respond with promised sanctions for Russia.

    Without a doubt, Ukraine is a jewel in the crown for Putin on re-establishing the Russian nation in historical terms, rebuilding the ex-soviet footprint of buffering nations from the Russian heartland, and holding strategically important territory.

    The underlying question is: when is enough, enough – or rather how far will the West stand back as Putin rebuilds the Soviet empire? Chechnya? Ukraine? Crimea? Although these two nations and the annexed Crimea are not NATO bloc, where will be next, and should it matter? It would seem Putin has a long-term strategy for Russia in readdressing the balance he sees lost at the end of the Cold War.

    Right now, he finds opportunity with a strong America First ethic with the US Right, as represented by media on the right, fomenting a division in American attitudes that weakens the Biden Administration, as shown in contrast by the left-leaning media. He also seeks to divide a weaker NATO where European states struggle to find meaning in NATO’s existence and find themselves wondering what they can do as a bloc regarding self-defence, assuming it cannot absolutely rely on the US as it has in the past given the post-Trump era.

    Under all of this is a sense of relevance to Putin. Economically, Russia is not a strong player in international terms, and corruption is high. Militarily, Russia is moderately strong in conventional arms, although its nuclear force remains formidable (although Putin would recognise that that force is not projecting in strength as it’s a last resort military option), Putin recognises that be relevant domestically, Russians must redress old grievances, and internationally prod and poke at the alliances that Putin (and Russians) consider giving them a place on the International stage.

    My sadness is the need that Russians seem to feel they should not be a greater part of Europe. It’s not that the rest of Europe doesn’t want Russia in the tent, so to speak, but that Russians find it better to be out in the cold.

    My hope is that this is not a re-run of the late 1930s where Germany coerced Czechoslovakia to cede its sovereignty under the pre-text: this is German land taken from us after WWI; annexed Austria under the pre-text: German speakers are better protected under a German umbrella; invaded Poland under the mantra: Lebensraum where weaker neighbouring states are prime for German expansion, and what’s wrong with that???

    Time will surely tell if Ukraine will fall and where Putin turns his attention to next.

  3. Phil Malwyn says:

    You mention Moscow’s reaction to NATO missiles along its borders. How would the US react to having missiles back in Cuba? They wouldn’t like it at all. Hell, that’s what led to the Cuban missile crisis in the first place.

  4. Derek Quinn says:

    Hi Phil

    China has a long-term plan to replace the United States as the super power by setting up its own economic and political system. Chinese jets over Taiwan could suggest China and Putin are trying to engage the west on two fronts. I think it’s not as coordinated as it appears, and is more a question of both countries reacting against years of US expansion while such countries as Iraq, Iran, and others pay the price.

    I’m still looking for some historical context here. The western media seems to have forgotten that Moscow has the same reaction to NATO missiles along the east-west border in Europe as Washington did to Russian missiles in Cuba in the early 1960’s.
    Derek

  5. Phil Malwyn says:

    I’m wondering, given the recent highly-elevated Chinese incursions into Taiwanese airspace, if Xi and Putin might not have orchestrated a nightmarish possible 2-front battle for the West to deal with. I could see China making a move on Taiwan simultaneous
    to a Russian incursion into Ukraine. Your thoughts?

  6. Alwin Cawston says:

    In recent days it seems to me that what is going on in Ukraine is a direct attempt by Putin to test the resolve of NATO. He probably believed that NATO was weak primarily because of the political situation in the US, which his regime is continually undermining. The right wing media in the US such as FOX, is actively back peddling on a strong opposition and proposing a soft response to Russian aggression. Putin’s motivation could be as simple as putting another nail in Biden’s coffin. Not that he really needs any help with that.
    I believe his main objective is to create the conditions necessary to retake control of as many of the former Soviet States as possible. He has already installed puppet dictators in Belarus and Kazakhstan and is actively supporting them. I think the British report that Putin is attempting the same strategy in Ukraine is probably correct. I do not believe that he perceives NATO as a threat to preemptively attack the motherland, because, as you point out on your web pages at http://quinndiplomacy.com/ notwithstanding past NATO transgressions, NATO’s raison d’être is primarily as a defensive partner to member States. If Ukraine ever becomes a member of NATO they will be obliged to defend her. However this will be seen as another NATO transgression by Putin despite the fact that they have been invited by the Ukraine government.
    International politics can be very complicated because there is a tendency to look at all situations from a very myopic point of view based on individual cultural experiences. The motivation for many actions between nations can often be found in historical wrongs and simple grievances, much the same as interpersonal relationships.
    However, never are the wellbeing or desires of the subjects of any nation taken into account.
    It is odd that prior to 2014 two thirds of Ukrainians saw Russia in a favourable light as the big brother next door. I believe any sign of weakness on the part of NATO at this juncture would be a really big mistake.

  7. Derek Quinn says:

    Hi M.R. Not all American media are politicized. There are still a few commentators out there who question official narratives, who present different points of view in editorials, reviews and magazines, which fewer people read. Generally all media report on major events such as the explosion in Beirut in 2021, but when it comes to questions of international strategy or defence, media coverage tends to reflect what the government wants you to think. Some countries jail people who disagree with the government. Some countries don’t always go along with so-called “conventional wisdom” such as Canada not joining the “coalition of the willing” against Iraq in 2003, or Germany today (January 2022) not sending arms to Ukraine. Is impartiality a myth? I see it as a goal to aspire to. The best we can do is to be fare and balanced, include opinions from more than one side, and place things in context so the reader can question events, mull over different points of view, and draw more informed conclusions.

  8. M.R. Morrison says:

    Are you implying that the American media are all politicized? All of them controlled by polarized interests? Left and right? If so, there is no “independent journalism.” Is impartiality a myth, an impossible dream?

  9. Eugene Sokoloff says:

    Good article Derek. One remark: in the east of Ukraine, the vast majority of the population spoke and still speaks Russian.

  10. maria caltabiano says:

    A true eye-opener for me! I’m left with perhaps the naive question, why is mainstream media bereft of good journalists that open our eyes, like your article does, rather than dishing out tainted truths? A true journalist should not be a ventriloquist’s puppet.
    We are left to our own devices to dig for the real story and pray that we’re digging in good soil. Thanks for sharing your educated views.

    Hi Maria! I smiled at your phrase “ventriloquist’s puppets” even though there are still some good journalists out there who put things in context. When digging for the real story I hope we all dig in good soil. Derek

  11. Brian Langis says:

    Good article. A lot to unload. Great insights. Thanks for writing.

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