We assumed the EU’s enemies were all internal. We were wrong.

There seem to be two main narratives of the Ukrainian conflict doing the rounds in the Western media. On one extreme is the thesis that Putin is determined on expanding Russian territory. On the other, his actions are a logical and understandable response to the reckless expansion of NATO. Neither of these is quite true.

Crimea aside, Putin has resisted officially expanding the territory of the Russian Federation. The separatist statelets of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdnistria have each asked to be admitted to the federation only to be politely ignored. The military logic of this is impeccable: the cost of incorporating and defending territory is unnecessary if the same aims can be achieved by sowing chaos. Better to keep one’s neighbours worried enough that they don’t want to provoke you, but not worried enough that they act decisively against you. The ideal outcome from Russia’s point of view is a near-abroad of buffer states that know their place in the pecking order, and for nearly two decades that’s more or less what it had.

We instinctively understand that military alliances are threatening, and it’s tempting therefore to point the finger at NATO. But to blame NATO for upsetting the balance is disingenuous. The Yushchenko government suggested in 2008 that it might join NATO, and was rebuffed after Russia (understandably) objected. The post-Maidan government initially made clear that it had no intention of repeating that mistake. NATO membership was overwhelmingly unpopular in Ukraine before the Crimean crisis, polling consistently under 20%. The threat to Russia came not from NATO, but from the EU.

Unlike NATO, the EU is consistently popular in Ukraine. The catalyst for the Maidan protests was the choice of the government to abandon a long-promised free trade agreement with the EU in favour of a Russian counterproposal. Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, three of the five largest post-Soviet economies, had recently agreed to create the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a rival economic bloc to the EU with two distinct advantages for Putin: Russian hegemony and fewer restrictions on the exercise of state power.

Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia were all close to signing free trade agreements with the EU when the EEU counter-offers started coming in. Armenia was persuaded to switch, but as the second largest economy after Russia itself, Ukraine was the real objective. When the Ukrainian people chose the EU over Russia, it not only stunted the viability of the EEU project, but also spurned what most Russians assumed was still a uniquely special friendship, even despite a decade of increasing political distance between the two countries. (The English and the Scots would surely understand.)

Ukraine is uniquely important to Russia economically. Since Soviet times, the industrial supply chain has straddled the border. Ukraine’s Donbass region relies heavily on Russian customers, and the military is one of the largest. With their relationship now probably damaged beyond repair, Ukraine and Russia have been working furiously to disentangle their economies – the most likely explanation for the mysteriously half-empty aid convoys is that they had enough capacity to asset strip entire factories and transport key machinery back to Russia. If this is true, then it demonstrates Russia has understood that it has lost Ukraine to the EU economically. But this has only increased its determination to salvage what it can and keep NATO out. The differing levels of outside commitment in Ukraine prove that Russia still claims a military sphere of influence, and NATO has little intention of challenging it.

Crimea was taken because it was easy, because it was strategic, because the Ukrainians know (even if they won’t admit) that they’ll never get it back, and because that’s what happens when you cross the wrong people. Unlike the other post-Soviet frozen conflicts, Crimea had to be annexed – Sevastopol is far too precious to be left in the hands of amateurs. The Donbass rebellion was facilitated to keep the Ukrainians tied down fighting a second insurrection while Russia quietly consolidated the first one. Now that a frozen conflict has been successfully engineered in the east, nobody is going to suggest an armed liberation of Crimea in the face of a hostile populace.

This leaves Ukraine in a nasty position – economically and politically committed to the EU, but militarily overshadowed by old-school Russian hard power. It also reminds us that the EU is not expanding into a vacuum. We have always thought about European integration as if it were a contract, where the only countries that matter are the contracting parties, and any agreement between them would naturally have the blessing of the world. The only enemies of European integration in this scenario are internal factions who disagree with their own government’s policy. The worst reaction we ever received from a third country was jealousy.

We now know that this was complacent. There is an external enemy of European integration, and he sits in the Kremlin. Some countries have decided for themselves that they don’t want to be involved in the EU project. Putin has decided that he doesn’t want other people’s countries being involved in the EU project. He has his own alternative, and clear ideas about who should be a member of which one. Talk of a new Iron Curtain is overblown, but there is an increasingly clear demarcation between the EU and Russian spheres of influence.

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Russian special forces caught red handed on camera

Russia continues to deny that it has armed forces in Crimea, but it was only a matter of time before someone slipped up. Not only do the mysterious “self-defence forces” use Russian guns, uniforms and vehicles (complete with Russian military number plates) but at least one of them has forgotten to take all the identifying labels off his army uniform (Russian language original), leading to a social media profile naming his special forces unit.

Of course Putin doesn’t expect us to believe him. His plausible deniability is entirely for domestic consumption. His own polls show disapproval of his current actions running at an unprecedented 73%. Russians have no appetite for a shooting war with Ukraine, with whose citizens many have close personal and family ties. With chinks starting to show in his story, how long can Putin keep domestic opposition at bay?

(With thanks to @captsolo for the tip)

Bad Samaritans

When I was a university student, a friend and I came home on the train one weekend. The train station in Portadown is situated at the infamous “tunnel”, a pair of low road and railway bridges forming one of the town’s main interface areas. This particular evening was quiet, so there was nobody else around when we came out the pedestrian entrance and turned to walk under the road.

Under the bridge, we saw one man probably in his late twenties beating up another, who was sitting on the ground and making little effort to defend himself. The victim saw us and made eye contact, and pleaded for help.

We walked past and ignored the scene.

Immediately we left the tunnel, we turned to one another and started questioning our actions. We should have helped him. Yes, we should. But we kept walking. When we reached the main street, we flagged down a police car and sent them to the scene. I have no idea what happened next – whether we were quick enough, whether the perpetrator got away. I don’t remember the incident appearing in the local news.

We have never since discussed the incident. I can’t speak for my friend, but I know why I haven’t.

I am ashamed.

Neither of us were ever particularly physical or sporty. We were nice middle-class boys who rarely got involved in fights. Either one of us would have stood little chance against an angry skinhead. Neither of us wanted to get the other one in trouble.

But if we’d had the guts and the attitude, together we probably could have bluffed him. If we’d walked straight up and asked him what the fuck he was doing, the likelihood is that it would have ended in a stalemate and all four people would have walked away.

That’s what I tell myself anyway. I tell myself that all the time.

This week, we are all bad samaritans. The local skinhead is beating up his neighbour for some reason or another. The history is too complicated for most to understand, and it’s easy to find excuses for inaction. But the principle is exactly the same.

I am of course talking about Vladimir Putin. He has form (Georgia 2008) and an often-stated nostalgia for the glory days of the Soviet Union. He knows he will never get it back, but that just makes it worse – all bullies are born from insecurity and a phobia of weakness.

While the West prevaricates, Putin merrily does whatever he pleases. We are weary of war, and cynical of the motives of our own leaders. Putin survives on his reputation as a strong man who will return his people to greatness. He sees us all as cowards. But all that is required is for the neighbourhood to gang up on the local bully and put him in his place. Putin would not risk open war; it would be the end of his career. Russia hasn’t been a great power for many years and Russia would lose. Yes, he has nukes but Putin is a rational man. He is not Kim Jong Un.

The longer we leave it, the worse he will get. This is our Sudetenland.

Russia, secession and the long game

Europeans, huddled in their densely-populated terrain, look eastward across the bleak nothingness of forest and steppe, and dream of bears and wolves. Russians look westwards across that same land and see an indefensible frontier that invading armies can, and regularly do, walk across without breaking stride. The Russian military instinct to hide behind weak buffer states is well-founded, and has been a guiding principle of foreign policy since 1945. Their neighbours’ fear, and often memory, of being so used is perhaps sufficient to explain why they are so willing to cast their allegiances elsewhere.

It has been said that Britain gained an empire by accident, as each Indian princeling in turn asked for, and inevitably got, protection against his rivals from the Raj, which itself gained in power as a result. Such positive feedback effects can easily become unstoppable. The medium-term result of the Georgian incident, regardless of who started it, will be to similarly accelerate the process of NATO expansion, whether individual countries like it or not. France and Germany will fret about being provocative, but telling a friendly, democratically-elected president that his country is not deserving of their protection will be a step too far. The membership process may be slow, but it is now merely a matter of when, not if.

This inescapable process is unfortunately driving a wedge between Russia and the West. Russian popular opinion is firmly behind Putin, who isn’t going anywhere soon. It took a generation for Britain to come to terms with the loss of its empire, and Russia has not yet acclimatised itself to its shrunken borders. Perhaps then the best the West can hope for is to sit out the Putin era without getting into a hot war. History shows that a strategic equilibrium can be achieved so long as cooler heads prevail on both sides; unfortunately in times of mutual suspicion a spark is all that it takes.

Europe today looks more like that of 1914 than of 1945, except the Caucasus is more Balkanised than the Balkans themselves. The flashpoints are obvious: Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan. In each case, an unpredictable, usually pro-Russian, minority has declared unilateral independence from a post-Soviet state that they believe does not represent their interests, and now look to their own Raj for protection. Russia has helped maintain these statelets without officially endorsing their independence, lest it be taken as a precedent for Chechnya. They are not alone in walking a rhetorical tightrope on secessionism: Kosovo is (partially) recognised but Bosnia must remain whole. Great powers may no longer carve up the territory of Europe at will, but their unfinished business still litters the tablecloth.

At the core of all these problems lies the legal no-man’s-land of UDI. States may dissolve themselves by mutual agreement, like the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia, while changing borders by invasion is these days beyond the pale. But between these limiting cases of black and white there are no rules. Disputes between secessionist movements and their central governments have no forum, no case law, no agreed points of principle. Such things are an internal matter for the state itself, i.e. the stronger party, unless someone gets the big powers involved. It is thus in the interests of small, marginalised groups to make as much trouble as possible. Consequently it is in the interests of the big powers, if cooler heads are prevailing, to remove the incentives for them to do so.

There must therefore be a legal, codified route to unilateral independence. The chances of China signing up to any such agreement are zero, so its scope must by necessity be limited to Europe. Even so, the chances of such a deal are slim. It would involve a delicate balancing act: if the process is too onerous there will be no incentive for separatists to go legit; but without sufficient hoops to jump through, independence movements will sprout like mushrooms. Whatever the details, the likely effect would probably be to legitimise some of the secessionist statelets in post-Soviet space, while preventing the independence of Chechnya; any other outcome would be rejected out of hand by Russia. In return for Western acquiescence in their independence and voluntary alignment with Moscow, Russia would have to drop its objections to any other countries’ voluntary alignment with NATO.

This would stick in the craw of many, but may be the only realistic way to stabilise the region. No European government, with the possible exception of Belarus, would willingly accept the status of buffer state. The alternative would be the ever-present danger of the big powers getting sucked in to minor local squabbles, either accidentally or as part of a cunning plan. The creation of more pro-Russian exclaves (besides Kaliningrad) in NATO and EU territory would not be anyone’s ideal choice, but could be lived with if the rules of the game were clear.

Ultimately, there can be no lasting peace in Europe until the concepts of buffer states and spheres of influence have disappeared from the lexicon. It is clear, however, that the memes are alive and well in Russia. Both sides must ask themselves two questions: do we want a hot war? And if not, what is the alternative? I suggest that it is in the interests of both sides to play the long game.