I totally agree with you that ‘practical politics is not about ideals and principles – still less about morality; it’s about perceived interests’. That is, I agree with it in general. However, there have been concrete historical occasions when politics, ideals, principles and even morality overlapped with interests.
The Crusades spring to mind, and many other instances, such as the Russo Turkish War of 1877, when the Russians went to war to protect the Orthodox Bulgaria against the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
But your use of the Chamberlain quote “a far-away country about which we know nothing” sends us back to a modern example of morality and interests wrongly perceived to go their different ways – with catastrophic results. Eerily the present situation in the Ukraine has much in common with that one.
As Hitler was preparing for his conquest, and immediately after he launched it, there were three opportunities to stop him in his tracks – yet another instance of real politik and morality being in agreement.
First, after Hitler broke the Versailles Treaty and remilitarised the Rhineland in 1936, it would have taken two French divisions to send him packing. Yet nothing was done, out of both cowardice and a misapprehension of the ‘perceived interests’.
Second, when Hitler’s intentions were made crystal clear, and every European with half a brain knew that his 1938 demands on the Sudetenland, ostensibly based on protecting the German population there (notice the parallels with Putin?), were in fact the next stage in conquest, Hitler could have been stopped almost as easily. Instead Chamberlain waved a piece of paper in the air – our interests, he felt, weren’t threatened.
Third, after Hitler attacked Poland in 1939 and the ‘phoney war’ started, Hitler left his western flank so utterly bare that there wasn’t a single tank there. As the Polish Poznan Army Group was digging in on the other bank of the Vistula, the combined Anglo-French force could have had a pleasant, practically unopposed ride all the way to Berlin. Yet the war remained phoney – that’s how we perceived our interests. Well, we all know the rest.
In this article I draw the parallel between Nazi Germany and Putin’s Russia: http://alexanderboot.com/content/peter-hitchens’s-love-affair-putin-continuesFirst
And here I touch upon Russia’s long-term strategy:
The parallels with the Nazis are clear-cut. Not to turn this into a lengthy pamphlet, I shan’t cite ample support for each point – but believe me, I could.
First, Russia’s is an evil regime, led by an evil man pursuing evil ends. In every respect, other than rhetoric, it’s a continuation of the Soviet Union by other means. Whatever changes are discernible are purely tactical. Free speech isn’t suppressed as totally as in the USSR, but it is suppressed. Concentration camps are less full, but they’re still there. And certainly more political opponents have been murdered under Putin than under Brezhnev – some in London.
(Amazingly, some conservative commentators both here and in the USA see Putin as a bulwark of traditional values against PC modernity, mostly because of his ban on homosexual propaganda. However, Hitler wasn’t keen on homosexuals either, and neither was Osama bin Laden. Concentrating on a part at the expense of the whole is called heresy in religion and stupidity in politics.)
One of the evil ends is the recreation of the Soviet Union using the Zollverein tactic of coercing some former Soviet republics to join and bribing the others. Kazakhstan and Belorus have been bribed, Georgia – that repelled all the overtures – was raped in 2008, with the West’s acquiescence. After an aggressive war, two Georgian provinces were gobbled up by Putin, and a couple of years later a puppet government was installed.
Second, emboldened by the West’s passivity (just like Hitler was after Munich), Putin has now attacked the Ukraine. No doubt you’re right – he sees the aggression as a way of furthering his strategic interests. But surely you don’t think these are our interests as well?
The independence and territorial integrity of the Ukraine were guaranteed by the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which doesn’t quite have the legal power of the Versailles Treaty, but almost. The Ukraine certainly felt the guarantee was strong enough for her to relinquish her nuclear weapons.
Putin’s arguments based on protecting the Russian minority cut no more ice than Hitler’s did in 1938. The Russians are in no way threatened in the Ukraine, and in fact in 2012 Russian was accepted as the second official language. Most key figures in Ukrainian politics, including Yanhukovych, Timoshenko and many of the Maidan people, can’t speak Ukrainian at all.
Historical arguments are even iffier. True, the Crimea has never had any link with the Ukraine and only became its part as a result of Khrushchev’s gerrymandering in 1954. But if we go further back, the Crimea had nothing to do with Russia either. Originally it was Greek, the center of Mithridates’s Empire, then a province of the Roman Empire – Ovid’s Metamorphoses was written there. It then became Muslim (Tartar) and so it remained until late 18th century, when Prince Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s lover and co-ruler, conquered it for Russia.
Historical references are a shaky basis for territorial claims. Königsberg, for example, the city where Kant lived all his life, is historically German. So is the Sudetenland. So is Silesia. So is Alsace. None of them is German any longer – that’s how the world works.
Historically, Kiev, where Russia was baptised, was the capital of Kievan Rus or rather of the Vikings who then made up the ruling elite. The Moscow principality was originally only a small part of it, so in that sense one may say – with equally poor justification – that the Ukraine has historical claims on Russia, rather than vice versa.
Putin’s aggression against Georgia first and now the Ukraine isn’t just immoral and illegal – it’s a direct clash with our national interests. Moreover, it proves the point I’ve been making since 1989, the heyday of perestroika: Russia remains the greatest danger to world peace there is. Forget the Muslims, forget Kim, forget China: Putin’s expansion presents an immediate threat of world war.
Remember that the three former Soviet republics at the Baltic are now NATO members. Our obligations to them are stronger than even ours to the Ukraine under the terms of the Budapest Memorandum. What if Putin decides that the Russian minority is threatened there as well? Why, those dastardly Balts even make their Russia citizens speak the local languages – if that’s not oppression I don’t know what is.
Protecting the sovereignty of Europe’s largest country isn’t only moral but in our national interests. Our options are of course limited – no one is going to start a war over the Ukraine. But what we can do is treat Russia as a rogue, pariah state violating every norm of civilised conduct.
That would entail all sorts of political and economic steps that are too numerous to go into now. The task of a political commentator is to know all the facets of the problem, historical, legal, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, political, geopolitical, and explain them to readers short of such knowledge.
Instead Putin’s propaganda machine, just as Hitler’s and Stalin’s did so successfully, is imposing its own terms on even conservative commentators. For example, every Putinite newspaper, which is to say every Russian newspaper, describes the people who kicked Yanukovych out as ‘Banderovtsy’, the followers of the nationalist leader Stepan Bandera who during the war fought against both the Soviets and the Nazis.
Bandera’s armed struggle against the Soviets continued well into the ‘50s, after which he managed to escape to Munich, where a KGB assassin got him with a cyanide pistol. Courtesy of Soviet propaganda, the word ‘Banderovtsy’ is hugely pejorative in Russia: it’s used to describe ultra-Right fascist thugs.
In that time-honoured vein, all Ukrainians who don’t want to be Putin’s poodles, including those who unseated Yanukovych, are described in this way. This is a lie. The Maidan crowd was made up of many groups, of which the ultra-right were only one. Most people there were self-sacrificial freedom fighters, feeling they deserve a shot at independence after almost a century of suffering at Russia’s hands.
Whoever they are, it’s in our interests to support them as best we can – not all of them are our friends but they are all our enemy’s enemies.
Rather than treating Putin’s strategic interests with sympathetic understanding, we should be mindful of our own – and understand where they lie.