Daniel Hannan: Putin has has shown the West to be dithering, divided and drippy

16 Feb

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Vladimir Putin has won. He has placed himself at the centre of world affairs, strengthened his alliance with China, cowed his neighbours and solidified his domestic support. He has divided his rivals, sundering Europe from the Anglopshere – or, more precisely, separating Germany from the other democratic powers.

Best of all, he has shown the West to be dithering, divided and drippy – a lesson that will not be lost on autocratic regimes across Asia, Africa and Latin America. All this without sending a single T-72 into Ukrainian-held territory.

I suppose I should add that it is still theoretically possible that the apparent withdrawal of troops from the border is what the Russians call a “maskirovka”, a military deception. It’s conceivable that, even as you read these words, armoured columns are beginning to grind across the cold steppes. But I have been struck, throughout, by the discrepancy between what British and American leaders have predicted – both spoke this week of an invasion being “imminent” – and what everyone else has predicted.

When I say “everyone else”, I don’t mean Putin, whose statements we can safely discount. Obviously he denied throughout that there was any invasion plan. He also denied that Russian state actors were behind the Salisbury murders. He denied that there were Russian forces in Crimea, claiming that anyone could go into a shop and buy Russian uniforms, before switching tack and officially congratulating those same Russian forces (and going on to deny his earlier denials).

More telling was the sanguine attitude of most Ukrainians. It’s not that they saw no threat; they have been in a state of constant readiness since 2017, aware that successive ceasefires have been violated. But they never suggested that an invasion was immediate. They reckoned that, although Putin might have enough men and matériel to overpower their army, he had not concentrated nearly enough force to hold down what would immediately become a population in revolt.

They noticed that Russian state media were not softening people up for war – a prospect that remains unpopular in Russia. Putin has not issued any territorial claims against Ukraine, nor complained about the status of ethnic Russians there (the pretext for the 2014 conflict).

For what it is worth, most European governments also tended to the view that war was a remote prospect. So did the retired spooks and semi-spooks I spoke to in this country.

Why, then, the discrepancy? What did the CIA and MI6 know that no one else did? How could they be so specific in their talk of false flag operations and even of which Ukrainian politicians would front a puppet regime?

Obviously, I can’t answer that question. It is possible that, if I were seeing the intelligence that Joe Biden and Boris Johnson are seeing, I would have a different view. But Johnson, of all people, knows that information does not become reliable simply because it is privileged. I remember a brilliant Telegraph column in which he presciently excoriated what he called our “intelligence charlies” over what turned out to be duff analysis about Iraq.

Endless articles have analysed Putin’s motives. But it is worth also considering the motives of the Anglosphere states. Putin’s aim is clear enough. He wants to keep the Russian people in a state of anxious patriotism, thereby shoring up support for his regime. Nations which feel under siege are, as a rule, keener on strongman rule than those enjoying peace and plenty.

It is therefore Putin’s strategy (to quote our national poet) “to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels”. He doesn’t want a win in Ukraine. He could have had that years ago, pulling out of Donbas in exchange for recognition in Crimea. He wants a continuing crisis.

To point out that his policy deters investment, diverts resources and triggers sanctions is irrelevant. We should not make the mistake of conflating Russia’s interests with Putin’s. He is pursuing his personal incentives, not his country’s. Call it the Freakonomics view of human behaviour or, if you are of a more pretentious bent, the Namierite interpretation.

If Putin pulls his troops back, he will come away with significant gains. State media have shown Western leaders dancing to his tune: Macron being lectured across a cartoonishly long table, Liz Truss being insulted and patronised by her opposite number, NATO members squabbling with Germany over whether they could route aid to Ukraine across its territory.

For Russians to criticise any aspect of Putin’s regime during such a crisis – the palaces and Western hidey-holes owned by officials on modest state salaries, the murder of journalists, the imprisonment of human rights activists – feels almost like treachery.

All that, in its grisly way, makes sense. So why the war talk in Washington, London and Ottawa? Could it be that our leaders, too, have Freakonomics motives? Just as Putin can walk away claiming victory simply because Ukraine has not joined NATO, so they can claim victory simply because war was averted. “We and our allies have managed to prevent Russia from any further escalation,” crowed Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba yesterday.

I don’t blame Western leaders for any of this. It was not they who massed over a hundred thousand troops against the Ukrainian border. It is simply that their incentives skew overwhelmingly one way. Preparing for war and being wrong is no big deal; failing to prepare and being wrong is disastrous.

And so, as soldiers manoeuvre in the snow, two sets of politicians come away with a win. Russia’s leaders declare that they prevented NATO from reaching their borders; the West’s that, by displaying resolve, they checked an invasion. It beats shooting at each other, I suppose. But what an odd way to conduct international relations.

Shanker Singham: Today’s signing of the UK-Australia deal symbolises a new economic era for Global Britain

17 Dec

Shanker Singham is CEO of Competere. He is a former adviser to Liam Fox when he was Secretary of State for International Trade, and to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

We have often taken the special relationship for granted on this side of the Atlantic. While we rest on our laurels, often the US’s other allies and trading partners steal a march on the UK.

What is needed is a comprehensive re-engagement with the US at multiple levels – Prime Minister, Cabinet, ministerial and parliamentary. There is already a lot of private sector to private sector dialogue but these need to be accelerated with ministerial sponsorship.

It is clear that on matters as diverse as the Northern Ireland Protocol, to our interest in a comprehensive free trade agreement, the UK has not been able to land forensic, knock-out blows, whereas others, notably the Irish and the EU have been more successful in prosecuting their interests with the new administration.

There are signs of improvement however. We have seen a significant uptick in the frequency of UK ministerial engagements in Washington recently. There were at least five UK ministers in the US, the week of the December 6 for example. Importantly, UK engagement is not limited to Washington DC and New York. Penny Mordaunt, the trade policy minister has just returned from the longest ministerial visit to the US in recent history – a tour of five US states lasting over 10 days, a lifetime for a minister.

Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, made a very important speech at Chatham House on December 8, where she acknowledged that the world had broken down into those countries that supported a vision of capitalism based on competition versus those whose capitalist model is based on distortion and cronyism – and that the countries in the former camp constituted a network of liberty. AUKUS was just a start to bring those countries together to pursue an international economic policy that maximised open trade, competition on the merits and property rights protection.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the Secretary of State for Trade, also made a recent intervention at the CPS’ Margaret Thatcher conference on trade, where she specifically addressed the cancer of anti-competitive market distortions which are plaguing global trade. In this the UK and US have very similar concerns and are looking for similar solutions – a mechanism to deal with the problem that does not drive a coach and horses through the international trading system.

On what the UK’s regulatory system will look like in the future, Lord Frost was also crystal clear when he discussed this in the House of Lords, noting that the UK will diverge from EU regulation, not just for the sake of it, or because it can, but because it must do so in order to promote a pro-competitive regulatory agenda that both increases economic growth at home, but will also make it easier (and faster) to do trade deals.

The trade policy minister’s long trip led to substantial progress on Memoranda of Understanding with a number of states, as diverse as Tennessee, Oklahoma, North and South Carolina and Georgia. She made a very important speech to the Carter Centre. In it she was much more forensic about a case that does not get made often enough – why a free trade deal with the UK is in the American interest, not just the British one.

The UK leaving the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union is a massive global event. The UK, to quote Minister Mordaunt, has made itself a piece on the global chessboard, and a powerful one at that. It alone is negotiating or discussing international economic policy issues with all the key players, including the EU with which it is one of the few major players to have an FTA already.

The UK has made it crystal clear to its trading partners which side of the table it is going to be on – to inter-operate with the world on the basis of equivalence and adequacy, as the US and CPTPP countries do, instead of pushing its own regulatory vision on the rest of the world as the EU and China do.

This shift is a seismic one in geo-economic terms. If the Americans fail to capitalise on it, they will have lost a huge opportunity to win the battle for the world’s operating system, and to ensure it is based on voluntary exchange, underpinned by open trade and competition, including regulatory competition based on outcomes. This would unleash wealth creation and economic growth at a time when it is so crucially needed as the world struggles to emerge from Covid-19.

But the UK is not just making speeches. It is delivering. Today’s signing of the UK-Australia deal means that the UK’s entirely de novo trade negotiating agenda is now in full swing. Contrary to the naysayers who said that trade deals take 10 years to do, this was initiated in 2020 and concluded in 2021 – within a year of the UK leaving the EU.

It is anticipated that the NZ deal will quickly follow. Within the year, the UK also concluded a deal with Japan that contains important new elements and departures from the EU’s deal especially in the crucial data area, signed a deal with Australia, established its working group for accession to the CPTPP, and will doubtless conclude a number of MOUs with US states as a down payment on an eventual FTA with the US. This has all been done within a year of concluding the FTA with the EU, the point at which our trading partners knew whether we could do trade deals or not.

The UK and US must now use the recently announced Atlantic Charter to push for the key initiatives such as the reduction of anti-competitive market distortions around the world and the commitment to open trade and competition on the merits.  They must tie other nations into the AUKUS deal which is much more than an agreement about submarines, especially the Japanese.

The geo-economic tectonic plates are shifting as we said they would, but even faster than even we hoped and anticipated. For the first time in a long time, the network of liberty countries look like they might be winning.  We are far from out of the woods, and the world remains a very dangerous place for freedom, but these countries now have line of sight to victory, and the UK is their champion. We may yet lose, but if we do, it will be because this moment of opportunity was wasted.

Olivier Guitta: Biden’s decision to snub France will weaken, not embolden, the U.S. in its dealings with China

20 Sep

Olivier Guitta is the Managing Director of GlobalStrat, a security and geopolitical risk consulting company for companies and governments.

On September 16 President Emmanuel Macron announced that French forces had killed Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the emir of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, in Mali.

Coincidentally, al-Sahrawi had been at the top of the U.S. wanted list for murdering American Special forces in Niger in 2017. So, it is quite ironic that on the same day U.S. President Joe Biden back-stabbed France by announcing a defence alliance with Australia and the UK that included taking away from Paris the contract of the century.

France had signed in 2016 a deal worth $66 billion to supply 12 diesel-powered submarines to Australia. As late as August 30 both countries’ leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the submarine programme. This while Australia had been negotiating since at least March with the UK and the U.S. on getting a deal for nuclear-powered submarines.

It was a deal so secret and so controversial that reportedly only 10 people in the British government knew about it. The project was almost finalised at the G7 meeting in England in June under the nose of Macron while he was cosying up to Biden.

The Biden administration blindsided France, which accused top U.S. officials of hiding information about the deal despite repeated attempts by French diplomats to know what was going on. French diplomats said they first learned of the deal when news leaked in Australian media hours before the official announcement on Wednesday.

Expressing his fury for not only the cancellation of the deal but the handling of the announcement and the non-consulting of France, Macron immediately recalled its ambassadors in Washington and Canberra.

It is quite telling that this is the first time ever happened that France recalled its ambassador to the U.S., showing the seriousness of the diplomatic crisis. Interestingly enough, even Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, said he understood Paris’ fury to be cut out from the alliance.

Things could have gone down way differently: If technology was the problem, why did the Australians not talk to the French about it since, incidentally, France also has nuclear-powered submarines?

We are not talking here about $60 million or $600 million or even $6 billion but about $66 billion. There was surely a way to find a consensus between the four allies, even when bringing to the table the U.S. and the UK, like splitting the contract in three.

In fact, the bigger picture is even more important than the huge defence contact since this AUKUS alliance, as it is called, is all about standing up to China. It is quite ironic that Biden has pushed away France from that alliance since in the past few months Paris has been one of the most sanguine to oppose China’s influence in the region.

Indeed, back in March, China complained about the French military’s activities in the disputed South China Sea, after it sent two warships there. In April, these ships took part in a three-day military exercise with the four members of the Quad alliance- Japan, India, Australia and the U.S.

That’s not all: France, that has several territories in the Pacific, has committed to helping Japan on the military and security level, i.e., protecting against China. Indeed, when Macron visited Japan during the Tokyo Olympics, Prime Minister Suga said he welcomed French plans to build on regional cooperation by boosting Paris’ efforts to “reinforce its strategic orientation, presence and actions in the Indo-Pacific in order to contribute to security, stability and sustainable development in the region.”

In light of this, Biden’s decision to snub France is another major faux-pas that is basically undermining his plan for an anti-China front. This hasn’t escaped Beijing that while officially very angry about the deal denouncing it, China might turn out to be the ultimate winner since it has de facto possibly broken the French resolve to side with the US against Beijing. Indeed, Macron said that France might narrow its focus to concentrate on its specific Indo-Pacific interests, rather than working to push back against China more broadly.

Biden, who wanted to break off from his predecessor when it came to trans-Atlantic relations, has missed yet another opportunity to do so with the AUKUS alliance. His potential anti-China front has been definitely undercut and ironically only of his own doing.

Including France in the alliance would have been wise to repair a deteriorating relationship with Europe that has witnessed the huge historical debacle in Afghanistan, the de facto approval of the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2. Biden has in just eight months lost all of his credibility in European capitals, not a small feat indeed.

David Lidington: There’s no alternative to our American alliance. But we also need a new strategic relationship with our European allies.

27 Aug

David Lidington is a former Cabinet Minister and Europe Minister. He is Chair of the Royal United Services Institution (RUSI), and of the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE).

This week at Kabul airport we have seen human nature both at its most heroic, in the risks taken by our servicemen and women to help thousands of Afghans fleeing persecution, and at its most depraved, in the merciless slaughter of innocents by suicide bombers.

Those appalling scenes ram home the cruel truth that we, the West, have suffered a major defeat. The return of the Taliban is a humiliation for the United States and its NATO allies, including our own country. Jihadist networks, not only Isis-K but their counterparts in Africa, South-East Asia, the Middle East and in our own cities will take fresh heart. Russia, China and Iran will interpret the debacle in Kabul as further evidence of Western decadence and decline and see opportunities to expand their influence in the world.

Unsurprisingly, defeat in Afghanistan has sent a wave of shock and anger through the British political and media worlds. In particular, recriminations over Joe Biden’s decision to act unilaterally and his scant consultation with coalition allies have gone way beyond the normal language of diplomatic relations. One or two Ministers, who under the cloak of anonymity have bandied around not just vituperative language about the United States but personal insults at Biden, need to be reminded that the burdens of high office include sometimes having to bite your tongue when matters involving the national interest are at stake.

While it is right that this strategic reverse should prompt a hard look at its lessons for our foreign and security policy, it would be a mistake to think that every assumption about the UK’s place in the world has been overthrown.

The fundamental conclusions of the Government’s Integrated Review seem to me still to hold good. Russia is a potent threat to the security of this country and the continent of which we are part. China is both a strategic rival to the West and in some respects an unavoidable partner. Our military strength and our resilience to security threats depends on us being able to renew our capacity for technological innovation. The United Kingdom is a European power with a global outlook and global interests. The alliance with the United States is essential to our own national security.

Policy should include a measured tilt to the Indo-Pacific, doing more with countries like Japan, Australia and South Korea, while continuing to direct the great majority of our security resources and attention to the Euro-Atlantic, working with our allies in Europe and North America. Soft and hard power complement one another and both are important in defending and advancing our interests.

The missing element is a clear strategic plan to act on those conclusions. In this short space, I want to make just two points.

First, that plan should start with a clear-eyed view of our relationship with the United States.

Walk down Bond Street in the West End and you come across a remarkable pair of statues: Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt sitting on a wooden bench. The two men are presented as if in the middle of a relaxed, jovial conversation, the sculptor’s art conveying an impression of mutual trust, friendship and goodwill. The work is entitled “Allies”.

Far too often, British politicians and journalists have fallen for the beguiling romance that this work of art represents, and overlooked the reality that there have been freqtuent clashes of interest and opinion. FDR drove a hard bargain over lend-lease. Truman refused to do Attlee any favours over Britain’s war debts. Eisenhower humiliated Britain and France over Suez. Harold Wilson refused to send troops to Vietnam. Ronald Reagan sent US forces into Grenada without even telling Margaret Thatcher.

What President Biden’s recent decisions have shown is that “America First” has outlived Donald Trump. It’s not isolationism, but rather a rigorous and ruthless focus on what the White House considers to be the key national interests of the United States and a readiness to dispense with other commitments. We’ve seen it in the shift of American priorities towards the Indo-Pacific under both Democrat and Republican presidents, when Barack Obama insisted that France and the UK take political responsibility for the action in Libya in 2011 and now in Kandahar and Kabul.

The lesson for policymakers in London is not that we should look for an alternative to the US alliance. There isn’t one. No other country or grouping in the democratic world has the concentration of economic and military power of Washington. But Britain, like the rest of Europe, is going to have to work harder to prove to US politicians and the voters they represent that they should see the security of our region as part of the essential national interest of the American people.

Britain’s military and security relationships with the US functioned even during the worst turbulence of the Trump years. The Americans recognise that the UK brings things to the table that they value: our intelligence agencies, special forces, nuclear submarines and not just armed forces but a willingness to deploy them. We need to keep those relationships in the best possible state of repair and at the same time redouble diplomatic efforts to show how important American interests depend on the security of Europe.

Second, we need to establish a new strategic partnership with our European neighbours. We can and should work with like-minded nations around the world, but that should be additional to and not a substitute for an effective alliance with the democracies next door. This is important for two reasons.

The first is that it is greater capability and a greater willingness to act on the part of the European pillar of the Atlantic alliance that could give us the choice of taking an initiative when the United States does not want to be involved. And second, Washington not only wants its European allies to spend more on defence and security, but for them to show greater leadership in parts of the world: Africa, the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, which America now treats as at most secondary to its strategic rivalry with China.

A lot can be done through NATO structures like the Northern Group that brings together the NATO members and partner countries that border the Baltic and the North Sea, and through bilateral partnerships like the E3 grouping of France, Germany and the UK. Britain is party too to the European Intervention Initiative that brings together EU and non-EU countries.

But as governments in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere keep saying, there also needs to be a new, constructive strategic relationship between the UK and the European Union. In part, that’s because even the big member states think and work in the EU context, seeking to influence and being influenced by EU discussions on foreign and security policy, and also because many of the key levers of soft power: development aid, state capacity building, military and police training, peacekeeping missions lie at EU level.

To make a reality of the slogan “Global Britain” requires us to accept that we need to work with allies, and that we need strong, strategic relationships on both sides of the Atlantic.

Sarah Ingham: The success of Taliban 2.0 has left Britain, and its semi-detached MPs, bereft of answers

20 Aug

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

“General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead.”

Reviewing Barack Obama’s first term in office, Joe Biden, then Vice President, provided a pithy summary in 2012.

Almost a decade after al-Qaeda’s world-changing 9/11 attack on America, in May 2011 US Special Forces finally got their man. He had been hiding out in Abbottabad, which could be twinned with Aldershot, on the other side of Afghanistan’s often conveniently porous border with Pakistan.

Up there with other great political comebacks are now the Taliban. Ten years after the unlamented passing of bin Laden, history’s most troublesome paying guest, 20 years after being ousted by NATO forces and the local Northern Alliance, the regime is now in power. Or, as the lawyer for ISIS-groupie Shamima Begum tweeted to accompany the image of gun-carrying fighters with their feet under the Presidential desk in Kabul, “The boys are back in town”.

The success of Taliban 2.0 in the past two weeks has made us question the worth of Britain’s mission in Afghanistan over the past two decades. Or should that be missions?

In his memoirs Tony Blair reflects on his choices after the first Taliban regime was overthrown: “Like it or not, from then on, we were in the business of nation-building.” A Journey was published in 2010 with the benefit of hindsight. Britain joined American military action in Afghanistan in late 2001 under our Article 5 NATO treaty obligations. Back then, there was no plan to set up a liberal democracy or to educate girls.

Keen to keep busy after the end of the Cold War – “Go out of area or go out of business” – in June 2004 NATO members committed to an expanded operation in Afghanistan. Like a bust Monopoly player’s properties, the country’s provinces were divvied up. Outlining the scope of the British military mission in Helmand, in January 2006, John Reid, the Defence Secretary, talked the talk about “a fully integrated package addressing governance, security and political and social change” and “finding real alternatives to the harvesting of opium”. He added “waging war is not our aim”.

With British forces under heavy fire from the Taliban almost as soon as their boots were on the ground, the current doubts about the quality of Afghan-related intelligence are hardly new. After all, Secretary Reid stated “we would be perfectly happy to leave in three years’ time without firing one shot”.

Stabilisation? Protecting reconstruction? Nation-building? Counter-terrorism? Counter-insurgency? Counter-poppy? Combat? With the Blair-Brown government unsure of its objective in Afghanistan, it is unsurprising the public was baffled about the British role. In October 2006, 64 per cent reported there was no clear strategy. Three years later, 42 per cent did not understand the purpose of the British mission and more than 60 per cent believed the war was unwinnable and all troops should be withdrawn.

Conversely, Service personnel had never been held in higher esteem, approval ratings which continue today. Soldiers’ service and sacrifice – including the preparedness to make the ultimate sacrifice – became especially apparent on the final melancholy journeys through Wootton Bassett. The changes in Afghanistan in the last 20 years have come about not least because of the professionalism and commitment of Britain’s Servicemen and women.

Combat operations ended in 2015. To paraphrase Keir Starmer, in the context of Afghanistan most of us in Britain seem to have been on the beach ever since. How many were aware of Operation Toral, the UK’s mission to train local Afghan Forces, not least at Sandhurst-in-the-Sand? Who raised concerns about the Trump-Taliban deal in Doha?

MPs’ semi-detached attitude towards Afghanistan was underlined by the almost complete absence of statesmanship in Wednesday’s Emergency Debate. Of course, given that most of our representatives have not actually bothered to show up for work for 15 months, they are out of practice, but that is no excuse for sanctimony at levels rivalling the peaks of the Hindu Kush. Apart from Tom Tugendhat, Dan Jarvis and a handful of others, most MPs should have stayed at home.

Regime change, which many MPs were in favour of in Iraq, usually involves chaos, bloodshed and a humanitarian crisis. Has the Stop the War movement become Continue the Military Intervention?

Perhaps Washington’s critics should tell us just how much they would like to take from the NHS budget to pay for an increase in defence to cover a unilateral British mission to Afghanistan. For the past half century this country has chosen welfare over warfare, sheltering under an American defence umbrella. US taxpayers have spent $2 trillion; more than 20,000 US Service personnel have been injured and 2,400 killed. With so much American blood and treasure spent in Afghanistan, evincing some gratitude toward our chief NATO ally would have been fitting.

What of the bigger strategic picture? The silence from MPs on this was deafening. The Prime Minister was correct to point out that deploying tens of thousands of British troops to fight the Taliban is not an option.

In the rush to judgment over the past week, few have stopped to ask why the Taliban could seize power so easily. So far, the handover has been comparatively orderly. Just as London is not Britain, cosmopolitan Kabul might not be Afghanistan.

And who are the Taliban 2.0? How do they fit into this tribal multi-ethnic country, where mobile phone ownership has gone from about 30,000 to 22.5 million in the past 20 years. Supposing they are less medieval executioners-in-football-stadia and more 21st century smartphone-savvy operators, mindful of optics seen globally and instantly?

If Britain has a problem doing business with an Islamic regime with dubious attitudes towards women and civil rights, there goes most of the Middle East. As yet there are no evacuation helicopters hovering over the embassies of China and Russia in Kabul: perhaps staff are too busy drawing up deals over mineral rights and infrastructure.

This week President Biden declared that “we” could not provide “them” with the will to fight. A young British Army officer might well have disagreed. The Malakand Field Force describes a short military campaign in 1897 in a tribal area near the Durand Line, the newly-drawn border between British India and Afghanistan, specifically designed to protect Britain’s imperial interests.

The author, Second Lieutenant Winston Churchill, admired the enemy Pashtu tribesmen: “To the ferocity of the Zulu are added the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer… Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.”

Tobias Ellwood: We’ve left Afghanistan to again become a haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the West.

14 Jul

Tobias Ellwood is Chair of the Defence Select Committee, and is MP for Bournemouth East.

It was just before midnight on October 12 2002 when a terrorist walked into a busy Irish bar in Bali and detonated a suicide bomb contained in his backpack. Those not immediately killed fled onto the street, running straight into the killing zone of a massive car bomb.

Over 200 people were killed, mostly Westerners, and a similar number were injured. This peaceful Indonesian island could not cope with the scale of this attack and hospitals were quickly overwhelmed, with the morgue lining up bodies in its car park under the burning sun.

My brother Jonathan, attending a conference on the island at the time, was missing. I flew out to join my sister to track him down, imagining him perhaps unconscious, in one of the hospitals – but nevertheless alive. Running out of options we finally visited the morgue.

One by one I unzipped the body bags to try and tried to find my brother. I was only able to identify his remains by finding the key-hole surgery scar on his lower back.

It soon dawned on me that the Bali bombing was not a one-off, but confirmation that the 9/11 attacks had triggered a horrific new form of asymmetric threat the West would have to confront.

Jonathan’s murder required me to do more than grieve. I needed to better understand how a peaceful religion could be hijacked by extremists able to persuade others that blowing themselves up would be rewarded via a fast track to paradise. Then I had to follow NATO’s trail to Afghanistan, where 70 nations combined after 9/11 to destroy the terrorists who recruited, funded, armed, and trained the misguided men who killed Jonathan.

It was not just as a bereaved brother, but as an MP and a former combat soldier in Bosnia that I had to see how well all the best intentions of the West could pacify a failed state and stifle the scourge of Islamic fundamentalism.

On the first of over a dozen visits it was immediately apparent to me the scale of the challenge: widespread corruption, intense tribal rivalries, Pakistani meddling, and deep-rooted resistance to foreign occupation. 

But we didn’t make it any easier for ourselves. I was frankly astonished how the US military were running the entire show. There was no “Paddy Ashdown” character co-ordinating a civilian post-conflict strategy. The big plan to rebuild the country (agreed in Bonn in December 2001) was largely based on the blueprint used for Bosnia, without any appreciation that such Western, centralised solutions were completely inappropriate for Afghanistan.

This schoolboy error is something Britain should have flagged up. We pride ourselves on our understanding of the world. Our history, connectivity and diplomatic reach has allowed us to offer intelligent strategic solutions to challenges that factor in local, cultural, and deep-rooted characteristics. Not least with Afghanistan where thanks to the “Great Game” we have form.

Three previous Anglo-Afghan wars have taught us what a complex tribal country this is. Even with charismatic leaders, such as Dost Mohamed and Amanullah Khan, this nation has never been run from the centre.

The US should have known this. After funding the Mujahedeen to see off the Soviet occupation, the US simply walked away in 1989 – leaving the feeble Afghan Government to eventually fall to the Mujahedeen’s successor, the Taliban.

So, after 2001, what made us think we could master the country again?

Well, we didn’t think, because we – MPs – barely knew. Did you know that US Senators are free to visit American troops wherever they may be posted across the world? No such rule exists for MPs. For me to witness what was going on, Sir Peter Ricketts, then our Ambassador to NATO, found out that I had US dual nationality having been born in New York.

He introduced me to US General Jim Jones, who as SACEUR  (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) visited the NATO mission in Afghanistan every six months. We developed a close friendship that endures today, and I secured a regular flight where I was one of the few MPs able to see the four glaring disjoints between our international rhetoric and the reality on the ground.

First, Washington was lulled into a false sense of security, its judgement distorted by the ease of the initial invasion and the relative peaceful first four years.

Second, creating detention camps at Guantanamo Bay, failing to tackle large scale Afghan corruption and nepotism, ignoring the poisonous influence of the Pakistan-India rivalry and the fallout of the Iraq invasion would all play their part in preventing a US-backed Afghan government from winning over the people of Afghanistan.

Third, NATO’s security reach across the country was impressive but little effort was given to training the Afghan Army so they could eventually take on this responsibility.

Fourth, all governance decisions were made in Kabul and no attempts were made to reach out to the Taliban. Quite the contrary. They had requested a seat at the December 2001 Bonn talks – but the victors kept them away. How different history would be had they been included. Instead, they withdrew across the Pakistan border to regroup and retrain before launching a vicious and enduring insurgency campaign that would outwit and outlast the most sophisticated and high-tech military alliance in history.

So why did it go so wrong? As Churchill said of Suez: “I would never have dared, and if I had dared, I would never have dared stop.” For all our grand ideas, we stopped thinking and planning. The short-term fix always beat the long-term plan.

I’ll give you just two examples of hundreds that illustrate the absence a wider strategy beyond killing bad people. On a visit to Helmand In 2008, I bumped into Brigadier Mark Carlton Smith – now our four-star general in command of the British Army. He was rightly proud of a mission 16 Air Assault Brigade had just completed to transport a 220-tonne turbine to the mighty Kajaki dam in the north of the province. This huge logistical and security challenge involving over 100 vehicles got the turbine (broken down into sections) delivered with just one fatality due to a land mine and a few injured.

Installing the turbine would have provided gamechanging electricity that would have won over hearts and minds of the Afghan people across south-west Afghanistan. Yet for years the turbine sat in its bubble wrap uninstalled. A lack of concrete meant the project to fully upgrade the dam is stillborn.

On another visit I accompanied Jim Mattis to the town of Margah just after its liberation (Operation Moshtarak). 15,000 coalition troops had flushed out the Taliban from this central Helmand stronghold. It was encouraging to see the locals return to some normality but when I asked, through an interpreter, if they were happy the Taliban had gone, they said yes, but what’s next? “I’m not allowed to grow poppies and there is no market for wheat”.

His point was well made. We’d just removed the town’s biggest employer. The state of the roads (think Salisbury Plain) meant growing wheat and getting it to market was simply not viable. Yet when I inquired about grading the roads to ease transport links and supporting alternative livelihoods, the local DIFD rep admitted “funds are limited but now the town is free we can get planning”. The absence of any follow up meant the Taliban were back in control of the town within months.

The tragic result of this strategic failure is that, after two decades, we have now quit Afghanistan, abandoning the country to the very insurgent organisation we went in to defeat in the first place. With the Taliban now swiftly surrounding the crumbling Afghan government and what’s left of its army, anyone who can is fleeing the country.

It is now only a matter of time before the West has its Saigon moment. Western embassies will be evacuated just as they were in Vietnam in 1975. And all we leave for the 40 million Afghans to whom we promised a better future is a return to the bitter past. Afghanistan will once again become a haven for terrorist groups to plot future attacks against the West.

Just imagine if we’d had the same attitude towards abandoning Germany after the war – leaving the country to potential domestic strife or more likely following the of East Germany with Iron Curtain bumping up to France. Instead, we stayed the course and supported for Germany for decades.

In contrast, our withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves a power vacuum in a critical part of the world. Sitting between the Russia and China, Afghanistan could have been nurtured into a powerful geostrategic ally. Both countries will be enjoying the decline of the West’s ability to defend global order – so soon after the G7 Summit when we promised an international re-boot.

With so many lessons to learn, I hope it’s therefore understandable as to why I’m calling for an inquiry to learn the lesson as to what went wrong.

The call for America to be purified by blood echoes back to the Founding Fathers. Trump is a chapter in that enduring story.

8 Jan

Has the American Constitution survived? Yes. It is intact after four years of Donald Trump, and can surely endure a few days more of this sleazy, shameless, self-obsessed fantasist.

Trump himself has belatedly changed his tune, declaring on Thursday evening:

“My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power. This moment calls for healing and reconciliation.”

His new message is so at variance with his normal aggressive and provocative tone that it can only be understood as an admission of defeat.

The President has been forced to concede that his outrageous attempts to defy the election result in the courts have failed. So has the invasion by his supporters of Capitol Hill.

He now reproves those rioters for having “defiled the seat of our democracy”. His position has become so hopeless that he plays the statesman.

This tardy repentance should not obscure his record as a campaigner who got to the top by defying every rule of decent behaviour.

Trump is in some respects unique. He is the first President who never served either in the armed forces, or in some other federal office, before entering the White House.

He is also the first President to be a reality TV star, a genre in which the worse one behaves, the better one does in the ratings.

And he is the first President to master the art of using Twitter to set the agenda, communicate direct with his supporters, enthuse them in his cause and smear anyone who opposes him.

As he himself told Fox News in March 2017: “I think that maybe I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Twitter.”

This vulgarian from the suburbs, with his horrible buildings, his use of the law to sue anyone unwise enough to enter into any business dealings with him, his utter lack of concern with the truth, his merciless contempt for upholders of civilised conduct, was for several decades an embarrassment to decent New Yorkers, before becoming an embarrassment to decent Americans everywhere.

The pictures which went round the world of the Capitol being invaded by his supporters were a monstrous embarrassment, and Trump was to blame for inciting this outrage.

It appears he will be the chief loser from this final attempt to prosper by behaving worse than anyone else. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes, the Trump spell has been broken.

But as Trump leaves the stage, it would be foolish to seek comfort in the idea that he was a mere barbarian, who for a short time managed by some fluke to capture the Republican Party.

Trump was more cunning than that. As a political opponent, he was persistently underestimated by naive Democrats, and indeed by naive journalists on America’s most famous newspapers, who supposed that simply by demonstrating he was a liar they could destroy him.

He defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 by becoming the chosen instrument of revenge of scorned provincial America against the rich, condescending liberals on the East and West coasts who believe in abortion and same-sex marriage and racial equality.

The more distressing Trump’s behaviour became to those liberals, the better he pleased his supporters. The more uncouth he was, and the more racist in his references to Moslems, Mexicans and Barack Obama, the louder his angry and excluded voters cheered.

The Washington demonstrations this week are, one hopes, a final, pitiful gesture by those supporters, rounding off his presidency in an entirely fitting manner.

But it would be foolish to regard the invasion of Capitol Hill as the end of the problem. For Trump appealed to emotions and to a constituency which have existed since the foundation of the Republic.

Consider this passage, from a letter written in 1787:

“What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

That was Thomas Jefferson, who in 1776 was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and from 1801-09 served as the third President.

This Founding Father, one of the greatest intellects ever to apply his mind to the problem of creating and maintaining the United States, was an admirer of the French Revolution, and his defence of revolutionary violence has been interpreted with disastrous literalness by terrorists such as the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh, who in 1995 murdered 168 people by blowing up a federal building.

The generally elevated language and conduct of the Founding Fathers was not, unfortunately, maintained by their successors. The seventh President, Andrew Jackson, in office from 1829-37, was a vindictive brute with a genius for appealing to angry frontiersmen who felt looked down upon by the folks in Washington.

The promise to purify Washington is one of the oldest in American politics. Trump plugged himself into the anti-federal tradition, the deep-seated belief that the Federal Government wants to take people’s freedom away, seize their guns and trample on their cherished beliefs.

During the 2008 presidential election, I reported on a rally by Sarah Palin, the Republicans’ vice-presidential candidate, in Chillicothe, Ohio, a charming old town which from 1803-10 served as the first capital of that state:

Mrs Palin attacked the Los Angeles Times for refusing to release a video tape of Mr Obama on which he may or may not have made some pro-Palestinian remarks: “If there’s a Pulitzer Prize category for excellence in kowtowing, the Los Angeles Times is probably going to win it.”

As Mrs Palin beamed her “would you believe it” smile and the crowd cheered her on, an angry man turned towards the press enclosure and shouted, “Do some investigation, media.”

Mrs Palin had touched on a grave matter, for as she told her fans, on the tape in question “some very derogatory things were said about Israel.”

To get some faint idea of the significance of the word “Israel” in American politics, and especially in Christian evangelical circles, it is worth quoting a conversation I had with one of Mrs Palin’s supporters. I asked this friendly and sincere woman if she thought Mr Obama was a Christian, to which she replied: “I don’t believe he is. Just the things I’ve been hearing about him, he’s a Muslim.”

Me: “But he’s not a Muslim.”

Friendly woman: “But the church that he was in, they were slamming Israel, and if you’re not for Israel that’s God’s chosen nation. If you’re against Israel you’re against God.”

I was reminded of the words I had heard earlier that morning while driving through the beautiful Ohio countryside, from a preacher on a Christian radio station who urged his flock to vote Republican and condemned Mr Obama as a Marxist, an apostate, a hypocrite and a viper.

On the subject of abortion, the preacher said in a voice of doom: “You can suck their brains out but it’s not murder because the Government has sanctioned it. It’s just butchery…mutilation…sin.”

Trump was a more skilful version of Palin, and has taken longer than she did to blow up. He will not be the last huckster who sets out to make himself the champion of angry, disregarded, unfashionable America.

Conservatives can rejoice that Trump is leaving the stage, but had better not forget his followers will be looking for a new leader.

Andrew Gimson is the author of Gimson’s Presidents.

Imran Ahmad Khan: Now is the right time for the UK to evolve a sharper and tighter foreign policy

22 Dec

Imran Ahmad Khan is Member of Parliament for Wakefield and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Foreign Affairs.

The UK has seldom faced such an array of challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak damage to our lives and businesses. Brexit negotiations have uncovered numerous flaws in our institutions, our negotiating skills, and our knowledge of our closest neighbours. The Presidential elections in the US have re-sparked divisive domestic issues. A rising China and a revanchist Russia, both of whom seek to expand their sphere of influence, now present an alternative, illiberal, world order.

Despite these threats, the UK’s recent foreign policy has been marked by missed opportunities and withdrawal. The UK’s weak presence at Davos and the Munich Security Conference in 2020 sent a signal of disinterest. Foreign leaders from countries in Asia, South America and Africa have lamented British disengagement from issues. European leaders have also debated strategic autonomy in Berlin and Paris, while London has remained silent.

Britain has a chance to reverse this deficit. Brexit presents us with the opportunity to deploy new tools of statecraft in pursuit of foreign policy objectives. The recent surge in defence spending – £16.5 billion over four years – will rebuild our pared back military capability. Upcoming commitments in the Sahel and the Indo-Pacific point to new arenas for British influence. Bilateral relationships, although attenuated in some cases, remain strong, and cooperation with the Commonwealth on issues of importance is close.

Now more than ever, a coherent, holistic strategy is required that will unite and enhance our capabilities to advance Britain’s position in the world, her interests, and her values.

What does Britain want?

Her Majesty’s Government’s principle role is to ensure the security and prosperity of her citizens. The British people not only expect this, but recognise the UK’s moral duty to prevent atrocities against oppressed and persecuted peoples, and promote stability across the globe.

These objectives are only achieved through the construction and defence of a world in which Britain is a leading and respected authority. This position does not have to stem from seizing the trident of global power or ruling as a hegemonic power.

Rather, Britain can achieve this through working within a group of like-minded nations that understand our values which set the parameters of the world order. Where there is a hegemon, we ought to influence them. When Britain wants to ensure freedom of navigation in the Bab el-Mandeb, or a free trade agreement with Japan, it helps to be listened to, and for our advise to be carefully weighed upon by military and diplomatic powers.

A critical part of this strategy has relied on maintaining good relations with the US. For decades, we have striven, buoyed by cultural similarity and shared history. The character and extent of American power is changing rapidly and significantly. Our strategy must consider this.

Why must it be Britain?

The defence, maintenance and championing of British security and prosperity internationally is critical. Yet as the current international order comes under strain, questions are raised as to whether Britain should pour its efforts out upon the world stage, and indeed why.

There is a very simple answer – no one else will. The US faces domestic challenges. The special relationship with Washington has weathered worse, but President-elect Biden will likely be distracted with ensuring an economic and institutional recovery. The European Union presents itself as a putative world power, but significant challenges and internal divisions demonstrate some of its many flaws.

Regardless, authoritarianism and illiberalism does not go unopposed. France, in collaboration with Sahelian nations and the UN, leads the charge against terrorism in North Africa. Japan provides development funding across Asia. Australia has stood up to Chinese influence, and has matched their rhetoric with a major increase in defence expenditure.

These actions are predominantly motivated by national interests. It is clear that no one will defend and champion our national interests on our behalf. We must do so ourselves.

What should be done?

Britain cannot enforce the rules of the international order alone. Through acting as a contributing nation for multilateral groups with different geographical and operational remits, Britain can maximise its influence and capacity to achieve geopolitical objectives.

There are circumstances in which Britain would act as the leading authority. The Joint Expeditionary Force that brings together eight northern European nations under British leadership is an excellent example. In other cases, Britain would play the role as a principal lieutenant, supporting and enabling a partner nation to achieve a common objective. Appreciate how British mine countermeasure vessels supported US efforts in the Strait of Hormuz and Bab El Mandeb.

Simply being a member of many organisations would improve British influence, providing us a greater understanding how other nations deploy their capabilities.

Our strength has always been as a convening power; we ought to accentuate it.

Using our leadership in the Joint Expeditionary Force to help France recruit more troops for Task Force Takuba, a pan-European special operations unit in the Sahel, would be one example. In turn, Paris may well help us convince Germany to take a stronger position against Iran, winning us plaudits in Washington.

Relationships like these are the very foundation of diplomacy and international strategy. As we forge our new path outside of the European Union, it is crucial that we fully understand and utilise this concept in order for Britain to position itself as the foremost, flexible, international power.

Our value should come not only from our military or economic strength, nor chiefly from our historic competencies, but rather because the UK has a unique capacity to act as a hub for dozens of overlapping webs of commitment, alliances and amity.

Such a policy would generate increased international political capital and create greater manoeuvring space for British diplomacy. Such space, and such capital, is sorely needed if we are to protect and promote our interests in an increasingly unstable century.

As Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “the international situation is now more perilous and intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War.” Britain, for all its often reflexive pessimism, has many valuable assets it can use, and important interests it must protect. Now is the right time to evolve a sharper and tighter foreign policy, based on a cool appraisal of the international partnerships and associations which really count. A new strategy which reshapes old alliances, forges new connections, takes advantage of Brexit, and which focuses on key priorities.

Biden is a conservative – succeeding not because he is old, but because he is old-fashioned

10 Nov

Joe Biden is a conservative. Amid anxious speculation about what kind of a President he will turn out to be, this crucial point has often been overlooked.

For some, the lower-case “c” in conservative will be unsatisfying. But for many American voters it was and is profoundly reassuring.

It would be idle to pretend we can know with precision how far those Republicans who voted for Biden were repelled by the uncouth behaviour of Donald Trump, and how far they were attracted, or reassured, by Biden’s conservative demeanour.

The two motives are not mutually exclusive: for most of these voters, both were in operation.

Trump is a reality TV star who has again and again yielded to his own worst instincts, and for this reason his performances possess a certain horrific authenticity. No one, surely, could behave that badly without being in some way genuine.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign against him in 2016 failed in part because she sounded so hypocritical. For while she claimed to be on the side of ordinary Americans, anyone could see she preferred the company of her billionaire friends in the Hamptons. Her grand liberal condescension was for many voters at least as off-putting as Trump’s unabashed sleaziness.

Biden’s campaign has succeeded, not exactly because he is old, but because he is old-fashioned – a manner which comes more easily and naturally when one has lived for a long time, so his advanced age is not necessarily the drawback which the media assume it to be.

He takes trouble with ordinary Americans: his courtesy and warmth of feeling are authentic, attested by among others the people he got to know on his 8,200 train journeys between Washington and Delaware, during which he travelled a total of over two million miles.

That is a conservative thing to do. He found a routine, a rhythm, which suited him, and he stuck to it. Each night he went home, and he speaks of home with unfeigned emotion.

Loyalty to existing institutions is a conservative characteristic. Biden is loyal to his family and his church, and to a certain idea of his country, expressed in his victory speech:

“I pledge to be a President who seeks not to divide, but to unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, but the United States.”

George Washington, President from 1789-97, would have agreed with this. Washington was a gentleman of the 18th century who refused to turn himself into a party politician, and in his Farewell Address delivered this solemn warning to his compatriots:

“I have already intimated to you the danger of Parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on Geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party, generally…

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual: and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty…

“It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions…”

Many Americans have feared in recent years that “the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension” would end by tearing the country apart, with each side justifying its excesses by pointing to the excesses of the other.

Biden offers himself as the President who can avert this disaster by governing as an American, and not just as the leader of a faction.

This idea of rising above faction is old-fashioned, but America is an old-fashioned country, with attitudes on such matters as the right to bear arms which are no longer found in Europe.

It is the oldest republic in the world, an eighteenth-century nation with deep roots in the English common law and a proper reverence for Magna Carta, a document more honoured now in Washington than it is in Westminster.

James Madison and the other drafters of the American Constitution did not only look to England. They pored over the history of the Roman Republic as they sought to devise a form of government which would endure.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers, but since men are not angels, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” by means of a system of checks and balances.

And this is what has happened. The system does not work perfectly – no system can – but neither Trump nor any of his predecessors has attained the despotic power against which Washington delivered his solemn warning.

In March this year (though so much has happened since that it seems longer ago) I brought out a volume called Gimson’s Presidents: Brief Lives from Washington to Trump. 

While writing it, one could not help but notice that many of the presidents were tawdry, third-rate figures, a point from which the undoubted greatness of a handful of them can distract one.

And yet the republic has endured, and has shown a capacity, albeit at sometimes terrible cost, to correct its own most grievous faults.

Biden is already coming under fire from various factionalists on the Left of his own party, who want him to adopt their partisan opinions.

He knew this would happen, so took the precaution of declaring in his victory speech:

“Folks, I’m a proud Democrat, but I will govern as an American President.”

In that speech, he quoted from the Bible, in its best and most traditional version: yet more evidence of his own conservatism, and his determination to appeal to the conservatism of millions of Americans who are fed up with the party-political dogfight, and want a President who will put the national interest first.

During his 36 years in the Senate (1973-2009) Biden generally sought to work with Republicans, rather than pick fights with them.

He will now draw on that experience. He is not a man of brilliant intellectual gifts – few presidents are – and he is also a dull speaker, who if anything will sound duller as he becomes better known.

But unlike Trump, who in 2016 reaped the electoral reward of being an angry outsider, Biden is trusted in Washington, knows who everyone is, is supported by a tried and tested team of advisers who have been with him a long time, and has already appointed a panel of public health experts to advise him how to tackle the pandemic with an altogether unTrumpian seriousness.

Biden intends to draw on the rich American tradition of pragmatic, unglamorous, bipartisan work. And since to work within a tradition, rather than attempt to make things up from first principles, is yet another conservative characteristic, conservatives could well end up approving of President Biden.

Garvan Walshe: Strife in the Caucasus. How Armenia and Azerbaijan are pawns in a new great game between Russia and Turkey.

8 Oct

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

The Soviet Union’s strategy of ruling its non-Russian subjects by giving them autonomous regions where they would be in the local majority unravelled with the USSR’s collapse. Instead of having locally-rooted patronage networks controlled by the Communist Party, Russia’s periphery became a zone of chaos, terrorism and frozen conflicts.

Vladimir Putin, who exploited the Chechen war in his rise to power, learned to live with this. He was able to disrupt neighbouring states enough by allowing “frozen conflicts” to fester, threatening their territorial integrity and ensuring they didn’t, as the saying goes, poke the bear. This strategy is starting to wear thin in the Caucasus, however, as an increasingly assertive Turkey has begun to boost its own influence in the region.

The last big war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority region which had some autonomy from the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic, ended in 1994 with an Armenian victory. Nagorno-Karabakh itself was ruled by supposedly independent institutions under Armenian protection. Armenia, meanwhile, helped itself to land between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, guaranteeing access to the former enclave.

Azerbaijan considers these territories to be illegally occupied by Armenia and promotes a narrative and eventual “return” for the tens of thousands Azeris displaced from there and Nagorno-Karabakh itself, while Armenia tolerates the settlement of the territories with the support of major funding from the Armenian diaspora (incidentally, Israel has good relations with Azerbaijan, which it sees as a check on Iranian influence).

Russia maintains two military bases in Armenia, including one near the capital Yerevan, and has signed a defence pact with the country, but the power balance has tilted in Azerbaijan’s favour since the 1990s. First, Azerbaijan has prospered thanks to plentiful natural gas, but more importantly it now has strong backing from another important regional power and, historic enemy of the Armenians whose genocide it denies ever committing, Turkey.

Tensions have been building between Yerevan and Baku for the best part of a year, and serious skirmishes broke out in June. Azerbaijan’s irredentism as been appears to have been turned up a notch, while Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s new Prime Minister, who came to power following a popular revolution in 2018, has also been happy to keep the temperature high.

Last week, Azerbaijan launched a much larger than expected offensive, even reportedly commandeering civilian trucks, and deploying mercenaries demobilised from the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army. It has bombed Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and threatened the main highway supplying the enclave from Armenia (Armenia retaliated by bombing Ganja). It does not seem to have yet met with much success, in part due to the mountainous terrain, and there’s not much time left before winter makes offensive operations difficult.

It also appears that Turkey is egging Azerbaijan on, adding to the flare-ups between Erdogan and Putin. Having long been at loggerheads in Syria and Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh forms a third front in their proxy war. Russia, which backs the Assad regime has the upper hand in Syria thanks to a major error of judgement by Erdogan. The Turkish leader persuaded Trump to withdraw American protection for Kurdish forces in Syria, tilting the balance of the war towards Assad. In Libya, Turkey which supports the internationally recognised Libyan government, has come out on top, and General Haftar, backed by both Russia and France, is much weakened.

By backing Azerbaijan so strongly, Turkey is making two strong geopolitical claims. First, it is getting involved against Russia not in North Africa or the Middle East, but in a conflict between former Soviet states. Second, Turkey is not currently a member of the Minsk Group, convened by the OSCE to address the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute, but will surely have to be involved in any new ceasefire. This is partly due to Erdogan’s ambitious (some would say neo-Ottoman) foreign policy, but it also reflects Turkey’s growing economic importance.

This significant shift would normally attract the attention of the United States. It has a close ally of its own in the Caucasus – Georgia – and a significant and influential domestic Armenian constituency (there are between half a million and a million Armenian Americans). Though if an election campaign is never the best time to attract Washington’s attention, the Trump Administration’s evisceration of the State Department meant the US couldn’t use its weight to damp the conflict down.

America’s absence has left two aggressive powers – Russia and Turkey – to begin to test their strength against each other in the small countries that border them. Whatever happens in this particular conflict, it seems a new Great Game is afoot in the Caucasus.