Western leaders are mentally and institutionally ill equipped to deal with Putin’s Russia
Yesterday President Putin signed the document that saw Crimea become a fully fledged part of the Russian Federation. The signing was a week ahead of schedule. It seemed to encapsulate wonderfully the Ukrainian Crisis to date; Putin acting, the West playing catch up, and responding timidly. Two institutions have been particularly bruised during the course of this crisis, institutions that were designed to deal precisely with this sort of problem; the UN and EU.
Conceived after the horror and wholesale carnage of the Second World War, the UN was supposed to make aggression, particularly in the form of territorial expansion, impossible. The chief mechanism for keeping the peace was the Security Council, the supposed teeth of the UN. But to prevent the UNSC becoming dominated by a coalition of like minded powers, the five Great Powers were given a veto. This wouldn’t matter when it was little heard of African backwaters squabbling (everybody can generally agree on that), but it’s hugely important when a veto wielder is itself the one doing the expansion. It’s worth restating: the principle institution charged with maintaining order has been neutered because one of it’s key members doesn’t like the result.
This isn’t the first time has happened of course; Russia has used its veto more than any other power, but the US isn’t shy of halting any resolution aimed at Israel. The point being that rules are only as good as their enforcement mechanism, and the UN’s is fundamentally flawed.
The Second World War was also the catalyst for the European Union, though for slightly different reasons. Europe, once the pinnacle of world power, was laid waste in six years. The only way to prevent a repetition was to build an institution that suppressed narrow national interests and nationalism.
However a by product of this has been the warping of the European world view. Because European leaders have bought into the idea that power is passe and national interests are old fashioned ideas, they’ve allowed themselves to believe that everybody thinks that way. This is why Europe’s response to Russia has been so painfully slow and piecemeal; they’re having to adjust an entire foreign policy paradigm ingrained over three nearly five decades. One would have liked to have thought that Russia stealing 20 percent of Georgia in 2008 would have been the wake up call, shaking Europe out of its cozy post-modern bubble and dragging it into the cold harsh world of perpetual competition that is international relations. The evidence would suggest otherwise.
Part of Europe’s problem is that even if it did have the will to play hardball, it doesn’t have the means. Half a century of living under the the aegis of the US military allowed Europe let its militaries become armed pension funds, a ceremonial hangover from when Europeans counted as geopolitical powers.
Even Europe’s supposed economic strengths have been found wanting. Europe gets a third of its oil, gas and coal from Russia, with Germany being especially dependent. France is the largest foreign investor in Russia, and is on the brink of completing a $1 billion deal to sell Russia two state of the art warships, with an option for two more. London won’t risk its reputation as a safe place for the world’s super rich. Add in a dozen other bilateral trade deals, and a united European Union front quickly becomes the stuff of fantasy. Moscow knew full well that the only sanctions which might make her sit up and take notice would also cripple Europe in the process. The targeted sanctions against individuals were watery and haven’t been applied to anybody with the clout to influence Putin. To make matters worse, Europe and the United States spent a week telling the world that asset freezes were coming; plenty of time for those at risk to pull their money out.
The West lacks both the tool kit and the stomach for confrontation with an expansionist power actually capable of defending itself.
My gut tells me that Russia panicked a little at the pace of events in Kiev and, given the chance, would probably do things slightly differently. Indeed, by cleaving off Crimea and its 1 million pro Russia voters, Putin has ensured a pro Western government will almost certainly always be elected in Kiev (the last election was won by only 500,000 votes).
But however Russia played its hand, it could count on two things
-the West wasn’t prepared to get into a shooting war with Russia.
-sanctions, especially from Europe, would be more than manageable.
A criticism of the US and its war machine often comes in the form of a pithy quote: when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Sadly that phrase could be continued for Europe and the UN; when you don’t have a hammer, you convince yourself that nails are anything but.