Ukraine crisis: If negotiation fails, there are few good choices

The West - including the BBC - should take on Moscow's fraudulent propaganda, but Britain seems unengaged

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The Independent Online

A year ago, the Russian President launched an aggressive adventure to annex Crimea and bend Ukraine to his will. He acted in part because he needed a short victorious war to bolster his weakening position at home. His domestic ratings soared.

Vladimir Putin used to be a cautious man: he knew when to stop his war against Georgia in 2008. Perhaps he thought that the West would again respond with no more than mild and passing censure. If so, his tactical sense was deteriorating. Ukraine was a much bigger fish. But the West struggled to devise an effective response. The dilemma was acute. We remembered 1938: how could we allow yet another carve-up of Eastern Europe? Yet we were not prepared to use military force to stop it. So we applied some quite painful sanctions against the Russian economy and the Russian elite. The Europeans made some feeble attempts to reduce their dependence on Russian oil and gas. Nato did a bit to strengthen its posture in Eastern Europe. Nobody did much to help the Ukrainians prop up their tottering economy and reform their corrupt institutions, or supply them with the heavy weapons they lacked to repel the Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Western policy evolved, but not very far, when the rebels shot down a Malaysian airliner in the summer. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President François Hollande of France did what they could to promote a durable ceasefire, but failed. Each time the rebels suffered a reverse, Moscow sent more men and weapons to support them; each time, the European Union and the Americans upped their sanctions in response.

Putin’s deal with the Russian people is based on a guarantee of order, prosperity and the restoration of Russia’s weight in world affairs, in exchange for their willingness to give up some of the freedoms they gained at the end of the 1990s. The deal held up well as the Russian economy grew spectacularly for more than a decade. But now it is being undermined. The Russian economy is in bad shape (experts disagree how much) thanks to sanctions and the tumbling price of oil. Body bags are coming back to Russia from Ukraine in increasing numbers. It is difficult to believe that all these difficulties will not eventually force political change. But for now, patriotic Russians are still rallying round the flag. They quote Machiavelli: it is better to be feared than loved.

Meanwhile, the Russian rebels in the east are pressing forward beyond agreed ceasefire lines, backed by soldiers drawn from units all over Russia. So far, Putin’s resolve seems undiminished. But his choices are diminishing: negotiation or a greater use of force in Ukraine; greater repression at home if need be.

The West is not in better shape. Merkel and Hollande are still gallantly seeking an agreed way out. The agreement they have apparently sketched out in Moscow may hold if Putin concludes that the costs of his adventure are beginning to outweigh the gains, and if the Ukrainian President can bear whatever concessions it contains. But if negotiation fails again, the West faces a narrowing range of choice between supine acquiescence or escalation.

There are painful similarities with what happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Then, too, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic were extremely reluctant to intervene with force, because of the death and destruction that would follow. In the end they bit the bullet, and bombed the Serbian capital city for weeks on end, until there were no more targets to strike. Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian President, caved in (thanks not least to pressure from Moscow). There is, of course, no likelihood at all of anything like that happening this time round.

In Washington, they are beginning to talk of supplying military equipment to Kiev. The temptation is understandable, perhaps irresistible, possibly even justified. Perhaps, as Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to Washington, has proposed in the Financial Times, Moscow should be told that if it cannot get its clients to observe a ceasefire, the West would have no option but to give the Ukrainians the anti-tank and other weapons its soldiers need to counter the armour Russia’s proxies are now sending against them. That would give the West’s negotiators a more convincing lever than they currently wield.

Of course that would be risky. The Russians might refuse to budge, and react with even more violence. Many more people would be killed. The risk of a wider clash would loom if Nato countries responded forcibly to Russian provocations around their frontiers. But there are no good choices. Doing nothing is not a policy. It too carries responsibilities, as Western inaction did in the Balkans.

Ischinger also suggests it is time to counter the massively fraudulent propaganda coming out of Moscow. Here, too, there is a parallel with the Yugoslav wars. The propaganda mounted by Milosevic’s spokesmen was blatantly mendacious but surprisingly effective, until Nato mounted a campaign of its own. This exposed Belgrade’s lies as they were uttered, sometimes by drawing persuasively on revealing secret intelligence. Nato should do the same again. The BBC, too, without compromising its objectivity, could be more critical in its presentation of the information (or “information”) pouring out of Moscow.

Berlin and Paris act; Washington deliberates; London is silent apart from a sad claim that it is a “key player” in the talks, though no British minister accompanied Merkel and Hollande on their travels. Perhaps the Prime Minister is waiting to find out what the Americans intend to do, so that he can demonstrate once again the special nature of the Anglo-American relationship by trailing along behind them. It is an oddly unheroic posture for a country that claims (in the words of the Government’s National Security Strategy) that “our national interest requires our continued full and active engagement in world affairs”.

Sir Rodric Braithwaite is a former British ambassador to Moscow