Friday, 20 February 2015

Russia: the enemy?

It's been exactly a year since President Putin started moving in to Ukraine -- yet we're still scratching our heads and asking what exactly he's up to.

My fear is that by the time we've worked it out, it'll be too late. Mouthful by mouthful, he and his proxies have been gobbling up sizeable chunks of the country -- and the rest of us still seem not to want to believe the evidence of our own eyes.

For good reason, to be sure. No sane person wants to go to war against Russia -- the Cold War was quite bad enough. But when pro-Russian fighters seize control of yet another strategic Ukrainian city (Debaltseve fell on Wednesday), and when Russian warplanes stray yet again close to the edge of UK air space, the questions about Mr Putin's intentions become ever more urgent.

I somehow doubt that Mr Putin cares very much what the UK defence secretary Michael Fallon says about him. (Come to that, I doubt the Russian president has even heard of him.) So when Mr Fallon was quoted in Thursday's newspapers as warning that he is a “real and present danger” to NATO members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, he won't have lost any sleep.

I suspect, however, that the Russian president may care rather more what Ursula von der Leyen thinks (and if you haven't heard of her, she's Mr Fallon's German counterpart). So when she talks of "redefining" Germany's relationship with Moscow in response to the Ukraine crisis, the men in the Kremlin may be well advised to stop and ponder for a moment or two.

Germany, after all, has long been Moscow's closest EU economic partner -- the former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who joined the board of the Russian energy giant Gazprom after stepping down in 2005, has been described as a personal friend of Mr Putin and once described him as a “ flawless democrat”. His successor, Angela Merkel, is far less well disposed these days, and by all accounts is becoming less and less well disposed with every passing week.

One of the biggest problems is that the EU and NATO have been foolishly ignoring what Moscow perceives to be its strategic interests ever since 1989. Because the first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin, was not taken seriously, the West merrily signed up all of the former Soviet satellite states in central and eastern Europe, without pausing for a moment to wonder what it might look like from the Kremlin.

So now Poland, Hungary, the Czech republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, plus the three Baltic states, are all members of NATO, as are Albania, Slovenia and Croatia. With the exception of Albania, they are all also members of the EU. It's not quite tanks on the Kremlin's lawn, but it's not far off.

And let's be honest: the West also did everything it could to encourage the emergence of a pro-Brussels government in Kiev, backing the protesters on the streets with about as much understanding of the underlying tensions as it did during the short-lived Arab spring.

Back in April 2008, at a NATO summit in Bucharest (held, brazenly, in ex-President Ceaușescu's absurdly grandiose Palace of the People), there was urgent discussion about whether Ukraine and Georgia should be recognised as applicant members of the alliance. President Bush was very much in favour; the UK, France and Germany were less keen.

I remember suggesting at the time to the then UK foreign secretary David Miliband that the decision not to accept the two former Soviet republics as applicant states was a victory of sorts for Mr Putin. But for the Kremlin, even talking about the possibility of them joining NATO was a direct threat to Russian interests -- and within months, Russia and Georgia were at war. With Moscow's support, two breakaway Georgian regions, Abhkazia and South Ossetia, promptly declared themselves independent.

Perhaps it might help if NATO and the EU were to say to Moscow something similar to what the UK government said to the IRA back in 1990. As a way of trying to advance the northern Ireland peace process, Britain formally declared that it had no "selfish strategic or economic interest" in northern Ireland, and that the wishes of its people were paramount. Could Brussels say the same about Ukraine?

Or perhaps it's already too late for that. President Putin seems to have decided that neither the US nor Europe has the political will to stop him in Ukraine. So far, he's been proved right. If he starts threatening the Baltic states, however, it will be a very different story.

Under his autocratic rule, Russia has been transformed from what the West once fondly hoped would be a "partner for peace" into a strategic adversary. The danger now is that it will move one notch further: from adversary to enemy. 

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