My latest piece at DIPLOMAT magazine is all about European insecurity:
Very broadly speaking, throughout the Cold War years the ‘West’ and the USSR dealt with each other within a policy framework nicknamed MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. The risk of mutual annihilation if a nuclear weapons exchange broke out was sufficiently real to make policy-makers on all sides act very warily.
But lo! The Cold War ends. MAD gives way to Big MAC: Mutually Assured Cooperation. Everyone agrees to invest in each other’s prosperity. Now there’s next to nothing to fight about!
This Big MAC policy has been a huge success, featuring major reductions by both sides in different weapons of mass destruction and all sorts of new investment/growth opportunities emerging. Trillions of Euros of new wealth have been created across Europe and in Russia itself.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has lurched us back towards MAD again. As Russia shows no willingness to withdraw its forces completely from Ukraine, international sanctions will remain in place more or less indefinitely. Even worse, Russia’s incoherent war aims and military bungling arguably have made the risk of a nuclear exchange more likely than at any time during the Cold War decades.
The Ukraine war has made a fatal mistake. It’s become rather boring, at least as far as most ‘Western’ media outlets are concerned.
It’s no longer a subject of its own on the Daily Mail front page, but instead relegated to World News, next to such gripping stories of our time such as Spanish cops clamp down on Britons riding MOBILITY SCOOTERS.
Yet the fact that a war is not now featuring prominently in the Western media does not mean that it’s over. As of today it looks as if US weapons are helping Ukraine hit Russia’s senior officers and supply lines as never before. Are Ukrainian troops clawing their way forward again through their own ruined eastern towns and cities? And if so, what does that mean for the war in fact ending?
The diplomatic convulsions continue. Finland and Sweden not unreasonably have concluded that a rogue Moscow bent on grabbing back former Tsarist imperial lands might attack them next. So they have applied to join NATO. For decades Moscow counted on those two states standing primly apart from the NATO military structures. No longer. Total debacle for Russian foreign policy.
This does not much help Ukraine in its wider aim not to submit to Moscow. If anything it makes an angry, weaker reckless Moscow even more determined to dominate any former Soviet republic outside the formal EU/NATO space.
Imagine Russia messing this up so much that NATO gets bigger. Turkey pretends to object to Sweden and Finland joining, but after getting some bits and bobs of concessions signs up. And, bonus points, President Erdogan keeps Putin awkwardly waiting in payback for Putin doing the same to him on a previous occasion:
Diplomatic protocol. Never a dull moment.
Who’s really to blame for this calamity? Did the West ignore its own undertakings on European security given to Moscow when the Cold War ended?
Moscow insists that when the Cold War ended, different Western leaders on different occasions assured the then Soviet and later Russian leaderships that there was no question of NATO expanding to ‘take advantage’ of Russia’s agreeing that Germany could be reunited.
In those turbulent confused months after the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR disintegrated, different verbal assurances along these lines were given. However, as Moscow knows better than most, verbal assurances are not the same as written assurances or legally binding assurances.
Then in 1993 Russia’s President Yeltsin met Poland’s President Lech Wałesa in Warsaw during a visit to mark the final withdrawal of Russian forces from (formerly Warsaw Pact) Poland. Yeltsin was asked point-blank by Wałesa whether Poland could join NATO. He replied to the effect that as a free nation in a now undivided Europe, Poland could do what it liked. Yeltsin also issued a communique expressing ‘understanding’ for Poland’s NATO ambitions.
Years later as UK Ambassador to Warsaw I asked Lech Wałesa about this momentous meeting and Yeltsin’s apparently affable acceptance of Poland’s NATO aspirations. Had the Russian President been, perhaps, over-infused with Polish vodka? Wałesa said no: Yeltsin had genuinely not been bothered, one way or the other.
The key point is instead this:
It’s also worth remembering why Russia’s former Warsaw Pact allies wanted to join NATO. One big reason was that NATO membership came with commitments to modern Western standards of integrity and proper process in matters military. This meant that Russia’s nasty GRU military intelligence operatives and their deep networks of destabilising corruption could finally be cleaned out. How else to do it?
The other main reason? These NATO applicant states did not believe that Russia had given up its traditional violent imperial ambitions. And, as Ukraine has showed, they were right.
But even if the West has ‘misled’ Moscow in some ways, Moscow’s own deep dishonesty shows that that is not the real issue in play:
The existential dishonesty in Putin’s rambling analysis is that it omits one Huge Fact. Namely that in 1945 Moscow insisted that Ukraine be a founder member of the United Nations, an independent state on an equal footing with the United States, United Kingdom, Chile, China, France Iran, Egypt and the other states that first signed the United Nations Charter.
This was done by the USSR to push back against India, Canada and other then British imperial territories also joining the UN as independent states. Whatever the diplomatic machinations at that fateful San Francisco conference and in the Soviet period thereafter, under international law Ukraine has been a full UN member state longer than Russia itself.
So when Putin writes that “modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era” as if it’s just a transient phenomenon whose status can be denied whenever Moscow says so, he’s talking specious nonsense.
Maybe the increasingly desperate Moscow plan now is to bundle through some pro-Russia faux-referenda in whatever tracts of Ukraine it can claim to hold and promptly claim to annex those areas.
Then it can proclaim that any Ukrainian attack using Western weapons to liberate those areas is now an attack directly against Russia AS SUCH, and thereby an excuse for further Russian escalation against both Ukraine and Western countries (unspecified).
The hope will be that Western capitals and their feckless voters may get uneasy about this and so lean on Kiev to stop the fighting.
Even if this more or less happens, relations between Russia and NATO capitals are wrecked, more or less indefinitely. How to begin to reach a sensible basis for talking about (say) easing sanctions and normalising things without Russia somehow renouncing its neo-imperialist ambitions in a way that can be trusted?