Monday 24 June 2024

Did Farage, albeit accidentally, have a point?


That Nigel Farage hates the EU and sees it as some sort of evil dictatorship which enslaves its member states is hardly news. He blames the EU for almost everything that is wrong in the world. Most recently that extends to being part, along with NATO, of what provoked the Russians into invading Ukraine by daring to expand what Farage sees as the EU’s empire into parts of Europe which Russia thought in some way belonged in its sphere of influence. The choice of words is important, though: what Farage sees as EU-driven expansion to incorporate more countries will be seen by others as a case of states which have newly regained their independence choosing their own future. Whilst there’s no doubt that the existing members of both the EU and NATO were keen to draw countries in the east of Europe into their ranks, agency ultimately lay with those new members in the first place, not with the EU/ NATO. Those states were, to put it another way, exercising precisely that national sovereignty which is, apparently, so important to Farage, just in a way of which he does not approve. It’s legitimate to question whether they were making the right/ best choices – especially so in regard to the military alliance rather than the primarily economic and political one – but not whether they had the right to make them.

If the alternative was to avoid ‘provoking’ Putin, that would imply either that the states concerned agreed never to seek EU/ NATO membership, or that the EU/ NATO declined to accept them. Or even a bit of both. But there is a corollary to that – it would also mean that those states agreed to accept the effective political, economic and military dominance of Russia over them for the foreseeable future. In other words, Farage seems to see it as ‘better’ that those states cede a degree of sovereignty involuntarily to Russia than that they voluntarily share some of their sovereignty with others. Superficially, his demand for absolute sovereignty for the UK whilst limiting the sovereignty of countries to which Russia believes it has a right looks inconsistent. But it really isn’t: English nationalist exceptionalism has long held that some countries are more equal than others. And it isn’t only English nationalists – Farage is just invoking the same attitudes which led to the Munich agreement or the Yalta Conference, where European ‘great powers’ thought that they had the right to dismember and determine the future of lesser states over the heads of the people who lived there.

Whether EU/ NATO expansion did actually provoke Putin is another question entirely. He has certainly said that it was a factor, and it’s not hard to see why expanding the territory covered by NATO in particular up to the Russian borders could look like a threat, but a man who believes that large swathes of Europe historically belong to Russia – and that Ukrainians are just Russians speaking a strange dialect – could always have found another excuse to justify fulfilling his dream of reviving the Russian empire at some point. Wars are rarely caused by a single factor or event, and interpreting that expansion as a potential future threat still doesn’t justify launching a war against a neighbouring country.

But raising the question of whether NATO really did pose a threat to Russia does mean that Farage has gone to the very heart of the debate about the role of ‘defence’ in the modern world, even if almost certainly unwittingly. The nub of the argument is this: do armed blocs act as a deterrent or a threat; do they make war more, or less, likely? Specifically, if most of the former Warsaw Pact countries had not chosen to join NATO, would Putin have been more likely, or less likely, to seek to annexe all or part of Ukraine? The answer is essentially unknowable, which probably helps to explain the absolute certainty which people bring to the table when the issue is debated. Those who would have us spend ever more on armaments argue that it’s better to be safe than sorry, but it’s entirely possible that what they see as being ‘safe’ is actually the direct opposite if it makes it more likely that those who are supposed to be ‘deterred’ feel so threatened that they decide to take the risk of striking first.

What we do know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, is that using Earth’s finite resources to build ever more weapons makes those resources unavailable for other aims, and also that the long term future of all of us depends on achieving a degree of civilisation which recognises the need to share and co-operate in the way we use the Earth’s resources. Somehow, I don’t think any of that was in Farage’s mind when he opened his mouth.


CapM said...

We can have a guess at what Putin would do regarding Ukraine by looking at what has happened in Belarus, Moldova and Georgia.
Belarus is a puppet state.
A part of Moldova, Transnistria with a "Russian" population was carved off with the essential support of Russian troops 1500 of whom are estimated to be there still.
Parts of Georgia has been invaded.

Puppet state or Sudetenland solution is basically the choice of any state that imperialist Russia offers so Ukraine which in addition is a big chunk of land and a big chunk of resources was always going to be in the cross wires irrespective of any interest in the EU or NATO Ukraine had.

John Dixon said...

I don't doubt for a moment that Putin wants - and believes that Russia has the right - to dominate a series of states which were historically either part of the Russian Empire or part of the Soviet Union-controlled area. And clearly, for those of us who believe that the people or nations who live in a territory have the right to determine their own futures, the idea that someone else should make that choice for them, or constrain that choice, because of imperialist dreams is unacceptble.

My question, though, is about the use of military means to achieve either of those conflicting aims. If Putin were convinced that he could achieve what he wants by economic and political means, would he resort to the use of military means? And, on the other side, does the deployment of military forces and/or the expansion of military alliances to guarantee the right of free choice by those nations and peoples merely deter someone like Putin, or does it look like a threat? The answer is essentially unknowable; we can't live history twice and see what happens. Neither can we get inside the minds of the key players to understand their perceptions - and it's perceptions which drive the players, whether those perceptions are rationally justifiable or not.

To be honest, I simply don't know whether a different approach would have been better. And neither does anyone else. In one sense, debating whether things could have been done differently is a largely pointless academic exercise; but at another, seeing what happened as a result can inform what happens next, and there is surely merit in at least asking whether there might be a better way?

CapM said...

"does the deployment of military forces and/or the expansion of military alliances to guarantee the right of free choice by those nations and peoples merely deter someone like Putin, or does it look like a threat? The answer is essentially unknowable; "

I don't think that the, is it a deterrent, is it a threat, conundrum fully describes the situation.
For someone like Putin, and this I think given his record is not completely unknowable.

Lack of threat or deterrent for his actions = weakness therefore carry on with plan A - puppet states or Sudetenland solution.
Existence of threat or deterrent for his actions = attack on him (masquerading as Russia) therefore plan B which is the same as plan A but would be more insidious or more confrontational depending on the threat/deterrent.

the predictable

John Dixon said...

Perhaps Putin does see a lack of threat or deterrent as weakness, but concluding that he does assumes an understanding of his thought processes which may or may not be valid. Perhaps I wasn't clear enough, but I see rather more of a distinction between threat and deterrent than you imply here, and that difference is key to the unknowability of Putin's reactions.

I don't doubt that some of the new NATO states, particularly those in Eastern Europe, fear Russia, and they are probably right to do so. As I think we agree, Putin has imperialist attitudes and believes that he should be controlling those states. And let us assume that the NATO members, in expanding the alliance, intended only to guarantee the safety of those countries, and had no intention of sparking a war with Russia. The 'deterrent' is supposed to be a 'threat' of retaliation in the event of any adventurism, not a 'threat' of first-strike aggressive action. The question, though, isn't what NATO intended, but how NATO's actions were perceived by Russia. Farage's talk of 'provocation' is nonsense, of course, from a NATO perspective; but if Russia thinks that NATO is preparing to invade its territory, NATO actions cease to be a deterrent and become a direct threat, and potentially encourage rather than discourage war on the 'use it or lose it' principle. Whether Putin is acting rationally in seeing it as a threat is irrelevant - his actions will depend on his perception rather than on what NATO members say. And my point more generally is that one side can never know for certain how the other side will perceive its actions: are they purely defensive, or preparations for an offensive? It's a high stakes game being played out, and neither side really knows what the other is thinking. Real security, ultimately, depends on dialogue not more weapons.

CapM said...

With Putin and others with an attitude like Putin's I think it's not of much value to attempt and see the situation from their point of view and accommodate it.
Some men go out on a Saturday night with the intention of getting into a fight. Again it's of very little use for a victim or potential victim to try and understand the situation from the attackers point of view of.

In neither case do victims or potential victims need to know or worry about not knowing the thought processes going on in the aggressor's head. Observation and knowledge of previous actions and patterns of actions are sufficient to make a judgement on how to act/react.

John Dixon said...

"'s not of much value to attempt and see the situation from their point of view and accommodate it" I wasn't suggesting that we should accommodate it, but certainly we should try to understand it before taking actions which are supposed to discourage an action but can end up encouraging it instead. That isn't at all the same thing as 'accommodating' it.

"Observation and knowledge of previous actions and patterns of actions are sufficient to make a judgement on how to act/react" which is surely how we have ended up where we are.

I simply think dialogue and understanding are ultimately going to make the world a safer place than acting on the basis of assumptions that we 'know' what someone else is going to do in a given set of circumtances.

CapM said...

I'm not suggesting we act/react based on what we assume we "know" but on existing evidence.
In this case evidence that reveals Putin's modus operandi.

Spirit of BME said...

As someone who has supported NATO , sometimes isolated when it came to try and convince Plaid Conferences of its essential role to defend us from the USSR. I must look back at some very irresponsible decisions they have taken – unless they are looking for confrontation.
In 1955 West Germany became a member of NATO ,there were consequences, and the USSR created the Warsaw Pact. The Clinton administration ignored several international understandings that arose from the collapse of the USSR and rushed East, but Ukraine if you look at Rusian history is a step too far for the Putin government.
The Farage interview was of course misrepresented in parts , but the man has been consistent in this issue – which is a rare thing to have in a politician.

John Dixon said...

CapM, I'm not sure that acting on the evidence of someone's actions is all that different from assuming that we know why (s)he acted that way, because we inevitably need to make some sort of effort to understand the likely responses to our own actions, but I think we're going to have to agree to disagree.

Spirit, You and I have disagreed in the past on NATO, and I doubt that will change. However, I really don't believe that splitting the world into armed camps, each of which seeks to 'deter' others by having more or better weapons, is a recipe for long term peace and stability. I agree with the gist of "The Clinton administration ignored several international understandings that arose from the collapse of the USSR and rushed East" and can understand why that might look like a threat from a Russian perspective. I cannot, though, accept that Ukraine - or any other country - can have limits placed on its membership of international organisations because Russia feels threatened, or that Russia has a right to a veto for historical reasons. I can understand why Putin and Russia might have felt 'threatened' in the circumstances, but the actions of a sovereign nation in deciding to join international organisations is not a 'provocation', let alone one sufficient to justify an invasion. What's done is done - we cannot undo the past. The question is whether we keep doubling down on more and better weaponry, building doubt and distrust in the process, or whether we seek to advance through more dialogue and understanding. I'm always going to favour the latter, even as I accept the difficulty of dialogue with some individuals.