It’s really happening, and there’s no great satisfaction in the western intelligence agencies being proved right. Cities and military facilities under fire. Ukrainian forces being told to go home. The Russians are on a mission of “demilitarization and denazification” – sick jokes. Invasion. War. Lightning war.
It’s worth saying: imagine where we might be now, if – suitably rested, re-equipped and reformed – the western forces hurriedly evacuated from Kabul last autumn had been redeployed in Ukraine, part of an emergency process whereby Ukraine would be allowed to join Nato .
Where we might be now is at peace. The doctrine of deterrence and the power of collective security would have held just as it did for a half century during the Cold War, when the fortunate nations of western Europe were protected from the Russian occupation that dominated the eastern half of our common European home.
The abandonment of Afghanistan was the first western betrayal of an “ally”; now Ukraine is the second. Who’ll be next? Which faraway nation will be next to fall to the use of force? Taiwan? Moldovan? Estonia? Poland?
To imagine that the west fretted about upsetting Vladimir Putin, that western statesmen and stateswomen were so considerate about Russian sensitivities. The war that’s now under way began in 2014, if not earlier, when the west failed to act on the Russian annexation of Crimea and effective occupation of parts of eastern Ukraine.
As soon as the Kremlin understood – and it hardly needed master spies to do so – that the west wouldn’t fight for Ukraine, the country was on borrowed time.
Goodness knows, there wasn’t much reaction after the Russians went to war in Chechnya and Georgia, interfered in the Azerbaijan-Armenia dispute, and propelled up dictatorships in Kazakhstan and Belarus.
British residents and citizens in Salisbury were murdered, there was “unsuccessful interference” in British elections and politics, the Conservative party carried on taking donations, and the Conservative government didn’t stand up for the national interest, with the meaningful sanctions only now being implemented.
No wonder Putin thinks the west is decadent and a soft touch. He has picked his moment of perceived, and real, western weakness – leaders of bitterly divided nations, weakened by Covid, with new, untried, naive or distracted leaders. He’s observed failures of nerve, most recently in Afghanistan.
He’s seen that many western governments won’t spend money on their own defense or their allies’ security. Putin has taken his cue. The war will be bloody and the resistance long. Ukraine has been left with no choice but to fight – because the west let it down. If the west won’t commit military forces – and it is too late now – what is demanded now is nothing less than an economic war with Russia.
A virtual trade embargo, for a start. No more friendly sporting festivities. No more propaganda channels such as RT. No diplomatic relations. The west will need to make some sacrifices. The point about effective trade and economic sanctions is that they can unfortunately hurt the sanctioner as well as the sanctioned. They are lose-lose.
Germany has proven the point: it loses its next gas supply, and Russia loses the lucrative deal. Others now need to follow suit. Big western concerns such as McDonald’s, BP, Shell, Renault (which controls Autovaz/Lada), the German retailer Metro, Coca-Cola – and many others – must divest and withdraw from Russia.
There must be new laws against technology transfer, as there were in the 1980s at the dawn of the age of information technology, measures that ended any hope that the old Soviet Union could compete with the west and provide for its citizens.
We cannot, any longer, have former German chancellor Gerhard Schroder as the chair of Rosneft, or Putin cronies treating London as their laundromat.
There should be bans on key exports to the Russians, and then sanctions on those countries that defy the international call: the likes of China and Brazil. There should be punitive tariffs on Russian exports, if not prohibited. Everything except humanitarian items such as medicines should be subject to a virtual trade ban with Russia.
We can then go further and apply the same attitude to participation in sporting events, especially athletics and football, and break cultural and artistic links. If the Russians want the Soviet Union back, then they can have the Iron Curtain and the isolation back too. It is a preposterous situation. Economically, technologically and militarily, the west is incomparably stronger than Russia.
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If it had wanted to, if it had really wanted to, the west could have saved Ukraine with a mixture of military deterrence and a powerful show of non-military force. We didn’t, and the sanctions we imposed on Russia after the bogus people’s republics were set up and then recognized by Moscow were, mostly, laughably weak. The west tried to avoid war by never threatening it. We got war anyway, and humiliation on top.
There are plenty more wars we could end up with – probably over long-neglected grievances relating to Russian-speaking and Russian descended minorities in the Baltic Republics, as well as similar historical disputes over the borders with neutral Finland and traditional animosity towards Poland, and in struggles for power in obscure corners of Europe such as the disputed Moldova and Transdinistria, bordering Romania.
The defense secretary Ben Wallace was right to invoke the 1930s and the lessons of that era, but wrong to pretend the British would do what the Scots Guards did to the Tsar Nicholas I in Crimea in 1853 and “kick their backside”. It’s Putin who’s doing all the kicking today.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.