Monday, 1 September 2014

Thoughts occasioned by the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II

This will not be a happy post. Today's grim anniversary is echoed by events taking place in eastern Ukraine. Just as Hitler used the Danzig Corridor as a pretext for a wider invasion of Poland, so Putin is seeking to form a corridor from the Russian border along the coast to Crimea, through Novoazovsk and Mariupol.

Above: the front page of the New York Times, 1 September 1939. On that day, my father was 16, my mother a few days short of her 12th birthday. Six million of their countrymen and women did not live to see the end of the next six wretched years.

One crucial difference between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was that Nazi Germany made little effort to pretend to non-Ayrians that it was anything but pure evil. The Nazis were evil and stupid. The Soviet Union was evil and ruthlessly cunning. The Soviet Union and its successor state totally understand the need for deception and subversion. The key to this was - and is Maskirovka.

Maskirovka as a strategic doctrine includes everything from covering up a gun emplacement with camouflage netting to getting your foreign minister to brazenly say tell the West that there are no Russian soldiers in Ukraine. To deflect blame on a conflict you've created onto your enemy, Russia uses one set of arguments to convince those of a left-wing persuasion to its point of view, and another set of arguments to convince those of a right-wing persuasion of its point of view. So the Kiev 'regime' is both 'fascist' and 'Jewish' at the same time, depending on who's the intended audience. Eventually, people in the West get so confused they begin to believe that maybe there is some truth in what the Kremlin is saying. "They're corrupt, we're corrupt - it's all the same - no point of having a conflict over it."

MH17 is a classic example. The Ukrainians were trying to shoot down Putin's plane, and shot down the Malaysian airliner. They used a Su-25 ground-attack fighter. When it was pointed out that the Su-25 cannot reach the cruising altitude of a Boeing 777, Russian hackers altered the Wikipedia page about the Su-25 to state that in fact it could reach that altitude. (See editing history of this page after 17 July to see just how hard the Kremlin's propagandists tried to alter facts). To this day, the Kremlin continues to deny, obfuscate and deceive. Even to posit the ludicrous claim that Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 did not really disappear but was stuffed with corpses and flown over eastern Ukraine to be shot down so that Russia could be blamed.

Defending NATO territory will be an easier task than telling Russia where to draw the line in Ukraine. An attack on one NATO member is an attack on them all. But in Ukraine, Russia has all to play for when it comes to Western public opinion. "A far away country... of whom we know nothing", to quote the arch-appeaser Chamberlain. But for Russia, Ukrainians are both 'our brothers and sisters" and "fascist sub-humans" at the same time.

How should the West respond to the latest developments - the opening up of a new front along the southern coast, no longer plausibly by 'rebels', but by Russian armoured columns crossing over the border?

More sanctions? Putin, with his stratospheric approval rating among Russians can continue to lie to them and convince them to live on buckwheat, raw onion, beetroot and vodka in exchange for returning Russia its former glory. Some - the many who have little to lose - will buy that. "We may be old and poor and hungry, but we are still great."

However, the new middle class will start to feel the pinch. The Kremlin may boast of being able to replace the Windows operating system within two years and creating a Russian iPhone - but I doubt it. You can force people into factories to make tanks, but you can't force people to write good code. Russia has failed to build a native automotive industry; and much of its military and aviation industries' supply chains are located in eastern Ukraine (hence the Kremlin's desperation to get it back). For consumer goods, Russia will become dangerously dependent on China should sanctions tighten in forthcoming days.

I want to live in a society based on rule of law, sanctity of individual property, kindness and mutual trust; not one based on outright lies, thuggery and theft. And I guess most of Ukraine does as well.

As summer approaches an end, and darker days loom, I worry. (As does fellow-blogger down the road Student SGH). Let us hope that the current trajectory of events doesn't follow the one of 75 years ago or of 100 year ago. Hope and pray.

Over the weekend, I listened to Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms and Al Stewart's Roads to Moscow; mood music for our troubled time.

This time last year:
A green light for consumer spending

This time two years ago:
Procrastination - is it the same as laziness?

This time five years ago:
Remembering the outbreak of WWII


DC said...

Thought you might find this interesting

Michael Dembinski said...

@ DC

Oh, I did! Thank you!