Media madness

It is astounding the way that the media – journalists and their ‘experts’ – are discussing the next steps in the Ukraine fiasco. The next steps could be fatal but there seems to be little awareness of this or if there is, do they care?.

The context is pretty simple. In February 2022 Putin launched an operation in Ukraine. The idea was to take Donbas and to try to force regime change in Kiev to install a regime which would drop anti-Russia policies, in particular Ukraine joining NATO. The West reacted with sanctions and by supplying arms to Ukraine. My guess is that the US initially expected Russia to be completely successful and thought they would be supporting Ukraine to fight a guerrilla war. To be fair to them; they seem to have blundered into a full-on proxy war with Russia. The idea then was to support Ukraine to “defeat Russia in Ukraine”. They seem to have believed that the combination of sanctions and limited arms supplies would be enough to do this. It turns out it wasn’t. The sanctions are very partial, because they want to avoid causing any pain to their own populations, who might be ready to wrap themselves in Ukrainian flags but probably aren’t willing to turn the heating down a couple of notches to support Ukraine. (Very approximately speaking EU-Russia trade has fallen by 50%. But that is still billions of dollars. And Russia is making up the shortfall in oil sales to new markets). The US President (correctly) had a policy of “not escalating the conflict into a war with Russia”. But; the problem here is that it just seems intrinsically extremely unlikely that Ukraine can defeat Russia without attacking Russia. I am not a military expert but as far as I can see a key part of modern warfare is using air power and long-range weapons to attack the enemy’s bases, industrial production, command centres and supply lines in the rear. Kiev is not allowed to do this. The media is getting hugely excited because this policy has been relaxed recently. However; this only applies (apparently) to some weapons and targets connected with the Russian troop build-up to attack Kharkiv. It is nowhere near a total permission for Ukraine to use Western weapons to attack Russia. Predictably, given all this, Ukraine is gradually losing. In the words of the State Department spokesman, the West is “adapting” which is a euphemism for getting desperate – and dangerous. The permission for Kiev to strike over the border near Kharkiv has whetted the appetite of some of the media “experts” who are now licking their lips at the prospect of more permissions, more attacks. These are just two examples:

This is Yuri Felshtinsky, who is a US academic, of Russian origins. (The exiles and émigrées always seem to be the most vociferous in their attacks on their original homeland). He explains, on Times Radio, how the best way to prevent an escalation of the war is to give Ukraine long-range weapons to hit Moscow. To be fair to this speaker he does seem to accept the risk of Putin retaliating with a tactical nuclear strike. And he makes the interesting point that this could come from Belarus [12.09]. But; if Russia, directly, or via Lukashenko, uses a tactical nuclear weapon against a NATO state or ally, the dynamic is on a new plane. The speaker also calls for regime change in Belarus. Listening to this speaker I (for the first time) feel scared. This guy is calling for actions which will almost certainly trigger a full-scale NATO-Russia war in which nuclear weapons are used. He seems amazingly calm about this. I would say this guy is insane. Does he want WWIII? Why? So that the Kiev regime does not have to give up Crimea and Donbas (where majority populations want to join Russia), and their (not massively popular before the war) plan to join NATO?

This is a former British Air Vice-Marshal, also on Times Radio. He calls for a “no-fly zone”, which in fact means NATO planes going to war with Russian planes, which is in fact NATO-Russia war. He also calls for “boots on the ground”. He also calls for stealing the Russian assets held in Belgium. He appears to have no serious knowledge of the political dynamics in Russia; he seems to think that economic pressure on the oligarchs will put pressure on the Kremlin. However; most serious commentators understand that the oligarch class has very little political power. Since Putin chased out any oligarchs with political aspirations in the first decade of his rule, those that remain have been allowed to make money, but are not political players. It also the case that the Moscow elite, Duma deputies, officials and so on have signed up to a new ethic which places patriotism above European jaunts. The speaker has a rather quaint British imperialist attitude. He really believes that the Russian elite will change direction because they cannot send their children to schools in the UK and shop at Harrods. He has no idea. (Anecdotally this author works in a school in Russia where the children of elite businessmen and government officials are educated. The summer trip is to stay at a private school in the UK and spend 4 days shopping in London). The shopping and international education sector in Dubai is flourishing; Russians are adapting and finding new watering holes. This speaker has no idea what he is talking about. Most importantly; his analysis misses the key point. He thinks that the motivation for the war was Donbas. He does not even mention NATO! This is an existential conflict for Russia. This is why putting more pressure on Russia is going to lead to the kind of reaction that any state facing a critical threat would take, if they have the capacity. And Russia does have capacity. In the spirit of fairness; this speaker also makes a useful point; the “sanctions breaking” is not just China. US and European technology is still finding its way into Russian weapons.

These are just two examples of the very light way that the media and their experts are chatting about escalating the war. The first speaker seems ready to contemplate a nuclear holocaust, very calmly. The second speaker (who is a military man, not a political analyst), seems to have a largely empty analysis which completely fails to understand any of the real dynamics of this in Russia and, based on that, thinks that you can pressurise Russia on multiple fronts, economic and military, and there will be a regime change in Russia and the war will end. That is not completely impossible, but it seems to me that it is a very unlikely end-game and the likelihood of a dangerous escalation is much stronger.

In both cases the journalist seems very calm about this. Maybe he just has a lot of sang-froid. But I suspect he hasn’t quite grasped the reality of the situation.

As John Mearsheimer points out, surely reason would say; even if the risk is quite small, it is real, and given the magnitude of the catastrophe if it does go nuclear, should we not stop and think? Yes; one doesn’t like to give in to “nuclear blackmail” but – are we really ready to run the risk of millions of people being incinerated so the Azov battalion and other extreme nationalists can continue to block a settlement in eastern Ukraine and Ukraine can join NATO, which adds nothing to our (European) security – and, I guess, so the US can avoid losing face and can maintain the self-belief in their global dominance right up to the moment when it doesn’t matter any more?