Political conflicts, especially among white people, have no military solution. From the end of the cold war untile arlier this year, that was the dogma of Europe’s political establishment.
Not any more. The naïveté and arrogance of the past two decades is giving way hurriedly to something akin to panic. Germany, for example, for long a notorious military laggard, is changing its posture. It is bringing 100 tanks out of storage and tweaking its defence plans. Ukrainians might ask why there is clearly a military solution to the defence of Germany, yet politicians such as Angela Merkel insist that a military response to the invasion of Ukraine would be pointless.
Ireland, which has no airforce, is worriedly awakening to its dependence on the ageing warplanes of Britain’s RAF to intercept the Russian bombers that buzz its airspace. Russia does not seem to care that Ireland is not a member of NATO – any more than it has refrained from bullying non-NATO Sweden and Finland.
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Those two countries, together with their Nordic partners Denmark, Iceland and Norway, have issued an unprecedented joint declaration, decrying Russia’s war games, military build-up and dangerous aviation stunts. That prompted a rebuke from the Russian foreign ministry. Russia is offended when people do not take it seriously. It is even more offended when they do.
The politics behind this are fascinating. Many Westerners still cannot understand why Russia is provoking peaceable (some would say malleable) countries into stiffening their defence posture. Surely the rational approach for the Kremlin would be to dandle the neutral countries and punish the hawkish ones? That would be an effective divide-and-rule strategy.
Like so many outside interpretations of Russian thinking, this misses the point. Russia likes Western rearmament (or more accurately, talk of rearmament) because it feeds into the poisonous mythology which the Kremlin feeds the Russian people. Russia was encircled by a treacherous West; now it is besieged by a hostile one. That justifies harsh measures against spies and traitors at home, and the economic pain that confrontation with the West brings.
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Russia’s secondary target is Western public opinion, which still greatly prizes fair-mindedness over truth. The less people know about Russia, the more willing they are to excuse the Kremlin’s behaviour as a justified reaction to Western broken promises.
The practical effects have more advantages than disadvantages. Even if Sweden and Finland do start moving towards NATO, it will have little practical effect on regional security (behind the scenes, both countries have deep and growing ties with the Alliance anyway). But it will allow Russian propagandists to claim that NATO is marching ever closer to Russia’s borders.
Similarly, the West’s token efforts towards boosting its military plans and presence in the Baltic region are no serious impediment to the Kremlin’s military plans. Russia can match anything the West does on the symbolic front (just imagine what panic a nuclear-weapons drill would create). And it is ahead in terms of deployable military muscle too.
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One Western response to this is to treat Russia’s behaviour as a mental health problem. Allay Russia’s paranoia with soothing, transparent actions. On no account take any military steps that could be misinterpreted. That was the Alliance’s approach for 25 years. It didn’t work then, in comparatively benign conditions. It won’t work now. Not only is it useless; it is harmful: the Kremlin reads it as a sign of weakness.
The hard truth is that Europe won’t pay for or risk the defences it needs. That won’t change until we are a lot more scared or angry than we are now. Which may be too late.