In 1941 the US froze Japanese economic assets and squeezed its oil supplies in an effort to prevent it from undertaking further territorial expansion. In the event, these acts of deterrence were spectacularly counter-productive and led to Japan launching its surprise attack on Pearl Harbour.
Forty years later the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein faced a somewhat similar choice: either to give up his territorial ambitions in Kuwait or launch a surprise invasion, which was to have predictably disastrous results for himself and Iraq.
These two gigantic gambles have a common feature in that by any rational calculation they were probably going to fail, but they still happened, propelled by hubris, misinformation and the perpetrators’ belief that they could not retreat.
Much the same cataclysmic misjudgment took place on 24 February when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, having convinced himself that his recently modernised army would face little political and military resistance. He soon learned how wrong he was, but Japanese, Iraqi and Russian leaders are not alone in overplaying their hand when they wrongly believe that they hold winning cards.
Putin’s serial failures
Brimming with overconfidence after Putin’s serial failures, Washington, London and Kyiv are now in the process of switching places with Moscow when it comes to expectations of military victory, though nobody seems to know what would constitute a victory. Would this mean Russia returning to pre-February lines, its total eviction from Ukraine or regime change in Moscow?
Western politicians and media are in full 1914 mode as they report a succession of Russian humiliations. Possibly these upbeat reports are all correct, but they are at odds with the caution of top American intelligence officials speaking in Washington this week about the future course of the war. Their wariness was in sharp contrast to the cavalier approach of politicians and media pundits welcoming a wider war. The director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, told politicians that Putin is preparing for a prolonged conflict in Ukraine and has not abandoned his original goals, though he will have to escalate the war to achieve them.
“The current trend increases the likelihood that President Putin will turn to more drastic means, including imposing martial law, reorientating industrial production or potentially escalatory military action… as the conflict drags on or he perceives that Russia is losing in Ukraine,” Haines said.
American intelligence chiefs largely confirmed fragmentary but fascinating reports from Russia suggesting that elements of the army and security services do not blame Putin for going to war, but they do blame him for not waging a total war.
An article by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, citing many anonymous sources in the Russian security services, concludes that “Russia’s military believes that limiting the war’s initial goals is a serious error. They now argue that Russia is not fighting Ukraine, but Nato. Senior officers have therefore concluded that the Western alliance is fighting all out (through the supply of increasingly sophisticated weaponry) while its own forces demand all-out war, including mobilisation”.
These may be only hints of what is going on in the Russian elite, but they do lend support to one largely ignored but conceivable outcomes of Putin’s failure as a warlord. Despite his bombastic incompetence, his semi-monarchical grip on power would be difficult to break, but putsches usually succeed because they are unexpected. If one did occur it may well be carried out by those who claim to be more capable of waging war than Putin and not by some pro-Western figure willing to make peace.
The Russian state may well be so rotted by autocracy and corruption that it is unable to make a supreme effort whatever leader is in the Kremlin. But one should not rule out a fully mobilised Russia putting 800,000 soldiers into the field instead of the inadequate 150,000 or so with which it tried to conquer Ukraine. A key feature of Russian failure has been lack of infantry.
Another quote from Haines worth thinking about when considering bellicose rhetoric about regime change in Moscow or permanently weakening Russia. She said that “Putin will probably only authorise the use of nuclear weapons if he perceived an existential threat to the Russian state or regime”. William Burns, the director of the CIA, says simply that Putin cannot afford to lose.
“Mission creep” from a policy of defending Ukraine to one of defeating Russia has been going on since early in the war, but lately it has become more of a “mission gallop”. Western media and the public are blithe about this happening or are urging on the shift towards direct military action to take place at an even faster pace.
A government of sloganeers
Arms-limitation treaties, once lauded for averting the risk of nuclear war, are discarded as if they were irrelevant museum pieces. Dominic Cummings, the former chief adviser to Boris Johnson, skewers this reversal in goals by governments, media and pundits who previously denounced as a Putin apologist anybody taking seriously the Kremlin’s claim “that America and Nato are using Ukraine to destroy Russian power”. But three months on, disbelieving in this second policy objective shows again that “you are a Putin apologist”.
Cummings, from whose blog the analogy with Pearl Harbour is taken, says that one of his golden rules of British politics is that “given that nuclear issues aren’t taken seriously never assume anything [else] is”. The reverse applies and it is frightening that a government of sloganeers with such a record of blundering should be deciding issues of nuclear peace and war.
In expanding their war aims, the US and the Nato powers are doing Ukrainians no favours, but they are dooming them to living in an arena where outside powers fight each other over issues that have nothing to do with Ukraine. This was the fate of Syria after 2011, producing endless war and turning half the population into refugees.
A momentum of its own
The bloody stalemate in Syria could be ignored by the rest of the world but the same is not true of Ukraine because of its size, strategic position and as vital supplier of foodstuffs and raw materials. Nato would be unlikely to allow the continuation of the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. Russia would be likely to make attacks on western Ukraine to impede the flow of Nato weapons and supplies. Military escalation will inevitably have a momentum of its own.
The international atmosphere today is close to 1914 with nations on the march, but without having much idea what they are marching towards. During the Great War more than a century ago, decisions affecting the lives of tens of millions of people were taken by nincompoops like Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II, but are we are much better off with leaders as feeble as Joe Biden or as frivolous as Johnson?
I was fascinated to discover that there is strong evidence that HIV/Aids was first transmitted from chimpanzees to humans during the First World War, far earlier than I had imagined. According to this excellent radio documentary, it happened in about 1916 in the rain forest of south east Cameroon as a bizarre consequence of the First World War.
Cameroon had been a German colony which was conquered by the allies using locally raised African troops as infantry. These soldiers, unlike the officers who got a litre of wine a day in addition to other foodstuffs, were ill-fed and had to hunt their own food – what would now be called bushmeat. This meant shooting with their rifles infected chimpanzees, whom local people had left alone because they are dangerous to hunt with bows and arrows and spears.
But the butchering of the chimpanzees appears to have led one soldier from the Congo becoming infected with HIV/Aids and taking it home to the Kinshasa where it became endemic, though it took half a century or more for the virus to spread to the rest of the world.
The story is interesting in itself and I had never heard it before. But it is also a sort of parable about the unintended but deadly consequences of the chaos of war. This is one of the points of my main piece about the unpredictability of the conflict in Ukraine. Of course, the First World War also produced the Spanish flu pandemic which first spread through US army training camps where raw recruits from the countryside without immunity were crammed together.
The illness was quite unfairly called “Spanish” flu because the Spanish, in contrast to the combatants in the war, did not censor accounts of its lethal impact on their country. HIV/Aids is estimated to have killed 30 million people during the epidemic, compared to 15 million killed by Covid-19.
Beneath the Radar
News from Ukraine tends to be either over-covered or under-covered by the media. The over-covered news may be true but is usually selective and I find it impossible to tell if some skirmish is typical or atypical of the way the war is going. Does a Ukrainian success here or a Russian retreat mean one side or the other is winning or is there a stalemate?
Crucial news about the war is often lacking – such as what the Russian security elite are thinking about Putin’s performance as a war leader – simply because reliable information is difficult to obtain.
But some important facts about the war are concealed simply because they are lost in the great torrent of information that pours out of Ukraine and its neighbours. Nobody has the time and patience to sample it all and detect the nuggets amid the repetitious and the dross. This article and this article could not be more public in one sense since they appeared in the New York Times and contain original reportage and analysis, but I wonder how many people read them?
The deaths of Palestinians never received much coverage before the war and gets even less now that the only atrocity stories being reported tend to be from Ukraine. Read more: Is Blood of Iconic Journalist Redder Than Blood of Anonymous Palestinians?