'Russia's growing threat': The West faces a very dangerous crisis – and it's partly its own making

Putin is challenging the peace on which modern Europe was founded

The Chinese philosopher Sun Tze said “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” In the Ukraine crisis, Putin is playing strategy. The West is playing tactics.

The West lost the greatest strategic opportunity of recent times when we reacted to the collapse of the Soviet Union, not with a long term plan to bring Russia in from the cold, but by treating Russia to a blast of Washington triumphalism and superiority. Instead of opening the doors to a strategic partnership to Moscow, we sent young men still wet behind the ears from Harvard business school to privatize their industries, and teach them the Western way of doing things. The result was a bonanza of corruption, the humiliation of the Yeltsin years and a clumsy attempt to enlarge our “Cold war victory” by seeking to expand NATO and Europe right up to the Russian border. There was always going to be a consequence of this folly and its name is Vladimir Putin.

The problem with Russia now is not its strength, but its weakness. The massive energy revenues of the good times were not invested in modernizing Russia, but either squandered at home or shipped abroad by the Oligarchs to buy yachts and London properties. The Russian economy now staggers under the effect of falling oil prices and Western sanctions. The population is plummeting. Male life expectancy, at 64, places Putin’s state amongst the lowest 50 countries in the world for population regeneration. The empty spaces of Putin’s eastern territories now increasingly depend economically, not on Russians, but on a gathering invasion of Chinese small businessman and traders. Add to all of this, Russia’s own home-grown struggle with Sunni Jihadism in the Islamic republics of Chechnya and Dagestan and it is little wonder that many in Moscow worry about the long term integrity of the Russian Federation.

 

So now we face a very dangerous crisis. That  this is, in part, of our own making provides an explanation for how we got here, but not a signpost for what we should do next. For Putin has chosen to challenge, not just the sovereignty of Ukraine, but the very basis on which the peace of Europe has been founded these last fifty years. When the Second World War ended, Europe determined that it would end a thousand years of warfare driven by the assertion that large powers have the right to subjugate the freedoms (even the existence) of smaller nations, if they believed them to be within their spheres of influence. Instead Europe’s peace would in future be based on the principles of co-operation, peaceful co-existence and the right of all nations, large and small to determine their future based exclusively on the will of their people. By denying that right to Ukraine on the grounds that it is Russia’s sphere of influence, Putin asks us to abandon those principles. We cannot do so.

And that’s the problem. A strong self-confident Russia would be easier to deal with. But for a weak one – and especially a weak one led by a muscular leader – the distractions of military adventurism are irresistible.

So what should we do?

Our greatest lever still lies in economic means rather than military ones. The sanctions are having an effect. It may even be that Putin is bringing things to a head military in an attempt to foreshorten the economic pain. So the first strand of our strategy should be patiently to stay the course of economic sanctions.

The second is to continue what the West, through Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande have begun. Keep pushing for a peace based in a cease-fire and greater autonomy for eastern Ukraine.

Does this mean no direct military response? Unless NATO is threatened directly, it does.

Does it mean no military diplomacy? Not it doesn’t. The right reaction to Russian arming of the Ukrainian rebels is to make it clear that we are prepared to do the same for the Ukrainian Government. But not now, not quickly and not all at once.  What we need is more a process, than an event. Start small, slow and un-aggressively – with communications and intelligence equipment for example. Expand by steps when we have to.

All these actions are necessary, but they are not sufficient. We still lack a broader diplomatic strategy. Yet one stares us in the face, if only we could see it.

The West is not succeeding against ISIL in the Middle East. The US led coalition is too small, too Sunni and lacks international legitimacy. This is one area where our problems are Russia’s problems too – we may be threatened by Jihadis returning from the battlefield. But Russia is part of the battlefield. ISIL will not be beaten by Western bombs and guns alone. But they can be beaten by a much wider international coalition including Turkey, Iran and – why not? – Russia too. This would add real diplomatic and military firepower to our cause. And offer Russia a partnership over an issue that threatens them arguably even more than us. As we should have learnt by now, it is always unwise to paint Russia into a corner – even one of its own making. So balancing a hard line on Ukraine with an offer of partnership against the Jihadi threat, makes solid sense - and perhaps even the start of a strategic approach to the Ukraine crisis, rather than a purely tactical one.

Lord Ashdown was leader of the Liberal Democrats from 1988 to 1999. He is a former Royal Marine and diplomat.

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