Realism is in the air. Not the realism we need: a bleak appreciation of the dangers facing our hitherto safe, free and comfortable lives, of our own weakness and of our adversaries’ strengths. This is inverted realism: it argues that it is unrealistic to try to defend ourselves, that our enemies are not really enemies and that our allies are not really allies.
It comes from many quarters, from the left (Britain’s Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn) and from the populist right (Donald Trump, Alternative for Germany). Perhaps the most lucid recent exposition comes in a piece in an American journal, First Things, by my friend Peter Hitchens, a British journalist and commentator.
His argument is that we have needlessly soured our relations with Russia by expanding into territories that the Kremlin abandoned after the collapse of Communism. We have unfairly demonized Vladimir Putin, who although a “sinister tyrant” (Hitchens’s words) is certainly no worse or even actually better than our supposed allies in Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Crimea was a justifiable one-off response to Ukrainian (and Western) provocation. So instead of fighting a new cold war, we should recognize the traumas the Russian people have suffered, and allow them to get on with restoring their “glorious” (his word) Christian and European heritage.
What Hitchens fails to spot is that the Soviet Union was not just about Communism. It was an empire. 120 million-plus of the Soviet Union’s 286 million population were non-Russians. To view the collapse of the evil empire solely from a Russian point of view is therefore misleading. Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and other captive nations are real people too. They have real languages, real histories (with just as much trauma as the Russians), real dreams and memories of statehood. They can’t be ignored.
The collapse of empires is almost always messy and poses painful dilemmas. For Hitchens, the story is simply of one power block expanding into an area which another has vacated. But this view fundamentally mischaracterizes the enlargement of NATO and the EU. These countries joined by choice. They had to argue hard to be let in—they were regarded by many in Brussels as too backward and volatile to eat at the same table as the grown-ups. The result has been a notable success story—one of rather few in Europe in recent years. To equate the Russian pull-out from the Baltic states with those countries’ subsequent membership of the EU and NATO is to regard kidnapping and marriage as fundamentally the same thing.
Moreover, NATO did not pick a fight with the Kremlin. The alliance was so eager to show that it did not regard Russia as a military threat that it did not even make contingency plans of how to defend the frontline states if attacked. Initially this worked. Russia did not welcome NATO enlargement, but it accepted it.
Hitchens writes that: “Nobody who understands history, geography, or, come to that, arithmetic can possibly accept” the portrayal of Russia as expansionist. It is true that Russia does not want to recreate the Soviet empire by military conquest. It can’t. But it can and does pose other kinds of threats: It could have decided that its top foreign-policy priority would be good relations with the former captive nations. Instead it uses money, propaganda, cyber, subversion and other tactics to disrupt and weaken its neighbors—and, indeed, the West generally. Actually, most people in the frontline states and many (probably now most) Russia-watchers in the West generally worried about, even frightened of, Russia. We may be wrong—facts and arguments, please—but we are not “nobody.”