While waiting to see what emerges from the Nato summit meeting which begins in Wales today, we should remember that democracies find it difficult to confront aggressive authoritarian states from a standing start. The textbook example is the slow, hesitant performance of Britain and France in the six years that elapsed between Hitler’s coming to power in 1933 and the outbreak of the Second World War.
Nato’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, can say this week as he did that “despite Moscow’s hollow denials, it is now clear that Russian troops and equipment have illegally crossed the border into Ukraine” but still President Obama won’t use the word “invasion”. Then to take a telling example from another area of conflict, a recent Independent poll showed that only one in three people supports Britain launching air strikes against Isis in Iraq and Syria. Germany’s history has thoroughly inoculated it against warlike actions. The rest of Europe, mired in recession, fears the loss of trade opportunities.
In a sense, Obama was right to dodge describing Russia’s actions as amounting to invasion. There is fighting in Ukraine and Russian troops are doubtless engaged there in small numbers, but this isn’t war as we once understood it. Rather it is an attempt to de-stabilise a neighbouring country. Cutting off gas supplies, or threatening to do so, or inserting special forces, can be as effective as deploying batteries of artillery or sending in tanks. President Putin probably gives as much attention to changes in public opinion inside and outside Russia as he does to troop movements. And somewhere there will be cyberwarfare units busy at work.
In light of the surprise announcement yesterday morning that Putin is hoping that a peace agreement will be reached between Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels by Friday, how should the Nato summit respond? It should press on regardless, for Putin’s intervention could well be another exercise in disruption – of the Nato meeting itself. Soon after the world leaders go home, we might find that, after all, no ceasefire had been brokered.
Indeed, the briefing papers should remind the assembled heads of government of some useful history. Hitler’s first invasions were ethnic in intention. They were directed to countries that were either German-speaking (Austria) or had large German-speaking minorities (Czechoslovakia). Then jump to 2005 when President Putin described the break-up of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the last century” and added that the end of the Soviet system was “a real drama” which stranded millions of Russians beyond the borders of the Russian Federation. Now note that three Nato nations have, like Ukraine, significant Russian-speaking populations. They are Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
There is something else of a historical nature to consider. Russia, like Germany, considers herself a victim nation. The Germans ascribed their defeat in the First World War to “a stab in the back”. And Russia will never forget that the West has invaded it twice – Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941. So it is not in Russia’s nature to ascribe innocent motives to Western initiatives close to her borders. We need to be more sensitive to these sorts of factors.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
Nonetheless, at the risk of inflaming Russian fears, there are two strong actions that Nato should take and these should be supported by parallel measures that the same nations can take outside Nato. In the first place, it must regularly make a show of force in the Baltic States. Nato troops should have a persistent presence there. There should be a regular cycle of training and exercising in order to demonstrate that Nato is capable of defending its member states by land, sea and air.
Second, the various discussions about creating a rapid reaction force should be brought to concrete, credible conclusions. A good example is the place where the Malaysian airliner was shot down by Russian missiles in July. Nato should have been able immediately to secure the site regardless of the intentions of the rebel forces. That sort of task would be the raison d’être of a rapid reaction capability.
The two supporting actions are that economic support should be provided for Ukraine. For in the end, economic strength is more valuable than military might. In addition it is well worth pushing forward with further sanctions targeted at Russia’s financial sector.
What Nato shouldn’t do yet is provide Ukraine with sophisticated weapons to help Kiev take back control of the eastern part of the country. Give intelligence support yes, but do not supply heavy arms. That would be a premature escalation by the West.
A prejudice of mine –proved to be correct?
League tables that rank countries by their performance in various fields can be illuminating. They give a welcome respite from the drum-beating of local politicians. In this respect, the Global Competitiveness analysis published annually by the World Economic Forum is always interesting. The latest has just been published.
I tend to ignore the small, specialised states that often do well; they are so different from countries like us. Thus Switzerland comes in at number one followed by Singapore in second place, with Hong Kong on the seventh rung. But note that each of these possesses successful financial centres – sometimes said, with remarkable obtuseness, to be a bad thing in the case of the City of London and the UK economy.
Among the big states, Germany is at number four and the United States at five. These are the prime examples of large resilient economies. Then Japan is in ninth place and the United Kingdom at number 10.
The full table comprises 144 economies, so to find oneself in the top 10, if only just, is pretty good. Then I look again at the top 10 to see if a little prejudice of mine gets any support. It is that the nations strongly influenced during their history by the self-reliant, merit-focused doctrines of Protestantism will tend to do best of all.
Actually seven of the top ten have this inheritance – Switzerland, Finland, Germany, the US, Sweden, Netherlands and the UK.
I apply two more tests. Where do the other big European economies find themselves? France is 23rd, Spain is 35th and Italy is 49th. So why on earth do we sometimes display a sense of inferiority in relation to our European neighbours?
We could swagger a bit. Last test – Mr Putin’s Russia. It is 64th, one place above Sri Lanka. Remember that.Reuse content