Nato’s treatment of Russia almost guaranteed a chauvinistic reflex. The way forward is to implement the Minsk settlement
The movement of troops round the Ukrainian border now clearly heralds a crisis. Russia’s level of provocation is grotesque, but nothing on the ground poses any strategic threat to Britain or any other western government, or even to Europe’s security as a whole.
Ukraine’s relations with Russia have been fraught since the toppling of the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in a coup in 2014. The country is split. When Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine rebelled, it was aided by Russia. Moscow seized Crimea. The longstanding ties with Russia were one reason why Nato left Ukraine out of its reckless post-Soviet rush to advance its security boundary as near as it could to the Russian border during the 1990s.
All evidence suggests that Vladimir Putin wants a regime in Kyiv favourable to Russian interests, much as Soviet leaders wanted in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The west wisely did not argue or intervene on either of those occasions. Russia’s motives today seem much the same. Putin is determined to oppose the emergence of possible liberal, western-oriented societies in Belarus and Ukraine. He watched the other states in eastern Europe crumble and defect from the Warsaw Pact in 1990. He does not want to be the Russian leader who lost these two great territories to his immediate west.
The concept of spheres of interest, regions where the interests of one nation are more important than the interests of another, has always been controversial in diplomacy. There is no UN doctrine of such spheres, but they are potent and all too real. They are relics of ancient empires and modern paranoias. The US regarded Moscow’s placing of missiles in Cuba in 1962, and support for Central American states as an intolerable threat. Likewise, Moscow is not prepared to tolerate US missiles in Ukraine or US troops rolling in to support an anti-Russian regime in Kyiv.
Strategists of spheres of influence are left with the facts of geography and of crude balances of power. China has clearly been extending its reach into south-east Asia and the South China Sea. The US can object, but it is hard to see what gains are achieved by the current buildup of military machismo in the western Pacific, including Britain’s ludicrous decision to deploy an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.
The reality is that the west took a calculated gamble in expanding Nato in the 1990s. There was no suggestion of imitating Finland’s careful and pragmatic neutrality towards its Baltic neighbours that lie in Russia’s sphere of influence. Nato had post-Soviet Russia on the floor and simply could not resist the opportunity of kicking the country when it was already down.
The way Nato treated Russia almost guaranteed there would be a chauvinist reflex. Moscow’s initial feelers from Boris Yeltsin that it might associate with Nato were rebuffed. Mooted associations with the EU were ridiculed. Everything was done to rub Russia’s nose in its shame. Putin and his present antics were the predictable result.
The Russian president has now indicated that he wants the 2015 Minsk II settlement implemented. That settlement is sound. It requires autonomy for Russian-speaking Donbas, an end to Nato expansionism, Russian withdrawal and a reinstatement of Ukraine’s border. Samantha Power, US ambassador to the United Nations at the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, remarked that Minsk was the “only viable way out of this deadly conflict”. Subsequent US administrations have supported that position. Yet no one has applied sufficient diplomatic effort to put it in place.
Any reasonable observer would see Minsk as a practical and fair way out of this crisis. It has largely been blocked by a Kyiv regime that has long feared Donbas’s pro-Russian sentiment and resisted its “home rule”. Recognise the autonomy of the Donbas region, Putin says, and he will withdraw. He cannot want to keep 100,000 troops mobilised on the Donbas border indefinitely, any more than he can seriously fear a western army storming east across Ukraine.
At that point, the realpolitik of power comes on stage. It is inconceivable that Nato, in the shape of the US and Britain, would confront Russian battle lines in Donbas. Germany and France would have no part in it. Nor do the US and Britain have the necessary troops. They have the threat of missile barrages, but without logistical support these merely sow destruction.
Moreover, Britain has no obligation to defend Ukraine. Nor does it have an obligation to deter or confront what appears to be an imminent Russian attack. The country has no alliance with Ukraine. Ukraine is not a member of Nato. And Britain has no significant means of influencing the outcome of a battle on the ground. For these reasons, it should stay well out of the situation.
Putin’s current show of strength is that of a thin-skinned dictator flexing before his people and the world such muscle as he can still muster. If he goes ahead and invades Donbas, the world will descend on his head with massive damnation, as well as savage but pointless economic sanctions. We saw that over Crimea.
The root of peace in these crises lies in strength, strength to keep everything in proportion and to see a way through. The risk is always that curse of history: when hostilities turn to crisis, war can seem the simplest, most glorious way forward.