Moral outrage is a heart-warming emotion, especially when shared with comrades. And it certainly crackled around the Kremlin on Tuesday as Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Crimea, and rehashed Russia’s grievances (“not robbed, but plundered”). Now it is again the turn of the West, as its leaders renew their denunciations of the flouting of international law, and move to impose the promised “costs and consequences”. Sanctions of course will hurt the West too; so a good coating of righteous indignation, and a sense of occasion (“This is the big one”) will help the medicine go down.
And, indeed, the West has no option but a robust response. Whatever view one takes of Putin’s clever invocation of Kosovo as precedent or parallel, one thing is clear: he simply cannot be allowed to get away with his self-appointed role as guardian of Russian ethnic minorities. We indulged a similar claim in the 1930s, and must not go there again. From the Baltic countries to Bulgaria, there are far too many ethnic Russians within the borders of NATO and the EU for either grouping to permit any shadow of ambiguity: should Putin feel tempted to try out his new doctrine on any of their members, the others will resist with every means at their disposal. (Putin almost certainly knows this – it is the Moldovans who should worry next – but assurance must be made doubly strong.)
So NATO will rightly be involved in “costs and consequences”. Heretofore, it has been careful not to make too conspicuous, or provocative, an imprint on the territories of its new, ex-Soviet, member states. That must now change. To erase any doubt, their status as members of the Alliance as integral as Spain or the UK must be conspicuously demonstrated, through military dispositions. So the Alliance has business to do in terms of rolling forward its deployments, exercises, facilities and installations. (Putin, indeed, will expect no less – only missile defence, which has more far-reaching connotations, will need handling with care.)
This much is necessary; what is tempting, but would be deeply damaging for Europeans, would be a concomitant rush to return to the psychology of Cold War confrontation. The mood is already out there – and no wonder. For NATO as an organisation, about to slide into semi-retirement after its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the current crisis promises a new lease of life. For the UK, hosting a NATO summit in the autumn to cover its embarrassed inability to engage with European defence, a splashy success is now in prospect. For militaries across Europe the prospect is now of a return to the days of easy living, when budgets and status were secure, and no-one proposed awkward adventures in sandy places. Get back to confrontation, and all those tricky questions about just what European armed forces are really for can be postponed for another generation.
This would be a disaster for Europe. Vladimir Putin may wish to get back to the twentieth century – but Europe must not follow him. New horizons, in Africa and Asia, demand European attention: North-South is what matters now, not East-West. The urge for Europeans to snuggle back under the protecting American wing, trading subservience to Washington’s foreign policy line for an illusion of partnership in the Western hegemony, is understandable. But the hegemony has gone, the deal is no longer on offer. Like it or not, if Europeans are to succeed in the decades ahead then they must continue their efforts to define a distinctive role for themselves in the globalised, multipolar world of tomorrow, and leave historical preoccupations behind them.
“Leave him be, he’s not worth it” girls are meant to urge as they pull their boyfriends away from bar-room confrontations. Russia is not worth it today, and will become progressively less and less so as Putin drives its economy and political society into the ground. Yes, it retains nuclear weapons (though the rest of its military remains, despite the recent budget hikes, in poor shape). Yes, it retains considerable spoiling capacity in the Middle East. But as far as possible the strategy must be not to confront it, but to contain it and then ignore it – and hope, for Russians’ sakes as much as ours, that it sooner or later discovers the modern world.
So let us thank the new Cold Warriors, but tell them they have mistaken their era. Let us celebrate NATO’s value as an insurance policy, but not confuse it with an adequate vehicle for Europe’s role in the world. And let us do what must be done to respond to the annexation of the Crimea coolly and firmly, but without the fervour of moral outrage which may warm our hearts but will betray our futures.
Read more on: