So far from God, so close to Russia
I'm sorry, I didn't want to do a war post
Russian troops massed and tensions hotter than a spoon at a crackhead’s house. Is it 2014, 2017 or 2021? War in Ukraine has seemed inevitable for what seems like a decade. Every time the crisis has rolled around, like the radar operator at Pearl Harbour, Western leaders have scrambled to prepare a response that is usually too late.
The reason we are faced with our fourth Ukraine crisis inside a decade is not entirely Putin (although the reason we have escalated into war is, indisputably, Putin); it is a paucity of ideas. Western foreign policy strategy is rigged to deal with great-power conflict in the twentieth century, and has completely failed to adjust with any of the developments in global politics since the end of the Cold War. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the west has been applying foreign policy tactics designed to face down the USSR, regardless of changing circumstances or opposition. With new-found power has come new-found ignorance of how to use it. Faced with the biggest change in international relations since the handing of global hegemony from British to American empires policy makers have, as Niall Ferguson puts it, ‘found it difficult to imagine doing more than meeting out exemplary but largely symbolic punishments.’
I want to make one thing clear; the responsibility for bloodshed is Putin’s. What I am arguing is that we have an insufficiency of foreign policy tactics. The ones we have are outdated, designed for a different world and insufficient to prevent a war like this against a man like Putin.
Western politicians touting their foreign policy solutions before war broke out showed just how washed out Western foreign policy has become. Both dovish and hawkish solutions shared something similar; they have already been tried and already found wanting. We have lost game against game to Putin, yet we keep using the same moves that have failed us before.
How many of the solutions offered to the Ukraine crisis were new ideas, carefully crafted to suit the context of the crisis? It was, more or less exactly, none. On the dovish side, the first port of call is sanctions, on the grounds that they have proved so effective before. And in fairness, just look at their history. Before they were on the receiving end of sanctions the behaviour of states like North Korea, Cuba, South Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Haiti, Pakistan and China was suspect, to say the least. Now, post-sanctions, they are safe, stable, promising democracies committed to upholding international values.
This set of sanctions is sure to work, however, because we are rolling out the ‘Mother of all Sanctions’. These sanctions are different because they’re bigger and - as my wife told the man who performed my penis enhancement operation - ‘bigger is always better’. The problem is that the ‘Mother' may not actually affect anyone, and there are already existing sanctions on Russia which have been in place since 2014. Russia has simply reorganised and refocused its’ economy towards China, keeping vast stores of foreign cash in hand. The previous sanctions, it seems, have merely made Putin’s regime even less worried about sanctions.
In fact, they are becoming counter-productive. Sign-up to this particular programme was slow, particularly in Europe. This suggests that the European economy is now rather more reliant on Russia rather than the other way around - as does Germany’s kowtowing in order to protect Nordstream 2 - which conveniently bypasses Ukraine. When the time came to stand up and be counted, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz came to his knees so quickly independent observers reported he was training to be a Cossack dancer. The Germans have paused Nordstream 2, but they have not stopped it. Nor has any western nation actually stopped buying Russian oil and gas, lest the crisis affect key demographics of voters.
As for the hawks, politicians like Tobias Ellwood merely positively itching for war - and they wanted it now. Ellwood called for a ‘Churchillian approach’ to the crisis. Given that Churchill was perfectly prepared to assign Eastern Europe as a sphere of Russian influence in the Percentages Agreement Ellwood’s call is historically inaccurate, but it does at least serve to remind us that he has both the heart of a lion and the brain of a sheep. The ‘Churchillian approach’ consists of sending in NATO troops, again, a call that has been backed by Washington.
The problem with deploying NATO troops in the region was always, of course, that the deployment of NATO troops in the region is the entire reason we are where we are. Their ever increasing expansion across Eastern Europe is comparable, in a military sense, to the First Punic War, in that both made the final confrontation inevitable. It is a repetition of an entirely broken strategy.
Those keen to draw from the well of blood were reassured by the fact that experts say it will need more than the 100,000 troops Putin has at the border to take and hold the whole country. They seem largely uniformed of, or unworried by, the fact that Putin may only want the more ethically Russian (and much flatter) eastern half of Ukraine, or to simply establish a puppet government. An increase in western military presence would, hawks argue, will send a message to Putin and potentially raise his body count should a war occur. But Putin was a man who had already consigned thousands of souls to oblivion. The cost would have to have been been raised significantly higher than tokenistic forces in neighbouring countries to deter him - especially given, before the war, that public opinion in western nations was highly divided.
There was also been a rapid move to arm the Ukrainians. To the teeth - to the eyeballs if necessary. The theory was that providing the Ukrainian army with cutting-edge battlefield technology would again increase the potential cost of any military action Putin might take, altering the balance in favour of peace. Ukraine is of course run by Ukranians, not idiots. They are aware that Ukraine might need advanced weapons to hold off the Russian military, one of the most advanced armed services in the world, and have therefore been investing in a major uplift of their own military capability for years.
That was roughly the extent of the ‘range’ of solutions that politicians have offered. War or subjective poverty. Ukraine may teach us a painfully expensive lesson; as my triathlon coach regularly tells me after a tough interval session, “there’s no better workout than having someone kick your fucking teeth in.”
America’s empire is at a turning point. It is no longer undisputed global hegemon but is overextended abroad, exhausted and strained financially. It is no longer so interested - or capable - of defending every little corner of the world. The West can no longer rely on American domination to solve foreign policy crises, so the era we could rely on Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim of ‘bigger stick, better argument’ is over. To combat new threats, we can no longer rely on the overwhelming might of the ‘arsenal of democracy’ to help us out.
In order to develop a foreign policy fit for the realties of the 21st Century, tactics must modernise. Perhaps the West will be able to learn something from its’ enemies, who have adopted and combined modern technology to further their ends; Russia, for example, is famous for its use of information warfare to skew public debate abroad to further it’s own foreign policy goals. The first Russian disinformation office was established in 1923 but, with Putin’s backing, has leveraged the world of social media to huge advantage. However, it has failed in Ukraine, against the outpouring of pro-Ukrainian sentiment on social media. Journalists are now resigning from Russia Today en masse, suddenly shocked, shocked, to find there was propaganda being produced in this establishment.
Meanwhile China shows, if we were better able to combine hard and soft power, we would be able to stake a much stronger claim to the future. Sino foreign policy is a complex hybridisation of muscular military showmanship, huge economic investment and constant informational warfare. It is a far more advanced strategy than anything the West has developed, combining soft and hard power in perfect harmony. It is propaganda by deed. They exploit the institutions built up by the West to propagate the hegemony of liberal democracy to their advantage whilst investing in infrastructure, ports and, most importantly, people.
Putin may back down and withdraw, but everyone knows that he has already won. A person who is not inwardly prepared for the use of violence against him is always weaker than the person committing the violence.