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Category: Soap Box

Soapbox: The unthinkable is here

President Putin has frequently told the world in recent weeks what he really thinks of Ukraine, but we have refused to listen or have turned a deaf ea...

24 February 2022

Gary Mead

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President Putin has frequently told the world in recent weeks what he really thinks of Ukraine, but we have refused to listen or have turned a deaf ear. Putin considers Ukraine to be part of Russia. He has said this since at least July 2021; Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” he said then. He continued: “…the wall that has emerged in recent years between Russia and Ukraine, between the parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space, to my mind is our great common misfortune and tragedy. These are, first and foremost, the consequences of our own mistakes made at different periods of time. But these are also the result of deliberate efforts by those forces that have always sought to undermine our unity. The formula they apply has been known from time immemorial – divide and rule. There is nothing new here. Hence the attempts to play on the ‘national question’ and sow discord among people, the overarching goal being to divide and then to pit the parts of a single people against one another”.

In an hour-long rambling speech, apparently without autocue, Putin this week addressed the Russian people on television, asserting that Ukrainians are part of “our family” . He added: “The whole idea of the so-called pro-Western civilizational choice of the Ukrainian democratic power was and is still not in creating better conditions for the good of the people but to serve the geo-political adversaries of Russia…” He lambasted Ukraine for its alleged corruption, its political mismanagement, decrees that repress the freedom of speech, and for preparing “armed conflict against Russia” with weapons of “mass destruction” – which sounded like the pot calling the kettle black.

Mutual trust between NATO and Russia has been “lost”, he said. He went on: “we have every reason to believe” that the “level of military threat to Russia will be increased manifold”. It’s “like having a knife against our throat…the only goal they [NATO] have is to contain Russia… Russia has a right to take counter-measures to enhance our security and that’s how we plan to act”.

And as he sent Russian forces into Ukraine – which he said were intended to “‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine and ‘defend’ victims of ‘genocide’, despite there being no evidence of such crimes” – he warned the West against “the temptation of meddling in the ongoing events” because that would see a response from Russia that would “lead you to consequences that you have never encountered in your history”.

Some argue that the West only has itself to blame for this situation; “at least four Russian leaders have implored the West to let them into this gilded club [NATO] and each time they were contemptuously brushed off”.

But that was then – and this is now. The unthinkable is here. None of us know where this will end.

The push against mush

Ukraine has been a tinderbox long before its former President Yanukovych rejected the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement in November 2013. For more than a decade Ukraine has been subjected to cyberattacks, many of them thought to derive from Russia, according to an online book called Cyber War In Perspective – Russian Aggression against Ukraine. The latest such attack – a ‘distributed denial of service’ (DDoS) attack – hit Ukraine’s defence agencies and a couple of banks last week.

In 1922, the Ukrainian Bolsheviks forcibly established the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union. Millions of people died in the Ukraine in the 1930s in a devastating famine, the Holomodor, caused by Stalin’s policy of confiscating agricultural produce. The Holodomor was the subject of an excellent 2019 movie, Mr Jones.

Ukraine became independent in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart. Luhansk and Donetsk were effectively annexed by Russia in 2014 following anti-government protests in its capital, Kiev. But clearly President Putin regards
Ukraine’s independence as an historical mistake, which he aims to correct.

No-one knows what is in the mind of Vladimir Putin. Only one thing is certain – he seems to be using the policy of Vladimir Lenin, who said “you probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw”. The West must now decide how it responds to this Ukrainian turmoil – will it hold steel or merely mush?

Limited options

No one in the West seriously contemplates going to war against Russia over Ukraine. Ukraine after all is hardly a shining beacon of honest democracy. Transparency International ranks the country at a lowly 122 out of 180 on its Corruption Perceptions Index; Russia holds position number 136.

So the West’s response has been to pledge tough sanctions against Russia. President Joe Biden has said President Putin has “never seen sanctions like the ones I promised will be imposed”. The European Union says it “reiterates its unwavering support to Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders”. The UK has said sanctions against five Russian banks and three oligarchs are just the “first barrage of what we are prepared to do” according to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Yet a key sanction that could be imposed probably won’t be. Germany has halted the opening of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would have doubled the capacity of its imports to 110 billion cubic metres. Nord Stream 1 already supplies two-thirds of Germany’s imported energy; half Germany’s 40m households keep warm using natural gas, 97% of it from overseas. Shutting off gas imports from Russia would hit Russia’s foreign income – which last year was more than $55 billion from gas, mostly supplied to Europe – but no German politician would be prepared to let their countrymen freeze.

Nor would any Italian politician either – Prime Minister Mario Draghi said last week that sanctions should not include anything that affects energy; Italy imports 90% of its gas needs, mostly from Russia.

There have been suggestions that the US and Europe might in concert cut Russia off from SWIFT, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications. President Biden could invoke the Defending Ukraine Sovereignty Act of 2022 to authorise sanctions on providers of specialised financial messaging services such as SWIFT.

In 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and there were calls then to exclude Russia from SWIFT, which never happened. Dmitri A. Medvedev, then Russia’s prime minister, said at the time that such a move would be a “declaration of war”. Nikolay Zhuravlev, the vice speaker of Russia’s Federation Council, has said this week that booting Russia from SWIFT would see retaliations; European countries would not get their imports of Russian oil, gas and metals as a result of Russia’s being unable to receive foreign currency.

The cost of crude oil has surpassed $100 a barrel; gas prices in Europe tripled last year and are climbing again, inflation in the US and the UK is its highest in decades, and in the Eurozone has hit a record high since the euro was created more than two decades ago. The US national debt is now some $30 trillion, the interest alone on which was around $378 billion in 2021. Russia’s national debt is less than a trillion Dollars. The US national debt is now around 133% of GDP, while Russia’s is less than 20%. The US – NATO’s strongest member – is in no condition to fight even a short war in Europe, and Putin knows that.

Does the West have the appetite, unity, resilience – or even the money – to fight an economic war against Russia over Ukraine? President Putin, who senses that the West and NATO lack their former strength, will push, and push, until that question is finally answered.

It’s an immensely depressing fact but war and its associated chaos results in people everywhere looking for a safe haven for their wealth. Gold is often seen as this safe haven par excellence and so it proves once again. Gold has gained around 9% so far this month, largely on fears as to what Russia might do. Boris Johnson, not a man with demonstrably reliable judgement admittedly, said this week that Russia is planning “the biggest war in Europe since 1945”. The likelihood is that we are witnessing the second act of a five act drama which started back in 2014, when Russia took Crimea from Ukraine. The remaining three acts still allow time to load up with gold – which thanks to Glint is not just an investment but also usable as money – before the final curtain.

At Glint, we make every effort to demonstrate a balanced conversation between gold, crypto and fiat currencies when it comes to purchasing power and, while we strongly believe that gold is the fairest and most reliable currency on the planet, we need to point out that it isn’t 100% risk free. While we have seen a steady increase over time, the value of gold can fall, which means that its purchasing power can also decline.

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