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Ukraine crisis: is the West powerless to stop Russian aggression?

Kiev moves in, but where are the West? Anastasia Vlasova/EPA

As the situation in Ukraine rapidly spins out of control, various Western leaders have stepped up their verbal warnings to Russia.

President Obama, in a telephone call with President Putin on Monday night, urged his Russian counterpart to stop meddling in Ukraine and threatened further sanctions.

The Secretary-General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, called on Russia to “stop being part of the problem, and start being part of the solution”, including by pulling back its troops from Ukraine’s borders. At the same time, the NATO Secretary-General emphasised NATO’s commitment to further strengthening collective defence at sea, in the air and on land in terms of “re-enforced defence plans, enhanced exercises and appropriate deployments.”

The EU’s foreign affairs chief, Baroness Catherine Ashton, issued a similar statement of concern following a meeting of its member states' foreign ministers on Monday, echoing NATO’s calls for Russia to pull back its troops and to stop further destabilisation of Ukraine. Similar to the US, the EU not only reiterated its political and economic support for Ukraine but also committed to further tightening its sanctions against Russia.

The UK’s foreign secretary, William Hague, announced that, while new EU sanctions against Russia would not kick in automatically, the UK was prepared to limit trade with Russian firms, which is particularly beneficial to the City of London. His German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, from the traditionally more Russia-friendly Social Democratic Party, took a similar line when he noted that while he “could understand the business community’s desire not to impose economic sanctions on Russia, … the German government was determined to take that path if Russia continued to stir up trouble in eastern Ukraine.”

One reading of these and various similar statements and actions is, at worst, one of Western impotence and, at best, one of a self-interested focus on Western security. Impotence in the inability to stop Russian efforts to destabilise Ukraine, or alternatively to come up with a stronger set of policies to deter Russia from continuing to do so. And self-interest in the sense that whatever measures have been taken so far seek to limit costs to the West, even at the risk of effectiveness of the half-hearted policies adopted, and focused on protecting current EU and NATO members rather than standing up for Ukraine.

In this reading of the situation, Western actions are an open invitation to Russia to continue down its current path of creating a new zone of influence under its permanent control at the expense of the people in the countries affected, a new Soviet Union in all but name and full geographical extent. In other words, the West becomes an enabler of Russian revisionism and expansionism.

A somewhat more benign reading would be to accept the obvious shortcomings of the Western response, but to see them as a result of a miscalculation of Russian strategy. The slow and only gradually more assertive responses from the US, as well as from NATO and the EU and their member states would then reflect a coming-to-terms with a new reality in which Russia can no longer be considered a partner and Europe’s security can no longer be taken for granted. This is very much the message in a recent video from the NATO Secretary-General.

Turning a necessity into a virtue, however, it could also be argued that the incremental toughening-up of the West’s responses keeps the door open for diplomatic solutions and has not fallen into the trap of a tit-for-tat escalation, which is difficult to step back from and makes face-saving exits for both Russia and the West ever more difficult while being played out on the back of the people of Ukraine. The talk of new sanctions gives at least a limited hope to the four-party talks in Geneva scheduled for Thursday, and were apparently the focus of a phone call between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Putin on Tuesday night. The mere consideration of additional sanctions does not compel Russia to a response, and in fact may offer Moscow an incentive to participate. In turn, it leaves the US and EU with options, depending on the outcome of the talks, which could be as little as an agreement to meet again in the same format.

Insisting on the possibility of a diplomatic way forward, as the West and Russia both continue to do, may not be much at this stage, but it is better than the alternative of walking straight into a military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. Nor does it mean that the West does not have an important lesson to learn here. Rather than simply buying into our own rhetoric of a norms- and values-based international society, we must be prepared to back up such rhetoric with credible policies to protect these norms and values and abide by them ourselves.

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6 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Mugford


    As W.S. Churchill said, "Jaw, jaw is better than war, war".

    1. Paul Burns

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Mugford

      Churchill didn't advocate jawing once it became clear that Hitler had no respect for signed treaties and was bent on taking over other territories.

      Putin has long sought to control the Ukraine. Remember the curious dioxin poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko. The suspects are have been given sanctuary in Russia.

  2. Steve Kerensky

    logged in via Facebook

    There is no evidence whatsoever of Russian aggression toward Ukraine. That is a fiction put out by the `government` and swallowed whole by the US State Department. The aggression is all from Kiev against people of Russian origin in Ukraine. Many of their families have been living there for over 200 years. The Kiev lot are a bunch of vicious right-wing nationalists form whom Ukrainians of Russian origin would naturally like some protection.

  3. David Edenden


    Obama is weak
    Because the US is weak
    Because the US is bankrupt
    Because the conservatives are "starving the beast"

    How the US can effectively respond to Putin's aggression in Crimea, even though the US is bankrupt, pensions will be slashed, health care reduced and education allowed to deteriorate.

    EU is weak

    The need for unanimity is a flaw in EU governance ... a fatal flaw it seems.
    The entire EU cannot "stand-up" to bankrupt Greece over its veto regarding the Macedonian Name Farce ... for 20 years! How can it hope to "stand-up" tp determined Putin.

    No room for discussion

    The US will not allow any nuclear missiles in Cuba ... no room for discussion.
    Russia will not allow the Crimea, its only port to the Black Sea and therefore Mediterranean, to fall into the hands of Nato ... no room for discussion.

  4. Gerry Diamond


    Military action by Ukraine will give the excuse to Putin to send in the vastly superior Russia troops who will quickly crush the Ukrainians and give Putin what he has always been seeking, full control. He knows he has nothing to fear from the US he proved that with Syria. He will call it stabilising the situation and in the name of real democracy saving the country from the illegal control of the fascist right wing nationalists in Kiev. He will then install a new Putin puppet as president and that will be that.

    But what has happened to all those Ukrainians who occupied the streets in protest at the former government, who wanted closer ties with Europe, not with Russia, which led to the ousting of Yanukovych , why have they fallen silent?

  5. Glenn Baker


    ''Could understand the business community’s desire not to impose economic sanctions on Russia'' nothing not even death must stop business.