The invasion of Ukraine has forced Berlin to abandon many years of wishful thinking

27 Feb

Whose side are you on? Are you with Vladimir Putin or with the democracies he wants to annihilate?

Until the last few days, the German political class denied that this question even needed to be asked.

The Russian assault on Ukraine has exposed “the moral and material failure of a generation”, as Jasper von Altenbockum put it yesterday in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

German politicians saw no need to make hard choices between Russia and Russia’s freedom-loving neighbours. A hazy vision, adopted from the peace movement, of a disarmed and peaceful world stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, was allowed to take hold.

After all, the Berlin Wall had fallen without a shot being fired, Germany was reunified, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Red Army marched away.

For the 16 years until last December, Angela Merkel was Chancellor of Germany, and it suited her to believe, despite growing evidence to the contrary, that Putin was a trustworthy partner.

There was a tendency in Berlin to view Russia as the only successor state to the Soviet Union. The rest of central and eastern Europe was treated by most members of the German elite as flyover country, of no interest to them as they flew over it on their way to do deals with Putin.

Warnings from the Poles, the Ukrainians and others that Putin could not be trusted were ignored. Those raising the alarm were backwoodsmen who did not understand how the modern world worked.

While talking to Putin, Germany’s leaders could flatter themselves that rather than being provincial figures, with no idea how to think strategically, they too were the representatives of a great power, acting astutely in order to safeguard their energy supplies.

Merkel’s predecessor as Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, had announced in 2002 that Germany’s nuclear power stations would be phased out by 2022, only to take, for himself, the chairmanship of the Nord Stream pipeline project to bring Russian gas to Germany by way of the Baltic, thus bypassing Poland and Ukraine.

When Merkel became Chancellor in 2005, she reversed the nuclear decision, only to reverse her own reversal in 2011, when to general astonishment she claimed the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan meant it was after all necessary to phase out German nuclear plants.

Germany’s power stations were in absolutely no danger of being hit by a tidal wave, which is what happened at Fukushima, so her pretext was implausible.

But Merkel reaped a big domestic dividend by adopting one of the Greens’ most popular policies, and she reckoned she knew how to manage Moscow, for she had grown up and achieved success as a scientist in East Germany:

Until Merkel was in her mid-thirties, power resided in Moscow, to which she contrived, as a gifted young scientist, to make several visits. She was not a Communist but she and her family made the accommodation with the authorities that was needed for her to get an education. She learned from a young age something about power and about the art of pragmatic compromise, and she also learned how to conceal whatever her own opinions might be. The young Merkel had no training or, indeed, interest in politics. When some of her scientific friends suggested she might like to protest with them against the regime, she laughed at the seeming futility of their proposed course of action.

She was fluent in Russian, and as Leon Mangasarian last year reminded readers of ConHome, she insisted that the Nord Stream project was just another business deal, and was also disgracefully lax (as indeed are many others to this day) in her dealings with the Chinese regime.

But after the invasion of Ukraine, Merkel said:

“There is no justification for this blatant breach of international law, and I wholeheartedly condemn it.”

The invasion has exposed many years of self-deception and wishful thinking in Berlin. Merkel was the head of a political class which when faced with difficult strategic choices, adopted the posture of an ostrich, burying its head in the sand.

Germany’s armed forces are in a deplorable state of weakness. Berlin did, however, begin yesterday to relax restrictions on the export of German-made weapons and ammunition to conflict zones, which had been hindering the supply of essential military equipment to Ukraine.

And Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, announced yesterday evening that a “turning point” has been reached and Germany will herself supply 1000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger rockets to Ukraine.

History has not stopped, universal peace does not reign, and Germany, as the richest country on the continent of Europe, has realised it cannot opt out of a struggle between a bloodstained dictator and a free nation.

Garvan Walshe: Four actions we can take to help Belarus achieve its freedom

24 Sep

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

The streets of Minsk, bathed in September morning sun, were absolutely empty yesterday. Not a soul under the clear blue sky. A sudden U-turn towards tough anti-Covid policies? Belarus making it to the world cup final? Of course not.

The real reason was that Aleksandr Lukashenko had decided to get himself reinaugurated as president – weeks early – and in secret.

Lukashenko’s regime has been shaken by almost two months of street protests following an election, in which he faced off against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose husband he had imprisoned in order to take him out of the race.

The rigging was farcical: observers recorded a middle-aged woman climbing down a ladder outside a polling station with bags of surplus ballots (a ballot-stuffing plan had gone awry when too many voters turned up, and space had to be created for their votes), and nobody believed the 80 per cent vote share officially recorded. Those deserted Minsk streets must have been filled by everyone who actually voted for him.

Lukashenko’s regime, in place since the Soviet Union collapsed, and so unreformed that its security service is still called the KGB, is looking very vulnerable.

Regime thugs initially responded to peaceful demonstrations with extreme violence, but have found protests led by women to be much harder to contain. Balaclava-clad men have been snatching protesters off the streets, but predictably just caused the protests to grow further.

Vladimir Putin has offered the Belarusian regime $1.5 billion, and perhaps covert riot-control support, but appears to have balked at more decisive intervention. Despite rigging his own constitutional referendum to allow him to stay on beyond the term limits he himself included in the previous version of Russia’s fundamental law, Putin finds himself on the ropes. Covid has dramatically reduced oil and gas demand, while protests have taken off, not only in Moscow, but across the country. It was on a flight back from one of those protests, in Siberia, that Alexei Navalny collapsed with Novichok poisoning. The last thing Russia needs right now is another rebellious province.

In these revolutionary moments, the survival of the regime depends on projecting a sense of “inevitability”, Rob Thomas, an Eastern Europe analyst, tells me. Legitimacy has long been forfeited, and the state lacks the sheer repressive capacity to put down such a large uprising. The best he can hope to do is to try and outlast the protesters, and hope the winter cold can send them home.

As much as Putin and Lukashenko might want to believe their own propaganda that this revolution is a CIA or George Soros plot, it is in fact a domestic movement to overthrow an unaccountable leaders who has overstayed his welcome. The pressure for change is coming from inside Belarus. Our job is to keep it in the international spotlight.

As well what might be called the standard toolkit – applying Magnitsky sanctions to regime-connected figures, clamping down on money laundering, preventing the export of surveillance and internet censorship technology, and stepping up funding of civil society through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – there are specific things that can put pressure on Lukashenko’s regime.

First, Belarus has a surprisingly successful tech sector, responsible for over five per cent of GDP. Such work can be done anywhere, so we can help Belarusian firms and programmers set up legal structures to keep their earnings outside Belarus while continuing to work where they are. Taxes due on this activity could be held in trust, and released to Belarus after it holds free and fair elections.

Second, visas should be relaxed to allow Belarusians who want to work and study abroad to come to the UK and also set up businesses with minimal red tape, on the same terms as the Ankara Agreement used to allow for Turkey.

Third, to blunt Russia’s energy weapon, we should work with Lithuania in particular to enable gas pipelines to Belarus to flow in reverse, and, together with other democracies, provide financial guarantees for liquified natural gas to be sent to a transitional Belarusian government.

Fourth, if further pressure is needed to create pressure for a transition to free and fair elections we could recognise Tikhanovskaya as an interim legitimate president, as part of a negotiating process that would allow both her and Lukashenko to stand down in favour of a neutral but democratic figure.

The empty streets and secret inauguration show that despite Cyprus blocking EU sanctions (an action surely unconnected to the large quantities of Russian money deposited in his banks) Lukashenko is running scared. If we can deny him international legitimacy, and put further economic pressure on the regime, we can play our part in supporting Belarusians’ struggle to choose their own future.

Garvan Walshe: Erdogan has failed his country – and turning the Hagia Sophia into a mosque won’t put food back on Turkey’s tables

16 Jul

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy

Built by the Roman emperor Justinian as a church, the Hagia Sophia, like the Catsel Sant’Angelo in Rome, is a sort of architectural missing link. Larger than classical structures, and enclosed, the visitor’s first impression is of the sheer quantity of stone, its bulk needed to support what was then the largest dome in Christendom. The graceful minarets are, of course, a later Ottoman addition.

When the Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople for the Ottomans he had it turned into a mosque, and Attaturk later made it a secular museum. But if Justinian built it at the Byzantine empire’s height, five years after Mohammed fled from Mecca to Medina, and Attaturk as his secular regime established himself, Erdogan has reestablished it as a mosque as his regime begins to decline.

Erdogan is no stranger to culture war. He built his power on a rising class of conservative Muslims who felt ill-served by the secular governing classes of Attaturk’s republic. They moved to Turkey’s cities as the economy modernised during the 1980s and 90s, and gave him his first taste of national office in Istanbul, where he was mayor between 1994 and 1998, Attaturk’s secularised Hagia Sofia looming over his city.

Battles over women being allowed to cover their heads on public property, alcohol taxes, and against an “interest rate lobby” blamed for repeated falls in the value of the Turkish Lira, have characterised his time in office, despite it also featuring major terrorist campaigns, a bloody war in Syria, the hosting of two million refugees who escaped it, large-scale counter-insurgency against Kurdish rebels and an almost successful military coup against him.

His governing style has evolved since he first became Prime Minister in 2003, and not only because he’s become an executive president. His first battles were with the military, when he pretended to be a democrat and gave his supporters pride in having their voice heard, and in economic progress.

But he turned on his former allies on anti-militarist left and in the Gülen movement, and constructed a far more grandiose and personal presidency. He built an enormous palace to live in, dressed up his bodyguards like Ottoman janissaries and radically changed foreign policy.

He abandoned Turkey’s historic friendship with Israel, opting instead to support Hamas, and the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. He financed Islamist rebels in Syria, and invaded the Kurdish areas of the country after, apparently, convincing Donald Trump to withdraw US protection for them.

He has even chosen to intervene in the Libyan civil war against the Russia and Egypt-backed General Haftar. He seems to see no contradiction between this anti-Russian intervention and ordering an S-400 air defence system from Moscow, or at least no greater contradiction than exists between that order and Turkey’s continued membership of NATO.

Domestically, he has been seduced by huge public works, from a new airport in Istanbul, to his now-presidential palace, the attempted paving over of Gezi Park (which provoked serious protests in 2013) and the enormous GAP dam project in southeastern Anatolia.

All these, and corruption allegations that swirl around them have begun to damage his reputation and, together with his increasing authoritarian style, cost his AK Party the mayoralties of Ankara and Istanbul. Voters weren’t impressed by his leaning on the Supreme Electoral Commission to rerun the Istanbul race after a narrow loss, and returned opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu decisively when the vote was held a second time.

More serious is the emergence of two new parties led by Erdogan’s former Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, respectively. Erdogan has managed only narrow victories in recent years, and relies on the ultra-nationalist MHP for its majority in parliament. A referendum confirming the switch to presidential rule was only narrowly carried.

Turkey’s government has come under criticism for mismanaging the economic fallout of the Covid-19 epidemic. The weak currency, a victim of Erdogan’s crusade against that “interest rate lobby” has been unable to support the huge borrowing to which other governments have resorted, with private initiatives organised by opposition mayors of Ankara and Istanbul taking much of the strain.

Reconsecrating the Hagia Sophia may give some cheer to his more committed supporters, but won’t put food on increasingly bare Turkish tables. A more humble man would treat it as part of his legacy and begin looking for a successor.