After a relatively quiet couple of months, fighting in eastern Ukraine is again on the rise, with the postponement of a planned peace summit and dire talk of increased Russian involvement with the separatists. Yesterday, the European Parliament called for stronger measures against Russia, including “a communication strategy to counter the Russian propaganda campaign”.

That makes it all the more vital to have some clear thinking on the question of how to deal with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. A good place to start would be with Tom Switzer’s piece in the Fairfax papers on Monday, “Appease Putin and avert a second Cold War”. Most right-leaning commentators, of whom Switzer is certainly one, either demonise Putin, demanding hard-line measures against Russia, or succumb to what Jon Chait calls “conservative dictator-envy”. Switzer, however, is refreshingly free from both, calling instead for “a policy of compromise and accommodation,” which he admits that some would call appeasement.

Switzer comes from the “realist” school of foreign policy — the tradition that, among other things, brought you Henry Kissinger’s escalation of the Vietnam war and Jim Baker’s complicity in the Yugoslav civil war. But idealists have plenty of faults as well, and realism can be a valuable corrective. (Realists were prominent, for example, among the opposition to the US invasion of Iraq.)

In this case, Switzer gives a clear exposition of why the West bears much of the responsibility for the current problems in Ukraine. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when Russia was weak, the West failed to treat it as a serious partner. It remained too much in the mode of Cold War thinking, and “expanded the US security umbrella without taking into account Russian susceptibilities”.

That always made it likely that when Russia, under Putin, recovered its strength, it would be at best a difficult partner. Various other Western missteps, including support for Georgia in the war of 2008 (which from Russia’s point of view was a defensive operation), just increased Russian suspicions. Unfortunately, having once done the wrong thing, it doesn’t follow — in foreign policy or anything else — that now doing (what would have been) the right thing will make everything OK. You have to deal with the situation as it actually is, not as it was at the previous decision point. I call this the “What do we do now?” problem.

Ten or 20 years ago, an inclusive and conciliatory policy towards Russia was the way to go. But it’s not so clear that it’s still viable.

Western policy may have been responsible for creating a bellicose Russian attitude, but that attitude now seems very much self-sustaining. Power has gone to Putin’s head, and his imperialism, although nurtured by real grievances, is not likely to quietly go away if the grievances are removed. So I think Switzer’s call for rapprochement is only part of the story.

We need to accept that a full rapprochement may not be possible, because Putin’s agenda may now include items — such as the permanence of the eastern Ukrainian conflict, and possibly even destabilisation of the Baltic states — that the West cannot possibly accept.

On the other hand, the alternatives are pretty miserable — basically waiting for Putin to fall foul of domestic opposition, which could take a long time — so reconciliation is worth a try. The possibility for a deal is certainly there — with many European countries obviously willing to trade, coupled with an end to sanctions and the recognition of Russian rule in Crimea — for a total Russian withdrawal from Ukraine’s east.

With Russia’s economy sinking, this would be a good time to try to be generous. Guaranteed rights for Ukraine’s ethnic Russians and an end to NATO expansion should also be on the table, as Switzer suggests. But the essential quid pro quo is a complete restoration of Ukrainian control over its eastern provinces.

The question is whether or not any sort of “appeasement” can bring Putin to concede that. If not, there could be darker days still ahead for Ukraine.

Peter Fray

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