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US must punish Russia for altering Ukraine borders—it’s how you deal with ‘Russian problem’

Move over China. Focus on what's happening in Europe, for 'you may not be interested in Russia, but Russia is interested in you.'

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However much Western governments, led by the United States, think they should be focusing their attention on China, Russia seems always to want to make sure they do not forget its existence, by acting in ways that sometimes seem a nuisance, sometimes outright dangerous. In our dreams, we think we should just have a friendly relationship with this vast Eurasian superpower, buying its natural resources and persuading it either to be on our side rather than China’s or at least neutral. But then we wake up and what do we find?

We find that Russia has assassinated its dissidents in our own cities using illegal weapons that endanger our own citizens (as in 2006 and 2018 in the U.K.); that it has interfered in our elections through cyberattacks (as in the U.S. in 2016) and that through its cybercrime gangs it has held our hospitals to ransom (as in Europe in 2021).

We also find that, as in 2014, it has chosen to violate the United Nations Charter by altering Ukraine’s borders by force through the annexation of Crimea; or that, as now, it has amassed 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s eastern border in an apparent threat to do the same again. Meanwhile Russia has been supporting its neighbouring dictatorship in Belarus as it suppresses domestic protests over a rigged general election and just last week sent more than 2000 troops to help restore order in its other huge authoritarian neighbour, Kazakhstan.

There is no simple answer as to how we should deal with this. The rather tense talks that took place on Jan. 10 in Geneva between senior U.S. and Russian officials, followed by further meetings between Russia and NATO member countries, reflected that fact, as they were also taking place following a very aggressive demand made in December by Russia for a formal agreement about European security under which it called for a radical shrinking of NATO’s membership and activities. The best thing that can be said about the talks is that they did not break down in acrimony, and that the various sides agreed to talk again. [Addendum: it is now not clear whether Russia is actually willing to talk again. But I rather suspect that it will do so after a suitable pause.]


Also read: Why Putin has such a hard time accepting Ukrainian sovereignty


Much as Europeans, Americans and even Japanese might like to deflect or defer the Russian problem, we cannot. To borrow and adapt a famous saying by the Russian Leon Trotsky about war, “You may not be interested in Russia, but Russia is interested in you.” This is, after all, the country possessing the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and the world’s fourth largest defence budget as well as being the world’s second largest producer of natural gas and third largest producer of oil.

When the Soviet Union collapsed and dissolved in the early 1990s, turning Ukraine into an independent country for the first sustained period in its history, the hope was that the newly democratic Russia would now establish a peaceful and constructive political and economic relationship with the rest of Europe, with its central Asian neighbours and, naturally, with its old adversary, the United States.

Now, three decades later, we can see that this has not happened and is not going to happen in the near future. Many countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union (like Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) or were one of its satellite states (like Poland) proved to be sufficiently afraid of their former Russian comrades to the extent that they soon applied to join the Western security alliance, NATO, so as to benefit from that organisation’s collective defence guarantees.

That NATO membership for former Soviet countries has become, at least officially, Russia’s main grievance. In the draft agreement it sent to the United States in December Russia demanded not only that no further former Soviet countries should be allowed to join NATO, which most critically means Ukraine and Georgia, but also that existing NATO military facilities should be moved further back from Russia’s borders.

It is true that in 2016 NATO placed four multinational battlegroups, a total of about 4,500 troops, in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. It has also based a ballistic missile defence system in Romania, one which has no offensive capability. These moves form the official basis of Russia’s complaint and of its demands. Yet the only reason why the troops were sent to the Baltic States and Poland was because those countries perceived, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and a series of cyberattacks, that they were at risk of themselves being invaded or intimidated by Russia.


Also read: Russia-led bloc to send troops to Kazakhstan to quell anti-government demonstrations


Like Crimea and the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass, to which Russia sent covert troops to assist rebels fighting the central government, the Baltic States are home to many thousands of citizens who consider themselves ethnically Russian. For that reason, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania fear that Russia might use a similar excuse to the one it used in Crimea and Donbass, namely claiming that it must intervene in order to protect Russian-speakers in those countries against maltreatment.

So the situation is a strange one. Russia claims it is responding to threats from NATO. The West says that no such threats have been made, that anyway NATO is a defensive alliance, and that neither Ukraine nor Georgia has applied to join. Meanwhile, perhaps revealing its real intentions, Russia is making it very clear that it wishes to dominate its immediate region, by working to preserve the dictatorships in Belarus and Kazakhstan and by using intimidation and destabilising tactics to prevent Ukraine from becoming too European or too democratic.

How can the West respond? It is far from easy, especially when so many European countries are highly dependent on Russia for their gas supplies (although Russia is thereby also dependent on Europe for its markets). For sure, the West cannot act to preserve, defend or even promote democracy inside Russia or even in its neighbouring sphere of influence, with the exception of Ukraine.

What it can do, however, is to stand up for and defend principles of the international order which Russia itself signed up to in the U.N. Charter in 1945 — notably, the sovereign right of countries to make their own decisions; and the rule that national borders cannot and must not be changed by force. It must therefore refuse Russia’s demand that countries be barred from choosing freely to join NATO and must continue repeating that Russia will be punished severely if it seeks again to alter Ukraine’s borders.

That punishment, which would involve tough and long-lasting financial and economic sanctions, would also hurt the West since it would disrupt energy markets. But that price has to be paid if Russia forces the issue. The hope must be that talks can find ways to avoid this, hopefully by diverting the discussion to issues more capable of compromise, such as each other’s nuclear arsenals or where they hold their military exercises. We’re in for a tense year, however, in relations with Russia.

English version of “Jidai no Kaze” column published by the Mainichi Shimbun.

Bill Emmott is a writer and ex-editor of @theeconomist. Views are personal.

A version of this article originally appeared on Substack under Bill Emmott’s Global View.

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