The Debatable Land #8: Vlad the Loser
The Extraordinary Smallness of Vladimir Putin
Welcome to the eighth edition of my newsletter, The Debatable Land. As always, please feel free to share. Those of you who do so are amongst the righteous.
Like putting a revolver on stage in the first act, if you amass 100,000 troops on another country’s border you expect something to go bang before the drama’s conclusion. The rules all but require it. And this, I think, is doubly so if the act of mobilisation is predicated upon a sense you’re not receiving your due share of respect.
It would be pleasing to be wrong about this but it therefore seems more likely than not - to me, anyway - that Russia will have to move against Ukraine sooner rather than later and even, perhaps especially, if it is not obvious what Russia can hope to achieve from doing so. This is a matter of psychology as much as of politics.
And it is based upon this fundamental reality: Russia, or Vladimir Putin anyway, does not - indeed cannot - accept Ukraine’s independence. It is a fake country created by bad history. If, as Putin believes, the collapse of the Soviet Union was amongst the greatest disasters of the 20th century it follows that the emancipation of former Soviet Republics such as Ukraine (and the Baltic states) was not just an unfortunate error but a crime against history. Ukraine must be returned to its motherland - parental language is a striking and constant theme in Moscow these days - for otherwise a great injustice will be suffered. It will be Russia doing the suffering, not Ukraine you understand.
Keep this in mind and you grasp the core of the matter. All the talk about Nato expansionism and encirclement is so much chaff. Even if it were not, it bears insisting that Ukraine is not a Nato member and if that ever changes it will be because Moscow has made it a necessity.
So when German political and military figures talk about smoothing the present crisis or intimate that everything could more satisfactorily be arranged if only Russia were treated with the “respect” Russia requires they fundamentally misunderstand the situation. Putin is a nationalist and nationalists cannot afford to be respected. A lack of respect is what defines them and drives their politics. The nationalist specialises in being affronted. You could say to him, “Vladi, we respect you” and he, sniffing a rat, will take offence at this. For deep down he knows he can never be satisfied. He exists to be disrespected and his worldview is not there to be changed by anything so trivial as the facts of the matter.
Hence, too, the need to portray Russia as the victim here. Russia’s adversaries are responsible for Russia’s actions for poor little beleaguered Russia lacks agency herself. If I poke you in the eye it is because you provoked me and you must have provoked me for otherwise I would not have poked you in the eye. Nothing can ever be Russia’s responsibility, let alone Russia’s fault. Well, boo-bloody-hoo.
Of course talk should be preferred to war but we should be realistic about the limits of what might be achieved by either. Russia has form too, having annexed Crimea in 2014 and sponsored a rebellion in eastern Ukraine that same year. With this record I think it takes some hefty dose of naiveté to assume Russia would not invade Ukraine again.
This is so even if there is no obvious answer to the question ‘What can Russia achieve?’ In a strategic sense and in the absence of a total takeover and occupation of Ukraine, Russia has - I think - already lost. For reasons of is own self-respect no future government in Kiev can look east rather than west. Ukraine’s future must be european and even if this were not a more attractive option in itself it is now the only one available to any Ukrainian government that places any value on Ukrainian independence. The breach with Moscow is unbridgeable.
Still, it is a mistake to assume Putin will be reasonable. He has now put himself in a position in which any retreat risks seeming a humiliation. All the talk and no walk. He must extract a price from Ukraine even if doing so also wounds him. To that end, my suspicion is that his position is rather weaker - as a strategic matter - than some people seem to think.
Granted there is a longer game too. Moscow is happy to weaken and divide the EU and here, once more, it is assisted by Germany. As a matter of sensibility, Berlin begins from the proposition the use of force is illogical and useless. Since force can solve nothing, blocking the shipment of defensive arms to Ukraine is both rational and morally serious. (Buried somewhere too, I suspect, is a sense of historical reparation: having been responsible for the deaths of 20 million Russians seventy years ago, Germany is readier than some to concede Russia has a point today. Equally, Ostpolitik was an accommodation with reality of a kind which leads today’s German leaders to think today’s problems are smaller and thus more easily accommodated than yesterday’s.)
This is obviously tough luck on the Ukrainians but, again viewed from Berlin, they are the problem. The point of the gas pipeline Nordstream2 is to tie Germany and Russia together in ways that close a historical circle. It is about something more than energy and energy security; it is a kind of handshake with history.
All of which is fine as far as it takes you but, alas, does not take you very far or anywhere very useful. Indeed, ultimately it requires Berlin to treat Moscow as a favourite child to be indulged and never blamed for the consequences of its actions. If the ends must be preserved at all and any cost, the means - day to day behaviour - cease to matter very much at all. German reasonableness thereby absolves Russia’s unreasonableness.
And there is the problem for Europe: you cannot have a coherent, let alone a confident, european defence and foreign policy ethos if there is a Germany-sized hole at the heart of it.
Even Germany, however, cannot really stomach the sight of chaps invading other chaps’ countries deep inside Europe. The costs to Russia of doing so cannot be proportionate to the offence. They must be disproportionate, if only to remind Moscow that the Baltic states - Nato members, remember - are not the next items on the menu. That means some pain for Germany - and for lawyers and estate agents in London too - but such is the cost of doing business. Some rules must be enforced the better to make it clear others still count too.
Putin is, at heart, a small man and the small man secretly fears his bet being called. The Kremlin may not think it is bluffing in this present crisis; the western powers must equally assume Moscow is not bluffing and be prepared to match Putin’s bet. Folding is not an option and if both sides - to continue the poker analogy - are pot-committed it seems obvious to me that Moscow has more to lose - or a greater share of its legitimacy - than its opponents. In turn that underlines the extent to which this crisis made in Moscow is one which demonstrates Putin’s smallness.
The price of Covid; the cost of prime ministerial delinquency
In response to last week’s newsletter, a reader writes:
Yes, the [Covid] restrictions were inhumane. Yes we stuck to them. It seemed perhaps they weren't as hard on us as on others. After the first few months in our Glasgow tenement, with shared garden (used one household at a time) and daily dog walk beside the Kelvin, my husband and I were finally able to move to our already bought new home with a garden. So, garden we did, and felt lucky.
But as time went on and we couldn't cross health board borders to meet our young adult children, and my husband's voluntary work supporting arriving families of refugees was still stopped (no arrivals) and the concerts and films and talks that had filled his diary for years were still cancelled, his depression hit. And hit with an intensity never before experienced.
And though the doctor was very responsive, for the first weeks they only spoke on the phone, and he had never met him before. And by the time they met, it must have been too deeply established. Because he took his own life last year just days before restrictions were lifted.
This well off, privileged, public school educated white man in his early 60s, who took responsibility and duty so seriously, who had been a Samaritan for 20 years as he knew how desperation needs support. This man who tried his best, always, yet never felt it was enough.
This week has been horrendous for me. Ridiculously, because I am distraught at the thought that my darling husband will not see this incompetent, dishonest, trivial, selfish, uncaring Prime Minister, who he has despised forever and who we campaigned against whenever we could, get his well deserved comeuppance.
We supported the inhumane restrictions. We stuck to them. Were we wrong? I don't know. I'll never know. But so many more of us are suffering than the headlines and statistics will ever show.
My future is forever changed. Three young people have lost their father. Friends around the world are distraught. The community has lost a volunteer. Our street has lost the man who shovelled the muddy leaves out of the drains and picked up other people's rubbish.
But I am comforted, as we all are, that he was a decent man who took responsibility.
There are, I am afraid, too many people with variations of this kind of story for this kind of thing to be quickly forgotten. There must be a reckoning and some kind of accountability even if much of it might only be symbolic. Still, symbols matter for they are about meaning and messaging. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that those who think the prime minister may weather this storm are mistaken. For these experiences are buried deep and they will, all of them, have to come out eventually; a kind of ritual, national, catharsis is going to be needed.
The British Way of Government
Come for Rory Stewart’s intro (FT, £):
Boris Johnson is a terrible prime minister and a worse human being. But he is not a monster newly sprung from a rent between this world and the next. Twenty years have passed since the Conservative party first selected him as a candidate. Michael Howard and David Cameron made him a shadow minister, and Theresa May gave him the Foreign Office. Thirty years of celebrity made him famous for his mendacity, indifference to detail, poor administration, and inveterate betrayal of every personal commitment. Yet, knowing this, the majority of Conservative MPs, and party members, still voted for him to be prime minister. He is not, therefore, an aberration, but a product of a system that will continue to produce terrible politicians long after he is gone.
Stay for his analysis of a fundamental weakness in the way we organise our government:
As a minister I was frequently placed in roles for which I had no expertise. When I took responsibility for the air pollution killing tens of thousands, or overcrowded prisons consumed by ever-increasing violence, I found a system that responded not with solutions but with press lines. As soon as I developed an understanding of my brief, I was reshuffled. And I was promoted because of loyalty, not performance. No civil service can compensate for such ineptitude.
Some of this is unavoidable. Prime Ministers must work with the clay they have been given and there is no guarantee that particular portfolios may be matched to an MP’s particular knowledge, expertise, or even interest. Ministerial departures mean a measure of churn is equally unavoidable.
Even so, there are obvious problems. Christopher Pincher, for instance, is the tenth MP to serve as minister of state for housing (in England) since the Conservatives came to power - checks note - less than 12 years ago. That kind of turnover is neither unusual nor useful. As soon as a minister has gained some appreciation of the role’s requirements he or she is moved on. (Sometimes they are moved even before they have reached that state of grace. Dominic Raab was housing minister for just six months.)
Government really is complex and institutional memory really is important. The latter helps make sense of the former. The current culture discounts its importance with consequences that are obvious to see.
Equally, prime ministers are also often inexperienced. David Cameron had only been an MP for nine years when he became prime minister. Boris Johnson for 12 (plus his time as mayor of London, though that was largely a PR job). Some of this is a function of the way in which, unlike the period from 1945-1979, prolonged periods of parliamentary supremacy have become a feature of British politics. 1979-97 was Thatcher-Major; 1997-2010 Blair & Brown; 2010-24 Cameron-May-Johnson-Whomever.
As a consequence, whenever there is a change of governing party almost no member of the new administration has significant experience of government. They must all learn everything on the job and from scratch. If a Labour government is formed after the next election, Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper are likely to be the only senior figures with cabinet experience and only a handful of other plausible cabinet ministers will have any ministerial experience at all. Sir Keir Starmer has only been an MP since 2015.
I am not sure there is much that can be done about this save to stress that cabinet reshuffles should be rare and narrow in equal measure and that the concentration of power in Downing Street causes more problems than it solves. In a different world this would be rethought; it won’t be in this one.
Above all, perhaps, this combination of ceaseless churn and inexperience reinforces one of Britain’s great weaknesses: an addiction to short-termism. If this is evident in the City of London - and by god it is - it’s also true in Westminster and Whitehall too. Current structures and incentives make fixing this very difficult but doing so is arguably a bigger task and necessity than any individual departmental problem. So, yes, good luck with that.
Department of Relativity
It’s fashionable to hate Twitter and refer to it as a kind of hell-site even as we - those of us in the trade, anyway - find it essential and inescapable. But, come on, the oft-fondly-remembered “Old Twitter” of sharpness and gags and nonsense and general entertainment is still there. To wit:
And where else can you encounter an exchange such as this?
The votes from the Fife and Lanarkshire juries are awaited with some trepidation.
Conor Gearty on Lord Reed’s Supreme Court: “His Supreme Court is unlikely to indulge litigants who have ambitions to redress socio-economic imbalance or to persuade the court to indulge novel forms of judicial law-making. A commitment to formalism is a consistent thread in the case law, characterised by a desire to avoid the grand sweep in favour of the highly particular and historically rooted.” This is presented, I think, as though it must be a Bad Thing. But is it really? The piece is interesting but it also smells of an argument that wished to go much further in its criticisms of Reed’s court only to be drawn back, alas, by the court’s disagreeable failure to hang itself. [LRB]
Could fixing housing actually help fix everything else too? Sam Bowman, long-time smart cookie and indefatigable optimist, makes a good case that, actually, yes, it could. [Guardian]
Notes from one possible future: Artificial wombs and the colonisation of Mars. [Reason]
Who betrayed Anne Frank? Danny Finkelstein reviews a new book which seeks to answer that question. The whole piece is worth your time but this is Danny’s grim conclusion: “In 1943, some friends living in the Amsterdam suburbs offered to hide my mother. My grandmother decided it was too dangerous. Reading this book I understand why.” [Times]
Sonia Sodha on the disgraceful witch-hunt against Kate Clanchy. A telling and miserably stupid story of our times. [Observer]
The Dubliners and The Pogues on The Late, Late Show in 1987. Just the thing for a wild and wet January weekend. A dram or two may be allowed.
That’s all for this week, folks. As always thanks for subscribing - free or paid! - and if you felt like sharing this with anyone who might be interested you’d be doing a small but noble thing. See you next week.