The Real And Scary Lesson For The West From Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin has exposed the West's weakness. Courtesy: BBC

Russian President Vladimir Putin knew he had nothing to fear from Western warnings and threats. Courtesy: BBC

Crisis in Ukraine has exposed weakness and confusion in the West.

Speak softly and carry a big stick, advised former US President Theodore Roosevelt. Yet, we have done precisely the opposite over Ukraine by talking tough and making unspecified threats that we are unable to back up.

Worse, the European Union (EU), set up to help prevent war in Europe, may be partly to blame for triggering the current situation through its policy of expanding ever eastwards.

After all, there is no way that Russian President Vladimir Putin would ever allow Russia’s major navy base in Crimea to be leased from a prospective member of the EU. Neither is there any way that Putin would watch the overthrow of a government in a fellow Slav nation without any response from Moscow. Nor would he want to be seen to ignore the interests of ethnic Russians.

Yet Western diplomats seem to have been blind to the realpolitik of these events in what is, in a very real sense, Russia’s backyard. That is why this storm has come out of a clear blue sky and taken us by surprise.

Weak and divided

Furthermore, our response to the crisis has shown the West to be weak, divided and incapable of effectively preventing such acts. Events in Ukraine have revealed our deep dependence on ties with Russia. If the British Government is concerned about the impact of economic sanctions on trade and City profits then just imagine how worried Chancellor Angela Merkel must be about the fact that Germany gets 40 per cent of its gas from Putin’s Russia.

So Europe is hooked on Russian cash and gas. But it gets worse, for the US is losing vital credibility as a world power. President Barack Obama talked tough on Syria with his famous red line and then failed to act decisively. The US then issued threats to Russia of strong measures over Ukraine but did nothing to prevent Putin’s actions. And America’s declining status as a super power is underlined by US defence secretary Chuck Hagel’s announcement last month of major cuts in US military forces.

The truth is that the West never had a credible hand to play in the Ukrainian crisis and Putin knew it. We would have been far wiser to have said nothing and done nothing and at least maintained some semblance of credibility.

And this is where the real danger lurks. For one day there may be some incident with consequences that are, unlike Ukraine, too important for us to let pass. We will talk tough, and we will threaten all kinds of “consequences” but the other side will look at the West’s track record and it might just conclude, with some reason, that our threats are empty. That way lies war.

Our problem comes from a lack of a coherent strategy in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the bad old days of the Cold War the world was frighteningly simple and foreign policy boiled down to countering Soviet moves on the global chess board. But since then, we have seen the emergence of a so called ethical foreign policy and calls for moral principles to guide our global actions.

However, these ethics and morals have not helped and have arguably made our situation worse. Few in the West doubt the moral case for spreading prosperity and freedom, even if it is in the guise of EU membership. A moral argument was also made for removing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein despite the lack of weapons of mass destruction. Similarly, our attempt to nation-build in Afghanistan, following the necessary campaign to attack al Qaeda’s bases, looked like a sound moral purpose. In hindsight, none of these activities seems to have been wise.

Gathering storm

Morality and ethics are a poor guide to avoiding trouble in this dangerous globe especially when we can not even be sure who the good guys are anymore.

Russia embodies this complexity and ambiguity too. The country may be emerging from the wreckage of a socialist state but under Putin it is looking increasingly authoritarian and rightwing with a worryingly nationalistic streak running through its foreign policy, demonstrated in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine today. Others have noted parallels with Nazi Germany’s support of ethnic Germans in its annexation of Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia in the 1930s.

At the same time, China’s need for raw materials to feed its growing economy is driving it to grow influence in Asia and Africa and elsewhere while the promise of oil wealth beneath the East China Sea lies behind a simmering dispute with Japan over a handful of small Pacific islands.

This combination of an ultra nationalist state on the march in Europe met with appeasement together with an expansionist power on the rise in east Asia at a time when Western nations are slashing their military spending in the wake of a global economic downturn sounds worryingly familiar…

So are seeing a gathering storm, a rerun of 1939 or even of 1914? I doubt it. History never repeats itself exactly but there is a real risk in all this. For unless we reassess our world view, and put in place a more rational foreign policy backed up with military muscle then we may one day find ourselves confronted by an unexpected and dangerous situation that results in a sudden and unintended war.

There is a strong argument for saying that we should avoid intervention unless there is a clear threat to our vital interests. This is not a philosophy for inaction but it does call for us to be much clearer about where our direct interests lie and what focussed measures need to be taken in order to protect them.

We should express our views quietly but firmly and ensure that we say what we mean and mean what we say; we should certainly not bluster and issue empty threats.

Finally, we need to be seen to have strong military forces – not because we want to use them but precisely because the credibility they provide is the best insurance against having to use them.

In short, that we should talk softly and carry a big stick…

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