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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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