Abusing the Russians

05 May 2022

Abusing the Russians

Time to shut up.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

In need of a little political guidance? Try one of the great philosophers, Paine or Marx, Hayek or Burke, people they talk about if you read PPE at Oxford. Hmm, maybe a bit academic for practical advice. Perhaps then a glance at the sayings of Tallyrand or Machiavelli would be more useful.  Clever men, of course, but slippery. Something pithier is required. Well then, for one of the truly great rules of politics, try the ex-mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea and the line he delivered in Unforgiven, a film which he directed as well as starring in:

“Deserves got nothing to do with it”

And logically Clint Eastwood must be right. If the point of politics is to improve the lot of the human race or a group within it, its protagonists should have their eyes firmly on the future as they struggle to choose the course with the best outcome. A desire to give everyone their just deserts can only be a distraction from that process. Punishment may be appropriate but only when it improves outcomes for the public.

It is here that an unfortunate tension arises between the outspoken traditions of the West and the political needs of the situation in Ukraine. Much abuse of Putin and Russia has rolled off the Western presses and been voiced in Parliament. Monster, war criminal, despot and all the rest of it.  Most of it may be perfectly fair but does it contribute to a solution or is it increasing the obvious dangers of the situation? Does it bring resolution closer or push it away? That all depends of course on the type of resolution you have in mind.

If you believe that Putin’s regime is simply going to collapse then you might think that heaping in the denunciations and threats will bring the day on which that happens closer. Maybe it would but is the collapse of the Russian regime likely or even, bearing in mind the vacuum of power it would cause, desirable? So, if you do not think that is the endgame to strive for, what is the best solution and how would it work?

The answer here must be some sort of compromise denying Russia the fruits, or most of the fruits, of its aggression. So far so good, but as any ace negotiator will tell you an agreement can only be made if it is acceptable to both sides. That doesn’t mean that the position of the parties can be ignored and certainly one would like to think of Ukraine receiving the rewards of its heroism but, that said, if an agreement is to be achievable it must have two features.

The first of these is that it must not involve the destruction of the leaders of the other side. Short of the collapse which we have already dismissed, the signatures at the bottom will have to include those of the people who now lead Russia. If the consequences of their signing is that they will be put on trial for war crimes or will lose power in circumstances which makes their survival unlikely, they will not sign.

The second is that the Russians are not going to sign an agreement which humiliates them. They have already suffered humiliation of course in the performance of their armed services and their huge misjudgement of the determination of the West. Nonetheless, specifying as an objective the putting of Russia into a weak military position can only make agreement less likely.

It is no doubt a great luxury for the press and the politicians to rant away knowing that public opinion is solidly behind them. Still, those who read the history of the double agent Gordievsky cannot but be shocked by how close the rhetoric and manoeuvres of the West came in the 1980s to causing a nuclear war. Had his reports not gone to Thatcher and had she not told Reagan to wind back the aggression, the Soviets would probably have gone for a pre-emptive nuclear strike.

We are again facing an enemy armed with nuclear weapons which is in a pinch position, and again the rhetoric is out of hand as politicians look at the effect of what they say on their home audience.  Getting out of the current position without a nuclear disaster requires careful and subtle manoeuvring. Those who wish to exploit the position with clouds of bombast aimed at their domestic position should just shut up.

tile photo: Melany Rochester on Unsplash (cropped)

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