I want to make three points, assertively, in the five minutes I have.
My first point is that Anglo-American rhetoric over events in the Ukraine is becoming increasingly hysterical & remote from reality.
1. ‘INSATIABLE’ was the title of the Economist’s first leader last week, echoing its front cover picture of a great bear gobbling up a small country. The leader rammed home the message. ‘If the West does not face up to Putin now, it may find him at its door’.
This is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense. Yet the doctrine of Russian insatiability is close to becoming the official view in Washington and London, accepted by most of the foreign policy community.
It is much more accurate to say that the one truly insatiable power in the world is the United States. The USA, aided and abetted by Britain, aims not for world domination in the territorial sense, but for the world domination of its ‘values’. It is the one angel in a fallen world. The empire of values is a much more extreme concept than the empire of territory, because it is in principle limitless.
If the Economist’s major premise is wrong, it has a more sensible minor premise, which is that Russia will, wherever possible, stir up its irridenta –the Russian minorities in former territories –to recreate the former Soviet Union. This is not the deliberate policy of the Kremlin, but it does represent a nationalist current in Russian thinking, to which President Putin from time to time pays lip service.
The conclusion I draw from this is that the countries with Russian minorities must conduct their internal and external affairs with considerable circumspection, whether or not they are members of NATO. Russia may be the bad boy in the block: but it is actually in the block and the West is not. This is also imposes circumspection on the West. It should not stoke up anti-Russian nationalism in countries which it will not defend if push comes to shove.
2. My second point concerns the widespread confusion in current western sanctions policy between punishment and deterrence. Are the escalating sanctions now being imposed designed to punish Russia for Crimea, or deter it from a forward policy in Ukraine?
Sanctions only make sense as part of the armoury of deterrence. According to the Economist they should now include NATO exercises in central and eastern Europe, sending troops, missiles and aircraft to the Baltic, more military spending, turning off the financial tap, and so on.
But what exactly is being deterred? We roughly know what we are talking about when our aim is to deter the invasion of a foreign country. But when it is a matter of deterring external encouragement of domestic protest against a partly illegitimate government we are in murky, uncharted territory.
Let’s agree that sanctions may deter Russia from encouraging the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. But do we really know how much control it has over the forces on the ground? The point I wish to make is that there is no clear target for deterrence, which makes the escalation of sanctions both counterproductive and dangerous.
3. My last point really flows from this. It may not be possible to keep Ukraine together. It may be that its partial breakup may already be the least bad solution available. But in principle both western governments and Russia are committed to preserving the Ukrainian state in its present borders. I refer you the Lavrov plan for neutralisation and federalisation of Ukraine put forward on 15 March.
If Russia is genuine about wishing to preserve Ukraine, the two sides should be talking to each other urgently, continuously, and constructively about how this can best be achieved. I hope they are: but little sign of it is yet apparent. And there seems to a wide gulf between the Russian demand for a new constitution before the 25 May elections, and the Western demand that the elections go forward on the basis of the present constitution.
The west isn’t going to get the Ukraine it wants – not out of the current mix of population, geography, and history. But what it can help to achieve is by no means the worst of all possible worlds.