Gordon Campbell on Ukraine’s prospects

4489b70684ad1613e4fcSo the government has (a) backed down over the entrenchment of water management, thus enabling a future centre right government to privatise a key essential of life via a simple majority, as readily as any elected government can change the tax rate, or the rules for the licensing of pets Thanks to our trade treaties, the asset would also have to be offered to offshore buyers, so the final purchaser in any serious water privatisation would almost certainly be one of those big foreign water multinationals with a large cheque book.

It is as if we have learned nothing at all from the disastrous privatisations of key assets that occurred in the 1980s, and since. We seem to feel duty bound to leave ourselves all but defenceless when it comes to retaining vital public assets. More and more this government’s current term in office looks like one of those old movies where the people on a dog sleigh pursued by wolves keep throwing things off it, in a vain attempt to out-tun their predators. In the end, the sop of reducing entrenchment from 75% to 60% made not the slightest bit of difference.

Notably, no serious attempt was made to defend the rationale for having an entrenchment safeguard. The government’s modus operandi seems to be to push a policy tentatively out into the spotlight, wait for the howls of criticism and then cave in wretchedly. Something similar is looming over the announcement of the Royal Commission on the handling of the Covid pandemic. That investigation could have a useful purpose if it better prepared the country for any future pandemic but – already, predictably – there have been cries of protest that under the terms of reference, it will not be easy enough to use the inquiry to bombard the government with its alleged Covid failures, real or imaginary.

In reality, the effective response not only kept the economy afloat but saved the thousands of lives that would have probably been lost if the government had bowed to National’s calls at the time to ease the restrictions on business, even before vaccines were available. Currently though, the government seems unwilling (or unable) to justify what it is doing, let alone to announce bold centre-left initiatives and defend them under fire.

Ukraine Winter

As winter sets in across Ukraine, some slowdown in the fighting is being expected, although that’s not inevitable. (The opportunity for mechanised manoeuvres may even be enhanced in the freezing conditions.) Russia in particular would be keen to use any winter respite as a chance to re-equip, re-arm and train its new troops for the offensives that will happen in the spring-time.

Nine months into the war, there is no reason to feel optimistic about the chances for peace, or for a decisive military victory by either side. Ukraine’s counter-offensives have seen it reclaim about 55% of the territory that Russia seized in the early stage of the invasion, but that still leaves roughly 20% of Ukraine in Russian hands. While some of Ukraine’s European and US allies might wish for some sign of peace-making concessions, it is also taken as read that the government in Kyiv will not agree to any deal that concedes any Ukrainian territory at all to Russia – whether that be in the Donbas, or Crimea. A long, bloody slog of a stalemate lasting for years seems to be inevitable, at the cost of thousands of lives.

Here’s a recent description of the current main battlefields:

Should it press on [during the winter] Ukraine faces significant hurdles: while it has pushed more Russian fighters into a tighter space, this means the battles ahead will be against more densely defended territory, on challenging terrain. Ukraine is now fighting in boats in the reedy marshes and deltaic islands of the lower Dnipro River; it is pushing against multiple trench lines on snowy plains in the Zaporizhzhya region in the south; and is engaging in a bloody, seesaw fight along the so-called Svatove-Kreminna line, in pine forests in northeastern Ukraine.

As winter closes in, Russia has intensified its attacks against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Moscow has chosen to weaponise the winter in ways that will make life as miserable as possible for the civilian population, and sap their will for the long dark struggle ahead. Similarly, Russia aims to erode the will of Ukraine’s European and US allies to continue to funnel humanitarian aid, weapons and ammunition in support of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russia is receiving support from its oil rich allies (Saudi Arabia in particular) to undermine the maximum price cap of $60 a barrel on Russian oil that Europe has just imposed.

For both sides, ammunition and weaponry are finite resources. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the “peace dividend” meant that the West reduced its conventional arsenals, as it shifted its efforts into countering the threat from terrorism. It was confidently assumed that a land war in Europe with tanks and artillery could be safely relegated to the history books. That assumption has proved to be false. The West’s limited armouries are being rapidly depleted:

In Afghanistan, NATO forces might have fired 300 artillery rounds a day and had no real worries about air defence. But Ukraine can fire thousands of rounds daily and remains desperate for air defence against Russian missiles and Iranian-made drones.

A day in Ukraine is a month or more in Afghanistan,” one [US] Defence expert said. Last summer in the Donbas region, the Ukrainians were firing 6,000 to7,000 artillery rounds each day, a senior NATO official said. The Russians were firing 40,000 to 50,000 rounds per day. By comparison, the US produces 15,000 rounds each month.

Ironically, Ukraine’s allies are now reportedly being forced to consider re-activating some of the mothballed munitions factories in the former Soviet territories, in order to provide the kind of old school weapons parts and ammunition required by Ukraine’s relatively antiquated artillery:

The West is scrambling to find increasingly scarce Soviet-era equipment and ammunition that Ukraine can use now and is sending strong signals to defense industries that longer-term contracts are in the offing. There are even discussions about NATO investing in old factories in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria to restart the manufacturing of Soviet-caliber 152-mm and 122-mm shells for Ukraine’s Soviet-era artillery.

The Siege of Bakhmut

For the past fortnight, the town of Bakhmut in the eastern region of Donetsk has become a particularly fierce battleground. Reportedly, the town is under siege from the east and the north by Russian forces desperately seeking a symbolic victory for Putin. The Russians are also keen to use the threat to Bakhmut to draw elite Ukrainian forces into its defence, and away from other battle fronts.

At the city’s only military hospital, doctors report an almost unending stream of Ukrainian casualties. By midday Friday, they had counted 50 wounded. The day before, 240 people had come through the hospital’s doors.

The attacking Russians are suffering far worse, cut down by artillery and machine-gun fire, Ukrainian soldiers say.

Newly mobilized Russian soldiers “are just taking a rifle and walking right down, like in Soviet times,” a Ukrainian medic said. “He gets killed, and the next one comes up the same way.”

Reportedly, Russia’s forces in Bakhmut are being led by the Wagner Group, a private mercenary organisation with close and direct ties to the Kremlin.


Vladimir Putin Falls. This could be either figuratively or through one of those highly dangerous Russian windows. (Alas, Putin II would probably be even worse.) Putin is losing support among ordinary Russians over the mass conscriptions and the high casualty figures. He’s also proving to be a big disappointment to the ultranationalists who keenly supported the invasion, and who now blame Putin entirely for its failures. It’s worth the Google Translate hassle of deciphering this blog post by Alexander Dugin, the Russian nationalist and Putin mentor who owes at least some of the blame for the invasion. It offers a glimpse into an alien mindset, but is quite illuminating. Here’s Dugin, warming up:

If you don’t care, then you are not Russian. Russians are now clenching their teeth in pain, weeping and suffering as if their hearts were torn out, their children, brothers, mothers and wives would be killed in front of their eyes. If you don’t hurt now, you’re nothing.

Belatedly, Dugin (citing Sir James Frazer ) has realised that’s there’s a drawback to being the Supreme Leader. The powers may be great, but so are the levels of blame when things start to go wrong…

What is the meaning of autocracy, and do we have it? We give the Ruler absolute fullness of power, and he saves us all – the people, the state, the people – at a critical moment. If for this he surrounds himself with evil spirits or spits on social justice, this is unpleasant, but [acceptable] if only he saved the people] What if it doesn’t save?…. Autocracy has a downside. Completeness of power in case of success, but also completeness of responsibility for failure.

Despite the crashing failure of his Ukraine imperial dream, Dugin still has some red lines that he won’t accept:

The conditions of the winning West, this civilization of Satan, will never be acceptable to Moscow. This means that tactical nuclear weapons and strategic nuclear weapons will remain [an option.]

But wait. While Dugin concedes that nuclear Armageddon would be “foolish,” it can still be averted, but only if the Russian people re-discover their ancient mojo, shake off their misgivings and march onwards to a glorious future under a truly Russian government. The bad news for Putin? It would have to be a government “not like now.”

It is foolish to go for the total destruction of mankind only because of the fear of the Russian Idea, of our ideology….

The war must become a people’s war in full measure. But just so popular – Russian! – the state should become. And not like now.

That’s the problem. To repeat: the potential alternatives to Putin would probably be more deluded, and more dangerous. It seems very unlikely there would be a democratic replacement, even assuming that Putin’s efficient machine of repression and corruption could somehow be overthrown.

Big Thief Rules

Talking about the power to command a stage, Adrianne Lenker led Big Thief through a fantastic end-of-tour show in Wellington on Sunday night that seemed to stun her fellow band members as much as it did the capacity audience. Lenker not only played old songs (“Mary” “Not” ) that have not otherwise featured much of late, and new tracks ( Vampire Empire”)… She was also front and centre of blazingly expanded versions of some tracks from the band’s most recent album. This is not a group that’s content to replicate the album version.

Her vocal range was striking: she offered everything from bedsit introspection ( “Ingydar”) to neo-country mannerisms to banshee vocal noise. Her guitar playing ran the same gamut quiet, intricate picking to sustained electric guitar heroics ( on “Not” in particular) that Eddie Van Halen might have been proud to call his own.

It became clear she didn’t want the tour or the concert or the night to end, but after nearly two hours onstage (without any of the low patches you normally get in a set that long) and after several extra encores, she finally brought things to a close. Mid-flight, her compatriot Buck Meek had told the audience (and, it looked like, himself as well) about how special this show was becoming.

Interestingly, Lenker stood face to face mid-song more than once with Meek, as if they were in one of those 80s metal band two guitar competitive standoffs.

Great, maybe unique night. It felt Big Thief would not readily do the likes of that show again. As the crowd poured out into lower Cuba St, the guy who yelled “ Fuck! How good was that!” spoke for all of us. Here’s the sensitive side:

And here’s a lesser but still good live version of “ Not” –