Putin’s annexation of parts of Ukraine takes the world to the verge of War, but a stronger and more united global condemnation of Russian aggression can still make Putin step back.
Monday Commentary is back. Every Monday, commonspace.eu Managing Editor, Dennis Sammut discusses a hot topic on the European and international agenda. This week he weighs the implications of Russia’s annexation of parts of Ukraine, and the dilemma it poses to the rest of the world. He argues that it takes the world to the verge of a world war involving nuclear-armed states. But this can still be avoided if there is more global unity in condemnation of the Russian aggression.
The enormity of the implications of President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of big chunks of Ukrainian territory into the Russian Federation, formalised with much pomp at a ceremony in the Kremlin on Friday (30 September), are yet to fully sink in, even though such an outcome has long been expected.
Ever since the Russian president launched his invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, and especially after the initial plan for a swift regime change in Kyiv faltered in front of stiff Ukrainian resistance, the likelihood that Putin would instead opt, at least for the moment, to annex as much as he can of Ukraine’s east and South was very high. Despite this, when it actually happened there was genuine shock.
In the Chanceries of Europe, in the halls of the US Capitol and in the corridors of the United Nations there was still hope that Putin would pause on his adventure, and would instead seek an honourable way out. Some leaders still insisted on phoning Mr Putin regularly to supplicate caution, President Macron of France and Chancellor Scholz of Germany amongst them. These hopes were misguided, as have all hopes that Mr Putin will turn out to be a “Mr Nice Guy” that have characterised much of Western attitude and approach to him since he emerged as a leader of Russia. The west closed its eyes to the atrocities in Chechnya during the second Chechen War in 1999; it fudged its response to Russian actions in Georgia in 2008 and subsequently; it failed to fully understand the implications of Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and to respond accordingly, and since the February invasion it has confronted Putin with generous support of Ukraine, whilst avoiding direct confrontation with Russia. No one wants war, especially between nuclear armed powers, but it takes two to have peace, and Mr Putin has shown complete disregard for peace. His speech in the Kremlin on Friday once more showed his bellicose intentions, even if he tried to falsely justify it as self-defence. How could it be self-defence when no one invaded and threatened Russia but it was Russia who invaded and threatened a neighbouring country – by the way one which it was bound by international agreement to defend.
In a comment to The New Yorker last week, Fiona Hill, a leading US expert on Russia, said that she believes there’s an element of self-delusion to much of the current commentary about the possibility of Washington and the West continuing to back Ukraine while avoiding conflict with Putin—who, after all, launched his war against Ukraine not in February but eight years ago when he invaded the country and illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula. As far as Hill is concerned, we are already fighting in the Third World War, whether we acknowledge it or not. “We’ve been in this for a long time, and we’ve failed to recognize it,” she said.
One may or may not agree with Fiona Hill’s assertion that we are already at war, but if we are not, than we are certainly close. For Mr Putin will not stop here. His annexation of parts of Ukraine are a part of bigger ambitions which he will continue to pursue. And for those who hope that Russia will change if Putin was to die, unfortunately everything indicates that Putin is not just a man – he is a product of a whole system that is likely to outlive him.
The west is very ill prepared for war. Not militarily. The US has the best military in the world, one that is used to fighting wars, is well resourced and trained and thanks to NATO is able to operate on the European continent. Some European armies are also substantial even, if smaller in size. But psychologically the west has got used to peace, and sees the prospect of war as simply too horrible to contemplate. This mental denial will not make the Putin problem go away. A recognition of the very real threat is an important step. Leaders need to be open with their people; opinion shapers should not shy from calling a spade, a spade. In short we have to be prepared for the worst. And in the meantime support for Ukraine, which is exercising its legitimate right for self-defence, needs to be sustained and increased.
But there may also still be some diplomatic space for manoeuvre that has not been fully exhausted. This is related to countries beyond Europe and North America that have in general preferred to stand back over the last eight months as the Ukraine war unfolded. They also hoped that in the end Mr Putin will turn out to be a nice guy. Some, like India and many Arab countries, were unimpressed by the arguments of the cynical west, with all its imperial and imperialist baggage. Some may even have decided to see the crisis out, hoping that tra due litigant, il terzo gode – when two fight, the third one wins. Some, like China, whilst professing deep friendship with Russia, may have been angry with Putin for his reckless adventure. Putin's comments when meeting China's president Xi in Samarkand last month spoke of Chinese "questions and concerns".
They were all wrong because what is at stake here affects them all and has implications for them all and they cannot simply be passive spectators when a sovereign country is being dismembered by its larger neighbour.
It is here were western diplomacy still has much work to do as could be seen at the United Nations Security Council on Friday when, despite the fact that the UN Secretary General had described the annexation as a blatant violation of the UN charter, four Council members preferred to abstain on a draft resolution condemning the Russian annexation, which was in any case vetoed by the Russian delegate.
Why did India, China, Brazil and Gabon abstain?
Urging both sides to work towards the immediate cessation of hostilities, the representative of India said that, as an escalation of rhetoric and tension is in no one’s interest, her country abstained on the draft resolution. China’s delegation also abstained, with that country’s representative stating that sanctions and political isolation will not bring peace and will only worsen the situation.
Brazil’s delegate stated that the text’s scope and language do not contribute to resolving the conflict, and Gabon’s representative called for good‑faith negotiations and dialogue to end the fighting and promote peaceful coexistence.
It is clear that there is much work to be done to persuade global public opinion and to engage and convince world leaders they must unite in their response to the Russian aggression. All evidence suggests that such global pressure can still work on Russia. The system Putin has created has become immune to western pressure, and has convinced itself of the righteousness of its position. Putin's Friday speech emphasised this. But Russia is not isolationist. It seeks a prominent position in the world. It does not mind being in confrontation with the west, in fact some in Moscow seriously think this is its historical mission. But it is sensitive to criticism from the rest of the world, and this is what has so far been missing in this crisis.
There will of course be a price to pay. When early in his presidency Biden tried to neatly divide the world between democratic and autocratic he created a faultline that is as imperfect as it is dangerous. If you want to preach democracy do it by example. The west needs to reach out to the rest of the world and build a global response to Russian aggression that goes beyond NATO, the EU and the G8. On this may depend the future of world peace.