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Ukraine – Backed into a Corner

Kevan James

Monday March 7, 2022

Nowhere among the reams of words written (and in all probability, spoken) has anybody mentioned one of the real causes of the present conflict in Ukraine; that of the posturing by politicians the world over.

The biggest problem with today’s politicians is their habit of speaking without thinking; of wanting to present an ‘appearance’ to the world. As I have written before, and with particular reference to the worldwide response over the COVID-19 pandemic, politicians at all levels want to appear strong. Decisive and free of weakness, they want to be seen as men and women who will ‘take decisions and walk the walk’.

All fine and good and one suspects most people want their leaders to be and do just that. But they also want another aspect to be on show; that of a little humility and a willingness to admit when they are wrong.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has, after some prompting, done so over the so-called ‘Partygate’ affair, but that incident is and always has been, something of a distraction from what people really do want and need. And few really believe Johnson meant his apology anyway.

The biggest problem with politicians wanting to appear ‘strong’ is the often inevitable result of backing themselves into a corner. Of digging a hole, tumbling head first into it and, unable to find a way out, then making things even worse by refusing to show that humility, genuine or not.

That is where we still are with COVID-19, at least in some countries, most notably Canada, New Zealand and some states in Australia. And it is the same with Ukraine.

The difference between a health situation and the conflict underway in Ukraine is that the consequences can be much more deadly. Whilst many people have tragically died because of various illnesses triggered by and associated with COVID-19, the numbers will pale into insignificance if the posturing and unwise words, along with the ill-conceived actions arising from both, result in nuclear war.

Is nuclear war really a possibility? For over 70 years, the world has avoided it, knowing that such a war is unwinnable. Put simply, if those countries that have nuclear arms use them, while there will be some survivors, pretty much everybody else dies. And there won't be much of anything anywhere left.

That is why it is known as a deterrent; ‘If you destroy us, we will destroy you’.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is not stupid. He is an intelligent and smart man. He knows that if things go seriously sour, he won’t win and neither will the west. He also knows that history, written by those who do survive, will judge him badly if he is shown to be the one who nuked somebody first.

However, President Putin is also a classic example of somebody who has talked himself into great difficulty. Smart or not, he is still human and can suffer from the same flaws as everybody else.

He has, over many years, made great play out of being tough. Seen fishing shirtless, riding a horse and looking very masculine, he gained much traction within Russia by doing so. He has, in many ways, stood up for his country. The problem is that of having played the hard man, he now has to act the same. His stance on Ukraine follows that script.

He is perceived as wanting to recreate the old Soviet Union, the USSR as it was, of wanting Russia to return to its prior position as the ‘great power’ of the 1960s and ‘70s. Whether that is true or not only he can say. But what is clear is his unwavering stance over NATO and EU expansion east, towards the Russian border and he has never deviated from it.

When the old USSR finally fell apart, one of the undertakings tacitly given by the west was that there would be no expansion towards Russia. And the west, in the shape of both NATO and the EU, has broken that understanding rather spectacularly.

It’s very easy for both to suggest that this is at the request of those countries involved, all of which were formerly under the control of the USSR; Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the rest – all are now free to determine their own destinies. And that freedom has, up to now, included Ukraine, although of course, Ukraine is not a member of either NATO or the EU - yet.

While there may not have been any formal agreement over the west's moves towards former Soviet countries, with what amounts to a flagrant disregard of those understandings, however tacit they may have been, both NATO and the EU – especially the EU – have consistently wooed the former countries of the old eastern bloc. The Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia are now members of NATO and the EU, with all three bordering Russia. Latvia and Lithuania also share borders with Russia's ally Belarus.

That expansion has, with some justification, annoyed Vladimir Putin greatly. He may be wrong about seeing western expansion as a threat but - what is the west to gain by either controlling or influencing every country that borders Russia?

That’s a question that no western leader has yet answered. The net result is Putin’s perception of such expansion as that threat, hence his actions towards Ukraine.

The problem now is that by both sides talking tough and apparently without leeway towards any more peaceful alternative, they are in the same hole. And neither can find a way out, seemingly relying only on increasing the verbal belligerence (notably with Boris Johnson at the front of it). Unless that stops, sooner or later somebody is going to make a mistake and press the wrong button.

Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has built up an expanding economy, supplying many countries around the world with natural resources including energy. All that now conceivably lies in tatters and it will take a long time to recover, if indeed it can.

Rudyard Kipling’s words, 'East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet' are often used to describe two things that can never be reconciled and he wrote those words in 1892, a long time before the post-WW2 divisions. They have however, long been used and consistently so, to describe relations between the old USSR, Russia and the west.

NATO, the EU and Russia need to recognise that the independence of Ukraine and other former USSR countries represented an ideal chance for those countries to be a bridge between east and west.

Had that been taken, we might never have arrived where we are now. And there would have been no need for tough talking, hard man impressions from anybody.

© Kevan James 2022

Image - Sky News

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