Interview with political scientist Jonathan Holslag; an opinion maker who draws hard conclusions with a soft voice.
VUB political scientist Jonathan Holslag (41) finds comfort these days mainly from the classics, such as Sallustius and Demosthenes. He does not see the gunpowder smoke rising over Ukraine until next year. President Putin remains in power and then it is the turn of his Chinese partner Xi Jinping to invade Taiwan. No, the West is not in good shape.
When Russia had invaded Ukraine in late February, you wrote that we too had reason to be very concerned: The pillars of our prosperity are rotten?
For that proposition, our national debt is far too high for a country that produces too little. We are at a tipping point and it is almost inevitable that the prosperity of the well-to-do middle class will soon erode as well.
It is an unpleasant observation because the middle class has largely been spared the pain of the pandemic because the government has spent so much money. But so too has the urgency to change course. Every crisis is an alibi for our leaders not to intervene. This government is also postponing the problems: the bulk of the investments for the climate transition are for future cabinets. The biggest burdens for revitalizing the military forces are for later. This makes me feel gloomy: if we wait another decade, the middle class will have definitely fallen through the cracks.
You seem particularly irritated in analyses and reflections by our addiction to oil and gas from Russia, and at our insatiable appetite for cheap, useless junk from China.
Our society suffers from an addiction to consumption, and this may be pleasant in the short term, but fatal in the long term. Our dependence on fossil fuels is catastrophic for a sustainable economy and geopolitics. Before the annexation of Crimea in 2014, I wrote that we were making Vladimir Putin sleeplessly rich: we were boosting his war coffers with gigantic gas transfers.
According to you, every Western leader has gotten his or her hands dirty: they’ve all leaned too close to Vladimir Putin?
Our half-hearted energy policy has made Russia strong. The lack of an effective response after the annexation of Crimea and the shoot-down of flight MH17 has encouraged Putin to invade Ukraine. The good, complacent centrist politicians, who have paddled vigorously for years, also have blood on their hands. Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron present themselves as champions of human rights, while with their economic policies they sponsor authoritarianism, dictatorship, yes, even fascism – for me, Russia and China are practically fascist superpowers. This hypocrisy bothers me.
Our politicians in Western Europe are showing particularly little courage in convincing the public that the massive purchase of Russian fuel and Chinese junk is not only against our democratic values, but also against our self-interest: we are making our rivals stronger.
Was there even an alternative to those fuels?
Back in 2010, the International Energy Agency pointed out that the European energy transition needed to be much faster towards nuclear and renewable energy. Germany has been taken to task several times for threatening to become too dependent on Russia. At the very least, we could have made sure we didn’t have all our gas coming from Russia.
Is gas from Qatar that much better or more sustainable?
You would have dispersed the revenues from the energy market anyway. And Russia would not have increased its military power so quickly. We need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels as quickly as possible and drastically improve our mobility.
We need to reshape and reorganize the entire economic system, but we appear to be incapable of doing so. We remain stuck on a path that we know is economically bad, geopolitically fatal and ecologically a nightmare.
Is there a moral crisis? You refer to our societal elite who are annihilating on what was once called the free world. Is that the contemporary translation of the fall of the Roman empire?
It is a problem of all rich societies that have enjoyed peace and prosperity for a long time and have come to regard that as an achievement. And on top of that you have a caste of professional politicians.
A weak generation of leaders or maybe even the absence of effectieve leadership?
A very weak generation without real leaders. Our image of leadership is distorted. Today, a politician with a lot of votes and a lot of media appearances seems like a leader. But leadership is the ability to change people’s behavior. A leader does not walk bleatingly behind the herd; a leader leads the way. He is the shepherd who dares to leave the usual path because he has stature and legitimacy.
Right now you have politicians with lots of votes, but little effective leadership. They don’t have the courage for transition and systemic change. They know they will be outvoted if they start doing that. Because fair is fair: most of the population doesn’t want change either. People want to be on vacation in the summer months to Marbella and Tomorrowland. After that, they’ll see and care.
So where is the problem: with the politicians or the people?
Politicians reflect the state of society. We attribute great qualities to certain politicians, but what have they achieved, all things considered? Nothing on an institutional level, nothing on an economic level, little or nothing in terms of education or culture. There you are with your three million votes. The liberals let our society digest itself in the name of democracy and freedom. The nationalists are equally hypocritical: they promised to make the nation strong again. What came of that? They are chaining our ports to Chinese state-owned companies and turning society into a comatose container junkie.
Are you a disillusioned nationalist?
I am patriotic. If you love to travel, you also have a responsibility to keep your own society prosperous and engaging. There is nothing like swooning in the summer over the mud fortresses of Ouarzazate and the temples in Rajasthan, while not making the slightest effort to maintain your own culture and nature in your own country. I do try to contribute to a better environment: I talk to my neighbors, I inform myself about what is happening in my city, I try to make things better.
Would you call yourself a European?
I believe in the ideal of Europe, which, with its roots in the Greek-Roman and Judeo-Christian tradition through the Middle Ages to maturity in humanism and the Enlightenment. At the moment we have drifted far from that, but it is the Europe I want to participate in. I do not go along with the sterile neoliberal thinking that reduces man to a rational homo economicus. We’re rational, but humans longs for more: emotion, mysticism – we are complex social beings.
In the undertone, we sense disenchantment: have we missed the boat?
We have let it go. On an economic level, on a cultural level as well: look at our use of language. We now have a generation that cannot express itself elegantly in Dutch, but also not in ingenious English. I fear that I myself am increasingly guilty of the new language degradation. What happened to the bourgeoisie’s pride in putting something enduring in the city and letting everyone experience its architecture? Now rich people withdraw to pastoral forts on the outskirts of the cities, with a high fence around it and a gate that is always locked.
Is it a symptom of decadence if a society cannot defend itself?
I am impaired: the classics, such as Sallustius and Demosthenes, are still the benchmark for me. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are excessively right when they call our society decadent. Putin, who moves in gilded palaces, may have little right to speak, but in the West we are no longer willing to make sacrifices to preserve our values. Our democracy works only mechanically; spiritually, it is deceased. The classics are explicit about this: a democracy does not survive if every citizen is not a combatant. By this they do not mean someone who occasionally walks around in khaki uniform in the woods. No, a fighter guards the balance between his own short-term interest and the long-term interest of the greater whole of which he or she is a component.
Democracy is an effort. It is more than turning a bullet red and filling out your tax return on time every year.
FLAWS AND OVERCONFIDENCE
You proclaimed, when the crisis in Ukraine was imminent, that the Russian military was ready for battle, unlike several European armies. In retrospect, that turned out not to be true.
Several Europose countries are militarily ready to do battle, but they are insufficiently trained and equipped to sustain the combat for a long time. But it is true: I overestimated the Russians. They can prevent the enemy from penetrating their territory and win a limited war, such as in the Caucasus, Syria or eastern Ukraine.
Several European countries are militarily ready to fight, but they are insufficiently trained and equipped to sustain the fight for a long time. But it is true: I overestimated the Russians. They can prevent the enemy from penetrating their territory and win a limited war, such as in the Caucasus, Syria or eastern Ukraine.
But until February I didn’t think they would want to conquer all of Ukraine. That took everyone by surprise. Russia is not capable of a big campaign. And fighting against the brothers of Ukraine is not natural either: it led to desertion from the start. The invasion plan for all of Ukraine was a feat of military hubris by the supreme leader in the Kremlin.
Was Ukrainian warfare better than presumed?
The quality was not good at the beginning of the conflict: the Ukrainians were fighting with old Soviet weaponry. The Ukrainian army has been trained by the United States since 2014, though. For seven years, the Americans raised the level of Ukrainian Special Forces, built up the intelligence network, and fortified cities like Slovyansk – American engineers turned it into one big ‘chasmata’. Weapons deliveries didn’t really get going until after the invasion, with the result that you now have twelve rocket launchers for every Russian tank.
On the quality of the combat battalions in large brigades, I was mistaken. I was also surprised by the gaffes of the intelligence agency. I assumed that Russia was perfectly aware of what was going on in Ukraine, when the opposite is true. The Ukrainians know everything thanks to American intelligence. America is fighting this war by remote control.
So is it war between Russia and America after all, rather than between Russia and Ukraine?
This is a war by proxy. America tells the Ukrainians where the Russian troops are. All the Ukrainian troops do themselves is pull the trigger. That makes it really bloody dangerous.
What more does Vladimir Putin need to point his artillery at the West when his flagship the Moskva is sunk with American support?
It works both ways: Europe puts on the handbrake because Russia and America are two nuclear powers. At the same time, Russia does not retaliate for actions carried out with American support. The Moskva may have sunk because a few hours before, an American maritime patrol plane circled around the ship and relayed the coordinates from its radar – such a radar always has a blind spot. And the Russians did not respond by shooting an American plane out of the sky.
But then again, Russia has options behind it. My great fear is that the conflict will be lifted over the summer and we will have a broad escalation in the fall, where Russia will mobilize surreptitiously or openly and ramp up the artillery to capture all of Donetsk. There they are not yet where they want to be:
Kramatorsk must be conquered. Maybe they also want Odessa. And what I also see happening: they are pushing the Americans further away from the Black Sea to increase the economic pressure on Europe.
Gazprom is already turning off gas pipelines: Nordstream is at less than half its capacity. At this rate, Europe’s energy reserves will be only 70 percent full by October. Then things will get exciting. Especially if, as I expect, Russia will shut down exports to Europe: prices will go through the roof. We will see if the average citizen, after his initial outrage over the invasion of Ukraine, is willing to pay more than 3 euros for a liter of gasoline at the pump.
There is a risk that after a summer of vacations and festivals, we may suddenly find ourselves facing a long winter. I don’t have a crystal ball, but for the government not to prepare the population for that, I call guilty negligence.
Does the boycott make sense? Russia has never earned so much from gas and oil. Because of the European boycott, it is now selling larger quantities to India and China.
This was to be expected. Russia is exporting less, but earning more thanks to rising energy prices. Europe is now buying at higher prices from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But there is little stretch in the world market for oil and gas: if the Russian pipelines to Europe really do shut down, there is no alternative. We can still get some very expensive lng from America, and some extra oil from Norway, but it is very limited. Europe will in all likelihood be hurting badly soon.
You are outlining an ink-black scenario?
A plausible script. Last week I sat down with people from the International Energy Agency. They called the Russian-Ukrainian conflict the externalization of an energy crisis that has been dormant for much longer. In the past decade, international fossil fuel reserves have barely increased: we are heading for a permanent tightness in the market, with an energy transition that is not even halfway over. Vladimir Putin knows this devilishly well.
When the major pipelines from Russia to China are in full production, 40 billion cubic meters of gas will flow to yonder – 30 billion euros of additional revenue per year. And what are our alternatives? Look at our neighboring countries: exploit coal again.
Many commentators feared that this crisis would drive Russia back into the arms of China?
Russia has long been in China’s arms and the the China-Russia axis has already been restored, full stop. America is their common enemy: democracy is a threat because they have chosen an authoritarian model. Unlike Kissinger, I do not believe that we can still separate these countries with a diplomatic offensive. The Russians know they are becoming China’s little brother, but their calculation is, “China is helping sustain our regime, intimidating America, and paying decently for our gas. And as life insurance against possible aggression, we still have our nuclear weapons.’ When it comes to nuclear weapons, China still has a long way to go.
Do you consider an invasion of Taiwan by China to be realistic?
It is forthcoming. President Xi has declared that China must be ready for battle between 2027 and 2030. And in 2049, the People’s Republic will celebrate its 100th anniversary. The Chinese have been observing the Russian invasion of Ukraine very meticulously over the past few months. They have seen how difficult it is to conquer a country that is fighting for its survival. They are now in full discussion about how to do things better. But they are also concluding that the tested tactic of a war of attrition is working and the importance of nuclear weapons cannot be overestimated. The conclusion in all official documents is unanimous: “We must accelerate and expand our nuclear weapons program. If China invades Taiwan, it must have more nuclear weapons to keep America at bay.
I foresee the Chinese building nuclear weapons like crazy in the coming years and increasing production of conventional missiles. They also want to gain combat experience. President Xi approved a memorandum two weeks ago that mandates the People’s Liberation Army to defend the Chinese flag overseas. I deduce that China will soon intervene militarily in places in Asia or Africa where it has made major investments. The country needs combat experience.
NUKE ON BRUSSELS
Back to Russia. Will the war in Ukraine endure for a long time?
Militarily, the Russians cannot hold out forever: they must triumph next year. Then the Western sanctions will also be felt.
If I were President Putin, in the fall I would bet on the conquest of Kramatorsk – I would stay away from Odessa: too complicated – and in the winter I would consolidate my conquests and raise the nuclear umbrella over the Donbas: Whoever touches the Donbas, touches Russian territory: bomb on it.
Will Putin stay in power after this conflict?
The economic crisis in Russia does not yet seem so great that there will be a revolution in the Kremlin. It is also possible that for health reasons Putin is saying, ‘I saved the Donbas, I am going down in history with a heroic achievement, I am ceding my place to Dmitri Medvedev.
You have referred several times to the importance of nuclear weapons. Does Europe also need to do something about its nuclear arsenal?
Today’s nuclear weapons are a horrible thing. One Russian Sarmat missile does twenty times more damage than Little Boy did in Hiroshima at the time. Sometimes I lie awake at night because of the rigs that are being built: one Sarmat on Brussels and Walloon and Flemish Brabant are unlivable for a few hundred years. Unlike during the Cold War, there is also no longer any control over nuclear armaments. It is really the Far West.
Europe can declare itself a nuclear-free region, but that doesn’t mean we’re not a target. We have the NATO headquarters, the seat of the European Union, two crucial ports – we are on the Russian list of targets, but we have no defense. Nothing.
The new defense plan wants to address that. We should at at least start conversations about arms control, transparency, and dealing with incidents. In the Cold War, you had several minutes to figure out how threatening the signal from an enemy atomic bomb really was. Now it’s about seconds.
Meanwhile, you have a cyberspace domain, which can be easily disrupted. Suffice it to say that someone hacks a satellite that tracks nuclear attacks, and via spoofing sends out false signals, and all the systems kick into action: you have a nuclear war before you realize it. The Russians, by the way, are very good at spoofing.
Climate change, the acceleration of the arms race: we are at a pivotal juncture in history. A little more gravitas would be in order.
Are you not often isolated, do you feel understood?
I chose to be a ‘civil servant’. As a scientific researcher, that means thinking independently. And if you come to certain insights, you must dare to elaborate on the consequences, even if that means clashing with the established order. I am loyal to my country, its constitution and its core values. I do not have to be loyal to people and institutions that do not comply with these.
Are you concerned about the future?
I am not a pessimist, but I am prepared for the best and the worst. Despite everything, I think life is wonderfully beautiful. But it’s like with everything: you have to fight for it, and at the same time you have to be able to let it go at any moment.
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