Who Can Put a Price on the Ukraine War?

When inflation dominates headlines day after day, the public’s psyche focuses on tracking prices. In today’s consumer society, every upward variation can become trauma-inducing. Sri Lanka, Peru, Ecuador, and Argentina are now rattled by the protests of their citizens blaming their governments for inflation. In the recent history of developed nations, such as the US or France, rising gas prices alone have become signals that the social fabric may be on the verge of being torn apart.

Governments in the West have begun using the war in Ukraine to explain away inflation as a consequence of Russia’s invasion, but, as Fed Chairman Jerome Powell admitted during last week’s Senate hearings, the aggravating effect of the war on inflation has been marginal. Inflation was already endemic before the war.

The Ukraine war has produced effects far worse than the inflation of consumer prices. It has disrupted the global economy to the point of threatening famine in Africa, the Middle East and Asia and making businesses across the globe unprofitable. But prices are not the only example of inflation. The inflation of propaganda and particularly the rhetoric of politicians concerning the war may produce consequences far worse than consumer price inflation. Every day, political rhetoric brings us closer to accidental nuclear conflagration.

This aggravation appears to have begun influencing at least some political and military leaders to think beyond the dogmas of official rhetoric. Recently the first hints have appeared that the propaganda war may be loosening up to the point of permitting thought, if not action, evoking a possible negotiated settlement of the war.

Jens Stoltenberg has provided one of those hints. Most people would expect the Secretary General of NATO should have significant influence on decision-making in NATO affairs, even while admitting that, like any good secretary, he knows how to take dictation from his bosses in Washington DC and Arlington, Virginia. Speaking in Finland earlier this month, he appeared to acknowledge a divergent view pointing towards resolution rather than indefinite prolongation of the war. “Peace is possible,” he proclaimed. “The only question is what price are you willing to pay for peace? How much territory, how much independence, how much sovereignty… are you willing to sacrifice for peace?”

He hints that Ukraine’s price for peace –  just like gas, wheat or fertilizer –  is also subject to inflation. As even some Ukrainians close to the government are beginning to recognize, Russia has overpowered them and things are not likely to get better, let alone evolve towards the kind of fantasized Ukrainian victory Western media has evoked as inevitable. The Washington Post quotes Oleksandr V. Danylyuk, an adviser to the Ukrainian government on defense and intelligence issues: “There’s much less space for optimism right now.”

Stoltenberg clearly understands that real decisions are made not in Ukraine, but on the other side of the Atlantic. But he acknowledged a basic moral truth when he said that “it’s for those who are paying the highest price to make that judgment.” Alas, a judgment is not always a decision.

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Pay the highest price:

What consumers are expected to do in the consumer society, especially when the model for industrial and now geopolitical organization is a monopoly in the marketplace and a monopoly on global power.

Contextual note

The United States Institute of Peace explained earlier this month the mood in Washington. “Skeptics of any near-term negotiation fear that a cease-fire and talks would represent appeasement of Russia, letting it keep the 20 percent of Ukraine that it has seized militarily. This view holds that talks should be postponed until Russia is weakened or ideally defeated.”

From the beginning of the conflict, the Biden administration announced its expectation that the massive sanctions it imposed on Russia, and especially cutting it off from the global payments system based on the dollar, would rapidly weaken Russia and thus strengthen Ukraine’s negotiating position. That hasn’t happened. The ruble – which Biden claimed last March would be transformed into “rubble” – has grown stronger. More significantly, outside of Europe, Japan, South Korea and Australia, the other countries of the world have refused to join Biden’s attempt at a remake of George Bush’s ultimately futile, disastrous and technically illegal “coalition of the willing.”  

This is downright embarrassing for the US, a nation still committed to affirming a unipolar world under its leadership, but suddenly discovering that its hitherto captive vassals across the globe – the other nations that have over the past half century integrated the globalized economy dominated by the dollar – are no longer taking the master’s requests to be orders.

Historical note

The leaders of the West find themselves at one of those “inflection points” Joe Biden evoked on various occasions last year in his quest to be seen as a “transformative president.” That was a time when Americans could be both troubled and impressed by Biden’s bold move to end a war in Afghanistan that had endured for nearly 20 years. Against the protests of many of his own domestic and foreign allies, he he calculated that the price of continuing the US presence in Afghanistan was too high to continue. He dared to end a forever war and usher in a new golden age of peace.

Biden could have prevented the Russian invasion by negotiating and acknowledging the seriousness of Russia’s security concerns. But his administration preferred to engage in the game of predicting the exact date of the invasion rather than preventing it. His administration was busy calculating the high price Russia would have to pay for its mistake as it was destined to become a “pariah” of the international community.

Now that the war is raging, Jens Stoltenberg has dared to take a different look at war-related prices. He acknowledges that if it’s the Ukrainians who are paying the price, they should be the ones to assess whether they can afford it. With Russia’s continuing success in the east, not only is the price of an eventual peace rising, but the cumulative costs of war keep piling up. There is little indication, however, that the true decision-makers in the West are encouraging the Ukrainians to make that call. They prefer to remain indifferent to the stiff price Ukrainians are paying.

What could better illustrate this fact that the limpid reflections British Prime Minister Boris Johnson shared with the press on Sunday, Reuters from Bavaria at the G7 summit in Bavaria? “World leaders,” Johnson asserted, “must recognise the price of supporting Ukraine, including the surge in energy and food costs, but must also acknowledge that the price of allowing Russia to win would be far higher.”

The price the always jovial Boris is referring to is not the price the Ukrainians are paying as they watch their nation’s cities ravaged, their soldiers dying and much the population displaced. No, the British PM is referring to the price of Western politicians’ pride, a far more consequent inflationary factor and the one that ultimately determines which decisions will finally be made.

Boris merits our attention as he is known for his clairvoyance on political issues. Though currently abroad, in the past few days he has inspired record-breaking decibels of commentary at home thanks to his admission that he is now “thinking actively about the third term.” This means that, much like Vladimir Putin, he clearly sees himself as the anointed leader ready to assume the arduous task of ruling Britannia for decades.

From his perch in Bavaria, Boris droned on about prices, insisting that ” the price of backing down, the price of allowing Putin to succeed, to hack off huge parts of Ukraine, to continue with his programme of conquest, that price will be far, far higher. Everybody here understands that.” Stoltenberg clearly spoke out of order when he designated the Ukrainians as those having “the highest price to pay.”

If Johnson’s wisdom is followed, the even higher price that all of humanity may have to pay could well be nuclear holocaust. But for Johnson, that’s OK. For a committed rhetorical inflationist like Johnson, who speaks for “everybody” present at the G7 summit, the highest price to pay would be electoral defeat at home, a fate far worse for such enlightened leaders than the annihilation of humanity.

The ideology of the West’s capitalism relies on the belief that everything has a price, followed by its corollary, that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The Ukraine crisis has demonstrated that politicians excel at putting an arbitrary price tag on everything – including their next election – but rarely seek to understand the value of anything… especially when there’s always a lobbyist to hand to pay for their free lunch.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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