I attended the debate in the House of Commons (the British Lower House of Parliament) on 18th March 2014 as the honorable members debated the Russian Anschluss. Technically, the political union between the Crimea and Russia is a work in progress but with the issuance of passports for Crimean citizens already talking place the administrative protocols are no more than an ongoing technicality.
It might sound from the above that I am against this unilateral move by President Putin and I am, but only because of the unilateralism of the current Russian machinations. They neither encourage détente (perhaps they were never meant to) nor do they bode well for future pan European relations which must put Russia at its centre stage in spite of it being geographically peripheral.
In fact geography is the only means by which we can afford to describe Russia as somehow peripheral! Russia is central to Europe and Asia. It is the largest country in the world, (considerably more than double the size of contiguous USA), it is the world’s 9th most populous nation (143 million people), and the 8th largest economy in the world (2 trillion dollars). Militarily it is the world’s 3rd largest defense spender ($91 Billion in 2012) which even so, amounts to 4.4% of its GDP. It retains the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
I provide the above because on a superficial level we cannot ignore Russia or feign concern for its difficulties or its history. And yet, the British debate on the Russia – Ukraine crisis has been facile, shallow, and insincere. If it was possible to do so, it has created greater animus between Russia and its acolytes on the one side and the Western World, on the other side. And while the incipient nature of this reinvigorated Cold War should not deter us from trying to find a way out of the mess that has been created, it is truly frightening to observe the pack mentality displayed by the press, by Western governments and by our British parliamentarians.
That debate I witnessed in London displayed near unanimity of condemnation accompanied by bluster and threats of sanctions against Russian interests in the UK “Let him (Putin) feel the cold wind of isolation” said Ben Wallace MP. Future historians will refer to those parliamentary deliberations as borderline racist incitement. Almost every speaker referred to the “Russians in our schools” and “the Russians buying up our London properties” etc. This came from British MP’s, both Left wing and Right wing. The Shadow Leader of the House, Angela Eagle threatened to “hit the oligarchs in their pockets” and opined that “Russia is acting out of weakness”. It took a conservative member of parliament to be the sole voice of verbal restraint. Sir Edward Leigh MP first explained that he was not a disinterested party, that his wife is Russian Orthodox. Nevertheless he reminded his fellow MPs that the Ukraine is “an extraordinarily divided country.”
The President of Russia is portrayed as a caricature. Vladimir Putin, the former KGB colonel is portrayed by the media as the neighborhood bully, an uncivilized street thug and either dismissed as a joke to be deprived (unsuccessfully) of media attention, or feared like a lunatic.
Russia is a country with a complex identity and I identify three principal attributes to that identity: nationalism, orthodoxy and autocracy. Religious identity (orthodox) has never returned to its 1917, pre-revolutionary popularity. If Marxism-Leninism was the new orthodoxy post 1917 then what may have replaced it post 1991 was alcoholism and loss of national status. Alcoholism is Russia’s biggest killer. The world is in a process of rejecting internationalism even as we embrace the global economy. So nationalism is increasing, which as a source of identity is problematic but only if it becomes jingoism. And global identity politics are going to be the source of increasing international tensions as the global economy expands. Russia has rarely if ever known anything aside from autocratic government. The threat of conflict is used to consolidate national identity and to suppress opposition to unpopular policies that are not in the interests of a free economy, free speech or political and social pluralism.
So why would we think that abusing the leader of the Russian Federation is the right way to encourage dialogue with that leader? Russia does have legitimate national interests in Ukraine even if its recent conduct over Crimea is regarded as revanchist and therefore illegal. People are comparing Putin to Hitler and Crimea to Czechoslovakia in 1938. This is wrong. The Sudetenland is neither Crimea nor is it Sevastopol. Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolph Hitler did not bring “Peace in our time”, nor will all the bluster from President Obama for the USA and the European Union’s foreign policy leaders.
I am not condoning Russian misbehavior in the Ukraine nor its nuclear threats against the USA. But we are not offering anything like a realistic path to future peace, or even an opening gambit to engagement. Our response is panicked, ill conceived and ill thought out. That should worry us all.
With instability in the Near East creating the potential loss of Russia’s naval facilities at Tartus (due to the ongoing Syrian civil war), Russia may potentially lose its only military facility outside of the former Soviet Union. Tartus is Russia’s only Mediterranean facility. Therefore Sevastopol takes on greater significance as the only other stock and repair base on its Southern flank.
The possibility, even suggestion, that Ukraine could join NATO or become part of the European Union was never going to sit well with Russia. Memories of war may have receded into the distant past for us in Western Europe and for the USA but those memories inform Russian thinking and therefore remain central to its geomilitary strategic policy. Just as the US would not tolerate missiles on Cuban territory in 1962 so it is infantile to consider that Russia would happily embrace a potential Western military presence in its strategically important underbelly.
Instead of wooing Russia and nurturing the relationship we have jumped in without considering that Russia is still a superpower. We neither appreciated Russian history nor offered any alternative to the threatening scenarios that were on offer. If we anticipated compliance we returned instead to insecurity and fear.
In a world of increasing tensions based on irreconcilable but competing, too often clashing community interests, we have also alienation and unemployment. And they breed twin demons of xenophobia and hate, chaos and despair.
Instead of economic assistance to Western Ukraine (in terms of sheer size Ukraine is huge) I would offer both Western and Eastern Ukraine a free-trade Zone following Hong Kong’s example. Sevastopol is the home to both the Russian and Ukrainian Black Sea Naval Fleet. It is Russia’s only warm water port. (Odessa, while part of the former Imperial Russian State, is now part of Ukraine and Yalta is not a naval base). While the example of the sovereign city-state of Singapore is a poor example of a possible solution for Sevastopol, it is possible for two nations to share the administration of an autonomous city particularly one that is both strategically and geopolitically so important to Russia.
Suspicion and mistrust are byproducts of bad faith initiatives.
Instead of intelligence our leaders have fallen back on old world rancor. It seems that strategic policy initiatives are an ‘after-the-fact’ crisis management tool. My fear is that we seem to have reverted to pre-21st Century methods of dealing with international conflict as if nothing that happened in the last century taught us anything.