Putinism, the anti-imperialism of fools

German socialist Agust Bebel is supposed to have called antisemitism the “socialism of fools” (“der Sozialismus des dummen Kerls”). By that he meant people who recognize capitalist exploitation only if the exploiter happened to be Jewish but who would otherwise turn a blind eye to the economic realities. The German Nazi party did call itself “national socialist” but the only businesses it expropriated were those of Jewish owners while other big industrialists benefited from government contracts for rearmament and from cheap slave labour during World War II.

A similar phenomenon is at play in the response to Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine. Russia is receiving support from people around the world, both on the far left and the far right. These Putin apologists spread Russian talking points and other propaganda. They often paint Ukraine as a mere pawn of an imperialist West dominated by the USA, which according to them is using the war to marginalize Russia and push it aside in the post-cold war order. These people will accuse the US of past crimes and other immoral actions in Iraq, Serbia, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere while ignoring torture, rape and killing perpetrated right now by Russia. According to them, your right to criticise Russian crimes in Ukraine depends on you first joining their condemnations of past actions of the west.

Let’s be real: These apologists of the Russian war of aggression are not anti-imperialists, far from it: These people are not guided by a moral compass or by concern for the victims of imperialism but by suspicion and hatred of specific countries. They are merely anti-western. Russia is an imperialist power of its own that over several centuries grew from the small Muscovite principality to the largest country in the world by intimidation and military conquest and even genocide. From the Holodomor genocidal famine in Ukraine in the 1930s to the deportation of Crimean tartars to deportations of Poles and Balts in the 1940, it has used utmost brutality. To this day Russia treats its neighbours not as a sovereign countries but as the “near abroad”, a sphere of influence in which governments can make independent decisions only at their own peril. Should their choices run counter to Moscow’s wishes, anything can happen!

Any “anti-imperialism” that is blind to Russian or Chinese acts of imperialism is anti-imperialism in name only. It must therefore be called anti-imperialism of the fools. Anyone who can condemn acts of imperialism only if they are committed by western countries but not if the perpetrator happens to be Russia or China is not really anti-imperialist but merely anti-western. Claiming the mantle of “anti-imperialism” for supporters of a post-fascist aggressor such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia is laughable.

Ukraine is a sovereign democratic country. On multiple occasions Russia committed to respecting its existing borders from the 1991 breakup of the USSR, which include Crimea and the Donbas. By first threatening and then invading Ukraine, Russia has violated the UN Charta, the Budapest memorandum and other obligations under international law. Wars of aggression are a war crime, separate from any crimes against humanity committed in their course. The Russian government should remember that leading Nazis and Japanese militarists were charged, convicted and executed after the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials for preparing a war of aggression.

Past US governments have made many bad and sometimes criminal choices, such as supporting anti-democratic coups in Iran, Guatemala and Chile, the bombing of Cambodia or the invasion of Iraq under flimsy and made-up evidence. However, no country gets a free ticket entitling it to commit war crimes every time some other country violates international law. That’s not how it works in domestic criminal law and that’s not how it works in international law either. Ukraine needs our solidarity to defend its borders and citizens against an imperialist aggressor.

I am thankful the US is stepping up to help Ukraine as much as they have, regardless of their own checkered past.

Russia’s Gas Blackmail

Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany’s dependence on Russia for gas supplies rose as high as 55% in 2020.

The first gas pipeline connecting Germany to the Soviet Union crossed the then Czechoslovak border at Waidhaus. The Transgas pipeline crossed the former Soviet (now Ukraine) border at Uzhhorod (Russian: Ushgorod). Via Ukraine it connects to Belarus and Russia. Even during the cold war it reliably supplied Germany with cheap Soviet gas.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, its largest successor state Russia has had disputes with several of its ex-Soviet neigbours, including Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. These countries were earning transit fees from gas exported through their territory while also buying some Russian gas for their own use. As long as large consumers in the west were relying on the same pipelines as Russia’s immediate neighbours it wasn’t possible for Russia to halt gas supplies for example to Ukraine as a method of blackmail without jeopardizing long-term lucrative contracts with Western European customers.

That is why Russia came up with the plan to essentially duplicate the existing pipelines through these countries with a more costly set of new pipelines at the bottom of the Baltic sea that went directly from Russia to Germany, without crossing other countries.

The primary purpose of Nord Stream 1 (NS1) and Nord Stream 2 (NS2) was to destabilize the European countries hosting the existing transit pipelines and to expose to Russian energy blackmail. When Germany signed up for NS1 and later NS2, it clearly understood this motivation on Russia’s side but, with active lobbying by ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, it chose to turn a blind eye to the implications. To Germany it was somebody else’s problem.

Well, the chickens have come home to roost: Now it is Germany that is being blackmailed and extorted by Russia while the Baltic states and Poland are already independent from Russian supplies as they have sought out supplies of LNG instead. Germany is still working on making that switch.

On June 13, Russia cut the flow of gas through NS1 by 60%. It blamed this on a turbine at the Russian compressor station in Vyborg (between Finland and St Petersburg) that needed to be refurbished in Canada. The Canadian government was reluctant to return it to Russia because of sanctions.

Eventually a deal was reached between Canada and Germany to return the turbine to Germany, which could then send it to Russia. However, that is not the real story: Germany’s economy minister Robert Habeck made clear that this is just Russia’s excuse and not the actual reason for cutting supplies. Germany can also receive gas from Russia via pipelines that terminate in Mallnow (Yamal-Europe pipeline) and Waidhaus (Transgas). Right now, no gas enters Germany through Mallnow and all the gas that eneters via Waidhaus is fed via NS1 in the north, not Transgas in the east. As separate pipelines, Yamal and Transgas do not depend on the NS1 compressor station and turbine. On top of that there are also multiple turbines at Vyborg, which is why any single one being out of service is no cause for major disruption.

What Russia is doing is to intentionally throttle gas supplies to Germany to prevent it from refilling its gas storage sites. Germany is aiming to fill its storage sites to 90% or more of capacity by November 1 so that it can get through the winter without being subject to Russian blackmail. The less gas it receives now when demand is relatively low the more difficult that goal becomes.

In 2015, a year after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, a subsidiary of Russian gas monopoly Gazprom bought Germany’s biggest gas storage site in Rehden near the northern city of Bremen. Rather than fill the site before winter as is usual to insure against supply disruptions, Gazprom has kept this site nearly empty for the past year or so. Normally companies use cheap gas in Summer to fill storage sites to have sufficient gas available when demand is high. Without storage if gas flow through the pipelines is stopped there will be no immediate alternative to keep homes warm and the economy running. Germany has now taken control of the storage site had been steadily refilling it until the recent supply cuts.

Right now gas flow through NS1 is completely suspended for annual servicing but the big question is if supplies will resume after 10 days or if Russia will come up with a different excuse. It is playing mind games with Germany. If Germany can not fill its storage and Russia choses to cut supplies during the winter then this will create political pressure on Germany to do whatever Putin wants it to do. It’s an effort designed to split the Western alliance and to end Germany’s support for Ukraine, which already is somewhat half-hearted compared to eastern NATO members or the United States.

Unlike the former Soviet Union, Russia’s highest priority with gas supplies is not to make money but to project imperial power. Gazprom is part of an empire, not a business. Russia has already sacrificed its position as a reliable energy supplier for political purposes, i.e. an attempt to restore Imperial Russia. There is no going back now. Even if Putin were to lose power, Europe will never again make itself dependent on Russian supplies. It will transition to alternative gas supplies and non-fossil energy as quickly as possible. Russia’s biggest cash cow will soon become worthless, long before gas wells would normally have run dry.

The transition to a non-fossil future may be difficult and expensive, but it is necessary because of climate change and Putin’s blackmail of several countries may end up greatly accelerating it. To get through the transition, Europe needs to work together to maximize alternatives to Russian oil and gas. It must not give in to blackmail.

Lend-Lease for Ukraine

The US has revived its historic Lend-Lease policy to help Ukraine. This was a World War II era policy in support of the enemies of Nazi Germany.

When the UK and France declared war on Nazi Germany after its invasion of Poland, the US initially remained neutral. After the fall of France, Britain remained the only major power resisting Germany. This changed only when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. From 1939 to 1941, the Soviet Union had been an ally of Nazi Germany under the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty and had supplied Germany with oil for its invasion of Denmark, Norway, France and Benelux.

After the fall of Dunkirk, Britain had been almost on its own (it was still supported by Australia, Canada, New Zealand and British colonies). It could buy supplies from the US but it had to pay in cash (i.e. silver) and transport the goods to Britain on its own ships. With the passage of Lend-Lease in March 1941, the US could supply arms, ammunition and other goods to Britain without requiring payment and it sent them to Britain on American ships.

After the German attack on the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), the USSR was also supplied by the US with tanks, trucks, ammunition, food and many other materials for the war effort. These supplies were sent via Persia, Murmansk and the Far East. When Putins’s Russia today talks about the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, it consistently remains silent about the US contribution to the Soviet war effort, without which the country may have collapsed.

Lend-Lease was controversial in the US. Isolationists and nazi sympathisers argued it would put the US on a slippery slope towards entering the war in Europe. However, the US still officially remained neutral and not at war with Germany and its allies. This only changed in December 1941 when Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. A few days after Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on the US in support of its ally in the Far East. Thus it was not Lend-Lease that got the US involved in World War II but the Japanese attack.

This holds a message for today. Countries do not automatically become parties in war if they support another country with supplies.

Wars of aggression are a violation of the UN Charter which guarantees the territorial integrity of all states and requires them to use peaceful means to settle any disputes. Every country has a right of self-defense. Under International law, countries worldwide have every right to support countries exercising their right of self-defence against aggressors and invaders. That is as true in 2022 as it was in 1939 or 1941.

Tokyo in a power crunch

On March 22, 2022 the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (Tepco) warned electricity consumers in east Japan about the risk of rolling blackouts from a tight supply situation. The recent M7.3 quake near Sendai had knocked several of Tepco’s thermal power plants offline, which left the company in a difficult situation when a cold spell with snow flakes hit the region of the capital. Demand at times exceeded generation capacity and only the availability of pumped hydro storage saved the day before measures to curb demand such as turning down heating and switching off lights averted an outage.

No doubt this experience will increase pressure to restart more nuclear power stations that have been shuttered since the tsunami and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima in March 2011. Before the nuclear disaster about 30% of Japanese generating capacity were nuclear; now only about 10% comes from restarted nuclear reactors. The current high prices of natural gas will further enhance the attraction of nuclear, at least in the eyes of anyone whose financial interests are tied to the balance sheet of the utility companies, such as their individual and institutional shareholders.

However, that is not the whole story.

While eastern Japan was in a power crunch, western Japan has ample spare capacity, as did Hokkaido. Why could this power not be used in Tokyo? You would have thought Japan would have learnt its lesson from the 3/11 disaster in 2011 and addressed it in the decade since then, but you would be wrong: Japanese electricity markets are still split between a handful of regional near-monopolies with minimal interchange capacities between them. For example, the Hokkaido grid has a generating capacity of 7.5 GW but only 0.6 GW of interchange capacity with Honshu (8% of the total). Tepco supplies up to 47 GW to customers in its area but can only exchange up to 1.2 GW with major utilities in the west of Japan. This leaves little margin when earthquakes or weather events with a regional impact hit supplies.

By contrast, China has built huge high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines between the industrialized coastal cities on one side and hydroelectric power stations near the Tibetan plateau and solar and wind farms in the arid north on the other. Many of these lines are longer than the distance from Tokyo to Hokkaido, let alone Tokyo to Kansai. The Chinese government understands that if it wants to wean itself from the dependence of dirty coal or imported oil and gas then it will need to vastly increase power transfer capacity from the interior of the country where renewables are available to the densely populated urban areas near the coast lines.

Japan is actually in a similar situation. The elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about is offshore wind. While European countries and the US are building up tens of Gigawatts of offshore wind power capacity, Japan has very little installed capacity, particularly offshore. The entire conversations seems to be about nuclear vs. solar vs. gas vs. coal, leaving out one of the most promising renewable energy sources available to Japan. So far the regulatory hurdles for erecting and connecting wind turbines in Japan have been high and that has left wind as an also ran compared to much more widely deployed solar. However, solar does not provide power at all hours. Wind would complement it.

Much of the European wind power capacity is installed offshore where wind speeds tend to be high and more consistent than onshore. This is where the largest and most economical turbine models tend to be used. By contrast, almost 99% of Japan’s wind power capacity is still onshore. A cumulative total of only 51.6 MW of offshore wind capacity was installed at the end of 2021 while total installed wind power capacity was 4.6 GW. Meanwhile the UK had 24.7 GW of wind power capacity, Spain 27.1 GW and Germany 62.2 GW. China is in a league of its own with 282 GW, more than all of Europe combined. Japan’s installed wind power base is less than that of small European countries such as Belgium (4.7 GW) that have relatively short coast lines and tiny EEZs: Japan’s EEZ of 4,479,388 km2 is over 1000 times larger than Belgium’s at 3,447 km2!

Japan is really only starting to build up offshore wind capacity, with projects off the coasts of Akita, Chiba and Nagasaki getting under way in the last two years. By 2030 its goal is for 10 GW of offshore capacity either installed or under construction which is still tiny compared to the already installed base of Germany, Spain or the UK.

Unlike fossil fuel or nuclear power stations, wind turbines are not location independent. They will be installed where wind conditions are favourable, where the sea is not too deep and connections to the coastal grid are cost-effective. To make the most of the wind conditions, the grid will need to be greatly expanded to allow large amounts of power to be transferred from regions with plenty of wind to regions with many consumers. This will be quite different from the current model where utility companies try to generate all the power they need within their own region, which is why there is only limited interchange capacity to help out if one company loses a large part of its generating capacity as happened in the recent quake or after 3/11.

Japan needs to start building high capacity long distance HVDC power lines like China has in order to enable a transition to zero carbon electricity. The fragmented power markets dominated by local utility companies are an obstacle to this transition as the interests of the regional companies seeking profits from existing investments in their area are not aligned with the interests of the consumers who want reliable green energy regardless of where it comes from.

Japan quickly needs to remove regulatory obstacles to expanding wind power and then invest to build a HVDC backbone to connect renewable power generation with consumers.

Reiwa Shinsengumi and Putin

On February 28, 2022 the Japanese left-wing populist opposition party Reiwa Shinsengumi led by actor turned politician Yamamoto Taro refused to support a resolution by the Japanese Diet to condemn the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine.

LDP politician Kono Taro wrote on twitter the next day:

Parliamentary Resolution to denounce the invasion of Ukraine by Russia was passed in the House of Representatives. Surprisingly, the three Reiwa Shinsengumi members voted against the Resolution.

I was curious why they would refuse to join an anti-war resolution and checked their party website.

What I found there was a statement that repeated a Putin talking point, blaming the war on NATO expansion into eastern Europe that supposedly violated a promise made to the Soviet Union not to admit now members from the former Soviet bloc:

(“We don’t want to make the blanket statement that it was Russia’s outburst that created the current catastrophe.
Make a sincere diplomatic effort to end this war, focusing on the fact that the U.S. and major European countries have reneged on their promises made at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union not to expand NATO eastward.”)
(【声明】ロシアによるウクライナ侵略を非難する決議について(れいわ新選組 2022年2月28日), 2022-02-18)

This Putin talking point that has been repeated by Russian propagandists over and over seeks to repaint the violent assault on a neighbour country as an act of self-defense. It is revisionist history and has been widely discredited as a myth. No such promise was ever made and Russia has not provided any evidence for its claim.

According to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, there was no such agreement. What did happen was that during the negotiations leading up to the reunification of Germany western powers agreed not to deploy NATO troops other than troops from Germany itself into parts of the former GDR (East Germany) once Germany was unified. NATO countries have kept this promise to this present day.

Admission of new NATO members was a subject not even talked about back in 1990. As sovereign nations, it is the right of former Warsaw pact states to apply for NATO membership just as it is the right of NATO members to accept or reject their applications to this mutual defense treaty. After the annexation of Crimea and support for a separatist war in eastern Ukraine by Russia it is now quite clear why eastern European countries have been seeking safety in numbers by wanting to join NATO.

Putin justifying his invasion of Ukraine by its desire to join NATO to keep him off is like a guy justifying the rape of a woman by her calling the police last time he beat her.

Frankly, I don’t expect anything better of Vladimir Putin who is more akin to a mobster than to a regular politician but I am disappointed by Reiwa Shinsengumi whom somehow I had expected to be on the side of democracy and human rights and not of a right-wing dictator.