Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
The people have spoken. The established candidates were decisively thrashed. The winner, a short grey haired businessman, promises a difficult fight to restore his country’s independence.
The man of the hour is Petro Poroshenko, chocolate magnate and former foreign minister, now president-elect of Ukraine. He’s won an absolute majority of the vote in the first round and said he’ll keep the existing Prime Minister and Cabinet in office. Ukraine will need that stability.
Vladimir Putin’s original plan, to intimidate Ukrainians into accepting a confederation looser than Switzerland’s, in which Ukraine’s eastern regions would be dominated by oligarchs under Moscow’s sway and wielding vetoes on foreign policy, has been thwarted.
Though little voting took place in the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, the elections ran smoothly in Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk. Denied Crimea’s votes, the pro-Russians could not even muster enough support to force a run-off that would have guaranteed at least several more weeks of chaos and horse trading. Instead, Ukraine has a legitimate president freely and fairly elected with an unimpeachable mandate to suppress the smouldering insurrection. (As I write. Government forces are battling separatists for control of Donetsk airport).
Yet this is not even, as Churchill said of el-Alamein, only the end of the beginning. It is more like forcing German troops to halt at the Marne – in improvised effort to cover up abject foreign policy failure in which the belief in our own weakness exaggerates our adversary’s strength. When Barbara Tuchman wrote that as refugees fled Paris, the Marseillaise had been rewritten –
Aux gares citoyens!
Montez dans les wagons!
(To the train stations, citizens! Climb into the carriages!)
– She could not have imagined that alarmed German executives, British bankers and French arms dealers would display similar pusillanimity in the face of a vastly weaker threat. Perhaps, as fear stiffens Polish and Lithuanian spines, greed weakens them in the West.
Denial still holds sway. Yesterday, BP still thought it a good idea to sign a deal with Russian state-owned firm Rosneft. Their slogan was once Beyond Petroleum. Now it would seem to be Beyond Political Risk.
Now that the shock has worn off, let’s remind ourselves what Putin has done since January. He has invaded one of his neighbours and seized her territory. He has sent armed men to stir up a civil war. He has whipped his people into a frenzy of nationalist incitement. He calculated, correctly, that this would all be met by a slap on the wrist.
His expectation of Western weakness incoherence and greed has been spot on. His army of spinners (aided by the Goebbelsian Russia Today) has, however, been found out. Ukraine has not been split 50-50. Neither has the spurious ethnic division into communities of “Russian” and “Ukrainian” speakers (people are bilingual, and the languages similar). Nor has the far right captured Kiev: the Svoboda and Right Sector candidates each got around one percent: on par with yesterday’s share for neo-nazis in Germany.
A dangerous illusion still stalks the Western political debate. This is the idea that Putin can be anything other than hostile to the rule of law and international peace. But under his leadership Russia will never be a genuine diplomatic partner. No agreement will be more than a truce that he will feel free to undermine when it suits his interests. As long as he remains in power he will have to be contained.
This is of course a shame. It would be better if Western European nations didn’t have to modernise their militaries, and could spend the money on something else. In would also be nice if France could safely provide employment by building warships for Moscow, or German train manufacturers could sell their wares to Russian state railways. And if this is too generous an assessment of the the estate agents flogging overpriced condominia in Mayfair, theirs is at least a business less disreputable, say, than people trafficking or the supply of crowd control equipment to besieged dictators.
Nice though it might has been, it is no longer safe to indulge that luxury. Putin, unlike Stalin, may not have a systematic plan for domination and expansion, but he has a general sense that Russia is not quite big as it ought to be, and that his mission is to correct this historical slight. This Putin will push as far as he can, but balk at serious obstacles. More dangerously, he appears convinced that jingoism can intoxicate and distract Russians from economic stagnation. Keeping them high will require ever more ambitious foreign adventures.