Monday, January 12, 2015

Appease Putin and avert a second Cold War


A spectre once again haunts Europe. No, I don't mean radical Islam, which once again reared its ugly head last week. I'm referring to a new Cold War, one that represents a far more dangerous threat to the continent.  

Russia's illegal incursion in Crimea and insurrection in eastern Ukraine has drawn the wrath of the West. In Russia, meanwhile, anti-Americanism has reached new highs, Barack Obama is widely despised and Russian supermarkets use US flags as doormats for customers to wipe their feet on. 

It's been a quarter of a century since the collapse of Soviet Communism. Yet here we are at the dawn of second Cold War between – let's not forget – two nuclear giants. Why? 

The conventional wisdom says Putin is a monster bent on reviving the Russian empire. Put the past year's events in a broader historical context, however, and you'll reach a more plausible conclusion.


According to foreign-policy realists (including this writer), Putin's conduct has been understandable. It has been a reaction to the West's attempts to pull Ukraine and other former Warsaw Pact satellite states away from Russia's strategic orbit. 

In the late 1990s and 2000s, Washington and Brussels expanded NATO up to the frontiers of the former Soviet Union. In so doing, they repudiated an implicit agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev in the early 1990s, that we would not exploit Russia's security vulnerabilities, lest the demise of the Soviet Union unleash the kind of chaos and bloodshed that characterised the collapse of other empires. 

Add to this the US missile shield on Russia's doorstep and last year's western-backed coup against a democratically elected, pro-Moscow government in Kiev, and it is no wonder Putin thinks we are intent on "tearing out the claws and teeth" of the bear.   

We had some warning of all this. It wasn't just the Russians who warned that NATO expansion would cause trouble. In 1997, the architect of the Cold War doctrine of containment, George Kennan, and former prime minister Paul Keating were among many sceptics. Moving the western alliance into Russia's face, predicted Kennan, would be a "fateful error". It "may rank in the end", said Keating, "with the strategic miscalculations which prevented Germany from taking its full place in the international system at the beginning of this century." 

The critics have been vindicated. Yet the likes of Hillary Clinton and Prince Charles continue to equate Russia's incursion in Ukraine to Hitler's expansion in the 1930s. In fact, Putin's calculations are based on an old truth of geopolitics: great powers play hardball to defend their vital interests in their sphere of influence. Recall Washington's response to the Soviets' attempts to put nukes in Cuba.  

One can agree Putin is a thug and still envisage a role for Russia in what it deemed its near abroad long before Stalin appeared on the scene. After all, Ukraine is a conduit for exports to Europe and covers a huge terrain that the French and Germans crossed to attack Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. Most Crimeans, remember, are glad to be part of the country they called home from the time of Catherine the Great to Nikita Khrushchev. 

It's also worth reflecting that we need Russia's support more than we realise. A nuclear deal with Iran is unlikely without Moscow's cooperation. Russia shares intelligence with the US-led coalition about Islamic State terrorists. Picking a fight with Putin also undermines the US pivot to Asia. After all, it merely drives the Russians into the arms of the Chinese and makes it more difficult for Washington to make Asia its number one strategic priority. That is not in Australia's interest. 

What to do? If made desperate and humiliated further, this weakened power could be dangerous like a cornered, wounded animal. A rapprochement, on the other hand, would not just end the crippling sanctions as well as bring to account those separatists who shot down the Malaysian passenger jet in July. It would more or less respect Putin's limited conditions for peace: call on Kiev to respect the minority rights of ethnic Russians, cease EU and NATO expansion and make Ukraine a buffer state between East and West.    

Call it "appeasement" if you like. But when dealing with a traditional great power with modest regional ambitions, a policy of compromise and accommodation is justified. As Winston Churchill argued: "Appeasement in itself may be good or bad according to the circumstances." 

Bear also in mind another wise Churchillian principle: "In victory, magnanimity." The British conservative was no wimp, but he recognised the folly of grinding the face of an old foe in the dirt. 

George H. W. Bush was magnanimous in 1989-91 when he refused to, as he put it, "dance on the [Berlin] wall" and "gloat" over the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Alas, his successors, intoxicated by the belief that America was the "indispensable nation," expanded the US security umbrella without taking into account Russian susceptibilities. 

The West can avert a second Cold War if our leaders adopt a more prudent approach towards Russia. Detente would upset unreconstructed cold warriors, but it is more likely to resolve the gravest crisis in the post-Cold War era than the madness of repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.

Tom Switzer, a research associate at the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre, is host of Between the Lines on ABC's Radio National


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