Wednesday morning, and Lord Robertson of Port Ellen is on the radio, talking about his life in politics, and particularly about his time as Nato Secretary-General between 1999 and 2003. There are always reasons to argue with George Robertson, of course, and his unfailingly sunny interpretation of his own career as a leading member of the British Labour party.
It is fascinating, though, to hear him talk about his relationship with Vladimir Putin, who came to power in Russia in 1999; and about how Putin seemed, at the time, to be a broadly progressive figure, who said that he wanted Russia to become "part of western Europe”. They chatted, Robertson remembers, about Putin’s legendary 1991 visit to East Lothian as deputy mayor of St Petersburg, and his visit to a Prestonpans pie shop; and it’s clear that at the time, western diplomats thought that Putin – like Mikhail Gorbachev – was a leader with whom they could do business.
All of which casts just a little more light on this week’s strange incident of the very senior Nato diplomat who, at a panel event in Norway, publicly inserted his foot into his mouth by suggesting that the Ukraine war might end with Ukraine agreeing to give up some territory, in return for Nato membership.
Now given the official positions of most Nato members, and the facts of international law, it is hard to count the number of levels on which this is a repellent and possibly dangerous proposition. It proposes a “solution” which would, in effect, make Nato complicit in rewarding aggression and punishing its victims, while doing little to discourage Putin from further raids on the territory of former Soviet republics. And of course, the Nato official in question has since apologised for his remarks.
Yet the whole incident highlights the strains within the western alliance created by the Ukraine crisis; and it’s worth seeking to understand why the idea that Russia is still some kind of rational actor, and might be placated by ‘reasonable’ concessions, still exercises such a grip over some western diplomats.
So far as I can see, there are roughly three strands of thought that tend to support the idea of compromise with Russia. The first, and easiest to dismiss, is the position of the Putin-sympathising far right of UK and European politics, motivated by a mixture of authoritarian instinct and pure financial self-interest, and often closely linked to the generation of oligarchs who first looted the old state assets of the Soviet Union, and then began to spread their wealth in a web of influence around the globe, not least in London. Then there is the old nostalgic left, which seems to find it difficult to accept that Putin’s Russia no longer represents an alternative to capitalism, but is in fact an example of oligarchic capitalism at its authoritarian worst.
And finally – and most tellingly – there is the liberal centre of western politics, which, as Robertson pointed out in this week’s conversation, has become wedded since 1945 to the idea, explicitly expressed in the structures of the European Union, that the way to build peace is through connection and economic interdependence. That idea might even have worked, in relation to Russia, if the West had not allowed Russia to become an arena for “savage capitalism”, but had instead worked hard, through the 1990s, to support the kind of judicial and democratic institution-building that might have made Putin’s eventual rise to power impossible.
That, though, became the path not travelled; and 24 years on, the once affable Putin has become a paranoid and isolated autocrat, now engaged in a shocking war of aggression against an independent neighbour. Given the extent of the shift in Russia’s stance, and the unwieldy scale and entrenched cultures of the international institutions involved in responding, it’s perhaps not surprising that there is reluctance to abandon attitudes formed in the more hopeful 1990s; war is always a desperate humanitarian disaster, and the instinct to avoid or end it is both commendable and understandable.
In the end, though, the very fact that Putin launched his all-out attack on Ukraine at all, on the basis of no evidence that Ukraine represented a material threat to Russia, and on the deluded assumption that Russian troops would be welcomed into Kyiv as liberators from fascism, tends to suggest that reason is no longer informing his actions. In fact, of course, Ukrainians will not surrender their homeland, and seem ready to fight to the last man and woman, so that now, the war has sunk into an ugly and apparently interminable stalemate, along Ukraine’s eastern border.
In the world of diplomacy, it’s often said that wars only ever end in peace deals, grubby or otherwise. In truth, though, the war that truly shaped the last 80 years of global history ended only in the comprehensive defeat of Nazi Germany, and of the crazed ideology of national destiny and dominance that drove its aggression. The idea that Putin is now acting out a similar ideology, in alliance with forces that want to wipe the very idea of Ukraine from the map, certainly demands some radical and depressing reassessment both of Putin himself, and of the diplomatic model pursued by the West since 1989.
Yet it seems increasingly dangerous to deny the possibility that we do now face that kind of threat; and that if the Putin regime cannot be comprehensively defeated in Ukraine, then the idea of building a peaceful Europe based on principles of co-operation and mutual dependence may soon become a footnote to history, as we enter a new age of perpetual conflict that will damage and impoverish us all, in ways beyond what we of the lucky generations raised in peace can easily imagine.