Containing the bear: Major European nations have no appetite for conflict with Russia – diplomacy is still the best guarantor of peace


Monday 20 July 2015 21:05

Mikheil Saakashvili – former President of Georgia and now Governor of the Ukrainian province of Odessa – has a warning for the West. He claims that if Vladimir Putin is not stopped in Ukraine he will “revisit” Georgia, where a nasty little war was fought in 2008, Azerbaijan, and, most alarmingly, the Baltic republics. According to Mr Saakashvili, Mr Putin will go after Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all part of the USSR until 1991, if the Russians suspect Nato won’t put up a fight.

Mr Saakashvili is not, however, an objective observer of events. As former President of a country that came into conflict with Russia, he is a sworn enemy of Mr Putin, with a reputation to improve and uphold. He is also, according to his many critics, something akin to an American puppet. Regardless of his credentials, or lack thereof, is he right about Russia? Mr Putin is no fool. He does not start wars he doesn’t believe he can win. He does his homework, as one might expect from a former high-ranking KGB officer. Strategically, he is very clear; and tactically he has proved himself adroit. He grabs what he can, when he can; the rest can await a fresh opportunity.

But what does the West want? In the final analysis the European powers closest to the Russian threat – Germany and France – have demonstrated they are not prepared to go to war over Ukraine. UN sanctions have been imposed, and that’s about it. Mr Putin, it is thought, doesn’t regard Ukraine as a proper country, and certainly not the Crimean peninsula he annexed in March 2014. He got away with it. For the Baltic republics to be truly secure we in Nato and the EU must do three things.

First, by stationing forces there and conducting exercises, show that these republics are defended as full Nato members (as Georgia and Ukraine were not). Second, we need to talk to Russia, without prejudice and without conceding any point of principle, about Ukraine and other adventures. There is never harm in dialogue when it is from a position of strength. When Presidents Nixon and Reagan respectively met Mr Putin’s predecessors to thaw relations and bring an end to the Cold War they did not do so with a view to bolstering Russia. Diplomatic contact doesn’t mean we should relax sanctions; it is to show the Russians we mean what we say. It is also to show the Russians that the inferiority complex they seem to have acquired is quite misplaced.

Third, the West needs to respond to legitimate Russian concerns. If it’s the case that Russian minorities are badly treated in the former Soviet republics, then we should move to protect them. The rights and cultural identity of the Russian communities in the Baltic republics were not always respected as they should have been in the years after the Cold War. They should be. Mr Putin knows full well this is the best excuse he has for rattling Nato’s cage once again. There is no excuse for handing it to him.

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