Alphen, Netherlands. 21 July. “Why don’t the Russians care about the people on that plane?” That was the question a friend of mine put to me this morning. It is a question I find hard to answer. Of course, the Russians do care about what happened, especially the Russian people. No-one in Russia wanted this ghastly disaster but Russia must be held account for what happened because Moscow made the disaster possible. However, that begs an even bigger question; how much do WE care about MH17?
The evidence for what happened is now undeniable even by the Kremlin. Last Thursday MH17 was shot out of the skies by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile that was either fired by a pro-Russian separatist with a Russian advisor standing by or possibly even by a Russian GRU (military intelligence) officer. Four Ukrainian military aircraft had been shot down over the previous week by Russian missiles a part of an attempt by Russian forces to help the separatists blunt a Ukrainian offensive into eastern Ukraine.
This morning President Putin said that “all must be done to end the conflict”. However, whilst the Kremlin did not want this to happen Moscow only ‘cares’ about MH17 and the victims who died therein in so much as the disaster complicates the politics of an expansionist strategy to which Russia remains fully committed.
So, how much do ‘WE’ care? There are options open to the West – both Europeans and North Americans – which would hurt an already vulnerable Russian economy. Tighter travel and financial sanctions could be imposed on top officials in the Kremlin. Deeper and far better co-ordinated so-called ‘sectoral sanctions’ could be imposed by both North Americans and Europeans on the Russian energy and technology sectors that build-on the restrictions imposed by Washington last Wednesday. Such sanctions could be further reinforced by a complete stop to all development loans and co-operation projects by the EU and which build-on last week’s limited EU action prior to MH17’s downing.
However, any deeper sanctions will be a real test of ‘WE’ as further strictures would hurt Europeans and their vulnerable economies in particular. Hence the question how much do WE care? The question also pre-supposes the idea that a ‘WE’ actually still exists. The idea of a ‘West’ is open to serious doubt so dysfunctional has the relationship become. The idea of a ‘Europe’ is even open to ridicule so pathetic has the EU response been and so utterly dysfunctional what might be termed a European foreign policy.
Britain, France and Germany finally stepped into the leadership void over the weekend by jointly calling for stringent measures to be taken against Russia. However, the strange foreign policy no-man’s land that now exists between the EU and its member-states has reduced the European ‘whole’ to far less than the parts of its sum. Indeed, too many EU member-states no longer have a foreign policy at all (Britain most particularly). What is left is a kind of transactional politics in which ‘foreign policy’ is directly linked to perceived economic cost.
President Putin knows this. Today, the foreign ‘policies’ of Europe are measured purely and only in terms of ‘cost’ rather than the defence of values central to democracies. Therefore, concerted action against aggression reduced to a balance sheet analysis of immediate cost given the varying trade and energy relationships Europeans ‘enjoy’ with Russia. Any sense of a ‘WE’ goes straight out of the crisis window.
A real test for Europeans will come tomorrow at an EU meeting called ostensibly to discuss a new approach to Russia. If European leaders are serious about facing down Russian expansionism and the arms flows that created the conditions for the loss of MH17 and 298 innocent people they will be judged by their actions.
If Europe’s leaders are serious Russian oil-giant Rosneft will tomorrow be removed from the London Stock Exchange by London, France will scrap the €1.2 billion sale of two Mistral class advanced maritime assault ships to Russia and Germany will scrap a whole host of trade deals with Russia. A strong signal would also be sent to Moscow if Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt is immediately appointed EU Foreign Minister and with immediate effect.
Additionally, access of Russian firms to European financial markets will be blocked even though that would hurt London and Frankfurt. If serious the meeting will also confirm Ukraine’s status as an EU Strategic Partner and consider accelerated measures to wean Europeans off Russian energy supplies which admittedly will take time. There would also be a decision to end once and for all the agreement to construct the Ukraine-bypassing South Stream Pipeline to supply gas from Russia to the rest of Europe.
So, is there sufficient of a ‘WE’. No. The same old EU empty nonsense will emerge from the same old type of meeting as very little action is doubtless blown-up in the communique into “decisive measures”. Italy and others will block anything that might in any way affect their Faustian energy deals with Russia. It is questionable whether Britain, France and Germany are really prepared to take together real steps that would hurt both Russia and themselves in the name of principle. After all trade relations between Russia and its fellow Europeans (particularly Germany) are worth ten times that of Russian-US trade links.
President Putin fully understands all this. He understands that in this crisis as in so many others there is no ‘WE’ – neither a Western ‘WE’ nor a European ‘WE’. Indeed, his superficially emollient words of this morning are specifically designed to undermine the already very little ‘WE’ that exists.
MH17: How much do ‘WE’ care? Sadly not enough.