Vale sober understatement

I’m surprised how exercised otherwise sober people are about Russia. The fear and loathing are often deep and strong, visceral almost. The latest example (and catalyst for these reflections) is today’s leader in The Economist.

Russia’s recent conduct is often framed narrowly as the start of a new cold war with America. In fact it poses a broader threat to countries everywhere because Mr Putin has driven a tank over the existing world order.

At one level, I suppose that’s true. After 20 years of being poked and prodded, the bear turned around and bared its teeth. The west is clearly taken aback. Get the damn thing back in its cage seems to be the prevailing sentiment. The cheek of the beast.

After briefly acknowledging the Iraq snafu, our writer gets back on track.

Since then Barack Obama has tried to fashion a more collaborative approach, built on a belief that America can make common cause with other countries to confront shared problems and isolate wrongdoers. This has failed miserably in Syria but shown some signs of working with Iran.

Well, yesss . . . although a dispassionate observer might ponder the oddity of US support for radical jihadi groups in Syria and wonder how that contributes to good order. Ditto with the aborted plans to strike Syria as punishment for the Assad government’s (still disputed) chemical attacks. He might also quietly note Russia’s diplomatic intervention that provided Obama with an out when his request to Congress for authorisation to attack seemed likely to founder.

Even in its gentler form, it is American clout that keeps sea lanes open, borders respected and international law broadly observed. To that extent, the post-Soviet order has meaning.

Mr Putin is now destroying that.

No question, America has done (and still does) much to maintain order in the quotidian details of international life. To lay all the plaudits for this achievement at America’s door, however, seems a tad excessive. Trade, sea lanes, borders and international law are not recent inventions; aspects of them may have improved but to the extent they have, I think the credits deserve to be shared a little more widely. As for Mr Putin “now destroying that”, a cup of tea, a bex and a good lie down for our author seem in order. Whatever happened to The Economist’s sober understatement? Perhaps I haven’t been reading it often enough lately.

Brandishing fabricated accounts of Ukrainian fascists threatening Crimea, he has defied the principle that intervention abroad should be a last resort in the face of genuine suffering. He cites NATO’s bombing of Kosovo in 1999 as a precedent, but that came after terrible violence and exhaustive efforts at the UN—which Russia blocked. Even then Kosovo was not, like Crimea, immediately annexed, but seceded nine years later.

Intervention abroad should indeed be the last resort. Crimea is kind of a funny case though, isn’t it. Abroad? Yes . . . but one can wonder whether this quite the right word when a few facts are taken into account: until Khruschev “gave” it to the Ukraine in 1954, the Crimea was part of Russia; a majority of the population is Russian; the Black Sea Fleet is based there; up to 25,000 Russian troops were allowed by treaty to be present in Crimea (a number, by the way, which was never exceeded during this crisis); and so on.

And then there’s the matter of those “fabricated accounts of Ukrainian fascists”. It’s not just Putin who’s concerned. After noting the extremist parties’ call for “restrict[ing] Russians’ cultural-language rights”, Robert English in the LA Times writes:

More to the point, why wave a red flag in front of a nervous bull? The answer is that for Svoboda, Right Sector and other Ukrainian far-right organizations, it was barely a handkerchief. These are groups whose thuggish young legions still sport a swastika-like symbol, whose leaders have publicly praised many aspects of Nazism and who venerate the World War II nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, whose troops occasionally collaborated with Hitler’s and massacred thousands of Poles and Jews.

With WWII in mind, it shouldn’t take much imagination to consider how this sort of activity might appear to Russians but The Economist is not inclined to mercy.

Mr Putin’s new order, in short, is built on revanchism, a reckless disdain for the truth and the twisting of the law to mean whatever suits those in power. That makes it no order at all.

One is unavoidably reminded of Kerry’s recent quote: “You just don’t invade another country on phony pretext in order to assert your interests. This is an act of aggression that is completely trumped up in terms of its pretext. It’s really 19th century behaviour in the 21st century.”

But peace is elusive in Mr Putin’s world, because anything can become a pretext for action, and any perceived aggression demands a riposte.

Hmmmmm. Whatever the truth of Putin’s intent and eventual actions (and only time will tell), most of the criticisms The Economist wields with such enthusiasm apply at least equally to the US of late. Up to and including its destabilising efforts in the Ukraine.

But instead of acquiescing in his illegal annexation of Crimea, they should reflect on what kind of a world order they want to live under. Would they prefer one in which states by and large respect international agreements and borders? Or one in which words are bent, borders ignored and agreements broken at will?

Yes indeed. Understanding your opponent is a useful thing, even if it’s solely for selfish ends. When Russia emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union, it was assured that NATO would not expand eastwards. Caveat emptor would, I suppose, be the foreign policy elite’s response (to the extent they acknowledged the assurance at all). Still, promises matter to the recipient and one ought not be surprised at any subsequent loss of faith.

It’s hard to be empathetic when you’re on top, even harder when the habit has had 50 years or more to mature and harden. The Economist started by saying that “[f]oreign policy follows cycles”. So does power.


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