My apologies for not posting since Thursday. I have been travelling, gathering new information and ideas.
A friend asked me what I thought of Tony Abbott. It was a neutral question, and I asked why. My questioner commented that so far as my writing was concerned, I seemed to be politically neutral. That got me wondering about the nature of bias. Many of my colleagues would not wonder, they would provide a straightforward explanation. I found that I couldn't, although I outlined my concerns. There were too many shades of gray.
Maybe it's wimpy of me, but if I am asked for an objective assessment, I feel the need to provide balance, to observe, to give information. Of course I have opinions, sometimes very strong ones. For the life of me, I cannot provide an objective assessment of Paul Keating. He arouses absolutely visceral reactions in me. So far as Australian politicians are concerned, he is actually a unique case, someone who managed to strike at things that I considered important to the point that I responded at a purely emotional level. It wasn't so much what he did, but what he said and the way he said it. Mr Abbott seems to arouse similar style responses in many people and for similar reasons.
As I write, Russian troops appear to be occupying the Crimea. This has lead some commentators back to the Crimean War. I am not sure that the commentary is always well informed, for Lord Tennyson's poem The Charge of the Light Brigade has coloured views in the anglosphere. Memories of perceived British incompetence linger:
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death,
Rode the six hundred.
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
The reality appears to be that this war was a considerable success. It was also the war where the progressive spread of the telegraph suddenly made battlefield events and reporting available within hours in London or Paris, changing things for ever.
Other commentators have been influenced by Mr Putin's view towards gays and the Sochi Olympics, as well as his authoritarian tendencies. These things are important, but they ignore a key issue, the strategic importance of the Crimea to Russia. There was simply no way that the Russians would risk losing control of something that they regarded as absolutely critical to their national interest. I suspect that that is an issue on which most Russians would unite. The vote in the Duma would suggest that.
Comparisons between the current situation in the Ukraine and Chamberlain at Munich are already emerging. By implication, Putin must be stopped now. If Mr Obama does not respond or fails, then he is like Mr Chamberlain. This comparison fails on two counts. US strategic interests are not as involved as were Britain's, nor is Mr Putin an Adolph Hitler.
I am not saying that the West should not try to protect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, although we have to recognise the popular divisions in the Ukraine itself. I am saying that the West has to consider the price it (the EU and US) is prepared to pay if it really wants to affect events. If NATO is actually prepared to go to war, to use force against the Russian Federation, then we have one ball game, one that the Russians must respond too.
I don't think that this is the case. I see no appetite for war, although that is possible. In purely political terms, this is an EU problem, not a US problem. The US may support, but won't get involved.
What can the EU do? Probably not a lot. The most, I suspect, that it can hope for is an integrated Ukraine in the Russian Sphere of influence. Does this matter? Not a lot.
Russia is in structural decline. It is not the Soviet Union. It has an aging and declining population that it cannot easily address for nationalistic reasons. Move forward even twenty years, and Russia will have dropped many places down the international pecking order. Like Britain, it will have to adjust. The days of the Russian Empire are over; the effects will linger.
Against that longer term background, the question now is a simple one: what will most directly benefit the people of the Ukraine? I suspect that this comes back to the preservation of the Ukraine as an entity.
In the meantime, Mr Abbott's warning that Russia should back-off has nothing to do with Australia beyond the chairmanship of the UN security council. Russia will do what circumstances dictate. If you want to change events, change the circumstances, That's all.
The Lowy Institute blog had a useful post on all this: Russia-Ukraine: What is Putin up to in Crimea?
It seems the the rouble is down, Russian interest rates up.