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Ukraine special 2: Send Biden, not Truss

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Today three of our writers give their views on the Ukraine crisis.

BORIS Johnson says the stakes in Ukraine are high though not in the way that he means us to understand. Vladimir Putin has deliberately rung alarm bells in the United States and Europe but not because he wants to invade Ukraine, except as a last resort.

Putin is like an anteater who has poked his snout into an anthill, panicking the inhabitants. However, if he seriously intended to attack, he would not have given Ukraine and the West time to prepare. He would have struck by surprise as he did when he annexed Crimea.

His aim is to re-set the ambiguous and unsettled post-Soviet relationship between Nato and Russia by agreeing a new demarcation between them that allays the security concerns of both sides.

For Johnson, fighting for political survival at home, mobilising his government behind the fear that the Russian bear is on the loose again is a useful distraction but is otherwise irrelevant.

What perturbs the West is that Putin’s challenge will undermine the status of Nato which has been ambivalent since the collapse of communism 30 years ago. The question then was ‘What is Nato still for?’ The answer has never been found, but the need for one has become more pressing since Putin rebuilt Russian influence.

The alliance was founded in 1949 as Europe’s bulwark against the Soviet Union which was perceived as a powerful and dangerous aggressor state. The Soviet Union has gone but Nato is (just) still in existence, and has expanded eastwards to the frontiers of Russia. To Putin, Nato still represents the same threat it did to Stalin and his successors.

His message is that it’s time to negotiate and Ukraine is the hostage whether Putin would really invade or not. He doesn’t trust us any more than we trust him in the absence of a permanent settlement.

De-escalating tensions in eastern Europe would remove one of the West’s constant foreign policy preoccupations and free the United States and the EU to concentrate on their troubles in China and the Middle East.

Putin is a Russian nationalist. No one should expect him – or, just as importantly, his successors – ever to be more than pragmatic in their attitude to the West. Russian cultural exceptionalism is a given and has to be accepted for what it is on its own terms.

Russia feels cheated and threatened by the way things worked out geopolitically in eastern and central Europe after the Soviet Union’s collapse when Moscow was weak under the confused leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev and the alcoholic Boris Yeltsin.

The liberated former satellites threw themselves into the European Union and Nato, depriving Moscow of the Iron Curtain buffer that had existed since 1945. This is the context we have to deal with.

The media portray Putin as a brutish reincarnation of the old Red Menace and he’s no one’s idea of a liberal democrat. This view is simplistic and reductionist, however. It assumes that the liberal West’s point of view is always basically the right one and excludes the legitimacy of Russia’s own fears.

Putin’s objective during his long stint in the Kremlin has been to rebuild Russia’s international prestige and put up a stop sign against any further Western encroachment.

He’s apparently using Ukraine, and its putative wish to join Nato at some point, as a means to bring the US and its allies to the table and revive a co-existential relationship such as existed between Nato and the now defunct Warsaw Pact. The threat to Ukraine can be seen either as a horse’s head in Nato’s bed or an opportunity.

A pragmatic Western policy would be to make a treaty with Putin that respects Russia’s security concerns and also those of the former central and east European Soviet satellites now in Nato. It would also recognise that Russia and Europe have developed economic interdependence through the latter’s large-scale imports of energy from the former.

Trade what Putin wants by shutting Ukraine out of Nato and withdrawing Nato’s forward forces in the region in return for guarantees that he will respect their sovereignty in future. Ukraine might not like it but realpolitik is what it is.

This kind of approach – accepting that the West has crowded Russia too far since 1989 – involves risks which prompt accusations of being soft on Putin but the US administration has made moves in this direction in Geneva.

The basis could be confidence building measures such as those agreed at Helsinki because mutual distrust is the fundamental problem. Every US missile and soldier deployed on Nato’s eastern flank – as opposed to the Nato integrated national militaries of the countries concerned – is seen as a threat by Russia.

Putin is not going to sit on the Ukrainian border doing nothing for ever. The longer the West sits out a situation in which it cannot intervene militarily, the more likely he will feel obliged to make an attack of some kind. He needs a pro-active approach from President Biden rather than visits by Liz Truss.

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Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes is a retired Anglo-Scottish journalist now living in France who during a 40-year career worked in eastern Europe before and after communism.

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