Monday, 21 July 2014

Is It Wise To Take That Path?

Mark Almond writes:

With worldwide anger at the cruel sacrifice of the 298 people killed in the skies over Ukraine on Thursday boiling up, Western leaders from President Obama down are pointing the finger of responsibility at Vladimir Putin.

The Kremlin’s boss is accused of supplying pro-Russian rebels with the missiles and even the key personnel to destroy a Boeing 777 at more than 30,000 feet.

Few people outside Russia are buying Moscow’s counter-claims.

But if Russia stands indicted by global consent, what should the world do about the atrocity?

Indignation, even when righteous, is not the best guide to action.

A century after the outbreak of the First World War, risk of a real existential crisis is looming between Russia and the West.

Washington blames Moscow for so many innocent deaths. In 1914, an act of terrorism in a corner of south-eastern Europe led to a crisis spiralling out of control.

Politicians and the public here are enraged at what’s happened. But unlike the rest of us, our leaders must calculate consequences as well as express fury.

To get something positive out of this disaster, the West needs to avoid pushing Russia into a corner.

Shaming President Putin, not 150 million Russians, should be the aim.

President Putin has pitched himself as his people’s defender, restoring his country’s battered pride.

Now the West should try to de-couple patriotic Russians from their president.

Pushing him and them together with their backs to the wall is a recipe for catastrophe.

Many of the Russian fighters in Ukraine cut their teeth suppressing the Chechen rebels ten years ago. That was a brutal no-holds barred affair.

Because of Chechen terror attacks on Russian civilians, most Russians turned a blind eye to the methods used to pacify Chechnya.

Self-righteousness is not a Russian monopoly.

Certainly President Putin played on it among his own people after hundreds were killed in apartment bombings, blasts on trains and planes as well as attacks on pop concerts and theatres.

Desire for revenge closed Russian eyes to the price in equally innocent Chechen civilian life.

Remember President Putin’s threat to kill his Chechen enemies wherever he found them – even on the lavatory.

But do we want to go that way? Is it wise to take that path?

Think back to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

President John F. Kennedy’s advisers wanted to bomb the sinister Soviet missile bases sprouting 90 miles from Florida.

But the president remembered old Joe Kennedy’s advice to his sons, ‘Don’t get angry. Get even.’

Now President Obama should re-read how his predecessor squeezed Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Union into pulling back from the brink.

Some will say thinking coolly about how to react to so much needless death is being cold-hearted about the victims.

Rash responses dictated by emotional outrage won’t bring back the dead – but could pile up new corpses.

The pressure to pile punitive sanctions on Russia looks irresistible. Some are even advocating arming Ukraine in the civil war so it can hit back.

Remember how the Second World War in the Pacific began in 1941. America and Britain imposed an oil embargo on Japan for its invasion of China.

Faced with its tanks and planes grinding to a halt for lack of fuel, Tokyo lashed out, bombing Pearl Harbor and grabbing South-East Asia’s oil fields.

Of course, it ended in nuclear cataclysm for Japan in August 1945.

But today Russia has the bomb too.

President Obama has to calibrate the West’s reaction very skilfully, playing on the global outrage to get a good outcome out of the tragedy without pouring oil on the fire.

What the West should want is an end to the conflict in Ukraine, security for that country and justice for the MH17 victims.

But if it asks for President Putin’s head, he might decide better to be hanged for a sheep than a lamb.

He could pour his troops into Ukraine.

But let’s not overestimate Vladimir Putin.

His sinister ogre image has gone viral since Thursday, but he may not be quite the political chess grandmaster that some in the West feared or even admired.

Nigel Farage said that ‘he played a blinder’ over Crimea but then President Putin took his eye off the ball.

Letting underlings run the eastern Ukrainian sideshow, he pursued his ambition to bestride the globe. That has backfired spectacularly.

As MH17 flew to its doom, the Russian president was on his way back to Moscow from Brazil.

He wasn’t there just for the World Cup. He had set up a rival to the Western-dominated IMF with Brazil, India, China and South Africa.

His Kremlin was competing with Washington in the financial sphere – something the Soviet leaders had never dreamed of.

But just as the Kremlin thought it had got one over on the West its goons on the ground sabotaged Vladimir Putin’s day in the sun.

His presidency has been based on rebuilding Russian pride since the collapse of the Soviet Union as a superpower.

The downing of MH17 is a disaster for his project. Avoiding pariah status is likely to be President Putin’s key goal.

To avoid a draining economic war with the West, President Putin can back off. The Kremlin can sacrifice a few ‘overzealous’ subordinates in the field.

It can even renounce the rebels in Ukraine’s south-eastern rust belt which the moneymen around the president never wanted.

Keeping Russia is his priority.

The West should prefer to see Vladimir Putin wriggling in embarrassment rather than trying to skewer him.

Pushing his back to the wall can easily cause him to lash out.

He won’t strike us directly but he can cause pain to Ukraine, and elsewhere around the world Russia’s nuclear umbrella could cover many nasty surprises.

The West does not want Russia to act as a rogue state.

Provoking President Putin to do his worst cannot be a rational response to the horror on Thursday.

Going after him might satisfy the anger felt by millions after the catastrophe, but the West could live to regret it.

Russians will notice if their president is allowed to back down gracefully and his prestige will wane.

Washington saw Nikita Khrushchev fall just two years after the Cuban crisis.

Letting Russians put their country on the right track themselves is the best way to get even with those Russians who caused mayhem last week.

Revenge, remember, is a dish best served cold.

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