Is Russia on the warpath?

By Jonathan Power

Just before former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev on Saturday made his stunning criticism of the West that, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it had engaged in “triumphalism”, I was in Moscow. Everyone I talked to said the West had set out to humiliate Russia (not to help rebuild it as it did in Germany after the Second World War).

Gorbachev has long been the West’s pet political darling, (although the New York Times didn’t report this speech) – for undoing the straitjacket that enveloped Soviet society, for allowing the reunification of Germany and for being the major contributor to ending the Cold War.

So the question is will the West listen to him now? Will it listen to his point that the expansion of NATO has made Russia feel threatened?

Will it understand that there is a good reason why he and an overwhelming majority of Russians support President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy? Will it share his fear that “we are on the brink of a new Cold War”?

One of the people I talked to was Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of “Global Affairs”, the magazine read by Russia’s foreign policy experts.

Sitting in a quiet café on a peaceful Sunday morning he told me that this Russian elite was developing a neo-conservatism of its own to match America’s highly influential neo-conservative clan.

“Putin is desperately seeking something that will unify Russia”, he argues. “The Crimea crisis is very useful to Putin but it will not last for ever. And Putin doesn’t know with what to replace it”.

“Putin is trying to restore the geo-political and military might of the Soviet Union.” “Sufficiency” in armaments, not equality, combined with a readiness to use them, goes the talk.

“Putin is not ready to contemplate a nuclear war. However, nuclear deterrence is back on the agenda, even though the skills necessary to deal with a situation of nuclear confrontation are no longer available. Russians think that nuclear capacity is the country’s only equaliser”.

“Emotions in Russia are now running higher than in the Cold War. So the West must understand the risk. The West must not go as far as to say it will defend Ukraine. Any attempt to do so by the West will be seen as a casus belli”.

“It must understand that Putin’s goal is not to occupy Ukraine. Putin would see that as a failure. Putin is not interested in taking over the eastern, Russian speaking, part of Ukraine. He doesn’t want to destroy Ukraine’s integrity. But if Ukraine becomes a pro European country he will regard this as a defeat”.

Lukyanov believes that President Barack Obama is at odds with the US’s political culture which is “to stand up and fight”. But at the same time he doesn’t think Obama has the strength to nullify it.

Another liberally minded intellectual I talked to was Igor Yurgens, an intimate of Dmitrij Medvedev when he was president. We sat in Moscow’s elegant Café Pushkin and ate a Russian breakfast of pancakes and caviar. “We have entered a period of a ‘Cold Peace’ not a ‘Cold War’”, he says. “People around Putin think that in the higher echelons of the US there is a theory of ‘Regime Change’”.

Yurgens sees a peace agreement in Ukraine as eminently possible: A reaffirmation of full language rights for the east, a federal system of government with much devolution, as in Scotland, an announcement by NATO that it has no intention of bringing Ukraine into NATO and acceptance that while Ukraine makes trade arrangements with the EU that it is no longer hostile to Ukraine belonging to Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union. Ukraine can face both ways as the EU common market does with the US. Consideration of Ukraine joining the EU must be put off to a more distant day, and the EU must say this.

I ask him how will it be possible to stop the pro-Russian militias fighting for the east to join Russia, even if the above is agreed to. “That is the million dollar question”, he replies. “It won’t be easy but without our economic support and procurement they can’t survive. However, we can’t allow the militants to say Putin is a traitor”.

Most people in Russia, he argues, don’t want Russia to be deeply involved in Ukraine. And “I don’t see military confrontation with the West over Ukraine”. Nevertheless, “we are thinking of nuclear deterrence once again”.

He concludes by saying that Russia probably did lend the militants a BUK which fired the missile that brought down the Malaysian airliner.

My conclusion after listening to both men is that it is up to the Europeans, who precipitated this crisis with their statements and proposals, to lead the way out of this crisis. Obama is too hemmed in by the neo-conservatives to take the necessary steps.

Copyright: Jonathan Power.

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