Liberal interventionists have been attacking the anti-war left over their failure to protest against the Russian menacing of Ukraine. Putin would have cared even less about a few hundred boisterous eccentrics in anoraks and keffiyehs than David Cameron but this is about egos rather than actual concerns. Still, as far as I can tell both tribes have something in common: a tendency to exaggerate the importance of Western behaviour as it relates to international affairs. Britain and the US is at fault for all evils: it is just through its deeds for the leftists and its inaction for the liberals.
The idea that the West forced Putin’s hand seems contrived. It was playing with fire in its support for pro-EU and NATO tendencies in nations around Russia but those tendencies would have been powerful anyway. It might be hard for Britons to appreciate that people can be admiring of the EU but if your average Ukrainian has any idea of the development that its subsidies have been funding in Poland I can understand why they might yearn for a slice of the pie.
What, then, of the idea that Western weakness enabled Putin? I don’t understand it. Yes, it is embarrassing that Obama mocked concerns about Russia but what should he had been doing otherwise? Bush spent eight years barging into this or that country and the Russians still piled into South Ossetia. Why would invading Syria have scared them? It would have shown that America and Britain were prepared to make war on a government that posed no military threat to them. Why would this have lent seriousness to the idea that they might go to war against superpowers? This seems a bit like saying that victory against Tranmere Rovers would make Barcelona fear Manchester City. One of these is not like the other.
According to smarter people than myself, meanwhile, thoughts of trade and diplomatic freezes would not have frightened Putin. Sanctions may bite if they are imposed but the Russians seem to have gambled on their ineffectiveness.
(As mad as the idea of all-out conflict sounds, it is being considered by our commentators. Interventionists have been praising to the skies a piece by the head of Estonia’s national conservatives, which holds that “Western civilization in its decadence has reached the final stage of its degradation” and is blind to the need for “a truly uncompromising fight”. I accept, of course, that the West is in many ways decadent and depraved but why is it only legitimate to state this case when it pertains to its apparent unwillingness to go to war?)
Superpowers almost inevitably push around states that flirt with the idea of escaping their clutches – be it Guatemala or the Czech Republic – and if they want to do it they are hard to stop. There are many problems with comparisons to 1938 but one of them is that Hitler’s Germany was surrounded by nations with enough firepower to crush him like the jumped-up little pseud he was. Putin’s Russia is a large and wealthy place with enough nukes to kill us all many times over. Anybody want to try and order him around? I am sure that actions can and will be taken but the most important standard is that they should be smart, not strong. It was being smart that made Putin strong in the first place.
An addendum. There is one thing that the West deserves criticism for: its obsequiousness towards Russian billionaires. It would not surprise me if this shameless greed has led Putin to think that we are hopeless degenerates. I was reminded of the proposal to sell British visas to the highest bidder. Wealth should play a role in our criteria for accepting migrants, I think – if its investment will be of real value. This, though, appears degrading. It evokes nothing more than high class prostitution. Wealth, moreover, need not denote worth. Crooked oligarchs? Oil sheikhs? Degenerate estate entrepreneurs? Such people can devalue our culture even if they add a few pounds to our pockets.