Allan Massie: No use in putting boot into Putin

Vladimir Putin wants a stable Ukraine which can afford to pay its debts, and to him, Viktor Yanukovych is the democratic-ally elected president of that country, despite what some 'protesters' may think. Picture: Getty
Vladimir Putin wants a stable Ukraine which can afford to pay its debts, and to him, Viktor Yanukovych is the democratic-ally elected president of that country, despite what some 'protesters' may think. Picture: Getty
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BELLIGERENT politicians must be told that no peaceful settlement can be reached in Ukraine without Russia’s input, writes Allan Massie

ALMOST nobody expected war in 1914; almost nobody appeared to want it. Winston Churchill remembered it as a summer of tranquillity: “There had been a score of opportunities had anyone wished to make war. Germany seemed, with us, to be set on peace.”

In July that year, after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, an American journalist wrote: “I have been waiting 25 years for your European war. Many a time it has seemed as imminent as this. But it will not come! Europe cannot afford a war. There is today such a close inter-relationship between big business in the capitals of Europe that an actual war is beyond the realms of possibility. The diplomats will fume and fuss. But they know better than to plunge their countries into a colossal struggle that will ruin Europe and set back civilisation.”

Quite so: Europe could not afford a war, but it blundered into a ruinous one nevertheless. One should be wary of looking for patterns in history. The world of today is very different from the world of 1914. Western military intervention in Ukraine is all but inconceivable. The British government has apparently ruled it out, if we are to believe the document left open to be snapped by an alert photographer. This is such a blatant breach of security that one must wonder whether it wasn’t deliberate, intended to send a message of reassurance to Vladimir Putin.

Mr Putin is in our eyes the villain of the piece. His occupation of Crimea is provocative, even though it is an autonomous region of Ukraine where the treaty which entitles Russia to base its Black Sea fleet there gives Putin a legitimate interest in the region. Arguably it is only if he moves troops into eastern Ukraine ostensibly to protect members of its Russian-speaking population that he will have infringed Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Russia has not created the problem in Ukraine, though its actions may be held to have exacerbated it. Nevertheless, even if the West chooses to regard Mr Putin as the villain, Russia will, as we argued in our leading article yesterday, have to be part of the solution. It is folly to pretend otherwise, and some of the indignation expressed in Washington rings hollow, given the US’s record of invading other countries.

It is always a good idea to try to see things as others see them. In the Russian view the present – interim? – government in Kiev is illegitimate. They speak of a coup or putsch which overthrew the government of the elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, who then fled to Russia. That government was corrupt and unpopular in western Ukraine. The protestors who occupied Independence Square – and government buildings in other cities – were brave and many were, doubtless, idealistic. They wanted reforms and closer ties with the EU.

Nevertheless we should have learned by now – from our experience of the Arab Spring in Egypt, and from the war in Syria – that protest movements are rarely just what they seem to be, and that not all protestors are liberals or democrats. There were some in the protests in Kiev whom other Ukrainians regard as nationalist fascists. The Russians assert that what they call the putsch was encouraged and perhaps financed by the West, especially America. This claim is not unreasonable.

In any case, Russia has most of the cards just now. Imposing any meaningful sanctions would hurt us in western Europe as much as they might damage Russia. Indeed they would do so more quickly, since Europe depends on Russian oil and gas for some 30 per cent of its energy requirements. The international money markets may have taken fright, and on Monday the Russian rouble fell in value so that Russia had to sell £10 billion-worth of dollars to try to prop it up. But Russia has huge reserves of cash – some £450bn in dollars. It is no longer an economic basket case; indeed it is Ukraine’s chief creditor.

Russia wants a stable Ukraine – it is the only way Ukraine can pay even the interest on its debts. But it also wants a friendly Ukraine ,where the rights and security of the Russian-speaking part of the population are respected and secured. It is unlikely to accept that the government established in Kiev is legitimate; and indeed it is hard to see that it is.

The events of the summer of 1914 should be in our minds, serving as a warning. They showed how easily misunderstandings, nervousness and uncertainty can bring about a drift into a ruinous war. Bluster and insults serve no useful purpose.

It is foolish of Senator John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate, to compare Putin to Hitler, and the Russian-speaking Ukrainians to the German minority in pre-war Czechoslovakia. Hitler was happy, even eager, to provoke a European war; there is no reason to suppose that Putin is. We may not be clear as to his objectives, but we can be fairly sure that they are limited. He is not, like Hitler, bent on world, or even European, domination.

Ukraine is in a dreadful mess, and it will be up to the Ukrainians themselves, with financial help and support from others, to sort it out. But no peaceful settlement can be reached without Russian participation. And that requires the EU and the US to understand the Russian position, drop the bluster, and explore the means by which we can co-operate. Unless we do this, we shall indeed be caught up in what William Hague has called the most dangerous crisis of the 21st century – to date anyway.

Of all western leaders, Angela Merkel is probably the one best equipped to take the initiative; she has both authority and great common sense. And common sense is what is needed. Common sense is what was missing in 1914. It would be tragic if the posturing and intransigence of politicians resulted in what is already bad becoming very much worse.

There were some who saw Winston Churchill as a warmonger – and indeed war did excite and stimulate him. Nevertheless it was Churchill who insisted during the most dangerous years of the Cold War that what he called “jaw-jaw” was to be preferred to “war-war”. It’s time for “jaw-jaw” over Ukraine, and indeed any new Russian military movement there would make jaw-jaw even more essential.