Aquarter of a century after the end of the cold war, the “Russian threat” is unmistakably back. Vladimir Putin, Britain’s defence secretary Michael Fallon declares, is as great a danger to Europe as “Islamic State”. There may be no ideological confrontation, and Russia may be a shadow of its Soviet predecessor, but the anti-Russian drumbeat has now reached fever pitch.
And much more than in Soviet times, the campaign is personal. It’s all about Putin. The Russian president is an expansionist dictator who has launched a “shameless aggression”. He is the epitome of “political depravity”, “carving up” his neighbours as he crushes dissent at home, and routinely is compared to Hitler. Putin has now become a cartoon villain and Russia the target of almost uniformly belligerent propaganda across the western media. Anyone who questions the dominant narrative on Ukraine – from last year’s overthrow of the elected president and the role of Ukrainian far right to war crimes carried out by Kiev’s forces – is dismissed as a Kremlin dupe.
That has been ratcheted up still further with the murder of the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. The Russian president has, of course, been blamed for the killing, though that makes little sense. Nemtsov was a marginal figure whose role in the “catastroika” of the 1990s scarcely endeared him to ordinary Russians. Responsibility for an outrage that exposed the lack of security in the heart of Moscow and was certain to damage the president hardly seems likely to lie with Putin or his supporters.
But it’s certainly grist to the mill of those pushing military confrontation with Russia. Hundreds of US troops are arriving in Ukraine this week to bolster the Kiev regime’s war with Russian-backed rebels in the east. Not to be outdone, Britain is sending 75 military advisers of its own. As 20th-century history shows, the dispatch of military advisers is often how disastrous escalations start. They are also a direct violation of last month’s Minsk agreement, negotiated with France and Germany, that has at least achieved a temporary ceasefire and some pull-back of heavy weapons. Article 10 requires the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Ukraine.
But Nato’s hawks have got the bit between their teeth. Thousands of Nato troops have been sent to the Baltic states – the Atlantic alliance’s new frontline – untroubled by their indulgence of neo-Nazi parades and denial of minority ethnic rights. A string of American political leaders and generals are calling for the US to arm Kiev, from the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, to the new defence secretary, Ashton Carter. For the western military complex, the Ukraine conflict has the added attraction of creating new reasons to increase arms spending, as the US army’s General Raymond Odierno made clear when he complained this week about British defence cuts in the face of the “Russian threat”.
Putin’s authoritarian conservatism may offer little for Russia’s future, but this anti-Russian incitement is dangerous folly. There certainly has been military expansionism. But it has overwhelmingly come from Nato, not Moscow. For 20 years, despite the commitments at the end of the cold war, Nato has marched relentlessly eastwards, taking in first former east European Warsaw Pact states, then republics of the former Soviet Union itself. As the academic Richard Sakwa puts it in his book Frontline Ukraine, Nato now “exists to manage the risks created by its existence”.
Instead of creating a common European security system including Russia, the US-dominated alliance has expanded up to the Russian border – insisting that is merely the sovereign choice of the states concerned. It clearly isn’t. It’s also the product of an alliance system designed to entrench American “leadership” on the European continent – laid out in Pentagon planning drawn up after the collapse of the Soviet Union to “prevent the re-emergence of a new rival”.
Russia has now challenged that, and the consequences have been played out in Ukraine for the past year: starting with the western-backed ousting of the elected government, through the installation of a Ukrainian nationalist regime, the Russian takeover of Crimea and Moscow-backed uprising in the Donbass. On the ground, it has meant thousands of dead, hundreds of thousands of refugees, indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas and the rise of Ukrainian fascist militias such as the Azov battalion, supported by Kiev and its western sponsors, now preparing to “defend” Mariupol from its own people. For the bulk of the western media, that’s dismissed as Kremlin propaganda.
Russian covert military support for the rebels, on the other hand, is denounced as aggression and “hybrid warfare” – by the same governments that have waged covert wars from Nicaragua to Syria, quite apart from outright aggressions and illegal campaigns in Kosovo, Libya and Iraq.
That doesn’t justify less extreme Russian violations of international law, but it puts them in the context of Russian security. While Putin is portrayed in the west as a reckless land-grabber, in Russian terms he is a centrist. As the veteran Russian leftist Boris Kagarlitsky comments, most Russians want Putin to take a tougher stand against the west “not because of patriotic propaganda, but their experience of the past 25 years”.
In the west, Ukraine – along with Isis – is being used to revive the doctrines of liberal interventionism and even neoconservatism, discredited on the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, Angela Merkel and François Hollande have resisted American pressure to arm Kiev. But when the latest Minsk ceasefire breaks down, as it surely will, there is a real risk that Ukraine’s proxy conflict could turn into full-scale international war.
The alternative is a negotiated settlement which guarantees Ukraine’s neutrality, pluralism and regional autonomy. It may well be too late for that. But there is certainly no military solution. Instead of escalating the war and fuelling nationalist extremism, western powers should be using their leverage to wind it down. If they don’t, the consequences could be disastrous – far beyond Ukraine.
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