IN 2014, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the West under President Obama pulled back from a direct confrontation with Vladimir Putin over his annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
In 2022, the West has beefed up Nato forces on Russia’s borders and imposed unprecedented sanctions on Moscow in response to its invasion of Ukraine itself.
Putin has now put his massive arsenal of nuclear weapons on alert. No economic sanction can stop Putin pulling the trigger of his nuclear gun if he feels driven to do it.
Historians endlessly debate the origins of WWI but broadly speaking it grew out of a specific cause – the assassination in Sarajevo – from which it developed mechanistically from the fixed diplomatic and military imperatives of the era. Nato on Russia’s border is today’s imperative.
If the Ukraine crisis continues to escalate to an extent that surely neither Putin nor the West wants, how will the historians of 2122 read the origins of World War Three and the nuclear holocaust that Putin is threatening? Now that he’s said it, it would be stupid to believe he won’t do it in extremis.
All of Europe has again crossed the Rubicon and no one can be certain what the future will be as Russia and the West harden their positions step by step as happened in 1914. Many thought it would never go this far. Since last week, politicians and pundits have jostled to admit their surprise that Putin was not bluffing. We should be surprised by their surprise. How savvy are our leaders?
It’s as if they thought Putin created a massive army on the Ukrainian border to sit there as a sort of incidental bargaining chip. He knew the West would resist his demands for a Nato pull back and talks on the future security arrangements in central Europe. Since he got no response, the next step of invasion became self-fulfilling.
I wrote myself that an invasion was unlikely. That was because it seemed to me that Russia had legitimate concerns even if Putin was adventitiously taking advantage of the power vacuum in the White House.
Troop mobilisations always contain the threat that they will be used. If we look back to the lead up to the second Iraq war, this was also inevitable. George Bush struggled for UN approval while simultaneously massing forces on Iraq’s border. Westerners did not want a war but there was no way Bush was not going to unleash them if Saddam did not surrender.
We are now in the most dangerous bind. The invasion of Ukraine has convinced the Nato countries on Russia’s border that they have as much to fear from Russia today as they did when Stalin enslaved them after WWII. Russia sees the West’s open-ended commitment to surround Nato with Western allies as a permanent threat of aggression. Why else would Nato be doing it other than to overbear Russia?
The media claim that Putin is isolated and may not have the full support of either his government or his people. This is speculation built on scraps of information that are not necessarily true. There have been anti-war protests in Russian cities but it cannot be inferred from them that most Russians oppose the war if they believe their homeland is endangered.
One Western commentator sneered at the Russian army as a paper tiger because it has not captured all of Ukraine – it’s the size of France – in a couple of days. Firstly, this may never have been Putin’s purpose and secondly, this is the descendant of the army that won WWII for us by smashing the power of the Wehrmacht. What looks like a paper tiger from a keyboard looks different when it’s actually pointing a gun.
For the Russians to be forced to their knees now by the sheer weight of the West’s prodigious economic sanctions would be an insupportable humiliation, not only for Putin, and it would have unpredictable consequences. Russians take pride in being a superpower again and because of its vastness, their country is unconquerable. The West is as trapped as Putin.
The argument is that Putin asked for this crisis, for which ordinary Russians are already paying a heavy price, by an unprovoked attack on a neighbour which was no threat to him, and shares a history as well as a border on both sides of which ethnic citizens of both nations reside. In a sense, this is a civil war in much the same way that a conflict between England and Scotland would be since they share kith and kin.
Ukraine is still not the real kernel of the problem, no matter how serious the tragedy that has overwhelmed it and its defiant government. Nato’s position in central Europe, which the West refuses to discuss, is. Russia feels naked without the buffer zone the post-1945 Soviet empire provided and thinks it is under permanent threat.
The United States with its Monroe Doctrine would never allow itself to be put in the situation of insecurity that alarms the Russians. There is talk of going for regime change in Moscow. How do we know that the next Russian leader wouldn’t be as nationalist as Putin? Were the West to install a puppet in the Kremlin, he would be replaced eventually by another Putin just as he replaced the old Soviet leadership.
Then there is China. Beijing has not overtly backed Putin but has suggested that a pragmatic solution needs to be found for the future of central Europe. Its attitude is certainly a rehearsal of all eventualities for east Asia that will arise when it undertakes its own declared takeover of Taiwan.