When the Euromaidan miracle of political freedom became surprisingly and suddenly real, Ukraine, newly freed from tyranny, faced more than just economic ruin, something it was ready to face bravely. In its path stood the complex-ridden leader of the former Russian empire. Vladimir Putin could not bear that the Ukrainian people had chosen us over him, entering the road to European integration – something for which, unlike the nations of the EU, they have spilled their blood.
In full view of the west, Putin is subjugating Crimea, even though he has spent months blocking humanitarian aid for a bleeding Syria, citing the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The west would do well to remember the memento left to it by the 20th century, the betrayal of democratic Czechoslovakia in Munich and the unrealised guarantees made to Poland by France and Britain in 1939. Historians used to emphasise that had the west not backed down then, the Holocaust and the second world war’s other tragedies would most likely have been avoided, as would the division of Europe by the iron curtain.
After the iron curtain’s long-anticipated collapse, democratic Ukraine received a guarantee of safety from the US and Britain in return for relinquishing its nuclear arsenal in 1994. If it now turns out that Ukraine made the wrong decision in trusting its allies, the west will lose the credibility it rebuilt after the second world war for ever. It will also deprive itself of the moral authority to enjoin other countries to give up their nuclear weapons.
Russia can be stopped today without a single shot and without sacrificing anyone’s life or wellbeing. Conversely, the lives and wellbeing of the Ukrainian people can be secured before someone’s nerves give out or the Russians finally succeed in provocation.
The key is to reverse the logic used so effectively by Moscow in disarming its opponents. Russia will only feel the consequences of its actions if it comes up against the solidarity of democratic countries.
The democratic states of the west hold sufficient instruments in their hands for the rapid deterrence of Russia. Russia will crawl out of Ukraine when – and only when – it is faced with serious economic sanctions. In an economic sense, Russia is a developing country, almost entirely dependent on the export of natural resources, which accounts for more than half Russia’s revenues. The EU, meanwhile, accounts for 80% of Russia’s oil exports, 70% of its gas exports and 50% of its coal exports. Only in terms of consumption does Russia belong to the developed world. It enriches itself by servicing the country’s oligarchs, who in turn rob their own society and stifle freedom of the press and the democratic opposition. Russia is strong one on one, but weak against the EU as a whole.
Sooner or later it will benefit the west to turn to other sources of oil and gas (shale gas or liquefied natural gas) and more predictable suppliers, among whom the US will soon play first fiddle anyway. It is also up to the EU to decide whether Russian companies will have a monopoly on supplying gas through the Nord Stream gas pipeline and the construction of the South Stream pipeline.
Restrictions on purchases of oil and gas should be complemented by visa bans and the freezing the accounts of key oligarchs and politicians. Russia could also be thrown out of the G8 and the WTO, and denied admittance to the OECD. The market can be closed to Russian eurobonds, the Russian currency can be threatened by western financial institutions and Russian goods can be boycotted. It is difficult to imagine a normal arms trade with Russia, which violates all the major principles of international law.
Economists offer many options. The problem is that everybody in the west knows perfectly well what may be done, but nobody wants to pay the price for it. In comparison with its historical precedents, it is a relatively small price, because it is only economic, not military.
Moreover, it is highly likely that Russian withdrawal can be achieved without any cost to the west. If the show of solidarity by democratic countries is sufficiently convincing, Russia will withdraw.
We can already hear politicians muttering that Crimea is in effect already lost. And the only specifics mentioned concern what the west will certainly not do, precluding military intervention and the irritation of Gazprom. “Economic sanctions against Russia would damage Germany itself,” Philipp Missfelder, a member of the German government and key ally of Angela Merkel, told the Wall Street Journal. British government advisers are speaking in a similar tone, attempting to avoid aggravating Russian oligarchs.
Even the mildest sanction – removing Russia from the G8 – is being questioned. The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, says: “I’m more with those who say the G8 format is actually the only format in which we in the west still talk directly with Russia. Should we really sacrifice this only format?” This is quite a renunciation. Who here is “out of touch with reality”, Mrs Merkel?
If the west allows Crimea to be torn from Ukraine, this will be a major shock for the countries that are celebrating a quarter century of freedom from Russian tutelage and who are the west’s most faithful allies and the EU’s greatest enthusiasts. They will have to seriously reconsider their foreign and defence policies. It is difficult to predict the direction – good or bad – in which this development will lead. One thing is almost certain – if the US and EU remain as indolent as they have been in dealing with the situation in Ukraine, eastern European countries will put article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty, which may be summarised as “one for all, all for one”, back on the shelf with their fairy tales. Just like Russia. Although Ukraine is not a member of Nato, no one will believe that the west would move to defend one of the alliance’s smaller members.
A fundamental reason for the west’s increasingly embarrassing “softy power” in global politics is the growing weakness of democratic systems. The addiction of politicians to opinion polls, unbridled consumerism, the disintegration of social ties and the consequent weakening of the sense of solidarity between people have completely demobilised western society.
The leaders of the western world would surely like to do something for Syria or Ukraine, but they know that any serious economic or military engagement, which would require sacrifices of their citizens, would amount to political suicide. Opinion polls have deprived politicians of conscience, character and any sense of responsibility for the future of democracy and freedom.
This is not something dictators need to worry about, which is why Putin can do what he pleases. At least as long as he does not target the west. And the same applies to others who may be encouraged by his success.
If we choose not to defend our friends today, tomorrow it will turn out that no one is willing to defend us.
Sławomir Sierakowski is founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, director of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Warsaw and a visiting fellow at Harvard University.
In memory of Jacek Kuroń, Polish dissident leader and great friend of Ukraine, on the 80th anniversary of his birth
Translated by Marysia Blackwood
First published in The Guardian, March 5, 2014.
© 2014 Author / The Guardian