Nick Ottens has argued convincingly for maintaining a tough line against Moscow. Or rather it would be convincing if the West were still capable of following through on such policies.
Some time ago, after a conference in San Sebastián in the Basque Country, the former mayor of that city commented to me that the key question in foreign policy is whether you are willing to die for Danzig. If not, then you have no right to a foreign policy, he said.
Today perhaps that should be changed to: Are you willing to die for Donbas? It is because we aren’t that taking a stand against Moscow has become so difficult.
The truth is, whether we like it or not, that the Crimea is Russian and will remain Russian because we are unwilling to eject them.
It is worse than that. The situation in Ukraine arose in large part because the West was willing to back pro-Western factions there, starting with the Orange Revolution in 2004-5, but was not willing to give them the support they needed to see through their revolution or consolidate their break with Moscow.
Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, concluded this was all a plot against Russia and decided to pay us back in kind.
The same is true in Syria, where our support for the rebels has been just enough to avoid a collapse but nowhere near enough for them to overthrow Bashar Assad.
In both cases, Putin has recognized our weakness and taken advantage of it.
What are we trying to achieve?
The other problem with taking a stand against Moscow is that it’s unclear what we’re trying to achieve.
There is no prospect of persuading Putin to withdraw from the Crimea or abandon Assad. Economic sanctions are hurting the Russian economy and in particular the elite around Putin. By toughening the sanctions regime, we may be able to further damage the Russian economy. But it is not at all clear that provoking the collapse of the Russian government and/or the Russian economy would be in the interest of Europe and the United States — and that Putin would not be replaced by something worse. The last thing Europe needs is more turmoil on its eastern frontier.
Outline of a deal
Putin wants the sanctions removed. Some suggest Russia’s reserves may run out toward the end of this year. That gives us leverage — provided we are clear on what it is we want.
The Crimea will remain Russian, but the rest of Ukraine must be stabilized and guaranteed. NATO and the EU can agree to no further expansion into Russia’s near abroad (given the internal problems of both institutions, this is hardly a concession) in exchange for security guarantees for the Baltic republics and Poland and an end to aggressive Russian military overflights.
In the Middle East, the leading role of Russia, Turkey and Iran in resolving the Syrian conflict (which Barack Obama more or less gave away by allowing the UN Security Council to endorse a ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey) can be traded for security guarantees for Israel, reinforcing the Iran nuclear deal and possibly keeping Russia out of Libya.
Perhaps most valuable of all, dealing with Russia in this way could break the alignment between Moscow and Beijing, undermining China’s geopolitical position.
That should appeal to President-elect Donald Trump, who is determined to take a hard line with China. His predilection for “deals” may incline him toward the kind of tradeoffs outlined here.
No one would come out of this with any honor. But, to paraphrase that ex-mayor of Santa Sebastián, there is little honor in refusing to die for Danzig anyway.