Leading article

Putin's aggression is the price of western weakness

Once you've decided you can't afford a big stick, it doesn't matter how loudly you speak

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

One cannot legislate for a quiet world. When a former Princeton University college professor was elected president of the United States, he joked before his inauguration that ‘it would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs’. That was Woodrow Wilson, speaking in March 1913. Similarly, the Hawaiian-born Barack Obama came to office with little interest in what lay over the Atlantic. He wanted to be the Pacific president, more concerned with Asia than the squabbles of the old world.

Fate, it turned out, had other plans. This week Obama has found his visit to Europe dominated by talk of Russian militarism — and has ended up almost begging his Nato allies to do more to address the problem on their doorstep in Ukraine. Fat chance. Debt-addled Europe has neither the money nor the stomach for confrontation — it must rely, as always, on Uncle Sam. Even the more hawkish European leaders, David Cameron among them, will not go so far as to spend more money on the military. The Defence Reform Bill making its way through Parliament this week proposes to reduce our army to its smallest size since the Napoleonic wars.

Over the past two decades Britain has become a country that likes to speak in bold, even swashbuckling terms about the need to shape the world rather than be shaped by it. But to have a military capable of doing so? Well, that is another issue entirely. The army was, in effect, defeated in Basra by a ragtag group of Iran-backed Shiite militias, in whose hands we left the city and its people. The subsequent reign of jihadist terror was ended only when the Iraqi army re-invaded. This sorry episode spoke volumes about how Britain’s shrinking military is losing the ability to win.

Britain’s strategic shrinkage is a matter of policy, not just austerity. When George Osborne took office, he proposed to cut £2.5 billion from military spending but increase overseas aid by exactly the same sum. Odd priorities for a country at war. But it was an example of the coalition’s approach to defence: it wished for fewer foreign entanglements, and wanted to shrink the military in preparation for a quieter era. This was never going to work. As Trotsky once put it: you may not be interested in war, but war is often interested in you.

Vladimir Putin still thinks and acts like the KGB man he once was. He sees his Nato adversaries enfeebled and dependent on his cheap gas. Had Europe the wit to develop our substantial shale reserves, there would be no such dependence. This opportunity was missed, and Germany agreed to a Baltic pipeline to be built from Russia — which would allow Russia to supply Germany while cutting off gas to eastern Europe. When Gerhard Schröder took a retirement job with the Kremlin-controlled Gazprom, it was a sign to Putin that enemies could be bought.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the outgoing head of Nato, was right to warn recently that Crimea fits a pattern of Russian strategy and that its annexation ‘must be followed by increased European investment in defence’. But defence budgets are being cut all over the continent — by 11 per cent in Italy last year alone, 12 per cent in Spain and Hungary. Russia now takes defence spending more seriously than any member of Nato, having increased its military budget by 80 per cent over the past decade.

Obama will, by now, have worked out that ignoring what happens across the Atlantic is harder than he hoped. Events have dragged him into Libya and Mali. The President’s failure to think through his policy over Syria led him to specify ‘red lines’ only to do nothing when they were crossed. Such a humiliation sends a message not only to the Kremlin but to every dictator with dark ambitions: the world’s policeman is growing tired of the job and wants to retire. When shale-rich America becomes energy-independent at the end of the next decade, it may do just that.

Russia is willing to back up its words with action, while Europe and increasingly America are not. This shifts allegiances. Take arms sales: Britain has failed to sell Typhoon jets to the United Arab Emirates, while Russia recently closed a $3 billion arms deal with Egypt. Other non-aligned countries are making nice with the Kremlin — South Africa, India and Brazil have all said they’d veto any attempt to expel Russia from the G20. So the West is left with almost comically weak options. Barring Russians from the G8, Bond Street shops or the Eurovision Song Contest is hardly going to check the Kremlin’s ambitions.

Putin doesn’t need to make any more incursions into Ukraine — he has made his point. He has shown the world who is serious and who is not. The balance of power has shifted, with scarcely a shot fired. It is possible, even likely, that whoever wins the next election will impose even deeper military cuts. In Britain and the on the continent, the strategy is to pretend this isn’t happening.

It was another American president, Theodore Roosevelt, who said the secret to diplomatic success was to ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’. The bankrupt West has decided that it cannot afford a big stick any more, and is now finding it harder to make itself heard. This will make for a more dangerous world.

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Show comments
  • If commentators continue to see all international issues in terms of strength and weakness, then they will continue to see this particular issue in terms of a Rocky film.
    It is not the weakness of the West that has allowed Russia to reclaim Crimea, it is its duplicity, of saying one thing and doing another, of making promises it had no intention of keeping, and of forwarding agendas it should have stayed out of, because it often makes for strange bedfellows.
    The West is morally bankrupt, and all the majority of commentators can do is parrot the party line; interesting how the commentariat are united in denouncing Putin as a bad guy, and now rubbish Farage in the debate last night; but the comments after the various articles and the polls say different.

    • Baron

      Quite, solly gratia, the blog’s comments, the polls say different, amongst the elites, its ar$elicking commentariat an epidemic of wet pants. They know they’re ‘right’ for they know the avenues of democracy have been largely closed to the unwashed, all the masses can do is to endure.

      The problem with endurance is, it can snap when one lest expects it. Let’s just wait for EU election.

  • George Hayes

    This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 March 2014
    Is this a joke? Today is 27th March 2014.

  • rtj1211

    Who was applying the big stick to the USA and the UK over Iraq?? Well????

    Who was applying the big stick to the USA over Vietnam?? Well??

    Why is it that the USA can do whatever it wants but everyone else must have the big stick?? WELL????

    Nobody listens to America any more because we all know that they are the most self-serving, lying, thuggish bunch of full-spectrum dominance organised criminals around.

    When did Putin install a pro-Russia government in Mexico or Canada?? Well????

    When did Putin invade Iran to overthrow a government which wasn’t doing its bidding?? WELL???

    When did Putin see selling oil in non-rouble denominations as an act of war?? WELL????

    Putin has touched up a few young girls as a dirty old man.

    America and the UK have engaged in full-scale sex trafficking and rape, loot and pillage during warfare.

    But Putin needs the life sentence and the USA and UK can go on scot free???

    Come on………

    It’s not acceptable to deny moral comparisons. Those that seek to moralise, sermonise and denounce must be purer than Caesar’s wife.

    The USA and the UK are about as pure as the madam at the best little whorehouse in Texas……..

    • oscargracie

      speak for yourself you moronic know-nothing. read-nothing idiot

      • Baron

        That’s the best counter-argument ever, have you asked to have it patented?

        • oscargracie

          There is nothing to argue against, your comment is semi literate, ahistorical and ad-hominem laden crap, quite fankly; ‘putin has touched up a few young girls as a dirty old man’ for example, is worthless. quasi-literate nonsense; no one with half a brain would write something like that.

          • Baron

            Listen up for Baron is going to say it only once. What’s semi literate et hoc genus omne about his one sentence?

            You blind or cannot tell the difference between Baron and rtj1211?

    • oscargracie

      Who are your sources by the way?

  • And another thing: “Vladimir Putin still thinks and acts like the KGB man he once was.” Keep up that kind of simplistic analysis, and you’ll make the same mistakes as Obama has over Kosovo and its “referendum”.

  • Kasperlos

    To state that with the takeover of Crimea the ‘balance of power has shifted’ is at best simplified, at worst a play at hysterics. The educated reader will note that the Ukraine is not a member of the NATO alliance and thus, save for the separate 1994 agreements which the UK and US pledged aid of some sort, has no rights to expect millions of lads and lassies from Oporto, Alicante, Hamburg, Oslo, Ghent, Gloucester, Miami, Calgary, Milan, Eindhoven, Aalborg, Luxembourg, Lodz, Riga, Tallin, Ankara, Athens, to die for the benefit of a murky tug of spoils. A tug which involves egos, greed, oligarchs, agendas, faceless but intriguing bureau/eurocrats, and eager businessmen of war. The red line that Putin has to be concerned about is the NATO line. Britain alone could not fend off a Russian thrust over NATO’s borders, that’s what the ‘alliance’ is about, a collective defense. So, please be honest and add up the forces of all NATO members and you will quickly and honestly discern that there is no shift in the balance. Honest commentary is worth much.

  • FF42

    The problem with the “the West is weak; Russia is strong” theory is that you are trying argue two contradictory positions at the same time: the west should not have got involved; the western response was weak.

    By accident or design, I think the EU response was about right: think longer term than your adversary; if their behaviour is unacceptable say so; give them an out so that future good behaviour is rewarded; more not less support for the Ukraine, but it also needs to be the right kind of intervention; reduce dependency on them so you are not taken hostage, ie wean off Russian gas.

  • Mombasa69

    Putin’s aggression has also brought the west closer together…

    • Terry Field

      Like a buch of meercats, all cowering in a hole.

  • Terry Field

    Obama is a dud; Kerry is a vegetable, Hollande is a joke, Cameron a marketing vacuum, and Merkel is ‘mummy’.
    Putin can not fail.
    He is mad if he does not go for the rest, since our bunch of comedians could and would do absolutely nothing to stop him.
    And if we did act, our regiments of gay and straight soldiers, and our front line troops composed of emancipated women in boob-tubes would make mincemeat of the spetsnaz special forces.

  • edmundburke343

    The writer of his article clearly hasn’t checked a map of NATO bases post 1990 lately, Russia and China are being surrounded. On the contrary it is NATO’s aggressive expansion that is the problem. Why doesn’t NATO clean up the mess they created in Libya, Afghanistan instead of trying to create new ones.

  • davidshort10

    The world is not really all that dangerous in the offices of The Spectator, managed as it is by Brillo Pad, who despite being a sort of journo has never been in harm’s way except when he had his suits ruined by a mad woman.