Unlike Putin’s Russia, the West doesn’t know what it wants in Eastern Europe Timothy Garton Ash – Archyde

ONEWith Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders threatening the worst war in Europe since 1945, the world is trying to guess Vladimir Putin’s intentions. But the strategic question that the democracies of Europe and North America must ask is: what are our intentions?

Putin’s long-term goal in Eastern Europe is actually quite clear. He wants to restore as much as possible of the empire, great power status and sphere of influence that Russia lost so dramatically 30 years ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Only his tactic leaves us puzzled. Ever since he forcibly secured two secessionist pieces of Georgia in 2008, and certainly since his 2014 conquest of Crimea, it’s evident that he’s ready to use any means, from diplomacy and disinformation to cyberattacks and outright war.

The West contributed to this crisis through its confusion and internal disagreement over its strategic objective in Eastern Europe. In essence, the West – if one can still speak of a single geopolitical West – has spent the years since 2008 not choosing between two different models of order in Eurasia, but rather a bit of both and pursuing neither properly. We can call these models Helsinki and Yalta for short. The West’s immediate goal must be to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine, but beyond that lies that greater choice.

On paper, everyone in the West subscribes to the Helsinki model – a Europe of equal, sovereign, independent, democratic states that respect the rule of law and are committed to resolving all disputes through peaceful means. It was developed in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, was fully articulated in the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe, and is now institutionalized in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The goal is summed up even more inspiringly in the words that Harvey Sicherman, a now-forgotten American diplomat, wrote in a speech by President George HW Bush: “Europe whole and free … and in peace”.

The alternative model is Yalta. The summit meeting between Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in February 1945 at Yalta in (oh, irony of history) Crimea has become synonymous with great powers dividing Europe into western and eastern spheres of influence. Russia is new maximalist contract proposals to the US and NATO amounts to demanding what Russian analysts have actually dubbed “Yalta 2”. Only a few outspoken soi-disantine “realists” in the West explicitly endorse this model, but many more effectively subscribe to a version of accepting spheres of influence.

People who would be utterly outraged at the idea of ​​Poland having a veto over which alliance Germany should join, or Britain over France, are showing the double standards that have shaped Western Europe’s approach to Eastern Europe for centuries, and are happy to concede to Russia a veto veto over Ukraine’s alliance decisions. Western Europeans Who Would Scream “Fascism!” Any suggestion that territorial claims might be based on the existence of a Danish minority in northern Germany or a German-speaking minority in northern Italy, finds it “understandable” that Moscow is making such claims to Ukraine. In Brussels and Paris there are many small Europeans (by analogy with small Englishmen) for whom even today’s EU is too far east.

Sometimes Yalta is actually camouflaged in Helsinki. If, in the face of an aggressor prepared to use violent means to destabilize and dissolve a European state, you refuse to supply Ukraine with defensive arms and rely only on OSCE monitors and diplomatic negotiations, concede to Yalta while pretending to do Helsinki. You make war more likely by not defending peace. German Social Democrats – once the inventors of the brilliantly innovative West German version of detente known as Ostpolitik – are currently the global exhibit A of the muddled thinking, self-deception and outright hypocrisy that this entails. They represent a kind of shamed Yalta, the Yalta that dares not speak its name.

Ever since a major intra-Western spat at the 2008 NATO summit led to the lousy compromise of a public statement that Ukraine and Georgia would join NATO combined with the private understanding that NATO would do nothing serious to achieve this, the West is stuck in this state of strategic confusion. Since then, the West has only half opened up to Ukraine, half supported its independence, territorial integrity and transition to a viable, sovereign, democratic European state. Ukraine is not in NATO and will not be in the foreseeable future, but NATO is in Ukraine. NATO member states, including the United States and Britain, have supplied weapons and have military training personnel there. Ukraine is not in the EU and will not be in the foreseeable future, but the EU is in Ukraine. The EU has extensive programs to support the country’s political, economic and ecological transformation.

The West must finally make the strategic choice. We should resolutely follow the Helsinki model. The countries of the EU and NATO should patiently and consistently devote themselves to the goal of a united, free and peaceful Europe – not just saying it, but also thinking it.

A key component of this long-term vision is openness to a truly democratic post-Putin Russia. When some high-profile elder statesmen from the German security establishment recently suggested that Russia should be offered NATO membership, some may have dismissed this as wild German Russophilia. But basically they were right. Faced with an assertive Chinese superpower, there is every reason why a democratic Russia would be a highly desirable member of a defensive security alliance linking North America, Europe and Eurasia. Relations with the EU are becoming more complicated, but the European architecture already accommodates important non-EU countries. I write these words in one of them.

So this strategy is anti-Putin, but pro-Russia. A few years ago, even a majority of Russians would have rejected this distinction, implicitly accepting Putin’s tsarist claim “La Russie, c’est moi”. No longer. It’s unclear whether even a quick recapture of another corner of the former Russian Empire, in what is now Ukraine, would boost its waning popularity at home as much as the conquest of Crimea definitely done in 2014. So frightened is the Putin regime by Alexei Navalny, a political opponent who says he wants Russia to “follow the European path” that he was tried to be poisoned and is now being held in a prison camp .

In politics and diplomacy, as in other areas of life, one needs the ability to compromise and live with imperfect makeshifts. But you should also know what you want. Putin does. So should we.

  • Guardian Newsroom: Will Russia Invade Ukraine? Chat with Mark Rice-Oxley, Andrew Roth, Luke Harding, Nataliya Gumenyuk and Orysia Lutsevych on Tuesday 8 February at 20:00 GMT | on developments with Russia and Ukraine 21:00 CET | noon PDT | 3 p.m. EDT. book tickets here


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