sabato, Maggio 21

Ukraine: American cognitive dissonance in action “The American people and their leadership in the Blob have not mentally adapted to the decline of US hegemonic power. They expect their government to put more geopolitical clout around than ever. You can see this cognitive dissonance in action on Ukraine ”. Thus the long-time geopolitical analyst Gav Don, in a 360 ° interview on the Ukrainian crisis, surroundings and derivatives


He was among the first analysts to argue, outside the box, that the crisis in Ukraine not only went far beyond, overshadowing a crisis in the post-Cold War world system, but that what was going on was a narrative behind the which the substance was different, and to deny the possibility that someone really had the intention of waging a war in the name of Ukraine, starting with Russia.
He calls himself a ‘Cold War thinker’, and complains that as such it is difficult for him to process this period of multiple uncertainties. To hear him think about this ‘period’, times to be read in filigree between psciology, sociology, tactics and rarely strategy, he seems instead lucidly capable of going far.
He is Gav Don, Visiting Professor at the University of Edinburgh, a geopolitical analyst for about 30 years. Founder of and Newsbase Research, he now writes primarily for ‘’, which acquired Newsbase in 2019. Previously, Gav was a Royal Navy war officer. He has developed a global energy intelligence business, specializes in geopolitical analysis, focusing on the interactions between politics, law, energy and the military. He now devotes all his time to international relations.
We asked Gav to have a chat about these ‘times’, about what is going on around the Ukrainian crisis, about what he had given us to understand in his analysis of the last few months.

You are among those who since the beginning of this crisis have argued that Russia will not invade. So this is all a comedy that has been going on for weeks? First of all, a comedy written by whom? And: can you clearly define the motivations and objectives of the US, UK, EU actors?

Well, I certainly would not say that talk of war is a subject for comedy! It is clear to me that the deep causes of the current crisis lay in early 2014, with the Maidan coup. But the first steps of this stage of the crisis over Ukraine were taken by Mr Putin (if you exclude the overture that was the eastward expansion of NATO after 1991). Moscow’s overriding objective seems clear – the entry of Ukraine (or most of it, at least) to some sort of Federation with Russia. Mr Putin has made it very clear that he wants to restore greater Russia’s borders to nearer their old Soviet lines. We can see this in his rapid support of Mr Tukhayev in Kazakhstan, in his support of the Belarus regime, and in Armenia and Georgia. What we can also see is that Moscow seems to accept that the peoples in these states need to be persuaded, not invaded. Moscow has shown considerably more respect for International Law than some states we could mention. In Georgia the war was initiated by Tbilisi, and Russia’s reaction was both moderate and probably legal. Mr Putin grew up and began his career watching the agony that Russia volunteered for in Afghanistan, and realises that the Afghan disaster was a large deep cause for the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has shown no signs at all of steering Russia towards another violent occupation. So, what role does the military concentration (in fact, nowhere near Ukraine’s borders) play? Ukraine’s possible accession to NATO is clearly a mortal threat to Moscow’s “federal” plan. Ukraine has spent 30 years harbouring hopes of becoming a part of “Europe”, and this hope has coloured its policy towards Russia. I think that Moscow decided to destroy that hope finally by putting psychological pressure on Europe in order to reveal that Europe and NATO will never commit real resources, military or financial, to Ukraine’s independence. What this past year has achieved for Moscow is a clear understanding in Kyiv that Ukraine is on its own. There is also some (small) evidence that Kyiv was planning to breach its Minsk obligations by attacking the Donbas. Moscow’s concentration of force has certainly nixed that, if it indeed existed. The motivations of the western actors in this drama are not uniform. The EU Commission would very much like to have a new member, but the state of civil affairs in Ukraine makes it unpalatable even to a hungry Brussels. So, the Commission is using this train of events as a lever to separate Europe from the Anglophones, as a step towards taking control of Europe’s foreign policy and giving life to Articles 25 and 26 of the Lisbon Treaty. Germany just wants a quiet life and cheap gas, and sees (correctly in my view) that Ukraine brings nothing but trouble and expense to the European Union and to NATO. Mr Macron wants much the same as the Commission – plus a European Defence Force. NATO’s and the EU’s failure in Ukraine can be used here to justify more integration among Europeans, while blaming the Anglophones for being weak supporters of a “European” state under threat. The US wants to punish Russia, more by force of habit than for any deep geopolitical reason. Added to that the Washington foreign policy “blob” has spotted a good opportunity to benefit from exaggerating a threat and then claiming to have faced it down with active deterrence. The UK, as usual, is happy to go along with Washington without much thought. Let’s hope that this show does not in fact turn into a tragedy.

If it really is a comedy, Moscow would have opportunities and ways to show the world that it really doesn’t want to invade and that the story is all a Western comedy, why doesn’t it? Do we have to conclude that this play is also useful in Moscow? If so, how and why?

Moscow has repeatedly stated that it has no desire or plan to invade. It is pursuing what I think is the best way to show that, by not invading. US media repeatedly talk about ways to help Mr Putin “save face” or back down gracefully. If Mr Putin had stated any intentions to invade then he might need an “off ramp” or to save face but, in fact, he has repeatedly stated that Russia will not invade, has no right to invade, and has never intended or planned to invade. No face to be saved, and no off-ramp needed. So, why is Moscow keeping the play going? Because Mr Putin has discovered an unexpected benefit. I think his original plan was simply to show Ukrainians that Europe’s vague promises of help and membership were false. Then we see Europeans fighting among themselves, and Europeans splitting from Anglophones. In short, the crisis has revealed and promoted weakness within NATO. The division and eventual collapse of NATO has been a Russian foreign policy objective since 1949, so naturally Moscow is keeping the game alive. Paradoxically, while the drama has revealed NATO’s weakness and divisions, it has also given NATO a small infusion of life by giving it a bit of a run around the park, but the harm probably exceeds the benefits. Moscow’s play is also a vital part of a psychological war on Ukraine’s independence. Half of Ukraine’s population are Russian speakers. Half of that half are active Russian unionists. The other half are like most people – they don’t care much who is in charge so long as they get a quiet reasonably prosperous life in which to bring up their families. Among the Ukrainian half, a small minority are borderline neo-Nazis (whose feelings find expression in the Azov Battalion, youth summer camps and torchlight marches), about 30% are passionate independent Ukrainians who feel firmly European, but the rest, enough to swing a national majority, are like their Russophone countrymen – they too just want a peaceful life. For all Ukrainians the relationship with Russia is always seen through a lens of possible membership of the EU. If membership of the EU is a possibility then even for many Russophones federation with Russia becomes a bad second choice. But if membership of the EU (and its military arm NATO) ceases to be a possibility, then for about 60% of Ukrainians federation with Russia becomes an acceptable alternative to life in an independent state is cold, poor and weak. Moscow’s force concentration is an attack on both the idea of EU membership and on the idea that an independent Ukraine could ever become a prosperous happy place to live. Remember that the present generation of Ukrainian adults has grown up in a country which has consistently failed to create prosperity for its people, while across the border Russians are peaceful, reasonably happy and growing in prosperity and prestige.

Gav you wrote: “The mainstream media have consistently cried that invasion is imminent, and have firmly anchored that trope in the mass mind that Russia’s troop formations are lined up on Ukraine’s border just awaiting the ‘go’ signal”. So how was it possible that the international media fell into this ‘trap’? Or is it not a ‘trap’ and then we have to think about a plan that the big Western media have deliberately adhered to?

Journalists, like most people, find comfort in crowds. If a loud voice says “A” in one paper or news channel, it is hard for other voices to say “B” or “C”. With little time and even less budget, journalists find following the crowd efficient and safe. On a practical level they are spoon-fed the story by the authorities in press briefings, which makes the writing of copy swift and easy, and to reject the story risks being kicked out of the press pool. Finally, bad news sells more newspapers than good, making the “war” story much more attractive than the “nothing to see here” story. I might add that I am not in any press pools. As if that were all not enough, war makes a simple A/B story. Reporting that Russia has 100,000 men lined up on a border and might invade is a much simpler story to tell than the truth, that Russia has two divisions unusually located in camp 250 kms from the border, and in fact 450 kms by rail (forces can only move strategically by rail), and would take several days or even weeks to deploy into positions for an assault. We live in a world of such short attention spans that a story longer than a single sentence finds it hard to get traction.

It is certain that this ‘comedy’ hits some serious problems in the face. First, the world order that emerged from the dissolution of the USSR, which brings with it the question of the ‘spheres of influence’, NATO, as well as AUKUS, in short, the very building of ‘security’. Well, these are serious issues, what do you say? Don’t you think that, comedy aside, it’s time to face them? And if we do not take the opportunity of this crisis to address them, what will be the price we will pay?

We are certainly living in interesting times! I grew up with the simple certainties of the Cold War (and took my part in the front line of that war too as a naval officer), and this period of multiple uncertainties is hard for a cold-war thinker to process. It has proved especially hard for US foreign policy makers, who have completely failed to develop a coherent strategic understanding of the new world. When you look at the world’s current stress-points (Syria, Taiwan, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Gaza, Iran, Russia/Ukraine, Yemen, Venezuela) four driving forces seem to underlie them. The first driving force is what amounts to a civil war between Sunni and Shia Islam. This is the prime driver in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, and the prime source of tension in and around the Persian Gulf. If the Atlantic Alliance simply left the two sides to work it out among themselves they probably would, but in the heart of the conflict sits Israel – effectively the 51st state of the US. Israel’s locus drags the US into the Middle East, with the UK obediently in tow, and hands both a long tail of connected and clashing issues and interests. The second driving force is the decline in US hegemonic power. In 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and with China poor and weak, American foreign policy thinkers grew used to the idea that US power (both military and economic) was now supreme. And that was, for a brief shining moment, true. Now it is not true. On the one hand China’s military power has increased to levels approaching that of the US (in some areas it exceeds the US). On the other hand the USA’s financial power has been severely undermined by an addiction to debt. In 1991 US Federal debt outstanding was $3,600 bn – just over 50% of GDP. Today it is $30,000 bn, well over 100% of GDP. In contrast, for example, Russia has over the same period accumulated some $600 bn of net cash. Borrowing capacity and sound money are as important strategic weapons as aircraft carriers and hypersonic weapons. But the American people and their leadership in the Blob have not mentally adjusted to this reality. Both expect their government to throw as much, or more, geopolitical weight around as ever. This cognitive dissonance will almost certainly lead to trouble, most probably over Taiwan. You can see the same cognitive dissonance in action over Ukraine. The American psyche is deeply troubled that it cannot simply “kick ass” to solve the problem. In some ways there is a similarity to the situation the UK found itself in in 1956 – with an insolvent empire, massive state debt and a weak domestic economy, but an imperial mindset that still thought it had the right and the power to impose its will on smaller states. The result of that was the Suez crisis, which effectively marked the end of the transfer of near-hegemonic power from the UK to the US, and which marked a stampede of British colonies to independence. The third force, of course, is the emergence of China as a global power. China, it seems clear to me, has no desire to be a hegemon, but just wants to live in its own way, grow rich and keep secure. As an example of this philosophy, the last time China engaged in a foreign war was 1979. Beijing’s structural insecurity lies in access to hydrocarbon energy, and it has spent the past decade building buttresses to secure that vulnerability. One of those buttresses is a strong partnership relationship with Russia, which alone could supply all of China’s oil and gas import needs if the infrastructure were to be built to carry them. Russia is the junior partner – its economy and its populations are one tenth the size of China’s – but Beijing has always respected its junior partners. This new partnership adds to the USA’s post-hegemonic pain, and is in part a source of Washington’s almost hysterical anti-Russian rhetoric today. And the fourth source is financial. One of the US’ hegemonic weapons has for two generations been control of global dollar transactions. If you upset the US in some geopolitical way you lose access to global dollar settlements, which makes life very difficult. China and Russia are quietly working to de-dollarise their trade, both with each other and with third parties. The US has run a generation of trade and federal deficits in part by supplying the world with fresh dollars which never return to the home economy. De-dollarisation means two things – first, the demand for new dollars falls, then collapses, ending Washington’s ability to run a bottomless credit card. Second (and more hideous) the pool of offshore dollars starts to flow home looking for assets to buy. Result, collapse in dollar exchange rates, inflation, and possibly even hyperinflation. In this time of great change what we need is statesmen who acknowledge the vulnerabilities of the states they represent and work to accommodate inevitable change without large-scale conflict. The transfer of hegemonic power does not automatically have to be violent. Britain took it from Spain with low levels of international conflict. The US took it from Britain with even less. Will the US cede it to China with grace? I think probably not.

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