Realpolitik: Big Boy Games, Big Boy Rules


Today we learned of a fracture in the western alliance system as French and German leaders head off to Russia for peace talks on the Ukrainian crisis. This is a desperate and misguided attempt to reach a resolution, which in all likelihood is going to fail. The inescapable fact is that Russia is an aggressive state with a belligerent leader, who has thus far only played the realpolitik game. Already torn up is the German-brokered ceasefire from late 2014, not to mention treaties from the nineties which guaranteed Ukrainian border integrity. Without anyone effectively challenging Putin, there is no reason to believe that he will sit down and settle a political solution. The famed strongman of world politics will only back down and make terms when the alternative for him, continued belligerence, is the worse option.

One can only wonder where Angela Merkel’s reputation as the Iron Lady of Europe came from. So far she has only continually reiterated her country’s unwillingness to fight or supply arms to the Ukrainians as well as opposing proposals for new stationing of NATO troops in Eastern European countries. This stance is undoubtedly popular in a Germany which is still dealing with war guilt towards Russia and is more sceptical of its relationship with the United States. Merkel has also previously been praised for her understanding of Russia, having grown up in East Germany and for her fluent Russian. However her understanding had an obvious blind spot in the Crimea crisis. German-backed energy deals with Russia were no hindrance to the illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of East Ukraine. Europe has effectively been caught with its pants down.

Expecting Vladimir Putin to sit down and enter productive discussions is naive, as at this point his aggression has not been halted by anyone but by the limits of his ambition. If anything does happen to come of these talks, it is likely as a direct result of economic sanctions hitting their targets and, of course, plummeting rouble value and oil prices. The latter of course is thanks to Saudi Arabia – the West is now relying on one of the most illiberal states on Earth to exert its hard power, all while Europe balks at the idea of ramping up sanctions.

This is of course, not to say that Russia must be backed into a corner. However, Russia needs to be threatened to push it towards a diplomatic solution. This is why proposed US arms transfer to Ukraine is a prudent move. While perhaps increasing violence in the short term, increased casualties from an undeclared war will be part of an unpopular move that will become part of a range of pressures that will ramp up the pressure on Putin.

The road to stability and peace in the region is through an independent and strong Ukraine which is neither subservient to the West or to Russia. Militarily, this Ukraine should not be a member of NATO but should be able to defend its own territory. This military posture should be what a strategic scholar would call a Non-Offensive Defence – essentially, the Ukrainian military posture needs to be ‘Switzerlanized’. This scenario would be acceptable to any reasonable state of course. But thus far, Putin has proved incompatible with it. This is why he needs to pushed, not pulled.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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