What are we to make of Jonathan Steele?
He is a formidable academic - a leading scholar in the study of Russia and other post-Soviet states. And he is a very brave man. Again and again he appears in public debate, such as in his writings for the British newspaper The Guardian. And in this newspaper he now calls for the USA and NATO to "calm down and back off." http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/02/not-too-late-for-ukraine-nato-should-back-off
Well, why not? Steele is right in stating most people in Ukraine do not want to join NATO. In this, at least, deposed President Viktor Yanukovych carried public support. And, certainly, everyone in Ukraine - Russians as well as Ukrainians - deserve to feel secure in their country, protected from any sort of "extremism."
But, dear Jonathan, what sort of a world do you actually want?
In the West, the US, the UK, France, Italy and Canada have been among the prominent countries condemning the Russian military invasion of Ukraine (and yes, it is an invasion). Sanctions have been mentioned, particularly by the US with Britain and France also keen to distance themselves from an upcoming Russia-chaired G8-summit. Yet none of these states have suggested military options to counter Russian actions; in fact, quite the opposite. The US has said this most openly; other Western states have simply minimised discussion of the military question in public - and this goes for NATO, as well. So what we are talking about is targeted political and economic sanctions - unsurprinsingly a more popular option for a US less dependent than the EU on Russian energy. Talk of such sanctions is hardly inflammatory or over-the-top, as Steele suggests. The strict limits on armed intervention abroad is a cornerstone of international law as demonstrated through a plethora of UN treaties, to which Russia is a signatory. Clearly, the "responsibility to protect" is now another firm part of international law - and the balance between violation of humanitarian norms and outside intervention is often debatable. Some international interventions almost certainly were a boon for the country being invaded. Idi Amin's Uganda being invaded by Tanzania in 1978-79 is perhaps a case in point; Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia and defeat of Khmer Rouge's mass murderers in 1975-77 absolutely is. Steele is right to point out the much more dubious legacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But even if the attack on Iraq was misguided (and that remains debatable) it does not detract from the fact that no modern-day intervention, supposedly motivated by "humanitarian concerns", has been carried out on pretexts as flimsy as those used now by Putin's regime.
There have been no mass-scale, protracted human rights violations against Russians in Ukraine. Certainly, recent violence in Kiev was frightening and, while most casualties were protesters against Yanukovych some wounded and dead were defending the regime. And, indeed, some groups supporting the protests can with some justification be described as "extremist" and anti-Russian. But these groups are a clear minority - and on both sides in Kiev the dead included Russians and Ukrainians alike. Crimea witnessed little fighting, at all - apart from one clash between rival sets of demonstrators in Simferopol, which did result in casualties. Yet this does not justify invasion. Invasion is not "fitting," as Putin claims. And it does not justify Russian Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev threatening the new regime in Kiev with "bloody revolution." (imagine the apoplexy in the Kremlin if the West had produced such a statement against Russia or an ally of Russia). Russia has, clearly and unequivocally, broken international law, as pointed out directly to Putin by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
This does not mean that the West should threaten war against Russia. Even though Russian troops could probably be pushed out of Ukraine the accompanying violence would benefit no one - least of all people living in Ukraine. Indeed, the relatively calm demeanour of military forces from Russia and Ukraine facing each other in Crimea was a happy vignette in an otherwise grim day. The ambassador of Ukraine to the US has indicated that Ukraine might ask the West for military assistance if Russia were to pursue a general invasion of Ukraine. And the standoff remains very tense with Ukraine having called up all its reserves and begun a case of treason against Denis Berezovsky, who as head of the Ukrainian navy has sworn allegiance to the pro-Russian leaders of Crimea. Hopefully, Ukraine will not need to use its armed forces against Russia - hopefully both sides can stay calm. And, yes, it is most likely that Putin's regime wants to avoid armed conflict, take over Crimea without bloodshed, and destabilise the regime in Kiev while riding out Western protests. Such an outcome would be very damaging to Ukrainian sovereignty - and to international law. But would it secure peace?
And so we are back at Jonathan Steele. Steele suggests that responsibility with "averting catastrophe" lies solely with Kiev, not with Moscow, Washington or Brussels. Kiev must rein in its "nationalist extremists" and restore to the country's Russians those linguistic and other rights that have apparently been taken away from them by the new regime.
But, Jonathan, you are a historian. And as a historian you know, very well, that this is not "a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing." This is a quarrel between people in a country oh so near of whom we know a great deal - and with whom we daily interact in politics, in business, in leasure.
Peace has its price. It requires compromise; sometimes even pragmatism. Yet pragmatism is never an end in itself, but always for someone and for some purpose. We in the West should, as far as it is humanly possible, help our own Russians and Ukrainians with preserving peace in Europe. Putin is no Hitler - and he probably thinks he is doing the right thing now; as he always thinks. But Putin is not our concern. Our concern is Russia and Ukraine, Russians and Ukrainians. These are our neighbours, our friends and fellows. And Russians and Ukrainians must be treated with the utmost respect. Peace has its price - but sometimes that price is action, decisive action. A line must be drawn by the EU, by the US, now, that we will not permit the Russian regime to damage itself and the rest of us by riding roughshod over international law and over the responsibilities of peace. Targeted sanctions must be put in place against top figures in the Russian regime until such a time as Russian troops no longer prevent Ukrainian authorities from exerting their sovereign duties and rights in Ukraine. War will not help anyone - and even targeted sanctions might prove too difficult for Western leaders that already now seem prepared to shirk their responsibilities. But Russians are our friends and fellow Europeans. As such, we should demand great things of them and of their country. Invading Ukraine is not great - it is failure.