59 thoughts on “Sandpit

  1. Not sure what is wrong with AUS media-academia complex which is still grappling with its OCD over gay marriage and refugees. No one seems to be interested in the escalating crisis in the Ukraine, which looks likes its been lifted straight off a Hollywood script for the triggering of WW III.

    The Ukraine’s democratically elected government was just overthrown in a violent street coup staged by a gang of soccer hooligans who go by the name of “Right Sector”. They have put up a mesmerizing promotional clip on You Tube, shot with hostage video values – wobbly hand-held camera, menacing metal machine music background track and stock footage of the Mad Max evoking siege of Maidan Square:


    I am quite sympathetic to elements of Right Sector’s political program, which is basically populist nationalism. They want to retrieve their country from foreigners (Bankers, oligarchs, Russians) who have mercilessly ripped it off in the post-Cold War carpet-bagging era. Globalism is highly over-rated as a panacea for the peoples problems. Its usually a code-word that your country is about to be swindled by con-artists, hucksters and other undesirables.

    But Ukraine nationalism is a dangerous potion to add to the toxic brew that is currently simmering in the Caucasus region. The Russian CIS wants to dominate this region due to its high ratio of ethnic Russians, wealth of natural resources and strategic location (headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea fleet). It has has seized control of the Sevastapol navy base with Russian Marines and is resorting to traditional rhetoric about foreign powers “meddling in Russia’s affairs”.

    The EU and the US are both vying with each other in the race to make more indignant noises. John Kerry does not exactly look on top of his brief, he was completely out-maneuvered by the Russian foreign minister in the chemical weapons round of the Syrian crisis.

    The media-academia complex is uncharacteristically toungue-tied as this conflict does not have any obvious Good Guys. Its is your typical post-Cold War contest between Bad Guys of varying ethnic backgrounds and dubious ideological predilections. Obviously Russia is the new Evil Empire, not because it is oligarchic and despotic but because it is mildly anti-gay. Except that Right Sector, Russia’s most potent enemies on the Ukraine street, don’t exactly look gay-friendly.

    Most likely this will just be an exercise in sabre-rattling. But you never know with Slavic people who are prone to world-historic changing spasms of violence, echoes of Sarajevo. Stay tuned

  2. @jack strocchi

    It’s how empires behave. I wrote about this earlier, in this thread I think. The history of civilization, at the macro level, is the history of empires. This is the Realpolitik of it. The main empires today are the US, China and the EU. Peoples or lands on the border of two empires historically have become tributary or vassal states of one empire or the other; or else they become contested zones, torn in two by war, proxy war, civil war or any combination of those.

    Ukraine is now being contested. Does it become a vassal or tributary state of the EU or of Russia? This has been the common fate of nations along the Baltic-Polish-Ukraininian line for something like about 800 years now. Just think of the history of Poland. There has been the odd interregnum in this pattern. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth 1569–1795 marked a break in this pattern for Poland at least. And now Poland is again relatively free and prosperous as a vassal or tributary state of the EU. Though peripheral states of the EU tend to be plundered for the Franco-German centre.

    I won’t go so far as to predict what will happen. There are too many uncertainties. But I suspect a tortured phase of history for Ukraine as a contested zone. I will surprised if Russia totally capitulates. Russia could for example turn off the gas and oil to the EU and sell it to China. The EU is particularly vulnerable to this.

    If the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation coalesced as a full counter to NATO, the West would look to be out of options for pressuring Russia. In the mid to long term, the resource, economic and military power of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will considerably outweigh the power of the West. I think the West is being blind-sided by the SCO and does not realise how important it is. Then again, there is not much the West can do about this. The wheel of history is turning.

  3. “An article in The Washington Post in early 2008 reported that President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia could aim nuclear missiles at Ukraine if Russia’s neighbour and former fraternal republic in the Soviet Union joins the NATO alliance and hosts elements of a U.S. missile defence system. “It is horrible to say and even horrible to think that, in response to the deployment of such facilities in Ukrainian territory, which cannot theoretically be ruled out, Russia could target its missile systems at Ukraine”, Putin said at a joint news conference with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who was visiting the Kremlin. “Imagine this just for a second” – Wikipedia.

  4. The Russian CIS under Putin has become heartily sick of being disrespected by the usual suspects of EU bureaucrats and US neo-cons like Victoria Nuland (US Assistant Secretary of State for the EU). The humiliation suffered by Russia in the last Balkans war still rankles among the pan-Slavic minded peoples.

    Th EU-US axis have been trying to drive a wedge between Russia and the various satellites and client states that ring its western and southern borders. Basically to carve up the mineral resources that the Kremlin would like to monopolise as well as to create new customers for surplus NATO military ordinance. Hopefully they keep their noses out of this and let the locals sort it out.

    The 2008 farce in Georgia (a “mouse that roared war”, mendaciously described as a “Russian invasion”) seems to have set the template for “meddling in Russia’s internal affairs”. Obviously the best way for foreigners to do this is to stir up national ethnic separatist movements, following the classic “divide and rule” technique. Then send in the carpet-baggers, nowadays called “suitcase economists”.

    I dont have any strong feelings about taking sides in this conflict one way or another, apart from a vague woolly feeling that Slavic people should get together and be nice to each other. I hope that it does not degenerate into a proper shooting war because I like Slavic people and dont like seeing them killing each other. Also, as Pr Q has convincingly argued, war tends to make both sides losers as well as producing a generational legacy of bitterness.

    People have long race memories in the regions around the Black Sea (Balkans-Ukraine-Caucasus), which have had a tendency to spiral into world-historical bloodbaths. Moreover the cultures have not wholly lapsed into the degenerate state of post-modern liberalism (Right Sector calls this “totalitarian liberalism”) where nothing matters but urban property values and the latest Manhattan fad. Folk here still know how to fight and have access to heavy weapons.

    We are talking about the Bloodlands. Conflict in WW I started as an ethnic separatist movement in the Balkans and ended as a German annexation of the Russian half of the Ukraine (Brest-Litovsk). Later on this area was the major scene of two acts of genocide, the Holomodor and the Holocaust. Let us hope that sound heads prevail or else we shall see a return of History, with a vengeance.

  5. From the Russian pov most of the past generation (from Reykjavik through to Kosovo) was one long series of defeats, depression and dispossession. Now it sees the EU and US trying to muscle its way into the traditional Russian sphere of influence (Georgia, Ukraine), which is made up of territories with a high ratio of Russian ethnics.

    Somehow this is portrayed as the Russian bear throwing its weight around (oh, did I mention that Putin does not care much for gays?). In fact Russia is simply trying to hold onto what it has got or at least had a reasonable claim to.

    Whereas over the past generation the EU and US have been sticking their noses into other peoples business like there is no tomorrow: the EU with its constant lust to access new states and insist on common standards and the US with its constant need to establish military bases and dabble in regime change.

    Can I suggest that these imperialistic interventions take a breather for a while and let the nations concerned sort their own problems out?

  6. @Will, sorry about the slow response on this but have been sifting through the entrails of world bank documents and other statistical detritus trying to get a handle on the Ukrainian economy. Lots of commentators say it is a basket case, and many talk about a factional war between billionaires, but there is very little hard evidence for this. The most surprising number is World Bank’s Gini index for 2010 at .26, an unbelievably low number compared to Australia’s ~.35 and the USA at ~.42.

    On the other hand there are some really bad numbers, the first of which is the fall of GDP since independence in 1991, which hit a low of 40% of 1991 value by 1999 (CIA World Fact Book) before recovering through to 2008 and then crashing again. Event with respectable recent growth that is (understandably) now going back into recession at this point of time, the economy is still only around 75% of 1991 total. That is a disaster. The second issue is the loss of population. Ukraine Economy Watch notes that it is both declining naturally with a very low birth rate of 1.3, and also, and more dramatically, declining due to 14.4% of the population emigrating. The net result is a population down from ~52million to just over ~45million, along with all the maladjustments that come from such a rapid decline.

    These two indicators point to a very sick economy.

    @Ikonoclast’s assessment that Ukraine is a contested zone between two empires is true, with the US as a Johnny-come-lately proxy for the Europeans. I think this Realpolitick is now going to drive the conflict, as in Malcolm Fraser’s take in the Guardian that in encircling a bear, and in this case a sick bear, one may end up with all sorts of unwanted emergent outcomes (as per @jack strocchi).

    But my interest is still in my original contention, that economic collapse was the catalyst for what looks now like a run-away train, and hopefully not a train wreck, and that western neo-liberalism as the dominant economic discourse joined with local criminal usurpation of the economy to prevent not only the transition from socialist to western social democracy, but any possibility that that may have been the outcome. That lead to despair, and despair took people outside their comfort zone and onto the street.

    And so to my second observation, that this type of uprising, or reaction to instability has a tendency to ‘look’ more right wing than left wing due to an inherent conservative bias in seeking certainty.

  7. I also think we do the same here in Australia, but on a far less dramatic level, not looking to empires east or west, but in voting Labor out and Liberal in then Liberal out and Labor in, looking for a workable solution where none is on offer, yet ever hopeful of getting a different result.

  8. @James
    Sounds like Einstein’s reported definition of insanity: “repeating the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.”

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