Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 10 March 2022

 Putin seizes on wavering will of the West

The sharp divide that NATO, led by secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, has drawn between its territory and what lies beyond it virtually invites Putin to suborn the democracies of Moldova, Georgia and Armenia. Picture: AFP
The sharp divide that NATO, led by secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, has drawn between its territory and what lies beyond it virtually invites Putin to suborn the democracies of Moldova, Georgia and Armenia. Picture: AFP

In September 1968, just weeks after Soviet tanks had crushed the Prague Spring, Dean Rusk, the secretary of state in Lyndon Johnson’s administration, reported to cabinet that the invasion had given NATO “a new lease of life”.

Shocked by the invasion’s scale and brutality, NATO members had finally agreed to increase defence spending, which would quiet the congressional hawks who had accused the Europeans of “free riding”. And there was a renewed determination to take the Soviet threat seriously, making the invasion “a blessing in disguise”.

As things turned out, the blessings didn’t take long to evaporate. Barely a year later, Willy Brandt, Germany’s newly elected chancellor, launched his “Ostpolitik”, which sought to “normalise” relationships between the divided Germanys, while deepening commercial ties with the Eastern Bloc.

Czechs stand on an overturned truck as other Prague residents surround Soviet tanks in Prague in 1968 as the Soviet-led invasion crushed the so-called Prague Spring reform.
Czechs stand on an overturned truck as other Prague residents surround Soviet tanks in Prague in 1968 as the Soviet-led invasion crushed the so-called Prague Spring reform.

A similar emphasis on de-escalating the conflict soon became widespread throughout NATO as slowing economic growth prompted major cuts to defence spending. Far from reinforcing the West, the invasion therefore proved to be, in French foreign minister Michel Debre’s pithy formulation, no more than “a traffic accident on the road to détente”, with the West’s turn to a strategy of accommodation fuelling the Soviet expansionism of the 1970s.

Fast-forward to 2014 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Calling the developments in Ukraine “a stark reminder that security in Europe cannot be taken for granted”, NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged “European nations to step up” by “increasing defence spending”.

Sure enough, NATO members solemnly pledged to raise defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP by 2024. Yet again, however, the NATO summit had barely ended before the promises were shelved, with Germany – whose dependence on Russian natural gas was on its way to doubling, compared with its level in 2005 – once more leading the way.

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Instead of rising, Germany’s ratio of defence spending to GDP fell to an all-time low after the Crimean annexation, only to remain virtually unchanged until 2019, when Donald Trump’s threats extracted a material increase. But even then, the boost was entirely insufficient to make up for decades of neglect, which left the German army bereft of usable materiel and plagued by chronic shortages of basic supplies, such as winter combat gloves.

Nor was Germany exceptional: for the European Union as a whole, the ratio of defence spending to GDP rose by a miserly one-tenth of a percentage point after the commitment to dramatically ramp up spending was made in 2014.

Little wonder that Vladimir Putin felt emboldened; and little wonder too that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s pledge, announced in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, to increase defence spending “year by year until it exceeds 2 per cent of GDP” smacked of deja vu all over again, as did those of the European leaders who echoed his commitment.

To say that is not to deny that the invasion has shaken European public opinion, encouraging European leaders to take decisions that seemed inconceivable only weeks ago.

The EU has, for example, broken new ground in agreeing to “finance the purchase and delivery of weapons to a country that is under attack”; and equally significant is Sweden’s decision to breach – for the first time since 1939 – its prohibition on delivering weapons to a country at war.

But it would be premature to view those developments as reflecting an enduring commitment to strengthening Western defence capabilities. Rather, as long experience shows, firm engagements tend to melt away once the crisis fades and other priorities become more pressing.

Cartoon: Johannes Leak
Cartoon: Johannes Leak

Compounding the dangers that creates is the war-weariness that has set in after the fiascos in Afghanistan and Iraq. It may be that war-weariness will not undermine planned increases in defence spending; but accumulating enormously expensive military assets is utterly pointless when one lacks the resolve to use them.

In effect, if adversaries are to be deterred from taking hostile action, they must not only believe that aggression can be punished; they must believe that it actually will be punished. Thucydides’ dictum that it is “mutual fear which makes men think twice before starting wars” may have been coined in 420BC but it has lost none of its validity.

Moreover, when the adversaries are nuclear powers – as are Russia and China – the threat to retaliate must include a credible willingness to bear the risks involved in nuclear escalation, appalling as that prospect may be. It is no accident that during the Cold War, successive American presidents took immense risks to convince the Soviet Union that the threat of escalation would never dissuade them from retaliating for any Soviet attacks.

Today, there is no sign of that resolve. On the contrary, ever since Russia launched its assault, NATO has repeatedly emphasised that its commitments only extend to the alliance’s own territory.

Those assertions are extremely hard to square with the historical record, including NATO’s role in the former Yugoslavia.

However, even putting that aside, the sharp divide NATO has drawn between its territory and what lies beyond it virtually invites Putin to suborn the militarily poorly equipped democracies of Moldova, Georgia and Armenia.

After all, Putin knows the West has gone about as far with sanctions as it is likely to go; he can therefore rationally expect to bear few additional costs for taking the next steps in his scheme of aggression.

That has always been the problem with sanctions: once they are fully in place, their devastating impacts on living standards change neither the marginal costs and benefits of further aggression nor the situation on the ground. To believe sanctions alone can replace force as a response to aggression is therefore merely another comfortable, and comforting, illusion.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton says those who believe Russia and China’s ambitions are restricted to Ukraine and Taiwan ... 

    There are, of course, those who will lose little sleep over the fate of countries that are so far from our shores. But, like fear among animals, few signals travel more surely than do signs of weakness: and if history teaches us anything, it is that once liberty is pawned for security, the price of redeeming it is measured in oceans of blood.

    It would, however, be wrong to ignore the blaze of light in this war’s stygian gloom. The heroism of Ukraine’s resistance, and the flaws and failures of Russia’s army, should remind Putin and his fellow despots of Clausewitz’s famous axiom that in war everything may be simple but nothing is easy, with consequences as unforeseeable as they are uncontrollable.

    And they should serve as a grim warning to Xi Jinping as he contemplates a hazardous assault across the Taiwan straits.

    For that, too, we are in the Ukrainian people’s debt. In fighting against overwhelming odds for their own freedom, it is our freedom they are defending.

    COLUMNIST
    Henry Ergas AO is an economist who spent many years at the OECD in Paris before returning to Australia. He has taught at a number of universities, including Harvard's Kennedy School of Government

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