By Rajan Philips –
“… All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice: … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” – Karl Marx, 1851. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.
What was once Cold War is now all hot air. Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union, and Putin is neither a Bolshevik nor Communist. His only connection to Bolsheviks is through his grandfather who was the personal cook to both Lenin and Stalin. Putin is a socially conservative Orthodox Christian. He regrets the collapse of the Soviet Union and the power that went with it, but he does not desire the restoration of Soviet Russia but that of the pre-Soviet Russian empire.
When the Soviet Union dissolved itself in 1991, it also removed the reason for NATO’s being. After the dissolution, Russia was recognized as the “legal successor” to the Soviet Union and its international commitments including debts and assets. Ukraine wanted a part of it, but it was brushed aside and had its nuclear arsenal, the world’s third in numbers, jointly neutered by the world’s first two, the US and Russia. And the ‘legal continuity’ of Russia has also served NATO’s military bureaucrats, letting them continue their career turfdom and the perks that go with it. After 1991, instead of mutual dissolution, NATO spread itself open inviting the former Warsaw Pact countries, but stopped short of letting in the former Soviet Republics, including Ukraine and Georgia among others. They are permanently “aspiring NATO members.”
Vladimir Putin wants assurances that Ukraine will never be admitted in NATO. NATO and the West have flatly rejected Putin’s demand. Both sides know that Ukraine may never become a NATO member, but Putin is going to war with Ukraine just to pre-empt its NATO membership. Ukraine can hardly fight back. The country has “no security,” its President Volodymyr Zelensky admitted recently. Former Soviet era Ukrainian commanders are blaming the 1991 removal of nuclear arsenal that has left Ukraine with no bargaining power with anyone. It is defenseless against Russia, and it gets nothing by way of fighting support from the West other than sanctions against Russia.
Putin has been maniacally reckless in starting the current skirmish. One day he declared two southeastern regions of Ukraine to be “independent,” and sent Russian troops just to reinforce their independence. The next day he started a “special military operation” against Ukraine. For two days, he provided rambling justifications for his actions against Ukraine. He questioned the existential entitlement of Ukraine that had once been a part of the old Russian empire. He protested that Ukraine was robbed from Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed. He argued that he was not attacking Ukraine but only preventing a threat from Ukraine to Russia. He even addressed Ukraine’s military directly as “dear comrades,” and urged them not to “follow criminal orders” but “to lay down (your) weapons and go home.”
How far will Putin go, even he may not know. Will he annex the eastern parts of Ukraine the way he annexed Crimea in 2014? Will he mow down all of Ukraine and bring it again under Russia’s control? Will he just stop one day and dare NATO and its leaders to give him what he wants or face worse? He has warned the West in stark terms: “Whoever tries to interfere with us, and even more so, to create threats for our country, for our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history.” The warning is being interpreted as a nuclear threat to NATO and the West.
West flummoxed and isolated
Beyond hot air rhetoric and sanctions that Putin may have already factored into, there is nothing much the West can do, or is willing to do, for Ukraine. The West’s real dilemma is that its people do not want to go to war anywhere anymore. The irony is that when people in western countries were not as opposed to wars as they are now, there were always political groups and peace organizations who stood up for peace and protested against wars. Nixon infamously unleashed his ‘silent majority’ of war mongers to attack students protesting against the Vietnam war. Now with the silent majority decidedly against wars, there is no restraint on the rhetoric of war in political discourse. Overall, the scope and any hope for diplomacy is lost in the rhetoric over war.
The Labour Party in Britain is daring Prime Minister Johnson to show how far he will go. It is easy for an opposition party to goad a government on war when it is known that the government will never send troops to the battlefield. In Canada, the governing Liberal Party has deviated from its longstanding policy of middle power diplomacy that was executed quite well during the Cold War era. In 2002-03, Canada refused to join the US invasion of Iraq. So did France and Germany and a number of other European and Western countries. As did Russia. Now Russia is the villain and the attacker. And Ukraine is helpless now as Iraq was then. But unlike then, there is no division among NATO countries now.
Three weeks ago, Oxford University’s European Studies Professor Timothy Garton Ash wrote an opinion piece that “the West doesn’t know what it wants in Eastern Europe.” The West according to Professor Ash has been chasing two conflicting models for the future of Europe. One is the Helsinki model, developed from 1975 and finalized after the Cold War, under Bush the elder, as “Europe, whole, free and at peace.”
The second model is the Yalta model based on the 1945 summit between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in Yalta, Crimea (“oh irony of history,” as Ash noted). The Yalta model (or Yalta 2) will restore to Russia what was accorded to the Soviet Union, namely, a sphere of influence in Europe. Not necessarily the old Eastern Europe, but at least some or all of the former Soviet republics. At the least, just Ukraine. Putin will be happy.
Prof. Ash’s grouse is that the West is not vigorously and solely pursuing the Helsinki model. He blames that the West is somehow stuck in the Cold War era Ostpolitik mindset of West Germany (that was Chancellor Brandt’s ‘new eastern policy’ of reproachment towards East Germany). Ash is not quite calling for NATO’s military intervention in Ukraine, but blaming NATO of hypocrisy for not admitting Ukraine as a NATO member means just that.
Prof. Ash is also not for permanently isolating Russia from the rest of Europe under the Helsinki model. Only so long as Putin is in control of Russia. Once Putin is gone, a “democratic Russia” should be welcomed to join and reinforce NATO – “in the face of an assertive Chinese superpower.” The cycle will go on. Farce and tragedy all at once!
China and India
But before the next cycle there might be an immediate need to get China’s help to checkmate Putin. There’s the rub. For there’s apparently no one else in the world whom Putin would listen to except China’s Xi Jinping. And Putin may have already cultivated China to be on his side on the Ukraine matter. He officially attended the Beijing Olympics even though Russian athletes were not allowed to participate in the games representing Russia. Away from the games, Putin and Xi produced a 5,000-word statement of solidarity that did not mention Ukraine even once.
On the other hand, the West’s attempt to ‘diplomatically’ boycott the Olympics while allowing the athletes to represent their countries ended in embarrassment. There has not been a shorter list of boycotting countries. The US, UK, Canada and Australia, the leading boycotters, were joined only by India, Lithuania, Kosovo, Belgium, Denmark and Estonia.
In contrast, on 16 December, the UN passed a resolution, with a 130-2 vote, against “the glorification of “Nazism, neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism” in many western countries, against NATO admitting Ukraine, and calling for “West and Russia to sign a binding East-West security pact.” That would be Yalta-2 for Professor Ash. Only two countries voted against the resolution – the US and Ukraine, while most NATO countries abstained from the vote.
In what is seen as a diplomatic victory for the US and President Biden, the Western countries are now united on imposing sanctions against Russia. Even Germany, the most reluctant of them because of its 30% dependence on Russia for its natural gas supplies, has finally joined the sanction spree. Germany has even stopped the controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas line project providing a direct connection between Russia and Germany. But for every sanctioned imposed on Russia, the western governments have been warning their people of equal and opposite reactions – in supply shortages and rising prices, especially in the fuel and energy sector. These effects will go beyond the West and some of them have already started.
The question is whether economic sanctions would be able to deter Putin and force him to stop the attacks on Ukraine. Or will they lead to alternative supply line system predicated on Russia and China? The financial sanctions imposed on Russia are not expected to have much effect because Russia does not have large or worrisome debts. On the other hand, if financial sanctions were extended to cutting off Russia from the global (Swift) banking system, they may play into China’s hands and its desire to “de-dollarise the world’s financial architecture.”
As world opinion goes, the West, especially the US, may have been hoping to get onside India’s Modi government as an extension of their Quad club against China. But India has chosen to limit its response at the UN Security Council, indicating concerns over the developments in Ukraine but stopping short of criticizing Russia. Russia has welcomed India’s ‘independent stand’ at the UN, even as it is welcoming Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan who could not have chosen a worse time to visit Moscow to make his Kashmir pitch.
Russia has indicated that there would be no change in its policy that Kashmir is “a bilateral dispute.” Just as it would like Ukraine to be treated as a bilateral dispute between two former fraternal republics. But Ukraine is not Kashmir and it is not going to be left alone like Kashmir for another seventy years. Putin may seem unstoppable for now, but whatever he ends up accomplishing may equally prove to be unsustainable. Equally, as well, it is not NATO or the West that are in a position to set Europe or any other part of the world to be “whole, free and at peace.” Only, tragedy and farce all at once!