Posted by Curt on 19 October, 2022 at 3:54 pm. 1 comment.


By Aurelien

Many people are wondering how it’s possible that leaders of western nations and their advisers are continuing with economic sanctions against Russia, that are likely to devastate their own economies, perhaps quite soon. Do they not understand something? Have they not been properly briefed? Do they not realise what is likely to happen? Why are they behaving like that? We can shed some light on this conundrum by looking at how groups of states and their leaders and advisers typically behave in a crisis, and I’ll take the last vaguely comparable event—the end of the Cold War —as a parallel example.
It’s unsurprising that even the most relentless anti-Russian militants are starting to wonder now about the wisdom of imposing ever more economic sanctions on Russia, and so risking economic damage of incalculable proportions to the West. The essential risks involved—shortages and much higher prices for of fuel and power, the end of cheap Russian gas, the probable closure of much European industry, power cuts—are not a secret, and have been much discussed, not just in the business and technical press but increasingly in the mainstream media as well. Yet the armada of ships of state sails on, in the same direction, and at ever-increasing speed. It’s no wonder that some invoke conspiracy theories, since this behaviour seems to defy any rational explanation. But in fact there are a series of complementary explanations, which, if not altogether “rational” in the highest sense of the term, are not completely arbitrary either. Let’s approach this problem by reference to the last time the world turned upside down.
Between about the autumn of 1989 and the autumn of 1991, that is, between the beginning of the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and consequences of the attempted coup in the Soviet Union, the world went through a series of convulsive changes. I say “the world” advisedly, because events outside Europe, such as the release of Nelson Mandela, were nonetheless linked to what was going on there. Even to those only cursorily interested, it was obvious that large pieces were falling off the model of the world which had been taken for granted for nearly fifty years. To those of us more directly involved, it was as though successive drafts of the near future were being torn up and rewritten every evening.
Governments and their adherents reacted in different ways. The main reaction, important for what follows, was rapid confusion and exhaustion. After all, even an incomplete list of subjects of burning interest in European Chancelleries in, say, the spring of 1991, would have included: the end of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, what to do about Soviet nuclear weapons in Ukraine and Belarus, the negotiations on European Political and Monetary Union, the future (if any) of NATO, the new concept of European defence, the implementation of the new Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, the Gulf War and its aftermath, how to deal with newly independent ex-Warsaw Pact nations, the Crisis in Yugoslavia, and the re-unification of Germany. Any single one of these subjects would have kept the Chancellery of a medium-sized state fully occupied by itself, and of course most of them were also linked to each other in some way.
Whilst the current international environment is a little less crowded and interdependent than that, it is also much more complex and interactive. Technologies such as video-conferencing did not exist thirty years ago, and the kind of “virtual” G7 recently held would have been impossible then. And for every conference, every telephone call, work is required to prepare, to draft communiqués, to listen in and to write up afterwards, complete with press briefings and Tweets. This isn’t just about people being busy though, it’s about a massive reinforcement of the perennial tendency in crisis management, already very noticeable in 1989-91, to focus on the short-term and the trivial (because you can do something immediately) as against the long-term and the really important, where you have to think first.
But the other, and for our purposes more significant, response in 1989-91 was to rewrite the past, or at least the personal past. I recall any number of seminars, conferences, international meetings and professional gatherings during that period where some great figure would try to explain what was going on, and why history, in the words of one American diplomat, was “going off in directions it had no right to.” I soon began to recognise a couple of tropes. One was the rueful shrug, and the slightly jocular approach: “You know, if I had stood here a year ago, and told you XY and Z, you would have thought I was mad.” In other words, went the argument, we were all wrong, nobody saw the end of the Cold War coming, so it’s unfair to blame People like Me for not realising it. Except of course that some of us sitting at the back in the cheap seats did see it coming, but I’ll return to that in a moment. Indeed, this became such a common trope that I once or twice opened an intervention of mine by saying “I suppose you’re expecting me to say …” which provoked sympathetic laughter.
The other approach, in small groups, over coffee, or in articles and memoirs later, was to look quickly in both directions, and say “Well, I of course was personally convinced that the Cold War was coming to an end, but what can one person do?” Those of us of an unforgiving disposition later calculated that if everyone who had said that had been telling the truth, there would have been a solid minority, if not an actual majority, who believed by say, 1988, that the Cold War would soon be over. It’s a pity they didn’t speak up at the time. Now it’s easy to mock, and not always a bad thing, but here, I think that we’re dealing with something more than just hypocrisy, or the desire to avoid embarrassment. We’re dealing with the human instinct to want to be part of the majority and part of the consensus at any given point, and to stay with that consensus when it changes, even at the cost of rewriting the past. That instinct can be strong enough to override objective facts and powerful arguments, as it was in the late 1980s, and as it is over the effects of economic sanctions today.
Because let us recall that the political mood in the late 1980s was quite un-nuanced, and still extremely hostile to the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev, was generally seen as a devious, more civilised but still deeply Communist apparatchik, scheming to lure the West into lowering its guard. Yes, that Gorbachev who was beatified by the West when he died recently. Did you notice all those articles with titles like “How I was Wrong About Gorbachev in 1987”? No, neither did I. To suggest in those days that the Soviet Union under Gorbachev was changing, and that the West should respond appropriately, was to be greeted with accusations of “Gorbymania” by the media and the political classes of the West. How could we be so stupid and naive they asked? Wasn’t it obvious that this was just a KGB deception operation? The May 1989 NATO Summit communiqué was scarcely less hostile to the Soviet Union than its predecessors had been, although the fact that there were changes under way should by then have been evident to everybody. And needless to say, nobody now remembers that they thought that, then.
Understanding this sort of situation is easier if we consider three separate but related elements of any major political crisis or substantial political change. They are: What was happening to produce the crisis or change, How the situation then developed towards a crisis, and finally When it became critical. (I have excluded “Why” from this list because if we knew that there would be no need for historical controversies.) So if we take the end of the Cold War as a (highly simplified) example, we can point to a number of “What”s. The first and most obvious is the replacement of a leadership in Moscow that had lived through the Second World War and was scarred and traumatised by it, by one that had not. But the recognition of the economic consequences of effectively running a permanent wartime economy were also a factor, as well as a parallel recognition that the political system of the country was not working, and needed reform. These three things were indisputable really, except in the eyes of confirmed conspiracy theorists. So those are the most important “What’s”s, and it wasn’t hard to predict by, say, 1987, that things would change, but it wasn’t clear how.
The “How” came from Gorbachev, and a political reform process in the Soviet Union that got out of control, but also a change in policy towards the satellite states, and a willingness to consider political rather than purely military security strategies and agreements. Among many other things, the Soviet willingness to negotiate down the hugely costly burden of conventional arms spending was an evident pointer of “how” things were going. It is, of course, easy to imagine other “How”s, had different decisions been taken. A different or less fundamental reform programme might have been chosen, a graduated programme of disengagement from the satellite nations might have been attempted, and so forth.
In turn, these different potential paths had an enormous influence on the “When.” One of the most difficult things in politics is to judge when something that afterwards seemed inevitable was actually going to happen. Crises and impossible situations can actually continue for a very long time before some event—perhaps entirely random—pushes them over the brink. Governments are often criticised for not foreseeing change when, in fact, the “Why”s and the “How”s have been in place for some time, but the “When” is simply a matter of chance, and could have been earlier or later, as was certainly the case with the end of the Cold War. As it happens, these words are being written during what may be the terminal melt-down of the British Conservative Party. This meltdown has been inevitable for some time, but if the What and the How were already understood, the When was very much a question of chance.
It’s easy to get these three things mixed up, and often surprises occur because nobody has the time or the inclination to study the What. The actual crisis or change then appears to come out of the blue, and the political leadership complains that nobody told them, and their diplomatic and intelligence services have failed again. To which the reply is usually “we told you, but you didn’t **** listen,” because it was all in long telegrams and dense reports that busy political leaders didn’t have time to read, and required these same leaders to think differently about the world.
That’s largely where we are with Russian sanctions. The “What”s are fairly obvious to most of us. The European economy has been largely de-industrialised, financialised and off-shored. Such industry as remains is heavily dependent on cheap energy, especially from Russia, and the economy as a whole is dependent on cheap, disposable immigrant labour, and on increasing financialisation and casualisation of everyday life. At the same time, Europe has largely disarmed itself, and the military capabilities it has retained are largely intended for light operations outside Europe. European nations do not expect to fight a major war, and have very limited stockpiles of ammunition and missiles.
It follows from those “What”s, which are not really in dispute, that Europe really needed to pursue a policy which emphasised good relations with energy providers, and with states that had more military potential than Europe did. Likewise, the importation of cheap immigrant labour would have to be controlled in some form, to avoid domestic political trouble. The situation would be stable as long as these two requirements were met. Conversely, if they were no longer met, the position could deteriorate quite quickly. This has now happened. What’s the “How?”
Europe long ago decided to maintain execrable relations with one major energy producer, Iran. It also decided to become more, rather than less, reliant, on cheap fuel from Russia, especially gas. This would have been reasonable (and could have been a stabilising policy) except that there was a concurrent policy of extreme hostility to Russia, without at the same time having a military capability that would have made such a posture rational. Thus, Europe wound up needlessly antagonising a militarily powerful country upon which it was dependent for cheap energy. At the same time, no real effort was made to control immigration, such that new and ever-more desperate waves of immigrants arrived, to take the jobs of the previous waves. Oddly, this turned out to be electorally unpopular, not least with immigrants who had arrived some time before. It was felt, however, that warnings about the growth of “extreme-right” parties were an adequate response to such concerns.
The “When” of course is now. Yet even so, decisions could have been taken differently. Self-defeating sanctions could have been avoided, a peaceful solution could have been sought, and Europe could have avoided becoming, in all but name, a participant in the war. Future historians, perhaps writing once more by candle-light, will no doubt debate exactly why these decisions were not made, but I suspect that, once again, it comes back to the What question. Europe (and the larger West) simply did not pay attention to the concentration of fuels and natural resources in Russia, to changes in Russian economic policy, to developing alliances of convenience with China, India and Iran, and, most of all, to Russian military developments. Broadly speaking, the knowledge-base of European decision-makers was so imperfect that it was assumed that a few weeks of sanctions would bring Russia to its knees, after which a western-friendly government could be installed.


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