“Si vis pacem, para bellum” as the adage adapted from Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus’s tract De Re Militari has it. Proving, if proof were needed, that indeed “nihil novi sub sole” our brave leaders now struggle to respond effectively to Mr Putin’s rather skilful annexation of Crimea, having seemingly happily hitherto determined that the world is now such a peaceful and contented place that armed forces may be continually cut beyond the bounds of prudence. They seem genuinely surprised when others take advantage of this perceived weakness to grab what they want.
Of course, these same politicians do half remember George Santayana’s “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” but this has only added to their confusion: is Crimea the new Sudetenland; is east Ukraine the new Austria, was Georgia the new Rhineland, is Putin the new Hitler; is 2014 the new 1938; where exactly is Transnistria; before emitting a collective sigh of relief at the thought of imposing limited sanctions and refusing to attend the next G8 meeting in Sochi. And it is pointless expecting a clear lead from the US either, since President Obama has his hands full worrying about the White House chef using too much cream while sending Mrs O and the girls on a taxpayer funded holiday to China to which US journalists have been denied access.
Needless to say, the one man who isn’t confused is Russian foreign minister Lavrov who has demanded “answers” on NATO’s plans to beef up its forces in central and eastern Europe, including Poland. With admirable chutzpah, Lavrov has said that Russia is not only expecting answers, but answers that will be based fully on respect “for the rules we agreed on”. I am not sure that those rules actually include the right to annex parts of Ukraine at will, but we’ll let that pass, apparently.
Poland’s foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski had said he would be happy with two heavy brigades, or the equivalent of 10,000 troops, stationed in Poland an idea which the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, responded would be in contradiction to agreements between NATO members. The Dutch foreign minister also ruled out such a large troop presence, suggesting that some alliance states do not want to provoke Russia by placing large forces close to its border. Of course Poland, unlike Holland, has a long border with Ukraine and a border with Russia through the Kaliningrad enclave in the north east. (Personally, I am disappointed not so far to have seen lots of suitably dressed “non-German” unidentified military units surrounding the Russian bases there, and helping to organize a referendum to return Konigsberg to the Fatherland).
NATO’s top commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, has said that he would present plans to “reassure” allies in eastern Europe and would offer a range of options, after warning (not exactly reassuringly you might think) that “Russia could invade Ukraine in three to five days” with a build-up of an estimated 40,000 troops on the border. To paraphrase Wellington, while he may not frighten the enemy he certainly frightens the English language with: “We will work on air, land and sea ‘reassurances’ and we will look to position those ‘reassurances’ across the breadth of our exposure: north, centre, and south.” The United States sent a warship to the Black Sea last month for exercises with allies, increased the number of its aircraft in regular NATO air patrols over the Baltics, and augmented a previously planned training exercise with Poland’s air force at the Lask base.
This apparent reluctance to be seen to be moving NATO forces around NATO territory contrasts with Lavrov’s robust response to criticism over the presence of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine by saying that Russia had the right to move forces on its territory, which forces would return to their permanent bases after completing military exercises. “It is necessary to de-escalate rhetoric which overshoots the mark and crosses into the unreasonable” he added, with even more chutzpah.
Be that as it may, I do not think Mr Putin plans to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War by provoking military conflict in Europe which he could not win. On the one hand he demonstrates the traditional Russian fear of encirclement which, in his eyes, a Ukraine and Georgia (also expected to sign an association agreement with EU this summer) tied to the West would represent and, on the other, being a bully abroad plays well at home while testing the limits of our resolve. And that is the answer: to demonstrate clearly that we will not be bullied.