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The tragedy of Western diplomacy

Before the tragic downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, much of the world was not particularly anxious about Russia. Despite the warnings of Hillary Clinton and Zbigniew Brzezinski to the contrary, most people did not believe Vladimir Putin represented the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. If Russia posed the same kind of threat to European order today that Nazi Germany did in the 1930s, the West would have responded more forcefully to Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula and its incursions in eastern Ukraine this year.

But since 17 July, attitudes have changed dramatically. Today, fears about Russia’s aggression are rising and calls to punish President Putin are growing. The reason for the shifting mood is easy to discern. All the available evidence indicates that the separatists in eastern Ukraine were responsible for launching the surface-to-air missile that killed 298 souls, including 37 Australian citizens or permanent residents, on board the Malaysian passenger jet this northern summer. The incident was probably a military blunder, not a war crime. But by failing to cooperate fully with an international inquiry and recovery efforts, the Russian- backed insurgents are casting the Motherland as an international pariah.

A cursory review of newspaper editorials around the world highlights Moscow’s fragile position. The episode, warns the Wall Street Journal, ought to be “a moment of moral and strategic clarity about the threat that Vladimir Putin’s regime poses to world order.” “Russia did it and Mr Putin must pay, politically and economically,” demands The Sunday Times of London. “Getting tough with the Russian bully is long overdue,” urges The Australian. Putin “must stop interfering in Ukraine [and] disarm the rebels ... US and European disarray over confronting him must stop.” The Bear, we are told, is on the prowl again, and it must be put back in its cage.

I take a special interest in this controversy because I am one of few Australians who embraced what is known as the foreign-policy realist approach to Russia after the downfall of the Yanukovych government in February. In my last column for American Review, in writings for The American Conservative and ABC’s The Drum, and lectures elsewhere, I have argued that the United States and the European Union share most of the responsibility for the Ukrainian crisis. Other realists in the United States, such as John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago), Stephen Walt (Harvard University), Ian Bremmer (Eurasia Group) and Stephen Cohen (Princeton University), make the same points.

By expanding NATO eastwards in the Clinton and George W. Bush eras, and by helping bring down a democratically elected, pro-Russian — albeit corrupt and thuggish — government in Kiev, the West has needlessly poked at the Russian bear. It has repudiated the implicit agreement between presidents George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in the early 1990s that the Atlantic security alliance would not extend into Eastern Europe and the Baltics. In so doing, Washington and Brussels have upset the sensibilities of the Russian people and political elites alike.

Let’s be clear: the aim of realists has not been to defend anything Putin has done, but simply to explain what is going on. It is imperative to understand what has caused this crisis to have any hope of trying to solve it. For if you understand what is motivating Putin, his behaviour is easy to understand, which is not to say you have to like it. 

So what caused this crisis? The conventional wisdom in the West blames Russian aggressiveness. Today, eastern Ukraine; tomorrow, Kiev; the day after, who knows? But a more plausible explanation points to the West’s efforts to peel Ukraine from Russia’s strategic orbit. That was guaranteed to cause big trouble as leading realists such as George Kennan and Owen Harries predicted in the mid-1990s.

Above all else, Putin believes that Washington and Brussels are bent on integrating into the West an area that Moscow has deemed as its sphere of influence well before Lenin and Stalin appeared on the scene, and he sees Ukraine’s move out of Russia’s strategic orbit as an existential threat to Moscow. What has happened over the past few months confirms his views on the matter. What has happened since MH17, moreover, is likely to reinforce his belief that the Ukrainian government is driving the violence, destabilising a deeply divided country and, according to Stephen Cohen, killing up to three thousand civilians and creating a largely untold refugee crisis. In response, the rebels are trying to shoot down western-backed Ukrainian warplanes that fail to heed the cease- fire. It was in this context that 17 June tragedy took place.

In an article in the forthcoming Foreign Affairs magazine, John Mearsheimer argues:

Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of geopolitics should have seen this crisis coming. After all, the West was moving into Russia’s backyard and threatening its core strategic interests. 

Moscow made this point emphatically on numerous occasions, Still, hardly anyone in the United States or Europe saw the train wreck coming.

The prevailing wisdom in the West argues that Putin is bent on creating a Greater Russia, which means annexing territory in Ukraine and even Eastern Europe. If that were true, where were the signs of his intentions to invade Crimea before the downfall of the pro-Russian Ukrainian government in February? Moreover, why hasn’t Putin taken over the rebel strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk? He would need to commit the Russian army to invading eastern Ukraine, something that is widely unpopular in Russia.

The West will continue to put Putin under intense pressure to withdraw his support from the rebels in order to de-escalate the crisis. But given that Putin cannot tolerate Ukraine’s move to the West, and given Kiev’s intent to squash the insurgency, he may feel he has no choice but to back the rebels in Ukraine no matter what. To abandon them would damage his credibility and prestige among a majority of ethnic Russians in Ukraine and the mainland.

Will Putin cave into Western demands? He is prepared to cooperate with demands for a binding UN Security Council resolution for an inquiry into the MH17 tragedy and its aftermath. But it is also possible that this crisis could get worse before it gets better. Putin could double down, just as the Americans and most likely the Europeans might double down. In these circumstances, accidents and miscalculations in the region could spiral into a dramatic escalation of the conflict. It’s for these reasons that Stephen Cohen believes the world is on the verge of a Cuban Missile Crisis of the 21st century.

What distinguishes Moscow’s calculations from those in the United States and Europe is that Ukraine is a matter of intense strategic importance. Ukraine, after all, is a buffer state for Russia: it is a huge expanse of flat land that powerful nations such as Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany have crossed to strike at Russia itself. “There is no way Putin or any other Russian leader is going to tolerate a military alliance, which was Moscow’s mortal enemy until recently, moving into Ukraine,” argues Mearsheimer. “Nor is any Russian leader going to stand idly by while the West backs a coup in Kiev that puts a government in place that is hostile to Moscow and determined to integrate Ukraine into the West.” 

To say again, we Westerners may not like Moscow’s conduct, but we should understand the logic behind Putin’s calculations. Imagine how Washington would respond if another great power extended its military alliance to Central America or interfered in the internal affairs of northern Mexico.

Moreover, neither the Europeans nor the Americans are panting for a new Cold War with their old strategic nemesis over a region where no US army has even fought before. Although American views of Russia are less positive today than at any time in the past century, few consider Putin’s military incursion in Ukraine a critical threat to the United States. According to a recent Chicago Council survey, only 30 per cent of the American people support US military intervention in Ukraine if Russia invades the rest of the country. In short, Ukraine is not a core strategic interest for Washington or Brussels, but it remains one for Moscow.

For the West to further isolate Russia while at the same time escalating military support to Ukraine would be an act of folly. Russia is a declining great power, but it maintains a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons. If made desperate and humiliated further, it could be dangerous, like a cornered, wounded animal. Meanwhile, Washington needs Moscow’s help in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran. A US-led isolation of Russia could drive Moscow and Beijing closer together — hardly in America’s interest.

So far from doubling down on their existing policies — extending economic sanctions and escalating military support to Kiev — or punishing Russia to deter further aggression, Washington and Brussels should recognise that Putin’s conduct might be motived by legitimate security interests. He wants Ukraine to be neutral, not part of NATO, and its government to grant minority rights to the ethnic Russians in the nation’s east.

There is no question that the downing of the Malaysian passenger jet on 17 July was a great tragedy. The international community wants to make sure such events never happen again. People around the world, not least Australians who lost 37 people, have been understandably angry about the Kremlin’s failure to respond satisfactorily to this crisis. But the key to a diplomatic resolution is to remain cool, analytical, and try to figure out what caused this crisis. If political and opinion leaders fly off the handle and don’t think systematically about these issues, the West’s response — more sanctions against Russia, increased military support to Ukraine — is only going to make a bad situation worse. It is time to take a deep breath and reflect on how we got to the point where a tragedy like this could happen.