The centenary of the outbreak of World War I on Aug. 4, 1914, has led to much debate about how to maintain peace in the 21st century. The Middle East remains in turmoil. In the Palestinian territories, Syria, Iraq and Libya there are many casualties and much misery.
The threat to peace in Europe from President Vladimir Putin’s Russia continues to increase and tensions grow. Flight MH17 with nearly 300 passengers and crew was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile from an area of the Ukraine under the control of separatists, using an advanced system allegedly supplied by Russia. This war crime has caused huge resentment especially in countries whose nationals were slaughtered. The Dutch suffered the most, but there were significant numbers of passengers from Australia and Britain who died.
Putin probably did not instigate or specifically authorize the missile attack and was presumably embarrassed by it, but he and the Russian media controlled by his regime have responded with lies, bluster and obfuscation. International investigators were prevented from reaching the crash site while the wreckage was apparently systematically tampered with.
The behavior at least some of the Russian-speaking thugs who controlled the site can only be described as obscene.
The European response to the incident has been to toughen both the rhetoric and, more importantly, economic sanctions. These will hurt some of Putin’s cronies and some Russian companies and institutions, but they remain limited in scope and seem unlikely to cause Putin to desist from promoting Russian separatist elements in the Ukraine and promoting Russian influence. Economic sanctions can often be evaded and the damage mitigated.
Putin’s aim is to re-establish Russia as a major world power and to consolidate Russian power in Central Asia and in countries on its borders. Putin has a huge ego and sees himself in the mold of former czars and Soviet leaders.
Putin views the European countries as feeble and divided and doubts whether any of the European countries opposed to his expansionism are ready and willing to take the sort of action that would really hurt Russian interests. He knows that such measures would also damage European economies that remain economically fragile and would lead to increased unemployment, which is much too high especially in Southern Europe.
He recognizes that the United States leads the opposition to Russian expansionism, but notes that U.S. opinion has grown increasingly inward-looking. He sees President Barack Obama’s reluctance to get involved in further conflicts. American eyes are, he believes, focused on the Israel-Palestine conflict rather than on Ukraine.
Putin should, however, beware of underestimating American and European responses. He should be cautious about believing intelligence assessments that tell him what he wants to hear and should learn from history. The Japanese military in 1941 allowed themselves to believe that America and Britain did not have the will to fight and would give in. They were wrong.
It is now necessary for the Western powers to demonstrate clearly to Putin that if he continues his surly determination to cause as much trouble as possible by continuing to arm, train and direct the Russian thugs in eastern Ukraine, the Western powers will speedily ratchet up economic sanctions.
In Britain we must ignore the moans from City of London financiers over the harm that the city will suffer from penalties against Russian banks and funds.
The French must make it clear that contracts notwithstanding, they will not supply further arms to Russia. The Germans for their part need to accept a reduction in exports to Russia and to disassociate themselves from former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his close ties with Russian energy firms.
Some political and media figures urge the desirability of finding a way for Putin to back down without losing face and the support of the vociferous Russian nationalism that he has stirred up. But what can the West offer him?
Recognition of the Russian seizure of the Crimea? Concessions by the government of Ukraine to appease Russian separatists? Agreement that the European Union will not seek to bring Ukraine closer to the Union?
To offer concessions such as these in response to Putin’s threats smacks of appeasement reminiscent of the Munich Agreement of 1938 with Nazi Germany. Appeasement will only feed Putin’s appetite. Russian nationalism has to be contained and restrained.
NATO has noted that Russia would like to “recover” the three Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which regained their independence after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Exercises have accordingly been organized to demonstrate NATO’s determination to protect all of its members against external aggression. NATO forces may need a more permanent presence in Eastern Europe.
NATO member countries have, however, as British Prime Minister David Cameron has pointed out, gone too far in running down their defense expenditures. Britain’s spending some 2 percent of its GDP on defense shows that it is doing more than most, but British forces have been reduced and are under strain. Other NATO countries need to increase their defense outlays.
The forces required to deter Russian nationalist expansion must be equipped and trained in the most sophisticated weaponry, in particular to counter subversion and cyber threats. Intelligence systems need to be better-coordinated and Russian propaganda exposed.
This does not, however, mean that we are on a slippery path to armed hostilities. There will have to be negotiations to agree on a modus vivendi with Russia. But they will only be successful if we approach them from a position of strength. This means that the West must show their determination and readiness to accept short-term sacrifices for the long term good of deterring Russian expansionism.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.