Ukraine-Russia crisis: Between invasion and appeasement, is there a middle way? – Professor Tim Willasey-Wilsey
So what are the prospects for a better outcome than the deadly alternatives of invasion or appeasement?
The only certain factor is that we are now reaching the end-game. If Vladimir Putin is going to invade Ukraine, it will have to be soon. He cannot keep 130,000 soldiers under canvas on Ukraine’s freezing borders indefinitely.
The United States and Britain have been warning of imminent invasion either because they have good intelligence or because it is seen as a way of deterring Russia (or both).
All Nato countries agree that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would be disastrous for Europe. It would also be a serious mistake for Putin. Russia could never subjugate the whole country and the outcomes would range from a long and costly insurgency to a de facto partition of eastern and western Ukraine.
Apart from refugee and energy crises, there would be permanent instability on Russia’s western border. Putin has other less reckless military options available but still retains the ability to order a full invasion. Only he knows whether he will use it.
Although Putin’s actions have actually rekindled Western unity, it is evident that Germany and France are on a slightly different track to the US and UK. President Emmanuel Macron has long stressed the importance of the EU having a separate foreign policy to the United States and Nato.
Berlin has been unwilling to follow Washington and London in sending arms to Kyiv. And, thanks to Angela Merkel’s decommissioning of Germany’s nuclear power plants after the Fukushima disaster, Germany is almost completely dependent on Russian gas. Chancellor Olaf Scholz cannot afford a major rift with Russia and this represents Putin’s greatest point of leverage.
Western unity has come at another cost; an inability to set out an agreed menu of sanctions against Russia. Germany might be willing to suspend the Nord Stream 2 pipeline for a few months but it cannot afford to block it indefinitely. There is no unanimity on the wisdom of excluding Russia from the Swift payments system.
In fact, the possibility is that Western sanctions may not hurt Russia as much as the costs to Europe of a suspension or restriction of Russian gas supplies. Attempts by the US to find Europe alternative sources of supply in Qatar and elsewhere were only partly successful. Qatar sells the bulk of its gas to Asian markets. It could probably send a few more LNG tankers to Europe but this additional supply could never plug the energy gap.
Both Western tendencies (the US and UK on the one side backed by the Baltic Republics and much of eastern Europe; and France and Germany supported by most of western Europe on the other) know that Putin is trying to sow disunity within Nato.
For this reason, both have been careful to limit criticism of each other. British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace’s comment about “a whiff of Munich in the air” was a rare expression of concern about what Macron and Scholz might be discussing with Putin.
The deal under discussion seems to be a formula which would acknowledge the reality that Ukraine will never join Nato. Ukraine’s ambassador in London has already suggested that his country might accept this outcome if it prevented an invasion.
It will likely also include the implementation of the stalled and deeply flawed Minsk II agreement of 2015, which provides Russia with ample opportunities to sow division within Ukraine’s borders from its de facto enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk.
These two measures would represent a bad outcome for Ukraine and would reward Putin for his bullying. They might however be approved, if only reluctantly, by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Would this be enough to persuade Putin to dismantle his vastly expensive military preparations? He cannot afford to come away empty-handed or with a few vague diplomatic concessions which later prove to be illusory.
He will want signed agreements and this is where Paris and Berlin will need to get formal approval from Washington and London. This could put US President Joe Biden and Boris Johnson in a difficult position.
Refusing to endorse an agreement could lead to Russian military action, whereas endorsing it would look like another demonstration of Western weakness following the Afghan fiasco of last August.
Whether such a deal really constitutes appeasement is a matter of perspective. The Baltic states would doubtless be uneasy, as would Georgia. Taiwan too would wonder what conclusions would be drawn by Beijing from such an agreement.
If, however, Western unity fractures, the long-term consequences would be considerable. The value of Nato membership would be undermined. Putin would be triumphant and he would have his sphere of influence including Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
The US and UK would appear isolated for a time and their diplomacy criticised as unduly combative as the prospect of a war recedes. But Putin would return to the charge at some later date. He still has unfinished business in the Baltic states, Georgia, Moldova and the Balkans.
Appeasement has been made a dirty word by Munich 1938. In fact, many who had fought in the trenches between 1914 and 1918 and the civilians who lost family and friends welcomed Neville Chamberlain’s formula which delivered peace while sealing the fate of Czechoslovakia.
Chamberlain is rightly being re-evaluated by historians because he made good use of the extra year of peace to rearm and prepare Britain for war. One wonders if Chancellor Scholz will spend the rest of this decade in an urgent effort to end Germany’s dependence on Russian gas before Putin comes back looking for more concessions.
Tim Willasey-Wilsey is a visiting professor at King’s College, London and a former senior British diplomat
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