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Could Ukraine Mark a Turning Point for Western Democracy?

After years of turning a blind eye to Vladimir Putin’s aggression, the West finally appears to be uniting against him – as Ukraine continues to pay the cost

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the opening ceremony of the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. Photo: David W Cerny/Reuters/Alamy

Could Ukraine Mark a Turning Point for Western Democracy?

After years of turning a blind eye to Vladimir Putin’s aggression, the West finally appears to be uniting against him – as Ukraine continues to pay the cost

It is difficult to find reasons to be hopeful amid the dark days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Never in recent decades has our world order seemed so shaken. Never has the peace and security we have taken for granted on our continent seemed so much at risk. Yet, I believe that today’s crisis offers some rays of hope for a better future. 

I am in no doubt about who the aggressor is in this war.

There are absolutely no grounds for the claims by the autocrat Vladimir Putin that he has been ‘driven’ to this war by western misdeeds, including NATO’s alleged encroachments on Russia’s self-proclaimed ‘sphere of influence’.

There are no grounds for his assertion that the Ukrainian Government is illegitimate and comprised of Nazis.

There are no grounds for Putin’s apparent belief that Russian soldiers would be greeted with open arms and flowers as ‘liberators’ by ordinary Ukrainians. The graphic pictures on our screens every night of courageous Ukrainian defenders, their President and Government’s dignity under fire, and the near universal condemnation of Russian actions internationally all give the lie to that.

Putin’s allegations are akin to an abusive husband claiming that he was ‘provoked’ by his wife’s behaviour into beating her up; that he is entitled to assert ‘his rights’ over her; and that what goes on ‘within the home’ is no business of outsiders.

However, it is true that the West may have given Putin an opening, through its failure to respond sufficiently robustly to his previous outrages.

No Deterrence

Vladimir Putin’s previous aggressions make for a long list.

His 2008 invasion of Georgia. His backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in that country’s civil war – despite his documented war crimes. His invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and the seizure of Crimea. His backing for Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko during his oppressive clampdown on citizens after his stolen election in 2020.

The West failed to enforce a red line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013. We withdrew in chaotic fashion from Afghanistan last summer, abandoning our Afghan partners there.

Why would Putin not interpret all of these incidents as signs of Western weakness?

Moreover, his record of atrocities and the consolidation of his powers began with his bombardment of apartments and killing of civilians in Chechnya in the 1990s.

Why should we be surprised that he resorts to the same tactics now, in Ukraine, when they have served him so well in the past – and nothing that the West has done has been sufficient to deter him? 

The West also gave Putin encouragement by continuing to trade with his country, increasing its dependence on Russian energy, and accepting the money of Russian oligarchs in its financial systems. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the UK, where oligarchs and their relatives were allowed to buy expensive homes in our cities, launder their ill-gotten gains through our institutions, dock their yachts in our harbours, play out their sporting fantasies by buying stakes in our sports clubs, and send their children to our private schools.

Successive Conservative-led governments allowed Russians with connections to Putin to buy British citizenship through ‘golden visa’ schemes; make donations to our political parties; gain privileged access to political circles; and broadcast their lies and misinformation on our airwaves and through the internet. 

But, above all, the West gave Putin an opportunity by taking for granted the strength of our democracies and alliances.

In 10 days, Vladimir Putin has achieved more western solidarity than has existed in the past 20 years

Brexit, facilitated by Russian money to some of its backers, distracted and undermined European solidarity. It created distrust between the UK and the EU. It sowed division between Leavers and Remainers at home.

Political, economic and cultural tensions exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis and the 2015 migrant crisis strained relations within and between EU member states and fuelled populist politics across the continent.

The presidency of Donald Trump – in whose election the Russians interfered – exacerbated partisan politics in the US and created distrust between the US and its partners in NATO.

All of these divisions seem to have become more entrenched with each passing year, until – so consumed by our arguments with each other – we took our eye off the ball of external threats. 

Business As Usual

Certainly, the West has issued rhetorical condemnations of specific human rights violations committed by Russia. We have deplored the closing down of NGOs and media space in Russia. We have criticised the detention of opposition politicians, such as Alexei Navalny, and the crushing of dissent against Putin’s regime. We have introduced some sanctions and expelled some Russian diplomats from our countries in response to particularly heinous crimes, such as the murder of Putin’s critics or the poisoning of former Russian agents. We have continued to support NATO’s ‘open door’ policy and given significant financial and other assistance to Ukraine and other frontline states facing pressure from Russia. 

But, until now, the West has never taken any decisive steps to emphatically draw the line for Vladimir Putin and to deter further aggressive behaviour.

After each particular outrage he has committed, once the initial furore has died down, we have been happy to resume business with Russia almost as usual.

Then US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received considerable criticism for their famous ‘reset’ of relations attempt with Russia in 2009, less than a year after the invasion of Georgia. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was scoffed at in 2012 for arguing that Russia remained the West’s biggest geopolitical threat.

Too many Western leaders were complicit in wanting to ‘put the past behind us’, to find ways to resume cooperation with Russia, and let the easy money flow in. They thought that they could simultaneously dine with the devil and hold Putin at bay. Too many Western politicians thought they could have their Russian cake and eat it.

Facilitating these rapprochements were Putin apologists in the West and those who benefited from his largesse. These included figures on the left who were too willing to parrot his lines that NATO was the aggressor and that Western actions were ‘provoking’ Russia; and figures on the right who saw Putin as a strongman ‘genius’ and turned a blind eye to his atrocities. Then there were those turning a profit on Russian money. 

So why are there any grounds for optimism now; for believing this time could be different? Because I see it already happening.

More That Unites

The sheer magnitude of Putin’s war in Ukraine has shaken us out of our complacency. Where peace and security had once been taken for granted in Europe, the invasion has generated an extraordinary turnaround in attitudes across the continent.

Whichever way the crisis in Ukraine plays out, the wider geopolitics have already shifted – and not in ways which play to Vladimir Putin’s advantage in the long-term.

Germany has reversed its pacifist policy of decades, announced an increase in defence expenditure and supported sending arms to Ukraine.

Where reason and logic could not sustain cooperation between the UK and the EU, the sheer necessity to coordinate on sanctions and other measures has brought Britain back to working with its Europeans neighbours again.

Where polarisation had fractured US politics, there is largely bipartisan support for tough measures on Russia.

Where scepticism about Europe’s willingness to defend itself and its values had prevailed, there is new appreciation for the strong measures it has taken in the last week. 

Businesses are divesting from Russia. Oligarchs and their enablers are being named and shamed. People are opening their homes, their wallets and their hearts to refugees. 

Albeit belatedly, efforts are now being made to root out illicit Russian money, misinformation and presence in our societies. British politicians are remembering why the EU was founded and rediscovering the value of cooperation – which will need to be sustained for as long as the crisis with Russia endures.

Europeans are realising that they need to pay more for their own defence and not just rely on America.

The US is realising it can’t turn its back on Europe and pivot exclusively to Asia.

Belatedly, all of us are remembering there is more that unites than divides us. 

With the graphic images from Ukraine bombarding us daily, politicians across the West are falling over themselves to show who can take the toughest measures on Russia. Some are embracing this out of what appears to be a genuine change of heart – such as in Germany. Others are being forced to step up by the demands of public pressure – such as the UK, where every day the Government is being forced to announce new measures, such as stronger sanctions on oligarchs, more generous policies towards Ukrainian refugees, or additional aid efforts.

In 10 days, Vladimir Putin has achieved more western solidarity than has existed in the past 20 years.

The question is: will this last? Will this represent a true, sustainable turning point, even as the costs of these measures begin to hit us at home? Will we continue to work effectively together, or will strains and splits in the transatlantic alliance eventually re-emerge? Will we move beyond partisan politics, end our bickering over petty issues, and continue to make common cause on this bigger threat? Will we be able to come definitively out of our respective political trenches, end the point-scoring and partisanship which has poisoned our politics, and find ways to sustain our cooperation, to rebuild our democracies at home, and strengthen our alliances overseas? Or will we go back into our comfort zones and old habits?

I believe that the jury is still out. Political rivalries and vested interests are hard to overcome, and the character and motives of some of our politicians are unlikely to change for good. Nevertheless, I believe that there is still an opportunity – and I hope we don’t squander it.

We have a chance to ‘reset’ ourselves. If we can truly transcend our differences – even if it does not immediately resolve the current crisis – I believe that there is long-term hope for us, long-term hope for Ukraine and other fledgling democracies, and ultimately only failure for Vladimir Putin.

Alexandra Hall Hall is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity

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