The diplomatic fence is an uncomfortable place to sit, even when you are accompanied by an entourage numbering 700 and the streets of central Brussels have been closed for your safety. But it was where President Barack Obama found himself yesterday, and where much of the Western world has been since Russia moved into Crimea and proceeded to annex the territory.
On the one hand, they want to make their disapproval clear (Russia must be isolated and be made to understand that what it has done is unacceptable). On the other, they fear leaving President Putin with nothing to lose (diplomatic channels, as Mr Obama has stressed on his Europe visit, remain open).
The idea that Vladimir Putin will come slinking back to say “sorry”, bearing the title deeds to Crimea on a tray, is not realistic. He knows that Crimea will be an economic burden, as he knows that annexation will incur a diplomatic – and probably material – cost. He also knows that the Russian economy is not in the best shape. The awkward truth is that, to him, and to Russia, Crimea is worth it.
The West can put him in the doghouse for a while – how long is already the subject of quarrelling – but it does not help anyone to leave him there for ever. So the question has to be not just how to punish Russia, but how the West might obtain some of what it wants from this totally unheralded and unsought situation.
The temptation, as always, will be to err on the side of gradualism and caution. A symbolic signing of a very small part of the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine to signal the West’s friendly intentions towards Kiev. The partial lifting of an ineffective sanction or two, if Russia stays out of eastern Ukraine and does not meddle in preparations for new presidential elections. Oh yes, and no gas shut-off, either to Ukraine or to the EU, please.
None of that takes anyone much further, though; it rather cements an ill-tempered status quo. So why not show greater ambition? In his Kremlin speech last week, Putin listed all the slights Russia feels it has suffered since the Soviet collapse, starting with the expansion of Nato up to its borders.
There is no chance of reversing most of them – nor should they be reversed. The new EU states of the Baltic and East and Central Europe will cling to their membership of Nato even more tightly now, given Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and who is to blame them? But the West has to ask itself what sort of a Russia it wants on its borders – a Russia that feels insecure and is liable to lash out, or a Russia that can concentrate on finally modernising its Soviet infrastructure, secure in its post-Soviet borders?
Crimea referendum and independence
Crimea referendum and independence
1/14 Crimea Referendum
A man shows his shirt with the Russian emblem as he celebrates the results of the Crimean referendum at the Lenin Square in Simferopol
2/14 Crimea Referendum
An elderly retired Soviet Navy officer and his wife take a walk in Sevastopol the morning after the referendum
3/14 Crimea Referendum
A man plays accordion as people dance during celebrations in Sevastopol
4/14 Crimea Referendum
People wave Russian flags as fireworks explode in the sky over Sevastopol following the announcement of the result of the referendum
5/14 Crimea Referendum
A member of a Ukrainian "Maidan" self-defense battalion takes part in training to qualify for service in the newly-created National Guard.
6/14 Crimea Referendum
Pro-Russian protesters hold a Russian, Crimean and Soviet flags during their rally at Lenin Square in Simferopol, Ukraine
7/14 Crimea Referendum
A member of the Crimean election commission waits for voters at the polling station in Belogorsk near Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine
8/14 Crimea Referendum
Polling stations opened in Crimea for a referendum about whether the Ukrainian Black Sea region should join Russia. The vote has been widely condemned by Western governments, who call it illegal and have announced sanctions against Russia if it goes ahead. Thousands of unmarked forces, believed to be Russian, have appeared in Crimea after local Moscow-backed authorities asked Russia for protection against 'extremists' in the new Ukrainian leadership
9/14 Crimea Referendum
A lettering on the facade of the Council of Ministers building reads 'Spring in Crimea' in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine
10/14 Crimea Referendum
People wave Crimean flags at Lenin square in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine
11/14 Crimea Referendum
A poster in Crimea presents a stark choice - Nazism, or Russia - to voters ahead of the referendum
12/14 Crimea Referendum
Protesters against Ukraine’s referendum gather in Simferopol
13/14 Crimea Referendum
Action stations: Preparations for today’s referendum in Simferopol, where Crimea will vote to become part of Russia
14/14 Crimea Referendum
Cossacks guard the regional parliament building in Simferopol during the Crimean referendum
And then it should invite Russia to help to work out how we get there. What should be on the table? Let’s start from where, essentially, we left off, with Ukraine. Putin has to honour what appeared to be a pledge in his Kremlin speech to stay out of the rest of Ukraine, and if necessar this should be set out in writing and guaranteed by observers or even peacekeepers on the ground.
But the West, in the shape of the European Union, must stop trying to fast-track Ukraine into a Western camp. Its economic dependence on Russia, at least for a while yet, must be recognised and accepted into the mix. Inspiring though the tenacity of Kiev’s Euromaidan protesters has been, EU membership is not a realistic proposition for Ukraine for a very long time.
This is not just because the EU’s appetite for expansion is limited after the backsliding of Romania and Bulgaria, but because – in standards of governance and per capita GDP – Ukraine lags far behind both of these. It is poorer, and this is saying something, than Russia. Can there not be a joint aid package agreed between Moscow, Brussels and the IMF, designed to foster the sort of changes that are needed?
Crimea, as the West cannot quite bring itself to recognise, is lost. But the parallel that Putin drew with Kosovo should be exploited. Maybe Crimea can be persuaded to rerun its referendum for decency’s sake, but why should Russia not recognise the independence of Kosovo in return for the acceptance of Russia’s new border? The so-called frozen conflict between Moldova and Transnistria could be brought into the equation, and even the pro-Russian enclaves in Georgia.
Or how about a lease arrangement for Crimea, as once pertained in Hong Kong, to run for, say, 20 years – or the same time as Russia’s lease on its base at Sevastopol was to run? And all to be subsumed under a grand European security agreement under which there would be no new territorial push from Nato or Russia for the duration?
The Western objection will be that Russia should not be rewarded for bad behaviour. But a Ukraine that, without Crimea, will be more likely to look west is no reward. Russia feels that, for 20 years, its legitimate interests have been ignored. As Obama noted, its lunge for Crimea reflected weakness, not strength. There has to be a way of preventing Russia’s sense of vulnerability from becoming more dangerous.
A hint of Essex in the music of Rome’s Santa Cecilia
It is several years now since I alighted by chance on the BBC Proms debut of the chorus and orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, under their director, Antonio Pappano. In his nearly 10 years in Rome, Pappano – who was concurrently musical director at Covent Garden – has forged an ensemble with a truly remarkable combination of musicality and nanosecond accuracy that now plays in the big international league. Once heard, the Accademia di Santa Cecilia cannot be mistaken for anyone else.
The achievement of Pappano, and the history of what must surely now be known as his orchestra, has now been captured in a film, The Italian Character, directed by Angelo Bozzolini. There are three things I want to say about it. First, it told me something I should have known, but didn’t: Pappano – or rather Sir Antonio after he was knighted in 2012 – has Italian roots, but was born and spent much of his childhood in London. His English betrays the barest hint of Essex, but his manner is pure Italian (give or take a touch of very British self-deprecation). In lauding the work ethic of his father and the preciseness of the English, he is an exemplary poster-child for migration.
Second, Bozzolini’s film is a masterpiece in conveying the essence of music also in pictures and words. The eloquence of Pappano himself and the star soloists when they talk about their conductor and their playing affords a privileged insight into a very special time and place. Third, if you get the chance, go to see it.