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How Putin has shown up western leaders
Governments seem focused on shattering our future
By Alex Story
IS Putin a genius or a madman? Or does he just understand his geopolitical opponents too well? Whatever the case may be, his actions have revealed the intellectual shallowness of our leadership class.
For the briefest of moments, as tanks rolled through the Ukrainian countryside, on February 24 2022, Russian aggression seemed to have achieved the impossible: the world stood united against the aggressor.
The European Union, unusually, felt the distant winds of relevance brace her rickety structure. Indeed, reaching beyond her remit, she would fund arms deliveries to Ukraine.
In turn, Germany pledged to spend EUR 100 billion on defence through a one-off “special fund”. Olaf Scholz, Germany’s Chancellor, ushered in a “new era” by promising to spend more than two per cent of its gross national product in military spending.
He added: “President Putin should not underestimate our determination to defend every square metre of [NATO] territory together with our allies.”
The international community would work together to impose the harshest of all sanctions. In short, to use the modern vernacular, the Bear would be “cancelled”.
In barely a fortnight, however, the mood changed as the costs of sanctions became manifest. Energy costs, already high, have sky-rocketed overnight. Oil hit a 14-year high at the beginning of the week. Commodities, from crude oil to wheat and soy-bean have risen between a third and a half over the last few days.
Inflation, already extremely high, in particular given the absence of interest to off-set the monetary value destruction, is set to climb higher still.
This will destroy a great deal of our people’s ability to pay for the essentials of life.
As night follows day, our leading European cicadas started to play a very different tune as the financial winter made itself more apparent.
The beginning of the walk back took place at a discreet gathering on March 4. That day, Robert Habeck, the (Green) German Business Minister, notified the world that Germany stood two square behind Ukraine, with only one small caveat.
We are “strictly against an import ban on oil, gas or coal from Russia”, said the Green politician. He added "I would even oppose it because we would endanger social peace in the republic”.
To clarify the issue, on March 7, the German Chancellor added that Europe had “deliberately exempted” Russian energy from sanctions because its supply cannot be secured “any other way”.
A week ago, he added that NATO would not intervene in the conflict, highlighting, rightly perhaps, the dangers involved when dealing with a nuclear power.
With half of Germany’s gas supplies coming from Russia, a ban on the commodity would have been an act of grand economic self-harm.
In short, Ukrainians could count on Germany to stand shoulder to shoulder with them so long as doing so was deemed cost free - with friends like these, the Ukrainians might be tempted to think.
At a press conference in the UK, the Dutch Prime Minister repeated the same message. The “painful reality is we are still very much dependent on Russian gas and Russian oil and if you now force European companies to quit doing business with Russia that would have enormous ramifications around Europe including Ukraine but also around the world”.
Boris Johnson surmised by saying “the world cannot close down the use of oil and gas overnight, even from Russia”.
In the meantime, on the same day, at a press conference five thousand miles away in Beijing, Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister called the Russian-China axis “one of the most crucial bilateral relationships in the world”.
In another blow to Western leadership, India remained silent, along with, ironies of ironies, Pakistan, India’s greatest rival. India has a history of non-alignment. It also has very long standing historical ties with Russia, in particular in the field of armament.
The world then is not united. It rarely is.
What is noticeable is how little desire there is to stand up for Ukraine beyond platitudes, propaganda and Polish verve.
The reason for this is simply that it has been a long while since our leaders gave any serious thoughts to geopolitics, realpolitik and strategy. The dominating view among our superiors has been and remains the creation of a world without the nation states and, therefore, borders.
This nirvana would be ruled by a small group of enlightened people through the agency of international bureaucracies, out of reach of the electorate’s dirty grasp – and out of touch of so much else besides.
So while the West spent the last couple of decades untethering itself from realities, focusing rather on absurd and arbitrary climate targets, disinvesting its own energy infrastructure and capabilities and, criminally, providing no actual alternatives to its people, Russia used our leaders’ distracted mental state to establish a commanding energy supremacy West and East.
The world did not change with the invasion of Ukraine.
It remains the tough place it always was. There are some unchangeable truths.
Without energy, nothing in our world functions. We tried to reinvent the wheel from gender to energy, the Russians worked to fuel its spin.
Our established order totally forgot about its key function: the maintenance and furtherance of our way of life. Instead, they have worked overtime to dismantle our inheritance.
As, for a brief moment, the world seemed to bask in a new light of international co-operation and enjoying the thrill of imposing supposedly cost-free sanctions on Russia and, as our news media delighted in reporting the crash of the Ruble, the pending default of Russia’s sovereign bonds and the banning of Russia TV from our screens, when Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, was asked about the moves he said his chief was “indifferent” to Western sanctions.
Putin perhaps is neither mad, nor a genius. He might, unusually for our Western leaders, just know what he wants and planned accordingly over two decades: to bring back Ukraine in the Bear’s embrace.
And from a position of ostensible weakness, he made Russia indispensable and hard to hurt, regardless of his troops’ performance on the field. Maybe he played chess while our leaders played chequers. And that wouldn’t be the first time.
ALEX STORY, the former GB Olympian and double Boat Race winner with Cambridge University, works in finance and lives with his family in Austria.