During the more than a decade that I have spent working for foreign policy think tanks in Europe and the United States, I have been pretty hawkish on China and Russia. At the time when most foreign policy experts on both sides of the Atlantic believed that economic interdependence with China and Russia would turn them into “responsible stakeholders” in the international system, and perhaps even democratize them, I thought a tougher approach was needed. I was a particular critic of Germany, which had gone even further than the rest of Europe (which, in turn, had gone further than the US) in its belief in Wandel durch Handel, or “change through trade”. I criticized Germany’s free riding in security terms, especially its low level of defense spending and inadequate military capabilities and its dependence on Russia for gas and China as an export market. In short, I am neither a pacifist nor someone who makes mistakes about authoritarian states.
However, since the war in Ukraine started, I have been suddenly out-hawked. As we have all watched the horrible images from Ukraine, outrage has grown about the war crimes being committed by the Russian military. As the calls for us to do more to help the Ukrainian people have become louder, I have found myself on the doveish side of the debate, arguing for de-escalation and ways out rather than further commitments to Ukraine and regime change in Russia.
Here is how I think about what has happened. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Donbas in 2014, we have tried to deter Vladimir Putin from going further in Ukraine or elsewhere in central and eastern Europe. There was an economic component of the strategy (sanctions) and a military component (the reinforcement of Nato forces in Poland and the Baltic states and training for the Ukrainian military, in which the UK played a leading role).
However, we were half-hearted. On the military side, the US rightly made it clear it would not defend Ukraine as if it were a Nato ally – there are, after all, good reasons why it is not one. Meanwhile, on the economic side, Europe continued to depend on Russian gas, which was deliberately excluded from the sanctions. In fact, Germany doubled down with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which was agreed to a year later.
Just over two weeks ago, Putin called our bluff. He looked at what we were threatening to do if he invaded Ukraine and apparently decided it was a risk he was willing to take. (Of course, it is possible that he might have invaded even if we had gone further with deterrence.) If Russia is surprised at how tough and united we have been in response to the invasion, that is not a success but a failure. It means deterrence didn’t work because we failed to convince Russia that we would be that tough and united – and this should be our starting point in thinking about what to do next.
We are in an unprecedented and extremely difficult situation. But it seems to me that we have to pivot. The aim must be to do all we can to avoid a further escalation (while taking seriously the possibility that Putin may escalate himself, for example, through the use of chemical or even nuclear weapons), and to end the war. But instead, experts in Europe and the US are urging all kinds of economic, political and military steps whose consequences we have barely begun to think through and that have the potential to drag Nato into a war with Russia.
“How in no time the west has gone from targeted sanctions to financial war against the post-Soviet economic space, without unified aims nor clear conditions for lifting restrictions, all while an impetuous nuclear-armed tyrant is waging a war of aggression, is quite terrifying,” tweeted Nicholas Mulder, a historian at Cornell University and author of The Economic Weapona history of sanctions, four days after the war began.
Since then, there have also been calls to increase military support to Ukraine. Last Sunday, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said that Poland had a “green light” to supply its MiG-29 fighters to Ukraine. On Tuesday, Poland said it would send them to Ramstein air base in Germany to be refitted, which the US then rejected. What was worrying was that everybody, including the UK defense secretary, Ben Wallace, seemed to imply that supplying fighters to Ukraine was up to individual countries rather than a decision to be taken collectively by Nato.
Watching this frantic scramble to do something, it is hard to avoid the feeling that what is happening is overcompensation. We are all feeling guilty about our mistakes which are suddenly glaringly apparent – Germany’s persistent dependence on Russian gas, the UK’s persistent failure to deal with Russian money laundering. We are rapidly taking dramatic steps that we resisted for years, but without a clear sense of what we are trying to achieve and in a completely different and much more dangerous situation than the one before the war started.
At this fraught moment, the biggest danger is recklessness. One source of this is a kind of resurgent neoconservatism in Britain and the US. Even before the war began, both were increasingly framing international politics as a global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. As the Ukrainians have resisted with extraordinary bravery and skill, the Russian military’s ineptness has been exposed. And as it has resorted to even more brutal methods against civilians, many experts now sense the possibility of finally removing Putin from power. For some in the Biden administration, this is revenge for Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
More surprisingly, however, there is also a danger of recklessness by the European Union. After a decade of crises, many of which remain unresolved, the EU aspires to be “geopolitical” – officials talk endlessly about the need for the EU to “learn the language of power”. The Ukraine crisis once again revealed the EU’s weaknesses. But since the war began it has been hyperactive, imposing sanctions on the Russian central bank before the US and even supplying weapons to Ukraine. It was also Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, who first announced the plan to send fighter jets to Ukraine two weeks ago – an illustration of how dangerous the EU’s desperation to be “geopolitical” is.
In addition to sanctions and supplying weapons, many experts are also urging the EU to fast-track the accession process for Ukraine. Yet the Kremlin sees both Nato and the EU as part of the same US-led project and has made it clear that Putin will do anything to stop Ukraine from integrating further into either. After all, the catalyst for the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a proposed association agreement between the EU and Ukraine. Further steps to integrate Ukraine risk a further Russian response, a possibility we do not seem to want even to discuss, because we believe that Ukraine ought to be able to choose its own destiny.
Apart from the risk of escalation, there is something else troubling about the EU’s embrace of Ukraine. The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen – the figure who embodies the idea of a “geopolitical” EU – recently that said that Ukraine was “one of us”. That statement was indicative of a wider tendency in the West to frame this conflict in civilizational terms. Countless reporters and commentators have expressed shock that such a brutal conflict could have happened in “civilised” Europe – as opposed to the uncivilised world beyond. In particular, many people seem to feel sympathy for the Ukrainians because they “look like us”. A few days after the war started, one senior Ukrainian official even told the BBC that what made the situation so emotional for him was that it was “European people with blue eyes and blond hair” who were being killed. The EU’s generous approach to refugees from Ukraine, led by Poland, which in the refugee crisis in 2015 was one of the European countries most vehemently opposed to accepting asylum seekers from Syria and Afghanistan, also seems to have been influenced by a sense of ethnic solidarity .
The civilizational way in which this conflict has been framed may help to explain why so many outside the west do not see this war as their fight – for example, India, which abstained in the vote to condemn the Russian invasion in the UN security council two weeks ago There and elsewhere beyond the west, many people look on at the war in Ukraine in something like the way that WEB Du Bois reacted to the outbreak of the First World War. War is horrible, he wrote, but has it only just become horrible now that it is white people who are being killed?
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism