I usually take the greatest satisfaction in having been proved right, whether it’s a case of ‘I told you the turning to the hotel was back there, dear’ to the wife, or ‘I knew that last drink was a bad idea’ to a friend who has fallen unconscious on the floor of the bar.
In the case of the West vs. Putin & Friends, however, I feel no delight at all in having argued for years that Brussels and Washington need to take a firmer hand. Oh, I know the counter-arguments like the back of my hand these days (aren’t they written in tedious length on the comments section of my pieces for The Spectator?), and I understand them.
For your convenience, I’ll list them here: it’s not worth risking nuclear war with Russia; Ukrainian/Baltic/Georgian lives aren’t worth risking those of their Western counterparts, or even – my least favourite – Russia might even have a point.
Apart from the last one, as I’ve said, I understand. Who wants to consider nuclear fire engulfing Paris, London, or the US’ Eastern Seaboard? But expressing ‘grave concern’ and ‘strong condemnation’ haven’t discouraged Putin and his friends like Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko from brazen acts of aggression.
The world has been here before. “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last,” as Winston Churchill said over Hitler’s bellicose manoeuvres. I wouldn’t say that the West has appeased Putin, but it’s hardly done much to stand up to him. This has demonstrably only encouraged the Kremlin and its allies like Belarus and Turkey.
In fact, it has done the bare minimum while simply hoping Russia would just go away, and focusing instead on other matters. Not that Islamism and China aren’t concerning in their own rights, but they are not the only threats.
Escalation from Moscow has followed a pattern – its brief invasion of Georgia was followed by years of campaigning against Ukraine, as well as the snatching of Estonian security agents from their own soil and the assassination of Russian defectors.
Forcing an Irish airliner flying between Athens and Lithuania, however, has taken the cake – doubtless an attempt by Lukashenko to impress Putin, much in the same manner as a small boy hopes to gain the approval of an elder sibling.
Despite Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on his own people, he is on far shakier ground than his friend in the Kremlin. Alexei Navalny’s opposition movement failed to attract the one million protestors it had hoped for earlier this year, and with the leader himself in jail and the rest of his team scattered, Putin’s main enemy is now the undefeated force of Father Time. Belarus’ leader, though, looked as though he might have been toppled last August, only to recover, with Putin’s, using a vulgar display of power.
My point is that these provocations will become worse, whether they’re directed from Minsk, Moscow or Ankara. Doubtless, Belgium in 1914 or Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939 didn’t seem entirely worth the trouble that would surely follow, but I’d say it could be fairly argued that much could have been prevented if Germany had been tackled earlier. It certainly couldn’t have made things much worse as they later became.
It’s a shame that it’s such a cliché to say that history repeats itself – I rather think that’s one reason why nobody wants to act. A pity we shall probably all live to regret Europe’s current lack of backbone when dealing with obviously autocrats.