Diplomacy has gone fugitive. With everything that has been happening in Ukraine and around it, one is quite convinced that things can only go from bad to worse. Here is the initial thought: President Vladimir Putin, by ordering his military into Ukraine --- and that without any provocation from the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy --- has pushed the world and not just Europe to the brink. His implicit threat, now that his soldiers have not had the cakewalk they expected in Kyiv, of Russia's nuclear deterrent being on standby in this standoff with the West, darkens the clouds across the geopolitical skies.
And governments in the West, as also Nato and the EU, have responded to Putin's moves in predictable fashion. The slew of sanctions imposed on Russia --- on its businesses, its banks, its oligarchs, its sports, its airline and travel industry and indeed its president and foreign minister --- are a weapon which can only have widened the chasm between Moscow and its adversaries. And that is where diplomacy, which should have been in the forefront of activity, has been pushed aside. Just how grim conditions are poised to become over the next few days comes through the unwise move on the part of the Biden administration to expel twelve Russian diplomats from Moscow's mission at the United Nations. It was a bad act.
Observe, as you mull the consequences of all that has been going on and will yet go on for the foreseeable future, the rising decibels in rhetoric. Putin has referred to the West as an empire of lies (a latter-day response to Ronald Reagan's 'evil empire' formulation?). The Russian television network RT has been propagating stories which are clearly at variance with the realities on the ground in Ukraine. At the other end, in European capitals and in London and Washington, the demonization of Vladimir Putin has gone on apace, with experts questioning the Russian leader's mental equilibrium. Ursula von der Leyen, announcing a series of sanctions against Russia the other day, pointedly did not use the term 'president' in referring to Russia's leader. It was just 'Putin' she spoke of, more than once.
It is a bizarre situation. On Monday, for five hours, delegations from Ukraine and Russia met at the border with Belarus, a key Moscow ally, to discuss the terms whereby a settlement could be reached over Ukraine. The talks yielded nothing, which was only natural given that even as the teams met, Russian bombardment of such cities as Kharkiv went on unabated. A hapless Zelenskyy, thrust into the presidency of his country in a democratic election three years ago, did not think anything fruitful would result from the negotiations. The bravery of the comedian-turned-president cannot but be admired, for he has in the past few days risen to the enormous challenge of the job. His defiance of Putin has been impressive. He has refused to be evacuated by the West and has on a daily basis been informing his people that the enemy has to be repulsed. The spirit of martyrdom has come over him.
So where does all this lead? Obviously, as French President Emmanuel Macron put it a few days ago, it will be a long war. The bridges to diplomacy have been blown up, first through Russian tanks and armoured vehicles going into Ukraine and then by the increasing levels of hysteria among Nato and EU nations as also the United States. The Russian economy has been put in a bad squeeze, without question, by the sanctions. And yet President Putin shows little sign of retreat. It may well be that he knows he has friends elsewhere and can bank on them for support, if the recent meeting of the UN Security Council is any indication. The move by the West to condemn Moscow's action in Ukraine was vetoed by Moscow itself. China, India and the UAE abstained.
Putin's actions in Ukraine have caused a seismic shift in global politics, as can be observed in Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Germany. In an unprecedented move, Berlin has gone for an allocation of two percent, annually, of its GDP in the development of its armed forces. For the first time since the end of World War Two, the Germans have, to the relief of their partners in Nato and the EU, agreed to change course. The credit is all Putin's. It is likely that Berlin's new policy has given fresh impetus to Zelenskyy's politics. The Russians have thwarted his attempts to take his country into Nato, but that has not prevented him from asking the EU that Ukraine be immediately taken in as its newest member.
Which leads one to an improbable irony. Vladimir Putin has been arguing that the West failed to address his country's security concerns when it sought to have Ukraine join Nato. Moscow was not willing to have the organization, constituted in the aftermath of the early stages of the Cold War, move stealthily eastward to its doorstep. And now, with Russian troops in Ukraine, it is Nato which is being pushed westward. The atmosphere is thus febrile in the West, as Jens Stoltenberg's repeated expressions of concern before the media have demonstrated.
The old question again: where do things go from here? Diplomacy has to be retrieved and employed as the means for a solution to the crisis. Aggressive behavior and belligerent voices will not resolve the issue. President Putin knows, even if he will not admit it, that Russia needs to come back into the framework of global accommodation. He cannot expect to annex Ukraine or have a puppet government installed in Kyiv if his country needs to have its respectability restored. For President Biden and his friends in Europe, the lesson should be clear: they cannot keep increasing any more the levels of hostility they have thus far demonstrated toward Moscow. Putin's security concerns, these past few days have shown, need to be taken into consideration. That Ukraine must remain an independent state is beyond dispute. But perhaps it can be reconfigured as a neutral state?
Finally, there is a far larger truth out there. China is a near superpower today; and Russia appears determined to step out of the humiliation of the Soviet collapse of the 1990s. India promises to go beyond being a regional power in the very near future. Iran remains defiant in its foreign policy. Politicians in the West, having acquiesced in the unprovoked Anglo-American invasion and destruction of Iraq in 2003 and having orchestrated the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, will therefore need to absorb and acknowledge these hard realities. The world is a changed place, dotted with multiple centres of power.
And, of course, Russia must not be driven by nostalgia or thoughts of the past. Sending troops into Budapest, Prague and Kabul in 1956, 1968 and 1979 were unmitigated disasters and had their ramifications. Sending the tanks rolling into Ukraine was a blunder, properly condemned everywhere.