We Have No Idea How To Deal With Putin’s Russia

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.


  1. “The West lacks both the tool kit and the stomach for confrontation with an expansionist power actually capable of defending itself.”

    As if the West wasn’t an expansionist power! The whole mess is the result of the EU’s continuing attempt to annex Ukraine for itself, but Putin takes the blame for defending his nation’s interests?

    The hypocrisy of British, American and European politicians is ludicrously obvious.

    • Former Warsaw Pact members are trying their hardest to get into the EU. The annexation of the Crimea is not comparable

      • No, it’s not comparable, it’s barely even the same subject. The EU attempted to apply its much exercised power, to topple an elected Government/bypass democratic control, and gain control of an unwilling nation who had gone to the trouble of re-electing a Russian leaning President. The Autonomous Republic of Crimea, to give it its full title, decided that enough was enough; declaring a desire for closer ties with Russia, to which Russia acquiesced.

        But yes, call it an Annexation if you like. With 73% turn-out, 95% support for closer Russian ties and a 60% ethnic-Russian majority, I call it as close to ‘legitimate’ as any democratic system can be.

        Given that the British Government is usually elected by 20% of the population, and is considered a bastion of liberal constitutional democracy, I have to ask just what sort of standards are expected?

        • Yanukovich left the country and Ukranian parliament,including members of his own party, impeached him by two thirds.

          Paramilitary Russian units stormed the Crimean Parliament and, under the rule of Kalashnikovs, a corrupt, mafia connected new president was “elected”(his party had 3%). Outside observers were forbidden to enter the Crimea to watch the referendum… All this took place within 3 weeks.

          Putin’s propaganda war worked like clockwork. Go to Leipzig in Germany ,where the Stasi had its headquarter and where Putin had an office, skin crawling… Putin was perfectly trained in all the tricks of the trade.

          • No doubt this is all true. But the timeline needs to start with attempts to bring Ukraine within the EU’s sphere, and it should be remembered that propaganda is not a tool used only by Putin.

            None of it excuses the EU and US’s involvement and response. The basic legitimacy of Crimea’s vote has not been called into question by any power. Stating that it was held “under the barrel of a gun” seems to make up for the fact that to all intents and purposes, it was a free and fair referendum. There have been no accusations of rigging or of pressuring the voters.

          • To organize a proper referendum takes more than just 2 weeks. I bet it was rigged and the outcome might have been closer to 60%.

            It is a joke that Putin is basking in a democratic referendum… Did Chechnya ever get a vote? No, because it is part of the Russian federation and no way Putin would let it break away.

            Putin rules with his close oligarchs, restricting press freedom and the opposition. The West up to now tried to close its eyes to Putin’s power play, especially the EU depending on Russian gas supplies, and now needs to come up with a proper plan how to deal with Putin’s Russia in the future.


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