Procrastinate Now

British Pathé has just uploaded a monumental 85,000 films onto its Youtube channel – its entire collection!! Plenty of these will be of interest to KoW readers, as with this one, below, from the British 8th Army’s entry into Tripoli in 1943… Enjoy.

Of course, it’s not all war. There’s rowing too – oh happy day! Viewers keen to see how Brigadier Gibbon is getting on coaching the Dark Blues need wait no longer.



How to beat Russia, Swiss-style!

By the graces of social media, I just came across rare footage of several of Switzerland’s covert defence installations. In true James Bond style, the country has used its terrain to camouflage major military assets that, when the time is right, transform into fully fledged and primed weapons systems. Most of these were built in the 1970s to withstand a possible Soviet invasion, raising the germane question of whether Ukraine (and perhaps NATO’s easternmost members…) should have invested in similar capabilities?

Enjoy (video is in French – do not be alarmed):

intimate war

An Intimate War–and Academic Freedom

[This is a guest post by Mike Martin author of An Intimate War which tells the story of the last thirty-five years of conflict in Helmand Province, Afghanistan as seen through the eyes of the Helmandis. The book has been the subject of a good deal of interest in the press lately on account of the Ministry of Defence's disapproval of it. In the West, this period is often defined through different lenses—the Soviet intervention, the civil war, the Taliban, and the post-2001 nation-building era. Yet, as experienced by local inhabitants, the Helmand conflict is a perennial one, involving the same individuals, families and groups, and driven by the same arguments over land, water and power. The book—based on both military and research experience in Helmand and 150 interviews in Pushtu—offers a very different view of Helmand from those in the mainstream. It demonstrates how outsiders have most often misunderstood the ongoing struggle in Helmand and how, in doing so, they have exacerbated the conflict, perpetuated it and made it more violent—precisely the opposite of what was intended when their interventions were launched. Mike Martin is a Pushtu speaker who spent almost two years in Helmand as a British army officer (covering Operation HERRICKs 9-16). During that time, he pioneered and developed the British military’s Human Terrain and Cultural Capability—a means to understanding the Helmandi population and influencing it. He also worked as an advisor to several British commanders of Task Force Helmand. His previous publications include A Brief History of Helmand, required reading for British commanders and intelligence staff deploying to the province. He holds a doctorate in War Studies from King’s College London where he studied under the supervision of Professor Theo Farrell.]
It is hardly controversial to say that the Afghan campaign has been a complete disaster. Of course, the question is why it has been a disaster. Which particular element of the multinational, multi-billion dollar effort failed? I think the answer lies in the prose of the great master Clausewitz:
The supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that a statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.
What is the old Prussian saying here? He is saying you have to understand the conflict you are fighting, and in Afghanistan, with an internal, ‘low-intensity’ war, that meant understanding the population. After all, almost all of the ‘enemy’ were drawn from this population. He is also saying that we must avoid imposing our own narratives on the war. The war is what they think it is, rather than what we think it is. So….it is a question of perspective, theirs versus ours.
Now that is a problem. How do you understand another people’s perspective, when you yourself are stuck in a highly institutionalised organisation (i.e. a Western military)? I mean, the army found it hard to understand DFID and the FCO (and vice versa). This is even more amazing when you consider that most army officers, diplomats and development officers have similar educational and class backgrounds, speak the same language and work along-side each other for years. How do you understand a bunch of people who have never left their own village, can’t read and have been told since birth that the Angrez (the British) are the greatest enemy? It is hard. But I can suggest a good place to start: language. Edward Said said it best in 1978:
…the most current transformation overtaking Orientalism: its conversion from a fundamentally philological discipline and a vaguely general apprehension of the Orient into a social science speciality. No longer does the Orientalist try first to master the esoteric languages of the Orient; he begins instead as a trained social scientist and “applies” his science to the Orient, or anywhere else.
I could easily replace the word orientalist with development worker, army officer, diplomat, spy, journalist etc etc.
Why do we assume that we can execute counterinsurgency, or development programs, or governance initiatives—nothing less than social engineering, although that term is slightly out-of-fashion—if we do not understand the societies that we are trying to change? How do you understand other societies if you don’t speak the language? Anything else, at least to me, seems like lunacy. (By extension, the issue of language learning is tied to the issue of actually spending long periods of time in the societies that you are trying to engineer—something more than the six months that the British military spent on each rotation in Afghanistan and Iraq).
The publication of An Intimate War has raised another key issue: namely that of MOD censorship. The hacks (mostly Defence Correspondents for serious UK newspapers) at my book launch at RUSI on Wednesday were incensed by the recent increase in MOD control over what they could, and could not, publish. They felt that it was stopping them from exercising their democratic function: that of holding power to account. Now, hacks have complained of this since the beginning of time, and the ongoing Levenson (SP?) issue illustrates that this is an extant issue. But their feeling was, and I whole heartedly agree with this, is that the MoD is desperate to avoid criticism of their efforts in Afghanistan. What else can we make of their attempts to block my book under spurious claims of contravening the Official Secrets Act, when they ordered the study themselves in the first place as part of their own lessons learned process?
Of course, there is a linked issue here that is highly pertinent to King’s students and academics, many of whom receive funding from the MoD to work on specific research projects. Indeed, the fact that they do so exposes the parlous state of central government (i.e. blind funding, not tied to a specific department’s retail agenda) funding for social science research—this then opens the door for MoD funding to enter the research funding market.
I will conclude with a question: how many academics in the UK are watching what they say and write for fear of not receiving further funding from the MoD? Is this something that should continue?
תרגיל גדודי קרקל

Girl power

I see that Christine Cheng, lecturer of this parish, was on BBC Woman’s Hour this morning, discussing whether or not women should be allowed to serve in frontline combat roles. On Twitter, Richard Kemp, a retired Army Colonel, thinks they should not, on purely physical grounds – you don’t, he argues, see women in the English rugby team or the Men’s Boat Race. In a desperate struggle at close quarters, physical superiority will win out, and men, on average, are stronger than women. Fit, strong  and aggressive male infanteers are likely to be fitter, stronger and more aggressive than women.

I disagree with that premise for judging women infantry soldiers. Why?

- liberal society demands equality of opportunity, not outcome. Women deserve the right to attempt to qualify for the infantry, and only then to serve in it. A very small number of women will display the abilities required. Standards should not be lowered from those expected of men.

- at the same time, however, a review of those standards might be in order. Technical and intellectual acumen are important in modern combat, and will become increasingly so as new robotic technologies proliferate. These include technologies that will diminish the weight burden on infantry soldiers, and increase their ability to direct their fire more accurately from distance.

- losing a tactical action because women can not prevail in a hand to hand encounter is extremely unlikely to be decisive because

1. western infantry forces rarely engage in such close quarters combat, benefiting from increasingly timely, discriminate and lethal firepower from distance. Combined arms are not on offer to the England rugby team.
2.  such action is almost inevitably tactical, not strategic. If we, as a nation, are solely reliant on a determined bayonet charge to win a battle, or even a campaign, we have likely lost it already. The same is not true of the Boat Race crew, for whom the tactical event is all. The Falklands Conflict offers an ostensibly compelling counter-example, but was conducted in a different era, with different standards of technology and different attitudes towards women.
3. Most of those doing the grappling will remain men and (per my point above) will, if they are women, have already proved themselves at least physically equal.

As a separate argument against women, it is sometimes argued that women threaten the cohesion of fighting forces. Similar arguments were once offered about black soldiers and gays. A liberal society loses far more from not applying its values consistently than it risks from having women infanteers. Armies reflect their societies and it is inevitable that they are becoming more liberal, across a range of issues, including this one.
Allowing women to serve in the infantry is unlikely to dramatically change the make-up of the British Army. The physical demands of being in the infantry remain important. Stamina and strength, and the capacity to fight tenaciously and with aggression are vital. I am sure women can meet those standards, but the numbers wishing to do so be low.


[The picture above shows women of the IDF's Caracal combat infantry battalion]

Yes, Federalisation is bonkers

The response to my post was correct; it was a about stirring the pot and the best stew is indeed well-stirred. To put my view more clearly, a negotiated settlement would be the ideal outcome, but one would really need to think about the timing and the reasons to engage in one. 

As it comes to timings, throughout the crisis Russia has maintained the strategic initiative and been unwilling for serious negotiations for building trust and reducing misperceptions while insisting on the presence of ‘self-defence forces’ and then builds up a 40,000 man strong military presence on the border, picks up the phone and wants to start negotiate. The timings of this does at least ring an alarm bell with me.

The main problem with negotiations was put very succinctly by Dr. Jonathan Eyal who argues that the West and Russia’s assumptions of negotiations are incompatible; the West is trying to avoid a war and Russia is trying to ensure a negative veto in Ukraine. This will not lead to a negotiated solution unless one party makes a fundamental concession, and if the West does so, any notion of Ukrainian sovereignty is gone today and for the future.

For that reason, I stand firm in my belief that federalisation is indeed bonkers; not at least because of the importance to uphold the principles of sovereignty as you mentioned. In the last poll I saw on the subject, only 15% of the Ukrainians wanted federalisation and 14% in the poll before that. Yes, I know, it is statistics, but I think it provides a pointer.

Federalisation is furthermore bonkers because, precisely as you wrote yourself: ‘federalisation is the best vehicle for Russia to draw other parts of Ukraine into its orbit without the risks of messiness of further military incursion’. I do not see how it can be a preferable outcome to give Russia  exactly what they would want from invasion in beforehand.  Do not misunderstand me, the threat of an invasion looks frightening, but it does so because Russia has everything to win by making it look likely so the West will rush to make concessions in the negotiations.

The bigger question is how much mischief from Russia is to be accepted to allow the door to open every time they want to negotiate they way back in from the cold. The thing with building trust is that it is not a one-sided affair and it can not be imposed on the other side. And Russia’s mistrust to the West stems from causes way deeper than if the West will accept negotiating over Ukraine’s future based on Russian political interests or not.

My argument is not about turning Russia into a pariah-state (more than they’ve decided to do themselves). It is to gain some clarity of interests what the West should strive for and work for them proactively rather than allowing Russia to maintain the strategic initiative and follow their lead. The ‘reset’ a half-year after the Georgian war doubtlessly provided lessons for Russia’s strategy to deal with the West. Another ‘reset’ dismembering Ukrainian sovereignty will doubtlessly provide lessons for Russia’s strategy for the next six years.

The Carpetright Store, 7 August 2011

From Riots to Vigil: The Community, the Police and Mark Duggan’s Legacy

Yesterday the court ruled that it was “arguable” that the Coroner erred in his instructions to the jury regarding the standards for finding that the shooting had been lawful. The matter of whether this argument holds will be decided after hearings at a later date. This piece, originally written in the wake of the January verdict, is being reposted in light of this event and revisions based on subsequent research.


When the Coroner’s Inquest released its findings in January of this year the verdict that Mark Duggan’s shooting was lawful inspired assembly just as his death did. This time, however, it was promised to be a peaceful though disappointed demonstration in response to the official findings.

I would go, I had to. Being directly related to my riots research my attendance was required. It was a public order event to observe and in support of any work I find this eyes-on style offers more insights, views, knowledge and awareness than can be anticipated. But not knowing how things would turn out on the day, I noted to a friend as I made my way to North London, it was either the best or the worst idea I could have had.

This being the last in the series of thought pieces on my way to an historical treatment of the 2011 London riots, the vigil is the apt moment to open the exploration of the local Haringey and Greater London communities who identified with the personal tragedy of the Duggan family. More than just understanding them as an independent actor in the story, adding the people and the rioters also has the effect of completing, if not perfectly, the picture of the event. Looking upon this whole, if abstracted, landscape one is compelled to consider such issues as the greater meaning of the events. For me, if I step from history to policy, the most satisfying path forward leads to progress on the problems and challenges brought out by the long cycle of these events, and so the final section of this piece dovetails into my thoughts on where one might go from here.

Returning to the vigil, as it turned out, although contending with emotion and  contentious and difficult issues the event was mild, almost pleasant. Of course, as the MPS and Haringey Police must have scrambled to prepare given the short notice, to complicate matters there was also a home football match scheduled for the day. Between both events, the surrounding area was awash in hi-viz yellow. At the vigil site outside the police station I would dare say that it felt as if there were as many if not more workers, observers, police, clergy and pastors, and members of the media than demonstrators. Above all, the commitment by all present to maintain as much geniality as was possible given the context was palpable.

Being a vigil, of course, the religious component was obvious. But with respect to this as a public order event, this involvement had deeper significance. Those identified as the street pastors stood out as an intellectually inspiring and engaging image. Present not with a position on the vigil, they provided a caring and sympathetic voice and ear to attendees who might be distressed. Their sweet countenances were an unexpected though much appreciated sight. And in addition to other members of the clergy participating in the event itself, the senior chaplain to the MPS was in attendance and by my observation his presence was for the benefit of the officers on duty for the event. [1] In all, the pastoral and spiritual component had a positive influence upon the atmosphere.

The even more important image was that of the demeanour of the police. Against the chants of “No Justice, No Peace,” and others calling for an end to violence and injustice, the officers tasked with the public order function stood back and maintained a low-key and even pleasant presence. They strove quietly for the objective of facilitative, even in the face of anger towards them, and they succeeded.

In all, more than time had passed since last these groups met outside the Tottenham police station.

Thus, this event, without the sturm und drang of violent chaos but nevertheless full with the pathos and problems expressed on those turbulent August nights, provides the right vantage point from which to highlight what I have found to be important to consider about the people, lives and circumstances which fuelled the riots.

At the outset I should highlight the limitations to sourcing for this side of the story. I have sought out what there is by way of published material, and hounded as well as many of those individuals willing to talk with me. Lacking hubris, I do not claim to fully know their story. But there are impressions which have emerged from the research.

Complicating any understanding, one must accept that there is no single identification or entity which represents the affected community or all of the rioters, even as my purview is limited to London. For example, while there are shared broad or meta motivations – anger with the police, despair over dismal future prospects, an overwhelming sense of unfairness in society, the hypocrisy within the economic landscape – the proximate initiative to act on those nights was nearly uniformly independent, hyper-local, and individuated to personal experience. [2] Such heterogeneity characterizes the actors at the granular level.

With that disclaimer aside, what does become apparent is that emerging from this mix was – and remains – a shared understanding of Mark Duggan’s shooting, the immediate aftermath, the riots and the official and popular responses. The direct anger with the police and the next layer of political authority is palpable. Said one rioter on one of the Guardian/LSE’s “Reading the Riots” videos, “It was a war, and for the first time we was in control…we had the police scared.” (@9:55m) And more that remains beneath, either because it is as yet unacknowledged or is simply unspoken, is dissatisfaction with society at large for having forsaken them as well. Not just the riots, but the looting and attacks upon the city itself were seen by the participants as an act of revenge, whether for poor treatment at the hands of police or society.

Whereas the Guardian/LSE’s effort was of dispassionate outsiders looking in, Fahim Alam’s “Riots Reframed” documentary is the voice of the riot participant as creator of the narrative. Although much about the film and its contents is difficult to contend with – there is so much anger, disappointment and alienation – the fact of its creation is the embodiment of optimism. “Riots Reframed” is a work of thoughtful art and discussion, including not only voices from the community, but respected scholars and leaders (to include KCL’s own Professor Paul Gilroy.) It is in fact an opening for dialogue, as its contents and existence must signal a fundamental hope that things can improve. At the very least, what becomes quite clear is that these were not mindless, thoughtless, merely criminal events. [3] How do you do counter-radicalisation? You start by listening to and promoting efforts such as this one.

Thus, whether we can understand that side fully it still must be accepted that there was more meaning in the actions of the rioters and looters than mainstream commentary has been willing to admit. Even the “common looting.”

Moving from the nature of the group to the events themselves there are points I have consistently found compelling throughout my research. One in particular concerns the diplomatic brinksmanship which set the stage for that fateful Saturday night in front of the Tottenham Police Station. Looking back at that first night, when anger and disorder erupted out of the frustrated demonstration, one must wonder what might have been spared had the family and the police representatives been able to find sufficient common ground to retire to the station for a cup of tea while they awaited the arrival of officers of sufficient rank for the family’s peace of mind. [4] I attach the greater responsibility for this to those in positions of community leadership. They did not serve the family or community well in their recommendations for a rigid stand not to engage that evening. I am not suggesting or asserting malice in this act. Rather, my point is to highlight the risks of such brinksmanship, as this case more than demonstrates the ramifications of failure.

From this perspective it seems only reasonable to expect that community leaders should follow the ethos set out for the police in protest and public order, approaching their interactions in such events from the starting point of being a positive and productive force, of being facilitative. And in that many of them have extant relationships with the police it becomes almost a duty for them to use their “good offices” in such situations to help maintain dialogue and relations. It was the break in communications, in the relations between the police and the community that night, which was the final breaking point. And it was quite possibly unnecessary.

I make the point about this because, amidst the discourse on powerlessness in the community, on that night the Duggan family held the strongest position with respect to the police and other authorities. In that moment their satisfaction was vested with the collected interests (and hence power) of the entire community.  Power can be used to crush your opponent or raise both him and yourself. Inadvertently the former occurred, but who would not have chosen the latter? Furthermore, by correctly framing the relationships in this case the police can understand better the (potential) nature of such situations.

Another key point relates to the depths of cynicism that taint perceptions of the police on that first night. The rumour that the police had beaten a young woman was believed and spread as the rallying cry for disorder and violence. It remains an important part of the narrative in the community today. Making the entire matter very compelling, there seemed to be direct proof, a video which captured the event. However, the “girl in the video” as the spark of events must be questioned and examined with a critical eye. All evidence seems to suggest that this was not appropriately a casus belli for the outbreak of violence; in that matter it was more Gulf of Tonkin than Pearl Harbour. To begin, it is nearly impossible to see what is happening in the video – the viewer is moved more by the shouting female narrator than what is actually visible. As well, the timing is wrong: it is dark and the police are in full public order kit.[5] The disorder has thus already begun. I understand that a young female suffering police brutality has terrific cachet as a framework to justify the anger, but it is far better to render events accurately.

What should be of concern is the extent to which this story affected subsequent action. Did knowledge of this event inspire future violence? If so, if this rumour turned anger into action over the coming days, then you have the very serious problem with the public profile and reputation of policing.

Finally and most importantly the influence of community sentiment must shape understanding of the events beyond tabloid hysteria now, and should have shaped responses then. The grievances of the immediate and greater London communities of concern here cannot be dismissed. The socio-economic issues within the community, the added burdens of budget reductions and cuts to services, the brewing antipathy to how stop and search was conducted, were known to Boris Johnson and David Cameron. A strong judicial response may have been the obvious answer, but the better one was for these leaders to recognize that party affiliation notwithstanding all members of society must be able to rely upon their government. Reasonable and fair are neither signs of weakness nor do they promote future bad action. [6]

What could the political leadership have done differently at the time? I think an approach along the lines of an amnesty was in order. This path, not harsh justice was the choice of greatest benefit to all. The repercussions of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graibh are the lessons that matter here – don’t sully your own character, don’t create disaffected citizens. Boris could have pulled it off with a charming nod to the police effort – by containing the riots in the least confrontational, least aggressive manner (supported by the overall casualty statistics), the former served their public order function while setting the stage for healing and reconciliation in the aftermath. The physical damage to the city, although costly and individually heart-breaking to the victims, was the far better loss.

I take the position that this was the best policy because the unavoidable truth made clear with “Reframed” and other similar efforts is that the emotion and desires of the riots did not deserve incarceration.[7] In fact, too many of them need release from the prisons of poverty, maleducation, and un(der)-employment. Responding to the riots offered a powerful moment to act with generosity and graciousness (and no small amount of gratitude for one’s own good fortune), so contrary to expectations that it would have had the capacity to achieve much progress against these issues. Great leaders seize such moments because they recognize this potential.

If we have dealt with the past and the present, what should be considered for the future? Returning to the opening scene and last Saturday’s vigil, for its public order efforts the MPS should take note of the result. A careful reckoning of what was done will serve future public order efforts well. By my initial cursory review it is clear that their approach to the event and their demeanour went a long way to maintaining as positive an atmosphere as possible.

The Street Pastors are a fantastic idea for public order and their future use should be considered. Not just for events with a religious facet, such as a vigil, a role for them could be defined to serve profitably across the spectrum of public order activities. Protest is inspired by varying levels and forms of distress, and it seems to me that this pastoral function has much to offer. More than that, the presence of the police senior chaplain argues for the broader consideration of this resource in public order policing. Certainly, when it is your function to stand amidst crowds at various moments of anger and emotion, at times directed at you specifically, a pastoral voice could serve as an influence of equanimity. And it bears considering whether such a presence, by humanizing the police might reduce tensions in public order events. Where NATO helmets and shields are seen as elements which can put negative distance between the police and protestors, it must be equally plausible that other visual cues can have beneficial effect. Finally, it must be admitted that a Chaplain, more than anyone else, could have been the one to calm the mood and coax the Duggan family in that fateful night in August. His seniority and core function would have been difficult to reject. Especially in cases where the source of friction is PoCo relations, recourse to his “good offices” should be reviewed.

On the broader issues of social justice, how does anything move forward from this moment, how will progress be pursued? Where the Coroner’s Inquest judged the shooting to have been lawful, that the officers “honestly held belief” stood, community dismay, especially at the local level, is understandable. Nevertheless, as difficult as it clearly must be, they will have to move to the more productive stance that even when things are done correctly tragedy and the wrong outcome can still occur. From there, progress becomes possible, which is how to improve where that “honestly held belief” lands with respect to members of the public (eg, being able to know with reliability that Duggan was not the sort to resist in such a moment). What can the community do? What can the police do?

There are any number of tactical, doctrinal, strategic and policy recommendations I could make on the policing side of the issue of police and community relations. But if I understand the context, the environment, the tone of the situation correctly, no first move from the authorities will overcome the prevailing scepticism, the community’s “honestly held belief” Yes, to any community initiated overtures it will be imperative for the police will have to respond well and with timeliness. But the first and critical barrier will only fall to action and intention from within the community. Contrary to all that might seem fair or just, healing and progress on this will only come at the end of the community’s outstretched hand. Nobody can say that they want no policing, so improving the relationship between the police and those whom they serve is necessary. The community and its consent are critical elements in British policing generally, and in this instance specifically, and so any progress will come in large measure from that quarter. By their positive and constructive actions the members of the community can lead the way to the greatest change.

Why it should be their burden to go first? In my mind I am chastised by one young Londoner in the documentaries who commented that the “police are not for us.” To that I will say that it is for you to make them yours. It is time to overturn the “culture of distrust.” Mentioned above, as on that Saturday night in August, it is a matter of which side holds the power. Here too, it is the community which has the greater power in this matter. But furthermore, if this tragedy can have any meaning, its best could be to serve as a bridge to better relations between police and community so as to avoid such tragic errors in the future? More importantly, I return your attention to the vigil. The reasonable discourse on the issues between police and community opened on Tottenham High Road that day in January is an opportunity. This is a moment to act.

When you are shouting about undue police violence while standing amidst a smiling constables giving directions you have to ask whether it isn’t time to give at your own end as well.



[1] Commentators should stop using the “softly, softly” description – it is ignorantly snarky and derogatory for political points not substance. The calm facilitative stance is not only necessary but often proven effective.

[2] Do I really need to acknowledge that there might have been a purely criminal element? But they were not the leaders, nor the inspiration, nor even likely the majority of those present on London’s streets those nights. It is obfuscation to lay the blame for these events upon criminality – comfortable, perhaps, but not at all useful.

[3] Another documentary that I found interesting was “Perfect Storm,” at There are very many more independent documentaries about the riots, some quite compelling others less so, some searching for a truth others attempting to build a narrative. What is clear is that these events have inspired very real urges to create something by which to understand or explain events. This is an important phenomenon.

[4] MPS, Four Days in August: Strategic Review into the Disorder of August 2011 – Final Report, p. 32 discusses the events surrounding Chief Inspector Adelekan’s efforts to engage the demonstrators.

[5] MPS, Four Days in August, p. 42, “By 2045hrs all the officers were deployed in full protective kit….”

[6] Before he made his fame as the father of modern British policing, Robert Peel was responsible for the rationalisation of the criminal law which, though aimed at its muddling nature, had the effect of making it more fair and defensible. Douglas Hurd, Robert Peel: A Biography, pp. 74 ff.

[7] There were clear dividing lines, thresholds below which it could be profitably argued that emotion, not criminality, was at work.



After Crimea, It’s (Still) Good to Talk

(Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Heather Williams, a War Studies PhD candidate. Header image is copyright Maksymenko Oleksandr issued under a creative commons attribution license)

Oscar Jonsson’s post posed the question, what would be the benefit for the West of a negotiated solution with Russia? At first I thought this was either rhetorical or designed to stir the pot. Seeing that it was not the former, I will assume it was the latter and provide the spoon for said pot stirring.

First, why is the West in talks with Russia over Ukraine? Jonsson notes that the West ‘came running’ to negotiate with Putin and it’s ‘in the bone marrow.’ To quote the second most cliché of security studies phrases (Clausewitz obviously gets the first), ‘it is better to jaw jaw than to war war.’ Now before you cry out ‘Sudetanland’ or fall victim to the Godwin’s law, let’s not discard the notion of negotiation altogether. Generally speaking, the goal of negotiation is to communicate interest, identify areas of discord, and, hopefully, settle on areas of agreement. Negotiations also offer an opportunity for building personal contacts, relaying concerns in a private setting, and building trust, however limited that might be. Negotiations entail risk, to be sure, and there comes a time when it is best to walk away from the negotiating table. Has the West really reached that point with Russia, though?

This doesn’t mean the West and Russia will be braiding each other’s hair on the weekends whilst watching Hunt for Red October. But any alternatives to dialogue point in the direction of misperception, miscommunication, and potential escalation. Taking a closer look at Western interests in negotiations reveal why this isn’t a massive waste of time.

  1. Stop Russian advances. In the midst of our ongoing analyses, we often forget the impact of these events on the ground, on people and families living with the stress of corrupt leaders, a collapsed government, and, now, a decapitated state. Keeping this in mind, the first priority must be to promote security within Ukraine, which means stopping Russian advances and facilitating a stable environment in which the Ukrainian people can rebuild. With that said, talking to the Russians is a much more desirable option than remaining silent or military escalation. Negotiation does not mean the West will concede to Russian positions, however. For example, the West will not recognize Crimea as part of Russia. As Jonsson points out, this would undermine the post-WWII system. But why should the West or Russia insist on this point in practice? Any negotiations towards federalization would have to be put to the Ukrainian people for a vote. Given all the fuss the West raised about the illegality of the referendum in Crimea, it would be blatantly hypocritical to then apply the same principles to the rest of Ukraine and undercut its attempts to rebuild a government. This is not Iraq circa 2003.
  2. Uphold principles of sovereignty as much as possible. Yes, this will be limited and recent history is riddled with exceptions, but this remains the foundation of the international system and a keystone to stability. To ignore Russian incursions altogether and deflect invitations to talk would suggest complacency and a Western disinterest.
  3. Reassure NATO allies. There is a chorus coming from Talinn, Riga, Vilnius, and Warsaw: ‘I told you so!’ The West needs to show that it will not stand by quietly while Putin eats away at respect for boundaries in Eastern Europe and creeps towards the NATO border.
  4. Maintain a working relationship with Russia in Europe. Russia is a necessary partner in energy (Germany), trade (France), and investment (United Kingdom), as has been discussed thoroughly elsewhere. Russia may not be the most trustworthy or consistent partner, but for the time being it is chained to Europe. Over the long-term, however, and as discussed below in greater detail, this may not be the case.
  5. Maintain a working relationship with Russia globally. Russia isn’t just an important international player because of its oil, gas, and oily (and possibly gassy) oligarchs. Russia is currently a key player in negotiations with Iran and Syria. And despite the current spat, Russia continues to participate in arms control verification with the United States under the New START Treaty. Turning Russia into a pariah will further isolate it and undermine progress in other areas. This is not to suggest the West should acquiesce to Russian demands and actions, but rather keep open the lines of communication. As Kennan said, ‘the best policy with Russia is always keeping the door open for them when they finally do decide to come in.

What leverage does the West have in negotiations with Russia? At least two. First, Russia needs European energy markets given that 80% of its exports are in natural resources. As Professor Andrew Lambert mentioned in a recent War Studies podcast, following the 2008 invasion of Ukraine, not to mention Russia’s erratic record as a supplier throughout the 2000s, the West is already looking for alternatives to Russian energy and Russia is feeling the pressure. Additional geopolitical demerits are taking an economic toll.

And second- now to the meat of the issue- events in Ukraine both directly and indirectly affect domestic stability within Russia. Domestic issues have always been the primary security concern for Russia. Its most recent Military Doctrines and Foreign Policy Concepts disproportionately focus on internal security and security on its borders. I would dispute the characterization of Russia’s interest in federalization as ‘bonkers’ given its attitude towards Ukraine and the ‘near abroad’ more generally. Federalization is the best vehicle for Russia to draw other parts of Ukraine into its orbit without the risks or messiness of further military incursions.

As Professor Lambert also notes, what Putin did was ‘inevitable, fairly predictable’ because Putin couldn’t allow Ukraine to drift towards Europe which could undermine his own power base at home. Putin’s grasp on power in Russia seems shaky at times, and is dependent on economic growth and stability, thus energy exports and political support. As highlighted by Andrew Nagorski, Putin’s use of Ukraine as a rallying cry for Russian nationalism is fake and the ‘real motive for his behavior since the downfall of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych is his recognition of the example this could set for his own people.’ And as I recently discussed in a review of Limits of Partnership, quoting the author, Angela Stent, ‘For Putin, events in Ukraine are an albatross, “After all, if Ukrainians could take to the streets and overthrow their governments, so could Russians.”’

Putin needs to demonstrate his nationalism and firm approach to internal dissent, and the West needs to condemn his tactics. But Russia also needs the West to buy its energy just as much as the West needs Russia to respect borders. It isn’t an ideal balance, but it is mutually beneficial for the time being.

CC Wikipedia.

Negotiations over Ukraine: Solution or Disillusion?

During the last week, Russia has been building a large military presence making US intelligence fearing the worst for a while. President Putin then phoned president Obama and arranged a meeting between Russian foreign ministers Lavrov and Kerry.

The buildup and the phone call was perfectly timed to raise the pressure and to instil a sense of urgency in the West for a negotiated solution. The West, of course, came running to the negotiations because that’s what the West does in conflict management, it is in the bone marrow.

However, in the name of far-sightedness I have to pose the question, what on earth would a agreeable negotiated solution look like with Russia and what does the West have to gain from it? The first question got a more straightforward answer than the second.

Russia has been demanding on federalisation of Ukraine and recognition of Crimea as Russian which is bonkers for many reasons. Even more bonkers is that the first reports of the talk, Kerry said federalisation of Ukraine was not a taboo.

The justification for federalisation is based on a groundless accusation of ethnic unrest that the Russian intervention is rather a cause than a remedy to. Federalisation will dismember Ukrainian sovereignty since what is insisted upon is regions with veto in not only economic matters but also foreign policy.Do any of you remember all the Ukrainians crying out for federalisation? Me neither. It is, as a rule of thumb, a really bad idea to make decisions over people’s heads, especially if they have just endured bullets for political rights.

Recognising Crimea as Russian is another suggestion in return for Russia recognising the Kiev government. This goes directly against the whole idea of the post-WWII international system. It is really not good to allow the changing of borders without the consent of the host-state, especially not with military force.

Well, you the reader might raise Kosovo and shout ‘double-standards!’. It was indeed a break to this principle, but I’m willing to bet my hat that the International Court of Justice will not come out  and say that the Russian actions in Crimea were “illegal but legitimate”. That is quite a difference.

So, that leads us back to the original question, what on earth could the West agree on with Russia? And how would that not plainly be rewarding annexation and appearing threatening with military means?

It is true that Russia has such a spoiler potential in Ukraine – through subversion, through energy, through trade – that they are more or less needed for a functioning Ukraine. However, this will be used in ANY situation that doesn’t not involve Russia maintaining a negative veto in Ukrainian internal affairs. Why should the West then meet the Russian demands in beforehand?

The only reason would be to avoid a further invasion of Eastern and Southern Ukraine something which Russia has worked hard to to pose as likely just because of that. Nonetheless, there are differences this time that makes the further invasion look unlikely.

It would be stupid (didn’t stop Crimean annexation though). The Western crisis-management engine has gotten running after a slow start but further moves would give it a turbo boost it looks live even the Brits, the Germans and the French are ready to unite to sanction the Russians. The markets has slowly starting to expose the way in which they will punish Russia in the long-term. Finally, there is not a Russian military base in inside Eastern Ukraine to draw logistically from.

If there is no negotiated solution, the West will pay the Ukraine’s bill and Russia will destabilise Ukraine where it can. If there is a negotiated solution, the West will pay Ukraine’s bill and Russia wouldn’t need to destabilise a permanently obedient Ukraine. So, I would be happy could anyone enlighten me, what would be the benefit for the West of a negotiated solution with Russia?


Facing the crisis: from global change to insurgency

[Guest post by Clement Roy. Clement is interested in both geosciences and socio-political issues. He got a BSC. in applied physics and a MSc. in Environment at University of Geneva. He then worked in the field of energy, agriculture,and mining, and carried out a year of research around the world in geodynamics and paleoceanography (at Geotop of Montreal and University of Tokyo), before serving as an officier in the Navy French. He is now affiliated to the Institut de Physique du Globe of Paris as well as the French Institute of Geopolitics where he works respectively in the field of natural hazard and Asian piracy.]

Dear Kings of War readers. This is my first post here, and I would like first to thank David Betz for giving me the opportunity to contribute. As a guest- french scientist in the field of natural science, and former military- I am here to answer his ‘On strategic neo-catastrophism’ which put us in touch.

Earth cannot be only an object to be exploited. It is not either a living being, although it has some of its attributes (i.g. homeostasis), but can be treated as such because it makes us live, and because it has the power to destroy us. The next century appears to provide many threats and challenges: energy and mineral shortages, demographic and agricultural crisis, climate and ice sheets change, ocean acidification, deforestation, threats to ecosystems and fish stocks, all with a great economic cost. It thus appears that our situation is similar in many ways to that of ancient lost civilizations, reaching a population too large to thrive in their environment, and facing potential conflicts to seize the latest resources.

Interdisciplinary studies, crossing natural sciences, anthropology, and archeology, provide examples of ancient societies subject to environmental challenges. The Maya civilization, after reaching its demographic peak, collapsed between 750 and 900. In less than a century, the regional population shifted from three million to about four hundred thousand. Different assumptions about the collapse have been advanced: internal (or social) causes, or climate, as an external cause. Climate change could be the primary driver, affecting all the others, leading to a chain reaction, causing vegetation shift, and difficulties in the supply and management of water. In this context, conflicts between cities, so wars for ultimate resources were favored.

We can therefore make a link between environmental stress and political disorders. We learn through the example of the Maya, that the maximum exploitation of the natural environment, resource dependence, and natural environmental variability led their civilization to a very vulnerable position. Using the example of the Maya, and those, among others, of the Anasazi, Polynesian societies and Easter Island, at which we could add, more recently, Nauru and Kiribati, Jared Diamond (in “Collapse”) give us examples of societies coping with troubles, successful or not, with adaptive mechanisms according to their cultural values.

We also learn that if an environmental crisis occurs, it becomes quickly systemic and leads to economic and social aspects. According Joseph Tainter, anthropologist and historian, complexity is a natural way in the evolution of societies. Every adaptation, after problem-solving, complicates the society. But this complexity comes along with structural rigidity and therefore vulnerability when an unforeseen event occurs. The French system, very centralized, leaving little autonomy to local communities, although it may react quickly, is indeed particularly vulnerable to long-term crisis.

Humanity’s wealth depends on the diversity of culture it contains. But they cannot be thought apart from their growth substrate and environment. ‘Humanity is a piece of the world’, wrote  Friedrich Ratzel in his ‘Anthropogeography’. He knew that well, as he was a disciple of Ernst Haeckel, one of the founders of ecology. Ecosystems are not discrete spaces; they are continuum. A continuum that species, including humans, can ionize, thus modifying more or less strongly. Indeed, any organization tends to change its environment in order to increase comfort, therefore its existence. But ultimately, this pressure creates a general level of stress to the ecosystem, which changes by a threshold effect.

Yet if environmental changes are continuous phenomena, our coping strategies crystallize on a discrete spectrum of solutions, often extreme. Ecologists become more radical; while governments want certainty before moving. We may observe this in the discourse on climate change: media bias, and positions cluster around on a favourite side. People expect a ‘solution’, while the necessary adaptation to this phenomenon is rather a way for us to redefine ourselves. But the truth is that we are adaptable only when our identity is strong enough, that is to say when our representation of our place in Nature is as strong as possible. This means quasi-static change in our mental universe. If a motion appears, from societies or Nature, people will either migrate elsewhere to find their former comfort, or struggle to re-establish the world they use to know in their physical environment.

Let’s propose here a draft concept. In a structural environment, the pioneer species is still subject to the environment and adaptation. The strength of the hazard is still structuring in a society, because of their inability to raise capital to erect a protection. This species may still be dominant, but it does not yet change the substance of the ecosystem. To conquer is not to submit. After a certain degree of control, the substrate of growth becomes obedient, i.e., it is the species that become structural for it. They then put pressure on the environment allowing it to create such a barrier, placing them ‘outside Nature’ in an artificial environment which maximizes comfort. The ‘Anthropocene’ is such an environment for humans: it buffers the potentially adverse and unexpected natural variations. And its ecosystem of accomplishment, which enabled the development of civilizations, is the City.

We therefore propose a two-axis analytical grid: (i) the importance of structuring, and (ii) kinetics of change. That means four types of situations, or four types of representations of Human position in Nature. But only one, the first, corresponds to a maximum comfort for us.

1-     Obedient and stable Nature, as in the City, which allows the development of our species while avoiding the most uncomfortable situation.

2-     Structuring and stable natural environment, as in the countryside.

3-     But when the environment is dynamic, harmony disappears; the Man-Nature balance of power appears. By a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, if Nature has the initiative.

4-     Or when population tries to re-appropriate their environment in a fluid context of insurgency and irregular warfare. In this case, it is an attempt to regain control against change in the substance of their ecosystem.

We should pay particular attention to current developments of Human-environment interactions and strategies in a global change. Because there is a level beyond which cohesion, sense of responsibility, and finally democracy are no longer favored. And when we all share the same plate, spit inside becomes a way of appropriating it: thus begins the race and wars for the last resources, to lose nothing of our competitiveness and inaction when it comes to cope with pollution.


So, here I would like to answer David Betz’s post ‘On strategic neo-Catastrophism’.  It is not only conflict between nations that are to be expected. Conflicts inside the Nations may also be favoured. In 1979, Hans Jonas released its ‘responsibility principle’. What has become today? A rather vague principle, which leaves great flexibility in industrial activities, without making citizens more proactive. If governments become as inert as civil society, it is normal that a response emerges from non-governmental organizations and local communities.

Remember the great Frank Herbert science fiction novel ‘Dune’, adapted by David Lynch as a film in 1984: ‘who can destroy a thing, controls that thing.’ And maybe, like the burning of oil wells during the 1990 Gulf War, local population, in their struggle to re-appropriate their environment, would prefer to rather destroy it than abdicate to what they deem to be an external, imperialist, and dehumanized interference


Has Snowden Given Silicon Valley a ‘Vietnam’ moment?

Recent buzz around the internet is suggesting that Google may be cutting a significant tie with DARPA, the Department of Defense’s awesomely-mad scientific research arm, by pulling out of a DARPA/DoD funded robotics competition. Many of these DARPA funded competitions and projects have proven to be lucrative opportunities, especially in areas related to robotics and autonomous systems. These opportunities, and the generous defense contracts that they can flourish into, have brought Silicon Valley tech companies into some fairly close working relationships with the defense sector over the last decade or more. Why would Google, which now owns several of the most prominent up-and-coming robotics companies around, publicly distance itself from the Defense Department? The Edward Snowden saga, of course.

Silicon Valley has taken some hits in the aftermath of the N.S.A revelations brought about by Our Man in Moscow. While this may only be a hiccup in an ongoing and still close relationship between the Pentagon and the Valley, both the Pentagon and the Obama Administration,  should be very wary of a potential trend here. Arguably this may not even be the first sign of trouble ahead, the South by Southwest Festival, despite its Red State locale, has become a marque event for the tech crowd. So when SXSW gives keynote speaking slots (albeit by teleconference) to both Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, and when both of them direct sympathetic audiences to push Silicon Valley away from the U.S. government, the corporate culture of the tech world shouldn’t be taken for granted. Not long after SXSW, Edward Snowden gave a Sheldon Cooper-inspired on-stage performance at TED, once the marque lecture series of the Silicon Valley intellectual crowd.

Again, it’s early days and things may normalize, after all it isn’t like Google needs the money, but Congress, the Oval Office, and the Pentagon, should not take the emergence of a trend here lightly. Silicon Valley as a demographic sector, not unlike academia, could be viewed as generally reflecting a more liberal world view, and while most are of a fairly moderate stripe, it also has its fair share of far out activists. While the corporate culture of Silicon Valley may not swing as far left as that of a Berkley or Brown political science department, it isn’t hard to imagine this corporate culture distancing itself more substantially from government sectors with which it had, until very recently, been quite close. If the government, particularly the defense and intelligence communities allow this to get too far out of hand, we might see a similar schism to the one that arose between American universities and the military as a result of the Vietnam War. The ideological divide that formed between the university campus and the military, while perhaps closing somewhat of late, is still felt today, almost a half century later. In fact it is not a stretch to say that this very blog post is the result of that divide. As an American student interested in both historical and contemporary defense policy, I came to the War Studies Department at King’s, partly because departments such as this simply cannot exist at most American universities, due to that ideological split.

Technological superiority has been a critical component of American military strength for most of the last century, whether you want to call it ‘military culture’ or the ‘American Way of War’ the link is both long running and substantial. If the best and brightest of the tech world suddenly view Defense Department contracts as taboo, what does that mean for both sides of the divide? Or are the opportunities that the defense industry provides, cyber is after all still a huge growth industry even amidst drastic defense cuts, once again going show that the almighty dollar always wins? Either way, this relationship is a critical one, and with all of the many, many programs the Defense Department is banking on to help it develop the advanced technology and robotics driven force of the future, can they afford to let a relationship this critical get away from them?