How far will the West be prepared to go to appease Putin?
Even now, when discussing the results of US President Joe Biden's New Year's Eve and January 2 telephone conversations with the Russian and Ukrainian presidents, assessments range from "Biden has betrayed Ukraine once again" (Andrey Illarionov) to dryly neutral, like the BBC. I have not read any analyses that say that Biden (or any other Western leader) has forced Putin to soften his tone and back down even a millimeter. After every negotiation, the only discussion is how much Biden (Macron, Merkel) has given in to Kremlin pressure this time.
I will say straight away that I think the question in the headline is phrased incorrectly. Since I wrote it myself, I admit that I did it on purpose, because a similar question comes up quite often in various discussions. The right way to phrase it is: is there a point at which the West would be prepared to say that enough is enough, to stand up and walk away from the negotiating table with its head held high?
The answer to that question, in my view, is no. Even this line of questioning - to stand up and walk away from the negotiating table - seems unacceptably irresponsible to a "normal" (typical) Westerner. One cannot risk world war/peace and human lives so recklessly. That is why we have to keep on negotiating [even with a terrorist] to the last. Just to keep the peace. But in this assumption - that we must negotiate to the last - lies the illusory essence of all these "negotiations." If you are very, very unwilling to let something happen, then you are actually prepared to concede to infinity. There is no limit. And Putin is taking great advantage of this.
Recently, the article "What does the Russian ultimatum to the West mean?" by the French analyst Françoise Thom in the highly specialised website Desk Russie has become popular. The article is noteworthy if only for the fact that you can feel that the author has an excellent knowledge of the subject, knows the Russian language and is familiar with Russian realities. Admittedly, this is very rare among Western authors. Most of the time, they place their heads on Putin's body and judge Russian politics in their own, familiar categories.
In her article, Thom quotes extensively various Russian officials who threaten the West openly. For example, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko: “The Europeans must also think about whether they want to avoid making their continent the scene of a military confrontation. They have a choice. Either they take seriously what is put on the table, or they face a military-technical alternative.” What the "military-technical alternative" means is for each individual to decide.
Andrei Kartapolov, former Deputy Minister of Defense and now a member of the Defense Committee of the Russian State Duma, agrees: " Our partners must understand that the longer they drag out the examination of our proposals [the December 17 ultimatum] and the adoption of real measures to create these guarantees, the greater the likelihood that they will suffer a pre-emptive strike." For one, a "military-technical alternative," for the other, a "pre-emptive strike." To underline the seriousness of these words, on December 24 Russia staged a public demonstration of the launch of hypersonic Zirkon missiles. Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov pointed this out: "Well, I hope that the notes will be more convincing."
Of course, it could be said that all these statements are intended to do just that - to intimidate the West. But even the assumption that the opponent is just pounding his fists on his chest and hissing furiously, "I will destroy you" like a boxer before a fight, does not remove the question that Thom asks at the end of her long and exhaustive article: what to do? And she answers, "Westerners must first perceive the situation as it is, however unpleasant it may be." She proposes that we stop seeing Russia's lies (about it being threatened by NATO; about its concern for Russian speakers beyond its borders; about past grievances, etc.) as even partial truths worth discussing. Lies cannot be the subject of discussion. Even more so - pretexts for aggressive intentions.
Thom goes further and recommends "sacrificing the sacred cow" - the absolute faith in the virtue of "dialogue". The need for "dialogue" with Moscow is almost unreservedly endorsed by most Western leaders, who repeat this phrase as some kind of peace-keeping mantra. Thom points out that this mantra not only fails to bring any peace but is, on the contrary, extremely dangerous, as it creates a deceptively intoxicating sense of grandeur in the Kremlin. There is a growing conviction in the Kremlin that the West is weak; that pressure must be stepped up and that in the end, they (the West) will give in.
"Very often the best policy with Russia is that of silence and distance: do nothing, say nothing and stand your ground. Clinging to dialogue at all costs, especially when Moscow keeps us at gunpoint like a madman holding a hostage, only shows our weakness and encourages the Kremlin to escalate."
Thom shows with historical examples that appeasement in the face of aggressive policies has never led to anything good or to peace. Instead of the West uniting in the face of the Kremlin's threat, the EU has started a childish "war" with England, which has left the EU and now has to be bullied for doing so. Thom concludes: "Today we are cowardly letting down Ukraine, but we do not even realize our dishonor, nor the danger of giving in to an aggressor. We are like the Byzantines who were discussing the sex of angels while the Ottoman forces were destroying the city walls."
For now, Thom's article in the Western public sphere is like a voice crying in the desert. Biden and the entire Western political class continue to call for a diplomatic solution to the "conflict". As if there really were a conflict, not a targeted escalation of confrontation.
There is no point in urging a married couple to see a psychotherapist if one of the spouses does not want to repair and save the marriage, but, on the contrary, tries in every way to aggravate the conflict, to get a divorce and to take all the property. In the first half of 1939, the German press was horrified every day by the suffering of the German people in Poland. The bloody destruction, the robberies, the rapes. The aim of this propaganda hysteria was no longer some kind of diplomatic solution, but the desire to create a fertile ground for military aggression.
In the 1930s, calls for a diplomatic negotiation with the "highway bandits" resulted in at least 50 million deaths. You cannot win at a game of cards with crooks. This is something that Western leaders and the left-wing public there should learn once and for all. Until that happens, we can only hope for Putin's rationality, goodwill, stories about the actual weakness of the Russian army, the strength of the West and "well, he is just bluffing this time as well". To hope that the West will show unity and real strength before something has started would be naive for the time being.