EDWARD LUCAS: I hope I’m wrong but historians may look back and say this was the start of World War III
Deep in the flat and featureless landscape of eastern Ukraine, it is all too possible that the outline of World War III is taking shape.
Whipped up by the Kremlin propaganda machine and led by Russian military intelligence, armed men are erecting road blocks, storming police stations and ripping down the country’s flag.
They are demolishing not just their own country — bankrupt, ill-run and beleaguered — but also the post-war order that has kept most of Europe and us, here in Britain, safe and free for decades.
Vladimir Putin is striking at the heart of the West.
A Ukrainian military convoy traveling towards the eastern Ukrainian town of Slovyansk where Russian nationalists have seized the regional administration building
His target is our inability to work with allies in defence against common threats. The profoundly depressing fact is that the events of the past few months, as Russia has annexed the Crimea and suppressed opposition in Ukraine, have shown the West to be divided, humiliated and powerless in the face of these land grabs.
We are soon to face a bleak choice. We can chose to surrender any responsibility we have to protect Ukraine and the Baltic states — almost certainly Putin’s next target — from further Russian incursion. Or we can mount a last-ditch attempt to deter Russia from furthering its imperial ambitions.
If we do choose to resist Putin, we will risk a terrifying military escalation, which I do not think it an exaggeration to say could bring us to the brink of nuclear war.
Putin knows that. And he believes we will choose surrender. For the real story of recent events in Ukraine is not about whether that country has a free-trade deal with Brussels or gets its gas from Moscow.
It is about brute power. It is about whether Putin’s Russia — a rogue state on Europe’s doorstep — can hold its neighbours to ransom, and whether we have the will to resist him. So far the answer to the first question is yes. And to the second a bleak no.
The Russian leader believes the collapse of the Soviet Union was a ‘geopolitical catastrophe’. He believes Russia was stripped of its empire by the West’s chicanery. And quite simply, he wants it back.
When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, the former captive nations of Eastern Europe scrambled into Nato and the protection it offered as fast as they could.
As the tension escalates a Ukranian air force Su-27 fighter patrols an area 100 miles from the Russian border in estern Urkraine
But the bitter truth is that Russia did not reform its ambitions in 1991. The Kremlin has always retained its imperialist outlook.
While modern Germany has forsworn militarism and empire, and is liked and admired even by countries such as Poland, which suffered horribly at Hitler’s hands, Russia has not.
Putin believes its historic destiny gives Russia the right to seize land, intimidate and blockade its neighbours. The Russian leader sees Ukraine not as a real country, just a territory, and one he is determined to dominate.
First he took Crimea. Now he has launched an operation in the east and south of Ukraine.
Russian troops are prowling the border as the Ukrainian authorities launch a desperate attempt to regain control of government buildings and police stations in key cities that have been seized and occupied in recent days.
As the situation continues to deteriorate, Ukranian soldiers stand guard beside a military helicopter to prevent pro-Russian activists from seizing the aircraft
Only yesterday it was reported that between four and 11 people had been killed as Ukrainian troops re-took Kramatorsk airfield from pro-Russian forces.
Putin has presented the Ukrainian leaders with an impossible choice. Either they consent to the dismemberment of their country. Or they fight a war they cannot win.
Ukraine’s ill-trained, ill-equipped and ill-led soldiers are quite unsuited to deal with the fraught challenge facing them.
Any bloodshed against a single Russian soldier will give Putin a pretext to use his military might.
For her part, Russia has played a brutally clever game. She has deliberately sought to humiliate and destabilise Ukraine.
Now Putin can claim his soldiers must be allowed to intervene because the very social disorder his outriders have engineered demonstrates that the authorities cannot maintain order.
A Ukrainian soldier aims his machine gun at pro-Russian protesters outside a Ukrainian airbase in Kramatorsk, in eastern Ukraine
The hypocrisy is breath-taking. But the Ukraine adventure is stoking a patriotic frenzy at home which distracts the public from his regime’s incompetence and thievery.
But the biggest benefit to the Russian president lies abroad. He makes no secret of his hatred for the West. He is contemptuous of, yet fears, our soft power. He resents the laws, liberty and prosperity that our citizens enjoy. They throw into bleak contrast the dismal life that his own corrupt and incompetent rule offers Russians.
He also despises our weakness. He sees a Europe and America that talk tough but have failed to provide a united response to the growing catastrophe. Yes, we talk a good game — Foreign Secretary William Hague has called for ‘a clear and united international response’ — but our deeds do not match our words, and Putin knows it.
In his bleak world view, only force and money count. He believes we in the West are too weak to defend ourselves when threatened. So far, his assessment looks right. Even Nato — the bulwark of our security since 1949 — is creaking under the strain of the Ukraine crisis.
Nato’s gutsy commander, General Philip Breedlove, wants to share international intelligence with Ukraine and boost Nato’s forces in its most vulnerable member countries: Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
But the White House has blocked the first recommendation. And European countries such as Germany are blocking the second.
Meanwhile, pro-Russian protesters attempt to barricade the same airbase in Kramatorsk, in eastern Ukraine
Vainly, our leaders hope diplomacy will make Putin back down. Surely he can be made to understand that confrontation is not in Russia’s interests? The markets are already punishing the rouble and big Russian companies.
But that approach fundamentally misunderstands a man like Putin. He is prepared to make his people suffer economic pain and risk war for what be believes is their national interest. We in the West are not.
Having taken Ukraine, he will turn his attention to the Baltic states. Members of the EU and Nato, their lawful societies, elections and thriving economies are an implicit rebuke to those who preside over sleaze and brutality in Russia.
Now Putin sees a chance to humiliate them — and the West. He does not need to invade, just to provoke. Using social division and agitation he will raise the pressure — whether economic or political — on one or more of the Baltic states until it becomes unbearable.
Nato and the EU — on current form — will merely appeal for dialogue and threaten sanctions. But nothing will happen. Which means the Baltics will buckle, and Putin will take back lands which he believes are rightly Russia’s.
That will be the end of Nato — and the dawn of a terrifying new world in which international rules count for nothing and the strong dominate the weak. Russia — ruthless and greedy — can play divide and rule for decades to come.
Suppose we do try to resist, with our shrunken armed forces and craven allies? With the latest round of cuts, the British Army is about to become the smallest it’s been since the Napoleonic wars.
A Ukrainian army MI-24 helicopter gunship patrols an area around Slaviansk while Ukrainian authorities plan a clampdown on pro-Moscow activists
Meanwhile, our once ‘special relationship’ with America was tested by our failure to support Obama over intervention in Syria.
What’s worse, the West’s intelligence operations have been severely compromised by the exploits of Edward Snowden, the former U.S. intelligence contractor who has taken refuge in Moscow, having stolen tens of thousands of secret state documents.
Deplorably, the complacent and self-indulgent journalists who so damagingly published the West’s intelligence secrets and effectively blinded our spies have been awarded America’s greatest journalistic honour, the Pulitzer Prize.
If the West does stand up to Russia, Putin will put its nuclear forces on alert, all the while decrying our ‘aggressive behaviour’.
As the centenary of the Great War in July approaches, historians are vying to pinpoint the chain of events which started that conflict.
I may be wrong, but in 100 years time, will their successors look back at the events in Ukraine to make sense of the beginnings of the next world conflagration?
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