Dangerous talk can only muddy waters as crisis between West and Russia deepens

Vladimir Putin has his own geopolitical priorities. EPA/Alexei Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Kremlin Pool

We can be certain of two aspects of the current crisis between Russia and the West: it is as dangerous as it is unnecessary – and the way the crisis has drifted has been a shameful reflection on the incompetence and errors of all the major players. That we can have reached a stage where a newspaper such as The Times can talk of the prospect of nuclear weapons being used shows just how the situation has been allowed to drift in a fog of mutual misunderstanding and suspicion.

If we don’t pay serious attention to this and quickly the “incineration of Birmingham” – though used as a quip by the Times’ writers – might be a step nearer.

There have been many analyses of how things have come to this but we need to comment on exactly where we are and what can be done to get relations back to normal.

First, Russia has not changed. It is the same Russia, the same Vladimir Putin, the same foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the same interests that have been dominant for a decade and a half. What has changed is the political collapse of Ukraine – which is likely to be followed soon by economic collapse unless there is a will towards settlement. In the present climate this seems as far off as ever, though the ceasefire and Minsk 2 have been a great step in the right direction.

Bating the Russian bear

Secondly, why has Ukraine become such a dangerous issue and why is there a risk of destabilising East-West relations? Perceptive observers such as Geoffrey Hosking long ago pointed out the dangers inherent in the unprecedented emergence of large Russian communities beyond the borders of the Russian state, in the Baltic States, Ukraine and Central Asia.

He reminded us of the problems in a lecture last month. The existence of these exile communities complicates already difficult relations between the states of the former USSR. Places like Estonia, especially, have been very wary of their Russian population and, by a series of methods, have tried to keep them out of full citizenship and participation in the life of the Estonian state.

One can understand Estonian and others fears of being overrun and having their national life diluted by such significant minorities, but is this the way to regulate the problem? The resentment their measures breed in the Russian populations of Estonia and other places which have taken similar steps is dangerous because their resentments make it almost impossible for Russia itself to stand by and see its citizens discriminated against and even attacked.

This is a large part of what happened in Ukraine. A brief but insane and, worse, revealing commitment by the immediate post-coup authorities to ban official use of the Russian language inflamed and helped internationalise the crisis in its early stages. Similarly, telling Russia to leave its base of Sebastopol by 2017, in violation of a recently signed treaty to maintain it until 2047, was near-suicidal.

Ukraine has been a disaster for the West’s relations with Russia. EPA/Sergey Dolzhenko

The risk now is that similar anti-Russian acts may tempt the smaller states who calculate that the US and Europe will have to support them in the current climate. A good example of exactly how that “climate” is being manipulated in the West comes in The Times article which gives a significance beyond all reason to a shadowy meeting of retired intelligence chiefs from both sides which, it implies, has been the unlikely vehicle for Russia to threaten nuclear war in the Baltic states.

Cool heads needed

True, the well-defined lines of the Cold War are dangerously blurred at present so any attempt to set up new rules of engagement which let each side know what the other considers to be its tripwires are to be welcomed. However, to consider an informal exchange of views on exactly what those tripwires are does not translate into immediate policy objectives nor the official position of the Russian government.

Perhaps the true purpose of the story comes in the assertion in the accompanying editorial that NATO needs to be stronger and defence budgets in the West need to be at least maintained against cuts, at best to rise. Certainly such articles create a climate in which such proposals sound reasonable. However, the real solution to the impasse lies elsewhere.

What is needed is negotiation, re-activation of NATO-Russia contacts and a halt to a pointless but provocative deployment of further NATO forces in places like Estonia (whose border is 90 miles from St Petersburg and less than 500 miles from Moscow) where they are likely to provoke the interventions they are supposedly meant to deter.

In fact, that is what the source seems to have said – further Russian action would only follow increased NATO encroachment. Perhaps the most telling phrase in The Times article is the statement that when Russia talks about using nuclear weapons it is time to sit up and take notice. That is precisely the problem. Only when Russia is confrontational does anyone listen. Actually, the time to take notice was five years ago when a conciliatory Putin was talking about a Europe from Dublin to Vladivostok, but no one did. Today’s rhetoric in Moscow is of a Eurasia stretching from St Petersburg to Shanghai. Is that what the West wants?