On seizing the Russian invasion to stop the Western decline and grow strong again

20-4-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

The Russian invasion was a wake-up call for the West, or the “Western liberal order” (as it is no longer a geographic concept), and especially the younger generations for whom war in Europe was only seen in movies and, if they still read them, history books. While collective historical memory of WW2 died away as those who fought or lived through it passed away and their children became grandparents, the people of the West woke up to a reality long-forgotten that unprovoked wars from another age can also arise in otherwise peaceful Europe. Most observers stressed the strong unity of the West in responding to Russia, which was all the more surprising considering its current station in history. For decades the West focused on the economy, leading to a point where money-making became naturally the prime objective of a business ecosystem – all while rising inequalities gradually became secondary, as the masses were gradually served for the last 15-20 years a power-grabbing populist menu of grievances, making them also forget what was going on in their daily lives. Not only this, but the Russian invasion happened just as the West had weakened itself in recent years. And while the West – and indeed the US – still have tremendous assets and power, it may not be premature to disagree with “Paris 1919” historian Margaret McMillan, in seeing the signs of a gradual decline and then fix it once and for all at this tragic but timely juncture of history.

While technology or “tech” has changed our lives for the better, and sadly also for the worse, we additionally see today many examples in the world of business and finance of grievous developments that have slowly helped destroy Western society and hurt the many for the benefit of the few, all while forgetting the core values that made the West what it once was. The combination of technology, business and finance has led many times to adverse societal change in the West and also the world. The behaviors of many Western leaders in the political and business worlds, at times mixing both, has also added to the debasement of the societal values upon which the West was once built.

A few developments seen in the last decade underline the weakening of the West into a new version of an Ancient Rome declining through “games and circus” – but also now greed. This Ancient Rome-like decline has been unwittingly encouraged by tech, small or Big, and the financial and business worlds on the altar of profit, and while finding all the justifications needed on the way – like job creation or customer satisfaction. Having said all that, it is clear that Winston Churchill’s legendary quote in 1947 should always apply to the West, in that it is also another word for “democracy”: it is indeed the worst form of government except for all the others. This admittedly long note is not only about the key problems facing the West but also and crucially the ways to fix them – so it should be read until its end with an open mind.

The key examples of Western demise stated below may be seen by many, who still wish to hope that thinigs are just fine, as unfairly stated. These are only inter-related features of a darkening trend. In 2022, the few key features of what has promoted the de-strengthening of the West over the last 20 years with marked acceleration over the past decade, especially in Europe and the US, are as follows:

Tech and the damaging loss of critical thinking. Tech, like Aesop’s tongues, is the best and the worst of things. While tech undoubtedly brought many societal advancements in the way we live – be it in science, medicine, telecommunication and many other key areas – it also lavished the world with tools that strengthened isolation, fixations and behaviors leading to natural selfishness that was not planned and happened unnoticed by users. This damaging tech user behavior is seen with video games, social media and people walking down the street while watching their phone. Tech unwittingly shaped a world where increasingly self-centered users started to think less for themselves while relying on ready-made tools not devoid of agendas (indeed like this blog) though increasingly extremist in their message to shape their views. It should be no surprise that the younger digital generations, as seen in France in the current presidential election, espouse more extremist views and candidates than their markedly more liberal elders. In other cases, now known as “predatory”, the likes of TikTok and Instagram would encourage teens and young adults to self-diagnose with mental conditions with expensive solutions being provided by their sponsors whose business ran unchecked. One of the latest developments allowing to escape the real world well beyond its virtual aspects is now the selling of the metaverse providing users with a parallel world and existence, sheltering them away from the reality that real shells would now destroy. It is clear that many tech creators and users would not know who Aesop is today, but they would also benefit from taking a back step while enjoying their tools. The Chinese leadership, while seeing the damage that tech selfishness could do to its overall system (and likely not only key autocratic feature) decided to control access to and usage of video games and the internet – drastic measures that are obviously not fitting the West and its values. There is a need for a collective wake-up call regarding tech behavior, which is indeed challenging to make happen – if not at the core family and school level for a start. One can argue ad nauseam about the part of the responsibility of tech in a Western decline, though critical thinking looks to be gradually on its way out.

The foolish valuations of profitless tech companies. While tech (and not only Big Tech) rose to new heights in the last decade, a huge number of tech start-ups were created worldwide. While the venture capital industry was long known to be an area of finance where fund platforms were as a whole struggling to make any returns, as in private equity and its larger, more mature deals, the times suddenly changed. The new Thomas Edison times were born when venture capital firms focused on selling dreams and the motto that “profits will come” was heard again after a 20-year lull since the dotcom Bubble. The new Edison times reached incredible heights and indeed status when in 2019 a famous company called Uber was listed on the New York Stock Exchange at a market valuation of USD 90bn – without having made any profits in its ten years of existence. Based on its name, Uber, while being a simple car ride hailing company, had attracted the dynamics of offer and demand (often the key issue in a world with too much money) while subsequently losing USD 30bn in market value over 12 months. Venture capital, belonging to an ecosystem of “supportive” investment bankers and lawyers earning huge fees, went through a new age when anything was possible. This new era – sold as one of “progress” – was emblematic of money-losing start-ups active in attractive fields like an AI start-up being listed in 2021 at USD 35bn, only to lose half of its value in nine months – all while the ecosystem was becoming very wealthy if only for venture capitalists via the carried interest rewards of venture capital firms and involving minimal financial investment and risk-taking. Tech venture capital today is driven by a numbers game and is akin to gambling, where the key skill is to know when to leave the table, which invariably is very early post-listing and when legally allowed to do so for the principals behind the scheme. At least the real value is there in identifying early tech start-ups that will make investors dream. However, the lack of link between the results and the market value of these tech firms is a direct attack on rationality and reflects the declining Ancient Rome aspect of our current Western world. Investing in tech companies and promoting them to listed stock exchange status should not be about “when to leave the casino table” to cash in before the expected fall.

The advent of the cryptocurrency gamble. Cryptocurrency, started with the now-famed Bitcoin twelve years or so ago as an experiment based on fashionably libertarian-put “decentralization” (read: that no entity controls or indeed “unregulated”) and was emulated by many crypto-firms and now exchanges. “Crypto”, that is gradually becoming a poster child for “innovation is not always good”, is another example of the Western demise and is likely a worse example than the profitless tech start-up market valuations (which at least reflect real companies and their strategies). The basis for the value of cryptocurrencies is non-existent, while the “market” is being fed tech stories that it is to be found in what is known as “mining” in caves walled with computers like in Kazakhstan. Crypto is not only valueless and driven by irrational offer and demand, with huge daily price gyrations – but is also a terrible blow to the green world given its abysmal electricity consumption. Crypto, which has been largely unregulated thus far, is the favorite financial transaction means of the criminal world, which has found a tech way to shelter its activities, while Russian oligarchs have tried going crypto to evade sanctions and saving some of their kleptocratic assets. Young people, including teenagers, are known to buy fractions of cryptos to fund their lifestyle, seeing it as easy money until they lose it. Turkish citizens facing a declining Lira at home buy fractions of cryptos just hoping to get by. The problem with crypto and its often-huge daily value gyrations is that its time is already probably behind passed, even if there was a peak during the Covid years due to too much time “at-home”. Making real fortunes, however temporary, unless again bold enough by leaving the table early enough (usually too hard a move), implied more of a buy in the mid-1990s when crypto was still a relatively low-key “tool”. While initially cautious for a decade, many western financial institutions and well-known investment banks have jumped carefully on the crypto bandwagon not to let the “techies” be the sole winners of the fashion that became more popular under the pandemic. In one of his outbursts, libertarian tech investor Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, early discoverer of Facebook and early 2016 Trump supporter, recently attacked Warren Buffett as the “sociopathic grandpa of Omaha” while similarly describing JP Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon and Blackrock’s Larry Fink as “finance gerontocrats” for locking cryptos out. On the free market libertarian side, some US legislators comprising pro-business advocates and leftwing technology utopians would have started to create a “crypto caucus” in Congress, where ideology takes over business sanity. However, and in spite of what appeared as an upward trend, while crypto would apparently follow the stock market recently, the values of most cryptos has taken a dive over the last nine months. While a strangely slow process, crypto is also getting more under regulatory scrutiny in most of the Western markets while China has expediently banned it (perhaps to launch its national version) and Russia had taken a rare sane move in recent times against it too. Only El Salvador – under the aegis of its young reverse cap-wearing President – has decided to make crypto a national treasure and role model for the world. In spite of the founder of Binance, a leading crypto exchange, claiming it, crypto is not an asset class (while amusingly, as if a great admission, recognizing it is not a currency as it was initially promoted). Crypto is not about investing and is totally about gambling, which should be regulated as such. In the meantime, cryptos and Non-Fungible Tokens or NFTs (or virtual art, such as the famed drawing of the “bored monkey” strangely valued at exorbitant amounts) hurt Western society and gradually the world by debasing the notion of sheer financial value while perverting the mind of too many people, all the more among the younger digital generations given their fittingly innovative tech flavor.

The rapid rise of easy money financial structures like SPACs. One of the recent developments to raise capital and do big deals has been the development of SPACs or Special Purpose Acquisition Companies. More than 1,000 such SPACs were set up since the beginning of the pandemic in a times-fashionable “SPAC mania”. They each floated on stock exchanges worldwide, promising to merge with an amazing private company to make their investors very wealthy. The SPAC fashion was promoted by financially illiterate celebrities in exchange for SPAC shares in the same way Kanye West and other luminaries promoted new cryptos and received free ones in exchange in a no-lose and win-win potential upside game. Politicians, sports stars and even Wall Street greats joined in the game. After two years, in the midst of Covid, 600 SPACs are still looking for a partner while some of the latter have been known to make incredibly false claims as to their potential achievements (a segment being electric car-making where incidentally revenue-inexistent Rivian, heralded as a rival of Tesla, was listed at a market valuation of USD 100bn in late 2021). The shares in the USD 40bn merger or de-SPACing Grab, the largest tech SPAC in Singapore, saw their value going down by 70% in three months while other de-SPACing entities showed revenues at 20% of what they were forecast. Only 63 SPACs were listed on stock exchanges in the first quarter of 2022, an 80% decline on 2021. SPACs are now under heavy scrutiny as if regulators had learned from their clear ineptitude in dealing early enough with the vagaries of tech market listings or cryptocurrencies. Regulators like the SEC have now decided, faster than with crypto, though they look at it now too, to stop the abusive schemes and make the sponsors and their bankers more accountable on the promises of future SPAC successes as well as disclosing fees and other costs. Finally, an 18-month deadline would be set up for SPACs to merge to avoid the current stagnant situation. In the meantime, a large number of class action lawsuits (admittedly also benefitting lawyers in the contemporary American fashion) have been launched in the US. SPACs exemplified the desperate need from investors to buy growth stocks in an indiscriminate manner led by the dream driver not dissimilar to that found with profitless growth stocks or easy-money crypto. At least this nightmare seems to be on its way out and may seem with hindsight like a very bad hiccup.

The amazing payouts and non-role model of corporate leaders and their related matters. In 2021 the median annual salary of US CEOs for more than half of the S&P 500 that had reported results by March-end was USD 14.2m. This staggering figure even created a huge gap with their highly-paid senior staff, this reflecting a world driven by greed where rewards have become out of proportion, while some regular people, often consumers of the goods and services of those business leaders, cannot make ends meet. The CEOs of Discovery, Intel and Amazon each made annual salaries between USD 178m and USD 247m. Even the CEO of Carnival Cruises operating in a badly pandemic-hurt sector, made USD 15m including a USD 6m bonus in 2021. This situation is not American-only, as seen with the furor arising from the EUR 19.1m payout of the CEO of Peugeot-maker PSA following its merger with Fiat, creating a major issue in the French presidential campaign with both Macron and Le Pen in a rare if tactically timed agreement to condemn it and what it means for the French workplace, this even if the CEO led a strong recovery for an ailing well-known automaker. One sign of hope and potential turning point on such matters was shown when only 64% of Apple shareholders endorsed CEO Tim Cook’s 2021 pay, the Norwegian oil fund voting no. Leading corporate billionaires now comprise figures like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg whose human values and charitable contributions are not what define them most – if at all. Times when Bill Gates (even if he had a few shortcomings the world did not know then) or a Warren Buffett (his hidden no-green side aside when it was not an issue) representing successful corporate and investment leadership are gradually gone, also from the very top of the Forbes billionaire ranking list. Again, our times would seem to show that the objective of entrepreneurs and business leaders is to achieve quick wealth and fame in the shortest time possible (for the former) or when the window of opportunity allows them to get away with it (for the latter), with not much consideration of such an impact to Western society. While many corporations still behave as they should, in too many instances basic morals no longer matter much any more, and rewards can never be excessive as long as they can be received – this creating a great disconnect with our Western world and its roots, not to mention common decency.

This unacceptable trend in corporate payouts has also been linked to and indeed reflects the financialization of most key sectors such as healthcare in the US which has affected a large number of families and as always and naturally gradually found “export markets” via the globalization of the major players in the healthcare industry. Another unacceptable slide into the maximization of profits is the rising cost of higher education in many Western countries, the US being again a market leader in the problem with the UK following suit. Such educational financialization ensures that meritocracy fails and that students face crippling debt that then becomes a political issue in terms of forgiveness. Sadly, the list of such slides is long and always efficiently rationalized by corporations or institutions and their leaders.

The bad behavior of former mainstream politicians. When Gerhard Schroeder left his position as German Prime Minister in 2005, he was known to have said that “it was now time to make money”. He then joined the Board of Russian energy company Rosneft, finding himself in the middle of the Ukraine invasion sanctions, not reacting swiftly to them and losing his reputation. Politicians, often with little added value but their public past to offer in business set-ups, find themselves able to maximize unduly the returns that past high public office can produce. David Cameron, an otherwise very acceptable (if not very competent regarding Brexit) British Prime Minister, and even a former minister from across the bench were caught unawares in the well-documented Greensill Capital scandal, trying to keep a very low but challenging profile. Many members of the House of Lords in the UK find themselves often in trouble having monetized their status through large numbers of board directorships and senior advisory roles for companies wanting to benefit primarily from their names and public image to legitimize their own operations. While many provide useful advice and guidance, quite a few do not provide adequate advice or governance, and at times put their own name at great reputational risk. Similar examples can be found through the Western democratic world. Once again, the driving factor in these poor developments is personal greed that affects the Western values that made a world as we knew it. Reforms are hugely and quickly needed to restore integrity in the way democratic leaders behave following their public roles and life. It is also a question of restoring confidence in the Western system and its leadership.

The rise of a new class of populist autocrats. The last twenty years have seen the rise of populist autocrats with their easy solutions to complex issues (leading to this blog birth) and whose main objective was to seize power in a democratic context, often to weaken the latter if the goal was achieved. The list of these personalities, not all evil, is long from Donald Trump to Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, Nigel Farage or Viktor Orban or newcomers like the French media star Eric Zemmour with similar party leaders and personalities across the West. Some were once mainstream politicians having shifted to authoritarianism in style and deeds over the years like Orban. Others, like Boris Johnson, are also gradually adopting a tactical and expedient populist style to achieve their goals (like Brexit or redefining his Tory Party) while staying within democratic confines – if not always abiding by the rules. A tiny few were indeed elected to the top role in their country (Hungary and Poland or even Italy pre-Draghi coming to mind) this with diverse results and usually not staying more than one term (except for Orban as recently seen) or remembering history or basic funding gradually going back to more sensible approaches (the Polish government when now dealing with the EU Commission, this further helped by the war in Ukraine and its consequences). With the natural history-based exception of Poland, these leaders and parties were usually warm to or liked Putin (which for Orban and those who voted again for him is puzzling considering 1956, though knowing collective living history is gone, clearly in some of parts of Hungary unlike the Czech Republic for which 1968 may be closer). Those populist leaders strongly played the immigration card, especially when it was coming from Africa or the Middle East (apparently Ukrainian refugees are no problem so far for the Polish Law and Justice Party, unlike those from Afghanistan at the Belarus border two months before). Issues linked to crime rise-flavored identity politics, which is an easy and sadly also understandable tool to now convince unsophisticated even if average voters, has grown to be critical for many Europeans also, as a result of being long-neglected by mainstream parties as too uncouth or below what reasonable people should focus on – especially when those leaders were living in very upstanding neighborhoods in the quiet and uniform centers of their capitals. Those mainstream leaders, waking up too late, never saw the populist rise coming, allowing for new faces with simple programs to challenge and potentially or eventually ejecting them from power. Clearly the major test in the West will shortly be French when Marine Le Pen, who tried hard to soften her extremist image and is relatively unskilled at leading a G7 country, could surprisingly if still theoretically defeat Emmanuel Macron, a President molded in the elitist ENA technocratic fashion, who is competent but can irritate many as representing the ever-leading elite. Such a victory, while being worse than a Brexit for the West, given her issues with NATO (if probably no longer – in theory so far – with the EU and Euro) could also give an unexpected victory to the Kremlin given Le Pen’s historical admiration for Putin, even if she tried to distance herself from him recently, though hedging her bets later by stating that sanctions could one day be lifted and Russia be a natural ally of France (curiously the war in Ukraine that took Macron’s focus away from the campaign would appear to have affected only very few French voters in their voting intentions, which were more driven by domestic matters relating to cost of living – even if linked to the war -, security, immigration and retirement schemes, all points Le Pen tactically capitalized upon).

Where we are today:

One could be forgiven for seeing the West living in a culture of money, where existence is linked to it, and citizens are de facto thoughtless consumers being taken advantage of as they can no longer think for themselves in a traditional way. The West is felt to be going through its declining Ancient Rome phase, which Putin’s Russia took advantage of (though also might stop through the great wake-up call on what really matters). This is a unique opportunity in an ideal world for parents to lead their children to read history, stay away more from video games and social media and start re-developing an individual and autonomous thought process in a return to the roots that made the West.

There is a need to have the younger Western – and especially European – generations who now face the return of history very directly, and may live with it as they grow old if Russia stays the same, to go back to the values that make the West thrive ¬¬– this also away from a tech-enabled selfish and isolated existence. There is a need to restore Western value-based integrity all the more as the societal tech-driven developments (and admittedly also advancements) experienced over the last thirty years will be trivial in comparison to the ones we will know in the next thirty.

Unrelenting value-less greed, too often seen at the top of what was a largely sound capitalist society and permeating it gradually, has weakened the West, even if unwittingly, which tech, while also bringing great advancements, has helped fostering through its many applications. While tech has been about tools, its many users are building on a daily basis a societal decline, even if they were unknowingly led to forget basic values by powerful business and political forces which wanted them first as a mix of consumers and voters. Democracy, through its many tech tools of our times that symbolized freedom and made people exist more may have heralded its own decline. In all fairness the good political side of tech is obviously also seen as a game-changer – from the Soviet days for those in Russia wanting to receive information not from the Kremlin, even if through challenging VPN set-ups in the current internet clampdown. Citizens of the West, and indeed the world, should welcome and enjoy the advancements that the tech tools have provided but not let themselves be taken over by them and change who they really are as a civilization.

It is possible that the Covid era worsened the Western decline, as it may not have helped in the rise of shiny cryptos as retail buyers, often unskilled at sheer investing, had too much time to spend at home while financial engineers could also focus on new breathtakingly get-rich adverse developments like SPACs. Such a Western decline may also explain why Putin may have seized the time he did for an opportunity to purify and expand Russia, however ill-thought, continent-destroying and self-devastating in the process. Putin may have felt the weakness of the West derived from its new Ancient Rome declinist habits would make it a sheer observer of his grand scheme as the music kept going and the bell had not rung.

What to do going forward:

How to fix the decline of the West can be expressed in four words: GOING BACK TO BASICS. This approach would entail both a review of who we are and have become and help refining the system that has defined the West for so long and until 20 years ago quite successfully.

Remaking ourselves: Remaking ourselves in the West is not about sheer politics or related to the old and moving left and right divide landscape that is so often no longer relevant. Remaking ourselves is about refocusing on what matters and linked to education which is where efforts should start, primarily at school so the young generations benefit from it but also, whenever possible, at family level. Things the West took for granted need to be seriously refocused on and strengthened. Education is key.

Key areas of focus should involve: i) multi-disciplinary education comprising old and new key themes and fields focused not just on job-getting but on mind-shaping; ii) reading books by authors who shaped Western roots, including ancient philosophers; iii) developing critical thinking to ensure tech tools and their derived products like social media are adequately managed; iv) understanding history so it does not repeat itself too often; v) learning the basics of economics so later individual decisions are wiser and; vi) receiving civic instruction so the workings of society are clearer, including in the EU member states the workings of the EU so its benefits are also known and rug salesmen do not cheaply prevail. These should be accompanied by seeing the elite for what it should be – as projecting skills and competence – and not only one created by privilege, but fostered by renewed meritocracy, however always imperfect, and aspiring to joining it through once-old fashioned hard work and achievements. These few focus areas would help going back to successful cultural roots and combining them with what tech can offer, without compromising the values and ultimate outcomes that made the democratic West. These few changes in attitude would greatly help remaking who Westerners were and should be – this leading to a stronger, more independent and healthier West.

Remaking capitalism: The Western liberal order is about democracy but is also about capitalism. Democracy and capitalism were indeed the two pillars upon which the modern West was built. The West was capitalism with its rules and ethos while capitalism was also the West. It is time now to go back to basics and take utter greed out of the capitalistic equation to make it more attractive to all anew. Capitalism is also a Western role model to promote globally as true capitalism is not at home with autocracy and can be a useful weapon, if deployed with integrity (indeed a far too often forgotten word), to promote global change. Capitalism finally fosters globalization which itself fosters peace as partners (and all the more, democracies) do not go to war against each other or launch unprovoked military tragedies.

The wealthy of previous generations are the well-offs of today while inequalities have grown and billionaires, having taken advantage of market developments, have benefited from a tax regime that is not relevant to our times and is also self-hurting image-wise. Billionaires should not be victimized, but they should contribute more of their wealth to the common well-being of Western societies. President Biden was right to decide for billionaires to pay more taxes so they can contribute more to – and be part of – society and more accepted. Higher taxes will not affect their wealth, while they will be a meaningful message about their contribution to society and the well-being of their fellow citizens. The West as a whole should once more follow the American lead.

While venture capital is absolutely essential to society, and indeed brings in innovation often linked to tech, it would be wise and productive for our financial sector to launch a reality check on the way tech start-ups are valued, so sanity comes back in their initial investment rounds and later on the stock market. Venture capital, while keeping on selling dreams, should go back to a more rational valuation approach that is linked to the private equity and M&A sectors where companies are indeed valued at a multiple of earnings, this even if there could be a huge premium, even large but not in ephemeral and self-serving billion dollars, for the start-up dream. It is key for venture capital and associated parties like investment banks and law firms to redefine what this investment segment is about if they do not want regulators to step in and drastically overly-interfere with market dynamics. However, if no action is taken, regulators should step in to stop the casino from staying open as it is now.

Another area would be for the West to ensure that key areas such as healthcare and education – which are key to the good functioning of a fair and happy society – are not considered excessive profit areas for all business stakeholders, but are run at reasonable cost within a capitalist framework, and might even possibly imply state subsidies when necessary. The list of sectors needing a corrective approach is obviously longer than those two. Institutional shareholders, like large public pension funds, should take the lead in bringing sanity to what companies in which they are invested do, and how their top executives reward themselves, also as a self-preservation move, as increasingly seen recently for the latter.

This re-making of capitalism would also mean an efficient, rigorous and still fair regulation of the finance and tech sectors, which is in theory already done – this without fostering a police state hurting entrepreneurship, but to also ensure and trigger a change of behavior at the level of consumers dealing with tools they often did not fully understand in the past. Capitalism cannot be left unbridled on the altar of creativity and innovation as would be defended by too many in the current Western business leadership ranks, who are mainly focused on payouts for shareholders but also themselves. There is also a need for sanity, not only in terms of the fair functioning of the markets, but also of society, to avoid the adverse impact on individual consumers of such gambling slides as crypto and the like or the predatory methods used on social media, the latter that should also be more scrutinized by social media themselves as to contents, including fake news and hate speech. This regulatory drive, which is needed at government level to be impactful, while preempted by corporations themselves, would need to go in parallel with a realization at the individual and for the young at the family level that “remaking ourselves” is key to making us stronger and happier as a society and indeed civilization.

Remaking alliances: While the West should always focus on preserving peace and fostering a productive globalization that underpins the former, it should focus on building military strength in both Europe and this time also Asia. NATO should be the natural focus of European military strengthening with the EU taking a more committed role as proposed by Macron and now unequivocally supported by a new Germany. NATO’s new motto should be the tried and tested Latin “si vis pacem para bellum” so as the latter never happens (if you want peace, prepare for war) so as to keep an isolated and likely dangerous Russia in clear check, if it has not reformed in the distant future. In Asia, the times have come to build a NATO-like defensive-focused organization to make sure that China will be naturally inclined to focus on trade and globalization, not tempted by military adventures as seen with Russia in Ukraine. Such an organization could be WAPO (or the Western Asian Partnership Organization), a name that jokingly would be well received in DC due to the Washington Post, and could include on the same lines as NATO, the US, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia (perhaps a different India, even if part of the smaller anti-China Quad and in spite of its “practical” trade-related neutrality on Ukraine) as key members. Such organization could supersede existing ones, like the recent AUKUS that combines the US, Britain and Australia through an Anglo-Saxon only club following the sudden French nuclear submarine sale cancellation. As both alliances would evolve, there would be merits in allowing WAPO members such as Japan to be involved in NATO operations and vice versa, like with large EU member states, the objective being to build a stronger and truly global Western alliance that would be the ultimate deterrent to any hostile power in both key world theaters.

Putin may have unwittingly helped the West wake up at a critical time in its history, including its younger digital generations who one day will run it, or for the most part live through it, when seeing what happens when basic freedom is violently stolen and war crimes happen in otherwise peaceful villages. Putin has given the West a unique opportunity to change its gradual and still comfortable southern course to oblivion and offer once again hope to those who want a better world. However, he will not be thanked.

Warmest regards,

Serge

Seven key reality checks in the new world Russia created

6-4-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

In our last post, the key points of regime change led and/or supported by the Russian people, the need to avoid weakness in dealing with the Kremlin, and the plan to redefine a new Europe – eventually comprising another democratic and liberal Russia – were stressed.

While “lessons”, “key facts” and “remarks” were made in the midst of a deluge of news over the last six weeks following the Ukraine invasion, seven key reality checks are worth noting today:

The world is not the West after all. Even if the West was united and well-heard (including pro-Russia Orban’s Hungary and traditionally Serbia, however vacillating), the whole world did not follow its unanimous condemnation of the Russian invasion. Many countries stayed neutral for geopolitical reasons, or because it was not their fight, had close trading or political ties to Russia, or simply wanted to follow an old-fashioned and easier-to-live-with non-alignment. China, India, Brazil, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Iraq and Turkey, a NATO ally (though admittedly a key and needed mediator) did not condemn Russia at the UN. China staying neutral, even if playing a high wire act like with the EU, is obviously not what Putin’s Russia wanted, but is led by following its economic self-interest while not siding with the US mega-rival. 25 African countries did not vote or stayed neutral, including South Africa, partly on the grounds of the Soviet support in the old apartheid fight, or as Russian wheat was key for their citizens like Zimbabwe. The divide was often along soft-to-hard autocracies vs. democracies more than on geographic lines, and was often tainted by the potential opening of war- and sanctions-resulting trading opportunities as in the case of Modi’s India. The Ukraine invasion opened the road for a redefinition of the world order, possibly along the lines of a dual cold war with Moscow and China leading the anti-West camp with different battlefields and agendas.

Ukraine and Europe are far away for many people. Many residents of countries in the Middle East, Africa or Latin America – some ravaged by previous wars and strife – are not reacting to a war in Europe which is not their problem, and for people who did not care about their own similar issues in the past. Putting aside geopolitics and alliances, the Ukraine war is perceived at times as an ethnocentric matter to many in the non-Western world, or a white people’s problem. This feeling of non-interest can easily graduate to anger when some countries suffer from wheat supply – and therefore bread – shortage, leading to riots like in Egypt, allowing for some repositioning of relationships: in this case with Saudi Arabia. However, while the crisis brought its fair share of neglect in the non-Western world (apart from Taiwan and Singapore, and of course Westernized Japan), it also created some never-seen developments such as the previously unheard-of meeting in Jerusalem between an “open-minded” Israel wanting to play “Western” mediator, the UAE (even if having hosted al-Assad just earlier), Egypt, Morocco and the US to deal with the war in Ukraine and its consequences. At the same time, horrendous crises like the Afghan famine and resurrected Taliban treatment of girls and women barred from schools have been sadly eclipsed, leading understandably to more resentment locally from those who suffer or help there.

The basis of peace plans seems unsound in its structuring. Putting aside whether Russia can be trusted, which is a fair question based on tested experience, it is not sure that peace plans based on guarantees provided by the US, France, the UK and Germany amongst others to preserve Ukrainian independence would ever realistically be given if Ukraine never joined NATO. At the very best, Ukraine, which could join the EU, would benefit from an implicit though not formal guarantee. The danger of such a peace plan would be to provide yet again too much recognition to an aggressive Russian behavior all the more in the context of a continuing Putin leadership. The focus of stopping the conflict may not be enough for some in the West to potentially get into a new one in the future on a similar basis seen with the current invasion. Similarly, the potential acceptance of forced neutrality by Ukraine, not only being a blow to standard sovereignty, may reward and embolden an aggressive Russia that would see its unacceptable means justify its ends whatever they may be.

The refugee influx may likely be even more tragic in the medium-term. It is unlikely that the 4 million refugees moving Westward will continue to be welcome with open arms as weeks and months go by, all the more in Poland where there are already nearly 2.5 million. Western financial assistance, especially from the EU to the EU member states on the frontline, will be key. While most of Europe will bear the brunt of the refugee influx, not all of Europe or other parts of the world will face the same issue. The US, which plays a key role in the crisis but is much farther afield – indeed a key advantage in any European war scenarios – is not facing the same problems as it only provided 100,000 visas for people with relatives already on US soil, this small number also explained by the fact that refugees usually wanted to stay near Ukraine. While Boris Johnson is very firm in the British stance against Russia, only very few visas were granted to refugees, this officially due to administrative issues. Countries like Switzerland where many citizens have offered rooms and beds to refugees saw little take-up due to the distance from Ukraine and the local cost of living, this even though many refugee assistance programs were ready since the Syrian war. It is likely that host countries neighboring Ukraine will get tired at some point of their status, this even with EU financial assistance, while refugees themselves will not only comprise law-abiding guests or simply wanting to leave and return to Ukraine at some point. Another issue, largely unmentioned, is the brain drain for the Ukrainian economy combined with a permanent population loss that would have a multiple societal impact.

Energy is the other battlefield that needs total European commitment. While nothing can distract from the destructions, losses of life and indeed war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine, the other battlefield especially for Europe is energetic. European countries need to be ready to restructure their energy supply routes away from Russia (a subject that will redefine the geopolitical cards with countries like Iran and its needed oil). The subject should no longer be to pay in Euros or Rubles but to stop trading with Russia, which needs these proceeds to fight its very expensive war in Ukraine and potentially other conflicts in the East (while the EU provided EUR 1bn to assist Ukraine in the war, it had paid EUR 100bn to Russia for its oil and gas in 2021). While this strategic change will be costly and might create temporary shortages, the reshaping of energy supply is key and the US and other allies should assist Europe as it goes through a painful transition. This change has taken too long already even if all parties knew that it would be bound to happen. And then the other key challenge when Europe has secured its warmth is food security notably in relation to wheat as seen across the world like with Egypt and given the Ukrainian and Russian “wheat granary of the world” and the rising wheat prices since the invasion. One drastic way to deal with both key strategic issues, and if willing to indulge in unacceptable dark humor in such a tragic time, would be to find a nuclear safe way to yet invade and temporarily occupy and “train” a gradually reforming Russia which would solve many problems in one go and this time perhaps bring a quicker democratic process to the land of the Czars.

The Russians now seem to support the war and Putin. Latest Russian polls from Levada, that can be questionable, have shown an increase in the approval ratings for the war and Putin and condemnations of the West. From 69% to 83% the Russian population “would seem” to back the Kremlin and its fights against the Nazis and the US biochemistry laboratories in Ukraine while showing anger at the West generally, something the sanctions should exacerbate when they are finally felt. The opponents to the war have either left or stay quiet at this stage (15,000 arrests were made) while the state propaganda machine reinforces the general population feelings in what is not a revolution but an involution or a devolution characterized by a political and economic return to a Soviet-like era. Sanctions may change these feelings or reinforce them but have not yet drastically have the expected impact on the Ruble or daily Russian life even if signs of a downturn are seen. There seems to be a comforting rallying around the flag in what may also be perceived as desperate times when patriotism of a nation under siege from the West, thus also justifying the preemptive war, is a natural and easier recourse. Such a development dampens the possible regime change that would help stop the current game, even if a coup would most likely be required so led at the top with the population, most likely in Russia, rallying around the flag again though this time behind the new regime.

A new world order may be redefined along a dual cold war. The Ukraine invasion – which was the first classical and unprovoked military aggression of a sovereign country in Europe since WW2 – will in the short-term, lead to a US-led West and EU facing Russia and its few allies like Belarus against a backdrop of many non-aligned and neutral nations that stayed aside for their own reasons. This cold war will be reminiscent of the 20th century version of such rivalry between the West and the Soviet Union and their allies, with the risk of military confrontation very likely. One of the show-stoppers of such a scenario will be linked to Putin’s longevity in the Kremlin and the likelihood of regime change. The other cold war, already in motion prior to Ukraine, will directly pit the US and China and be focused on world supremacy – while the latter will keep combining an autocratic but socially-accepted regime at home, and a thriving economy still dependent on an old but now fragile globalization. While the other cold war should not involve military means (short of a Taiwan invasion following an emboldening Ukraine scenario to be well delivered), the principle of globalization, combined by the impact of a new Iron Curtain with the more classical twin, would be endangered at the risk of being left behind, with countries looking first for autonomy at all levels. With such a novel cold war scenario II, globalization would then become more Western-centered and China-focused with two worlds oddly developing in parallel with little inter-action. The two cold wars, different in nature and their occasional tactical links, would be a US-EU West led contest between Russia and China respectively and their respective cold war partners. It would also embody the fight of democracy vs autocracy in the 21st century.

Having raised the seven reality checks, it is good to take a view on where the players are today and stress the obvious fact that nobody wants to recognize.

Where we are now. As the war in Ukraine has reached its sixth week, losers and winners can already be seen. From a victimized loser, Ukraine is emerging an unexpected winner as the odd champion of democracy and liberalism even with a patchy biography in these two fields. The war has cemented the likelihood of its EU membership which even Russia would likely have to accept. The biggest loser is gradually becoming Russia on military, diplomatic, economic and even more so existential terms. A now stronger Europe has naturally joined the winner’s camp by showing a unity of “views” while expectedly remaining cautious not to foster WW3, while Germany showed a new military self and Italy rose to the occasion in spite of trade links with Moscow. The US looks like the real winner, strengthening its role as the clear leader of the West and energy beneficiary of the European resupply lines game, while taking necessary risks with global peace with a needed hawkish stance to face Russia. China sits aside from the winner-loser camp in a quasi-parallel world through an “understood” neutrality driven by economic and social self-interest that is still marginally stronger than its desire to overtake the US through an ill-fated axis with a lost Russia under Putin.

The Siberian cat in the room (pun indeed). One development that neither the West or Russia want to recognize is that the US and to some extent the EU are de facto at war with Russia. WW3 in a different, subtler and yet less non-directly lethal mode has started between the West and Russia. The West is increasingly providing, even if too slowly, all the military equipment and assistance to a newly reborn Ukraine to face and defeat Russia so it can fight for its independence, democracy, liberalism, human dignity and indeed the West.

Warmest regards,

Serge

Dealing with Russia: when regime change is indeed key, weakness is to be avoided and a new Europe should eventually be defined

29-3-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

As the war in Ukraine goes into its second month, three key themes should be stressed for today and tomorrow.

While the West and the world should always keep hoping that Putin sees the light and stops the onslaught in Ukraine, there are realistically not many ways to deal with him given his clear dynamics and lack of rationality – whatever noble basis exists in his mind for the invasion. It is clear to all students of history and international affairs that there is only one way forward, however drastic.

The West should not hope for the best while unwittingly displaying weakness if it wants to stop what should no longer happen in Europe. Weakness resulting from not standing firm to a dictator from another age will only be useless and counter-productive in its objectives.

As and when the guns cease to be heard – and while it will take time to stop sanctions against Russia and restart normal relationships – it will be crucial for Europe to define what should be a new continent with the end of history as we knew it.

Regime change is indeed key: When President Biden finished his Warsaw address on March 26 stressing that Putin “cannot remain in power”, he went off script. He was quickly corrected by White House officials stressing that the US position was not regime change. Many Western leaders, like Emmanuel Macron, stressed the same, underlining that we should try finding a diplomatic way forward, and thus not corner the Russian leader. All these well-meant backtracking moves only showed indecision combined with weakness, and further emboldened rather than cornered a lost Russian leader. Whether he spoke off script, Joe Biden was right and said from the heart what every Western leader and most if not all their citizens thought. While we can still boldly hope for a rational diplomatic outcome to the crisis, regime change, given the Russian dynamics at play, is indeed the only way to not only stop the Ukrainian tragedy, but one day to resume normal relationships with a new Russia. Regime change is to happen with patriotic and farsighted Russians leading it for their own good and the future of Europe and the globalized world as we know it.

Weakness is to be avoided: History has shown, notably leading to what became WW2, that weakness or accommodations with warmonger dictators do not prevent wars or their escalations in the end. The West, through its strengthened if not reawakened key transatlantic alliance, should remember the lessons of history and avoid easy self-deceiving options to resolve the crisis. Wishful thinking will not save Ukraine, Europe and what we call globalization – which is another potential victim of Putin’s Ukrainian move. While sanctions are justified and may also hurt temporarily the West and global trade, they may not be enough. Nuclear weapons and their largest world arsenal are not reasons to let Putin’s Russia do what it wants and invade sovereign countries in the heart of Europe or anywhere. A lack of resolve in supporting Ukraine will only embolden a Russia that may go further in its delirious imperial re-building that would only result in more wars across Europe. Red lines should be stressed and this time enforced as the only way to stop the Kremlin nightmare.

A new Europe in the making: This war, when eventually over, should also gradually help redefine a new Europe where another Russia is not the adversary of the West but is an integral part of it. It should be a time when we change the dynamics that have been Europe’s since WW2, even if there had been a pseudo-transition since 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union. Like other great European powers of the past (Britain, France, Germany) Russia under a new leadership should once and for all espouse the democratic and liberal tenets that define what a peaceful Europe and the Western world are today. A more unified Europe, without an ever potentially-threatening Russia, would make for a more stable world in which productive and sensible globalization could be pursued with climate change being the common enemy, and actors like China and India being part of it – without the constant threats of a new Cold or Hot War involving perennial foes from another age. It would clearly be the best unwitting medium-term outcome arising from Putin’s follies.

Warmest regards,

Serge

Key remarks arising from the “return of history” in Europe after one month

23-3-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

Putting aside, however impossible it is, the daily tragedies experienced on the ground in Ukraine (also hoping they are not becoming gradually mundane), here are few remarks one month into the invasion and the reactions of the world:

Waging large scale war is different today. One cannot play the global game and follow old “history” ways like invading countries ¬– all the more so in Europe. Globalization has changed the nature of war, even if it did not stop it as was hoped. Sanctions hurt terribly, and even if non-lethal, are effectively another weapon of gradual mass destruction as Russia could well be about to experience. Similarly, Russia can squeeze its oil capacity to drive oil price upwards as a response to sanctions, while war is now also waged in cyberspace with expected cyberattacks using former ransomware teams arrested by – and now working for –Russia itself.

War in Europe has a global impact. The economic impact of the war, even without escalations, is huge worldwide, only given Ukraine’s key “bread basket” role as a leading wheat producer in the global food supply chain (incidentally like Russia). Such impact will also be felt, at least in the short term, by Europe given its energy links with a soon-to-be-totally isolated Russian pariah state. And Ukraine, with half of its businesses that have closed doors, and so much war destruction, will have to be rebuilt, likely involving the international community and, it is to be hoped eventually, justified reparations.

Democracies do not wage wars among themselves in Europe. Britain, France and Germany no longer fight each other or build aggressive military alliances to achieve their own strategic goals. Only autocracies start modern unprovoked wars of a WW2 scale in the old continent.

The greatest test for democracy for decades. Democracy is a blip in the scope of human history. Were Russia to prevail in Ukraine, and the West fail to stop it by whatever realistic means necessary, the lesson would embolden the aggressor and quickly be learned by other large powers like China, and possibly a fast-changing India – not to mention smaller actors in their own world regions. Democracy needs to be strong to survive and flourish globally.

This war is about far more than military operations and their aims. The invasion of Ukraine is not just an unprovoked war against a sovereign nation, to rebuild an empire or to stop a gradual decline, but it is a war of autocracy (Russia, likely Belarus and hopefully no more world actors) against the Free World, in what is a defining moment for democracy and liberalism – this exacerbated by the war crimes committed by the Russian leadership in Ukraine.

Liberal democracies need to be realistic. To win the contest with an autocratic Russia the democratic and liberal West may also have to adopt Realpolitik and work with countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey or China that do not share its ways of government, but know where their self-interest lies all the more in a globalized economy; the crisis also unexpectedly providing some often-challenged world actors a reshuffling of their own geopolitical cards.

Russia’s existential problem is rooted in its history. Russia has never been a “free” country in its history from the Czars to Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin (even if then in “transition” mode) and finally Putin who has morphed autocracy and kleptocracy together in what is de facto a mafia super-state with nuclear weapons. As such – and given its deep roots – Russia will always be more inclined to follow “old history” ways to achieve its objectives.

The defining traits of Russia today. The major historical deviation of the Putin regime for Russia has been an osmosis between an autocracy – strengthened to avoid the perceived post-Soviet democratic chaos in the 1990s – and a kleptocracy serving the faithful few, while ensuring Russians were still supportive of “Don Putin,” by selling them a mixed dream of grandeur and limited consumer society, peppered with some exposure to non-Kremlin-threatening modern freedoms.

Tech has weakened autocracy. Controlling access to information to any (large) population in the age of the internet is not possible over the long term, even among usually soft autocracies that revert to old ways to suppress access to fact-based information, and channel disinformation via state media. It will be increasingly hard to hide the nature of the war and its many losses from the Russian people, while sanctions will hurt in their daily lives. It will also be interesting to see how many pro-war Z t-shirts are still worn in Moscow stadiums by likely tech-friendly youngsters in the coming months and years. On a related aspect, Big Tech should actually do more to curb Russian state propaganda on its media, a matter dealing with contents control that is always sensitive among the tech giants.

The Ukraine invasion is a game changer for the West too… For the first time, former Cold War enemies in Central & Eastern Europe are in the same camp as the West in an actual conflict. The West has grown in its definition. From an alliance, these countries have now become truly existential partners. The Transatlantic Alliance embodied in NATO and the need for a stronger, independent but “additional” European defense commitment, now fully supported by a “new” Germany, has been made unequivocal by the Russian invasion.

…while it is also a wake-up call. As it focused for decades on economic growth via globalization, and individualism was the letter of the day, the West and especially its younger generations (not benefitting from direct living historical memory of the last world conflict) forgot that seismic events like wars were not confined to other distant parts of the world, and that preventing them proactively mattered existentially. This is now over for good.

The nuclear wild card. When reflecting on the sanctions and a new, stronger Iron Curtain to come, some Chinese analysts said as a matter of fact that Russia could not be excluded from the world as it had the largest nuclear arsenal among nations. Such a reading would de facto mean Russia can do what it wants, as it has the largest arsenal and the world cannot take any risks with it. This approach is wrong, and the West is far more powerful than Russia – also in a senseless nuclear sense – while history showed Russia could also be invaded and its army is actually weak, as has been seen in Ukraine.

Not a conflict of equals. The Chinese and some others, who would also like to benefit from a reshuffling of world trading cards (like possibly India), while stressing the need for diplomacy, still seem to be unable to see or likely refuse to state (for practical reasons) that there is one aggressor in the Ukraine invasion – as if both Russia and Ukraine and its allies were responsible for the war, and that such an approach could lead to a better compromise.

The Russian energy card is not as strong as it looked. While Russia is today a key provider of oil and gas, especially to Europe, the world is not a long-term hostage to Moscow, even if power rationing may happen in the short term. Saudi Aramco is going to boost oil production. Talks with Venezuela will likely continue, in spite of domestic political concerns from Hispanic US legislators across party lines. Iran may also export energy once the nuclear deal is agreed. France will renationalize EDF, its main energy company, and is likely to launch a new nuclear program. Spain is promoting the decoupling of European gas and electricity prices to lower energy costs. Even Germany has signed a long-term gas agreement with Qatar. In order to simply survive, Moscow one day may even have to offer incentives to the world to accept its oil and gas, as may be the case when dealing with many smaller import-dependent and/or militarily close (and thus largely “neutral”) African nations today.

The other real test for Europe. Beyond the military and economic impacts of this war, Europe, and especially the frontline states such as Poland or tiny Moldova, are faced with the largest refugee influx since WW2. Such a drastic development caused by Russia (and clearly also used by the Kremlin as a weapon mirroring sanctions) will have to be managed carefully over the long-term, requiring coordination and funding at EU and Western levels. While welcoming refugees and allowing them to work, the best plan to ensure the smoothest transition across Europe will have to ensure most refugees can return to their homeland, as and when possible, to participate in its rebuilding.

A quick lose-lose position for Russia. By breaking the norms of interactions between contemporary developed societies in Europe, and then (fortunately) not winning a more practical “blitzkrieg,” Russia cornered itself in a lose-lose position via a likely Syrian war-like stalemate, unprecedented world sanctions leading to a stronger Iron Curtain, and the only recourse to the nuclear option to desperately try to tactically prevail – if only in the messaging.

War developments seem unclear at this stage. While there are many speculations in the West as to why Putin started this war against “Nazis, drug addicts and to save brethren from a genocide” now, there is also no clear visibility as to what the next steps will be. It is hard to believe that Russia could withdraw from Ukraine without gaining “something” to save face, while the potential for escalation is high – also through accidents, including directly with NATO countries and former members of the former Soviet family in the region. A third world war is not impossible, though still an unlikely scenario, all the more given the irrationality shown by the Kremlin and its abysmal risk-reward analysis on display to date.

Russians will decide in the end what they want for Russia. Regardless of their historical subservience to autocracy, and even if there is a growing opposition at home, Russians will need today to make a choice as to what society they want to live in. They control their destiny and indirectly the fate of the world (if Putin went nuclear) far more than the West would. An estimated 200,000 Russians, most of them intellectuals and young professionals, left the country and “voted with their feet” in the first ten days of the invasion. However, the only definite solution to the Putin question is in Russian hands at home. Similarly, if the Russians did not interfere with a lost Kremlin, after a period of time – either via a coup or a revolution they could foment and/or support – they will ultimately also bear the responsibility for any adverse development going forward, making it harder for the West to forgive them.

The only way to deal with Russia now. European history has told us that placating dictators and hoping for the best only creates “Munich” and does not alleviate the road to disastrous war later. There is nothing to gain from showing understanding for the Russian moves or pseudo-cause which will only be seen as weakness, like excessive diplomacy would. The West is stronger than Russia and should make it clear in its resolve to both Russian leadership and people (also as change could be triggered from within) that it will stand firm, while not being bellicose. Fear of conflict will only create greater conflict, all the more so in the nuclear age. Bullies only understand superior strength, and that may have to be firmly displayed.

What to expect now? As stated it is hard to predict how the war in Ukraine will develop at this stage, now that the Russians have failed to win a quick victory, and the Ukrainians keep fighting hard to defend their sovereignty one month into the invasion. As the very perspicacious Gideon Rachman aptly wrote in the Financial Times this week, there are “three options: a prolonged war; a peace settlement; or a coup in Russia. Expect the first, work for the second and hope for the third”, while knowing that the latter is challenging, as even his closest aides no longer physically approach the Russian leader in a way that started with the pandemic era, and might explain his further isolation and strange decision-making. Regardless of the winning option in the making, the West should not become, one month into the conflict, sleepily accustomed to the daily continuous news flow and accept it as a normal fixture to live with.

Russia cannot be relied upon. In spite of Western intelligence reports to the contrary, Russia stated numerous times over two months that its large troop movements near the Ukrainian borders were only for exercises before finally invading. One month into the invasion, Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman (whose own daughter criticized the invasion on social media when she still could) explained that the Russian invasion had been to stop a Ukrainian one with its 120,000 troops ready on the “divide” and, in any case, were the last effort to respond to the West not addressing for 20 years the Russian concerns about a “militarized” and threatening Ukraine. The script of the reunification of the Russian people was abandoned while Peskov, the voice of Russia, was stressing the many Ukrainians wanting to work with the Russian army and making it clear that civilians had never been targeted as if in a parallel world and in spite of the numerous filmed proofs to the contrary. Confidently lying is now the official modus operandi of a Kremlin that is totally disconnected from world reality. This approach is also not conducive to producing any good faith diplomatic resolution to the conflict on the ground that would provide longer term guarantees to Ukraine and Europe.

What to do with Russia in the future? How to deal with Russia in a post-war scenario (putting aside the unavoidable subject of reparations – these not of the likes of returning Alaska) is going to be a major exercise for the West and the world that will require no Putin (in a Lindsey Graham scenario or not *) and a likely change in the autocratic and kleptocratic nature of Russia as we see it today. While it is likely, as the Russian opposition in exile states, that democracy would eventually happen in ways that would benefit the Russian population and indeed the world, this transition would require time and be likely more challenging in many aspects than the one experienced at the fall of the Soviet Union. The bleaker alternative for all parties, short of an always possible but still unlikely WW3, is a durable and worse Cold War than the one previously experienced though far more challenging for Russia itself.

Warmest regards,

Serge

*US Senator Lindsey Graham (a close friend of John McCain even if later too supportive of Donald Trump) vocally stressed the way out of the Ukraine-led world crisis would be to effectively assassinate Putin, this previously mentioned as likely the only way to stop the crisis quickly. While the US and Western governments do not officially and understandably support such a drastic development, the logic still holds. As the French saying goes, Lindsay Graham only said loudly what nearly everybody (in the West) thinks deeply and quietly.

The invasion of Ukraine – Lessons to be learned after only two weeks

10-3-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

Given the rapidly unfolding situation in Ukraine and the world reaction we see, I thought it was useful to do a wrap-up at this stage, while stressing key points and lessons to be learned from this tragedy. This note is admittedly longer than usual dealing with a story that is fast-evolving, bringing in new developments every day.

Two weeks into the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that was denied for weeks, Putin’s move is now a case study for the ages in what leaderships of declining powers gain by using obsolete strategic and military recipes in the global 21st century. All the more so in Europe.

Putin’s invasion rationale reflected a mix of “official” drivers such as: i) reuniting as a “liberator” Ukraine with Russia as Ukrainians and Russians were part of the same forcibly separated family and Kiev (or Kyiv) was the historical cradle of Russia; ii) putting a stop to NATO’s eastward expansion which had been promised would never happen by the George H.W. Bush administration; iii) rescuing the Russian-leaning populations of Eastern Ukraine, that were already separatist enclaves since the mid-2010s, from Ukrainian persecution; iv) responding to Ukraine’s military provocations and border attacks; v) fighting the “drug addicts” and “neo Nazis” represented by the Kyiv government, all while vi) effectively rebuilding an historical empire that might even transcend past Russian ideologies in power (thus creating concerns for the integrity of the EU itself). The fact that Ukraine and NATO never had any offensive plans against Russia, never provoked Russia or that Ukraine agreed to surrender its nuclear weapon capabilities in 1994 to secure its independence from both the West and especially Russia were non-issues.

Putin has now strategically achieved making Russia the world pariah state in little time. Most developments seen today in Ukraine and the world have run contrary to his earlier plans of a swift, unequivocal and accepted victory and reunification of what he saw as the historical “Russian family” and, more deeply, the avoidance of a gradually thriving and democratic Ukraine at his doorstep.

The lessons to be learned and key facts to focus on are indeed many:

  1. The return of history. This is the first war in Europe in 77 years at a time when such event was relegated to history books for all Europeans, especially after the end of the Cold War. American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who famously predicted “The End of History”, triggering much disbelief, at the end of the Cold War, is definitely proven wrong and admits it today.

  2. A real Ukraine arising. A strengthened Ukrainian national identity arose, ensuring that most if not all Ukrainians do not want to go back to Soviet days, apart from eastern separatists who would likely regret the mover later on when no longer useful to Russia.

  3. A weak Russian military. While blitzkrieg never was a Russian word, we have seen slower advance than expected by vastly superior Russian forces linked to low morale, poor training and general inefficiency, as Russia has traditionally relied on overwhelming numbers and equipment, involving heavy irrelevant casualties, rather than military excellence and leadership on the battlefield in modern history – this combined with a reluctance from some soldiers (most troops are conscripts) to fight against what should be cultural “brothers”. This slow Russian military progress has taken away the earlier Western impression that Moscow possessed an efficient war machine, while it may drive Putin to double down and worsen how the terrible conflict is already conducted.

  4. From bad to worse. The second week of the invasion showed Moscow stepping up its attacks by targeting residential areas and starting bombing cities like Mariupol, creating a heavy human toll, including at a children’s and maternity hospital. Deals to evacuate civilians from Mariupol were agreed and twice cancelled by Russia, while safe passage via “humanitarian corridors” from large cities only offered passage to Russia and Belarus, and a humanitarian convoy shelled by invading forces. Mercenaries from the Wagner Group (usually ex-Russian special forces having operated in Syria or now Mali) with little official restraints in the conduct of war are reported stepping in to stop the failure of regular army troops. The Kremlin would now want to also involve Syrian mercenaries while chemical weapons might be used.

  5. A shattered delusion. An idealistic, Putin so-called “Russian world” destroyed with Ukrainian cities constantly pounded by Russian artillery and missiles inflicting massive damages to civilians and infrastructure, furthering the case for resistance and independence at all costs. And making Putin’s two-way street reunification “dream” totally delusional, even if it had any serious basis in the first place. A delusion costing Russia USD 20bn a day.

  6. A vigorous popular resistance. While suffering an onslaught from another age, a rare Ukrainian civilian courage erupted in stopping Russian convoys while unarmed (like the famed 40 mile-long one that kept stalling) or by taking up arms against the invader at times with limited weaponry and only (how fitting) Molotov cocktails. Even Ukrainian hackers are now focusing on Russian targets. President Zelensky, who encouraged Ukrainians to fight, fast embodied both leadership and independence at acute personal risk, joining the small group of leaders who made European democratic history in WW2.

  7. A united West. A much stronger and united Western – and indeed world – response happened after years of “looking away” at the Putin reality and weeks of “appeasement” when diplomacy was naturally aimed at preventing the worst. This combined with particularly direct early US and UK intelligence messages on the real intent of a soon to be invading Russia (notably focused on “false flag” operations creating the need for a Russian response to so-called Ukrainian provocations) that eventually proved to be right, and was a tactical hindrance for the latter, making its invasion harder to “prepare” and later “promote” due to its official rationale, multiple denials and sensitive implementation.

  8. A stronger NATO. The invasion created in little time a much stronger NATO, stressing, if it were necessary, that the West is first and foremost the key solidarity-based transatlantic alliance based on the defence of both democracy and liberalism in Europe, while never focused on offence. NATO is indeed strengthened – with Finland to join soon, with Sweden still hesitating in spite of a majority of Swedes now for it, combined with more troops and equipment in Europe from the US and in Russian border states. And as the key NATO and Western development, a real Germany military arising (EUR 100bn in defence/2%+ of GDP and no more “practical” WW2 guilt at play) while the key Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was finally dropped by Berlin, showing the extreme times Europe is going through. A stronger NATO does not necessarily translate into unanimity, as seen with the US refusal for Polish MIG fighter jets being transferred from its Rammstein air force bases in Germany to Ukraine, given the actual war signs this move from NATO would mean to Russia at this point.

  9. An unexpected EU unity. A rarely-united EU, where its 27 members now generally speak in one voice and relatively fast against the invasion, while working together to inflict sanctions against Russia. Even a Putin-friendly Orban in Hungary decided, also for electoral purposes even if “1956” should have been enough, to condemn the invasion. A changing EU that agreed to fund weapons purchases for third party Ukraine for the first time in its history as it made sense for the preservation of the EU and its spirit. These unusual times for the European project, itself initially based on economic integration to avoid war, make us go back to founding father Jean Monnet who had stated that Europe, whatever its acronym, “would be forged in crises.”

  10. Neutrals vanishing. A Switzerland unexpectedly dropped its legendary neutrality in spite of private banks enjoying many Russian clients (this making William Tell doubtless very happy), leaving India oddly the only leading country in the world, doing a balancing act between its historical Russian military equipment provider and a new flourishing partnership with the US, not to condemn Moscow (some Middle Eastern states still strangely sitting on the fence), all while China seeming to be going through a gradual and pragmatic reassessment process, even if still ambiguous today. Switzerland even froze crypto-assets linked to Moscow at a time when Western crypto exchanges were still wondering what to do with their Russian investors, much in need at times of sanctions (and while the Russian central bank was a known opponent of cryptocurrency).

  11. A clear world condemnation. A United Nations vote nearly unanimously condemned the Russian invasion but for well-known bad world actors like Belarus, North Korea and Eritrea, themselves pariah states to a great degree. The Russian ambassador was at great pains to defend his country’s position, notably Putin’s assertion that the noble fight was against “neo-Nazis” even if led by a Jewish and native Russian speaking President, who is now perceived rightfully more as a new Winston Churchill or Charles de Gaulle (also very apt at using the media of our times), having found the best role that his past acting career could never have given him.

  12. The other economic war. Crippling financial and economic sanctions, seen by Putin as “a declaration of war,” that could harm Russia considerably, were quickly triggered with direct consequences for Russia’s full access to its USD 643bn reserves or indeed “war chest.” Other prime targets being the oligarchs (more than 50% Russian wealth is held outside Russia as seen with yachts and real estate seized in Europe and the US, or pre-emptive withdrawals from their longstanding businesses from locally well-accepted figures involved with the Chelsea Football Club or Letter One in London or “London-grad”) but also Russian banks (e.g. via ejection from the SWIFT banking payments system), Russian investment projects and partners globally and most importantly societally, in a sad but automatic way, its population in their daily lives. Virtually all major Western companies across sectors like Ikea, Apple or Nike have now taken the decision to pull out from operating in and with Russia. Even the emblematic Red Square 1990 pioneering McDonald’s and its 850 outlets is withdrawing. EY leads the Big4 auditors’ exodus. BP and Shell want to divest from their Russian oil joint-ventures, like nearly all Western investors and operators in Russia, Total and Raiffeisen Bank being notable exceptions to date. UniCredit, Société Générale and Citibank face major losses from the sanctions, while the former two have a large and challenging presence in Russia. Key Sovereign Wealth Funds are also withdrawing, like in Norway. The Rouble was down 30% in one day, and the Moscow Stock Exchange in a free fall in the first week of the invasion while JP Morgan predicts that Russia’s GDP will be down by 35% in the second quarter of 2022.

  13. The hybrid sanctions. Sanctions involved not simply economic and financial measures, but also targeting culture, sports and travel, as a different form of hybrid warfare that Moscow and its “platforms” practised with cyberattacks and disinformation in recent years, have been swift – and further isolate Russia. Artists or opera conductors, known to be sympathetic to Putin, have already been fired like at the Munich Symphonic Orchestra or at the MET in New York with performances cancelled. FIFA, the international football organisation, has already excluded Russia while its world tennis and Formula One racing equivalents have cancelled key tournaments and races in Russia. Aeroflot flights are no longer operating in Europe and is struggling to fly due to spare parts shortage. Even the International Cat Federation has banned Russian cats from participating in contests and sadly an Italian university would have banned, unfairly, Dostoevsky. Russia is becoming totally isolated.

  14. The ultimate sanctions. Sanctions are not primarily designed to hurt the Russian people, many of whom being appalled by the invasion of Ukraine and some of the barbaric methods at play. They are to finally stop the ability of the Russian regime to fund a war of another age in the heart of Europe. As such, the next step of the sanctions taken by the US and UK are targeting the Russian oil and gas industry, which are a very last non-military strike, and not universal given the dependence of some Western countries on Russian gas (Germany: 40% but Italy and Australia: 100%). This ultimate sanction focus will deliver a lethal blow to the funding of Putin’s war plans. In parallel the US will likely replace Russia as an oil provider to the world, including Europe, while trade and energy relations with unsavoury but less dangerous countries like Venezuela, a major oil provider, would as a result likely resume, sadly for the local opposition. Another oil provider could be Iran if the nuclear deal was finally closed as it could, if Russia does not block the signing as it has threatened via Lavrov. On a less positive and related note, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both having stated their neutrality at the UN, refused to discuss ways to ease the oil price surge resulting from the crisis with the Biden administration.

  15. The West and the world to also suffer. While not militarily engaged in the conflict for now, the West will suffer through a likely worsened post-pandemic stagflation (rising inflation + lower consumer demand) resulting from the conflict combined with a commodity crisis affecting the global food supply given the breadbasket nature of Ukraine’s arable lands. Russia is also a major neon gas and palladium exporter while Belarus, which is a key supplier of potash, will likely be under sanctions for acting as the subservient and barely independent partner of Putin’s Russia. Oil prices rose to USD 120 in nine days, which should for a while worsen world energy demand, especially if sanctions finally target Russian oil and gas exports (that a further unhinged Putin may also decide to stop, as he has now stated, to retaliate against Western sanctions, even if Russia would need these to fund its costly war in Ukraine). The price to preserve democracy and defeat Putin’s Russia is worth the economic costs – even if some EU members, like a new Germany, are still resisting for now restricting trade of “essential importance.”

  16. The Kremlin in a parallel world. While increasing repression and ensuring bad news never reach the Russian population, Moscow is responding to the Western sanctions as if it was business as usual by simply drawing by decree a very long list of “unfriendly countries” that would need their companies and citizens to seek authorisation with the Commission for Control over Foreign Investments to engage in business with and in Russia – as if any Western entities or individuals would today. Similarly, Russia instructed their regions and municipalities they could now settle their foreign exchange obligations with foreign creditors in Rouble as a mere technicality. While the Ukrainian onslaught goes on, Russia tries to still behave as a normal citizen of the world, like in its dealings with Western powers on the Iran Nuclear Accord, all in a surrealistic way.

  17. An early Westernised Ukraine. Ukraine is now possibly acceding EU membership or, if not yet, at least closer to it (given the complex process and need for internal accession reforms and other candidates), this being driven by a number of Eastern European EU members including the Baltic states that share a poor experience of relationships with and proximity to Russia. Once again, Putin made this EU membership scenario, now supported by the EU leadership (“Ukrainians belong to us” as stated by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen) far more possible than in the past if Ukraine stayed free or in a winning Russian scenario for now, became independent again in the post-Putin future if the latter ever happened which it would eventually.

  18. An eventually pragmatic China. Even if the Taiwan copycat could always be pursued and current moans about an Indo-Pacific NATO in the making, a still clearly ambiguous China is gradually distancing itself from Russia and the Moscow-Beijing axis desired by Putin, first by being a mediator, all driven by a focus on the (still global, even for a currently more inward-looking Beijing) economy and “saving civilian lives” (implicitly stressing the barbaric side of Russia). The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, whose leading shareholder is China, already suspended all operations with Russia and Belarus one week into the invasion. It is also clear that the US and the West will reset its relations with Beijing to ensure the dark axis is no longer viable, a move that is likely going to be welcome by a practical and economic growth-focused and globalised China that could also be key in ultimately influencing Russia if ever possible given the nature of its current leadership.

  19. Other geopolitical changes in the making. A one-time friendly Turkey is turning gradually against Russia while blocking the passage of one of its frigates, perhaps also as a way to “change” following economic woes and do a reset of its relationships with the West and the EU. Ankara’s mediator role at the end of the second week is a subtle sign that there is no axis with Moscow as the latter could have expected. This small event in the scope of the crisis may indicate a key geopolitical move in Eurasia. Venezuela, probably the biggest winner of all, could not have hoped for a better crisis in order to get back in the world as President Maduro confirmed productive talks with the US on oil supply.

  20. Crossing the lines. The strike on and seizure of the Zaporizhia nuclear facility, one of 15 such plants and the largest in the world, by Russian forces on 4th March is constituting a universally-recognised barbaric act, if not war crime – even if no Chernobyl-like radiations were noticed afterwards. Russia, officially putting the blame at the UN for the plant fire on a Ukrainian sabotage group, indirectly stressed that nuclear facilities were fair game, triggering a major threat for Ukrainians (and ironically Russia itself, this also pointing to potential military mismanagement) as well as EU member states, like France, that rely on nuclear energy infrastructures for their energy needs. Statements about radiation leaks at the Chernobyl nuclear plant were made by Ukraine following a conflict-induced power cut in the second week of the invasion.

  21. More refugees for Europe. The invasion triggered the most massive refugee influx into Europe since WW2 (especially Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Moldova for now), dwarfing the 2015 waves from the Middle East and Africa and requiring intense coordination among EU member states. Two million only in the first 12 days (mostly women and children, men under 60 required to stay behind to fight) and rising with an 8 million forecast by UN agencies. So far, the populations of neighbouring EU member states have been very welcoming to these refugees, but it is early days and long-term solutions will have to be found, including a return to the homeland whenever the situation allows it at all levels. The European management of the refugee crisis has been so far very good at the EU level, with Poland managing to welcome 1.2 million Ukrainians across the border while the UK, no longer in the EU, has only so far managed to issue 500 visas due to its own non-EU procedures, lack of paperwork from applicants, and a confused Home Office dealing with a critical matter that had also helped define Brexit and influenced the outcome of the June 2016 Referendum.

  22. Problems for Russian expatriates. The conflict created an uneasy status or situation for Russian expatriates (happening privately to be pro- or against Putin and/or the invasion) especially in the EU and US, accompanied by visa reviews and restrictions going forward, unless they already have secured political asylum or permanent residence. Being Russian clearly does not mean supporting Putin’s reckless move, even if 58% vs. only 23% of those “independently” polled in late February by phone in Russia would support the invasion (the now famous “Z” rallying letter also appearing, especially among the young), actually a lower number than on similar occasions, also knowing the likely responses obtained in autocracies. However, the sheer invasion may create very uncomfortable situations for expatriates in their day-to-day lives and interactions. It is worth noting that many well-integrated Russian communities abroad, like in Brighton Beach, New York, have shown strong solidarity with Ukraine. The Russian diaspora, many with links with Ukraine (almost stressing Putin’s key point) is actually gradually up in arms against the Russian leader.

  23. Russians who have already “spoken”. Some Russians have already decided to leave their own country on the first day of the invasion and when they could do so, foreseeing the worst for their country and themselves, though not sure whether they could eventually arrange permanent residence status in their new country of choice, which may also not be that welcoming. These departures underlined that not only Ukraine and Europe were under attack, but also the soft Russian autocracy disguised as a democracy in words only, that was suddenly shifting to a state of hard autocracy with mass arrests of war protesters and total state control of the media. It is reported that many “intellectuals” and tech workers have already left Moscow and St. Petersburg for the West.

  24. The European populists are lost. Many European populist or extreme right party leaders like those of the Rassemblement National in France, The Northern League in Italy and AfD in Germany kept praising Putin for years for his strong leadership, linked to a popular defence of national identity – especially after the 2015 refugee crisis. While Hungary’s Orban became expediently critical of Russia, Matteo Salvini (NL) is fast shredding his Putin t-shirts in Poland, Marine le Pen (RN) is struggling to destroy leaflets showing her shaking hands with Putin (her 2017 presidential campaign was partly financed by a Prague-based outpost of a Russian bank) while Eric Zemmour, the populist French media personality seeking the presidency is at a loss for words. The Ukraine invasion dented populists’ appeal across Europe while Macron, like other competent mainstream politicians, who is seeking a second mandate in April, is now reasonably certain today to close his deal for and with France in style.

  25. The risk of total war. While Russia and NATO do not want to fight each other “now”, the risk of escalation and tactical errors such as Russian military aircraft straying into NATO airspace is real, something that Russian nuclear forces being put on high alert for no military reasons other than strategic and tactical bullying does not help. Much attention is devoted by NATO to avoiding such tragic mistakes, hence the de facto no-fly zone for their own aircraft over Ukraine. The only reason for the West not to intervene militarily now is Putin’s unclear behaviour and his literally presiding over the largest nuclear forces in the world (itself another demonstration that the West was asleep for years, tolerating too much, essentially focused on the economy and naively believing in the End of History).

  26. The key Western issue going forward. The key lesson for the West and the world is clear. Resisting forcefully Putin’s Russia’s unprovoked aggression to defend Ukraine, Europe, democracy and liberalism while trying not to corner the increasingly unstable-looking Russian leader, given his clear lose-lose scenario in the making, and give him an irrational nuclear escape into common oblivion.

Perhaps the only solution to stop the disaster?

As many pundits have kept noting, these Russia-adverse developments may further unhinge an already unstable Putin, the once young thug from St Petersburg, which is always a risk. While Putin created a combined or osmosed KBG-oligarchic state system or scheme, gradually taking back or hijacking Russia in the 2000s (as the West conveniently slept) while softly taking on the world (via London-grad and other key helpful locations and service providers), he did so methodically and rationally, something that the invasion of Ukraine drastically stopped. Hence the rationale (for some, the only way to stop this) and so indeed need for a coup in the Kremlin or a revolution in Russia, two scenarios that seem unlikely given the grip Putin has on power, and especially the risk aversion of the Russian elite, even if such power architecture really hinges upon one man being around. Any change at the top would require some individuals in Putin’s political, military or oligarch inner circle to realise the severe long-term damages to Russia and act soon and decisively. The few early statements made by Western-friendly Russian officials though deeply-tied to Putin – like “sanctioned” former President Dmitry Medvedev or Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – were not encouraging in relation to a possible regime change, though they may not have had any room for manoeuvre at the time. As many experts have rightly stressed, failed wars have already played a role in bringing regime change in Russia, a feature that may add to wealth and way of life preservation.

How will the Russian people react to more autocracy and privations at home?

As for the Russian population that historically invariably supports Putin (80% support after the 2014 “little green men”) – in spite of the many arrests of brave protesters we saw – they still are given the propaganda Kool-Aid that this “special operation” (never an invasion) was all “to save the pro-Russian Eastern Ukrainians from persecution” and might not like the impact of the sanctions. As for the news from the “front,” Russian official media carefully omit any views of cities and civilians being bombed while criticism of the “special operation” by local and foreign media in Russia is now criminalised by law with independent platforms having been shut down and persistent rumours that Russia will cut itself off from the global internet. Side question: Will the Russian population eventually wake up as the sanctions are felt or conveniently blame the West and the world? Will there be enough of them to start disbelieving the official narrative?

Why did Putin really invade? (or the question with no answer)

Why Putin finally invaded beyond his official reasons will be a subject matter for generations of historians to come. Was it for his legacy? Was it out of frustrations of seeing a Russia, an average economic power mainly defined by its military spending and natural resources continually falling back in the pecking order of nations? Is it as China was now the US adversary? Was it Russia’s gradual irrelevance? Was he indeed unhinged as widely reported? Did he become too isolated in the pandemic era, with no inner circle able to make him see other options and the harm done to Russia by his reckless actions? Did he see democracy and liberalism, with all the faults we know, making Russian autocracy unworkable going forward? What are his real war aims, as he sticks to extreme objectives in ongoing “negotiations” with Ukraine? The list of questions is endless, going back to how Russia has been different from the rest of the developed world throughout the last century, and might not have changed much at its core since the end of the Soviet Union – as shown by Putin. It is clearer now through the Ukrainian invasion – or another conflict of that type – that opposing the West was, to Russia, always lurking in its essence ¬– this regardless of Putin’s clear unawareness of its cost-benefits for Russia and himself. It was also always a foregone conclusion, in spite of the many denials, as likely shown with the several thousand Putin-friendly Wagner mercenaries reported quietly dispatched to Ukraine in January (400 of whom to Kyiv in hiding mode, some tasked with assassinating President Zelensky, which they would have tried on three occasions in the first week of the invasion).

A fast-changing situation at all levels with no positive outcome for Russia

It is really amazing how things moved fast from a Munich 2.0 in the West as the invasion started and implicitly a Putin victory to the stark opposite in a manner of days, even if Putin eventually (and likely) won on the ground, this “whatever happens” in his own stark words to President Macron. This approach is actually delusional as military victory is always possible for Russia, however clumsy and highly challenging, but post-war is truly unmanageable given the local Ukrainian opposition and the massive need for Russian soldiers on the ground to ensure control (US military experts, puzzled by the Russian military inefficiency, put the number at a one million Russian occupation force to control the Western part of that great and loving “Russian family”). And then Russia would remain the top pariah state in the world while returning behind a stronger version of the old Iron Curtain.

Western determination is key and not easy

The West and the world should keep supporting Ukraine forcefully, with the clear focus on stopping the Russian invasion, preserving Ukrainian independence and avoiding a broader conflict of a WW3 type – this without surrendering to the strategy and tactics displayed by a Russian leadership lost in another age. All while Europe will need reshaping durably its energy strategies. Not an easy and risk-free task, all the more so as it is highly challenging to see, in a most positive scenario, how the West and the world could ever restore any working relationships with a Putin-led Russia.

What the invasion of Ukraine really is and has brought

Let’s never forget that the attack on Ukraine, even if not a NATO or EU member state, was also an attack on democracy, especially European democracy, however imperfect in the live fighting case of a Ukraine in constant transition. Many also rightly view it as an attack on liberalism by the champion of historical authoritarianism in existential crisis. Putin’s end achievement, while having no sustainable political endgame now (hence the key world risk), is having both harmed and transformed Russia into a North Korea 2.0 in a very efficient if distorted way. In many respects, the Russian invasion was a wake-up call on what really matters.

A useful if tough reminder and wake-up call

One of the benefits, though too positive a word given the context, of the Ukraine invasion is to remind our younger generations, especially but not only in the West, that nothing, like a peaceful world, is guaranteed and that there are other things to focus on than social media, video games and oneself, even if the former can also help fighting the devil in such crises.

The main lesson for Europe and the world

The main lesson of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine for Europeans is that the Transatlantic Alliance, born on the ashes of WW2 and the seeds of the Cold War, is more critical and relevant than ever – this on both sides of the ocean. This key partnership will now evolve with Europeans, via the EU, naturally taking a more responsible and direct commitment to their defence, a strategic sovereignty mantra long pushed by President Macron and now demonstrated by a new Germany, itself one of the major developments arising from the ongoing Ukrainian tragedy.

Warmest regards from a Prague that remembers 1968,

Serge

The Russian invasion of Ukraine – Key points to think about

27-2-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

As we go through an unprecedented event in European history, there is probably too much to read about the Ukraine invasion today. However, a summary of key points may be useful. Here is an attempt:

Russia lied from the beginning. When asked repeatedly about the rationale for so much military presence by the Ukrainian border (and then in Belarus) for weeks, Russia stressed time and time again it was not for an invasion. Just for military exercises.

Russia suffers from an existential crisis. It only exists today through its military and some key natural resources. While military spending represents a disproportionate part of its GDP, the latter is now the size of a large but not leading European Union member state.

NATO is purely defensive. While some, like economist Jeffrey Sachs, sensibly argued that the big problem, as stated by the Kremlin, lay with NATO’s eastward expansion, NATO – which is a defensive organisation – would have never had offensive plans against Russia.

NATO’s unexpected next steps. The next step for NATO, directly linked to Putin’s mistaken move, will be to welcome both Finland and Sweden, two pillars of earlier neutrality (only the Swiss will sadly remain “pragmatically” neutral in the West).

A conundrum for the West. While all Western countries and most of the world reject the invasion, military intervention at this point to defend and save Ukraine, a democracy – though indeed not a NATO member – is too hard. This is combined with the prevailing, though evolving, view that one did not want to “die for Kyiv”. It is a sad fact for many but the reality we know. Harsh targeted economic sanctions and military equipment support are the only option for now.

Putin’s thirst for a great legacy. At 69, and facing what he perceives as a declining Russia at many levels, Putin focuses on the past and ways to rebuild an evasive position and glory for his country and himself. The more he ages, the more memories of the fall of the Soviet Union reappear even if merely tactically helpful. And time is flying.

Not the right model for Putin’s Russia. The view of a gradually democratic Ukraine, however imperfect by Western standards, with closer ties to the West is now just unbearable for Putin – and not what he wants next door, also given the deep historical ties with Russia.

Putin is increasingly isolated. The Covid era made him literally distance himself from people and reality, relying on a clique of “yes men” going his way. The odd meetings with foreign counterparts and his security council or his televised speeches showed an individual losing his grip on reality (as also demonstrated by putting nuclear forces on high alert). A dangerous fact based on history. Any negotiated settlement of the crisis will therefore be very arduous and well past “not losing face”.

Russia’s population is buying the scheme “for now.” Like with the Russian security guard in our residence in Prague, and in spite of arrests of protesters in major Russian cities, Russian propaganda was able to distil the message that the Russian invasion was justified so oppressed Russian brethren in eastern Ukraine could be “rescued”. Putin still benefits from an image of an able and necessary leader who steered Russia well over the last 20 years – in a country that values strong leadership, even if urban centres are increasingly perplexed and its people have indeed “travelled” abroad.

A tactical win, maybe, but a serious strategic loss, surely. Putin and Russia may win now in Ukraine in spite of fiercer resistance than expected, but will lose strategically over the longer term. Sanctions will gradually cripple the Russian economy and its elite (as well as, sadly, its population) even if also harmful to the West and especially Europe. Putin’s decision to invade has done a terminal damage to Russia for generations to come and most notably its younger ones who wanted to belong more to a globalised world. Isolation and pariah status may be Russia’s future in the best of cases.

Putin’s axis with China is misplaced. While now being a likely unhappy junior member of what he perceives to be an anti-US/Western Moscow-Beijing axis, Putin does not realise that Western relations with Xi Jinping will markedly improve in the near future due to the former’s likely warmer entreaties as a result of “Ukraine”. Pragmatic China will always prefer to focus on the economy and its own leadership rise than getting lost in 19th and 20th century military adventurism in which it has nothing to gain (if it does not seize the moment to invade Taiwan, which would be too much of a Ukraine-like losing proposition).

The risk of spiralling into total war is real. If Putin starts expanding beyond Ukraine into former Soviet sphere states like Poland or the Baltic states, the Western response will be militarily. The possibility of triggering a direct NATO-Russian confrontation, involving the US, the UK, France, Germany, Japan and a host of nations, due to events going out of control is not small. It is therefore key to leave an exit for Russia even now and not corner Putin into more irrationality. If the worst happened and while the conflagration would be immense in our nuclear age, it is unlikely Russia would still keep existing as we know it.

Short of an expanded war, the adverse side effects are real for Europe. The flow of Ukrainian refugees into Poland and other Central European EU member states will be massive and require a very rapid coordination from the EU. Similarly, the status of Russian nationals residing in the EU will be reviewed and visas may no longer be available going forward. It is to be hoped that those Russian nationals who left their homeland for political reasons or are not de facto agents of Putin’s Russia will be allowed to stay and will not suffer from any undue local opprobrium.

The wild joker card is also an option. As Putin sinks further into irrationality in spite of the many comfortable justifications for it, many top oligarchs may sense that their wealth, families or sheer existence may be endangered, depriving them of many things the world offers, even if they rarely deserve it beyond total allegiance. Putin is only one man and his power architecture essentially depends on him being around.

In the end Putin may actually and unwittingly have helped build a stronger Ukraine – and a stronger NATO. The main tangible result achieved by Putin’s invasion, even if eventually successful and for how long it lasts, will have been to have strengthened the national identity of many Ukrainians and their resolve in not going back to a Soviet-like past. The level of Ukrainian resistance is a live case in point. If anything, the official desire to reunite a supposed family by force will have been very one-sided and delusionary, reflecting Russia’s stark issues about its own future. While not fighting Russia now, NATO is also getting stronger as a result of the invasion with increased support and resolve from all of its members, away from the Trump times. A line in the sand has been drawn, allowing the West to find its roots anew.

Warmest regards,

Serge

The seven pillars of European power going forward

18-10-21

Dear Partners in thought,

As Brexit and Trump are now “done” (apparently not for sure for the latter), Desperate Measures will take a new focus going forward. As a French-born Transatlantic European I will now concentrate more on the European Union as it is a key matter for global stability and prosperity – and for the future of Europe and its nations.

In a world which Lord Cornwallis would recognise as “upside down” like at Yorktown, where historical allies are less reliable – hopefully temporarily – and key adversaries more defined and assertive, the EU needs to redefine what it wants to be going forward. For the EU member states, the future is clearly European or gradual oblivion.

There is an urgent need to redefine a new course for the EU which is clearly based on a strict adherence to the European values inherent to liberal democracy, individual freedom, human dignity and the rule of law. I will go back to many of these features in the months to come but the seven pillars of European power should be as follows:

  1. Restore and strengthen a mutually beneficial Transatlantic relationship

While the Obama administration started a shift of focus from Europe to Asia, Donald Trump exacerbated matters in style and substance, even if his criticism of NATO member defence spending was not wrong. The Biden administration’s AUKUS strategy in the Indo-Pacific (that may have had its own rationale) marked a rare and direct blow against its oldest ally, France – and beyond, the whole EU. This may have been a one-off deviation that Washington scrambled to assuage, but it also marks the culminating point of a markedly-changed America which is acting more like any other power focused on its own interests, and not as the leader of the West for which it was known since WW2. However, there is nothing to gain for the two sides of the “pond” to grow distant as both will lose out. The EU and the US need to work as one – all the more so as the world has changed, and threats are more real than ever.

  1. Strengthen EU independence and build a real defence apparatus

The EU has existed as a meaningful world power only through trade, which it leads worldwide. This is no longer enough to exist globally – and possibly to survive. The time when some EU member states can only focus on exports of their goods, whatever their rationalisation, is finished. All member states should contribute to a common defence fund while gradually building a European defence force. An interim period can exist where countries like France, with a powerful military organisation, can fill the void and help shape the new EU defence programme. This drive for a strong independent defence is no longer an option and should also be welcome across the pond.

  1. Engage but be tough with a more assertive China

China has reached a point where it is a serious contender for world leadership in many areas, this after decades of unparalleled growth. Its leadership style, strangely still Communist-flavoured in name only, is clearly autocratic and in opposition to most of what the EU stands for, the Uighur camps not being a sole example. It is clear that as the EU builds up its independence and defence apparatus, it needs to clearly communicate with China, in cooperation with the US, that we are very different and will not accept everything from them. However, an anti-China rhetoric that started with the Trump administration and keeps going on today should not be the way of the EU unless it wants to partake in going down the road to mutual perdition. The EU should be tough, but should also engage with China so we can all work together and resolve potential conflicts before they actually arise. The more China is integrated in the global economy as they are, the less the risk of a massive slippage in Asia or elsewhere (I should stress that I seed capital invested in Toorbee, a European start-up focused on outbound Chinese tourism, also on the premises that the more the Chinese see the world, the better for all of us when they return back home and can help “change” at their own individual level).

One card the EU should play in this West-China geopolitical rivalry is to work on instilling a mutually-beneficial rapprochement with Russia, that was sought in the past by the likes of Macron, that may influence a more peaceful behaviour on its part (Ukraine would appreciate) and a return to a pre-WW1 alliance of sorts. Russia is not a natural partner of China – it is also a rival – and would gradually feel the junior partner of an anti-Western partnership which is not what the Russian leadership will ever want.

  1. Take the leadership on Climate Change

There is no issue more key today, short of avoiding a nuclear holocaust, than winning the war on Climate Change. It is an existential fight the world cannot lose, which the EU can take a leadership in fighting. COP 26 in Britain is a good example of a new focus, even if Britain is no longer a member state and as it follows the steps of the landmark Paris COP 20 Agreement. This is probably one of the easiest common themes to implement even if some members states, and not the smallest ones, still depend on old energy resources. There is a clear consensus, even if the implementation challenges are real. No room for mistakes.

  1. Defend European identity (also to defeat populism)

Immigration is welcome and at times needed as many countries notice with shortages of taken-for-granted truck drivers like in Britain post-Brexit. At the same time identity is also existential and the perception of its theft too intense for those who are not all “bad people” and feel left out by those who lead us. The 2015 mass immigration that some countries like Germany welcomed at the top to fill in needed jobs, is no longer an option and should be clearly stated. Regulating immigration, while welcoming all talents the EU would need, is the only way to defeat inept populism with its easy answers to complex issues and no ability to govern adequately. Defending identity will bring back to mainstream rational political thinking those who should also be respected for naturally wanting to feel at home in their country. This identity-focused approach should go hand in hand with working more closely on soundly structured and monitored economic aid packages with the countries where refugee flows are the greatest so the desperate and often dangerous urge to “leave” markedly recedes.

  1. Invest massively in education (also to counter tech-enabled populism)

Another aspect of the fight against populism is to invest massively in education to counter the negative impact of tech and social media-enabled dissemination of fake news and simplistic populist ideas that usually appeal to the uneducated. This education drive, beyond the teaching of rational thinking and other key subject matters, should also involve across the EU landscape a full curriculum as to what it means to be European and why it is good for all. There has been an absence of telling EU citizens about the benefits of EU membership, which education from a young age should deal with as a matter of strategic priority.

  1. Enlarge but not all costs

The Western Balkans and a few other small Eastern European countries, many with a challenging past, have wanted to join the EU for years. It has been an admittedly long process for a variety of reasons, including the lack of enthusiasm of some key existing member states as seen recently at a recent EU summit. It is key to keep to the process and reject no European-based country from joining, but it should not be done at the cost of dividing and weakening the current family home, especially as it keeps digesting the historical blow of Brexit and deals with the hopefully temporary vagaries of Hungary and Poland (demonstrators and voters helping) that keep trampling on club rules while too easily forgetting their challenging pasts and vast historical membership benefits.

Bonus pillar: Gradually bring Britain back

It may be too early to mention a return to the EU, all the more so as the current British government is happy not to adhere to the terms of a Treaty it signed in January 2020. However, the EU must look into the future, realising that younger generations who did not vote much in June 2016, are massively pro-European and will change the British game when older Brexiteers simply disappear. Britain is a key part of Europe, however difficult it can be at times, and should fittingly be a member of the “club” so we are stronger. Brexit was a victory of populism facilitated by practically-minded politicians who simply wanted to lead their country and were ready to embrace any compromise to achieve their goals, like pursuing a damaging course or changing the tenets of their party’s ideology. As the impact of Brexit keeps being felt, and the UK risks being disunited, it is not unthinkable that popular opinion will eventually shift massively for Britain to re-join in less time that could be thought previously, again with the younger generations at the helm. It is imperative that the EU assists those British forces to make the sensible choice for all of us when the time comes.

These seven pillars are not the only areas to work on. Enhancing democracy within the EU is key – and indeed existential all the more in today’s world. Matters like the regulation of Big Tech in terms of contents and taxation, which has started, is key. The fight against corruption of our political elites and business in general is also crucial. A fair taxation system that cares for the people of the EU without alienating entrepreneurial innovation is essential, like a health system that covers all its citizens and could modelled on the tested French one. A global drive to ensure more sanity in the financial world with the gradual rejection of the decoupling of profitability and massive valuation of ever loss-making listed tech stocks like in New York should be a European agenda, this to avoid fuelling revolutionary anger going forward. A more focused approach to assisting those still called developing nations linked to the respect of human rights should be essential. More at home, an intransigence on EU members that do not respect the letter and spirit of EU legislation, values and principles while happily cashing in should be the enforced norm, even leading to their exclusion, a scenario they would never wish to happen beyond the usual grandstanding. The list of key issues could go on of course.

One of the major issues, if not the major one, facing the EU at some point, years if not decades from now, will be to decide if it wants to have its 1776. The word itself scares many but may seem years from now like a natural development which could be done without forgetting the roots of member states as citizens of Virginia or Texas would confirm today. However, this is for another time. It is key now to build the seven pillars of European power and let the EU thrive in the structure we know. This would be a major achievement.

Warmest regards,

Serge

The disgraceful Afghan withdrawal will alter America’s image and status forever

14-8-21

Dear Partners in thought,

My apologies for a long silence since April as I took a break from Desperate Measures feeling that its two drivers, Brexit and Trump, had finally been “done”, even if we feel in both cases that their presence is still vividly felt. If I may be uncharacteristically personal, I was also much affected by a very appalling start-up seed capital investment experience, involving people I respected, and that I am still in the process of digesting in the right way.

Post-Trump and Brexit, two of the most infamous developments of the 2010s that affected the US and Britain, as well as Europe and the world (in whichever order you prefer), I found it hard to focus on a return to more normal times, again as if still suffering from both sad events and also given our Covid “new normal” era. The arrival of Joe Biden in the White House (that hopefully and finally ran contrary, as wished for, to the Orwellian scenario of “2027”) brought with it a certain boredom that was so much needed at so many levels, even if it made reading my daily Financial Times less exciting and the jobs of its famed journalists more challenging. Biden also brought with him a great team of “professionals” and his share of grand projects that are so American in nature, as seen with his much-needed infrastructure and related bills. He markedly rebuilt the ties with Europe and NATO, a key area for me and others living in the Old World. Although he kept the Trump line against China, even becoming harder in many ways, Xi did his best to prevent a US refocus on a mutually productive re-engagement with the Red Dragon. And then came Afghanistan.

Based on a dubious peace agreement engineered last year by the Trump administration, Biden decided in April to leave Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9-11 in a way that was more akin to Hollywood than the White House. As the Taliban rapidly took advantage of a sudden departure embodied by the night-time exit from the Bagram air force base where tons of assets were left behind – as if fleeing from an imminent invasion, Biden stressed he had no regrets as it was up to the Afghan people to defend themselves and, de facto, decide for their future. Indeed, a new turn after 20 years. All at a time when US forces were fewer than 3,000 on the ground, and no casualty had been experienced in years, all the while USD 1 trillion had been spent without the benefit of a clear and decisive Nazi Berlin-like Taliban eradication. In actually no time, and likely to the surprise of the Pentagon and the CIA, the Taliban took over districts and cities on a daily basis, Kandahar being the last trophy, making Kabul a target for takeover. Now Kabul is under takeover threat. In a strange reversal, about 3,000 US troops (a sadly fitting number) were planned to be dispatched to Kabul in short order to avoid the dreadful 1975 pictures of Saigon embassy personnel barely fleeing from the roofs via helicopters.

I took part in a poll on the daily CNN’s Smerconish newsletter about whether the current Afghan departure was a good thing, only to see when I clicked that I was part of only 30% who felt it was not. Clearly that poll is essentially targeting Americans, many of whom have been tired by the “Long War” as it is often described, in a worse depiction than the old Vietnam equivalent. However short-sighted and, putting aside his historical aversion for nation-building abroad, Biden’s decision was of course eminently focused on domestic politics, at a time when he badly needed a bipartisan approach, like with his infrastructure bills. There was a need to find areas where domestic agreement would be reached, this at a low political cost. However, are Afghan women paying for better American roads and the need for post-Trump era solace? And in a political comedy act, the Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, who supported the Trump Treaty with the Taliban, now scream at the quick withdrawal humiliation for the US and the risk of another potential 9-11. The problem with this departure, putting aside the financial costs involved (and yes, in spite of the endemic local corruption that must exist), is its clear damage to what Americans and America stand for and what US leaders have always used as a natural and differentiating foreign policy tool. It is going to be hard for America to manage, when one looks at what happens to women and free thinking in a thuggishly and backwardly Taliban-controlled Afghanistan – one that could have been relatively easily prevented. The financial cost is not an issue as allies could have contributed, including Afghanistan itself, but also allies and neighbouring countries in need of regional and indeed national stability (who indeed wants a next 9-11?). The human cost is no longer an issue, as winning stability and not war is the objective. The best likely scenario could be that the US, not wanting China, Russia and Pakistan to assert themselves, will keep sending US special forces and lead aerial attacks from abroad in a less efficient and practical way, rendering their departure only a tactical mistake. More would be better of course. At least NATO is now convening, given the rapidly unexpected adverse development on the ground. If they did nothing and kept hoping, fingers crossed, for the best, America will pay a serious price in terms of image and reputation globally, making them just another country, something they cannot afford in a climate of Cold Peace with a rising China. Let’s hope that egos do not prevent a change of mind and practical solutions where the US and its allies are back soon. The girls and women of Afghanistan would appreciate it. As would some of us who always believed in America and what it stood for – and remember D Day. If America is gone, who is left today?

Warmest regards,

Serge

Where we are in this challenging world

12-4-21

Dear Partners in thought,

I hope that you all enjoyed as good a start of 2021 as was possible considering the strange times we are still going through more than a year after the start of the dreadful pandemic. Having had both Brexit and Trump “done” and as they were the impetus for the start of this blog, it seemed like a pause was timely. It also felt wise to sit back and ponder as too many events were unfolding globally after the US presidential election. The world now is quite different from what it was only a few months ago, which warranted a review of where we are – or might be in terms of the state of international affairs.

The US has now gone back fairly quickly to being what we always knew with a more stable leadership under Joe Biden. The formerly normal presidential style has come back to what the world knew pre-Trump. Integrity in how things are said and done is finally back at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The quality of Biden’s team is also markedly higher than that of his predecessor’s, party affilitation aside. Old alliances, upon which our world was built and worked well for decades, are being repaired, especially across the Atlantic. In a stark contrast to 2020, Covid is rationally managed and the vaccination drive is going well, even if the pandemic is still challenging. The current focus may be more domestic than international for now though the magnitude of the various programmes launched by Biden to deal with the Covid economic impact and the long overdue infrastructure revival are clearly FDR- and New Deal-flavoured, giving America back its old and decisive game-changing image.

And yet America is still dealing with a shift to the extremes, be it “hard populism” often tainted with white supremacy on the right (that some Republican officials and indeed Trump play with, often for electoral and/or funding reasons) or “cancel or woke culture” rooted in historical wrongs (that some Democrats and activists play with, often for electoral and/or career reasons). The extremes are forcefully vocal and while they “still” do not represent the majority of Americans, they can monopolise the headlines, this being exacerbated by the social and partisan news media. The middle ground seems a bit lost at times even if the likes of Joe Biden try their best to uphold it. Old heresies like the lack of gun control legislation while people get killed doing their grocery shopping or going to school still abound even if they are now finally addressed given the weekly atrocities at play. A majority of Republican voters, many of whom disliked Trump at the personal level but had only him to defend their conservative ethos, still seems to think that Biden and the “radicals” stole his election. BLM, regardless of its noble agenda and the need for policing change in US society, kept triggering demonstrations involving statue-defacing and urban looting, fuelling the anger of the other side in a mutually vicious circle. Enough lunatic individuals, some of them self-declared patriots though forgetting any sense of propriety, were ready to storm the seat of their legislative power and hang unfaithful Vice Presidents as seen on January 6. Facts do not matter much and even a much wider trade deficit increase under Trump did not seem to negate his much heralded and tactically inept anti-China trade war stance and related protectionism with most of his voters, many who actually directly suffered from them, like in the agriculural Midwest. Like in Europe in terms of sheer populism, more and more Americans, especially those lacking suitable reference points, are tempted by easy solutions to complex issues, indeed the key Western disease for which no vaccine has yet been found.

In the meantime, Europe is going through challenging times of its own which started with Brexit and Covid-19 enhanced. Unsurprisingly Britain is suffering on the trade front (having too easily forgotten the asymmetric relationship with the EU, its main partner) and from a gradual decline of its financial sector status (the latter that was surprisingly ignored by Number Ten in pushing for Leave) with Boris Johnson only saved by a timely successful vaccine roll-out (in spite of its ongoing Astra Zeneca issues) that was always easier to manage by one country than 27. The hollowness of sovereignty in name only has not yet sunk in in the “leaving” Midlands, the North of England and Wales while the consequence of Brexit may be a union in name only when and if Scotland goes away (not to mention now, Northern Ireland). Germany is going through a challenging un-German time with doubts about both its efficiency and political leadership as a result of surprising Covid mismanagement combined with the uncertain end of a long political era. France, the never happy country, is going through an incredible Trumpian scenario where an incompetent but masterly populist Marine le Pen is exploiting feelings of disgruntled “lost identity” voters, stressing that left and right no longer exist as she dares saying Boris Johnson aptly demonstrated in his own December 2019 elections. Le Pen, aware that skills and expertise are not on her side is even going as far as offering a government of national unity of sorts, well beyond the remit of her party (knowing that she would be hard pressed to find enough competent material there). And yet as the 2022 presidential race approaches, the current poll gap with Emmanuel Macron is only of six points (which for a Le Pen is an incredible achievement), people having forgotten that Giscard beat Mitterand with less than one in 1974 and led the country for seven years without any problems. Even the political scandal-adverse Netherlands is in trouble following its PM having wanted to appoint a problematic individual as minister, putting his longstanding leadership in jeopardy. While Spain is having minor coalition issues at the top, only and surprisingly Italy among leading EU member states seem to have found a new and unusual wind with former “safe pair of hands” ECB President Mario Dragghi at its helm (making even a colourful Northern Leaguer like Salvini becoming overnight almost a boring middle ground politician, if only for personal and partisan tactical reasons). So most leading countries in Europe are going through tough times due to to where they also are in their own calendars. However the EU itself has also mismanaged the Covid vaccination process, making all the Brexiters finding at last a good reason to rejoice – this even if the EU is a bloc, however worthy, of 27 different nations that will always be harder to manage than one, especially in times of crisis and still at its stage of “work in progress” development.

Following 9-11, the Middle East became the unstable region of the start of the millenium with its series of invasions, domestic unrest if not revolutions, civil wars and drastic leadership changes. Twenty years on, while Syria and Yemen still present their war-related challenges and Iran remains a sensitive question, the region is generally more stable, this even if Afghanistan, faithful to its historical tradition, remains a perenial problem area. Russia is still dangerous though foreign adventures like Crimea and Eastern Ukraine launched to divert domestic attention are a tired recipe for the Kremlin which will have to focus more at home on an ever-rising domestic urban and younger generations dissent. On the global stage, the steady rise of China has not been without its problems given the Hong Kong, Tibet, Uyghur camps, South China seas or Taiwan threat situations, not to mention the rather slow reaction to manage the then nascent epidemic in Wuhan even if it likely did not start in a lab and was a Beijing-led conspiracy. The words “New Cold War” are more frequent even if too easily mentioned. While it wants to assert its superpower status and is not a reflection of the Western age of enlightment, China is not keen on war at this stage (nor was it for decades), even if more aggressive. China needs the world if only as a market, which should dampen its fiercest ardours. In a mirror image, our economies and its consumers still need the world’s factory and the low pricing of its goods while the health of Western sectors like tech, automotive, banking or luxury goods rely partly upon China. A Beijing rapprochement with Moscow, that might seem mutually beneficial to face the West is also not the magic formula for any of them as both countries are fierce competitors in many areas and increasingly on an unequal footing in a reverse image of the old Cold War. It is to be hoped that, while engaging with China on key issues in a competitive manner, the US and the West but also the rest of Asia with the Quad (comprising Australia, Japan, South Korea and now, more firmly, India), will be able able to contain its worst features but will also work with it on key global issues like climate crisis management. While there was a need to make strong statements about values as in the first acerbic US-China post-Trump diplomatic meeting in Alaska in March, we may not change China and make it a Western-like democracy unless its people want it one day. However and while the West should not go into appeasement mode, we can hope that the more we engage with and integrate China into the world we can still shape, even as a competitive superpower, the more we will cement an inter-dependent ecosystem where it will get gradually closer to us if only by sheer necessity. One of the simplest ways to do so while fostering internal change is also to keep encouraging more of its citizens to travel the world and see for themselves the value of freedom as we know it in the West.

The timing of Covid, which may have cost Trump his reelection in an otherwise too forgiving or lost America under his presidency (as amazingly seen with 73 million voters), was the factor that upset the already fragile global apple cart. Nations, large and small, bloc or no bloc went through good to bad management of the pandemic crisis and vice-versa and back as mixing health and economic preservations was too arduous, all the more given the multiple pandemic waves. And individuals did not help in the West, this on the back of the defence of private liberties, sheer individualism or reject of thinking for the “other” or any sense of communautarism unlike in parts of Asia. The West, 75 years after a devastating world war, seemed to have lost any sense of community on the altar of social media-driven individualism to be able to manage the crisis efficiently. The lack of living memory and our self-centered times simply killed too many, even if only a minority of individuals did not care about sensible behaviour though efficiently helped the spread of Covid. To worsen the trend and in a sad and rarely-mentioned selfish aspect of vaccination, a huge number of individuals in some European countries even successfully sought by various expedient means to be vaccinated well before their turn that was normally based on age or medical conditions. With time and vaccine roll-outs (the latter still being an amazing tribute to human ingenuity, also in terms of speed of creativity) Covid will disappear gradually, even if its consequences in many walks of life and work might remain for some time. It is possible that years from now historians may write that such a disaster that killed so many and at times brought human stupidity to the fore had also positive indirect and overdue developments like better roads for America or a more sensible global corporate taxation system.

Following Nietzsche’s saying that the future is built on the basis of the longest memory, the West (and its allies globally) should pursue a dual policy of going back to its rationality roots and strengthening its own ties to act as a stronger bloc.

Today the biggest challenge for the West is the continuing rise of the extremes with populism being a key component, rightward but also leftward as seen in America. If only to preserve its democratic essence, the West needs to both address fairly these longstanding working class grievances often relating to identity (certainly in Europe) that were too often unwittingly neglected as being uncouth by the elites while ensuring that voters go back to wanting skilled and competent leaders, whatever their political affiliations, to run their countries. The West needs elites who are not ideologues whose only strength is to win elections on the back of simplistic programmes that appeal to feelings and not reason, this whatever the real frustrations at play with many voters. Similary these elites need to stay away from autistic behaviours as to what triggers populism lest they lose their traditional roles. It is often believed that the possible redeeming feature of our increasingly populist Western world is that when elected the incompetent leaders are often fast naked though it does not guarantee they cannot lead to disasters and or suppress democracy once in power. Hence the need to go back to basics and for the elites to better relate to voters while guiding them rationally for the benefits of all involved.

Another key feature for the West is to become “whole” anew so it can help shape world developments, this through a strengthening of the transatlantic relationship that both sides want, in spite of differences and a naturally heterogeneous bloc on many issues, but also a positive redefinition of a post-Brexit relationship between the EU and Britain (maybe by then England and Wales). In addition, a way to create a more balanced thus better Atlantic partnership would be for the EU to build the missing facet of its make-up in starting developing a defence platform and “strategic autonomy” (a tricky feature as not naturally welcome by the likes of traditionally US-reliant Poland or Baltic states) that could be spearheaded initially by France, the only serious military power in its midst that has already taken a home lead on this front. While these steps are taken, an innovative dimension of the rebuilding of the Western alliance could be to foster a productive dialogue with Russia aimed at encouraging the changes it should gradually know from within so one day it can finally rejoin the concert of Western nations after more than a century.

Warmest regards,

Serge

Understanding the “rationale” behind Donald Trump’s unusual refusal to concede

16-11-20

Dear Partners in thought,

Now that Georgia was finally won by Joe Biden (making the two January Senatorial run-off races in the state all the more exciting) and Donald Trump winning North Carolina as expected, the race should be over. 306 delegates for Biden against 232 for Trump and a 5.5 million popular vote gap between the two. It seems like a closed case even if the President has not conceded, alleging voter fraud in a few states while his groundless legal challenges are dismissed by the courts one after the other. Even if there had been a few rare cases of fraud, the result could never change in a million years, a point that many Republican officials and pundits now make, even publicly like Karl Rove, the election strategist for George W. Bush. State certification of results we know is all but assured in December.

Only a few Republican Senators congratulated Joe Biden for his victory, some supporting (now less and less strongly) the Trump fraud claims, following the President’s line that “time will tell” (I wonder what John McCain would think today of his friend Lindsey Graham though his wife Cindy gave us a likely take). A few White House hardliners like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General Bob Barr, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and trade adviser Peter Navarro are clear that Donald Trump will be present on 21st January at his own inauguration ceremony for his second term. Most respectable US media now do not pay that much attention to Trump’s fraud claims and outlandish statements that he won the “legitimate” votes but are concerned, like most observers, about the current transition of executive power in America.

Putting aside the catastrophic multi-layered impact on transition (and the incoming administration) as stated by recent White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, the problem caused by Trump dragging his feet in relinquishing power by accepting defeat, in ways that have been the norm in presidential elections throughout history, is causing harm to the American institutions and its democratic process. This has been widely reported already. Trump will eventually have to concede before January 21st and indeed “do the right thing” according to famed New York veteran sensational journalist Geraldo Rivera, an old neighbourhood and Republican friend of the President. It would now be interesting to try understanding the rationale (a strange word for it) behind the President’s unusual stance at this point and who will pay for it.

The main victim of Trump’s refusal to concede and the means behind it is squarely the American democratic system. Such a move will please the core base of Trump’s electors who like his unusual style and see himself in him, a key demographic being the non-college white male group, particularly located in rural states, this fuelling the American divide even further going forward. To be sure, most Trump voters who are not into conspiracy theories, but abide by conservative values and party affinity for their own reasons, will not be swayed long-term by Trump’s move. However, Trump’s approach could please and indeed enthuse a few million individuals, especially among those wearing the MAGA hats at political rallies, not to mention vocal hard right extremists. The other victim of the Trump shenanigans will be eventually the Republican Party itself, which is losing ground nationally (not a good omen for future presidential races, also with demographic changes) and was highjacked by Trump early on in his presidency, gradually losing its soul in the process and likely being reduced to the status of a strong minority party for a very long time, in search for a Reagan-like revolution decades from now. To be sure the GOP decline will not happen overnight, also at the congressional and especially Senate levels as we can see now. The third victim is America’s leadership and standing in the world. Looking abroad and in spite of the many congratulatory notes to Joe Biden, usually from the usual Western leaders, many autocrats the world over rejoice at the American tragicomedy pointing that the country is no beacon for anything and that democracy is indeed over-rated as all can see. As for China and Russia especially, it is hard not to think that Beijing and Moscow do not see reasons to celebrate strategically, even if for the latter a different outcome was likely tactically preferred.

In spite of his appalling style and ways, Trump is anything but stupid, even if primarily driven by instincts (often bad ones). It is unlikely that he would want to seed the grounds of a second civil war. However, the refusal to go through a smooth transition process, as long as he can and his claims hold water, is likely driven by the future – or his future. We hear that Trump simply wants to cement his hold on the Republican Party going forward. Trump is also possibly looking at what Nigel Farage has done in the UK with his new “Reform UK” (following UKIP and the Brexit Party) and is exploring what kind of popular, or more aptly, populist movement he could establish post-White House. Were a third “party” be created, such a move, that could arguably hurt the prospects of the traditional GOP, would benefit from an eager market looking for such a product, which could even have lucrative angles for Trump (he is a businessman after all), softening the blows to his ego and some say paving the way for a White House run in 2024, “Trump party” or not. One could even see a scenario where the GOP would live with a primary-based Trump nomination to preserve the “integrity” of its voting base, avoiding the start of a road to national oblivion. Even if by then, to borrow from his arsenal of campaign quips, Trump himself might be a bit “tired”. Another reason for his incredibly bold stance is that he would need a group of die-hard supporters as he goes into a likely series of lawsuits in relation to his fragile business empire and tax issues or perhaps a bargaining tool to negotiate a presidential pardon from Joe Biden in due course (that is when, in Trump style, he would have exhausted the paths for pardoning himself before January’s end). One could of course hope that one of his close and admittedly bold advisers could mention to him the many merits of a lower profile early on, playing the constitutional game and spending more time on the green at Mar-a-Lago while mentoring Ivanka for great future designs for the brand.

What we see with President Trump’s antics is sad and not surprising. Let us hope than American democracy and institutions are strong enough to put a stop to them and soon restore “decency”, a word that was largely absent from 1600 Pennsylvania avenue for four long years. However, such a step might not be immediate, listening to some enlightened views on social media that, if you excluded California, Trump indeed won the presidency.

Warmest regards,

Serge