Some musings on the current world crisis by Chris W
I’ve spent the last four years professionally immersed in C20th European history, helping to write a course on 1914-1989 which is getting more relevant by the hour. Does this make the current crisis easier to understand? Why, yes. Does it make me feel better than I otherwise would? Why, no.
There are worrying parallels with 1937. Putin’s no Hitler: there is no evidence that he’s got an expansionist goal which involves killing everyone in undesirable racial groups who are in the way. And the Russian Federation’s treatment of minority groups is not stellar, but there are no Nuremburg Laws. Putin’s no Stalin, either: at home he’s a fundamental reactionary, raised in an era when political failure meant being sidelined, not shot in the head. He has no ideological motivation to take his state to a new level of industrialisation via a raft of corpses.
But he’s clearly playing the role of a revisionist power, and thus his strategic playbook looks like Hitler’s.
1) At home, the politics of self-pity. This one writes itself, and to be honest, it doesn’t really differentiate Russia from England, Serbia, China, Pakistan, India, etc ‘We are hard done by and should recover what is ours’. On the other hand, like German borders in 1919, Russian borders in 1989 got a lot closer to the capital: there’s a major constituency for revision, and revision is a fine way to deflect political opposition.
2) Getting and taking the political initiative. When you want change, you can pick your moment to strike. Your opponents are by definition a coalition whose attachment to the status quo is not all at the same level, so when they are conferring about where exactly they want to draw the line in the sand, you have time to drive a tank over it.
3) Smokescreening with bullshit. The English-language news in 1938 wasn’t about great power politics: it was about the daily-mangled rights of the poor Sudeten Germans, manfully chafing under Czech oppression. Like Hitler, Putin wants to re-state his case in his opponents’ language: hence RT’s gleeful proclamation of a largely fictitious (for now) pogrom threatening Russian-speakers in Ukraine. Insert ‘told you so, Decents’ snark here.
But it’s not all the same. One of the defining features in Europe of the 1930s was economic autarchy, which contrasts with the historically high degree of globalisation we now enjoy. Russia is rich enough to go a-reiving now because they’ve been selling us stuff, mainly gas. Some of the cash has been used to build weapons, much of the rest has been salted away by rich Russians.
Which brings me on to another set of depressing historical parallels. How much damage was done in the UK by the billions of oil-dollars which poured into London in the 1970s? There was inflation of land values, suborning of politicians (Aitken, take a bow) and a dangerous complacency about the political implications of the Saudis’ commitment to Wahabbism. Melanie Philips isn’t wrong about _everything_: the political economy of militant’n’murderous Islam did rather well out of 90s London. We got to enjoy the consequences (exacerbated by some remarkably stupid reactions) later.
Noughties London got its money from elsewhere. Clearly it’s not all Russian, but that’s the origin of a substantial chunk of the cash which is making my beloved city increasingly resemble, and be about as much fun as, a bank vault. Ben Judah is good on this here.
It’s there because London is a safe investment. The UK’s relatively non-corrupt legal and criminal justice systems, and our high degree of public order and (in London) infrastructure spending – also our strange desire to burn out the shops of the poor, not the mansions of the rich, when we riot – keep it safe. Loadsa guard labour in London, provided by us: I note that the billionaires are largely paying the minimum wage, while the expensive clever stuff is picked up by us taxpayers.
What can we do? Well, the Treasury has form in moving quite fast to chase up enemy assets when it wants to: there may even be some people still in the game who remember 1982, and the Europe-wide effort to freeze (the?) Argentine assets.
There’s the matter of the gas: the UK doesn’t get a great deal of our gas from Russia, but most key European players do. Emergency technical assistance for Italy, more gas storage facilities and more windmills already would help to mitigate the energy crisis. Clearly the Germans might need to reconsider their shift away from nukes, but perhaps they might see reason.
So – there are steps the UK can take to defend the rights of (most of) the Ukranian people which involve neither instant sunshine nor sending the Staffordshires to the Vistula. These steps involve clamping down on the financial services industry, threatening the capital’s capital, and returning to the energy generation model of the 1930s-1980s. Will the UK govt take them? I wouldn’t bet on it.