Thursday 21 November 2019

'A world in which forces are on the move that could unleash cataclysm...'

A MESS: Russian President Vladimir Putin cups his ear to listen to a question as he departs after a summit on the Ukraine crisis at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on Friday. France hosted a meeting with leaders of Russia, Germany and Ukraine in Paris for talks about Ukraine
A MESS: Russian President Vladimir Putin cups his ear to listen to a question as he departs after a summit on the Ukraine crisis at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on Friday. France hosted a meeting with leaders of Russia, Germany and Ukraine in Paris for talks about Ukraine

Fergal Keane

Being on the road and in the middle of a refugee crisis leaves too little room for analysis. Only later, in the calm of a west London autumn, do I have the chance for proper reflection. What did those thousands of tramping refugee feet signify above and beyond the obvious signals of human distress? I have been thinking about this all week and I confess to gloom.

I recently read a line - one of those phrases that makes you sit up - from an anonymous Polish historian, who described the 1930s as a period when history had "slipped its leash". He described a world where the unimaginably terrible was becoming possible, a world in which forces were on the move that could unleash cataclysm.

The line stuck with me. For a few years now, I have had this feeling that the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, the disintegration of Libya, the muscle-flexing in the South China Sea, presaged an age of fearful possibilities.

I don't mean to directly compare our age with the Thirties. The most obvious difference is that our Europe is not divided between competing totalitarian ideologies, each with mass murder as an instrument of state control or ethnic supremacy. But in one critical respect the similarities are disturbing.

Just as in the Thirties, immense ambitious energies have been unleashed. They manifest themselves in the ideological ferocity and determination of a group like Isil, the belligerent militarism of Putin's Russia, the competing global ambitions that set great nations at each other's throats and all of this against the backdrop of a broken international system.

We are where we are because states long ago abandoned any notion that the UN Security Council might be a place to resolve disputes. It has instead become worse than an irrelevance. Disputes are not resolved, they are exacerbated by posturing and vetoes. America, Russia and China - the only three truly 'great' powers - have all played this game.

For sure, big power politics always dominated the deliberations of the UNSC. But some sense of interest in maintaining a stable world order used to prevail. No longer. The men who took the West to war in Iraq bear a significant measure of responsibility.

But it's too easy to blame all the current mistrust on Iraq or the Nato intervention in Libya, or indeed to say that Putin's muscularity is all down to Russia's humiliation at Western hands during the Yeltsin era. These are all elements but not the only, or even decisive, factors.

Putin's vision of revived Russian greatness predates these conflicts, as do his ideas about the use and maintenance of power. To project and protect his idea of greatness - at home and abroad - repression and military force are essential.

Putin does not try to sell a dream of prosperity and stability under the rule of law. He tells his people and his autocratic allies that they can depend on him. Good things are guaranteed behind the iron shield. And to hell with the carping and hand-wringing of the West.

There was no greater illustration of this than the shambles at the UN last week: poor old John Kerry with head in hands as the Russians continued to treat America as if it were a minor power, certain that Obama's eternal caution would not be overturned by the latest adventure in Syria.

It is worth recapping on exactly what Putin has been doing. First, he invaded a sovereign state and annexed part of its territory. After that, he fomented war in another part of that state and supplied troops and weapons to secessionists.

As I have repeatedly stated here and elsewhere, the West has its own responsibilities to acknowledge in these conflicts. Putin might look at how civilian casualties caused by allied bombing have alienated Afghans.

Only yesterday, US forces hit a Medecins Sans Frontieres clinic and killed several medical staff and patients in Kunduz.

Putin's greatest enemy is not in the White House, much less Berlin or London. It is hubris that may prove his undoing. The destabilisation of Ukraine has the potential for blowback on Russia. The militias he has financed, trained and armed will not be easily decommissioned, particularly if they are abandoned in a state nobody recognises and Russia will not or cannot annex. The east of Ukraine is now his mess.

As for Syria, he has brought Russia into conflict with powerful Sunni Muslim forces in the region. His is not a war against Isil, it is a war to save a Russian ally fighting an array of Sunni forces. Isil are getting hit in the process but not because they - at this moment - pose any kind of significant threat to Russia. That may of course change.

Russia's Foreign Minister Lavrov tried to be funny with his "walks like a terrorist" gag when he justified Russian strikes against rebel groups. It may well be the last laugh of this ill-advised intervention. The Saudis, Turks and Qataris are all weighing their options. An escalation of their training and funding of rebel groups is highly likely.

The West may be tempted by a deal which allows Assad to stay on in some form, for some specified time period. The rebels will not. Assad will surely look at the fate of Milosevic, who did a deal and ended up dying in his cell in the Hague. Putin's intervention makes him less likely to compromise. All of this means escalating conflict and more refugees. The stakes were raised dramatically last week and not just in the Middle East. The air of reckless adventurism that has characterised the early decades of the new millennium has led us all into dangerous territory. There is no knowing where we are heading.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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