When obsession and suspicion collide


When the Ukraine crisis erupted one year ago this week, most governments dismissed it as an obscure dispute in a far-away country, of short duration and no lasting consequences.

But it is now clear the showdown over Ukraine has transformed Europe and will define the continent's security for at least the rest of this decade, and probably much of the next one as well.

Ukraine's future is obvious: the country will be the scene for a proxy battle between Russia and the West, a confrontation over spheres of influence. This nightmare was predictable since the end of the Cold War a quarter of a century ago. And it has now become a reality, although some governments are trying their hardest to ignore it.

The Soviet Union collapsed because of its own internal contradictions: a country which produced multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles by the thousand but could not make a household fridge which worked, or feed its own people, was never likely to last. It was not the West which defeated the USSR, but its own political system.

Still, for ordinary Russians who were the dominant nation in the Soviet Union, the sudden meltdown of their mighty country without a military defeat or even a shot fired in anger is mystifying: To this day, most Russians believe their country was simply betrayed by its previous leaders, who were tricked by the West with promises of cooperation and prosperity which never materialised.

It no longer matters that this is nonsense, for as Russian President Vladimir Putin has proven, once myths become entrenched they are as powerful as facts: the key determinant of Mr Putin's rule has been to avenge this supposed "stab in the back" by previous Russian rulers, to restore the country to its former glory.

And nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Ukraine. Most Russians are prepared to accept the loss of their old colonies in Eastern Europe, nations which were long independent and only incorporated into the Soviet sphere of influence at the end of World War II. Russians can also be persuaded that the other republics of the former Soviet Union should be allowed to remain independent.

But on Ukraine, there is an almost universal agreement that it properly belongs to Russia. This is not just a quest for territory; it's a fight for historic entitlement, one of reclaiming a status which history, God or fate supposedly always reserved for Russia.

It is a sentiment shared by most of Russia's political elite; even the late Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first post-Soviet leader and a man who bent over backwards to be friendly to the West, never took Ukraine's independence seriously, and often denied that Ukraine is even a state.

Contrary to President Putin's claims, it was not the West which tried to "snatch" Ukraine away from Russia. Indeed, precisely the opposite: as the Soviet Union collapsed, then US President George H. W. Bush made a special trip to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in order to persuade local leaders not to proclaim their independence.

That speech, which even now is derided as the "Chicken Kiev" speech by some US commentators because it supposedly betrayed American weakness, failed to stop the separation of Ukraine from Russia. But it should now be remembered as a valiant effort to avert a crisis, proof that the West did not seek a showdown with Russia on this score.

However, what Western governments stand accused of is in many respects just as bad: the persistent refusal to accept that Russia was never going to let go of Ukraine, and that the only way of handling Ukraine was either by confronting Russia's aspirations, or by accommodating them. Western governments did neither: they encouraged Ukrainian dreams of integration into the European Union and even into the US-led Nato military alliance, yet failed to follow through in either direction.

The result is they alarmed Russia without stabilising Ukraine, the worst of both worlds. The current crisis is largely of Russia's making. But its antecedents lie in mistaken Western policies, in the persistent Western obsession of refusing to confront European realities as they really were.

Be that as it may, there is no turning back now. Even if the latest negotiated ceasefire holds in Ukraine - and that's a big assumption - it is plainly obvious the country cannot be stitched together again.

There is no way Russia will relinquish control over the eastern provinces of Ukraine now being held by ethnic Russian rebels. Nor is there any hope a pro-Russian government will ever again come to power in the Ukrainian capital, if only because most of the ethnic Russians no longer vote in Ukrainian elections, leaving the field open to Ukrainian nationalists.

Tragic as this may be, if the outcome of the Ukraine crisis could have been contained to only that country's division, Europe could have regained its poise.

Sadly, however, that's no longer feasible either, for Ukraine's carve-up has undermined all the security arrangements put in place in Europe at the end of the Cold War. The former communist countries of Eastern Europe need reassuring that they are not going to be the next in line, and if Nato and the EU don't give such reassurances, both organisations will soon disintegrate.

The West's response is, therefore, no longer about Ukraine as such, but about the maintenance of Western cohesion.

Sooner rather than later, the United States and its allies will start supplying weapons to the Ukrainian military, not because anyone believes Ukraine can defeat Russia, but largely out of the belief that, if the cost of Russia's involvement in Ukraine starts rising, Moscow may be deterred from trying the same tactic elsewhere in Europe.

Most of the weapons will not be supplied directly from US or British arsenals; that will be too provocative to Russia and too difficult for the Ukrainian military, which uses Russian-made equipment. Instead, arms will be supplied from stocks of Russian- made weapons held by neighbouring Poland and Romania, thereby creating a shadowy European arms route. The Western strategy will be to embroil Russia in a prolonged confrontation which it cannot sustain, and from which it cannot easily extricate itself.

Largely to counter this, Russia is responding by increasing pressure elsewhere in Europe. One sophisticated strategy unfolding is to treat groups of European countries in very different ways. The small Baltic states are being subjected to regular harassment. Most of this is of a petty nature: the cutting of a ship's cables, the interruption of gas supplies or the occasional, brief border incursion. But the harassment is relentless, designed to keep Russia's smaller neighbours on edge.

Meanwhile, big East European countries like Poland and Romania are being subjected to more persistent Russian retaliation, such as trade bans.

Yet, at the same time, the Russians are embracing a number of former communist East European nations which they consider as friendly: President Putin was last week in Hungary, a Nato country keen to get Russian oil and money. Finally, a special place in Russia's charm offensive is reserved for Germany, Europe's biggest and most influential nation, whose lost friendship the Russians are desperate to regain.

The objective of this multi-layered strategy is to drive a wedge between various European nations as well as between Europe and the US which would paralyse Nato and the EU from within, and thereby unleash the security transformation which Russia wants, towards a continent over which Moscow exercises greater control, one divided into new spheres of influence.

History never repeats itself exactly: today's Russia is not the old Soviet Union, the Cold War will not return because Russia's challenge is not global, and a "hot" war seems even less likely.

Nevertheless, the return of Cold War language is one of the most depressing European realities. And so is another element of the Cold War: the palpable sense of mutual suspicion. Russian leaders are convinced the West is out to undermine them; Western leaders have exactly the same fears about Moscow's intentions.

What we are likely to see is the advent of two proxy wars in Europe: one played in Ukraine largely at the West's initiation, and the other played inside Nato and the EU, largely by the Russians.

In the long term, the Russians are likely to lose both confrontations, as they have lost all the previous ones, and for the same reason: they cannot match military power with an economic one. But in the short term, the proxy confrontations will condemn Europe to years to serious tensions.

Quite a rebuff to those who, only a few decades ago, predicted the "end of history" in Europe.