Last year I criticized some of the hawk-like voices, including that of David Brooks of the NYT, which were calling for Barack Obama to increase the fear factor in dealing with Vladimir Putin over Ukraine. I should point out that I am decidedly not a fan of Putin, whose actions in Crimea and Ukraine have been reprehensible. However, we need to understand the reasons why the slow-motion train wreck that is the relationship between Russia and the West has reached such a nadir. The two key reasons, it seems to me, are fear and humiliation.
The West has been spectacularly insensitive not to recognize how the immense sacrifice of Russians during World War Two continues to condition the prism through which Moscow views the threat of encirclement and encroachment into what it considers, rightly or wrongly, its own back yard.
One need only look at the frenzied reaction in the British press today to the sight of Russian bombers off the coast of Cornwall to get just an inkling of the consternation that Russian policymakers must have felt over the last two decades as NATO expanded right up to their country’s border. This is not a critique of NATO expansion in itself. It would have been unconscionable for NATO to have rejected the aspirations of Poland and the Baltic States to join the alliance given their own experiences with the Soviet Union. Such thinking, which is beloved of Kissinger and other realist thinkers, has viewed the issue of NATO expansion in terms of the maintenance of spheres of influence between Russia and the US, regardless of the fate of countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic States, which understandably did not wish to remain at the mercy of the Russian sphere.
What can be criticized is the way the expansion was handled, which Russia continues to view as a betrayal of a promise that the alliance would not expand even an inch to the east in return for the Soviet Union agreeing to let a united Germany join NATO in 1990. The nature of any such promises, their extent, and how long they were intended to last may be disputed, but the broader point is that the Russians feel that they have been played for fools by the West and we are now witnessing the fruits of this disillusion in Ukraine.
At the root of this problem, I think, is a tendency to believe that our liberal democratic Western values are so virtuous and innocuous that only people with bad intentions could possibly view the NATO alliance as a threat. The United States, safely isolated from the world’s trouble spots by the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, is guilty of a breathtaking lack of empathy in how it has dealt with Russia over the past two decades. Yet its own fearful reaction to the threat of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962 should tell it that states do not take kindly when they perceive threats on their doorstep. What seems to have irked Putin and other Russian commentators so much is both the blatant disregard for any consideration of Russian interests and a feeling that the West has disrespected Russia at every opportunity since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is too late to turn back the clock, but what might we have done better and what could still be done to restore some level of trust?
In the 1990s, one idea might have been to invite Russia to join NATO at a time when there was still a sense of mutual respect between East and West in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That certainly might have taken the sting out of the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders. Today, the notion of Russia joining NATO would seem both foolhardy and in the realms of fantasy. Yet it is equally absurd to believe that any European countries, including Britain and France with the most well funded and equipped armed forces on the continent, are prepared or keen to embark on hostilities with Russia at the present time. If security is to be restored in Europe it is unimaginable that this can be done without Russian involvement and participation. So where do we go now?
Russia’s economy is in a mess due to the fall in oil price, sanctions and the collapse in the value of the rouble. The West may not want a military conflict with Putin, but nor can Russia afford an extended conflict with countries which represent its biggest energy customers. Some dialogue needs to begin with lower level negotiations focusing on restoring trust and reducing the fear factor. Fear begets fear. The Baltic States, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic feared Russia because of their experience under the Soviet Union, and so joined NATO, increasing the paranoia and pessimism in the Kremlin. It has taken two decades for the relationship between Russia and the West to deteriorate to its present state and it may take as long again for it to be restored.
Seeking common ground and respecting the interests of states like Russia need not depend on us agreeing with Vladimir Putin’s autocratic instincts or his views on human rights. If that were the case the West wouldn’t be able to do business with China or maintain such effusively friendly relations with Saudi Arabia despite the desert kingdom’s horrific human rights record. The interests and security of the US, Europe, Ukraine and Russia would benefit from a toning down of the ranting rhetoric of John Kerry and a return to a more restrained diplomacy that recognizes that each side has interests which it wishes to maintain — a diplomacy based on respect not humiliation.
Image courtesy of Defence Images