July 26, 2014
IN 1991, when Soviet Communism collapsed, it seemed as if the Russian people might at last have the chance to become citizens of a normal Western democracy. Vladimir Putin’s disastrous contribution to Russia’s history has been to set his country on a different path. And yet many around the world, through self-interest or self-deception, have been unwilling to see Mr Putin as he really is.
The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, the killing of 298 innocent people and the desecration of their bodies in the sunflower fields of eastern Ukraine, is above all a tragedy of lives cut short and of those left behind to mourn. But it is also a measure of the harm Mr Putin has done. Under him Russia has again become a place in which truth and falsehood are no longer distinct and facts are put into the service of the government. Mr Putin sets himself up as a patriot, but he is a threat—to international norms, to his neighbors and to the Russians themselves, who are intoxicated by his hysterical brand of anti-Western propaganda.
The world needs to face the danger Mr Putin poses. If it does not stand up to him today, worse will follow.Mr Putin has blamed the tragedy of MH17 on Ukraine, yet he is the author of its destruction. A high-court’s worth of circumstantial evidence points to the conclusion that pro-Russian separatists fired a surface-to-air missile out of their territory at what they probably thought was a Ukrainian military aircraft….Russia’s president is implicated in their crime twice over. First, it looks as if the missile was supplied by Russia, its crew was trained by Russia, and after the strike the launcher was spirited back to Russia. Second, Mr Putin is implicated in a broader sense because this is his war. The linchpins of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic are not Ukrainian separatists but Russian citizens who are, or were, members of the intelligence services. Their former colleague, Mr Putin, has paid for the war and armed them with tanks, personnel carriers, artillery—and batteries of surface-to-air missiles. The separatists pulled the trigger, but Mr Putin pulled the strings.The enormity of the destruction of flight MH17 should have led Mr Putin to draw back from his policy of fomenting war in eastern Ukraine. Yet he has persevered, for two reasons. First, in the society he has done so much to mould, lying is a first response. … And the lies got more complex. The Russian fiction that a Ukrainian fighter jet had fired the missile ran into the problem that the jet could not fly at the altitude of MH17…. In a world of liars, might not the West be lying, too?Second, Mr Putin has become entangled in a web of his own lies, which any homespun moralist could have told him was bound to happen. When his hirelings concocted propaganda about fascists running Kiev and their crucifixion of a three-year-old boy, his approval ratings among Russian voters soared by almost 30 percentage points, to over 80%. Having roused his people with falsehoods, the tsar cannot suddenly wriggle free…. Nor can he retreat from the idea that the West is a rival bent on Russia’s destruction, ready to resort to lies, bribery and violence just as readily as he does….In Russia such doublespeak recalls the days of the Soviet Union when Pravda claimed to tell the truth. This mendocracy will end in the same way as that one did: the lies will eventually unravel, especially as it becomes obvious how much money Mr Putin and his friends have stolen from the Russian people, and he will fall. The sad novelty is that the West takes a different attitude this time round. In the old days it was usually prepared to stand up to the Soviet Union, and call out its falsehoods. With Mr Putin it looks the other way.The European Union is threatening far-reaching sanctions—but only if Mr Putin fails to co-operate with the investigation or he fails to stop the flow of arms to the separatists. France has said that it will withhold the delivery of a warship to Mr Putin if necessary, but is proceeding with the first of the two vessels on order. The Germans and Italians claim to want to keep diplomatic avenues open, partly because sanctions would undermine their commercial interests. Britain calls for sanctions, but it is reluctant to harm the City of London’s profitable Russian business. America is talking tough but has done nothing new.Enough. The West should face the uncomfortable truth that Mr Putin’s Russia is fundamentally antagonistic. Bridge-building and resets will not persuade him to behave as a normal leader. The West should impose tough sanctions now, pursue his corrupt friends and throw him out of every international talking shop that relies on telling the truth.
August 4, 2014
We still live in the long shadow of a war that began a century ago. It was supposed to be over in a matter of weeks. In the summer of 1914, the European war that began in the aftermath of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand drew great armies into the fields, launched ships of war upon the seas and engaged imperial ambitions and fears. There was, however, a sense of optimism among several of the combatants, an expectation that victory would be quick. “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees,” Kaiser Wilhelm II told the German troops in the first week of August.Of course, it wasn’t over by the time the leaves fell, and what became known as the Great War really isn’t over even now. From the downing of the civilian Malaysian airliner by Moscow-supported insurgents over Ukraine to the Israeli-Palestinian combat in Gaza to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Iran, the troubles of our time directly descend from the world of 1914–18, the era that inflamed ethnic and nationalistic impulses and led to the ultimate creation of new nation-states, especially in the Middle East.
To understand the madness of the moment, then, one needs to take a long view–one that begins in 1914 and not, as many Democrats would have it, with the election of George W. Bush or, as many Republicans think, with the election of Barack Obama. The spectrum of political conversation in our time is, to borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, inadequate to the stormy present.The 19th century has been said to have ended in 1914, with a war that became, in the words of historian David Fromkin, “in many ways the largest conflict that the planet has ever known.” One could argue that the 20th century lasted only 75 years, ending under the Administration of George H.W. Bush, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the death of the Soviet Union (itself a product of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917). As the news of this summer reminds us, we are now in a world much like that of 1914, without a truly controlling order.Americans who grew accustomed to a largely static balance of power during the Cold War must teach themselves to think in kaleidoscopic terms, not binary ones. Our national imagination is still partly shaped by the FDR-JFK rhetoric of American responsibility and the idea that we are capable of bearing any burden and paying any price to bend the world to our purposes. Yet we must be realistic–not defeatist but realistic–about our power. While we should never give up the conviction that we can effectively exert our will around the globe, we should also appreciate that any undertaking is inherently limited, a point supported by the experience of the American President of the 1914–18 era, Woodrow Wilson, who believed that the war of that age would end all wars. He was wrong–woefully so. The first Bush was closer to the mark when he spoke, usually privately, of how foreign policy was about “working the problem,” not finding grand, all-encompassing solutions to intrinsically messy questions.
And those questions today remain urgent and dangerous. In his insightful book Europe’s Last Summer, Fromkin writes that “it takes two or more to keep the peace, but only one to start a war … An aggressor can start a major war even today and even if other great powers desire to stay at peace–unless other nations are powerful enough to deter it.”
To think of another conventional conflict on the scale of the Great War–16 million dead, 20 million more wounded–stretches credulity. Still, the forces of ambition, greed and pride are perennial in the lives of men and of nations, and wars of any size bring with them large and unintended consequences.
Summing up August 1914, historian Barbara Tuchman wrote, “Men could not sustain a war of such magnitude and pain without hope–the hope that its very enormity would ensure that it could never happen again and the hope that when somehow it had been fought through to a resolution, the foundations of a better-ordered world would have been laid.”
We know now that such hope was illusory. It did happen again, from 1939 to 1945, and now, a century on, we live in a world that remains vulnerable to chaos and mischance and misery. Such, though, is the nature of reality and of history, and we have no choice but to muddle through. There is, in the end, no other alternative, whether the leaves are on or off the trees.