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Sir Christopher Meyer Headshot

A Shadow of War Over Europe

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There is a book to be written about the role of humiliation in foreign policy. It can be a sour and corrosive force, propelling the aggrieved nation to try aggressively to remedy the wrongs, real or perceived, inflicted on it by other powers. We have seen it in the foreign policy of China and Iran. We can see it, in its most virulent and aggressive form, in Putin's foreign policy today. With indecent haste, Crimea was today incorporated into the Russian Federation after the peninsula's occupation by Russian troops and a referendum last Sunday which brooked no alternative.

I remember when Tony Blair first met George W. Bush in early 2001, he told the president that there was a golden opportunity to bind Putin and Russia into the institutions of the West. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that was always fanciful. Putin regards the demise of the Soviet Union as a geo-political calamity and the period of glasnost and perestroika under Russian presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin as a national humiliation - when an enfeebled Russia, awash with western advisers, was unable to halt the march of NATO and the EU eastwards to encompass the former satellite states of the old Soviet Union. For Putin and his ex-KGB associates, this was to rob Russia of its rightful position in Europe, won at phenomenal human cost thanks to the Red Army's defeat of the Nazis in 1945.

To have "lost" Ukraine, including Crimea, to the EU and NATO would have been a humiliation too far. Nothing exemplifies better the vast gulf between East and West than the respective reactions to the overthrow of Ukraine's corrupt President Yanukovich. We in the West rushed to embrace the protestors in the Maidan and exulted in the fall of Yanukovich (much as we uncritically embraced the Egyptian Spring and Mubarak's downfall). In Moscow, this was seen as a western-backed coup d'etat, which removed a democratically elected president, however unsavoury. In the zero-sum game that is Russian geo-politics, America was seen to be about to take another baleful step closer to the Russian heartland.

In short, Putin and his cabal of close advisers are moved by a poisonous combination of grievance and ultra-nationalism. There is no possibility that any combination of economic sanctions and visa restrictions currently under consideration in the West will check the Kremlin. Crimea is gone for good. Maybe the Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine will be next.

Meanwhile the West has made a fool of itself by speaking loudly and carrying a tiny stick. It would have done better to ratchet down the rhetoric to a level that matched what it was actually prepared to do. In the chancelleries of Europe and North America there appears to be a view that hard national interests engaged in Russia are not worth sacrificing for Ukraine. This has outraged many. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Conservative foreign secretary, waxed eloquent on the Today programme this morning about the feebleness of the West's reaction, once again making a comparison between Putin's seizure of Crimea and Hitler's incorporation of the Sudetenland into Germany.

Rifkind is right in one sense. If it were just the Ukraine and Crimea that were in play, the situation would hardly call for a full-blown international crisis. Nobody likes to use the phrase anymore, but Ukraine falls fairly and squarely in Russia's sphere of influence. However, the fear now must be that Putin's vengeful eye will fix its gaze on other former territories of the Soviet empire. It is at this point that the risk factor goes off the Richter scale. We would be talking war and peace.

The Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania - are potentially the next flashpoint. They are small, vulnerable states with large Russian minorities and a frontier with Russia. But they are different in kind from Ukraine because they are full members of NATO and the EU. The NATO treaty obliges the member-states to come to the support of any of their number if attacked or threatened with aggression. Had Ukraine been a full member of NATO, the US, the UK and the rest of the membership would have been obliged to threaten Russia with war to deter its actions in Crimea.

Make no mistake - the Cold War is back. As with the first Cold War the main task is to ensure that it does not turn hot. Paradoxically, the way to achieve that is for NATO, with all the clarity it can muster, to tell Putin that a move against the Baltic states would be met by military retaliation. It is the message that should come out of the crisis summit which president Obama has called for next week. It's scary, but Putin, like so many of his predecessors, understands all too well the language of force.

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