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Patrick Luciani: Does the road to peace in Ukraine run through Beijing?

Commentary

The atrocities by the Russians against Ukraine have shocked the world. Putin has directed his country’s massive “military-industrial complex” to either win the war or inflict maximum damage on Ukraine. Despite the bravery of Ukraine’s fighters, a long battle will be more damaging for Ukraine than for Russia. And as long as the battle isn’t fought in Russia, Putin can continue the war indefinitely while their war factories remain unmolested. So how will the fighting end? According to historian and international affairs expert Stephen Kotkin,On April 13, Professor Kotkin gave his thoughts on the war at the Salon Speakers Series at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto. For those unfamiliar with Professor Kotkin, he’s best known for his three-volume biography of Joseph Stalin, described by the NYT as “monumental.” His work has been studied closely by President Xi Jinping and Communist party elites. Professor Kotkin is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and an advisor to the Biden Administration. the outline of a peace deal may be emerging. 

In his visit to Moscow in March, Xi Jinping proposed a twelve-point peace plan that was quickly rejected by NATO powers, especially Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Nonetheless, the offer was the possible start of a peace plan. Why would China want to end the war when they benefit from cheap Russian oil while the United States depletes its military arsenal, such as its Javelin anti-tank missiles?

China has two motives for pursuing peace; to announce to the world that it is a major diplomatic player and to halt the growing anti-China sentiments worldwide, especially in Europe. China’s prestige on the world stage will only increase if it is seen as stopping the killing. Xi has already gained a diplomatic victory by brokering a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia and now wants to do the same between Israel and the Palestinians.  

Now that China is the senior partner in its relationship with Russia—and Russia’s leading international backer—it is the only country that can guarantee the terms of any armistice or peace agreement. A deal with Putin alone would have no value since he couldn’t be trusted to hold up his end of any contract.

On the other hand, Kotkin argues that Putin would not dare break the terms of a deal with NATO and Ukraine if it is secured and endorsed by Beijing. Xi would be the last person Putin would want to offend now that he has handed his country’s economic salvation to the Chinese. Given the hostile history between the two countries, this is an extraordinary turn of events. 

The Ukrainians could push the Russians from their territory, though highly unlikely. This would be a form of victory but not a lasting peace. The Ukrainians can win the peace by getting the two things they have wanted all along, the freedom to join the West and remove themselves from Russia’s grip with a security guarantee. That’s what the 2004 Orange Revolution was all about. Henry Kissinger now supports the idea that Ukraine has earned the right to become a member of NATO.

Kotkin thinks this is a bad idea. He believes Ukraine won’t have the support of all NATO members, especially Germany. Russia gets to save face by keeping land now occupied by Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the Donbas region and keeping Crimea, which looks like a lost cause for Ukraine. Even Boris Yeltsin demanded the return of Crimea when Ukraine declared independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The best solution is an armistice with a demilitarized zone. This solution has kept the peace for 70 years on the Korean peninsula, turning South Korea into an economic powerhouse. The same could happen to Ukraine.

Kotkin reminds us that things could change before a peace agreement comes entirely into view, such as Putin facing the same fate as Ceausescu in Romania. But that’s a wish, not a plan. The question is, will the United States administration engage with China over a peace deal now that there are deep tensions over trade and Taiwan?

China has strong incentives to bring Putin to the negotiating table. It wants to burnish its tarnished reputation in the West, especially after COVID, and show the world it is a power on par with the U.S. Will the U.S. get on board and convince Zelenskyy to negotiate? The U.S. is also incentivized to deny the Sino-Russian side a propaganda victory. For now, America’s financial and public support for Ukraine is deep, but neither is infinite.

Pierre Desrochers: Market-driven innovation much greener than government ‘net-zero’ mandates

Commentary

The German government recently delayed a final vote by the European Union to ban the sale of new CO2-emitting cars in 2035. Turns out, despite their zeal to subsidize and mandate the “electrification of everything,” politicians in Europe and elsewhere are proving unable to defeat immutable natural laws.   

Among other problems, electric cars have for more than a century been more expensive, less safe and reliable, and more limited in range than vehicles powered by internal combustion or diesel engines. They take much longer to charge, perform poorly in extreme weather, have shorter lifespans, and limited cargo space. Their batteries make them typically twice as heavy, resulting in more severe tire use and potentially threatening the integrity of multi-storey parking lots. A considerably larger fleet of electric cars will further require a drastic ramping up of power generation, delivery, and charging infrastructures, along with new mining activities on a staggering scale

According to electric car supporters, this economic and environmental toll is justified if the electricity can be generated from solar panels and wind turbines. Unfortunately, the sun and the wind have always been unpredictable, intermittent, and variable. As Karl Marx acknowledged long ago, wind power had to give way to water and steam power because it was “too inconstant and uncontrollable.” The development of electricity did not solve these fatal flaws. At best they can be hidden through costly additional water, coal, and natural gas power generation.

Solar panels and wind turbines also require more than 10 times the quantity of materials (from lithium to rare earth minerals) compared to carbon fuel-based alternatives. They would never exist without massive amounts of carbon fuels in the form of machinery, steel and cement production, composite materials, transport, installation, and maintenance (including lubricants). They gobble up 90 to 100 times more land area than natural gas while often dramatically impacting local bird and bat populations. If pursued regardless of costs, the electrification of everything will result in more mining activities than in all previous human history

Not surprisingly, in light of these realities, consumers in jurisdictions from North America to Europe have seen their energy bills soar while enduring rolling blackouts and energy rationing. Even green energy pioneer Germany had to revert to coal burning.  

The pre-ordained failure of government-mandated energy transitions has led some commentators to advocate de-growth and reduced consumption as an alternative. Yet, carbon fuels have improved human life in countless ways, from income per capita to life expectancy. As economist William Stanley Jevons observed more than a century and a half ago, “[w]ith coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times,” adding that coal had saved much forestland by eliminating the demand for fuelwood. 

Carbon fuels would soon afterward deliver an astonishingly wider range of economic and environmental benefits. An American researcher wrote in 1925 that the “object of all fuel research is either to eliminate waste and increase efficiency in the mining, preparation, and utilization of fuels, or to convert the raw fuel by treatment or processing into a more convenient or effective form for use with, in many cases, the recovery of valuable by-products for other purposes.”

Twenty years later, agricultural economist Karl Brandt observed that trucks, tractors and combines had replaced “millions of horses” while “millions of feed acres [had been] released for food production,” some of which would later revert to forests. The displacement of urban workhorses by trucks and cars also proved beneficial as vermin and flies were endemic in urban stables and, along with excrement and carcasses, were a source of deadly diseases such as typhoid fever, yellow fever, cholera, and diphtheria. 

Market incentives are inherently compatible with beneficial energy and economic transitions. As engineer and historian of technology Henry Petroski put it, the “form of made things is always subject to change in response to their real or perceived shortcomings, their failures to function properly. This principle governs all invention, innovation, and ingenuity; it is what drives all inventors, innovators, and engineers.” Furthermore, “since nothing is perfect, and, indeed, since even our ideas of perfection are not static, everything is subject to change over time. There can be no such thing as a ‘perfected’ artifact; the future perfect can only be a tense, not a thing.”

Canadian engineer and communist activist Herbert Dyson Carter further observed in 1939 that commercially successful inventions must either save time, lower costs, last longer, do more, work better, or sell more easily. Most of these outcomes have environmental benefits. 

Spontaneous market processes have always mandated the creation of smaller or less important problems than those that existed before. Unlike the myopic transitions pursued by many politicians and activists, however, such market processes have always factored in a much broader range of trade-offs than those currently discussed. Policymakers should understand how our energy systems came to be before any attempt is made to profoundly reshape them.