Before Putin relinquishes the pressure on EU nations, he is still likely to insist that American influence from Western Europe is withdrawn.
It is August – Ukrainian Independence Day, and the anniversary, too, of Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Kabul. Washington is only too aware that these painful images (Afghans clinging to the undercarriage of Hercules planes) are about to be replayed, in the lead-up to the November elections.
Because events in Ukraine are unfolding badly for Washington – as the slow, calibrated steamroller of Russian artillery fire shreds the Ukrainian army. Ukraine has been notably unable to reinforce besieged positions, or to counterattack and to hold re-conquered territory. Ukraine has used HIMARS, artillery and drones to hit some Russian ammunition depots, but these, so far, are isolated incidents, and are more media ‘plays’, than constituting any shift in the strategic balance of the war.
So, let’s change the ‘narrative’: Over the last week, the Washington Post has been busy curating a new narrative. In gist, the shift is quite simple: U.S. intelligence, in the past, may have got things disastrously wrong, but they ‘nailed’ it this time. They warned of Putin’s plan to invade. They had it down to the Russian militaries’ detailed plans.
First Shift: Team Biden warned Zelensky multiple times, but the man stubbornly refused to listen. As a result, when the invasion blindsided Zelensky, the Ukrainians as a whole were hopelessly unprepared. Message: ‘It’s Zelensky to blame’.
Let’s not go into the egregious omission in this narrative of eight years of NATO preparation for a mega attack on Donbas that was bound to draw a Russian riposte. No need for a crystal ball to figure out ‘that’. Russian military structures had been sitting some 70 kms from the Ukrainian border for months.
Shift Two: Ukraine’s army is ‘turning the corner’, thanks to western weapons. Really? Message: No repeat of the Kabul debacle; of a collapse in Kiev can be tolerated until after the Midterms. Hence, repeat after me: ‘Ukraine is turning the corner’; hold fast, stay the course.
Shift Three (from a Financial Times editorial): Russia’s economy has proved more resilient than expected, but economic sanctions ‘were never likely to collapse its economy’. Actually, U.S. officials, U.S. and UK intelligence predicted precisely that a Russian financial and institutional collapse, following sanctions, would trigger economic and political turmoil in Moscow of such magnitude that Putin’s grip might be levered off his hold on power, and that a Moscow riven by political and financial crisis would be unable effectively to pursue a war in Donbas – thus Kiev would prevail.
This was ‘the line’ which persuaded the European political class to bet all on sanctions. French Finance Minister, Bruno Le Maire, declared “an-all out economic and financial war” against Russia, so as to trigger its collapse.
Shift Four (the FT again): The Europeans did not prepare sufficiently for the consequent energy price rises. They must therefore persevere more in shrinking Russia’s revenue, ‘tweaking further’ the coming oil embargo. Message: The EU must have misunderstood. Sanctions were ‘never likely’ to crash the Russian economy. They too did not prepare people for long term energy price rises; their fault.
Whilst this change of narrative might be understandable from the perspective of the U.S. interest, it comes as a ‘cold shower’ for Europe.
Helen Thompson, Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University, writes in the FT:
In Europe, governments want to alleviate the dire pressures on households’ … [whilst letting] fear about the coming winter, drive down demand. Fiscally, this means state funding to reduce rising energy bills … What is not available anywhere, is a quick means for increasing the physical supply of energy [emphasis added].
This crisis is not an inadvertent consequence of the pandemic or Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine. It has much deeper roots in two structural problems. First, unpalatable as this reality is for climate and ecological reasons, world economic growth still requires fossil fuel production. Without more investment and exploration, there is unlikely to be sufficient supply in the medium term to meet likely demand. The present gas crisis has its origins in the Chinese-driven surge in gas consumption during 2021. Demand grew so rapidly that it was only available for European and Asian purchase at very high prices.
Meanwhile, respite from rising oil prices this year has only materialised when the economic data from China is unpropitious. In the International Energy Agency’s judgment, it is quite possible that global oil production will be inadequate to meet demand as soon as next year. For much of the 2010s, the world economy got by on the shale oil boom … But American shale cannot expand at the same rate again: Overall U.S. output is still more than 1mn barrels per day below what it was in 2019. Even in the Permian, daily production per well is declining. More offshore drilling, of the kind opened up in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska by the Inflation Reduction Act, will require higher prices, or investors willing to pour in capital regardless of the prospects for profit. The best geological prospects for a game changer akin to what happened in the 2010s lie with the huge Bazhenov shale oil formation in Siberia. But western sanctions mean that the prospect of western oil majors helping Russia technologically is a geopolitical dead end. Second, little can be done that would immediately accelerate the transition from fossil fuels … Running electricity grids on solar and wind base loads will require technological breakthroughs on storage. It is impossible to plan with any confidence what progress will have materialised in 10 years – let alone next year.
The geo-strategic message from this is as plain as a Pikestaff: It is a blunt warning that EU interests do not comport with those of a U.S. determined to get through the next months until the Midterms – with toughened sanctions imposed on Russia by Europe (the ‘tech sanctions ultimately will take their toll on the Russian economy’) – and with Europe too, continuing to ‘stand fast’ with its military and financial support for Kiev.
As Professor Thomson crisply remarks, “a grasp of geopolitical realities is also essential … Western governments must either invite economic misery on a scale that would test the fabric of democratic politics in any country – or face the fact that energy supply constrains the means by which Ukraine can be defended”. In other words, it’s either save the European political class’ skin through reverting to cheap Russian gas, or stay aligned with Washington and subject your electorates to misery – and its leaders to a political reckoning that is unfolding already.
This puts Russia in a position to play its ‘big cards’: So, just as the U.S. played its military backed, dollar-dominance to the full in the years following the implosion of the Soviet Union, to corral much of the world into its rules-based sphere:, today Russia and China are offering the Global South, Africa and Asia a release from these western ‘Rules’. They are encouraging the ‘Rest-of-World’ now to assert its autonomy and independence via the BRICS and the Eurasian Economic Community.
Russia, in partnership with China, is building widespread political relationships across Asia, Africa and the global South , based on its dominant role as supplier of fossil-fuel and much of the world’s food and raw materials. To further increase Russia’s influence over energy sources upon which the Western belligerents depend, Russia is stitching together a gas ‘OPEC’ with Iran and Qatar, and has also made welcoming overtures to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to join together in taking greater control of all key energy commodities.
Further, these big producers are joining with big energy consumers to wrest precious metal and commodity markets out of the hands of London and America – with a view to ending western manipulation of commodity prices, through derivative paper markets.
The argument advanced by Russian officials to other states is both hugely appealing and simple: The West has turned its back on fossil fuels and is planning to phase them out entirely – in a decade or so. The message is that you do not have to join with this masochistic ‘sacrifice politics’. You can have oil and natural gas – and at a discount to what Europe has to pay, helping the competitive advantage of your industries.
The “Golden Billion” have enjoyed the benefits of modernity, and now they want you to forego it all, and to expose your electorates to the extreme hardship of a radical Green Agenda. Arguably however, the non-aligned world requires at least the basics of modernity. The full rigours of western Green ideology however, cannot simply be mandated for the rest of the word – against its wishes.
This compelling argument represents the pathway for Russia and China to switch much of the globe to their camp.
Some states, too – whilst sympathetic to the need to attend to climate change – will see lurking within the ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) régime the clear makings of a new western financialised colonialism – with finance and credit rationed to only those in full conformity with the western-managed Green Project. In short, they suspect a new boondogle, enriching mainly western financial interests.
Russia is saying simply, ‘It needn’t be like this’. Yes, the climate must be a consideration, but fossil fuels are experiencing an acute lack of investment, partly for Green ideological reasons, rather than that such resources are running out, per se. And, unpalatable though it be for some, the fact is that world economic growth still requires fossil fuel production. Without more investment and exploration, there is unlikely to be sufficient supply in the medium term to meet likely demand. What is not available anywhere, is a quick means for increasing the supply of alternative physical energy.
Where are we now? Russia has a big offensive underway in Ukraine. And Europe may hope it can just slink away from the its Ukraine imbroglio almost unnoticed, without appearing openly to break with Biden, as Kiev incrementally implodes. You see it already. How much headline Ukraine news in Europe? How much network news? ‘Europe can just stay quiet, and back away from the débacle’, it is suggested.
But here is the rub: Before Putin relinquishes the pressure on EU nations, he is still likely to insist that American influence from Western Europe is withdrawn, or at the least that Europe begins to act fully autonomously in its own interest.
There is little doubt this was on Putin’s mind when he launched the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. He must have anticipated NATO’s reaction in imposing its Russia sanctions – from which the latter (very unexpectedly for the West), has profited greatly. It is the EU which has been badly crushed, with a squeeze that Putin can intensify at will.
The drama is still playing out. Putin needs to keep up some pressure on Ukraine to keep the squeeze going. He likely, is not ready to compromise. Winter in the EU will be tougher still, with energy and food shortages likely to lead to social turmoil. Putin will only stop when the Europeans have experienced enough pain to chart a different strategic course – and to break with the U.S. and NATO.