Saturday 22 October 2016

Editorial: Courage required in facing Russia

Published 23/03/2014 | 02:30

A woman holds a portrait of Russia's President Vladimir Putin during celebrations on the main square of the Crimean city.
A woman holds a portrait of Russia's President Vladimir Putin during celebrations on the main square of the Crimean city.

IRISH politicians, when it comes to foreign affairs, are often afraid of being accused of suffering from the sort of delusions of grandeur that informed the Skibbereen Eagle's warning to the Emperor of Russia that it was keeping a careful eye on him.

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Last week, however, we received the tartest of reminders that the Russian bear is keeping a careful eye on us. The Russian ambassador's chilly warning that supporting sanctions would be a "double-edged blade" should remind us that the age of island isolationism, where Irish foreign policy stopped at the borders of the UK, is over. How Europe responds to Putin's putsch is no irrelevant event in some far-distant land. The Ukrainian crisis is, instead, starting to resemble one of those feared asymmetric shocks that could comprehensively derail the European and Irish recovery. Any Irish response should, however, note that whilst Russia is the designated villain in this affair, the role of expansionist European bureaucrats deserves far closer scrutiny. If Europe thought Russia would respond gently to its virtual encirclement then our Eurocrats are as misinformed about diplomacy as they appear to be over economics.

Putin's determination to be the master in his own house means we should not be surprised that the Russian leader intends to be the master of his back garden too. And his references to the evils of Western intervention in the bombing of Belgrade, the capital of Russia's ancestral ally Serbia, and his concerns over further Western interference in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and Libya, suggest that Putin intends to maintain a spacious estate.

Before we become too hysterical over the speed with which Russia is veering towards rogue-state status, we should note the cynical French belief that when it comes to political and diplomatic power games, the world operates on a 'plus ca change, plus ca le meme chose' basis represents the most accurate summation of the current crisis. There may be occasional interregnums, but Russian expansionism is an eternal European problem.

The problem for Europe, Ireland and the world is that Russian ambitions in terms of the extension and restoration of its lost influence are unlikely to stop at Crimea. Putin may have pledged support for a strong Ukraine and claimed Russia is not planning to rescue ethnic Russian minorities in "other regions after Crimea". We have, however, in a very different past, heard that same old spiel concerning the Sudetenland and history tells us how that worked out.

The present, courtesy of the cynical ruthlessness displayed in the Crimean anschluss, does not represent a happy prologue either. Instead, Mr Putin's apparent belief that the Russian motherland was betrayed when, in the wake of the collapse of communism, "millions" of Russians had gone to bed in one country and woken up in another, bodes ill for any swift return of the quiet life. It is yet possible that Putin's gamble that a soft European Union and a determinedly non-interventionist America will challenge Russia's new assertiveness with nothing more threatening than fine sentiments will come in. The leap, however, from targeted sanctions for specific oligarchs to a full-scale economic war is a short one. There can be little doubt that adhering to a moral foreign policy will, in the face of continued Russian aggression, be a costly one. The conundrum Europe and Ireland face, however, is that though it may hurt, sometimes you cannot afford not to have a moral foreign policy. Our own experience with the evils of appeasement suggests this is one.

Sunday Independent

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