Rejected by his daughters, King Lear cried out that he would have his revenge: “I will do such things. What they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.”
The wicked daughters, Goneril and Regan, were not fazed. They knew the old man’s threats were empty. There were no terrors he could summon up.
Comparing Vladimir Putin to the two sisters, and the West to the furious but powerless Lear, comes uncomfortably close to an accurate description of the way things are after Crimea’s declaration of (temporary) independence to be followed by its incorporation into the Russian Federation. The West huffs and puffs, but all it has been able to come up with, so far anyway, are travel bans on a few leading Russians, the freezing of some assets, and mutterings about expelling Russia from the G8. This amounts to little more than a rap on the knuckles.
Moreover, the West scarcely holds the moral high ground. Russia has a one-word answer to our indignation. The word is “Kosovo”. The West, acting through Nato, not only approved Kosovo’s breakaway from Serbia. It went to war and bombed Belgrade to compel the Serbian government to accept it, and then, within a short space of time, recognized Kosovo as an independent state. President Putin has not bombed Kiev to force it to relinquish its legal claim to Crimea and to accept the dismemberment of the Ukrainian state. He might claim that, in comparison with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, he has been a model of restraint.
When the Kosovo war was launched, Alex Salmond denounced it as “an unpardonable folly”. The apparent success of the war made him look rather foolish. He doesn’t look foolish today. He looks decidedly prescient. Actions have consequences, and one consequence of the Kosovo war is Russia’s de facto annexation of Crimea. One might add that it is also the consequence of our subsequent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. If we intervene in countries to effect regime change, why shouldn’t others do likewise? Sauce for the Western goose, Mr Putin might say, is sauce for the Russian gander. No doubt there is some equivalent Russian proverb.
The feebleness of the West’s response to Russia’s provocative actions not only shows how unsure we are, but how tense and therefore dangerous the situation is. We might start by acknowledging that, though Russia is now seen to be acting provocatively, things look different from Moscow, where it is believed that the coup in Kiev was encouraged, and possibly financed and organised, to some extent anyway, by the USA and the EU.
Be that as it may, we are where we are, and the problem is how to deal with what has happened.
For a long time now there has been no danger of war in western Europe; one of the achievements of the EU has been to remove any military option when there is disagreement between member states. We hoped, with some reason, that a similar development would follow the collapse of the Soviet Union, that, the Cold War being over, Russia might be brought harmoniously into the community of European nations. This hope is not yet extinguished, but it looks faint today. The Cold War never turned hot. The reality of Mutually Assured Destruction (Mad) saw to that. But Mad has its limits. The reality of the nuclear deterrent is so terrible that the circumstances in which it might be used, even as a threat, are hard to envisage. No sane head of state would start a nuclear war. One consequence is that what we may call adventurism, such as Russia’s actions in Crimea or the West’s Kosovo war, will not be deterred and will go essentially unpunished. You can push hard at the fringes without risking nuclear war. Indeed the sort of action that might have provoked a war before the nuclear age may now be less risky. Stumbling or bumbling into a full-scale war as Europe did 100 years ago is less likely now because we all recognise how terrible such a war would be.
So the question is: how do you restrain adventurism? The West is not in a strong position to preach because of our own actions. Good reasons could be advanced for all our recent wars, but the fact is that we have invaded other countries and overthrown regimes because we could do so with (comparative) impunity. In the case of the Kosovo war we paid no heed to Russian objections or indeed to international law. So we are now in a quandary.
On the one hand, we disapprove of Russian adventurism in Ukraine and are acutely aware of the fear this arouses in the Baltic states, which are now members of the EU and Nato – which is why we have offered Royal Navy Typhoons to patrol their borders. On the other hand, we must recognise that repairing relations with Russia is in everyone’s interest. The purpose of the first very gentle rap on the knuckles which we have delivered is merely to suggest that, if Russia persists in its adventurism, sanctions which would really damage the Russian economy may be imposed. Some would damage our economy too, but that is a risk we may have to be seen to be ready to take.
For the moment, Russia has the upper hand. It is unlikely the defection of Crimea can be reversed, or its incorporation in the Russian Federation be prevented. President Putin has taken the first trick. He will doubtless continue to put pressure on the rickety Ukrainian state, and we shall continue to try to prop it up. The stand-off may last a long time, and nerves on both sides will be severely tested.
But this isn’t a new Cold War – not yet anyway – and it is in Russia’s interests, as well as ours, to prevent the present situation from worsening. We are a long way from 1914, not only in years but in mindset. It is important that we shouldn‘t allow ourselves to be distracted by historical comparisons. Putin is not a new Hitler. Russia is not our enemy. The Crimea is not the Sudetenland. A peace conference, which is desirable, would not be a Munich.