Belmont Club

Sword and shield

AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

After the Theresa May gave Russia an deadline to explain why a Russian-made nerve agent was used against Sergei Skripai and his daughter Kremlin spokesman Maria Zakharova replied “one should not threaten a nuclear power”.  So given the provocation Britain had to do precisely that or become a nothing.  With a little help from their friends.

The US led strike on Assad’s chemical weapons facilities was probably more about the Salisbury than Syria.  About the need to draw a line somewhere because it had never been drawn before.   In many ways the strike was an attempt to make amends for years of policy inaction that emboldened Putin until, perhaps without realizing it, he went too far.  The Kremlin strongman refined his hybrid warfare tactics against the training set of Obama/Clinton and may have been genuinely shocked when the tactics which once served him so well have suddenly stopped working.

But the belated response is also dangerous.  The Western alliance is now in a situation of calculated risk, for Putin whatever he may be, he is one of the “only men who can end the world in an afternoon”. Any course which will stop Putin now is inescapably fraught. Piers Morgan understood the dilemma when he warned, shortly before Trump unleashed the strike: “don’t bomb Syria, Mr President. We should have taken out Animal Assad years ago but thanks to our dithering he and Putin are about to win and posturing now isn’t worth risking all-out war.”

But the die has been rolled and we can only hope for the best. In a democracy, figuring the odds used to be a collective process. At the highest level of generality it involves Congress. But, mesmerized by the Collusion drama Congress has neglected to do this.  The Washington Post,  under its ironic banner “Democracy Dies in the Darkness” confessed as much writing “lawmakers agree there should be a ‘strategy’ on Syria — but what that should be is an open question”.  It is as if America suddenly awoke in the Big Cold War Casino, with no memory of how it got there and a two week growth of Access Hollywood beard on it’s face.

If there’s any silver lining it is that the Western response has converted Putin’s “hybrid warfare” into an open dispute.  It can no longer skulk like a U-boat in the depths of ambiguity; in green men, front organizations, in swarms of trolls.  The shock of recent events has forced it to the surface, where all the cards are on the table.  The sight may be frightening to the public but better that the common man can see it than where it could not.

Yet the drama of recent days should not obscure the fact that war — hybrid or otherwise — is essentially a defensive  instrument in the long conflict against Putin.  It can contain but it cannot defeat a nuclear power.  War in this case is but a shield.  It is economics which is the sword. If Putin falls it will not be to missiles but to gas prices.

Unfortunately the Western energy sword is bent.  Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writing in Australian Financial Review notes that the “EU turns blind eye to Russian stranglehold over European gas supplies”.

The investigation leaves no doubt that Germany has been enjoying a sweetheart deal with Gazprom, gaining a competitive advantage in gas costs at the expense of fellow EU economies and leaving front-line states at the mercy of Moscow’s strong-arm tactics.

A leaked document from the European Commission paints an extraordinary picture of predatory behaviour, with Gazprom acting as an enforcement arm of Russian foreign policy. Bulgaria was treated almost like a colony, while Poland was forced to pay exorbitant prices for imported flows of pipeline gas from Siberia.

Tim Daiss in Oil Price amplifies the European ambiguity. “In a statement that is sure to provoke Russian backlash, while also sending a strong message to both Moscow and European energy markets, Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Rick Perry said on Thursday before the Senate Armed Services committee that moving U.S. energy supplies into Eastern Europe is one of the more powerful ways to contain Russian influence. … However, Perry’s message may not be as welcome as he would like in Europe. Though EU members, including an increasingly alarmed Germany, appear to be waking up to Russian influence and blatant geopolitical maneuvering, many in the EU are still equally as cautious over American motives to export its liquefied natural gas (LNG) to European markets.”

If Congress really wanted a strategy that would work it would be to contain Russia only as necessary with measured force but principally rely on lower oil prices to bring the Kremlin down. Unfortunately it will only be days before we are back to the news cycle of scandal and social justice.   The really significant collusion is occurring where Mueller will never look: in the self-interested policies of members of the Western alliance itself.  It is in the billions of dollars of gas sales, not a few hundred thousand spent on Facebook that the problem lies.

Some nations really don’t want to rock the boat with Putin although they don’t like nerve gas warfare either.  From time to time they find themselves in a pinch and require America to provide relief.  But although the actions of the United States might square the circle periodically, the effect will only be temporary.

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The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. This book reveals the forces driving the reinvention of our lives and our economy. As the full impact of digital technologies is felt, we will realize immense bounty but also experience wrenching change. Professions of all kinds – from lawyers to truck drivers – will be forever upended. Companies will be forced to transform or die. Recent economic indicators reflect this shift: fewer people are working, and wages are falling even as productivity and profits soar. Drawing on years of research and up-to-the-minute trends, MIT’s Brynjolfsson and McAfee identify the best strategies for survival and a new path to prosperity.

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For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

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The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
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Storming the Castle, why government should get small
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Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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