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Russians make great bad guys, from the Cold War to the 1997 hit Air Force One, but is Putin a Gary Oldman, or a Harrison Ford?
It’s been just over a year now since the start of the Ukraine Crisis, which began over the Ukrainian decision at the time to halt steps to closer integration with the EU. What began as a glorious show of democratic spirit against a government out of touch with the will of the people, has now broken down into a violent Civil War – not forgetting the annexation of the Crimea.
“Why wouldn’t we look east? I mean… Russia!”
Type ‘Ukraine Crisis’ into Google news and you’ll be able to pick out a recurring theme, Russia. To list a few; Ukraine crisis: ‘We’re not going to play this game’- Kerry, Ukraine crisis: Costs to Russia will get ‘even higher’ and Ukraine crisis: US mulls more sanctions for Russia. When we think of the Eastern regions of the Ukraine like Donetsk, being torn to pieces, the media seems to be pointing our gaze eastward, and of course, why wouldn’t we look east? I mean… Russia!
Russia is condemned for allegedly supporting and arming the rebels in the Eastern regions of Ukraine, as a result we’ve imposed various sanctions upon them, mounted a diplomatic coalition against them and our media seems to be in overdrive to point the finger of blame to Moscow, and Putin’s aspirations to recreate Russia’s Soviet heyday. However, we haven’t really dedicated much time to trying to understand why Russia is causing such instability – beyond of course, perhaps their evil scheming for world domination. Why does Moscow feel so determined to keep Ukraine from turning towards the West?
Our journey begins in 1945, World War Two is over and the United States and the Soviet Union begin to position themselves as adversaries. The United States cushions itself with Western Europe and later NATO, while the Soviet Union shields itself with Eastern Europe and later the Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw pact, like NATO to the US, protected Russia, who felt threatened in the wake of the Second World War, against the ambitions of the US and its allies. A chilly war occurs and the Soviet Union collapses along with the Warsaw Pact in the beginning of the nineties, and the ‘Evil Empire’ had finally been defeated. To add insult to injury from 1999 to 2009 all but two of Russia’s former ‘allies’ joined either NATO or the EU or in most cases, both. Russia could not help but watch as it was encircled by states loyal to a power that had all but ruined Russia and still enjoyed strained relations with. The only nations left on Russia’s side, were Belarus and the Ukraine.
“If we’ve learnt anything from Game of Thrones…”
Before we then look to justify Russia’s response in the Ukraine with this information, it is perhaps worth a digression to look into the past at our own history and that of the Americans. In 1914 we declared war on Germany for its violation of Belgium neutrality. Jump forward 48 years to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the United States and the USSR arguably took the world the closest it had been to nuclear war. The point being made is that the West has declared or threatened war in the past when it, like the Russians today, felt vulnerable by what was happening so close to its borders. It is with this understanding in mind that we should conduct diplomatic relations with Russia. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea was unacceptable, and Russia arming and if you believe some, fighting alongside the rebels in the East is also unacceptable. But we too must stand up and admit we have acted unacceptably.
We have completely disregarded how the Russians might feel towards the enlargement of NATO and to the enlargement and empowerment of the EU. We are so quick to demonise the Russian response that we forget how we have felt in the past when we ourselves had been put in similar circumstances. Now of course we should not have to bend over backwards to accommodate the Kremlin, and the EU should not feel obliged to work in a way that is subservient to Russian policy, but if we’ve learnt anything from Game of Thrones, we understand that the Lannister’s are in power because they’ve made sacrifices when necessary and acted decisively when they needed to. We need Russia to feel that they can sleep easy, that we are not trying to undermine and surround them, in a perfect world we would seek to secure Russian membership to the EU (but that’s a whole other debate).
If we look at this strategically, we are overextending ourselves and are coming across as aggressive to a potentially volatile state. The EU is shaken by the economic crisis: the new Greek government could massively destabilise the organisation. The last European elections reflected a growing anti-EU sentiment in the member states. NATO is under performing, the US is flashing the red lights, the European nations are not keeping up with the required defence budget and minimum armed forces needed to effectively operate NATO. To put it simply Europe cannot afford to make such a foolish mistake in regarding Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis.
“signalling to the world that justice has a price tag”
How should we proceed? Well that of course is not up to us and this article will not start a political upheaval, but here are some minor suggestions. Perhaps we halt any further integration of the Ukraine into the EU for now, perhaps we work to prove to the Russians the benefits of working with the West, perhaps we don’t all maniacally cackle while oil prices tumble smashing the Russian economy into the cliff face. Perhaps our media can stop jumping on every chance to humiliate the Russians and perhaps in our giving we can secure Russia’s influence in countries like Iran and China, which will in turn improve relations with them. At the very least, perhaps we give ourselves some time to be able to negotiate from a position of actual strength, to allow our economies to strengthen so if Russia acts out of place again, we don’t make fools of ourselves by halfheartedly committing to sanctions for fear of damaging our economy, as if signalling to the world that justice has a price tag.
To conclude, let us stop acting as if we are the innocent party, and that Putin is acting like a mid-twentieth century tyrant. Let us understand why Russia feels so threatened, and why it is acting the way it is. If we drop the ‘hurt puppy’ act, and start honestly reviewing the situation, perhaps world politics in all respects, can move on from this form of playground bickering and begin to actually solve these problems.