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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Challenger tanks are no panacea

Like many Brits the fact that we were the first to promise to supply Ukraine with modern main battle tanks was a source of tremendous pride. And Jingoism. Let Putin eat British lead, depleted uranium, HESH etc,. Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the steppes etc,.

Luckily, the YouTuber Matsimus has come along to pour a bucket of cold water – mixed in with a few unpleasant substances that one wouldn’t want to mention on a family blog – over any triumphalism that might be in the air. Sure, the Challenger 2 can be a very capable tank, but it is not invulnerable – especially in the configuration that the Ukrainians will receive – and keeping it in the field will be no cakewalk.

Introducing the Samizdata Awards!

It’s that time of year. Everything slows down and between the overeating, disappointing presents and family rows we have the opportunity to take stock and reflect on the year that has (almost) been.

And that means an opportunity to give a thought to those who have done the most in the fight against evil and communism. To this end I am introducing – on no one’s authority other than my own – the Samizdata Awards.

I propose the following categories. But please feel free to propose your own. We are libertarians after all. We believe that growing the awards pie is more important than how that pie is distributed. So:

  • Second-best Man of the Year
  • Post of the Year
  • Meme of the Year
  • Comment of the Year
  • Fascist of the Year

I was going to have a “Man of the Year” but I think that one’s has been taken. “I need ammunition not a ride” may not have the poetry of “We’ll fight them on the beaches” but its galvanising effect was – and is – identical. But I am expecting some keen competition to be runner-up. My nomination is Toby Young. He does Daily Sceptic. He does the Free Speech Union. He does a podcast with James Delingpole. Indeed, he is still on speaking terms with Delingpole which shows unusual fortitude or possibly unusual greed.

Come to think of it I think “Fascist of the Year” is also spoken for. But who is the Reichsmarshall to Putin’s Führer? Nominations include Nadine Dorries, the FBI, anyone fired by Elon Musk and the University of Cambridge. But I am sure you can think of some of your own.

In the Post of the Year – and I apologize for the lack of levity – I propose this. It changed my mind on something and at my age that is a rare pleasure.

I think it only fair to point out that there will be no glitzy awards ceremony. There will be no tacky, gold-plated statuettes. There will be no expensive clothes, hairdos or coke habits. There will be very little vapidity or hypocrisy – deaths due to nuclear power little. At best we’ll have some recognition for those who’ve done some good; at worst an ever more fractious comment thread involving Paul Marks on some completely unrelated subject – probably Bitcoin.

Samizdata quote of the day – Росію необхідно перемогти edition

Putin’s insecurity might start with anxiety about his personal future, but he has extended this into a vision for Russia that involves a permanent struggle with the West and its liberalism. There is little NATO can do about this vision except to ensure Russia’s defeat in Ukraine. Trenin’s bleak logic works both ways. There is no turning back for either side. Putin’s future and that of his inner circle is a matter for the Russian elite. The fragmentation of the Russian Federation is not, despite allegations, desired by Western governments in that this would be a source of yet more upset and instability. By and large they would prefer that Russia held together – but again this is not up to them. Moscow’s decision to use outlying regions as a source of military recruits to pursue a catastrophic war means that it will have to cope with the consequences. Whether or not an alternative liberal and democratic vision for Russia can develop in the future, upon which any more stable European security order depends, will also be up to Russians. The West can help if there is something to work with for the consequences of continued chaos and anger will be dire, but the first requirement will be a different sort of leader in the Kremlin, with a strong enough political base to confront the harsh reality of Russia’s situation. In the end the biggest threats to Russian security do not lie outside its borders but inside its capital.

Lawrence Freedman

A soldier returns Part I

Lindybeige (1.2m YouTube subscribers) hardly needs our endorsement but this interview with a British member of the Ukrainian Foreign Legion is excellent. Organisation, disorganisation, treachery, office politics, death, Walter Mittys, mess tins, big bangy things, tea; it’s got it all, apart from Part II.

Samizdata quote of the day

In the 1480s, complaints lodged by Casimir’s envoys accumulated in Moscow: “thieves” from Muscovy were raiding across the border, burning, and pillaging villages, sowing terror. Ivan professed ignorance and claimed innocence, but clearly the raids had his backing. They were part of a systematic strategy for destabilising the border. Towards the end of the decade they escalated outrageously. In 1487, one of Ivan’s brothers occupied a slice of borderland on the Lithuanian side, and Ivan appointed a governor in districts traditionally part of Lithuania. A raid in 1488 carried off seven thousand of Casimir’s subjects.

– Felipe Fernandez Armesto, 1492, p164, 2009. Reminds me of something but I just can’t quite put my finger on it. Anyway, the Casimir mentioned was the head of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – yes, there was such a thing. The Ivan was not Ivan the Terrible but a predecessor.

The ‘Tony Soprano’ theory of Russian geopolitics

Much has been written about what underpins the current war in Ukraine; how Russian revanchism is driven by Russkiy Mir ideology, the concept of the ‘Russian World’. This means all parts of what was the Russian Empire must once again be ruled from Moscow (the ‘New Rome’) for Russia to be spiritually and politically whole. It is very much like Nazi notions of “Germany is anywhere there are Germans” with a bit of lebensraum theory thrown in as well.

What makes the Russkiy Mir concept a bit more ‘inclusive’ than the Nazi version of Herrenvolk versus Untermensch, is the insistence that Russia also includes people who are said to be Russified, such as Chechens, Georgians, Moldavians, Buryats, Yakuts etc. etc…and of course all Ukrainians. If you read RIA Novosti (aimed at Russians) rather than Russia Today (aimed at foreign useful idiots), these are the official state narratives proffered day after day.

And the notion that is driving or at least justifying Russian aggression is true.

But there is another way to see this, not so much an alternative but rather a very complimentary perspective. Even if “Russkiy Mir” as both context and meta-context internally justifies Russian actions to Russians, is this the real driver pushing Putin and his supporters at the highest levels of Russia’s establishment? The push certainly isn’t “Ukraine trying to join NATO” (which Germany made clear it would always veto), the “Nazi government in Kyiv” hilarity or assorted biolab absurdities, but rather the ‘Tony Soprano’ theory of Russian geopolitics (Tony Soprano being a fictional mafia boss from the American TV show The Sopranos).

I have seen many people suggest forms of this but Matt Steinglass provides one version that is useful and succinct even if I think it is not entirely right:

In the Sopranos analogy, a business, let’s say a chain of groceries, at the edge of his territory decided they were going to stop paying protection and start trusting the police.

Tony Soprano obviously cannot tolerate this. It’s not just the loss of revenue: it’s that letting it go unpunished tells everybody else who’s paying him protection money that they can leave, too. So Tony decides to hit the groceries, take out the owner and ensure a more pliable one is installed, to send a message to anybody else who might get ideas.

Unfortunately it turns out the grocery clerks are packing shotguns and Tony’s soldiers, who were overconfident, get shot up and retreat. Now Tony has worse problems: he’s lost the grocery chain and he looks weak. Yet he may have inflicted enough damage that his other businesses hesitate to leave; who needs the trouble? Similarly, Ukraine’s economy has shrunk by a third.

Anyway, the point is that if you think about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an old-fashioned attempt at territorial conquest, it makes no sense. States don’t gain power by conquering territory anymore, this isn’t the 18th or 19th century. But if you think of it as a mob hit to intimidate states from exiting the protection racket that delivers corrupt rent streams to Russia’s ruling kleptocrats, then it at least made sense–until Ukraine fought back.

It is demonstrably untrue that aspirations for territorial conquest are a thing of the past (see China often stated threats towards Taiwan), but Steinglass’ analogy stands nevertheless. Certainly Ukrainians who understand Russia far better than most Russians understand Ukraine have been making this kind of ‘gangster’ analogy for quite some time. However, too many people in the West have been mesmerised by Russia Today narratives and ingrained Americocentric delusions to look at this from a more local perspective.

If grandma had balls, she’d be grandpa

Dear Noah, thank you for your last contribution to this discussion. I particularly appreciate the title of your last piece given how neatly it maps onto a similar phrase about how “Real Communism hasn’t been tried”.

The thrust of your position, which is shared by a surprising number of people I respect and hold in high regard in Western heterodox circles, is that “if we could negotiate with Putin, wouldn’t that be better than war?” And I agree: if we could negotiate with Putin, that would be better than than war. But I’m afraid it brings to mind a rather “transphobic” saying we have in Russia:

“If grandma had balls, she’d be grandpa.”

Forgive me, but I’m afraid you’ve forgotten who we are talking about.

In 2008, shortly after Russia’s invasion of South Ossetia, Vladimir Putin explained that “Crimea is Ukrainian. It is not disputed territory. Russia has long recognised and accepted the borders of today’s Ukraine”. When pushed, he further explained that [the suggestion that Russia would invade Crimea] “reeks of provocation”.

Three months before the annexation of Crimea, in December 2013, Vladimir Putin told journalists that the idea of Russia sending troops into any part of Ukraine, including Crimea, was “complete nonsense that cannot and will not happen”.

Konstantin Kisin observing that anyone arguing for good faith negotiations with Putin is in the grips of delusional wishful thinking.

How Western experts got the Ukraine war so wrong

More recently, Western experts have talked back military reforms, stating that they have been less successful than previously claimed. As the war in Ukraine has shown, reforms have had limited if any influence on Russian military’s operational effectiveness. In many ways, the Russian army still resembles the former Soviet army in its mentality, hierarchical structure, poor quality officers, poor levels of training, ill-discipline, poor logistics, and corruption.

The war in Ukraine pits a vertically structured Russia with a subject population against a horizontally structured Ukraine composed of citizens. During Vladimir Putin’s 22 years ruling Russia as president and prime minister he has re-Sovietized the country, fanned militarism, promoted a quasi-religious cult of the Great Patriotic War and Joseph Stalin, and destroyed civil society and volunteer groups. In Ukraine the opposite has taken place in each of these areas. Ukraine has undergone de-Sovietization since the late 1980s and decommunization since the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution, has denigrated Stalin as a tyrant, switched from military celebration of the Great Patriotic War to commemoration of World War II, and built a dynamic civil society and volunteer movement. Ukrainians have organized three popular revolutions since 1990 to demand their rights; Russia’s last revolution was over a hundred years ago.

[…]

Another important factor has been the widespread view of the Ukrainian state as weak and badly divided between a ‘pro-Russian’ eastern and ‘pro-Western’ western Ukraine. In the last three decades the greatest number of articles published in the media and by think tanks and academics on Ukraine has been on regional divisions and the country split between a pro-Russian east and nationalist, pro-Western west. In Moscow and among Western experts, Ukraine’s Russian speakers were deemed to be inherently unreliable and likely to swing to supporting Russia if Moscow invaded the country.

A shock-and-awe style Russian invasion of Ukraine would exert tremendous pressure on Ukraine’s regional divisions, leading to the state’s fragmentation and the collapse of the Ukrainian army (as in Afghanistan). This did not take place and the reason why it did not was because Ukraine was never a regionally fractured country; its Russian speakers were Ukrainian patriots, and there was never any possibility the Ukrainian army was going to disintegrate in the same manner as the Afghan army.

Taras Kuzio

Samizdata quote of the day

You say the third-best time to negotiate would be now. I can see why you would want that, but you’re not a party to the negotiations. Russia and Ukraine are. And why would Ukraine negotiate now?

As I said from the outset, what Ukraine needs is long term security. Not words on a piece of paper. Actual security. If they don’t get it, the lives they “save” now will be lost double when Russia inevitably invades again. And, yes, I’m sorry, long term security for Ukraine means NATO membership which Putin would not agree to as things stand.

And so we are where we are.

Konstantin Kisin

Samizdata quote of the day

I don’t want to take anything away from the Ukrainians, who have basically been a banner case of military transformation, but it also helps that the Russians are really, really bad at the whole “war that involves more than bombing hospitals” thing.

Adot Crawley

Discussion point: what do you think of the apparent sabotage of Nord Stream 1 and 2?

On February 7th, Joe Biden said, “If Russia invades…then there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.”

Today the Guardian reports: “Fears of sabotage as gas pours into Baltic from Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines”

Was it sabotage? If so, who did it and was it a good thing to do?

Samizdata quote of the day

The alternative to the cornering and humiliation of Russia would be for the United States and its allies to halt or reduce their aid to Ukraine and impose a stalemate. But that would mean delivering a victory to Russia, because it would still hold more Ukrainian territory than it did in 2014 and would have gone unpunished for pervasive war crimes, including mass murder. In three or four years, a rearmed Russia, thirsting for revenge for the losses and defeats it has suffered, would do the same thing again, and against a dispirited Ukraine. If that were to happen, it would be an utter disaster for American policy and Western security. Such an imposed stalemate would be profoundly immoral, but equally to the point, it would be profoundly stupid.

So this is indeed a dangerous moment, because Putin will inevitably find himself humiliated and cornered and may very well look for a way to lash out. But as General James Wolfe said before storming the heights of Quebec in 1759, war is an option of difficulties. The error lies in thinking that one can titrate the application of violence to achieve exquisitely precise results. To the extent that the West continues to attempt to do so, it will merely ensure more mass graves like those of Bucha and Izyum, and more soldiers lying limbless or in the burn wards of Ukrainian military hospitals. So now, as ever, Churchill’s observation that courage is the virtue that makes all others possible holds, particularly for the leaders of the embattled West. Zelensky could not put it better himself.

Eliot Cohen