While Parliament debates the niceties of the Canadian mission against the Islamic State in Iraq or whether our troops are now actually engaged in a combat role, a much bigger fire is burning on Europe’s doorstep that has far greater consequences for global peace and security.
Ukraine’s ceasefire lies in tatters. Some 9,000 Russian troops are now fighting alongside rebel forces in eastern Ukraine. The country is struggling to stave off further territorial losses as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold tightens. Ukraine’s economy is in a tailspin and in desperate need of Western aid – in all some $15-billion in new funds – so that its new, democratically elected government can implement much needed reforms and stabilize the economy to secure the country’s survival.
Plummeting oil prices and the threat of a new round of sanctions, which have sent the Russian economy into a tailspin, are doing little to curb Mr. Putin’s territorial appetites. His military is also now playing a dangerous game of chicken in the skies over Europe and the Arctic, raising tensions and increasing the risks of accidental encounters that could escalate into something far worse.
There is more than braggadocio in Mr. Putin’s swagger. His motives are far more sinister – to redraw the boundaries of the Europe and exploit what he sees as the West’s weakness at a time when the U.S. is wary of picking new battles and Europe is mired in an ever deepening economic and political crisis compounded by the recent election of a leftist Greek government that is threatening to blackmail Brussels with a new round of demands to bail out its hopeless finances.
Some, like former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, are laying the blame for the current crisis on the West, alleging that Western triumphalism at the end of the Cold War and Russia’s humiliation laid the seeds for the current crisis. That is indeed a strange reading of history. America did not crow when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. In fact, the U.S. president at the time, George H.W. Bush, went out of his way to eschew any overblown claims that the U.S. and the West had somehow “won” the Cold War.
But any notion of “triumphalism,” real or imagined, pales in comparison to blatant breaches of international law and the integrity of sovereign borders. No one wants a “hot war” but, thus far, only one major power – Russia – is using hot, military force in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Repeated denials of direct involvement are spurious and smack of the same kinds of lies and evasive denials of dictators of a bygone era.
Few Western leaders have been willing to call Russia out on this one, at least openly so. When presidential hopeful and former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton compared Mr. Putin to Hitler she was roundly condemned for rhetorical excess. It is now interesting to see some of her former critics, such as the venerable New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, now openly admit that they were wrong and she was indeed right to offer such a comparison. Said Mr. Friedman in a revealing stroke of realism, “Putin’s use of Russian troops wearing uniforms without insignia to invade Ukraine and to covertly buttress Ukrainian rebels bought and paid for by Moscow – all disguised by a web of lies that would have made Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels blush and all for the purpose of destroying Ukraine’s reform movement before it can create a democratic model that might appeal to Russians more than Putin’s kleptocracy – is the ugliest geopolitical mugging happening in the world today.”
But the fact of the matter is that Russia is certainly not suffering from international opprobrium. Despite the lofty rhetoric from the West, it is business as usual for Russia in international councils like the UN and the welcome mat has been out for Mr. Putin in many places, like China, which recently signed not just one but two gas deals with Russia, and Greece, whose new government was forced against its will to accept Europe’s latest round of sanctions against Moscow.
Agreements for ceasefire are broken while they are being negotiated. Diplomatic efforts to calm matters have been persistently futile because the western resolve is hesitant and lacks credibility. U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union remarks on this topic sounded patently hollow and false. “Last year,” the president said, “as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, some suggested that Mr. Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.” Russia is no more degraded today than IS, and for the same reason – the lack of credible western leadership.
As the widely respected U.S. scholar and commentator Walter Russell Mead recently noted, “The United States…is… strategically clueless and largely out of the game. President Obama is amusing himself with various pursuits and his incoherent and crisis-ridden Middle East mix of policies gives him no time to think hard about Europe; Congress lacks the cohesion and the constitutional means to force an alternative on him.”
Like any schoolyard bully, Mr. Putin is masterful at exploiting weakness. Invoking Lenin’s adage about plunging the knife “until you hit bone”, he will continue to do just that. Thus far he has met only a soft underbelly.
Until or unless the U.S. and Germany stand firm and ratchet up more than rhetorical pressure, the Russian putsch against Ukraine will continue. The Ukrainian reform elements will lose credibility and eventually any semblance of control and the ramifications for the neighborhood will only get worse. And then we may well find ourselves, as former U.S. state secretaries Henry Kissinger and George Shultz recently warned members of the U.S. Senate, on the brink of a major global conflagration. Western resolve is spasmodic when it needs to be coherent and constant.