It is becoming more and more evident: the crisis in Ukraine is a skein (and Kiev is not the key, at most a pretext, to throw the skein in the cat basket). Unwinding that skein stretches a thread at the head of which is the world order to come, that of the post-Cold War period. Or at least this, at the moment, is the reading that a current of analysts is making.
In the first part of the conversation we had with Gav Don – among the first to argue, outside the chorus, that what was going on in Ukraine was a narrative behind which the substance was different, and to deny the possibility that someone for real had the intention of waging a war in the name of Ukraine, starting with Russia – we tried to think about the players in the field (USA, UK, EU), Moscow’s position and objectives (beyond the functional words to fuel the game) of Putin, his psychological war against the independence of Ukraine, about what Ukrainians think and want (if they really want to choose between East and West), if they really want something (and we have had some doubts), the decline of the hegemonic power of the United States, what comes with it and what it entails.
All this without evading a reasoning on the media, in the context of which the mainstream is practically an obligation for journalists, otherwise the risk is “being expelled from the press pool”, given that in the end the war ‘pulls’ and is pure simple to tell, “much easier to tell than the truth”. And then, in short, “wars are like buses: in the end there is always another one”, in the words of Gav.
Gav was a Royal Navy war officer, has been working as a geopolitical analyst for 30 years, for some time almost exclusively for ‘Intellinews.com’, and devotes much of his time to international relations.
In the second part of this conversation, Gav – military head now on permanent service to the strategic geopolitical analysis ‘department’ -, thinks about the role and future of NATO – “If we had NATO minus the US and Turkey, I think we could all sleep quieter ”- and AUKUS, military alliances as we know them today, the ‘holy’ Russia – China alliance, China and the NON ideological component in the conflict coming from Russia or China. And then the ambiguity, the one that “starts wars”, and how, in the end, in the context of the crisis in Ukraine the basic ambiguity, at least, has disappeared. And “The lack of ambiguity makes thinking clear and clear thinking tends to generate peace”. This trying to hypothesize if the ‘cats’ will know not only not to tangle the skein, but to unwind it correctly and rewind it again. The cats at the moment seem quite confused (or maybe they know exactly what to do, but the narrative still includes some intermediate scenes).
Let’s talk about NATO for a moment. Does it still make sense to exist? or is it something out of date?
This is a difficult question for me, emotionally, because I grew up with NATO, served in it, and am deeply programmed into a mindset in which NATO=Good. But, times move on. NATO was born in 1949 with three clear objectives in the face of the very real threat that Stalin would simply order the Red Army to the English Channel. NATO’s objectives were: to keep the Americans in (Europe), the Germans down, and the Russians out. It succeeded in all three objectives. However, with the collapse of the Warsaw pact and the departure of a million or so Russian troops from Europe’s eastern borders it lost one of those missions. For a generation after 1991 it was probably reasonable to keep it around as a protective insurance against a renewal of Russia’s aspirations to control Poland and the Baltic States, but perhaps that challenge is no longer credible. With the reunification of Germany followed by a generation of peaceful and cooperative political behaviour, NATO certainly has no further role in the moderation of German geopolitical ambitions. In any case, any German yen for power and leadership now has a peaceful outlet in the European Commission and the European Union, where Franco-German tensions can be worked out over a board table rather than a battlefield, and German power can be expressed through the workings of the Bundesbank (ask the Greeks what that means if you’re curious). And that leaves the Americans. With no real Russian threat, and with Germany rehabilitated there is little need to have US troops or aircraft based in Europe (and indeed there are very few of them left here – only 21,000 are left from the 100,000 American troops and several tens of thousands of USAF personnel that used to be based here). So where does that leave NATO? In an uncomfortable limbo. The only time in its history that Article 5 has been invoked was after 9/11, by the US for the invasion of Afghanistan. Not a great track record there. One of NATO’s members, Turkey, is little more than semi-attached and heading east. Half a dozen EU states are not members at all. Meanwhile NATO members find themselves being drawn uncomfortably towards the USA’s Asian worries. But all that said, Europe (and I’m including the UK in that geographical phrase) does have interests which occasionally demand the threat of, or even the use of, credible military force. Europe imports large quantities of energy and food, and exports large quantities of manufactured goods, all by sea, so it needs a credible naval force to protect those flows. Europe also has a large legacy of friendships and obligations around the world which must be served (think Tongan tsunami relief for a current example), and finally European countries must stand ready to serve the UN Security Council and international law. Europe (taking it as EU + UK + Norway + Finland) has world’s largest collective economy, and cannot just check out of the military game. As for Russia, it is not a threat today but might in future become one under a less intelligent or more aggressive successor to Mr Putin. Presidents are mortal, after all. Since most members of NATO individually have small military forces it makes a lot of sense to create a system in which force can be assembled and multiplied quickly and effectively. Armed forces are only credible and effective to the extent to which they have unified command, unified intelligence, and unified regular practice. If you want credible joint forces you also need a permanent process of standardisation of equipment and procedures, you need unified command, and you need swift reactions. For example, strategic reach demands the ability to refuel ships and aircraft at distance and while in flight or under way. To do that everyone has to adopt a single detailed standard for the connecting equipment through which fuel can flow. NATO’s Standardisation Agreements (STANAGS) are a small but vital mechanism for ensuring that. I’ve quoted just one detail. There are a thousand more areas where force flows from standardisation. NATO has a role in all those tasks. While that role is fulfilled, greater Europe can speak with both authority and credibility, and be a force for good in an uncertain world. But none of that is compatible with the hegemonic ambitions and fears of the United States. If we had NATO minus the USA and Turkey I think we might all sleep easier. That is probably, an item on Mr Macron’s to-do list right now, and perhaps even Mr Putin’s.
NATO, AUKUS, ask us the question of how current military alliances are today. What do you think? And if so with what will they have to be overcome and replaced?
AUKUS is a totally different beast to NATO. Its genesis lay in the contract between NAVAL Group in France and the Australian government to supply conventional (diesel-electric) submarines. Submarines are expensive, but conventional submarines are much less expensive than nuclear ones. An average conventional boat comes in at about $600m. Canberra allowed itself to be seduced into signing a contract to buy 12 boats from France at a shade over $4bn per boat. When the Australians realised the extent to which they were being overcharged they cancelled the project, and AUKUS was conceived more or less overnight to wrap the cancellation inside a “geopolitical” box. In short, AUKUS is just a name, not an alliance. The parties have been scrambling since to back-fill it with meaning. At present its only real content is that Australia will now buy seven nuclear-powered submarines at around $3bn per boat from either the US or the UK. In reality these will be American boats, because the single UK yard capable of building nuclear submarines is fully committed and engaged for the next 15 years building the UK’s replacement ballistic missile submarines, after which it will begin building the next class of hunter-killer boats. Also, Australia has been buying US weapons, sonars and systems for a generation so American kit is well familiar to them and easy to integrate. The prospects for AUKUS’ political content are thin. The US, edging as it is towards a war over Taiwan, would like to drag Australia into a belligerent pose towards China, and to drag the UK’s navy firmly back into the Far East. In its own mind at least the US sees AUKUS as a box into which those ideas can be placed. The UK and Australia may not go along. UK involvement was served well last year to some degree when the UK sent its new medium-sized aircraft carrier to the Far East to exercise with the US and Japanese Navies. However, one has to ask whether the UK’s new “eastern” ideas will survive the departure of Boris Johnson from 10 Downing Street. I hope not.
It has been said that this is a war between Russian and US gas. Is that so? And can you explain this war well and what is at stake, if only gas or something else?
Up until just a few years ago US natural gas was an entirely domestic business. The fracking revolution (aimed at producing oil, not gas) resulted in a sharp uplift in domestic gas flows since fracking produces much more gas than oil. At first the spare gas was inconveniently stranded miles from gas pipelines, so it was generally burnt off at the wellheads as a worthless by-product. Then along came Asia with large up-steps in gas import demand. Since the sources of new gas (Qatar, Australia, the US, the East Mediterranean, north Africa) were all too far away for pipelines the only way to connect production with markets was to liquefy gas and sail it to the customer. With almost-free gas production available, US investors saw an opportunity to gather surplus gas flows in a network of inexpensive pipelines and then monetise large quantities of it as LNG in Asia. Capital flooded into the sector, and today the US has plants capable of exporting around 200 bn cubic metres of gas per year as LNG. To put that into perspective, the UK uses around 60 bcm per year. Today the US has more LNG export capacity than Qatar. The original plan was to supply Asian economies. When the European Commission’s green energy policy blew up in its face this year EU gas prices rocketed upwards. Naturally US exporters are diverting cargos to Europe as fast as they can book terminal slots. So, what we are seeing is a symptom of the Ukraine crisis, not a deep cause. But in the world of geopolitics, symptoms can become causes. I have no doubt that lobbyists in Washington are working full time to stoke up tensions with Russia, in the hope that Nordstream will be permanently mothballed, or at least left unused, which would open a 40 bcm high-price high-margin market in Germany into which they could sell for many years ahead.
When this crisis ends, or in any case fades, will we find ourselves with a ‘holy’ Russia – China alliance in conflict with the West? They propose themselves as ‘alternative global leadership’, but what is really the alternative they express?
The short answer is yes. The Atlanticist hysteria we have seen has served to deepen and strengthen what was already a functional relationship. Russia and China have moved from trading acquaintances to become firm friends (though not yet firm allies). But that doesn’t put them intrinsically in conflict with the West. Both states essentially want to be left largely alone to develop their economies and their politics in peace and security, and also largely in compliance with International Law (with some exceptions which we haven’t time here to explore). It is true that Moscow wants the ex-Soviet republics to return to its geopolitical fold, but probably by a democratic act of their majorities. It is also true that Beijing wants Taiwan back (even the USA has formally recognised that Taiwan is the sovereign territory of China). Neither state has shown any material sign that it wants to act as a political hegemon. But there is one area in which China will find itself in contest (not conflict) with the United States. Chinese capital is travelling the world looking for deals to do, in resource acquisition and in the provision of large infrastructural projects (railways, ports, bridges and airports). Later on China will enter the market as an arms supplier as well. The US has, for three generations, seen itself as the rightful dominant player in all of these areas. As it finds itself losing deals it may react in ways that destabilise peace. Again, we can see a parallel in the transition from British hegemony (1860 to 1939) to US hegemony after 1950. For three generations British capital had the pick of global investment opportunities. Almost every railway, every merchant ship, every plantation, every mine and every oil well outside the United States was either owned by or financed by British capital, and almost every warship was built on the Tyne or the Clyde. The loss of that hegemonic position was acutely painful to the United Kingdom, both psychologically and economically. The war that triggered the handover was not the second world war but the first. In the lead-up to that war Germany made a concerted effort to challenge Britain’s economic and military hegemony, which led to four years of war. I see the second world war (at least the European part) as a continuation of the first after a pause. During that pause the reality that British power was waning and that American power was growing was partially visible but acknowledged by neither. It took the second war to crystallise a reality which had already been in place since 1918. The transition from US capital to Chinese capital will be equally painful. If we avoid a large scale war as it happens we will be extremely lucky. The contest is essentially economic, with a security aspect attached. China’s political philosophy is otiose to a western liberal, but Beijing has shown precisely zero interest in promoting its philosophy elsewhere. Russia’s political philosophy is essentially the same liberal moderate capitalist solution that we have practised in Europe for three generations, minus democratic accountability. Unlike during the Cold War there is no ideological component to the coming conflict from Russia or China. They simply don’t care how the west runs its home political life.
In this ‘West’ who should we count and who will be left out?
As I said earlier, we live now in such a complex world of agendas, risks, fears, capabilities and ambitions that forecasting how the West will behave in detail is more or less impossible. To take just one example, Turkey is part of NATO, and therefore (kind of) part of the “West”, but Turkey’s foreign policy agendas are mostly east and local. If we were to list Ankara’s care-abouts, the list would go “keep the Kurds down, keep the bit of northern Syria we are occupying, keep north Cyprus, enforce our version of the Blue Homeland (the EEZ dispute) against Greece and Cyprus, promote a Sunni state in Libya, keep Iran on side (as a source of gas) but at arms length (as Shias), remain on good terms with Russia, sell weapons to Ukraine, end the domestic economic pain, keep the wider Shia movement contained, promote our relationship with Azerbaijan to balance Shia expansionism, make a cautious friendship with Israel as a balance to Shia power, punish Israel for anti-Sunni apartheid, take Chinese capital where we can, build a canal to bypass the Bosporus and therefore the Treaty of Montreux, stay friends with the European Commission, keep a wary eye on the Greeks, buy US warplanes and Russian anti-aircraft missiles”. So, in just one state, we find a dozen agendas, some of which conflict violently with others. Multiply that problem by the forty or so members of the “West” and we have an un-solvable set of equations. China and Russia have much simpler geopolitical lives!
Are you confident that positive security developments in both the West and the East will emerge from this crisis?
Not very. Russia’s written demands are mostly for show, and will swiftly be overtaken by reality. But I can see two positive developments. In geopolitics, ambiguity is very dangerous. Ambiguity leads states to take risks which then produce highly adverse reactions. For example, from Germany’s perspective in 1939 it was ambiguous whether Britain would honour its treaty obligations to Poland, so it invaded, and look how that turned out. The same ambiguity existed in respect of Belgium in 1914. In 1991, the United States gave Saddam Hussein ambiguous guidance on how it would see an invasion of Kuwait. In 1982 the UK gave Argentina ambiguous signals about its interest in the Falkland Islands, And so on. Ambiguity starts wars. Now, at least in respect of Ukraine, the crisis has removed a large ambiguity – no-one in NATO or the European Union is going to send a single man to defend Ukraine. Lack of ambiguity makes for clear thinking, and clear thinking tends to generate peace. The crisis has also partially removed another ambiguity –whether NATO is still a functional alliance. This week we see two US infantry brigades flying into Europe, and NATO warships taking up forward positions in the Baltic and Black Seas. Militarily those moves are tokens, but politically they do show that the alliance is still capable of deploying force if it chooses to. This is an unwelcome outcome for Moscow, but a small negative. A third ambiguity has also been cleared. Before the crisis the growing friendship between Russia and China was uncertain. Now it is very much a fact acknowledged and acted upon by both states. That is a very good result, because now when the US considers the use of military force to keep Taiwan out of Beijing’s control (against International Law, as both Russia and Beijing would and do make clear) it must take the possible role of Russian forces into account as well. If that raises the bar for US military action then we are all much safer. But new ambiguities have been created. Are the interests of Europe and the US now non-congruent? To what extent has the UK ceased to be a European state and become a creature of Washington? Where does Turkey sit? Are the gaps between NATO and the European Union dangerous? And probably many more that we have not time here to discuss. On balance, the removal of those big ambiguities probably brings more benefit than the appearance of the smaller ones. Maybe Mr Putin made the same calculus. Perhaps, in spite of the war-rhetoric, we are all now actually safer than we were before the crisis started.
L’informazione che non paghi per avere, qualcuno paga perché Ti venga data.
Pagare il costo di produzione dell’informazione è un Tuo diritto.
"L’Indro" vuole che il Lettore si riappropri del diritto di conoscere, del diritto all’informazione, del diritto di pagare l’informazione che consuma.
In molti ti chiedono di donare per sostenerli.