SPECTATOR: Putin’s Winning Hand

William Hague was on rather shaky ground when he argued this week that Moscow has chosen “the route to isolation” by recognizing Crimea’s referendum. On the contrary, it is the European Union and the United States who look as if they have seriously overplayed their respective hands in Ukraine. Across Asia, Africa and Latin America, the cry of “Western hypocrisy” has been heard much louder than complaints about Vladimir Putin.

Even in the UK, mainstream opinion is steadily becoming more critical of Western interventionism and our “New Cold War” posturing – despite some pretty one-sided media coverage and much establishment “tut-tutting”. Independent thought is still viewed with suspicion, and even disgust, by some – and I should know, having consistently argued we should negotiate with Moscow, not threaten tough sanctions we’ll never impose.

Such queasiness about being labeled “pro-Russia”, though, has lately been eclipsed by a growing sense among British voters and commentators, increasingly articulated, that the West has gone way beyond its jurisdiction in Ukraine and made a bad situation far worse.

The “Crimea crisis” is the most serious East-West standoff since the USSR collapsed. Even if the worst is now over, this skirmish has changed diplomacy in ways that go beyond the sovereignty of a sun-kissed Black Sea peninsula not much bigger than Wales.

For one thing, the gaping rift between the EU and America now stands exposed. The Washington hawks gained almost no traction in Western Europe, where there was little appetite for conflict. Even if Russia didn’t supply a third of Europe’s oil and gas, other commercial ties still bind. EU trade with Russia was $460bn in 2012. America’s total was a twelfth of that, with few hydrocarbons. No wonder the hawks have been frustrated the EU won’t do more.

Upheaval in Ukraine has also seen Germany emerge as a major international player. Berlin, its diplomacy so often hobbled by residual 20th century guilt, has moved decisively to protect its interests. The Russo-German axis, we now realize, is strong – and getting stronger. With great determination, a myriad of German firms have built lucrative Russian trading links over the last two decades. Along with the likes of VW and Siemens, thousands of smaller “Mittelstand” outfits now operate in Russia’s far-flung regions, making everything from machine tools to plasterboard. Russia has become Germany’s biggest single-country trading partner – a relationship that has much further to run.

Such commercial links put the idea of a united Western world baring its teeth at Moscow firmly in the last century. Berlin has staunchly resisted meaningful sanctions, ensuring the EU follows suit. The Russian-speaking Chancellor Angela Merkel has indulged in some face-saving anti-Putin rhetoric. But she has also skillfully positioned Berlin as a credible arbiter, respected on both sides, between Moscow and the West. This is a major diplomatic development.

Something has happened in the States, too. Yes, President Obama’s opponents keep bashing his 2009 attempts to “reset” relations with Moscow. Certain TV news networks will continue describing “Soviet Russia” as a “rogue state” – despite Moscow’s logistical and intelligence assistance in the “war on terror”. Yet even the White House has come under domestic pressure to go easy on sanctions. American thoroughbreds including Ford, GM, Boeing, Procter & Gamble, Pepsi and John Deere have between them sunk tens of billions of dollars into Russia-based production facilities, as have several US oil majors.

Defence industry lobbyists will forever play up the “Russia threat”. But now, any US President has a growing corporate lobby in the other ear, stressing the “Russia opportunity”. Recent events have highlighted this reality, providing a partial future counter-weight to the ubiquitous Capitol Hill interventionists.

John Kerry, in his role as Obama’s sabre-rattler in Chief, has looked tired and irrelevant. “You can’t invade another country on a completely trumped-up pretext,” the US Secretary of State told the world via Twitter. It was a message that, far from galvanizing support against Russia’s actions, attracted widespread derision. For all their use of social media, the West’s Cold War warriors have lately come across as analogue politicians in a digital age.

Another striking diplomatic development, also likely to endure, is that China has moved closer to Russia. “We don’t see any point in sanctions,” says Beijing’s ambassador to Germany. “It’s time for Western powers to abandon their Cold War thinking,” adds China’s Xinhua state news agency. Enemies for much of the Cold War, Russia and China are forging deep commercial ties, their annual bilateral trade up sevenfold in the last ten years, to almost $100bn. The stronger the Russia-China axis, the more power flows to the East – and our efforts in Ukraine have united Moscow and Beijing against us.

The question remains: why did the West back a group of rock-throwing thugs as they forcefully ousted a Ukrainian President who, while no angel, had been legitimately elected until 2015? Why did we scrap a deal, signed by three EU Foreign Ministers, to form a “government of national unity”? Why is the current Kiev government “legitimate” when its creation was opaque and transgressed Ukraine’s constitution?

International law says “territorial integrity” must be preserved and Crimea shouldn’t join Russia without Kiev’s say-so. But the UN Charter also enshrines a right to “self-determination” – a right which Crimeans, for all the finger-pointing about a rigged ballot, have just expressed in no uncertain terms.

This Crimea crisis has changed a lot. America and the EU are split, Germany is a new diplomatic powerhouse and Sino-Russian relations are closer too. Above all, the West’s influence has diminished – by our bull-headed determination to support the upending of Ukrainian democracy and by threatening “consequences” we could never impose while reinterpreting international laws we ourselves routinely ignore. We stand demeaned and weakened, now with far less ability to influence events in the future.


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