The Prime Minister (PM), David Cameron, is reported to have said:“…What has happened with respect to the Crimea is unacceptable… Russia has acted in flagrant breach of international law… This matters to the people of Britain because we depend on a world where countries obey the rules…”
As a graduate of Oxford, Mr Cameron must have a basic understanding of Great Britain’s geopolitical history. Not least the uncomfortable realisation that his stand against Russian ambitions in Ukraine, especially the Crimea, has striking symmetry with that of Mr Neville Chamberlain leading up to the 1938 Munich crisis. Like the hapless Mr Chamberlain the current PM has been taken off guard by the vehemently nationalistic intentions of a European leader who simply makes his own international ‘rules’. Herr Hitler in 1938 and Mr Putin in 2014 both using ethnic diaspora to provide the casus belli to initiate military intervention.
In the aftermath of the First World War Ukraine was absorbed into the emerging Soviet empire. Some seventy years later as the Soviet Empire itself disintegrated Ukraine declared its independence from Moscow and in 1994 the Russian Federation, the United States of America (USA) and United Kingdom (UK) became guarantors of Ukrainian independence when the new state gave up its nuclear arsenal. Yet it is Russia, one of those guarantors, that has violated the agreement on the flimsiest of pretexts to ensure Russian interests dominate along its borders.
To quote George Friedman from a recent report for STRATFOR: “…The Orange Revolution in Ukraine, from December 2004 to January 2005, was the moment when the post-Cold War world genuinely ended for Russia. The Russians saw the events in Ukraine as an attempt by the United States to draw Ukraine into NATO and thereby set the stage for Russian disintegration. Quite frankly, there was some truth to the Russian perception. If the West had succeeded in dominating Ukraine, Russia would have become indefensible. The southern border with Belarus, as well as the southwestern frontier of Russia, would have been wide open.”
If Friedman’s analysis is to be accepted the West has indeed missed a trick in not recognising the sense of paranoia that allegedly drives Russian strategic thinking – ie their belief that a USA led uni-polar world excludes Russia and must be resisted. Yet the only definable threat emanating from outside Russia is the inevitability of cultural and conceptual contamination in a globally connected world. And although this may worry Mr Putin because it has the potential to create internal unrest within the Russian Federation a military invasion threat from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is pure fantasy.
Nevertheless, on Sunday 16 March 2014, the Crimea held a Moscow sponsored referendum to cynically decide if they want to be Russian now or later. Heads I win, Tails you lose! Or, as the late Sir David Frost may have said of another era: “someone broke into the Kremlin last week and stole next year’s election results.” Meanwhile, the USA and UK, as guarantor powers, find themselves largely powerless to prevent the inevitable without the ability to threaten force. Instead, copies of international law are waved on high and a package of international sanctions are imposed in the face of a decidedly determined and defiant Mr Putin.
Great Britain had to face a similar reality over its weak position vis-a-vis the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and ‘Anschluss’ in Austria in 1938. In light of war weary domestic public opinion following a long period of disarmament that, with the exception of the Royal Navy (RN), had left Great Britain’s armed forces too weak to credibly challenge Germany, Mr Chamberlain’s hand was very weak. Mr Cameron finds himself in strangely familiar territory today, albeit the RN is no longer capable of acting as the UK’s back stop.
The USA is the current Super Power and Germany the dominant European economic power ahead of the UK and France, but, in respect of Russian geopolitical relations none share a common strategy, each coming at the issue from differing positions – fostering weakness. Which, for all practical purposes, leaves the other guarantor of Ukrainian sovereignty, the USA, somewhat isolated. For the reality today is that NATO without the US armed forces is a hollow force with little credible hard power clout or a discernible cohesive diplomatic strategy. For its part, the European Union (EU) is able only to collectively ‘tut tut’ whilst ignoring the concerns of Poland, Czech Republic, Georgia and Baltic states, all of whom are more experienced and realistic in their understanding of Russian interest driven intentions. Some, with good reason, wondering: “after Georgia and Crimea, who will be next?” At the same time the EU watches in disarray as Hungary, and particularly Greece, break ranks to court Russia – one being mesmerised by Mr Putin’s power and the other by his potential to solve self inflicted financial woes.
Mr Putin, may lay claim to be a democrat but his cynical manipulation of Russian nationalistic instincts and elastic interpretation of constitutional law tends to put the lie to this absurdity. And like every autocrat in history Mr Putin is gambling on his adversaries’ inability and/or unwillingness to react with force once the harsh language, sanctions and ‘paper tiger’ threats of dire consequences have failed to subdue his aggressive intentions. He may even be hoping that his divide and rule policy in courting certain naïve EU nations whilst at the same time funding extreme left and right opposition parties, will ease his way.
Therefore, from the UK’s perspective, it is incumbent upon the PM to become a statesman and take notice of his current Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and Chief of the General Staff (CGS) when they talk of ‘hollow forces’ and ‘moral disarmament’. Mr Putin certainly has, hence he is calling what he sees as the West’s bluff. Mr Cameron and his beleaguered Foreign Secretary, Mr William Hague, may say “…What has happened with respect to the Crimea is unacceptable… Russia has acted in flagrant breach of international law…” but without credible Hard Power enablers to back them up threatening words are no deterrent to the dictatorial mind.
It is worth remembering that the weak position of Great Britain and France in 1938 led directly to the disgraceful and unchallenged annexation of Czechoslovakia in a vain effort to prevent a second European conflict. In the end this shoddy agreement, an undeniable consequence of weakness, did not protect Great Britain, Poland, Holland, Belgium, France, Denmark, Norway, Greece or later Russia. If anything, the Munich agreement gave Hitler and Mussolini false confidence that they could act with impunity and arguably made war more likely.