Photo by Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

Sympathy for the devil

Understanding Putin is the key to countering his wicked agenda

Artillery Row

What seems reasonable to us, or how self-evident we find the “right” of Ukraine to join Western economic and military alliances like the EU and NATO, is profoundly shaped by the fact that we generally like and identify with Western alliances. These organisations are “ours”, and they work to further our interests. We see them as embodying democratic ideals, and we cast those who oppose them as modern-day Axis members — pantomime Nazis who want to annex their neighbours and quite possibly blow up the moon with space lasers. 

If you put the boot on the other foot, however, would we tolerate or feel comfortable with our own neighbours (let alone one-time parts of our country) joining a military alliance or economic union if it were governed by a state we regarded as the enemy? What if it represented values that we find objectionable, even evil? 

NATO and EU expansion into Ukraine is not the same as Polish or even Baltic expansions of the alliance. Whilst Poland and the Baltic were drawn into first the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union by force, and have no organic history of unity with Russia, Kiev was the birthplace of Russian culture and religion. It  was brought back into the Russian Empire as early as the 17th century. That in no way gives Russia the moral right to invade Ukraine, but it does inform how Russians think about Ukraine, and why they might see Ukrainian entrance to NATO in a different light to that of Poland’s. 

You may say that when faced with a similar element of our country, freshly determined to become independent, Britain allowed Scotland a referendum on independence and would have respected it. An independent Scotland would have retained the monarchy, NATO membership, the free movement of trade and people, and quite possibly a common currency, however. Imagine if Scotland had become independent, but had abandoned all those things — and allied itself with our rivals. What would we do then? 

Imagine it is the year 2050, and a British Prime Minister is looking grimly at the latest report from the Foreign Office. In 2014, an insurgent SNP had won a referendum on independence, leaving the rest of Britain on relatively amicable terms, with the Scottish Prime Minister promising to maintain a close relationship with the remainder of the United Kingdom. Following years of poor economic growth, numerous scandals and accusations of corruption, a new government was elected in 2030 promising to seek closer economic and political ties with China. 

Since emerging as the world’s second superpower, and overtaking America in GDP terms, China has started to create its own global military and economic alliances. Countries in Africa and Asia started by receiving generous loans and investment, then gave preferential access to their markets to China. Finally many also ended up agreeing to security and military cooperation, with Chinese military and naval bases opening on multiple continents. 

Western nations grew increasingly concerned following the departure of prominent and longstanding members of the EU and the NATO alliance such as Hungary and Turkey, who instead opted to join the new Chinese organisation. 

Either the UK invades, or Scotland becomes a Chinese satellite state

The UK was especially alarmed by Scotland’s announcement because of its continuing dependence on deep-sea ports still leased from their northern neighbour. When in 2042 a short-lived pro-UK and pro-NATO government was ousted with the help of massive nationalist protests, demanding an end to UK military presence and mandatory Gaelic language use, the British foreign policy establishment was rocked to its core. Unthinkable military contingency plans came off the shelf and into conversation. Later that year, Orkney and Shetland were taken in a bloodless invasion, with the UK announcing its intention to secure North Sea Oil and the strategic port of Scapa Flow. The islanders, who had voted against independence to begin with, and many of whom were of English descent, now voted to rejoin the UK by an overwhelming majority. 

China denounced the invasion and imposed harsh sanctions on the UK, whilst committing to deepening its ties with Scotland. In 2043 Scotland joined the Chinese free-trade area, and Scots were granted visa-free travel throughout the Chinese alliance. In 2044 Scotland created a “Ministry of Information”, dedicated to dealing with internal pro-English unrest and counteracting “English misinformation”. In 2045 Scotland formally left NATO. In 2046 Scotland’s Episcopalian Church announced its decision to withdraw from the Anglican communion. The Scottish constitution was amended to commit to seeking accession to China’s economic area and military alliance, adding language referring to the “irreversibility of Scotland’s Asian and Asian-Pacific course”. 

Scotland would spend the next few years signing memorandums and treaties, with European members of the Chinese alliance and European countries leaning towards joining. By 2049 Scotland was preparing to begin the process of joining the Chinese military alliance. It was planning to apply to join its economic alliance in 2051. 

The British Prime Minister gazes at the latest report and asks himself just how encircled the UK is going to end up. Norway and the Netherlands have already joined the Chinese alliance, and the accession of Ireland saw the UK share an unprecedented land border with a Chinese-aligned power. Scotland’s accession would mean that a Chinese army could march directly into England without being challenged at sea. 

Though the UK’s policy has been to avoid direct conflict with China whilst countering its influence, many in the foreign policy and military establishment are calling for a pre-emptive strike if Scotland will not commit to non-alignment and upholding the cultural rights of the hundreds of thousands of English people living in Scotland. The Prime Minister signed off on the Orkney operation because he knew it could be accomplished in days, a fait accompli involving a population who would welcome or at least accept renewed UK rule. 

He hesitates over what to do, but he knows that China is already supplying new weapons to Scotland, which is rapidly building up its armed forces. The window for intervention is closing. There is now no escaping the choice or hoping for a change in leadership in Scotland. Either the UK invades, or Scotland becomes a Chinese satellite state, cementing the UK’s complete strategic isolation. 

The NATO alliance is sleepwalking into a proxy war with Russia

One can object all you want to the absurdity of the comparisons here, pointing to the fact that Putin is dictator, oligarch, gangster and ruthless, dishonest nationalist. He is all these things, but this scenario highlights the reasoning behind how he, and Russia’s own military and foreign policy establishment, have perceived and experienced NATO expansion and the Ukraine conflict. To understand is not to condone (as we’re so often reminded in relation to serial killers and death row inmates, but not so much when it comes to the leaders of hostile states). 

There are many serious moral questions that must be addressed in relation to our response to Putin, and there can be no doubt as to the immorality of the war being so destructively waged against Ukraine. Our actions will not only be ineffective, but potentially themselves wicked, if we do not exercise prudence and judgement, however. Iraq stands as a bloody testament to the costs of manichean foreign policy, where any Western intervention can be justified so long as there’s a sufficiently nasty dictator in the picture. 

The point of trying to understand Putin and Russia’s motivations and perspective is not to endorse them in every particular, but to shape our interventions so that they are effective. We must avoid actions that could provoke conflict where we are unready for it. This is not to say we should “appease” figures like Putin (after all, signs of weakness can provoke conflict as much as excessive sabre rattling), but if we do provoke conflict, we should damn well know that this is what we are doing. Above all, we should have a plan to win. 

Instead, the NATO alliance is sleepwalking into a proxy war with Russia that it was not prepared for. EU and NATO powers were not prepared for Russia cutting off gas shipments. Many NATO armed forces (not least Britain) lacked both the manufacturing and military capacities to countenance either a direct conflict, or adequately supply Ukraine in the case of war. No contingency appears to have been in place to meet the global disruption of energy and food supplies. The hasty and extreme package of sanctions prepared by America and its allies certainly hurt Russia, but it also seems to have undermined the dominance of the dollar. It has further aligned Russia and China, helping to cement a growing non-Western economic sphere dominated by the Chinese, who are themselves contemplating recapturing a lost territory — Taiwan. 

It is impossible to say if absent NATO expansion, or the opening up of the possibility of Ukrainian accession to the EU and NATO, Russia would still have attempted to intervene in Ukraine. It is even harder to say for sure if the West could have stopped this process, and at what point. It is certainly true that many Russian nationalists see Ukraine as rightfully Russian territory, regardless of whether Ukraine is aligned with the West. What we can say for certain is that we have acted to inflame Russian fears of encirclement, whilst doing little or nothing to prepare for a Russian military and economic response. 

It is desperately important that we don’t keep making these mistakes — built on arrogance, parochialism and misguided moralism — in relation to geopolitical rivals willing to countenance military aggression to get their way. Understanding how Russia feels about Ukraine, or China about Taiwan, will help us better counter their aggression. We can avoid potentially disastrous wars, perhaps even the unthinkable horror of world war and nuclear exchange. 

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