The coalition of the reluctant
Russia is currently winning the Game of Empire. It has taken Crimea and it is closing in on Eastern Ukraine. Whether or not more will be invaded, no one can tell.
We are not accustomed to leaders of great states who go for broke. Meet a leader of a great state who is going for broke. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, a man of history.
In the Soviet Union, the balance of terror left space for small wars that were “in the national interest.” National interest included invading Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 to remind the citizens that they were Communists. The West backed dictators in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere to remind them that they were anti-Communists.
The balance of terror between Russia and the West still exists. It has moved from the background to the anxious foreground in the last two months. A national interest war, absent from big country politics for 40 years, now brews on the border of Russia and Ukraine.
Russia is rearranging its neighborhood and there is no prospect of a coherent response from West. It is complicated. France has arms contracts; Britain likes the Russian money that flows into London, and Germany and Italy get about a third of their gas from Russia’s state-owned Gazprom.
European foreign ministers early this week were deeply cautious and refrained from announcing further economic sanctions — even as Russia was clearly sending military personnel into Eastern Ukraine.
The North American Treaty Organization says that Russia has 40,000 troops massing close to Ukraine’s border — a clear threat. President Putin said with silky menace on TV that he hoped he would not have to order the troops to cross the frontier to bring “aid” to the Russian speakers in the east. It is obvious hypocrisy, but he might do it. This is why Ukraine’s government has been so hesitant to move against blatant and sometimes bloody breaches of the law.
The United States and the European Union nominally support Ukraine. But though both have been quick to issue warnings, they are slow in action. For the United States, the situation is a nightmare, coming as it does as the Israel-Palestine talks collapse, India’s likely next prime minister has for years been denied a U.S. visa., China appears to be supporting Russia and a military dictator is leading Egypt. Syria is no better.
The West’s inactivity has four major causes:
First, big countries don’t fight big wars any more. Nuclear weapons really are a deterrent. Simmering disputes that engage nuclear weapons, like Nepal and Taiwan, are low-intensity or merely threats. To go back to a time when big countries engage in fighting is so horrifying to peaceful societies that any aggressor who threatens war has the advantage. Russia has been given plenty of rope, not to hang itself with, but to lift the specter of the noose from everyone else.
Second, the United States and the European nations are peaceful because they are consumer societies in which life is made pleasant for most by entertainment and shopping. But now, coming out of a recession, we are fearful of plunging back into another one and risking worse consequences.
Third, globalization means we all depend on each other. The greatly increased standard of living for Russians over the past 15 years owes much to that. But Russia has only partly adopted a consumer mentality. The enthusiasm with which many Russians greeted the taking of Crimea shows that there are still ardent, warlike spirits prepared to back audacity in pursuit of extending the nation to ethnic kin.
Fourth, unlike Russia, Ukraine is an uncertain nation. It was ill-prepared for independence and its people elected a series of mediocre, largely corrupt leaders. It is an independent state and what Russia is doing is an international outrage. But habits of subordination are not quickly lost.
Thus when the EU comes to the aid of Ukraine, it is a non-nation reaching out to an incomplete one. The EU cannot agree on decisive action and Ukraine’s leaders cannot reconcile the pro-European western Ukrainians with the pro-Russian easterners — some of whom are setting fire to police stations and patrolling the streets with automatic rifles.
The West’s problem is a failure of the imagination. None but the old remember war that threatened entire continents. We who don’t remember those wars find it hard to imagine that the people of a state that was on the road to Western democracy would so recklessly endanger the peace of Europe. And tell so many barefaced lies while doing so.
But we must imagine it. Putin has done so. Since he took office in 2000, Putin has had a heartfelt belief in this possibility; deeper than the beliefs that animate Western statesmen. It is a belief that Russia was brought low in the 1980s and ‘90s and needs to recover its greatness. He strives to be a world leader in a country that made world history several times in the last century and may do so again, under his leadership, in the 21st century.
PHOTO: Visitors walk past TV sets during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s live broadcast nationwide phone-in at the DNS electronic shop in Russia’s Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk April 17, 2014. REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin