There is a legitimate body of thought among American political scientists that the West carries significant responsibility for the current crisis. What was Putin, a despotic, violent warlord, expected to do with NATO expansion up to his borders – first in 2004 with the Baltic states, Bulgaria and Romania; and with Georgia and Ukraine both already members of the NATO Partnership for Peace; and Ukraine encouraged to have NATO full membership as part of its constitution. Well, Putin would respond just as the West did when the USSR tried to militarise Cuba in 1964; just as the USA would if Canada were to join the Collective Security Agreement Organisation – Russia’s NATO equivalent. Ukraine should be a neutral, buffer state, and this should be the West’s foreign policy goal, instead of taking sides in what is an impending civil war between West and East Ukraine. If Putin rejects peaceful economic and cultural relations we should hold him at arms length. For a decent argument on this from a leading political scientist look at this video:
But here we are. Europe at war with the East yet again. There are no silver linings, here. But there is a glimmer, perhaps. Why is the West so hapless, so unable to confront Putin’s barbarity? So utterly lacking the will to fight? Given that Ukraine alone can hold off Putin’s armies, at least for a while, a Western coalition should find it relative easy to defeat him. Especially since Putin relies on the military equivalent of horses and spears and historically incompetent generals. Well, I would say this. The West’s helplessness is a marker of political and moral advance. Capitalism has evolved to the point where military confrontations are simply dysfunctional. They are too expensive, and too disruptive to globalised trade and financial systems. This is why East/West warfare continues today, but is conducted in cyber space and occasional assassinations (of those who insist on horses and spears). In one sense, this coincides with moral advancement in largely Western Humanist society. We don’t like wars any more.
But in another sense this resists the onward march of Humanism. I have argued in previous Blogs that one key reason why right-wing governments are trying to row back on welfare state provision and public health (eg. Margaret Thatcher closing down the School Health Service; Herculean efforts to dismantle Obamacare in the USA) is that we no longer need healthy working classes to sustain large armies. When we did, we were forced to keep them fed and healthy. (That’s why we almost lost our own war in the Crimea – our invasion of Russian territory in which we lost more men to disease and malnutrition than to fighting). Nowadays, we need men and women at home producing, rather than on muddy fields spending money with every non-productive bullet fired, soaking up a salary being paid to destroy stuff. We leave the fighting to drone-video-game-players and cyber-wonks, and small squadrons of Luke Skywalker’s.
Putin is simply, pugnaciously, obliviously, incongruously out of date – out of time. No more or less than the warlords of the Taliban and Isis, the Balkans, the Yemeni Houthi of today who are more akin to Genghis Khan, Alexander the ‘Great’ and Robert of Normandy of yesteryear. At the date of writing this Blog Putin has not fired a nuclear weapon – perhaps he will. But his (until now) restraint is a marker of that same historical advance of global capitalism. Alexander the Great wouldn’t have hesitated.