On the war in Ukraine

War is hell.

William Tecumseh Sherman

Industrial civilisation treats war the way it treats everything else: as an industrial process, and as a money-making opportunity. War has always been a horrible business, but these days we have the technology to make it more horrible for more people, so of course we do. And of course those of us who are not directly involved still get to see a lot of it; back when Tolui Khan wiped out the city of Merv in 1221, supposedly killing 700,000 people in the process, nobody was filming it on their phone.

Nevertheless it still seems to have come as a surprise to a lot of people how horrible the current war in Ukraine is turning out to be. I’m not sure what they were expecting. Perhaps they thought that wars don’t happen in Europe any more, although the wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia weren’t that long ago. They surely can’t have imagined that war in general had become a thing of the past. After all, there are plenty of them going on around the world today, even if we tend to ignore most of them – this Wikipedia page contains an extensive list.

Of course there is a political angle to this. People in the West need to be told that this war is somehow uniquely horrible, seeing as how it is an act of aggression (unlike, say, the second Iraq war) perpetrated by the uniquely evil Vladimir Putin, who is therefore to blame for absolutely everything. They also need to told that the Russians will lose in the end, because good always triumphs over evil, except when it doesn’t. The International Criminal Court wasn’t sitting in 1221, but even it it had been I rather doubt that Tolui Khan would have appeared before it, any more than George W. Bush or Tony Blair have, or King Salman of Saudi Arabia will.

The war in Ukraine, like most wars, should never have been necessary. Like everyone else, I hope it comes to an end as soon as possible. I shall be very surprised, however, if it ends in abject defeat for the Russians and Vladimir Putin doing jail time. For one thing, he holds too many cards in the theatre where the war is really being fought, the economic theatre. There’s a lot of noise being made about the sanctions being applied to Russia, when to a large extent Russia will simply route around them. Take Russia’s expulsion from SWIFT, for instance. The consequence of that has been to undermine the US dollar’s status as the global reserve currency, as Russia make arrangements to sell its oil and gas in roubles, for example to India.

Confiscating yachts is not going to change the bald facts that Russia exports a lot of stuff that other countries need – wheat, ammonia, nickel, and of course oil and gas – and those countries are going to do what they need to obtain those things one way or another. Those who refuse to play ball will have to go without, and there are already issues with diesel fuel in Europe; Germany is said to have only forty days’ supply. Without Russian gas, Europe will have a hard time generating its electricity, despite US promises to teleport sufficient LNG across the Atlantic. (There are neither the tankers nor the terminals to accomplish this feat by conventional means.) As far as I am aware, the price of oil has been comfortably over $100 a barrel since the war began, over $130 at times, and some analysts expect it could hit $150. This is not good news for oil importers.

Even before the war, of course, it was already over $90, because the thing about oil is they’re not making any more of the stuff, and the high-quality, easily-extracted oil has now mostly gone up in smoke. If the war in Ukraine focuses minds on this issue, then it might conceivably have some positive results as well as all the death and suffering. I wish I felt more optimistic about this.

Whatever happens in Ukraine, though, even if the forces of supposed righteousness prevail, there will be considerable disruption to the existing economic order. And I see very little from Western governments that suggests they will be in any way prepared to cope with it. It may very well turn out that the real winners of this war will be India and China.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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