Nowhere is the incoherence of Western policy more starkly demonstrated than in relations with Russia. Britain, America and the European Union, over the last decade, have adopted a posture towards Russia that can only be described as dysfunctional.
To recognize that disturbing reality is in no way to condone provocations such as the Scripal poisoning in Salisbury; but if there is one phenomenon more alarming than such incidents it is the geopolitical illiteracy of the West’s policy with regard to Russia. Russia has been demonized – sometimes having courted the caricature imposed on it by the West – and this diplomatic isolation, not in global but in European/North American terms, is damaging to international stability.
What is the problem? The Western charge sheet lists: Ukraine, Crimea, Syria. Here the West has cried wolf so many times that world opinion is sceptical now that more substantial offences, e.g. the Salisbury outrage, are being denounced. Firstly, Ukraine. The ineradicable fact is that the majority population of the Ukrainian state, as constituted after the fall of the Soviet Union, is ethnically Russian, concentrated in eastern Ukraine.
In a reflection of this demography, in 2010, the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, in an election certified as transparent and honest by 3,149 international observers, including those from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE], was elected president. In 2013 his government rejected an agreement pressed upon it by the EU, preferring to align itself with Russia.
In 2014 pro-EU agitators, reportedly assisted by all the usual suspects from the CIA to George Soros, whipped up a violent revolt in Kiev. Policemen were shot dead and a motley coalition brandishing EU, neo-Nazi and rainbow flags stormed government buildings and overthrew the validly elected government. The spurious claim was that it had “lost its mandate”; in that case, since elections were due within 11 months why did the malcontents not wait to remove the government at the ballot box? Because they knew perfectly well that the government would be returned, is the answer.
This EU-inspired provocation on Vladimir Putin’s doorstep and the subsequent revolt of ethnic Russians in the east led to war. Remember that, whenever the dwindling band of EU enthusiasts claims that the EU, not Nato, has kept the peace in Europe in the post-War era. Whatever charges may be levelled against Putin, he did not start the Ukraine war: Brussels did.
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And so to the notorious “annexation” of the Crimea. The Crimea has been part of Russia since 1783. In 1954 Nikita Khruschev, supposedly as a gesture to his compatriots but in reality to bolster the ethnic Russian composition of the Ukraine, ceded the Crimea to Kiev. The Crimean population today is 65.3 per cent Russian, 15.7 per cent Ukrainian, and 12.2 per cent Sunni Muslim Tatars, with Belorussian, Armenian and sundry other minorities each less than 1 per cent making up the remainder of the population. There is no permutation of electoral factions that could result in anything other than a popular vote to return to Russia.
Whatever the deficiencies in the plebiscite held to determine reunification with Russia, the objective reality is that the population of the Crimea by a large majority wishes to belong to the Russian Federation. By what right do the EU and other Western objectors refuse Crimeans the right to self-determination? Yet that is one of the grounds cited for economic sanctions against Russia.
As for Syria, the West has exhibited a demented drive to overthrow Bashir Assad that has no real moral foundation: it is a virility symbol. Since the Iraq War the West has come to regard regime change as a way of life. First Saddam Hussein, who had no weapons of mass destruction, was removed and his country devastated. That worked well. The overthrow in Egypt of Hosni Mubarak, the best friend the West had, was hailed in our drivelling media as an “Arab Spring”; he was succeeded first by the Muslim Brotherhood, then by a military coup. So, that worked well too.
Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, who had voluntarily renounced nuclear weapons – a point that will not have been lost on Kim Jong-un – was next removed, with the egregious Dave Cameron leading the charge until his final essay crisis on 23 June 2016 removed him from the world stage. Libya fell into anarchy and became a mass exporter of migrants to Europe. With successes like that behind them, the Western “powers” were determined to remove Assad in Syria.
As in the other Middle Eastern dictatorships, the Western expectation was that the fall of a tyrant would be followed by democracy, most likely a Liberal Democrat/Green coalition ruling in Damascus. The West lavished money and arms on anti-Assad forces that were in fact dominated by jihadists. Russia recognized that Assad was the only conceivable force that could restore order in a country long a Russian sphere of influence, so intervened militarily.
That intervention saved many Christian lives and offers some prospect of the restoration of order in a large part of Syria. Putin did what the West lacked the intelligence or cohesion to accomplish. In global perception he shamed the West. That is his real crime.
Now we are expected to believe – as a reassurance to shell-shocked Democrats – that the revolt of the silent majority in America was actually manipulated by the Kremlin. It is not just an implausible theory, it is downright embarrassing in its infantilism. The flown-over states did not need Russian inducements to junk the Obama legacy.
Economic sanctions are capitalism’s worst enemy. To weaponize world trade – as the EU is currently trying to do – is dangerous and self-defeating. Naturally, it was a favourite device of Woodrow Wilson, the creator of the Third Reich for which Adolf Hitler unfairly took the credit. Figures from the Peterson Institute for International Economics have shown that between 1970 and 1990 economic sanctions imposed by the United States succeeded in 10 cases and failed in 38.
The notion that fine-tuning sanctions to hit individuals will avoid domino effects is deluded. In April of this year, new sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on pro-Putin oligarch Oleg Deripaska caused the rouble to fall by 3.8 per cent and FTSE companies such as Evraz, Polymetal and Glencore shares to tumble by 15 per cent, 18 per cent and 3.4 per cent respectively. Playing Russian roulette on world markets is not clever. Nor does the “human rights” slogan come convincingly from governments and corporations that would crawl over five miles of broken glass to Beijing in search of contracts.
We need a sensible posture with regard to Russia: absolute, steely inflexibility in defending the independence of Poland and the Baltic states; increased military capability; a stern response to genuine provocations such as the Scripal case; and an openness to trade and other forms of cooperation if Russia behaves responsibly. What we do not need is demonization over certain actions that, viewed objectively, were justifiable.
Putin’s Russia is not the Soviet Union Mark II: he is following the foreign policy of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Nicholas I and Alexander III. They were dangerous neighbours for Europe but, largely, co-existence with them was possible.