Op-ed — by Timothy Garton Ash
‘Preoccupied by Greece and the eurozone, Europe is letting another Bosnia happen in its own front yard.'
The time for diplomacy will come again, but it is not now: Ukraine urgently needs military support, and a counter to Russian propaganda
Vladimir Putin is the Slobodan Milošević of the former Soviet Union: as bad, but bigger. Behind a smokescreen of lies he has renewed his drive to carve out a puppet para-state in eastern Ukraine.
Innocent bystanders are killed in the Black Sea port of Mariupol. In besiegedDebaltseve, a woman scoops water from a giant puddle in the road. The rubble that was once Donetsk airport recalls a scene from martyred Syria. About 5,000 people have already been killed in this armed conflict, and more than 500,000 uprooted. Preoccupied by Greece and the eurozone, Europe is letting another Bosnia happen in its own front yard. Wake up, Europe. If we have learned anything from our own history, Putin must be stopped. But how?
In the end, there will have to be a negotiated solution. German chancellor Angela Merkel and foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have been right to keep trying diplomacy, but even they concluded in mid-January that it wasn’t worth going to meet Putin in Kazakhstan. On Saturday another attempt to agree a ceasefire failed in Minsk. Diplomacy’s time will come again, but it is not now.
We should ratchet up the economic sanctions against Russia. Combined with the impact of the fallen oil price, these are already having a significant effect. Despite a small wobble from the new Greek government, the EU last week kept its unity on extending sanctions. Won’t that feed a siege mentality in Russia? Yes, but then the Putin regime is stoking that mentality with its nationalist, anti-western propaganda. If the threat did not exist, Russian television would invent it.
A pro-Russian separatist dug in a trench, fires his machine gun towards an Ukrainian Army positions in the vicinity of the eastern Ukrainian city of Debaltseve, in the Donetsk region, on Jan. 28, 2015.
Like Milošević, Putin is prepared to use every instrument at his disposal, with no holds barred
Like Milošević, Putin is prepared to use every instrument at his disposal, with no holds barred. In his war against the west he has deployed heavy military equipment, energy-supply blackmail, cyber-attack, propaganda by sophisticated, well-funded broadcasters, covert operations and agents of influence in EU capitals – oh yes, and Russian bombers nosing up the English Channel with their transponders off, potentially endangering civilian flights.
There is a Polish saying which translates roughly as “we play chess with them, they play kick-arse with us”. (Dupniak, or kick-arse, is a Polish game in which people try to identify who kicked them from behind.) This is the problem of the democratic west in general and the slow-moving, multi-nation EU in particular. It was recently exemplified in a woefully unrealistic chess paper on strategy towards Russia prepared for Federica Mogherini, the EU’s new high representative for foreign and security policy.
In the long run, Putin will lose. The people who will suffer most from his folly will be the Russians, not least those in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. But the long run for skilful, ruthless dictators in large, well-armed, resource-rich and psychologically bruised nations can be quite long. Before he goes, more blood and tears will flow unquietly down the river Donets.
So the challenge is to shorten that period and stop the mayhem. To do this Ukraine needs modern defensive weapons to counter Russia’s modern offensive ones. Spurred on by John McCain, the US Congress has passed a Ukraine Freedom Support Act which allocates funds for the supply of military equipment to Ukraine. It is now up to President Obama to determine the timing and composition of those supplies.
A report by a group including Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to Nato, and Strobe Talbott, the veteran Russia expert, identifies the equipment needed: “counter-battery radars to locate long-range rockets, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), electronic countermeasures for use against opposing UAVs, secure communications capabilities, armoured Humvees and medical support equipment”.
Only when Ukrainian military defence can plausibly hold Russian offence to a stalemate will a negotiated settlement become possible. Sometimes it takes guns to stop the guns.
Won’t such arms supplies further nourish a Russian paranoia of encirclement? Yes, but Putin is feeding the paranoia already, untroubled by the facts. He recently told students in St Petersburg that the Ukrainian army “is not an army, it is a foreign legion, in this case a Nato foreign legion”.
The EU could never secure unanimity on such military supplies. If at all, it would have to be done by individual countries. Although this may bring back the old jibe that “America does the cooking and Europe the washing up”, there is a case for the US doing most of the heavy military supply.
The US has the best kit, it is probably in the best position to control its use, and is less vulnerable to bilateral economic or energy-supply pressures.
The overall burden-sharing would be fair. European economies take most of the pain of sanctions, since they have more invested with Russia; they will provide a lot of the economic support Ukraine needs if it is to survive; and they are doing most of the diplomacy. In fact, McCain and Merkel make a perfect hard cop, soft cop combination.
We need to counter Putin's propaganda. No one is better placed to do this than the BBC
There is one other area in which Europe in general, and Britain in particular, can do more. Broadcast media are usually classed as soft power, but they are as important to Putin as his T-80 tanks. He has invested in them heavily. Among Russian speakers – including in eastern Ukraine and the Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states – he has used television to impose his own narrative of a socially conservative, proud Russia threatened by fascists in Kiev, an expansionist Nato and a decadent EU.
Last year a Russianist of my acquaintance was sitting naked and at ease in the hot tub with a friend of his in Moscow after several vodkas, as is the Russian custom, when this highly educated Russian asked: “So tell me, honestly, why do you support the fascists in Kiev?”
We need to counter this propaganda not with lies of our own but with reliable information and a scrupulously presented array of different views. No one is better placed to do this than the BBC. The US may have the best drones in the world, and Germany the best machine tools, but Britain has the best international broadcaster.
And there is an appetite for it: the BBC’s sadly diminished online Russian-language service still has an audience of nearly seven million, and during the crisis its Ukrainian-language audience has tripled to more than 600,000.
In his excellent report on the future of news, James Harding, the head of BBC News, makes a strong commitment to growing the World Service. Immediately stepping up its Russian and Ukrainian offerings would be a good way for the BBC to show that it will put its money where its mouth is. Without compromising the BBC’s independence, the British government could also chip in some extra funding.
If ever there were people in need of accurate, fair, balanced information, it is Russians and Ukrainians today. None of these things will stop Putin tomorrow, but in combination they will work in the end. Dictators win in the short run, democracies in the long.