Fancy a war with Russia, chaps? After more than two decades in which Western leaders have staggered from one foreign policy train wreck to another with the reckless indifference of stag night drinkers on an epic pub brawl, it now looks as though they are lurching dimly towards exactly that outcome.
Of course it’s not their fault, because nothing ever is. This is why British defence secretary Michael Fallon has warned that Putin could ‘repeat the tactics used to destabilise Ukraine in Baltic members of the Nato alliance.’
Some might suggest that the EU/NATO’s disastrous decision to draw Ukraine into their sphere of influence also played a part in destabilising Ukraine. But not Fallon, who now says that ‘Nato has to be ready for any kind of aggression from Russia, whatever form it takes. Nato is getting ready.’
Good to know. But the problem is that NATO has been ‘getting ready’ for a long time, and Russia also interprets this readiness as a form of aggression, which is one of the reasons why it has reacted the way it has in Ukraine. It’s one thing to criticize Russia’s ruthless manipulation of the Ukrainian crisis, but it’s quite another to portray its support for Russian separatists as part of some Hitleresque attempt to reestablish the Soviet Union or the Tsarist Empire.
But this is now what virtually everyone seems to be doing, whether it’s more serious commentators like Timothy Garton Ash or the frothing imbeciles at the Daily Mail, which screeched ‘Britain at the mercy of Putin’s planes,’ today in one of the most cretinous frontpages in the paper’s long and inglorious history. Supported by photographs illustrating the ‘aggression of the Russian bear’ the Mail described how ‘RAF fighter jets scrambled to intercept two Russian bombers capable of carrying nuclear missiles as they flew menacingly off the coast of Cornwall.’
Off the coast of Cornwall I tell you! And what were the Ruskies doing? They were ‘lurking’ with evil intent, perhaps looking to encourage Cornish separatists and annexe a bit of the UK while they’re at it. And Russian submarines are also ‘lurking’ near Scotland, probably waiting to bring the Yes voters back into the streets so that they can populate the Highlands with little green men.
It’s a damned cheek I tell you. But even worse it turns out that Britain is ‘defenceless’, according to the ‘top brass’ and ‘military chiefs’ who the Mail loves so much. According to Sir Michael Graydon, former head of the RAF, defence cuts have ‘decimated’ our capabilities to the point when: ‘I very much doubt whether the UK could sustain a shooting war against Russia. We are at half the capabilities we had previously.They know it is provocative and they are doing it at a time when defence in the west is pretty wet compared to where they are.’
Well the sound of wood and willow echoing from the playing fields of Eton can definitely be heard in that description of our bombers and nuclear missiles and submarines as ‘pretty wet.’
All this would be good for a laugh, if it weren’t so bleakly disturbing. Because wars sometimes happen because of political calculation, but they also take place because of paranoia, stupidity and pigheadedness, or because heavily-armed states engage in tests of geopolitical strength or fatally misunderstand the motivations of each side, compounding the worst expectations of their opponent to the point when war seems logical and inevitable.
This process appears to be unfolding now. There is no doubt that Russia has carried out frequent incursions into the air space of its neighbors, even though it didn’t in this case. But only last month Russia condemned NATO’s decision to deploy its forces in six East European states, declaring that
‘Along with other measures already being undertaken, including a series of ceaseless exercises, continuous rotation of the US and its allies’ forces, reinforcement of naval and air groups in the Baltic States and in the Black Sea, creation of missile defense sites and strongholds of the alliance for various purposes – all this will substantially weaken the military stability and security in the region.’
In the eyes of the West and its supporters, such arguments are only lies and excuses, because when it comes to Russia – and pretty much everyone else for that matter – ‘aggression’ is only ever on one side.
The dangers of this dynamic cannot be overstated. In the early years of the Cold War the cooperation between the World War II coalition broke down in part, because Western leaders were unable or unwilling to understand why the Soviet Union was so determined to surround itself with a security ‘buffer zone’ of the states that it liberated/conquered.
Russian security objectives certainly had an imperialist dimension, particularly when pursued by a leader like Stalin, but there is an abundance of evidence to show that global military conquest – or even the domination of Western Europe was not their intention. Has the West recognized this, it might have responded differently.
Western leaders are rapidly slipping into a similar misreading of Russia’s intentions. To point this out does not mean that Russia is the ‘good guy’ in this confrontation. There is no doubt that Russia has supported separatists in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine militarily, even if the degree of control that Putin has over events in Ukraine is sometimes overstated.
But it is also clear that the US/EU/NATO were incredibly stupid, naive and shortsighted in thinking that Russia would not oppose their attempts to bring Ukraine into the Western sphere of interest – politically, economically and militarily, let alone that it would accept a government in Ukraine that almost immediately alienated its Russian-speaking minorities.
Even Henry Kissinger recognizes this, for god’s sake, and has pointed out how the EU’s ‘bureaucratic dilatoriness and subordination of the strategic element to domestic politics in negotiating Ukraine’s relationship to Europe contributed to turning a negotiation into a crisis.
In this situation we don’t have to choose between Moscow and Washington/Brussels, and nor should Ukraine be forced to make this choice. But to achieve a better outcome we do need cool heads. We need a critical media, and politicians and commentators willing to question the hysterical Russophobia that was on display today, and hold the self-serving delusions behind it up to scrutiny.
And we must not, we cannot, allow our leaders to take us into a war that would make all the disasters and conflicts of the last two decades look like minor quarrels by comparison.