The West owes Vladimir Putin a big thank you. We were forgetting who we were and who our friends were and who they weren’t. Crimea has been a sharp nudge in the ribs.
The G8 was always a curious entity. Russia had no business being in it, its economy being so much smaller than those of the other members. It was admitted in 1998, 13 years after the group was founded, with the intention of trying to keep the big brat in order and teach him some table manners. Well, that didn’t work.
It was part of the West’s programme – patronising, unrealistic and psychologically flawed as it now seems – to persuade the Russians that the collapse of the Soviet Union, the loss of their entire area of influence, the plummeting of their prestige and the arrival of Nato and the EU on the border need not be seen in a bad light, in terms of defeat, but as a precious opportunity to be seized.
This was a classic case of failing to put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. Imagine if things had gone the other way: those of us who lived through at least part of the Cold War remember not only the nuclear terror but the lively fear that, given a few false moves at the negotiating table, the logic of co-existence would collapse and Russian tanks would be at the English Channel – ready to welcome us into the expanded Soviet Union. That’s why we tolerated the nauseating logic of Mutually Assured Destruction, as the best assurance that that would never happen.
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
Russia, of course, feared exactly the same thing – which is why for them 1989 and all that was not a moment of liberation but the start of a long nightmare of loss. And that’s why, at the height of the Crimea crisis, a top Russian TV anchor bragged that Russia was “the only country… realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash”. The old bruiser was dragging himself up off the floor.
The new-old G7 may indeed, as Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said in a tone of sour grapes, not have much relevance any more, but its re-constitution symbolises an important fact: the west is once again the West, and thanks to Mr Putin it is experiencing a frisson of unity such as it has not known for a long time.
It has been argued many times over the past 20 years that Nato was losing its raison-d’être; that the US had lost or would soon lose its appetite for defending its European allies; and that the end of the Cold War had moved us all on to a totally new page. That view was strengthened by a series of events that drove new wedges between Western Europe and the US. Europe’s dismal failure to agree on any kind of a robust, united response to the wars in former Yugoslavia exposed it to the scorn of the US, which seized the initiative in bringing the Bosnian war to an untidy but conclusive termination. The invasion of Iraq split Europe down the middle. Most recently, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the scale of NSA phone-hacking infuriated and alienated European leaders.
Some of these rows were more significant than others; in particular the neo-cons’ urge, circa 2003, to re-boot the US as an imperial power ran deeply counter to the European tendency of the previous half century. But despite these rifts, what united Europe and the US – the West – continued to be far more important than what divided it: democratic institutions, strong but not tyrannical states, a growing recognition, embodied in trans-national institutions such as the Organisation for Co-operation and Security in Europe, of how peace and inter-dependence were intimately linked, and how these placed limits on the traditional concept of sovereignty.
In his seminal essay published in 2000, “The Post-modern State and the World Order”, the British strategic thinker Robert Cooper argued that it was this willingness to accept “intrusion in areas normally within state sovereignty” in the interests of greater mutual security that defined “the post-modern element” of the modern world. “It is important to realise what an extraordinary revolution this is,” he wrote. “The normal logical behaviour of armed forces is to conceal their strength and hide their forces and equipment from potential enemies.” It was, he wrote, “the shared interest of European countries in avoiding a nuclear catastrophe” which had proved “enough to overcome the normal strategic logic of hostility and suspicion”.
Europe’s memory of centuries of war and its determination not to have any more of them was at the heart of that post-modern world, and the G8 was one of the ways we tried to bring Russia on board. The fact that Russia has agreed to let an OCSE mission monitor the military situation in Ukraine may indicate that Mr Putin still sees himself as beholden to those arrangements, but nonetheless that attempt has now failed.
The annexation of Crimea throws us back into a polarised world, and if that is a more dangerous world it has the benefit of also being a clearer and a more honest one. It is the latest in a series of apparently malign accidents that have forced the West to re-assess both its limits and its potentialities.
The chaos that has followed the interventions in Iraq and Libya have brought a welcome if belated dose of reality to neo-imperialists in Washington, London and Paris: it is now obvious to nearly everyone that it is much easier to create a failed state than to put such a state back together again.
At the same time, the Crimea crisis makes clear that what has been achieved in the former Warsaw Pact countries since the fall of the Berlin Wall is precious and fragile and cannot be taken for granted. In many of those countries, as in Ukraine, it has a long way to go; but what has been achieved is to be defended. Russia cannot be allowed to doubt that.