Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Russia's Ukraine policy: no longer such a good idea


Back in March, when everybody was lauding President Putin as if he were a latter-day strategic genius in the mould of Eisenhower or Hannibal, The Historian wrote this about Russia's opportunistic 'forward' policy in the Ukraine:

Moscow has dropped a brick. President Putin probably doesn't read blogs. If he did, he should get one message loud and clear: it's easy to get into a military face-off. It's difficult to get out of the quagmire later. American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to go quite well to start off with - as did the original Soviet invasion of that latter country way back in 1979. The result? Years of toil. Unpopularity. Having to govern people who didn't want you there. Having to pick winners in their domestic politics - struggles that Washington and Moscow hardly understood, let alone mastered. And in the end? Partial failure at best, and disaster at worst. It turns out that it's easy to start shooting, but hard to stop. 

Well, it is our solemn duty now to reflect that President Putin (above) and his advisers probably should have thought harder about the past failures of military adventures. For after the tragic and totally unnecessary destruction of Malaysian Airlines MH17 - and the loss of hundreds of innocent lives - perhaps we should all have another think about stepping back from the brink. No-one yet knows what really happened, and we should keep our cool heads about us in the storm of claim and counter-claim. But the overwhelming probability remains that local pro-Russian separatists brought down the 'plane in error, thinking that it was a Ukrainian military transport. They shouldn't have had the capacity to do that, shattering Moscow's foreign policy - and everybody else's - with a single misguided pull of the trigger. You can almost feel Mr Putin wincing away, thinking 'how could I have let these guys hold the fate of my policies in my hands?'

He made the same mistake as Premier Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which might have ended up with everybody dead. That time, the Soviets left local commanders on the ground with tactical nuclear weapons. Had the US marines hit the beaches, he might have fired with his nukes - leading to a global nuclear war. That won't happen this time, but ask yourself this: what would be happening now were that an American diplomatic or civilian craft that'd been shot down? We'd be in a full-blown confrontation.

Yes, NATO, the EU and the US played their own duplicitous role in what went on in Kiev late last year - helping to launch this whole desperately sad and stupid story. Yes, and as this blog has argued before, we should recognise that Moscow has special interests in the area - and that the Ukrainian authorities are not always the nicest people to have to deal with.

But the number one lesson from this whole debacle is that once you start edging into the quagmire - once you start arming local militias, playing about with high-tech kit, making bellicose nationalistic statements that it's hard to withdraw once your own media has been running them for months - it's hard to tiptoe back out again.

No doubt Mr Putin is considering how we might pull himself out. And the early signs are that wiser heads are prevailing in the Kremlin: Russia is going to help pass a UN Security Council Resolution calling for a proper, free and fair investigation - as well as encouraging local separatists to give up the bodies of those Dutch, Malaysian, Australian, British and other citizens that have been so wantonly murdered. There's still time to avoid a third Cold War following on from the deep freezes of the 1950s and the early 1980s. But that time is not unlimited, and it is rapidly running down.

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