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Ukraine: No Big War

The Russian-Ukrainian naval clash in the Black Sea is not going to end up in a world war. Ukraine would love to be part of NATO, but the existing members won’t let it join. Why? Precisely because that might drag them into a war with Russia.

Russia doesn’t have any real military alliances either. Various countries sympathise with either Ukraine or Russia, but none of them have obligations to send military help, and they are not going to volunteer.

Secondly, there’s not even going to be a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine because Ukraine would lose. Russia has more than three times the population and its economy is ten times bigger. The Russian armed forces are far bigger and vastly better armed. No sane Ukrainian would choose an all-out war with Russia regardless of the provocation.

The Russians obviously have more options, but conquering Ukraine is probably the furthest thing from their minds. It has no resources they need, and if they occupied the country they would certainly face an ugly and prolonged guerilla war of resistance. They have nothing to gain.

They actually have a lot to lose, because a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would trigger a Western reaction that would come close to bankrupting Russia. NATO would conclude that this was the first step in President Vladimir Putin’s plan to reconquer all of the former Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, and start re-arming in a very big way. The Russians would go broke if they tried to keep up.

They did go broke trying to keep up with Western military spending back in the Cold War, and in the end the entire Communist system collapsed. Russia is now a largely de-industrialised country with half the population of the old Soviet Union, and the collapse would come a lot faster – probably sweeping Putin away with it. He knows that, because he lived through the collapse last time.

So what we have here is really just a local crisis. The Russians started it in order to make a specific local gain, and they know that they can win. They will not face major Western retaliation because it’s just not a big enough issue.

The actual clash on Sunday saw three Ukrainians injured, 29 others arrested, and three Ukrainian navy ships boarded and seized. The ships were trying to pass through a Russian-controlled strait from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, a relatively shallow body of water (maximum depth 14 metres) that is about the size of Switzerland.

Until the Russians took Crimea from Ukraine four years ago, the strait had Russian territory on one side and Ukrainian territory on the other. A treaty signed in 2003 said that
both countries had free access to the Sea of Azov and their respective ports along its coasts, no permission needed.

In 2014, however, Russia infiltrated troops into Crimea who pretended to be a new local militia. They took control of the entire peninsula and its two million people, staged a referendum on whether it should become part of Russia, and won it. The Ukrainian government protested, but it didn’t have the troops or the nerve to resist the takeover by force.

Russia tried to justify its action by pointing out that the great majority of the people in Crimea spoke Russian, not Ukrainian, and that it has been part of Russia for centuries until a Soviet leader with strong Ukrainian connections handed it over to Ukraine in 1954.

International law does not accept border changes imposed by force as legitimate, and Russia has been under severe Western sanctions on trade ever since it annexed Crimea. Its economy is in serious trouble, but the annexation was immensely popular in both Russia and Crimea, and Putin will not reverse it.

Since there was no land connection between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, Putin decided to build an 18-kilometre bridge joining the two sides of the Strait of Kerch. By a happy coincidence, that would also give him the ability to control or even block shipping trying to get to Ukrainian ports on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov.

The bridge is now open, and Putin is exercising that option. The Ukrainians tried to send their (rather small) warships through to show that the treaty of free passage signed in 2003 still applies.

The Russians didn’t actually deny that, but said that they were closing the strait temporarily for operational reasons. The Ukrainian warships pushed on, and the Russians attacked them.

The Russians are legally in the wrong, but they are going to win this one because Ukraine had almost no navy left and nobody wants a bigger war. Ukraine has imposed martial law in areas that border on Russia for the next 30 days, but that’s mainly window dressing. There may be further sanctions against Russia, but that’s as far as it goes.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“They did…time”; and “Russia…1954″)

US Mid-Term Elections

Barack Obama said of the US mid-term elections that “the character of our country is on the ballot,” and the outcome proved him right. The United States is a psychological basket case, more deeply and angrily divided than at any time since the Vietnam War.

It’s not evenly divided, of course. The popular vote saw the Democrats lead the Republicans nationwide by an 8 percent margin, but that translated into only a modest gain in seats in the House of Representatives and in state elections because of the extensive gerrymandering of electoral districts in Republican-ruled states.

The more important truth is that the Republican Party is now almost entirely in the hands of ‘white nationalists’, and totally controlled by Donald Trump. It’s no longer ‘conservative’. It’s radical right, with an anti-immigrant, racist agenda and an authoritarian style – and about 90 percent of the Republicans in Congress are white males.

The Democratic Party is multi-cultural, feminist (84 of the 100 women elected to the new House of Representatives are Democrats), and even socialist. Only one-third of the Democrats in the new Congress will be white men – and almost half the Democrats in the House of Representatives can be classed as Democratic Socialists.

Donald Trump will get little further legislation through Congress, and a Democratic-controlled House will be able to subpoena his tax returns and investigate his ties to Russia, but he didn’t lose spectacularly on Tuesday. Indeed, he proclaimed that it was “a great victory” (because that’s what he always does, win or lose).

But Trump didn’t lose all that badly, either. The Republicans’ losses were within the normal range for a governing party in mid-term elections, so the political civil war continues unabated.

The divisions will continue and even deepen because neither of the major American parties understands what is making Americans so angry and unhappy. Donald Trump knows that it is fundamentally about jobs, but he is barking up the wrong tree when he blames it on ‘off-shoring’ and free trade and promises to make the foreigners give the jobs back.

Many Democrats suspect what the real problem is, but they won’t discuss it openly because they have no idea how to deal with it. What is really destroying American jobs is automation.

It’s destroying jobs in other developed countries too, with similar political consequences. The ‘Leave’ side won the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom because of strong support in the post-industrial wastelands of northern and central England. The neo-fascist candidate in the last French presidential election, Marine Le Pen, got one-third of the vote because of her popularity in the French equivalent of the US ‘Rust Belt’.

But the process is farthest advanced in the United States, which has lost one-third of its manufacturing jobs – 8 million jobs – in the past 25 years. Only 2 million of those jobs were lost because the factories were ‘off-shored’ to Mexico or China, and that happened mostly in the 1990s. The rest were simply abolished by automation.

The Rust Belt went first, because assembly-line manufacturing is the easiest thing in the world to automate. The retail jobs are going now, because of Amazon and its ilk. The next big chunk to disappear will be the 4.5 million driving jobs in the United States, lost to self-driving vehicles. Et cetera.

The ‘official’ US unemployment rate of 3.7 percent is a fantasy. The proportion of American males of prime working age (25-54) who are actually not working, according to Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, is 17.5 percent. Or at least that’s what it was when he did his big study two years ago.

Maybe the allegedly ‘booming’ economy of the past couple of years has brought that number down a bit, but it’s a safe bet that it’s still around 14-15 percent. This is a rate of unemployment last seen in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Why isn’t there blood in the streets? There certainly was in the 1930s.

The Great Depression led to the rise of populism, the triumph of fascism and the catastrophe of the Second World War, so almost all developed Western countries created welfare states in the 1950s and 1960s in order to avoid going down that road again. The economy might tank again, but at least people would not be so desperate and so vulnerable to populist appeals.

It kind of worked: there is plenty of anger among the unemployed (and the under-employed), but they do not turn to violence. They do vote, however, and their votes are driven by anger.

Until the major parties can acknowledge that it is the computers that are killing the jobs (and that it probably can’t be stopped), the anger will continue to grow. You can’t begin to fix the problem until you understand it.
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To shorten to 650 words, omit paragraphs 134, 14 and 15. (“Maybe…anger”)

1918: The Turn of a Coin

On 8 August 1918, one hundred years ago on Wednesday, it finally became clear who was going to win the First World War. Nine Canadian and Australian divisions, almost 200,000 men, attacked the German trenches near Amiens, deep in France – and for the first time in the war, the German troops ran away.

By the second day of the battle the Germans were resisting fiercely again, but the German commander, General Ludendorff, called it “the black day of the German army.” After that Germany did nothing but retreat, and the armistice was signed only three months later.

Yet just a few months before, Germany nearly won the war. The Bolshevik Revolution took Russia out of the war in 1917, and Germany was able to shift half a million troops to western Europe. For the first time it had numerical superiority over the British and French troops, and the great German offensives of spring 1918 tore the old Western Front apart.

But the German offensives ran out of steam without permanently splitting the French and British armies, and the war might have ended there, in a draw. Everybody was exhausted by 1918. Half the French army had mutinied in 1917 and was still not fit for combat. British divisions were down to half their strength.

Only the Canadians and the Australians still had full-strength divisions (20-25,000 men), and they were very experienced troops by 1918. That’s why they spearheaded almost every attack in the ‘Hundred Days’ offensive that ended the war. But the real reason German morale collapsed was that 10,000 more American troops were landing in France EVERY DAY.

The inexperienced American troops didn’t play a starring role in the ‘Hundred Days’, but their presence was decisive. Everybody knew there would be 3 million American soldiers in France by the end of the year, and they’d gain combat experience fast enough. Once Germany’s last-chance offensives of spring 1918 failed, it was bound to lose the war.

That’s the real history, and the result was a catastrophic defeat for Germany and a peace treaty so harsh that it laid the foundations for the rise of Hitler and a second, even worse world war. But change only one decision, and it could all have come out very differently.

That decision was taken in January 1917. At that point there seemed no way for Germany to beat the far larger numbers of its enemies on the battlefield, and a German admiral persuaded the government to launch unrestricted submarine attacks on ships bringing supplies to Britain – including ships of neutral countries like the United States.

That would bring America into the war, of course, but the admiral promised that Britain would be starved into making peace long before any American troops reached Europe. He was wrong: Britain didn’t starve, and the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917. By mid-1918 US troops were flooding into France, and the game was up.

But the first Russian revolution happened just after Germany decided on unrestricted submarine warfare. If that decision had been delayed by only two months, people in Berlin would have known that Russia was probably going to leave the war. Then they would never have taken the desperate gamble that the admiral was urging on them.

The German U-boats would never have sunk American ships, the US would have stayed out of the war – and Germany might have won in 1918.

That would have been a good thing, because Germany would not have won a huge, decisive victory. It would just have won on points: OK, our spring offensives didn’t succeed, but they came close. Our troops are standing up to your counter-offensive (no masses of American troops to demoralise them). So maybe we should all just quit and go home.

After four years and ten million deaths, that would have been hard to do, but continuing the fighting into 1919 or 1920 would have been even harder. With Russia out of the war and America never in, neither side could hope for a decisive victory. They were all terrified of having revolutions like Russia’s if the carnage went on. So stop now.

There would have been no ‘peace’ treaty like Versailles that heaped all the blame for the war on one side and made the losers pay the entire cost of it (‘reparations’). Germany would presumably have got its colonies back, but no territory would have changed hands in western Europe. And there probably would not have been a second world war.

Hitler came to power because Germany was punished so severely for a ‘war guilt’ that was really a shared responsibility. A ‘no-score draw’, by contrast, could have focussed people’s attention more sharply on the basic lunacy of an international system that fostered such wars.

By the turn of a coin we got the 20th century that’s in the history books instead. Too bad. It’s hard to think of a different 20th century that would have been worse.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“The inexperienced…war”; and “After…now”)

Iran: No Plan B

The extraordinary thing is that there is no Plan B. If Donald Trump’s re-imposition of American sanctions on Iran does not cause President Hassan Rouhani’s government to buckle at once (which is almost unimaginable), there is nothing else he can do short of going to war with the country. And he couldn’t even win that war.

Iran is entirely within its rights in condemning Trump’s action. All the other signatories to the deal that hobbled Iran’s nuclear programme – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – agree that Tehran is in full compliance with its terms, as do the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis.

All of Trump’s complaints about the deal are about things it was never intended to cover, and it does not contain those things because Iran would never agree to terms that effectively gave the United States control over its foreign policy. If Trump wants to try to negotiate that kind of deal anyway, it is not necessary to terminate the nuclear treaty in order to do so.

But it’s a mistake to apply rational analysis to Trump’s action, because this was an emotional decision, not a rational one. It is part of his obsession with expunging every single achievement of the Obama administration: healthcare, the opening to Cuba, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the Paris climate treaty, and now the Iran nuclear deal.

You can, however, apply rational analysis to every other player’s reaction to Trump’s tantrum, starting with President Rouhani. He will try very hard to keep the deal alive because his own political fate depends on it. If he cannot succeed, the Revolutionary Guard and other hard-line nationalists will gain the upper hand domestically and his entire reform policy will be paralysed.

Rouhani probably only has a few weeks to get public commitments to continue trading with Iran from the other parties to the deal, and that will require them to defy the United States. Trump’s declaration on Monday only requires American banks and companies to stop trading with Iran within 180 days, but the US may also apply so-called ‘secondary sanctions’ against foreign companies that trade with Iran.

These ‘secondary sanctions’ may actually be illegal under international law, but that has not stopped the US in the past (Cuba, Venezuela, etc.) and it won’t do so now. You can count on Russia and China to push back if the US blackballs their companies for trading with Iran, but will the British, French and German governments also do so? Even if it risks splitting the Western alliance?

Probably not, in which case the deal really will be dead. Rouhani would remain in office for the remainder of his term, but the hard-liners would be in charge. That doesn’t mean that Iran will start working on nuclear weapons right away, however, because it can’t.

In obedience to the deal, it has destroyed the core of a reactor that could have produced weapons-grade plutonium, placed two-thirds of its centrifuges (for enriching uranium) under international monitoring, and eliminated 97 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium. It would take a long time to get started again.

The immediate impact is more likely to be seen in a tougher approach in Syria, where Iranian troops (sent to aid the government side in the civil war) are bombed by the Israelis practically every week. So far Iran has not responded to these attacks in any way, but it could start by shooting a couple of those Israeli planes down, and then the fat would be in the fire.

For several years now, the main foreign policy goal of America’s two main allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia, has been to draw the United States into a war with Iran. Therefore they have to provide the hawks in the Trump administration (Pompeo, Bolton, et al.) with a plausible pretext for starting the war, and a couple of downed Israeli planes would do nicely.

If it were just an attack on Iran by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, it would not be of earth-shattering importance. They would probably lose a lot of planes, since Iran now has good air defences, but none of them could or would do a ground invasion.

Iran is a country the size of Alaska, two-thirds of it is mountain or desert, and it has 80 million people, lots of industry and good science and technology. Invading it would make the Vietnam war look like a tea party. So any ground fighting between Iran and its enemies would be more likely to happen in the countries between them: Syria and Iraq.

You could be forgiven for thinking that both Iraq and Syria deserve a break from war by now, but they may not get it. And the most worrisome thing is that there are both Russian and American troops on the ground in these countries.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“All…so”; and “In obedience…again”)