Realism takes hold in the West



Article by: Robert van Voren
The scope and impact of the Maidan, the subsequent occupation and annexation of the Crimea by Russia and the start of a hybrid Russian-Ukrainian war in the East of the country took the West completely by surprise. Western politicians standing on stage at Maidan and proclaiming their support for the popular revolt had actually little understanding of what they were supporting, and what the consequences of Yanukovych’s ouster could be. For a long time Western governments failed to recognize that the annexation of the Crimea was exactly that – an annexation – and that no arguments could be found to downplay the importance of this crude breach of international law. In a way the downing of Malaysian airliner MH17 proved to be a wake-up call, yet for along time it left Western politicians stunned, still unable to fully understand what was going on.

This phase of amazement, almost paralysis, is easy to explain. It is no different than the phase of denial after the loss of a dear relative or friend. The consequences are too far-reaching, too fundamental to grasp immediately. Life was good, calm and understandable, and suddenly all seems to be lost and the good times are gone, forever. The first reaction is to pretend for a while that nothing changed, that what happened was just a bad dream, without any impact.

Following the integration of the USSR, the West allowed itself to be put to sleep. The Soviet monster was gone, and as a result peace on the European continent was finally guaranteed. The Russian bear had become our favorite pet – hard to understand, intriguing like a kaleidoscope but most importantly: a gargantuan market for Western products. Western politicians, like West-German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, completely fell for the seemingly endless opportunities, and in the process became private entrepreneurs in close collaboration with Russian oligarchs and Machiavellist Russian politicians – who actually were nothing but crooks stealing the property that belonged to the impoverished Russian population. But what did they care?

For a few years Russia was fashion. Clothes were illustrated with Cyrillic letters, of course without any meaning for the wearer. Even Soviet communist symbols adorned dresses, caps and other clothing, and the owner couldn’t care less that under the same symbols millions of people had been killed. Sovietology was sent to the wastebasket and soon people stopped studying the particulars of this region. Russia was quickly made normal, “just like us”, and thus no special expertise was necessary to grasp what was going on. We nicely cuddled ourselves to sleep and no event woke us up from our suicidal hibernation – not even the Russo-Georgian war of 2008.

Until Maidan, and all that followed.

With horror my colleagues and I have watched the level of ignorance in the West, the lack of understanding that has penetrated Ministries of Foreign Affairs all over Western Europe and North America, the superficial reporting by many of the Western journalists. With horror we also watched the almost pathological desire to deny what was evident from the very start: Putin’s Russia has no interest in abiding by international law and signed agreements: it does as it sees fit, and in doing so it sent the whole security structure of Europe to the garbage dump.

Yet finally a sense of reality is setting in, and the phase of denial in the mourning process seems to be over. The London-based think-tank Chatham House published a report titled “The Russian Challenge”, authored by several experts in the field, including two former British Ambassadors to Russia and professor emeritus Peter Hanson, one of the “Last of the Mohicans” of the Sovietologists of the 1980s. The Chatham House study concluded that the conflict in Ukraine represented a defining moment for the future of Europe. The authors warned that NATO and the European Union could collapse in the face of increasing aggression from Russia, which has been emboldened by the EU’s apparent unwillingness to defend its principles. “The conflict in Ukraine is a defining factor for the future of European security,” according to the report. “Ukraine’s failure would deepen instability in Eastern Europe, increase the risk of further Kremlin adventures and diminish the prospects for eventual beneficial change in Russia.” The report added as a very worrying assessment that Russia seemed prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons in certain circumstances. In answer NATO should make clear that a so-called “limited war” is impossible.

A crucial element in the report is the recognition that the West only had to blame itself for the current predicament. Putin had been encouraged by the “weak and unconvincing responses” from the West, events such as Russia’s seizure of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia in 2008. As a result Moscow decided that it could go ahead as Europe seemed to lack the will to pay the necessary price to defend its principles: “Russian ambitions and intentions had been telegraphed for well over a decade, but the West found it easier at the time to disregard them and indulge in the fantasy that Russia was progressing towards a liberal-democratic model with which the West felt comfortable. In short, “the war in Ukraine is, in part, the result of the West’s laissez-faire approach to Russia.”

Of course, the West finally coming to terms with the new reality is no guarantee for success. However, it is a very important start, and a precondition for a more realistic and effective policy towards Putinist Russia. Yet in addition to finding an answer to Putin’s total disregard for international law the report also points out one important issue that is often easily overlooked: not to mix Putin and his cronies with the Russian people, who to a large degree are hostages of a corrupt regime: “It is not in the Western interest to help him cut the Russian people off from the outside world.” Indeed, in order to get rid of Putin and his corrupt regime, the Russian people is our most important, even indispensible, ally. However upsetting their condoning this regime might be, reaching out to them should be a prime element in our approach.

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  1. Avatar puttypants says:

    What this author doesn’t seem to understand is that many of us have tried to reach out to Russians as well as others in the West who don’t understand what Putin is doing. It doesn’t work. They are so convinced that USA and the West are the dangerous aggressors. Unfortunately, they don’t understand the larger issue with Putin and his war in Ukraine because they don’t care about Ukraine.

  2. Avatar On the Balcony says:

    It is not only disrespectful but a gross error to treat Putin and the Russian people as if they were distinct from each other. They are not; they are mirror images of each other, just as Hitler was a reflection of the German people of his time. If we wish to engage the Russian people then we must treat them respectfully, as equals, as the voices of power behind Putin. We should help Russians see themselves in the mirror as we see them. Accordingly, sanctions applied to the elite should be applied to all. Embassies should suspend all non-citizen related operations e.g visas, cultural exchange programs, etc.. The reason for this should be clearly displayed on closed doors and windows and on official web sites: e.g.
    “CLOSED until Russia ends it’s breech of the Budapest Memorandum,and other violations of international law including its undeclared war against the Ukrainian people, its official vilification of the U.S. and Western peoples expressed in censorship and other laws to silence our –and your–voices “

    1. Avatar Dagwood Bumstead says:

      I agree that Putin and the Russian people are mirror images, but disagree with treating the Russian people as friends. They are not.
      The only solution is to disengage from Russia completely. End ALL contacts-cultural, sporting, commercial, diplomatic. As Churchill said in 1919, “Isolate this evil bacillus.”

  3. Avatar Dagwood Bumstead says:

    van Voren is far too optimistic. I see little sign of western leaders waking up from their slumber, certainly not Obama, Merkel and Hollande. The only ones who understand what’s at stake are the Poles, Rumanians and the Baltics and to a lesser extent the Swedes and British.
    Sadly the west is stuck with a bunch of inept leaders and little prospect of improvement. We need a Truman, Thatcher, de Gaulle, Bismarck but are stuck with Obama, Cameron, Hollandier, Merkelain. The alternatives in France are Sarkozy, who has already proved to be weak when faced with Russian aggression, and Le Pen, whose party receives money from Moscow and is at least in part in Putin’s pocket. Germany is little different with the SPD and Die Linke being even more accommodating to Moscow than Merkel is. The only small bright spot on the horizon is that whoever succeeds Obama will be far less accommodating towards Moscow, whether Hillary, Cruz or any of the other likely presidential candidates.