The West has aroused the Russian bear through its contradictory actions over Kosovo and Georgia. Russia now sees the West as asserting its power too far, recognises the West is now overstretched in the east, and thinks the West is becoming too intrusive close to Russiaâ€™s borders.
I wish to stress that I like most Westerners condemn the invasion of Georgia and the military actions taken by Russia in the Georgian war. I also disagreed with some of the actions taken by the EU and the USA during the Yugoslav wars, which are an important part of the background to Russiaâ€™s attitudes today. The West is in danger of reaping what it has sown.
Now the bear has awoken we need to analyse carefully what are the legitimate and illegitimate aims of Russia, and how might it use its growing military and economic power? We need to think before we speak, and plan and act before we commit ourselves too deeply, beyond the range and strength of our power.
The irony of the present situation will not be lost on the Russians. The West is paying Russia to re-arm, thanks to the failure of the UK, the US and other western governments to take the necessary action to cut dependence on imported oil and gas from parts of the world that are unstable or unfriendly. The more oil and gas we buy from Russia at these new higher prices, the more missiles they can finance and the more tanks they can manufacture. The first thing the West should do, if it wishes to strengthen its hand vis a vis Russia, is take urgent action to cut its dependence on imported fuel. I have set out before some of the steps the UK should be taking now to do this.
The second thing the West should do is think through its position more clearly on whether it should help defend all existing borders of states or not. It has been normal in the post 1945 world to attempt to defend existing states borders, buttressed by the UN. It required UN agreement and action to ratify changes in states borders. That changed with the recognition of Kosovo, opposed by Russia, a UN Security Council member with a veto.
This doctrine is also in conflict with another Western doctrine, the self determination of peoples. Under this doctrine, if a dominant majority in a substantial region of a larger country wish to secede and form their own state, they should be allowed to do so following referendum and legal process. This is, for example, the view of the Scottish Nationalists over how they should take control of their country, and the growing view of many English nationalists who want a vote on the independence of England from the UK and the EU. It is a view that the US set out as a war aim in the 1940s, seeking to liberate European countries from German control, and favoured by the US when supporting the removal of colonial powers from Africa. Czechoslovakia was allowed to split in two when the popular wishes were so clear.
In the modern complex world we live in there should be no reliance on one of these doctrines to the exclusion of the other. Sometimes they will be in conflict, and decisions need to be made. In practise each case has to be settled on its merits. The judgement will be better if it is supported by more countries, including all the important global and regional powers who can help maintain the peace around whichever decision is made. I incline more to favouring self determination, but accept there may be occasions when that cannot work. There have to be some limits to it to avoid a constant state of flux and an endless movement to ever smaller states.
So how should the West respond to Russia? Today the West needs to understand why Russia is so alarmed by NATOâ€™s current stance, and to understand how there is no acceptable military option for the West to dominate in Georgia and to determine borders so close to Russia. In other words, we need to talk to Russia, and to discuss the issue of splinter regions from Georgia. We need to discuss the whole architecture of states around Russiaâ€™s western and southern border, to avoid committing NATO to maintain borders we cannot in practise enforce at an acceptable military cost, and to allay Russian fears to make Russian military action less likely. We need to see how big the disagreements are and to assess if any other state apart from Georgia is in danger of a Russian invasion. So far the West has not won over enough independent world opinion to strengthen its hand in negotiation with Russia.
At the same time we need to strengthen NATO and the Western economies, so we are less dependent on Russian fuel and more capable of acting if Russia pushes too far and uses her military in even more unacceptable ways.
The USA has been the worldâ€™s only superpower for a couple of decades. It has got lazy about using its power and enforcing its will. Only asymmetrical warfare and terrorist attacks have challenged it for years. Now US power is coming up against other important powers in China, Russia and the Middle East that it would be unwise to attack head on. Worse still, the US is in danger of creating too many different enemies and threats, fighting a live war in the Middle East, a cold war with Russia, and engaged in a superpower struggle of various kinds with China, primarily in the economic sphere in the first instance. There are flash points in all of these relationships â€“ in each border state near Russia that the US guarantees, in Taiwan, in Iran and Iraq. Even the worldâ€™s superpower has to be careful not to overstretch. It is dangerous to create so many opponents who might one day help each other against their common enemy. The US needs to ask itself what are its long term interests? How many of them can it pursue backed with effective military force? The EU needs to stop posturing as a major player when its words can be inflammatory and when it lacks the military capacity to enforce. I am not recommending it has military capacity â€“ I am recommending it should remember its limitations. The UK needs to look to its economy first – it is now so weak it cannot afford its current defence commitments properly, and is vulnerable thanks to the lack of a cogent energy policy. We need some strategy rather than more foreign policy spin.