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Three key geopolitical points for the West going forward

14-06-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

As the world hears from a leader who thinks that one can rationalize the Ukraine invasion by stressing that it is business as usual in 2022 Europe, and that like Peter the Great it is not about conquest but returning lands to Russia, three key geopolitical points should come to the European and indeed Western minds.

  1. The Transatlantic Alliance is essential

Since the beginning of what was now the first Cold War, the stability of Europe was based on the cultural and ideological bond between the US and European countries which, through NATO, guaranteed the future of the old continent. Today, and while years went by (and the last thirty were focused on global trade), Europe was suddenly thrown back to a forgotten era where the worst can happen – all the more as the Kremlin may be even less rational in its behavior than during the Soviet days. The West and Europe are facing a Russian existential crisis at multiple levels. The current perception of decline and under-achievement experienced at the top of Russia can only be relieved by the triggering of once-forsaken tools – like the invasions of European neighbors, regardless of their justifications – so leadership and domestic order are also preserved at all costs. The only way forward for Europe and the West is to fall back to a tried-and-tested approach, embodied by the Transatlantic Alliance and NATO reflecting values that bind the two sides of the Atlantic pond – regardless of all the societal challenges we know on each side today. There is no other way to uphold what we call the Western way of life, and indeed civilization.

  1. A stronger Europe is key

While Europe needs a strong American leadership, and would hope for a more united America at home, the West (and indeed America and NATO) need a stronger Europe. This means a Europe that spends more on its defense, and a European Union that focuses on this existential feature – in a non-fragmented way, beyond trade and other key matters. The recent moves by Germany to allocate EUR 100bn in a cross-party way to its defense – in a rupture to decades of post-war challenges to deal with anything military on a grand scale – is an essential component of this change. The drive by France to have the EU focus more on defense and security, even before the Ukraine invasion, was prescient and is now required at all costs. Europe needs to think in terms of defending its very existence before factors such as inflationary pressures or costs related to energy and food shortages – even if it needs to find ways to work on new and efficient supply chains in this respect. Denmark, Finland and Sweden – all historically the opposite of defense-focused countries – have already changed their ways very rapidly. The stronger Europe – and indeed the EU – focus on defense and security (Britain may or may not rejoin the EU at some point, with polls increasingly showing the strategic mistake of leaving its “club”), the more they will naturally work closely with the US, which will welcome the change, via NATO and associated channels. Ideally (and for the West’s and America’s benefits), NATO should gradually be more of a partnership of “relative equals”.

  1. A clear and strong approach to Putin is crucial

While we hear that it would be better not to humiliate or corner a Russia (the first point relating to the revanchist consequences of Versailles 1919, though also implying the Kremlin’s defeat) that has demonstrated both a return to the ways of early 20th century Europe, and a clear strategic and military ineptitude, it is essential not to forget all the lessons of history. Accommodating dictators only works for a short time while they continue unfolding their grand strategy, all the more if they control their own country and there is no local opposition to stop them. Munich in 1938 showed the world that appeasement does not work and leads to far worse developments. While not humiliating Putin would make rational sense as President Macron said, Cartesian thinking is absent from the Kremlin’s mind – assuming it was ever there. Only determination, even at high Western financial and other costs, can ensure that Russia is stopped, and that change can happen for the benefit of all parties – including Russia in the long term. Western “war fatigue” is neither acceptable nor desirable. This avenue is not without pains and sacrifices for the West, but would ensure that Europe stays Europe. By assisting Ukraine, even if never a role model for Western values and principles, and winning the war, we would guarantee that Europe and the West (and what they stand for) will prevail in the end. There should be no other choice for a Western strategy that should not be weakened by nuclear deterrence, all the more so as Russia would also lose in that context.

Both a historically-strong America, and a newly-stronger Europe are needed in a renewed and essential transatlantic partnership that stands tough to Russia, and can fully express its common values-based identity. Lastly the West cannot let the Ukraine invasion become an example to be followed in other parts of the world, which goes beyond Europe’s remit but would have similar negative global impacts.

Warmest regards,

Serge

America’s worst enemy and the West’s main concern may be America itself

30-05-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

Today the world sees great geopolitical rivalries developing, notably pitting Russia, China and their partners against the US and the West in ways not seen since the heights of the Cold War. The invasion of Ukraine and the latent threats to Taiwan are vivid examples of such a new geopolitical landscape. The West always stood for democracy and the liberal order, naturally led by America which unequivocally assumed its clear and natural role since WW2. However, today something does not feel completely right, in that the leader of the aptly-named Free World has gradually changed its essence, at times without noticing it – this with an impact on itself and its key leadership of the West. America today may be its own worst enemy as well as a key concern for the West in what it (the West) projects and stands for, bringing to the fore personal experiences and an assessment of what is not right and should be fixed for the benefits of all.

Born in July 1960 in Paris, I grew up thinking that, without question, America was the world’s savior. I grew up remembering this young and inspiring President whose life was cut short (indeed my first memory as a child was when I heard the Dallas news at the dinner table) and who, in my mind, represented so well this huge country with limitless means and ambitions, whose sons had landed in Normandy to free us in June 1944. My father once took me to our “cinéma” in Paris to see a rerun of “The Alamo” by and with John Wayne-Davy Crockett assisted by Richard Widmark-Jim Bowie and Laurence Harvey-William Barrett Travis. This movie and its story of courage, abnegation and sacrifice shaped the young man I was to be. When finding the otherwise great France too much of a “closed shop” in my early twenties, I decided to go for the “American Dream” where anything was possible as long as you worked hard and wanted to succeed. I met extraordinary people of all ages there, graduated from a great school (having borrowed left and right and becoming a teaching assistant on campus – in the American way) and secured my first job in New York. Based on this unusual route for a young Frenchman, I was then able to go back to Europe, joining the leading investment bank in the City of London, something my American Dream had made possible. I had been driven by those natural American values that were hard at times to define, and carried an Hollywoodian flavor of old, but which you felt what they were. They made you strong, they made you proud. They made you good. America then was defined by its “exceptional” idealism. Today I try searching for “my” America and cannot find it at times.

So, what happened to America? And why should we all worry? America is showing signs of inner decay at many levels today, especially identity – which is awful for Americans, but also for the West and the world at large, as we all need a stronger America at its core. The examples of decline will reflect many of the themes I already stressed for us all in general, like the negative aspects of tech and social media and the slippery slopes taken at times by the business and finance sectors (gambling cryptocurrency, senseless tech valuations of profitless companies at listing, oversized pay packages of CEOs feeling left out when seeing Musk, Bezos and Zuckerberg – all areas actually experiencing a backlash recently). These negative issues were often born in America and quickly globalized, but they were not hitting at the core of the country itself with all the related damage we see today. There are three core US features of decay that need to be stressed, as they are eating at the democratic nature of the indispensable country, and because we need a strong democratic America in the global context – as we see with both Russia and China, not to mention tactical sideliners and rogue actors globally.

The three deep American issues today are: mass shootings and gun control – clearly at the forefront of all issues today, an unrepresentative supreme court and the irrational electoral system, all of which destroy the democratic tissue of America, and thus its standing as a leader of a democratic free world. All three problems are connected by the misuse of the American constitution in order to defend the indefensible, protect vested interests and eventually lethally harm America and thus the West.

When thinking about Alamo it is not hard for me not to compare it with Uvalde, given the mass shooting tragedy that happened in Texas where local law enforcement should be ashamed of its mismanagement of the crisis. However, and while knowing the tragedy could have resulted in fewer deaths of children and teachers, and there are many unbelievable features to it (like listening to the mother’s shooter asking for forgiveness for her son but adding that he “must have had his reasons” being a top one), the real issue going forward is with the misuse of the second amendment of the constitution and its projected holy flavor. Using the right to bear arms that the Founding Fathers thought to be right to protect freedom should never be used to sell arms without mental health and background checks or even selling military type assault rifles to civilians (how could an 18-year old buy two “ARs” without raising concerns?). Guns are now – incredibly – the first cause of death for Americans under 19. Gun control today is only a bipartisan issue in Washington while most Americans are clearly for sensible gun control regulations, as if the country was experiencing a strange parallel world and democracy was denied on the altar of business interests hiding behind perceived fundamental rights. This Uvalde tragedy should once again drive legislators to action, but some on the NRA side hope for collective memory to be short as in the past. Chris Murphy, Senator of Connecticut, was right in taking the floor and stressing loudly that this was enough, something the NRA did not acknowledge by keeping to its annual conference in…Texas. America today is the only country where these mass shootings in malls and schools take place almost making a bad joke of “American exceptionalism.” We have reached a point where the Republican Party will pay a very deep electoral price as Americans, be they parents or grocery shoppers, will have had enough.

There may also be deep economic consequences for those who benefit from the sale of arms we see today, from manufacturers to retailers. It was amazing to listen to comments about the Buffalo mass shooting two weeks before and seeing the only media focus rightly put on the African-American targeted victims, though with literally zero mention of how this deranged 19-year old white supremacist had been able to secure his weapon. A former Philadelphia Police Commissioner made the point following Uvalde, that it was clear that the Founding Fathers would not support selling assault rifles indiscriminately, so that America would have more mass shootings than days in the year to May end 2022. On a related note, the role of extremist social media, as with the Sandy Hook Connecticut school massacre (still holding the lead event position with 20 children killed), was shown in Uvalde like with the fake message (later deleted) from some Republican congressman that the shooter was a transvestite– as if to make the act understandable (some corrupt social media showed him with the LGBT flag in background again preying on strangely-used unacceptable discrimination). The solution is not with arming teachers – a great NRA and Trump way forward – but preventing the sale of arms to unqualified individuals, while banning assault weapons as in the past. It is time for genuine bipartisanship, however hard it may be for some politicians relying on the NRA’s political contributions, unless they wish to keep their self-benefiting contribution to the American decline going and – if I may be jokingly bold – their children learning Russian or Chinese mandatorily one or two generations from now. There is a need for common sense in the US Congress and especially on the Senate floor. Maybe there is hope as even actor Jon Voight, a well-known Republican and former Trump supporter, has now emotionally called for gun control. Governor Abbott should make a trip to the Alamo in San Antonio, not far from Uvalde, and reflect on what Texas should be, this also for the standing of America as a true democracy and the benefit of the West.

The likely US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) reversal of 1973 Roe v. Wade decision can be discussed in detail (for instance, addressing the number of weeks before an abortion is legally allowed), but the crucial matter is that of “SCOTUS v. America” today. When more than 70% of the American population wants Roe v. Wade to be preserved, how is it possible for a court, whatever its status, to reverse it? It is, again, a key matter for American democracy ¬– and thus the West – where politics and the set-up of a court, be it the highest in the land, collide with common sense. Three of the judges, appointed by President Trump, seem to be willing to vote for a reversal, this on mainly political grounds, hidden behind so-called human and likely religious values; this in spite of their having stated they did not believe in a reversal at their Senate confirmation hearings. SCOTUS should not be a politically-motivated game of who appoints whom and when. It is actually inconceivable for conservatives to support a Roe v. Wade reversal while forgetting they go against individual freedom, which is a major tenet of their core beliefs. Similarly, minority religious beliefs should not lead to a reversal, as if America were a theocracy of the Taliban kind. Once again, the Republican party and elected officials may pay dearly at some point for their mistaken fight, which combined with NRA support in the wake of all the mass shootings on schools and grocery stores, is unacceptable. It would be far better if SCOTUS actually looked more closely at gun control.

The American constitution led the way for the country to be a federation of states which today number 50. The problem that America lives with now is that some states are vastly underpopulated (compare California to Wyoming) but all benefit from two Senators in the US Congress. This set-up, which made sense at some point on political-philosophical grounds and history, over-represents small states, while potentially giving the victory to presidential candidates based on more numerous electors even if not benefitting from a majority of the backing of voters nationally. While small states, usually heavily rural ones, with decreasing populations as some of their residents move to urban centers, at times to other states, will naturally fight to preserve their rights, the future of America cannot be decided by a minority – all the more so if unrepresentative of the national mood. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that these small states are heavily Republican, making the party take irrational positions on purely political grounds, and indeed hurting the democratic essence of their country. The issue goes well beyond the traditional American sport of gerrymandering or legal manipulations of electoral constituencies’ boundaries and goes to the core of American democracy. It is, of course, a sensitive subject that even Democrats are afraid of tackling – even if it would make sense for the ultimate well-being of their country, and indeed the West.

I hate criticizing America, as I still love it and know its capacity to evolve for the better, as shown in its history. My points are also not meant to be anti-GOP. I always felt like a Reagan Republican at heart, and am not at all impressed with the extremism we see with the peripheral wings of the Democratic party with its Woke movement and the throwing down of statues– even if I realize the historical, racial and social problems that America knows and which need to be addressed. I am worried about the American decline (which even the new Top Gun movie would appear to indirectly refer to if comparing its 1986 version when America was flying high) that also has an impact on the West as we all need, as the situation in Ukraine and elsewhere shows, a strong leader of what we still want to call the Free World. The American decline in values and standing started when George W Bush launched the invasion of Iraq in 2003 on groundless weapons-of-mass-destruction reasons, even if Saddam Hussein was clearly a regional evil incarnate, and the memory of 9-11 was raw. Donald Trump was culpable – even if his administration also pursued sensible policies, and many of his senior staff were responsible and honorable individuals – for an America less concerned with its founding values, given his appalling presidential style and modus operandi. Even Joe Biden was surprisingly led to an unconscionable exit from Afghanistan on practical grounds, leaving its women and girls at the mercy of backward extremists in spite of the West’s earlier promises of a better world (even if the challenges of this were many). Today America is divided like at no other time since the Civil War, which should drive people of good will from across the aisle to get together and finally realize the deep damage to America and the Western world. One clear lesson for Europe of the Ukraine war, and the American societal struggles, is that it needs to develop an autonomous defense capability long-heralded by President Macron. Such a European move would strengthen the West as we started seeing with Finland and Sweden applying to join NATO, and Germany finally confronting its past and realizing the need to step up militarily. However, we also need a clear and strong leader with the values that make us truly different and indeed great.

At a time of our support for Ukraine and with a major indirect conflict with Russia, if not yet and hopefully never a war for the West, it is key not to forget the values that separate us – and thus the US as our leader – from countries like Russia and others. As many now say, America needs to live up to its ideas – or we will all pay the price. The disconnect we see must stop as the future of the Free World is simply at stake.

Warmest regards,

Serge

“Freezing Order” – Bill Browder

19-05-2022

Dear Partners in Thought,

Bill Browder’s new book “Freezing Order – A True Story of Russian Money Laundering, Murder and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath” is a great thriller (as noted even by Stephen Fry), except that it is sadly not a work of fiction. It is also especially timely and more potent as the true nature of Putin’s Russia is more transparent to the world (even if some countries would debate the point on their own strategic and tactical grounds).

As Moscow is the focus of the Western world today, it was all the more important to stress the kleptocratic nature of this autocracy. Bill Browder is one of the Western investment professionals who started operating in Russia in the post-Soviet Yeltsin 1990s through Hermitage Capital, his pioneering platform. He did not know Russia, did not speak the language and had not managed an investment fund. Nevertheless, he established what was to be a leading investment company with assets under management once valued at USD 4.5bn, in what was literally a new market. Browder was smart in using strong local talent to identify undervalued companies in Yeltsin’s Russia, when the country was open for the first time to Western-like investment activities. He was supportive of Putin’s fight to control the Yeltsin oligarchs, though in doing so he did not focus as much on weak governance and legislative and enforcement processes. His story then was one of great business success, until the latter became too blatant and he was faced with an increasingly authoritarian Russia that led him to stop his operations and leave the country for his personal safety in 2005. The Browder story is particularly telling for me as when he was starting to invest In Russia, I was leaving SG Warburg, the leading City of London investment bank to join the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) which had been established in 1991 to facilitate the market transition in the former Soviet empire, thus combining my interest in finance and international affairs. On a related personal note, as I was joining the EBRD in early 1993, I crossed paths with Mike Calvey, who was about to leave the multilateral bank to start Baring Vostok, another one of the most successful private equity firms in the then-new Russia. Like Browder, although later on, he would run into serious legal wrangles with the Russian authorities – as if success was possible, but only if strictly obedient and “flexible” enough.

“Freezing order” is about the process and travails of tracing and seeking to freeze laundered money from Russia, and is a follow-up to “Red Notice” published in 2015 that went into how Browder built Hermitage Capital and then lost it. It is much centered on Browder as stressed by himself, and may be seen by some readers as less independent that it could have been, while at times going through events that were not directly related to him – like the assassination of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in 2015 (even if the liberal politician was an ally of Browder in relation to what became the well-known Magnistky case that defined Browder post-Hermitage Capital.) This is definitely a story of dogged persistence and personal courage in dealing with the Russia which the West sees more clearly today. It is also a very personal story involving the theft of USD1bn from Hermitage Capital combined with Kafka-like punitive Russian legal action, misappropriation and laundering of funds and murders along the way. As Browder withdrew from Russia, his main lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who stayed behind as he wanted to fight the misappropriation of funds, was eventually murdered in jail. This tragedy, which the perpetrators thought would stay local and low-key, led to the money laundering-focused Magnitsky Act in the US in December 2012 and later its extension, the human rights-focused US Global Magnitsky Act of December 2016, with an impact on 33 other countries that passed similar legislation, including eventually the EU. Browder had attended many conferences involving security and money-laundering experts at Cambridge University, Monte Carlo and other places across the Western world while participating in shows with leading TV stations worldwide, trying to successfully generate support for his case. Meanwhile Russia was fighting back, trying to criminalize him as if he were the culprit and they the victim. Russia pursued Browder in Russian and US courts, using the latter system to their advantage, including Interpol to issue local arrest warrants like in Spain in 2018 when such warrants had been deemed illegal. While he would eventually succeed in US courts, Browder eventually received two sentences in the Russian courts totaling 18 years, which put him at great risk of being extradited or “forcibly taken” there by Russian agents abroad.

Russia initially wanted to stop Browder from investigating some fraud involving a theft of USD 230m linked to Hermitage Capital – engineered by criminals with the support of security officers and the Russian government – a matter that had some New York connections as some of the money had been used by Prevezon Holding, a Cyprus company controlled by a Russian close to the Kremlin, to purchase real estate in Manhattan, and would thus involve US jurisdiction. Eventually, and due to the Magnitsky Act that put much of the wealth of the Russian oligarchs at risk, this as a ten-year prelude to the Ukraine war sanctions, Browder became the main target of Putin himself (Putin’s wealth was likely one of the highest, if the not the highest in Russia, well beyond his USD 300,000 annual salary). In a meeting with Trump in Helsinki in 2018 Putin, who appeared much in command, floated the idea that Russia and the US could both extradite in what was deemed a fair deal some indicted individuals to the US and Russia, while mentioning the name of Browder and former Ambassador to Russia McFaul (Trump did not seem to object then and after the Helsinki meeting which created a furor back in America with a Senate vote of 98-0 to condemn such a crazy and baseless path).

The book is also an amazing story of how Russian interests in the Prevezon Holding case used the US legal system, hiring a top US law firm, Baker Hostetler, to fight Bill Browder and make him appear as if “he” had stolen the USD 230m from the Russian Treasury – all while the law firm was conflicted as they had represented Hermitage Capital a few years earlier (they had conveniently, though irrationally, argued that there was no conflict as now they were going against Browder himself and not Hermitage Capital, their former client and then plaintiff, even if broadly dealing with highly similar money laundering matters). A top US law firm was by then acting indirectly on behalf of the Russian Treasury – that was de facto the offending party in a money laundering case against the owner of a former corporate client whom they had advised on a similar case and had access to confidential information from – which was to a great extent rather unbelievably reversing the previous roles of plaintiff and defendant. The case took years to be dismissed as Baker Hostetler and the top lawyer (the aptly-named John Moscow), a former US District Attorney, who had personally advised Browder when he started his Russian money laundering-focused Magnitsky case lobbying, were finally disqualified in court (the process to reach that outcome being a story in itself).

At the same time, that same law firm had hired a Washington DC investigative firm, Fusion GPS, to find “dirt” on Browder and his associates and help serve subpoenas in remote locations so they would appear in US courts. The same firm, that was de facto working for the Russians in Browder’s case, was also broadly at the same time famously involved (via an ex-MI6 agent, Christopher Steele) in conducting opposition research on Trump in 2016 (on a funny note the “Steele Dossier” was later seen by some, but not all, as a way to create such a gross and salacious case that it would not be credible, which might have been the astute end game of the mandate, while actually helping hide some close Trump links to the Kremlin). The review of these activities performed by many high profile and highly paid American firms stressed a modus operandi that was well-known in places like London – or indeed “Londongrad” – where many Western enablers from real estate agents, accountants to bankers (without forgetting high end prostitutes) were working for a large array of Russian oligarchs and their families and friends who had elected the English capital city, and especially Mayfair, as their second, if not first home (the book is sadly a bit too silent on that London post-Soviet feature that one could hope was not due to Browder’s often forgotten British citizenship and many links there). Browder had a few easy but well-known jokes about oligarch enablers and especially lawyers stressing that for many the words “lawyers” and “ethics” were mutually exclusive and why won’t sharks attack lawyers? Professional courtesy. As for some well-known investigative or “strategic intelligence” firms, fees are often the main if not sole drivers and the only advice in terms of probity check for potential clients should be to closely review their board and especially advisory boards where the quality of their members should naturally speak for itself and separate the good from the potentially less so.

The Browder story is not just about court battles, and direct oligarch and indirect Western Kremlin enablers, but also involve very dire developments involving murder and murder attempts – like with the principled Browder lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky and a few others. As the Putin regime gradually evolved, such murders of dissidents or “defectors” carried out by Russian agents like that of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 had become commonplace in central London (as also seen with oligarch Boris Berezovky in 2013), Canterbury or across Europe like Germany, even if these would happen also in Russia like with the high-profile unsolved assassinations of Central Bank Deputy Chairman Andrei Kozlov, journalist Anna Politovskaya and politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow in 2006, 2007 (the first two marking a turn in Russian affairs) and 2015 respectively. It is actually amazing that after escaping a poisoning attempt, leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny, having courageously but strangely, not following Browder’s approach, returned to Russia to continue his fight, was arrested and now serving a combined 11-and-a-half-year sentence on what the West would call dubious charges (CNN released a recent “Navalny Documentary” that received two key awards at the Sundance Film Festival, in which he had participated just before returning to Russia post-poisoning in January 2021). A few aides of Browder in his fight against Russia also ended up being poisoned or even killed as the book tells in great detail, while some Russian security services and surprisingly known mafia leaders were at the forefront of the actions taken against Browder and his friends, some very openly like at conferences which Browder was attending in his lobbying efforts. It is actually a miracle that Browder or his family members survived unscathed while being harassed at many border crossings, like we read at Geneva airport in 2018, through the powerful reach of Russian operatives, again taking advantage of Western rules and regulations to carry out their missions.

In one last feature of Browder’s story (which will never know any ending until Putin and his system eventually lose power in Russia – indeed a timely topic with the multi-layered Ukraine developments), he discovers via an audit of Danske Bank, another Russian money laundering fraud of a USD 234bn magnitude. While this number is staggering, Browder estimates that the amount of Kremlin-backed and oligarch-laundered money would stand at or beyond USD 1tn (1,000 bn) since Vladimir Putin came to power around 2000, not a small chunk to be his, if not in name. While an estimate, and knowing too many vested interests including in the West are involved to make it smaller or simply not quantify it, the statement is clear.

Browder’s book reflects, through a highly-personal account, the gradual slide experienced by Russia in relation to the rule of law and business ethics that the Ukraine invasion finally made impossible for the West to ignore. At the forefront of this reckoning is the Western business community and its many companies across sectors that for years developed a presence in Russia and brought the local population a vivid example of globalization away from the Faulknerian “sound and the fury” of 20th century history. A great majority of these Western companies have now decided to withdraw from Russia, which for some has been heavily loss-making while not easy in terms of speed and ways (some had to sell quickly their Russian operations on the cheap to local oligarchs like Société Générale to Vladimir Potanin or Renault its controlling stake in Lada-maker Avtovaz for a token 2 roubles) as they also try to stay in Eastern Europe, this leading to many strategic reviews ahead of relocations and business redeployments throughout the region, also making an eventually post-war Ukraine market another focus as the country would go through its reconstruction phase.

“Freezing Order” is another detailed example of what Putin’s Russia always was while the West was sleeping and never wanted to see it that way on the altar of hopefully ensuring a mutually-beneficial and peaceful relationship. Today Russia, through its insane invasion of Ukraine, stresses how blind the West (and the world even if partly ambiguous today) was but now the curtain has fallen. Bill Browder, not himself a saint, and initially driven by sheer money-making, helped us see Russia for what it was for years, and successfully contributed in a small but impactful extent to a saner world, via meaningful anti-money laundering and human rights-focused legislations and their applications in many countries across the world.

Warmest regards,

Serge

“Twilight of Democracy” – Anne Applebaum

02-05-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

After a long lull in Book Notes, and to create a possibly unsuitable (though related) break from the tragic invasion of Ukraine, it seemed a good idea to go back to this genre and mention “Twilight of Democracy.” Its author, Anne Applebaum, now writing for The Atlantic, is well-known for her liberal outlook and excellent books on the Communist era in Central & Eastern Europe, notably the highly recommended “Iron Curtain – The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956” (one of my favorites on the topic), and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gulag: A History.”

Twilight of Democracy (2021) addresses the rise of populist parties in the West, which is a very timely topic as Viktor Orban was reconducted as Hungarian leader in April while Marine Le Pen failed but came closer to be the next French President and upend the future of France, NATO, possibly the EU and the Euro – and clearly the world as we know it, even if clearly already being altered by Putin’s Russia. In many ways, this book is why this blog exists as it was started by the rise of both populist-flavored Brexit and then Trump, rightfully two of the six chapters of Twilight of Democracy – also a good fit given Applebaum’s roots in both Britain and the US, not to mention Poland, one of the two current populist hotspots of Europe. Twilight of Democracy projects very strong views on populism, some of which covering Brexit or Central Europe, may possibly be seen as extreme or one sided by some readers.

A very personal history of broken friendships. The subtitle of her book is “The failure of politics and the parting of friends”, the latter is very fitting as she recalls the New Year’s Eve party in their Chobielin home in Northern Poland that she and her husband, former minister Radek Sikorski, had held to celebrate the passage to the new millennium. It was a time of joy, a decade or so after Poland had made the transition to both democracy and market economy. They had a lot of friends joining them, many no longer speaking to them twenty years later as they gradually espoused the nationalist and undemocratic views that prevail among the Law & Justice party members that has been fully in power in Warsaw since 2015. She has great stories to tell about two well-known Polish brothers with different career success, which describe how the challenged one used his old association to deceased Polish President Lech Kaczynski to get the top job at the leading Polish TV operator and totally changed it as if it were an official conduit for the ruling Law and Justice Party. In this telling example of how populists operate when in power, Applebaum also stresses how the under-achievers in our modern democracies can use politics and indeed populism to get to prominence, all the more when what matters to elected autocratically-flavored rulers in a European context is obedience and not skills, as also seen in Russia today. She then recalls the tragic crash of the Polish presidential plane in 2010 on its way to a commemoration of the Soviet Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish officers that was then gradually used as a conspiracy theory to put the blame on political opponents without any rationale (the President had forced the plane to land totally unsafely in atrocious weather conditions). Applebaum, borrowing from Yale historian Timothy Snyder, introduces us not to the Big Lie of the Soviet days but to the Medium-sized Lies used by current European autocrats to weaken democracy and liberalism when elected to public office, like today in Poland or Hungary and for a while Italy during the Salvini days. She goes into another old friendship that had turned sour with Maria Schmidt, the curator of Terror Haza, the Budapest museum focused on the dreadful aspects of the Communist area. Her lost friend being a typical example of an anti-communist individual espousing autocratic features, tainted of anti-Americanism and (unlike in Poland for obvious historical reasons) benign admiration for Putin’s Russia. Such individuals, who battled communism, formed part over the last decade of the corps of self-serving (also financially) “clercs” (she uses the French word for clerks) who made possible for leaders like Viktor Orban, another liberal 25 years ago, to succeed in governing while suppressing many individual and constitutional rights gained in the post-Communist era. These examples are very interesting for readers not living in Poland or Hungary, two countries which benefitted from huge EU subsidies (especially Poland, the perennial top financial assistance receiver from Brussels), who can also see their leaderships struggling with the EU in terms of fights over judicial appointments if not court structures. As Applebaum stresses, these should not be dismissed as “regional stories” involving “hard to pronounce names.”

Going back to the roots of populism. Applebaum notes there was no anti-democratic wave after the Communist transition in Central Europe, while populist leaders and ideas strongly emerged only in the last decade also as a link to the refugee crisis of 2015-16. She stresses rightly that the “Eastern European problems” we see now, also through the disputes with the EU, are not unique to former Communist countries experiencing a long hangover from 1989. She notes from her discussions with a Greek sociologist that polarization is normal in our Western societies and that history in our times is circular with its liberal and more autocratic phases. Angry, resentful and vengeful are the characteristics of the populist leaders and movements that are “against elites,” have dreams of “cleansing violence” and support an apocalyptic cultural clash, altogether with attacks on the rule of law, free press and academia. There is a commonality of image between the Marxist-Leninist states of old and the new nationalist regimes or parties, from the Polish Law & Justice party or the Hungarian Fidesz to the Venezuelan Chavistas or the French Lepenistes and even some hardline Brexiters. In many ways the Western world of today increasingly represents, via its growing extremist parties in their modus operandi, the Eastern Europe of the past. This is perhaps the key lesson of her book, which may not have been clear to many of us.

Brexit as the great populist success. Applebaum spends a chapter on Britain – or more exactly England – and the nostalgia of when it made the rules, which she says drove Brexit. England wanted to make things happen in a Thatcherite way when she played with her bag in Brussels and got the famed EC rebate, or when she sent a task force to the now totally forgotten and irrelevant Falklands 40 years ago. This approach was epitomized by a younger Boris Johnson (an Oxford Bullingdon Club fellow member of her husband Radek) who, when at the Daily Telegraph, would publish numerous half-lies or tall tales that his ardent Tory readership enjoyed, such as those about the EC or EU that would cancel London “double decker buses” or prawn cocktail-flavored crisps, giving the younger editor a “weird sense of power.” The Single Market, that Britain had helped build, was a great Thatcherite achievement for the country and its entrepreneurial class, but also a major source of annoyance and embarrassment in having to lower itself to negotiate with a lesser Brussels – even if the later was always very commercial and flexible in its approach. Britain, on the other hand, was always keener on its “Special Relationship” with the US as the latter was, according to Prime Minister Harold McMillan in his half-disguised exceptionalism “the Romans to us Greeks.” Not totally wrongly, Britain would not forget that they were the only European country to have from the start won WW2, which put it in a category of its own among nations, all the more so in Europe. Sadly, restorative nostalgia usually goes hand in hand with mild conspiracy theories and medium-sized lies, which the Tories started to spread gradually about Europe for electoral and existential purposes stressing that the EU had perverted the course of history. The phenomenon was aggravated with the fall of the Berlin wall, which vindicated the often-left wing criticized Tory cold warriors, but created a vacuum after the great fight had been won – this enhanced by post-Thatcher leaders who fitted a calmer new normal. John Major was snubbed by many Tories as a leader without a fight, also due to his lack of charisma and moreover university degree (something top PE firm Carlyle later never minded) together with his pragmatic focus on reuniting Europe, while Tony Blair brought a non-exceptional Britain or an England that would see devolution all in a way that recalled the radical 1960s in Tory eyes. To the Tories, many of whom were slowly shifting toward the more extreme regarding the EU, as it provided a program to sell voters, Brussels had become the embodiment of everything that had gone wrong in British life – leadership, culture, capitalism and national vigor with on top all the Polish plumbers and Spanish data analysts threatening the national identity. In an almost funny list of medium-sized lies perpetrated by the Leave camp were Johnson claiming that Brexit would bring in GBP 350m a week to the National Health Service, that if Britain stayed it would be forced to accept Turkey as a member all with Nigel Farage’s UKIP posters showing him with trails of Syrian refugees reaching the English shores. Dominic Cummings, the sadly bright Brexit architect later compared their messages to Soviet propaganda, some of his videos having been seen by at times in excess of 500,000 viewers. The Vote Leave camp also cheated and broke electoral laws to advertise more on Facebook or used data famously stolen by the company Cambridge Analytica, all while benefitting from Russian trolling operations that served the ultimate goal of the Kremlin to weaken both the EU and Britain (to his credit Boris Johnson has led a “good war” against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine). Joe Cox, a Labour MP and Remainer, was murdered during the referendum campaign by an unsettled fake news-radicalized man who thought Brexit meant “liberation” for Britain. Many Leave leaders and opinion makers thought that only a radical change such as Brexit could save Britain, that they perceived as once a leading nation now terminally lost. The Brexiteers became immune to facts and means as long as the victory was reachable, and when it was in sight, the harder the Brexit the better so a healthy shock would wake Britain up, whatever the costs including economic – this leading to what was to be known as a hard Brexit. Chaos was seen as good, including perversely by many in the Labour Party’s Corbyn leadership who believed that it would eventually bring voters to the radical left while others on the free market front thought it would bring an end to burdensome regulations. The majority of the country had not voted for this type of disruption but the extremists, going beyond any mandate, had produced it. Applebaum generously stressed that Boris Johnson had not ideologically loved autocracy but was simply about winning, which drove him to use and pursue whatever means and avenues were available – with clear success. There were talks among hard Brexiteers after the December 2019 elections of altering the funding of the BBC, curtailing or limiting the courts or purging civil servants with obedient individuals, as if London had changed to Budapest-on-Thames (with all due respect to Budapest whose mayor is actually a liberal like in Warsaw). It is clear that all is not yet well with Britain today, and that Brexit has not yet been digested – notably with job shortages from the trucking industry to the famed NHS. However, as in Fawlty Towers the official populist line in a rather unnatural mode is “don’t mention Brexit” or more aptly, destroy agreements that were in place, like dealing with trade and Northern Ireland.

Hard-line Tories liked undemocratic polities in other countries, especially Poland and Hungary, while they were becoming more authoritarian and attacked their judicial systems, prompting a stark condemnation from the EU. At that time, according to Applebaum, the British government, consumed with how Brexit would unfold, had dropped any pretense of standing for democracy around the world, which admittedly can be viewed rightly by many as too strong a statement. Tory MEPs and Law & Justice MEPs were part of the same caucus in the European Parliament, leading the Tories to defend Law & Justice when under EU attack. Formerly well-known anti-Communist MPs became friends of Law & Justice officials, which the anti-Russia stance may have helped. Tory and UKIP MEPs voted to protect Orban from being censured by the EU, in a way to assert the right of a democratic nation, however in name only and de facto authoritarian, to defy Brussels’s “interference”. To some of her British friends and former colleagues at The Spectator, Applebaum was now part of a “liberal, judicial, bureaucratic, international elite” opposed to “democratically elected parliaments”. One of them now a resident scholar at The Danube Institute founded and funded by Orban supporters, who made the remark about her “elite belonging” would have only dreamed to be part of it in London but simply could not, underlining Appelbaum’s point about underachievers usually joining the ranks of less-traditional achievement-demanding populists at home or abroad to access better jobs and roles, whatever the cost to their image and probity.

How the populists operate and why they get an audience. Applebaum makes the point that authoritarian predisposition is not the same thing as closed-mindedness but is closer to simple-mindedness. People are attracted to authoritarian ideas as they are simple and, unlike the democratic debate, not cacophonic. This blog always stressed the damage done by easy and indeed simple solutions to complex issues that populists love, as allowing to sell extremist ideas to voters who feel more at home with a lack of diversity of opinions and experiences and react aggressively against the complexity of drastic changes like the refugee crisis of 2015-2016. Applebaum goes into the role of social media in shaping the minds of voters, and more generally users, as many people in our age like to click on the news they want to hear, even if they may be false stories based on incorrect facts and disseminated by able spin doctors also using algorithms that radicalize their audiences, leading to hyper-partisanship. This hyper-partisan mode results in a rejection of normal politics, establishment politicians, the so-called elite, derided “experts” and mainstream institutions. No neutrality is acceptable in a polarized world as non-partisan or apolitical institutions are not desired. Reddit, Twitter and Facebook have unwittingly become the perfect media for irony, parody and cynical memes, creating a generation of young people who either vote for extreme parties or show a disdain for democracy that does not work for them. While being clear about the role of tech-enabled social media, Applebaum is also acknowledging their good aspects and not advising a return to an analog past when all was indeed not perfect. She just stresses that the new information world provides a new set of tools and tactics that populist leaders can use to reach people who want a simple language, powerful symbols and clear identities as if searching for an elusive unity.

Going into less well-known cases of European populism. Applebaum goes into a less well-known story about European politics that starts with the post-Francoist transition that led to the new Spanish political landscape post-1975. The new Spain eventually showed the center right Popular Party with names like Aznar (time indeed flies) and the center left Socialist Party, in a mirror image of many of its neighboring countries like France with its Socialist and Gaullist parties, the latter under many different names over the years (the two, as a sign of the times, having garnered less than 7% of the votes against 58% for all radical or extremist candidates and their parties in the first round of the presidential election in April 2022). As the 2010s started, the traditional parties got weaker as everywhere in Europe and new movements like populist-nationalist party Vox led by Santiago Abascal took more of a center stage as radical left Podemos and liberal Ciudadanos also appeared. Applebaum tells us about the trail of an ex-Aznar center right politician, Rafael Bardaji, who had disappeared for a decade, was forgotten and engineered a re-emergence away from its center-right roots with a “Make Spain Great Again” that had some Transatlantic Trumpian feel to it. Vox, which represented Francoism’s de-hibernation, became stronger in its opposition to the Catalonian referendum of 2017, that unlike the British one failed, and increasingly attracted more younger voters than their more liberal elders. Vox wanted to bring back the feeling of unity of the old “Arriba Espana” with leaders now using YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Telegram and WhatsApp to channel their easy solutions to complex issues. Vox, not unlike other populist extreme right parties, took ownership of a mixed bag of resentment-filled issues for a large group of Spanish voters: opposition to Catalan and Basque separatism, same sex marriage, feminism, immigration of a Muslim kind (even if very low in Spain unlike historically France), and corruption, while supporting hunting and handgun ownership and showing boredom with mainstream politics that destroyed Spanish unity, all with a talent for mockery and a huge dose of restorative Franco nostalgia. NATO was deemed only useful for Eastern European countries bordering Russia (indeed) though Trump’s radical Islam fight was seen as a good one and more generally his governing style a fit for Vox. This foray into Spain was useful as not a country where populism comes immediately to mind, showing the extent of the problem across Europe.

And of course, focusing on Trump, the most successful populist of our times. Appelbaum had to spend some pages on the advent of the Trump presidency that was a high point of the rise of populism globally, and shattered for many the previously immovable image of the American liberal democracy. As Lincoln spoke of America as “the last best hope on earth” and Reagan’s 1989 speech of “the shining city on a hill”, both wanting to stress American exceptionalism and greatness, many extremists disagreed or wanted to go back to its perceived roots ranging from the radical left in the early 20th century to the Christian right more recently – as well as the great history of the KKK or even the noble rise of domestic terrorists like Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, who had plotted mass murder in order to rescue a nation. Trump’s inaugural address marked a turning point for modern America, as it contained left and right strands of anti-Americanism combining a rejection of the self-serving “Establishment” and the evangelical despair about the moral decay of the country delivered time and time again by someone who was the son of a multi-millionaire, himself a powerful elite businessman and a draft dodger. Trump, who had little or no knowledge of and thus no faith in the American story, added the deep cynicism of a man who ran unsavory business schemes globally (some now under scrutiny even in the US) while appealing to the millenarianism of the far right and the revolutionary nihilism of the hard left. He had no interest in America being a model among nations, indeed crudely rejecting its exceptionalism, and thus its role in the world, leading to a contempt for American international engagement and thus NATO, a well-known admiration for Putin he saw as a true leader and an isolationism characterized by “America First” as the only way to make it great again. American ideals would be false and its institutions fraudulent – the latter as when he described the FBI and its “corrupt and disgraceful leadership” two years into his mandate. As Trump would state it clearly in 2020, two years before the invasion of Ukraine, America would have no vital interest in choosing between warring factions whose animosities go back centuries in eastern Europe. There should be no important distinction between democracy and dictatorship. For the party of Reagan to become that of Trump and abandon American idealism and adopt the rhetoric of despair was a sea change. In a return to 1995 Applebaum recalls a gathering of Republican thinkers and writers which, like in a prelude of her own Polish New Year 2000 party, would see attendants not speaking to each other years later with David Brooks, David Frum or Irving Kristol (and indeed others like Max Boot even if not invited then) going away from the party happy to be taken over by the populist Trump on the altar of winning elections.

In looking back at history, Appelbaum tells in her last chapter about the famous Dreyfus affair in 1894 France, which targeted an innocent Jewish French officer accused of treason, in what was a fight between the ancestors of today’s national-populists and the democratic liberals of the day and with hindsight a prelude to the 1930s in Europe. The societal shock of the Dreyfus affair – that almost destroyed the tissue of France – was very reminiscent of Appelbaum’s vivid experience of those lost friendships of the new millennium. In a fascinating and rarely-expressed comparison, Appelbaum notes that those who maintained Dreyfus’s guilt against all evidence were the American alt-right, or the Polish Law and Justice Party, or the French National Rally of the day, knowingly pushing a conspiracy theory, the means justifying the ends. This fascinating story resonates at a time when Marine Le Pen, supposedly being the voice of the traditional France and the left-outs, in a classical, modern day contest against elitism, was losing for the second time in the final round of the presidential race to technocratic, democratic, liberal and pro-EU Emmanuel Macron. As Trump was born with a golden spoon in his mouth, and went on to be a populist politician and President, we too often forget that Marine Le Pen is also the rich daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen – making her indeed an aristocrat of sorts both financially and politically – who has nothing in common with the voters she is targeting with her appealing vote-buying messages. As her more clearly extremist and Vichy-flavored father scored 17.8% in 2002 against Jacques Chirac and she scored 33.9% against Macron in 2017, her score of 41.4% in 2022, even if much lower than anticipated (whilst some would also see her potentially win based on first round vote make-up), shows a trend where democracy and liberalism are gradually losing voting ground against populism and its easy answers to complex issues. Will a populist finally take over the Elysée Palace in 2027 and start dismantling the democracy of a G7 country and key historical player? And what about Donald 2.0 in 2024, all the more so,following a likely control of Congress in November by the Republicans who will be focused on revenge, even for some if losing their souls?

As Applebaum says at the end of her book, her title “Twilight of Democracy” was not a prediction but a warning. Anti-democratic forces using and abusing the democratic electoral process have won many followers in the past, especially in the last decade, building on distrust on the back of apparently noble (for some) but fallacious themes, and they actually will in the future too. It was interesting to note in the recent French election that polls showed that well besides and beyond electoral programs, 71% of Macron voters considered themselves “happy” in life while 80% of Le Pen’s felt unhappy, thus more prone to resentment and following extreme, if unrealistic and dangerous, political solutions for France. Winning elections will be the key driver for populist leaders for whom messages will be secondary and remain tools of the end game. And if they succeed, democracies will be gradually altered, as already seen in parts of Europe, and elections might eventually vanish as an unnecessary process.

Warmest regards,

Serge

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