We’re Seconds Away From Midnight

Humanity is on the brink

Photo by alexandru vicol on Unsplash

Things are so bad right now, people are dying, the world is burning, we’re standing on the edge of the abyss, and yet, in a way it’s also darkly funny.

The New York Times is screaming bloody murder, as if Putin reducing the natural gas supply to Europe in response to the sanctions and arms sent to Ukraine was somehow a surprise.

Russians have been bombing Ukraine to oblivion for months, reducing cities to rubble, holding vital grain supplies hostage, and now they’re weaponizing fuel? How dare they!

It’s so painfully obvious that European governments care a lot more for their citizens getting cold than for the devastation of Ukraine. After all, Ukrainians don’t vote for them. They’re also pretty useful as fodder against Russia.

The arrogance of the West is astounding. Did we honestly think that Putin, the dangerous autocrat, would just sit back and get hit by sanctions while dutifully providing us Europeans with all the natural gas we care to buy from Russia, until we no longer need it? Was that the plan?

Really?

And did we think that the common declaration of Russia and China shortly before the invasion began last February was just empty posturing?

Why would China risk going on a limb like that, while knowing Russia’s intentions? And don’t doubt for an instant that Xi Jinping was fully advised about Putin’s imminent “special military operation”. All that was discussed was probably the timing and perhaps Plan B, should things not go as planned.

So this is Plan B.

Russia likely got the assurances it needed that China would buy a big chunk of its fossil fuel production. India probably committed to the rest. It’d be suicidal for Putin to invade Ukraine without guaranteed demand for his fossil fuels. Even if a “swift military operation” did succeed at toppling the Ukrainian government, additional sanctions against Russia would be all but guaranteed.

And in case you’re wondering, no, Xi Jinping didn’t suddenly “lose it”. We should be very suspicious of the rhetoric that foreign leaders have “suddenly gone mad” and are threatening the world with violence. Often, after digging a bit, one discovers that what we perceive as a “sudden” shift in behaviour or policy is the reaction to strategic moves from the other side, which are deliberately kept quiet.

In this case, the deterioration in the relations between the U.S. and China has been going on for years. Donald Trump’s obsession with China was apparent since the very start of his presidency, and although many called it misguided, Biden’s administration largely continued along the same path. It’s one of the few Trump-era policies that wasn’t reversed. This can only mean that the change in the trade relations between the two countries was more than Trump’s “obsession” with his trade war.

And more than just trade relations changed. Under the Taiwan Travel Act, signed by Trump in 2018, more than 20 visits to Taiwan were made by various U.S. officials and lawmakers, according to CNN. Now, the current administration is considering doubling down on this tactic. We’ll get back to that in a minute.

If there were any doubts regarding the commitment of Biden’s administration to this course, the recent moves of the U.S. in China’s neighbourhood should have made its intentions for the future relationship between Washington and Beijing crystal clear. Yet, China will not sit back and wait to become almost fully contained by the U.S. before reacting, like Russia did. That’s the reason it’s supporting Putin in what is now turning into an escalating financial war, as well as, potentially, a real one.

Vladimir Putin is calling our bluff. Having secured alternate markets for his fossil fuels, he is free now to reduce and perhaps even completely cut off Europe, right when the reserves for next winter would have to be built up. We will now be forced to scramble to get our natural gas supplies from anywhere, and at any price.

Thanks to the sanctions, which have never been really effective in the past in any scenario (see Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, etc.) Russia can sell its fossil fuels at a premium and Europe will have to buy them at even higher prices than that. It’s hard to see how inflation will be controlled anytime soon in this situation. All the sanctions seem to have accomplished is help strengthen the ruble and put into question the legitimacy of the weaponized dollar as a global reserve currency. The BRICS countries are preparing for the next day.

The West has shot itself in the foot.

Some say that the only way forward now is a direct military intervention by NATO in Ukraine.

Needless to say, this will bring us just one step away from the unthinkable. If NATO and Russian forces engage in Ukraine, we will be at the very brink of a civilization-ending nuclear war.

But it’s not just Russia. The U.S. seems determined to antagonize China in any way it can. As I mentioned earlier, if there’s one thing both parties in the U.S. agree on, it’s the way they view China.

In case you missed it, last April, the U.S. and Australia directly threatened a sovereign nation against allying with China. You know, the exact same thing they’re accusing Russia of doing. Just a few days ago, they also subtly cautioned Indonesia against making any similar deals with China. Worst of all, the U.S. has decided that it might be a good time for U.S. House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to include Taiwan in her tour of Asian countries. It should be noted that the U.S. does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country, not since 1979, but it retains commercial, military, and diplomatic ties with that “non-country”. It sells weapons to Taiwan, but neither denies nor confirms that it will assist it, in case it is attacked by China. It has also stationed Special Forces and Marines there in secret since 2020 at least. And their numbers are increasing.

It’s exactly the sort of “strategic ambiguity” which led Ukraine down the path of war.

We might visit Taiwan or we might not. We might defend it or we might not. Ukraine might join NATO in the future or it might not.

This allows the U.S. to claim that they never did anything to provoke their opponents, while at the same time actually provoking them. In some cases, the ambiguity is worse than the certainty of actually crossing a red line.

People don’t like it when their red lines are casually toyed with. It’s the sort of passive-aggressive behaviour that drives us nuts in interpersonal relationships. International relations are not much different, in this respect. Uncertainty makes people nervous. And nervous people very often make the wrong decisions.

Predictably, the Chinese are livid. They’re much less ambiguous about the issue: they have warned the U.S. against crossing their red line, just as Russia did before the invasion, and they threaten with “forceful measures”. No one can say what these measures might be, and there’s a lot of posturing which might amount to nothing, but the U.S. is considering a fighter jet escort for Pelosi’s plane if the visit to Taiwan finally materializes.

Those who play with fire will perish by it,” said Xi to Biden during their recent call.

Just imagine what would happen if a Chinese pilot harassed Mrs. Pelosi’s plane and ended up shooting it or one of its escorts down, even unintentionally.

China and the U.S. are effectively locked in an insane game of “chicken”, but the stakes are planetary-wide. Our very existence, already threatened by the climate crisis, is on the line.

The clock is mere seconds away from midnight.

It doesn’t matter who’s “right” and who’s “wrong”. Once the missiles start flying, it’s game over.

There will be no victor in this war.

There is no sane path out of this crisis apart from diplomacy. I hope our leaders realize this before it’s too late for us all.

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Nikos Papakonstantinou

Nikos Papakonstantinou

It’s time to ponder the reality of our situation and the situation of our reality.