Reading the Runes of War
Putin’s policy of cleansing the Augean Stables of ‘predatory western capital’ is music to the ears of the Global South
Of course, the conflict, to all intents, is settled – though is far from over. It is clear that Russia will prevail in the military war – and the political war too – by which is meant that whatever emerges in Ukraine after the military action is complete will be dictated by Moscow on its terms.
Plainly, on the one hand, the regime in Kiev would collapse were it to have terms dictated to it by Moscow. And, on the other hand, the entire western agenda behind the Maidan coup d’état in 2014 would implode, too. (This is why an off-ramp, short of a Ukrainian rout, is next to impossible.)
This moment thus marks a crucial point of inflection. One American choice might be to end the conflict – and there are many voices calling for a deal, or a ceasefire, with the understandably humane intent of ending the pointless slaughter of Ukrainian young men sent to ‘the front’ to defend indefensible positions, only to be cynically killed for no military gain, merely to keep the war going.
Though rational, the argument for an off-ramp misses the bigger geopolitical point: The West is so heavily invested in its fantastical narrative of imminent Russian collapse and humiliation that it finds itself ‘stuck fast’. It cannot move forward for fear that NATO might not be up to the task of confronting Russian forces (Putin has made the point that Russia had not even begun to use its full force). And yet, to cut a deal, to move back, would be to lose face.
And ‘losing face’ roughly translates to the liberal west losing.
The West thus has made itself hostage to its unrestrained triumphalism, posing as info-war. It chose this unrestrained jingoism. Biden advisers however, reading the runes of the war – of relentless Russian gains – have begun to scent another foreign policy débacle fast heading their way.
They see events, far from reaffirming the ‘rules-based Order’, rather the stark laying bare before the world of the limits to U.S. power – giving front of stage to not just a resurgent Russia, but one carrying a revolutionary message for the rest of the world (albeit a fact to which the West has yet to awaken).
Moreover, the western alliance is disintegrating as war fatigue settles in and as European economies stare at recession. The contemporary instinctive inclination to decide first, and think later (European sanctions), has landed Europe in existential crisis.
The UK exemplifies the wider European conundrum: The UK political class, frightened and in disarray, first ‘determined’ to knife its’ leader, only to realise afterward, that they had no successor to hand with gravitas to manage the new normal, and no idea how to escape the trap in which it is ensnared.
They dare not lose face over Ukraine and have no solution that meets the coming recession (except a return to Thatcherism?). And the same can be said for Europe’s political class: they are as deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming fast vehicle.
Biden and a certain network which spans Washington, London, Brussels, Warsaw and the Baltics view Russia from a height of 30,000 feet above that of the Ukraine conflict. Biden reportedly believes he is in an equidistant position between two dangerous and ominous trends engulfing the U.S. and the West: Trumpism at home and Putinism abroad. Both, he believes, present clear and present dangers to the liberal rules-based order in which (Team) Biden passionately believes.
Other voices – mainly from the U.S. Realist camp – are not so besotted with Russia; for them, ‘real men’ take on China. These want just to keep the Ukraine conflict at a face-saving stalemate, if possible (more weapons), whilst the pivot to China is activated.
In a speech at the Hudson Institute, Mike Pompeo made a foreign policy statement that clearly had an eye to 2024 and his taking the Vice-President spot. The gist of it was about China, yet what he said about Ukraine was interesting: Zelensky’s importance to the U.S. was contingent on his keeping the war going (i.e. saving western face). He did not explicitly refer to ‘boots on the ground’, but it was clear he did not advocate such a step.
His message was weapons, weapons, weapons to Ukraine, and ‘move on’ – through pivoting to China NOW. Pompeo insisted the U.S. recognise Taiwan diplomatically today, irrespective of what occurs. (i.e. regardless of whether this action triggers war with China.) And he rolled-up Russia into the equation by simply saying that Russia and China effectively should be treated as one.
Biden however, seems moved to let pass the moment, and to carry on with the present trajectory. This is also what the many participants in the boondoggle want. The point is that Deep State views are conflicted, and influential Wall Street bankers certainly do not warm to Pompeo’s notions. They would prefer de-escalation with China. Carrying-on therefore is the easy option, as U.S. domestic attention becomes fastened on economic woes.
The point here is that the West is comprehensively stuck: It cannot move forward, nor back. Its structures of politics and of the economy prevent it. Biden is stuck on Ukraine; Europe is stuck on Ukraine and on its belligerence towards Putin; ditto for the UK; and the West is stuck on its relations with Russia and China. More importantly, none of them can address the insistent demands from Russia and China for a restructuring of the global security architecture.
If they cannot move on this security plane – for fear of losing face – they will be unable to assimilate (or hear – given the ingrained cynicism that attends any words spoken by President Putin) that Russia’s agenda goes far beyond security architecture.
For example, the veteran Indian diplomat and commentator, MK Badrakhumar writes:
“After Sakhalin-2, [on an Island in the Russian Far East] Moscow also plans to nationalise Sakhalin-1 oil and gas development project by ousting U.S. and Japanese shareholders. The capacity of Sakhalin-1 is quite impressive. There was a time before OPEC+ set limits on production levels, when Russia extracted as much as 400,000 barrels per day, but the recent production level has been about 220,000 barrels per day.
The overall trend of nationalising the holdings of American, British, Japanese and European capital in Russia’s strategic sectors of economy is crystallising as the new policy. The cleansing of theRussian economy, freed of Western capital, is expected to accelerate in the period ahead.
Moscow was well aware of the predatory character of Western capital in Russia’s oil sector — a legacy of the Boris Yeltsin era — but had to live with the exploitation as it didn’t want to antagonise other potential western investors. But that is history now. The souring of relations with the West to almost breaking point rids Moscow of such archaic inhibitions.
After coming to power in 1999, President Vladimir Putin set about the mammoth task of cleaning up the Augean stables of Russia’s foreign collaboration in the oil sector. The “decolonisation” process was excruciatingly difficult, but Putin pulled it through”.
Yet that’s just the half of it. Putin keeps saying in speeches that the West is the author of its own debt and inflationary crisis (and not Russia), which gives rise to a great deal of head scratching in the West. Let Professor Hudson however, explain why much of the rest of the world sees the West having taken a ‘wrong turn’ economically. In brief, the West’s wrong turn has led it to a ‘dead end’, Putin implies.
Professor Hudson argues (paraphrased and rephrased) that there are essentially two broad economic models that have descended through history: “On the one hand, we see Near Eastern and Asian societies organized to maintain social balance and cohesion by keeping debt relations and mercantile wealth subordinate to the general welfare of the community as a whole”.
All ancient societies had a mistrust of wealth, because it tended to be accumulated at the expense of society at large – and led to social polarization and gross inequalities of wealth. Looking over the sweep of ancient history, we can see (Hudson says)that the main objective of rulers from Babylonia to South Asia and East Asia was to prevent a mercantile and creditor oligarchy from emerging and concentrating ownership of land in their own hands. This is one historic model.
The great problem that the Bronze Age Near East solved – but classical antiquity and Western civilization have not solved – was how to deal with mounting debts (periodic debt jubilees) without polarising society and ultimately impoverishing the economy by reducing most of the population to debt dependency.
One of Hudson’s key tenets is how China is structured as a ‘low cost’ economy: cheap housing, subsidised education, medical care and transport – means that consumers do have some free disposable income left over – and China as whole, is made competitive. The financialized debt-led model of the West, however, is high cost, with swathes of the population becoming increasingly impoverished and bereft of discretionary income after paying debt servicing costs.
The Western periphery however, lacking the Near Eastern tradition, ‘turned’ to enabling a wealthy creditor oligarchy to take power and concentrate land and property ownership in its own hands. For public relations purposes, it claimed to be a ‘democracy’, and denounced any protective government regulation as being, by definition, ‘autocracy’. This is the second grand model, but with its overhang of debt and now in an inflationary spiral, it too is stuck, lacking the means to step forward.
That latter model is what occurred in Rome. And we are still living in the aftermath. Making debtors dependent on wealthy creditors is what today’s economists call a ‘free market’. It is one without public checks and balances against inequality, fraud or privatization of the public domain.
This neoliberal pro-creditor ethic, Professor Hudson asserts, is at the root of today’s New Cold War. When President Biden describes this great world conflict aimed at isolating China, Russia, India, Iran and their Eurasian trading partners, he characterizes this as an existential struggle between ‘democracy’ and ‘autocracy’.
By democracy he means oligarchy. And by ‘autocracy’ he means any government strong enough to prevent a financial oligarchy from taking over government and society and imposing neoliberal rules – by force – as Putin has done. The ‘democratic’ ideal is to make the rest of the world look like Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, where American neo-liberals had a free hand in stripping away all public ownership of land, mineral rights and basic public utilities.
But today we deal with shades of grey – there is no truly free market in the U.S.; and China and Russia are mixed economies, albeit ones leaning to prioritising a responsibility for the welfare of the community as a whole, rather than imagining that individuals left to their own selfish devices will somehow result in maximising national welfare.
Here is the point: Adam Smith economics plus individualism is ingrained in the western zeitgeist. It will not change. However, President Putin’s new policy of cleansing the Augean Stables of ‘predatory western capital’ and the example set by Russia of its metamophose toward a largely self-supporting economy, immune to dollar hegemony, is music to the ears of the Global South and to much of the Rest of the World.
Taken together with Russia and China’s lead in challenging the West’s ‘right’ to set rules; to monopolise the means (the dollar) as the basis for settling inter-state trade; and with BRICS and SCO steadily acquiring ‘bottom’, Putin’s speeches reveal their revolutionary agenda.
One aspect remains: How to bring about a ‘revolutionary’ metamorphosis, without incurring war with the West. The U.S. and Europe are stuck. They are unable to renew themselves, as the structural political and economic contradictions have locked their paradigm solid. How then to ‘unstick’ the situation, short of war?
The key, paradoxically, may lie with Russia and China’s deep understanding of the flaws to the western economic model. The West is in need of Catharsis to ‘unstick itself’. Catharsis can be defined as the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed, emotions attached to beliefs.
To avoid military catharsis, it seems that the Russian and Chinese leadership – understanding the flaws to the western economic model – must then visit the West with an economic catharsis.
It will be painful, no doubt, but better than nuclear catharsis. We may recall the ending to CV Cafavy’s poem, Waiting for the Barbarians,
Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some of our men just in from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.