The Australian

By Tom Switzer

For many Ukrainians and their Western supporters, Russia’s military intervention this week confirms their fears. The Bear is on the prowl again. Today, eastern Ukraine; tomorrow, Kiev; the day after, who knows? The West, we are told, should beef up military ties to Ukraine and further isolate Moscow before Vladimir Putin re-establishes a Greater Russia or a new Soviet empire.

For the Russians, however, the move into eastern Ukraine is fully justified — and not just because they long for the days of Stalin. Long part of Russia’s strategic orbit, Ukraine is seen as a vital national interest: among other things, it is a conduit for gas exports to Europe and it is a wide stretch of flat land foreign powers have crossed to attack Russia during the past two ­centuries.

Tony Abbott might have argued yesterday that Russia’s latest incursion was “reprehensible”, but Moscow’s conduct is widely seen among the Russian people as an understandable reaction to the West’s attempts to pull Ukraine away from what Russia has long deemed as its sphere of ­influence.

With NATO and EU expansion during the past 15 years, taken together with the February 22 coup to topple a democratically elected, pro-Russian (albeit thuggish) government in Kiev, Washington and Brussels have upset Russian sensibilities. It was inevitable that any Russian leader, autocrat or democrat, would push back somewhere.

This is a shame, and the incursion of any sovereign territory is in clear breach of international law; but it is the way the world works, and always has.

In response to the February 22 coup, Putin did two things: he invaded the Crimean peninsula, the traditional home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and he committed Russian troops along the eastern Ukrainian border, steps that have culminated in this week’s military incursion.

The prevailing wisdom in the West says that these moves are a precursor to more expansionism a la Nazi Germany in the 1930s. This is not true. As John Mearsheimer, the distinguished professor of political science at the University of Chicago (disclaimer: a friend of the author), argues in a groundbreaking article in the September-­October Foreign Affairs mag­azine, Putin is a first-class strategist who is aware of the limits to power.

Russia, Mearsheimer argues, does not have the cash or capacity to quickly and easily conquer and annex Ukraine. To do so would alienate even many ethnic Russians who oppose secession and want to remain part of Ukraine. Add to this Russia’s ­mediocre army and sluggish economy, and Moscow would not be well placed for a costly occupation. As Mearsheimer puts it: “Putin surely understands that trying to subdue Ukraine would be like swallowing a porcupine.”

What then is Putin up to? Simply put, he is sending Washington and Brussels this message: get out of our space and face, or we will continue to wreck Ukraine.

In other words, Putin’s limited and specific conditions are not dissimilar to a remedy proposed by both Mearsheimer and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger: the West should reject any moves to integrate Kiev into NATO and the EU, make Ukraine a neutral buffer state, and call on President Petro Poroshenko to respect minority rights of ethnic Russians in non-Crimean Ukraine. Failing that, Russia will continue to wreck Ukraine.

Not surprisingly, the West’s response — more sanctions, diplomatic isolation, military support to Ukraine — has further provoked the Bear. Putin, with strong domestic support, has subsequently doubled down.

Many people will ask with good reason: what about the Ukrainian people’s right to determine their own destiny and stand up to the Russian bully?

As Abbott said yesterday: “You can’t have an international order if might is right.”

Alas, the reality is that might often makes right when great-power politics are at play. A sphere of influence is a key characteristic of great powers; they live by different rules than do weak neighbours; and they will play hardball when vital interests are at stake. And no nation has been more insistent than the US in demanding that neighbours respect its interests. Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama, Grenada and the Dominican Republica can attest to that.

Did Cuba have a right to invite the Soviets into the Western hemisphere in the early 1960s? Castro had been in power since the Revolution in 1959. At the time, Washington tried to assassinate him several times. Ever since, it has imposed an economic embargo on the communist state. Why then should Moscow be expected to show any less concern about the fate of a key state in its near neighbourhood?

As for international law, did the US and Britain conform to the UN when they invaded Iraq in 2003? The West faces a choice on Ukraine: it can continue to isolate and punish Moscow, which is bound to exacerbate East-West tensions and in the process inflict massive pain on the Ukrainian people. Or it can adopt the ­Mearsheimer-Kissinger remedy: work to create a prosperous but neutral Ukraine that does not threaten Russia and allows the US and its allies to repair their relations with Moscow.

With this approach, all sides win. But if Washington and Brussels cling to the policies that caused the crisis, all sides lose. The choice is obvious.

This article was originally published at The Australian