Ukraine through the eye of a UK diplomat

28 Feb

Writing yesterday, February 27, on the Strategic Culture Foundation website, former UK diplomat and spy Alastair Crooke assesses Russia’s move and the West’s response.

First though, a word about Mr Crooke. Says wiki:

Crooke, (born 1949) is a British diplomat, founder and director of the Conflicts Forum, an organisation that advocates for engagement between political Islam and the West. Previously he was a ranking figure in both MI6 and EU diplomacy. A spy for the British Government, he retired shortly after meeting his spouse.

Crooke was a Middle East advisor to  the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU from 1997 to 2003, and facilitated de-escalations of violence and military withdrawals in the Palestinian Territories with Islamist movements from 2000 to 2003.  A member of the Mitchell Committee on the Second Intifada of 2000, he held clandestine meetings with Hamas in 2002. He is an advocate of engagement with Hamas, whom he calls “Resistants or Resistance Fighters”.

And so to his Ukraine piece yesterday:

The ‘Constructive Destruction’ of Russia’s Model of Relations with the West

Putin means what he says: Russia’s back is to the wall, and there is nowhere to which Russia can now retreat – for them it is existential.

The collective West was already angry. And it is apoplectic after President Putin shocked western leaders by ordering a special military operation in Ukraine, which is being widely described (and perceived in the West) as a declaration of war: ‘a shock and awe assault affecting cities widely across Ukraine’. So angry in fact is the West that the information space has literally bifurcated into two: It is alblack and white, with no greys. For the West, Putin has comprehensively defied Biden; he has unilaterally and illegally ‘changed the borders’ of Europe and acted as a ‘revisionist power’, attempting to change not just the borders of Ukraine, but the current world order. “Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, we are facing a determined effort to redefine the multilateral order,” the EU High Representative, Josep Borell, warned“It’s an act of defiance. It’s a revisionist manifesto, the manifesto to review the world order”.

Putin is characterised as a new Hitler, and his acts asserted to be ‘illegal’. It is claimed he tore up the Minsk II Accord (yet the Republics declared their independence in 2014, signed Minsk in 2015, and it was Russia who never signed the accord – and therefore cannot be in breach of it). Indeed, it is the US effectively that has vetoed the Minsk process since 2014, and Russia’s publication of diplomatic correspondence in November 2021 exposed that France and Germany too, had little intention of pressurising Kiev on any meaningful implementation. And so, having concluded that a negotiated settlement – as stipulated in the Minsk Accords – would simply not happen, Putin determined that there was no point in waiting any longer before implementing Russia’s red line.

The late Stephen Cohen wrote of the dangers of such unqualified Manichanaeism — how the spectre of an evil-doing Putin had so overwhelmed and toxified the US image of him that Washington has been unable to think straight – not just about Putin – but about Russia per se.  Cohen’s point was that such utter demonisation undercuts diplomacy. How does one split the difference with evil? Cohen asks, how did this happen? He suggests that in 2004, the NY Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, inadvertently explained, at least partially, Putin’s demonisation. Kristof complained bitterly of having been “suckered by Mr. Putin. He is not a sober version of Boris Yeltsin”.

Most Russians however, are behind Putin with the recognition of the Donbas Republics, which he then followed up by obtaining the authorisation of Russia’s upper parliament house for the use of armed forces outside Russia (as required under the constitution). The resolution by the Federation Council was unanimously supported by all the 153 senators at an extraordinary session on Tuesday.

In his national address, Putin spoke with a bitterness shared by many Russians. He views the post-2014 political developments in Ukraine as having been engineered to create an anti-Russian regime in Kiev nurtured by the West, and with hostile intentions towards Russia.  Putin illustrated this point by explaining that “The Ukrainian troop control system has already been integrated into NATO. This means that NATO headquarters can issue direct commands to the Ukrainian armed forces, even to their separate units and squads”. Putin also noted that the Russian constitution stipulates the borders of Donetsk and Lugansk regions to be as they were “at the time when they were part of Ukraine”. This is a carefully worded formulation — the borders of the two republics underwent significant changes in the aftermath of the Maidan coup. (At issue here is Donetsk’s historic claim to coastal Mariupol).

Putin’s recognition statement was accompanied by an ultimatum to the Kiev forces to cease their artillery bombardment across the Line of Control or face military consequences. Throughout Wednesday evening however, the situation on the Contact Line was heating up, with heavy artillery fire; but early Thursday morning, for the first time, multiple rocket-fire was used by the Kiev forces across the Control Line. (Someone from the Kiev side clearly wanted escalation – perhaps to put pressure on Washington). Putin immediately ordered what was evidently a pre-prepared Special Operation ‘to de-militarise and de-nazify Ukraine’Russia’s military announced within a couple hours of the offensive that all of Ukraine’s air defense systems had been taken out. A massive Russian aerial presence, including fighter jets and helicopters, has been confirmed over much of the country.

Possibly this operation (which Putin said is not about occupying Ukraine), will follow the pattern of Georgia in 2018, when Russian forces withdrew after a few days. This was the pattern too, in Kazakhstan. We simply do not know whether this will be the case in Ukraine — very possibly not. When Putin spoke of ‘de-nazification’ he was referring to the US co-option of a neo-Nazi formation in Ukraine’s armed forces to help mount the 2014 Maidan coup.  The so-called Azov Brigade of neo-Nazis had proved to be the most effective fighting force in pushing back the DLR militia in the Donbass region. (Ukraine is the world’s only nation to have a neo-Nazi formation in its armed forces and there will be scores to be settled). 1

Nonetheless, Putin’s Special Order has, as no doubt he foresaw, shocked the West deeply with its decisive military reaction. It has set the world – and its financial and energy markets – on edge.

Indeed, the latter aspect may become the more salient. In 1979, upheavals in the Middle East sent energy prices soaring (just as is occurring today), and western economies tumbling. Wherever the next days bring, it must be plain that Putin’s short press conference on 22 February is acting as intended, as a powerful accelerant. “Constructive destruction” of the old Global Order will proceed faster than many of us had imagined. It marks an End to Illusions — an end to the notion that the US imposed, rules-based order remains an option.

How then to interpret the extreme anger in the West?  Simply this: In the end, there is reality. And that reality – i.e. what the West can do about it – is all that matters — which is … little.

The brutal first realisation underlying the anger is that the West has no intention – and critically, no ability – to counter Russia’s moves militarily. Biden has repeated the ‘no boots on the ground mantra’ again in the wake of Russian military operations. And for Europe, the imposition of a sanctions regime on Russia could not have come at a worse moment. Europe is facing recession and a pre-existing energy crisis (which will be hugely aggravated by Germany’s offering up Nordstream 2 to the hungry gods of vengeance). And spiking inflation (worsened with oil at $100) is causing interest rate and sovereign bond nerves to rattle. Now the pressure will be on Europe to find additional sanctions.

Sanctions there will be – and they will hurt Europeans directly in their pockets. Some European states are putting up a rear-guard action to limit sanctions that might worsen the coming European recession.  However, in a very real sense, the fact is that Europe is effectively sanctioning itself (it will sustain the bigger hurt from its own sanctions), and Moscow has promised to reciprocate any sanctions in a way that will hurt the US and Europe.  We are in a new era. This prospect and impotence in the face of it,  must account for a large portion of European frustration and anger.

Washington professes to have a ‘killer weapon’ targeted at Moscow: sanctioning semi-conductor chips:

“the modern equivalent of a 20th century oil embargo”, argues Ambrose Evans Pritchard in the Telegraph, “since chips are the critical fuel of the electronic economy … but this too, is a dangerous game. Putin has the means to cut off critical minerals and gases needed to sustain the West’s supply chain for semiconductor chips”. 

In short, Moscow’s control over key strategic minerals could give Russia leverage, akin to Opec’s energy stranglehold in 1973.

Here lies the second strand to Europe’s frustration: the unspoken recognition that Biden’s Ukraine policy; the west’s failure of diplomacy (all process and no substantive addressing of the underlying issues); plus Germany’s cack-handed handling of the Nordstream 2 question, have doomed the EU to years of economic decline and suffering.

The third strand is more complex and is reflected in Josep Borell’s indignant cry that Russia and China are two “revisionist” powers attempting to change the current world order.  The European ‘fear’ is grounded not only in the content of the Beijing joint declaration, but likely also that not in his entire life has President Putin before made a speech like Monday’s address to the Russian people. Nor has he ever named the Americans to be Russia’s national enemy in such unequivocal Russian terms – American promises: worthless; American intentions: deadly; American speeches: lies; American actions: intimidation, extortion and blackmail.

Putin’s speech portends a great fracture. It seems to be just dawning on Europeans (such as Borrell) just how much of an inflection point Putin’s address represents. It was framed around Ukraine, yet the latter issue – though compelling – is incidental to the decision by Russia and China to change forever the geo-political balance and the security architecture of the globe.

What the recognition of the Donbas republics represented was the manifestation of this earlier geo-strategic decision. It is the first practical unfolding of that break with the West (never absolute, of course), and the unveiling of Russia’s compilation of ‘technical-military’ measures designed to force a separation of the globe into two distinct spheres.  The first was the republics’ recognition; the second military-technical measure was Putin’s address; and the third, his subsequent ‘Special Operations’ order.

They – the Russia-China Axis – want separation. This is to come about either through dialogue, (which is unlikely, since the core principle of today’s geo-politics is defined by the deliberate non-comprehending of ‘otherness’), or it must be achieved by a contest of escalating pain (defined in terms of red lines) until one side, or the other, buckles.  Of course, Washington does not believe Presidents’ Xi and Putin possibly can mean what they say – and they believe that, anyway, the West has escalatory dominance in the field of imposing pain. 2

Less diplomatically put, Russia and China have concluded that sharing a global society with an America set on enforcing a hegemonic global order crafted to ‘resemble Arizona’ is no longer possible. Putin means what he says: Russia’s back is to the wall, and there is nowhere to which Russia can now retreat — for them it is existential.

The West’s denial that Putin ‘means it’ (thus ensuring the consequent failure of diplomacy) suggests that this crisis will be with us for at least the next two years. It is the start a drawn-out, high-stakes phase of a Russian-led effort to change the European security architecture into a new form, which the West presently rejects. The Russian aim will be to keep the pressures – and even the latency of war ever-present – in order to harass war-averse Western leaders to make the necessary shift.

Ultimately – after a painful struggle – Europe will seek reconciliation. America will be slower: the Beltway hawks will try to double-down. And it will be the western economic and market situation that may ultimately determine the ‘when’.


Further reading

Even before we get to the universal law that the first casualty of war is truth, regular readers will be unsurprised at my unequivocal assertion that nothing our systemically corrupt corporate media say on this matter can be trusted. So besides the many alternative sources cited in over twenty Ukraine posts this month, I recommend two others:

For a rightly cautious assessment of the military logistics, so early in a fast unfolding situation, I recommend Gilbert Doctorow’s blog. Scroll down to The Russian Way of War.

For a brief assessment of how debarring Russia from the SWIFT financial transaction clearing system will (a) hurt Europe in particular and (b) accelerate Eurasian/BRICS moves to a de-dollarised world, see yesterday’s piece in Sputnik.

* * *

  1. Western audiences have been kept very much in the dark about the grip of the far right on post 2014 Ukrainian politics. See this short but comprehensively documented One Nation piece by Lev Golinkin.
  2. On “geo-politics [as] defined by the deliberate non-comprehending of ‘otherness’”, Mr Crooke echoes a point made by Diana Johnstone in my post two days ago:

    Germany has found the perfect formula for Western relations with Russia: Are you or are you not a “Putinversteher,” a “Putin understander?” By Putin they mean Russia, since the standard Western propaganda ploy is to personify the targeted country with the name of its president, necessarily a dictatorial autocrat.   If you “understand” Putin, or Russia, then you are under deep suspicion of disloyalty to the West.  So, all together now, let us make sure that we DO NOT UNDERSTAND Russia!

3 Replies to “Ukraine through the eye of a UK diplomat

  1. Despite a bit of a falling out with him a few weeks back, this from Dmitry Orlov here:

    poses some salient questions:

    From a moral perspective, the fact that the entire international community idly stood by and ineffectually discussed politics for eight years during which the civilian population of Donetsk and Lugansk was continuously shelled by the Ukrainian “anti-terrorist operation” is utterly shameful.

    People who are now speaking out against Russia’s military action in the Ukraine need to answer a simple question: Where have you been for the last eight years while the carnage in Donetsk and Lugansk was going on, while people were being burned alive in Odessa, while the Ukrainian government organized terrorist operations on Russian territory and while the entire Ukrainian population has been forced to kowtow to Americans and to speak Ukrainian, most often against its will? If your answer is “I didn’t know” then you have forfeited your right to an informed opinion on what’s happening there now. Please keep that in mind and act accordingly.

  2. Seeking respite from the continual faux-psychologising of Putin – whether from a Today emeritus professor, or, more succinctly from the Sun’s MAD VLAD frontpage headline – I came across your Tune for the Day. which I’ve not really picked up on before.

    So thanks so much, Phil for a bit of solace from such a gorgeous jazz trumpet piece – quite new for me.

    But: Christ the Redeemer? A coded message of hope, Phil? Well, now you come to think of it…….

    • Hallelujah Chorus … Matthew’s Passion … Mozart’s and Faure’s Requiems ….

      Not to mention all that gorgeous gospel output from America’s black churches..

      I haven’t “seen the light” Ros, but is there any doubting the human need to be inspired by something bigger than ourselves? Trotsky called it right IMO …

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