The Fogginess of War and Punditry

Wishy-washy it might be but I often don’t know the answer, and wish others didn’t know too. As it is, if they’re commentators, they predominantly give the impression that they do know. Then usually tendentiousness comes to the fore. To wit, they know the answer and then set out selectively to prove it.

A good example of this is provided by Henry Ergas, writing last week in The Australian newspaper. He took aim at those who blame the West for the war in Ukraine.

The central issue for those who believe the West should shoulder blame, or at least some blame, is the expansion of NATO, which has gone from an initial twelve countries to thirty. It now includes countries which were formerly members of the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact. Most notably, Poland joined NATO in 1999, Estonia, Latvia (both bordering Russia) and Lithuania joined in 2004. All became members of the European Union also.

Ukraine shares a long land border with Russia (1,974 kms). While blowing hotter and colder, it has long since expressed a desire to join NATO and the EU. Varying degrees of support for these steps have been expressed on the other side. Putin is on the record, without equivocation, in opposing Ukraine becoming part of what still might be called the Western Bloc. In 2008 he threatened to point missiles at Ukraine if it were to join NATO. Meanwhile, no Ukraine president has been more enthusiastic about Ukraine becoming part of NATO and the EU than is Zelensky. What a brew.

On the face of it, Putin has reason to fear. After all, the Americans would. The Monroe Doctrine (roughly speaking, no enemy alliances in our backyard) informs US defence policy. The response of Kennedy to Russian missiles in Cuba in 1962 says it all.

Would jaw-jaw work for Putin. Doubt it. The two sides are poles apart. They want totally different things. Think Israel and Hamas. Thus, with Biden in office, fleeing Afghanistan with ignominy, preoccupied with climate change and feminising his military, and with Europe dependent on Russian oil and gas, the time for war-war obviously struck him as propitious.

Enter Ergas and,to be fair, all of the Western media; including, least consequentially but most flamboyantly, Stan Grant on Q&A. Putin is a thug, aiming to restore Russia’s great -power status “and the imperial sway and plunder that goes with it,” averred Ergas. To bolster this view, he needed to establish Russia’s insouciance when it comes to NATO’s expansion. And he sets out to do so with selective quotes.

Gorbachev apparently said in 2014 that “the topic of NATO expansion was not discussed in 1990, and it wasn’t brought up in all those years.” Whatever Gorbachev meant and the context within which he said it, I don’t know. Ergas doesn’t tell us.

He quotes a couple of studies and a Russian security analyst to suggest that Russia was unconcerned by NATO’s expansion. And, in fact, might have seen advantage in it. In so far as it complicates the integration of NATO’s miliary forces and, maybe, lessens the military build-ups in the former Warsaw Pact countries, which they might otherwise have undertaken.

He even quotes Putin from 2002 as saying it is “no tragedy that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were becoming NATO members.” See Putin’s reaction in 2008, as noted above. Ergas doesn’t refer to that. Doesn’t fit the script. It’s a case of cherry-picking in order to make a case. It’s pathetic. Far more pathetic than modestly saying the situation is complicated and the motives probably mixed.

The best outcome, of those which seem possible at this stage, is one which minimises loss of territory to Russia and which leaves most of Ukraine independent. However, it’s likely — if indeed such a deal is possible at all — that such a peace will only be brokered if Ukraine drops its ambition to join NATO and the EU and remains unaligned. Ergas and company can say what they like, the peaceful end of this story will not include Ukraine being part of NATO.

A final comment on the wild talk by Western leaders, the increasingly dangerous talk of a no-fly zone by Zelensky, and ever increasing financial and trade sanctions and cancellations. How sensible it is to be so bellicose toward a powerful nuclear state and its leader, while not carrying a gun? What’s happened to Theodore Roosevelt’s, speak softly. What good does it do, anyway, to rage incoherently from the sidelines – witness Biden’s State of the Union. And it is the sidelines.

Ukrainians are encouraged to fight against daunting odds. No NATO troops are spilling blood. It’s unedifying. America and its allies, including Australia, should be all in trying to broker a peaceful settlement. I’m not sure how calling Putin a thug helps the situation or Ukrainians.

Zelensky is fighting his corner. But it’s not our corner. Hold a referendum to see how many Americans, Brits, Australians, Germans would risk war with Russia to save Ukraine’s independence. Not many, I’d guess. Count me as a no.

Sanctions are ineffective or partially effective or cripplingly effective. I think we can say that while Russian oil and gas are needed, the sanctions will fall in the middle category. Stranger than fiction, isn’t it? We’re sanctioning Russia and its rich citizens as comprehensively as possible yet pleading with them to keep the oil and gas flowing. The wages of green zealotry.

For all that, the sanctions, seemingly each day growing in scope, will have an impoverishing effect. What will this mean? Well, if Russia takes over Ukraine, 187 million ordinary people will suffer; the Russian oligarchs will be OK. Greg Sheridan writing the other day wants the sanctions kept in place indefinitely, until Russia leaves. Exactly how many decades will that be, if ever? Meanwhile, the columnist won’t have to live on bread and meagre rations for years on end.

Do any of the leaders of the US, the UK, Germany and France have the qualities required to broker a peace deal? Making Russia a pariah might not be the best way to go about it. Where is Trump when we need him? Mean tweets forgiven. Please come back.

17 thoughts on “The Fogginess of War and Punditry

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    Missing from the above article is the fact that the Ukrainians were subjected to genocide by the Soviet government in 1932, a crime against humanity.
    Any idea of independence was brutally suppressed after the war by Stalin.
    Not only Putin but Hitler wanted the territory for its vast grain crop and war materials including coal and oil.
    Only recently the Ukrainian Orthodox broke from the Russian Orthodox, a final sign of Ukrainian independence from Russia.
    Speaking recently to a Russian from the Ukraine, he is opposed to the war.
    It would appear that at least some Russians in Ukraine left Russia to get away from Putin.
    The Putin spin is that they are part of Russia, because ethnically they are Russian.
    Once the Ukraine is under his thumb presumably he will claim that because there are millions of Ukrainians now in Poland they also should be united with the Russian Federation.
    By simple expedient of threat of invasion he could make Poland a vassal, buffer state.
    Nato can always fight an asymmetric war and build its own stable base load power.
    They have nothing to lose but their independence.
    Lucky for them they have Poland on their side.

  • Sindri says:

    Henry Ergas is probably the most astute commentator on international affairs in the Australian press, very much more astute, if I may say so, than Peter Smith, and if evidence for that were required, it’s Peter’s hoary reference to the Monroe doctrine and Cuba. Cuba was already in a military alliance with the USSR at the time of the missile crisis. Ukraine is not in NATO. Krushchev tried to secrete nuclear missiles into Cuba, 90 miles from the US. Does Mr Smith think, quite erroneously, that when you become a NATO member, your border suddenly bristles with nukes?
    Putin has a pet theoretician (yes, a theoretician – old Soviet habits die hard), a crackpot named Aleksandr Dugin, who spouts quasi-spritual, Mother-Russia mumbo-jumbo that Putin adores, and whose world view could be described as “fascism a la Russe”. Dugin believes that “the west” is about to legalise marriage with dogs. He probably wrote most, if not all, of Putin’s rambling 5000 word essay last year on why Ukraine has no right to exist. Read that essay. It barely mentions NATO.
    It suits Putin, of course, to pretend that he fears “encirclement”, and commentators on the right and left swallow it whole, so we see it solemnly trotted out in both the Guardian and in Quadrant; sometimes in the nonsensical formulation “encirclement by NATO”, and usually with a reference to the Cuban missile crisis.
    No, Putin doesn’t fear NATO. He wouldn’t be in Ukraine if he did.

  • Stephen says:

    In the words of that great American Baseball Coach and home spun philosopher, Yogi Bera, “I never make predictions, especially about the future”.
    In order to make any prediction close to reality you need almost perfect information. This is hard in international relations as countries put a lot of effort into keeping their secrets, secret. Does anyone really know what’s been going on between Putin’s ears? No. The best you can do is to be prepared for the possible scenarios. Europe, especially Germany, failed to do this and are now very dependent on Russian energy. The Biden administration failed hopelessly to maintain the atmosphere of strategic ambiguity created by Trump which could have deterred Putin.
    The IR experts at least help in defining the scenarios we should be prepares for. The whole world, not just the Europeans have been hopeless at this. We are like the grass hopper resting in the sun, possessed by Climate, Critical Race Theory and a plethora of other woke causes whilst the evil autocratic ants have been working hard at there dark plans.

  • ianl says:


    Pretty close, in my view.

    >”Europe, especially Germany, failed to do this [recognise future energy loss] and are now very dependent on Russian energy.”

    The vice the EU is now trapped in can probably be summarised as sanctioning Russia over Ukraine now needs Net Zero to be abandoned. That tall miserable streak of cadaver, John Kerry, recognised this almost instantly and reacted with his usual lack of perspicacity, telling Putin not to abandon the fight against climate change.

    A side issue (well, sidelined enough) is the enthusiastic *theft* of private property located in Western countries and reportedly owned by Russian “oligarchs” without due process within those Western countries. The Cyprus template continues to evolve and is sold to the general populaces on the typical no-principle basis of envy. Theft is theft, irrespective of who’s property is being stolen without legal process.

    Greenie politics has progressed beyond toxic to lethal.

  • brandee says:

    I am much inclined more to the Peter Smith understanding of this Ukraine-Russia conflict than to that of Henry Ergas. This is notwithstanding the greatest appreciation I have for the excellent regular Ergas column.
    US President Biden and the Democrats have always treated the Russians as bogeymen linked to Donald Trump. Hence they are bound by habit to misunderstand Russia. Why else, when Russian troops were on the Ukrainian border for almost a year, was there no dialogue?
    The Russian Empire annexed the Crimean Khanate in 1783 so Russians must feel the attachment and must remember that troops of Queen Victoria gave them much angst there.
    However I am appalled at the violent Russian assault now on the Ukrainians.

  • Occidental says:

    Well I don’t know what benefits would flow to Australia from peace in Ukraine. Quite obviously while war rages on and most of the world blames Russia for starting it (who else it might properly be asked), sanctions will continue and Russia will find it hard to get the best price for its exports. Clearly Australia will benefit in that limited scenario. Of course no one knows the future, and we might all be glowing in the dark shortly, but Russia’s possession of nuclear weapons, can not be the basis for the West seeking peace on beneficial terms to Moscow,- that would be an unmitigated disaster. If Russia gets what it wants (or anything) everyone and their dog will know its because of its nuclear weapons. Then everyone will want a nuclear weapon. Until recently their has been little rationale in acquiring those weapons. Finally Russia is not a powerful country (its economy is about the same size as Australia’s) but it is a dangerous state merely because of its nuclear weaponry.

  • pgang says:

    Thanks Peter, an excellent summary.

  • pgang says:

    Lewis P Buckingham – 5th March 2022: No, none of that was ‘missing’. Such information is of limited practical use in analysing the current situation and besides, it has been raised elsewhere in Quadrant recently. Perhaps it would have been useful to Roosevelt in the 1940’s, had he been possessed of sufficient wisdom to listen to his key ally in Churchill.
    But it is of no use in Peter’s brief realpolitik analysis of the situation. Peter is not attempting to pass a moral judgement, but is instead making the case that our sideline moralising and emotional investment is somewhat moot. It is a position that is long overdue in our public discourse on what is happening.
    I could add that this has become a dangerous distraction from the real problems that we face at home. China, domestic authoritarianism, a lack of any clear national strategy, energy stupidity, and the total loss of major town centres to flooding.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Well said, Peter. Trump, one suspects, would have sorted it all out by now, in fact he would never have let it reach this stage. Realpolitik was his forte. He also understood patriotism, and Putin I think admired him for that. The discussion here at Quadrant re Alexandr Dugin has been very useful too in comprehending Putin’s patristic motivations.

    As for the home front here, yesterday I attended the launch of the Liberal Democrats candidate for the highly contested (Allegra Spender, yuk vs Dave Sharma, yuk) seat of Wentworth where I live and vote, even though I am not a member of any political party. The LDP candidate is a humane and successful businessman who spoke very well of the things that need fixing. Rowan Deane urged that the only way forward for change is to vote in different people and that building profile for success takes a long time especially given today’s media. I can agree wholeheartedly with that. It’s an uphill battle, and I am glad that we still have media commenters like Henry Ergas, agree with him or not. Mostly, I agree. On Ukraine, I am on record here as in the ‘it’s complicated’ camp, for reasons Peter King outlines.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Oops, Peter Smith, Peter Smith, not Peter King: my mind’s on old battles in Wentworth. Apologies.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Good piece Peter and good comments Stephen and ianl. I would say that Ukraine should remain unaligned and not part of NATO which I thought wasn’t even supposed to be really needed, once the USSR dismantled, certainly not expanded.
    Re the deportation of the Kulaks and the millions of deaths due to the famine brought on by this, and forced requisitioning of wheat ; while Lenin and Stalin orchestrated it all it would probably have been Ukrainian communists, in the main, on the ground there who carried out the orders. I read somewhere that Stalin even told Churchill that the Kulaks were not liked by the locals anyway, more or less suggesting that they didn’t mind getting rid of them……all fellow Ukrainians .

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    “The vice the EU is now trapped in can probably be summarised as sanctioning Russia over Ukraine now needs Net Zero to be abandoned. ”

    My concern is that if the Russia/Ukraine conflict is speedily resolved then this ‘scare’ about de-industrialisation and ineffective energy generation will simply fade into the background and we will plod on towards net zero with all of its dreadful end results unchallenged. I note that today the Liberal Party in Victoria have declared that net zero is their agenda too, hoping for some electoral surge from that, a hope which presumably Scott Morrison also still clings to.
    If net zero really is a cause that people want to vote for and to see implemented in Australia (in spite of its scientific idiocy both in the absolute lack of proof regarding any deleterious effects of increased CO2 worldwide, and in terms of our local ‘contribution’ to CO2 emissions) then we need to buckle up for a difficult economic ride and face our complete lack of military protection vs China.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    One thing that Putin and other Eastern Bloc leaders such as Orban have done right is to offer leadership against some of the excesses of ‘woke’ culture in the Western world. This includes standing up for Christianity as the basis for much of the West’s moral grounding and encouraging the traditional family and patriotism for one’s country as virtues rather than as problems.

  • Sindri says:

    Elizabeth, all conservatives are punch-drunk at the moment, let’s be honest. The long march of the sanctimonious left, with its trivial, navel gazing political obsessions and destructive carping seems to be unstoppable. The answer is not to embrace wicked men like Putin on the basis that they too hate (supposedly) the same things. “Wicked” is an apt word for Putin. His moral compass was formed in the KGB, and he seems in any event to be sociopathic. He is a murdering kleptocrat who has completely suborned the organs of government in Russia and governs the country as if he were a crime boss. Now he has embarked on a major war of conquest. And he doesn’t even practice the personal morality he claims to stand for – none of it. This is not arguable; it’s just fact. Your statement that Putin is “standing up for Christianity as the basis for much of the West’s moral grounding and encouraging the traditional family and patriotism for one’s country” is, forgive me, absurd; he is doing no such thing.
    Many well-meaning conservatives were saying exactly the same thing about Hitler in the 30s.

  • Sindri says:

    Elizabeth, all conservatives are punch-drunk at the moment, lets be honest.The long and destructive march of the sanctimonious navel gazing left, with its trivial political obsessions and endless mote-and-beam carping seems to be unstoppable, and there’s seems nothing we can do about it. The answer is not to embrace wicked men on the principle that they too hate (supposedly) the things we hate. “Wicked” is the apt word for Putin. His moral compass was formed in the KGB, and he seems in any event to be sociopathic. He murders, steals

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Sindri – I mean that standing up for Christianity is what the West should be doing. Note in that sentence that I spoke of what ‘the West’ should be doing. I have commented in other Quadrant threads on this ongoing topic (where you have also commented) that Putin is using the Orthodox Church in Russia as a prop for his millenarian adventures and it should be clear from my comments on these threads so far that I think Putin has not moved away from being a KGB thug at heart, but that many in Russia believe he is showing leadership strength. I don’t ’embrace’ him. I think he is evil and have said so. As a general point though, it’s not hard for Putin, when the West is so ‘woke’, to undeservedly take the moral high ground by claiming as he does to stand for traditional values.

  • Sindri says:

    EB, sorry if I misunderstood! Yes, it’s easy for scoundrels to do that, especially brazen liars like Putin. More’s the pity that people are taken in by it.
    Johnson’s aphorism that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel (he wasn’t condemning patriotism, of course) applies with laser-like accuracy to Putin in his current adventure.

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