The sound that has echoed around the world this week, of people choking on their breakfast cereal spluttering into their coffee, has, of course, been occasioned by the remarks of Mr John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, that one does not invade foreign countries. In a time of change, it is reassuring to know that American diplomacy is continuing its historical role as a source of innocent amusement for the world as a whole.
But of course there is a deeper point here. Mr Kerry, like various other Western statesman, has threatened the Russians with terrible reprisals, even if, so far, he has no idea what those reprisals would be. And of course nobody else does either, because there aren’t any.
What we have seen, in fact in effect, is a demonstration of how far Western weakness has increased in recent years, accompanied by, and partly dependent on, increasing Russian strength. This is a complicated equation, and Western political and media elites really haven’t caught up with it yet. The fact is that there is no way Russia is going to allow the continued eastern expansion of NATO and EU influence to its very frontiers, and if western elites did not realise that, they must have been very stupid.. That expansion has always been the master plan among Western elites anyway, since the end of the Cold War, and it has progressively been implemented over the last generation. Now that the Russians have said “enough”, it’s clear that there’s nothing the West can actually do, apart from having a tantrum. If the West doesn’t like it, it can do the other thing. The West needs Russia, after all, a great deal more than Russia needs the West.
But there’s another thing which is only slowly being understood, and it is that a generation has now passed in which decision-makers and media pundits have only ever had to deal with Russia which is basically weak. From 1917 to 1989 there was a recognised way of dealing with, and talking about, and dealing with the Soviet Union. That country was terrifyingly powerful and irrationally aggressive, and threatened to overrun the rest of the world at no notice. Not only that, but its agents of influence were everywhere, spreading ideas about the legalization of homosexuality and the introduction of comprehensive education, as well as other subversive social innovations. All of that changed so abruptly after 1991 that in many ways were still catching up with the change. The West has been improvising for the last 25 years, trying on for size different ways of dealing with a country which is not a Communist state any more, and which indeed is more of a capitalist state than many Western states are. Successive models have been tried and all have failed. We have seen Russia as the new Soviet Union, Russia as the faithful Western partner undermined by nationalism, Russia as a Mafia state, and Russia as a new czarist autocracy, among others. The West is unable to accept that someone like Putin could actually be an elected leader who represents the opinions of his people.
The crisis in the Ukraine is therefore as much as anything else the crisis of Western understanding, and internal crisis in the Western psyche and an indication of the fact that, more than twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, we are still unable to decide how to treat its successor.