Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
A few days ago, some Polish friends of mine changed their Facebook pictures to a Ukrainian flag perforated by a circle of bullet holes. The disfigured blue and yellow banner marked red with blood began to resemble that of another country gripped by street protests and a nervous government’s violent crackdown.
The officially-unofficial thugs; the snipers; the arrest and imprisonment of political opponents; the foreign security advisers; young men tortured by the authorities; the catastrophic economic policy; autocratic rule over a deeply divided country; the revival of myths, not without basis in fact, of Western interference; the murdered protesters. All these are the same.
There comes a point when every populist authoritarian has to confront economic failure and choose whether to quit, or cling to power by shedding the blood of his people. Nicolás Maduro, Hugo Chavez’s successor, is at its cusp. So far there have only been scarcely more than ten killed in the protests against a government that presides over food shortages, rampant inflation and a sky high murder rate.
Maduro, who has kept his moustache despite it making him resemble Saddam Hussein, so far appears in a stronger position than Yanukovich. Where Ukraine was dependent on Russian gas, Venezuela exports its own oil. Yet much of the revenue is diverted to supporting other “21st Century Socialist” populist Latin American governments (though thankfully no longer supplying London’s buses); still more goes to the decidedly 20th Century socialism of the Cuba’s Castro brothers.
This at least provides Caracas with something of use: security assistance from men who’ve maintained a communist dictatorship but a hundred miles from the United States, for more than 50 years.
Nevertheless, America’s strategic position is different. In the 20th century, the Latin American far left, firmly within the Soviet Union’s sphere of interest, earned Moscow’s subsidies. Now Cuba and Venezuela are on their own. No more insurgencies get the KGB’s backing, while Washington has doesn’t instigate coups to its south any more (even if it seemed to have turned a blind eye to the one attempted against Chavez in 2002).
Present-day Russia, whatever its vision of itself as a great power, no longer poses a serious enough threat to the United States. The unnamed “peer competitor” featured in its Quadrennial Defence Reviews is unmistakably Chinese. What American attention that is left is drawn to the Middle East. Meanwhile, its defence budget is being cut. Chuck Hagel yesterday promised to shrink its army to the smallest it has been since before the Second World War. The Pentagon even refuses to rule out scrapping an aircraft carrier when the second round of the “sequester” comes into effect next year.
With the Americans out, and no need to keep the Germans down, keeping the Russians – petulant, irritable, and as gas prices continue to to fall, increasingly short of money – out falls to Europe.
And despite the encouragingly adventurous remarks by Germany’s President, Robert Kagan’s portrait of old Europe’s wistful foreign policy which allowed the Russia into the G8 and WTO remains true. Agreements with the Kremlin appeared to stick because the United States took care of the security for them: in the absence of American power, the interests shared by Europe’s democracies and Moscow are few indeed.
One would expect a Conservative-led government to get stuck in and oppose the utopian rationalism emerging from Brussels, but this administration lives in denial of security threats: remaining silent until all it can do is issue a late and irrelevant press release. It has slashed the Armed Forces, instructed diplomats to turn into glorified trade delegates, and continues to shovel money at an aid policy designed in the happy unipolar 1990s.
The Kremlin, too weak to bother the United States, but too powerful for any one European country to resist alone, turns its attention westwards, while trade with emerging markets will not remain open without democracies’ navies to uphold the institutions upon which they depend. All this can be kept quite separate from the Conservative Party’s desire to reconfigure Britain’s relationship with the European Union: it is, rather, a mission in which NATO is the single most important body. It has the training and doctrine, and needs to develop the ability to act with American blessing but without its help. Yet this requires an understanding that geo-political competition has returned, but which our “McKinsey Foreign Secretary,” out of his depth in a Machiavellian world, shows few signs of accepting.