Putin’s gamble

Feb 23, 2022
Much of what we are seeing today is the result of a failure to negotiate and conclude a post-USSR security order in the region. (Image: Flickr / OpenDemocracy)

Under pressure from pro-Russian separatists in Donbass, a series of incremental Western arms control abrogations, and the failure by both sides to implement the Minsk 2 accords, something eventually had to give.

Vladimir Putin’s recognition of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent republics is reckless and dangerous, but not surprising. If this is the full extent of his territorial ambitions, as seems likely, the world will live with it as it has with the incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation. It currently falls well short of an ‘invasion’, but the potential to escalate is there and the need for a proper settlement of all the issues must be urgently addressed.

His concerns about the US and NATO in Ukraine should be taken seriously and have merit. Anyone looking at NATO’s eastward spread after 1990, the broken agreement about this by Clinton and Bush Jr, US sponsorship of the 2014 coup, weapons systems and arms sales to Ukraine, backing neo-Nazis in Kiev, and Washington’s long-standing efforts to strategically snooker Russia, cannot be surprised by Putin’s response.

In the West we may have forgotten about NATO’s illegal wars against Serbia and Libya, but neither the Chinese nor the Russians have. Viewing the strategic outlook from the Kremlin’s perspective, however, is political taboo in the West.

Much of what we are seeing today is the result of a failure to negotiate and conclude a post-USSR security order in the region. Notwithstanding the nonsense in Putin’s speech about Ukraine being a creation of Lenin and his risible suggestion that the country is developing nuclear weapons, Ukraine will remain a perennial concern for Moscow and a mischievous strategic opportunity for Washington until a solid agreement is reached.

All the talk about the breach of Ukraine’s sovereignty and the illegality of annexation is true. However, violations of state sovereignty are widely practiced by the West and its allies, who are in no moral position to condemn Moscow.

Where are the sanctions on the US and Israel when Donald Trump unilaterally recognised Israel’s illegal annexation of the Golan Heights, which is the sovereign territory of Syria? Or when he acknowledged Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, also in clear in violation of international law? The illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza are only possible because of financial, diplomatic and military support from the United States.

What sanctions have been imposed on Turkey for its illegal annexation of northern Cyprus in 1974 and its occupation ever since? Turkey is a NATO member, so its breach of international law has been largely cost free, despite remarkably similar arguments from Ankara then to those made by Putin today. No other state recognises the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, though it remains untroubled by the international community.

Why does the US and the UK provide Saudi Arabia with weapons to violate Yemen’s sovereignty and immiserate its population?

Why does the West allow Morocco to illegally occupy the Western Sahara without sanctions being imposed on its ruling elite?

Both the US and Israel routinely flout Syria’s sovereignty without even an expression of concern in the Western media, let alone international condemnation and economic sanctions.

And, of course, no state which illegally invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003 at such an appalling human cost, smashing the country’s communal balance and destabilising the entire region along the way, is in any position to lecture others about war crimes.

Beyond additional sanctions, there is very little that the West can do to pressure Putin to reverse his move. It cannot deploy military forces directly and must hold back some economic measures pending a possible escalation by the Kremlin beyond the Donbass region.

Washington is affronted by any challenges to NATO’s strategic dominance in Europe, as we saw in the Balkans during 1999. Moscow’s successful defiance of the West, first in Crimea and now in Donbas, cannot go unpunished but the White House has very few options at its disposal.

China poses a similar problem for the West in East Asia, regardless of whether it launches a military attack across the Taiwan Straits or extends its littoral presence in the South China Sea. The long-standing strategic primacy of the West is being challenged for the first time in centuries.

Meanwhile Washington is more concerned about keeping Paris and Berlin in line than it is about Ukrainians. NATO has traditionally been the tool for this discipline but Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz may not feel obliged to stay on the same page as Joe Biden indefinitely: they have different interests with Russia. An independent European security voice has been Washington’s worst nightmare since the 1950s.

The West should drop the infantile demonisation of Putin together with its pious and hypocritical talk about breaches of the so called ‘rules-based international order’, and deal seriously with a problem that is now 34 years in the making.

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