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Bill Emmott: Sanctions essential against Russia over actions toward Ukraine

Bill Emmott (Mainichi/Naoki Watanabe)

If anyone still believed that peace and security in the world could be ensured by treaties, international law and long discussions at the United Nations, Russia has finally destroyed those illusions through its aggressive military and political actions in its neighbouring country Ukraine. Probably, such ideas were in any case not widely believed in Asia, given the rising strength of China and its behaviour in the South and East China Seas, and given North Korea's frequent missile tests. But wherever or whenever they were held, such beliefs have now been shown up for what they always were: fantasies and illusions.

    There was a time after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989-91 when it was conceivable that such a fully rules-based world could have been built. But the fact that it would always be a steep uphill battle was shown immediately in that decade by the wars in the former Yugoslavia, by the continued border conflict between India and Pakistan, by numerous wars and civil wars in Africa, by conflicts over borders in the former Soviet Union such as between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and by Russia's own two brutal internal wars in Chechnya.

    What Russia has done, with its forced annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea in 2014, by its military backing for separatists in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas ever since then, and now by first recognising the claimed independence of those breakaway regions and then launching a full-scale invasion of the whole country, is to prove that any remaining dreams of a rules-based order need to be forgotten, at least as far as the world's superpowers are concerned.

    Russia, like China and, in fact, the United States, is very happy for rules and treaties to regulate the way smaller countries behave. One of the key things that President Vladimir Putin has wanted to establish through his actions during the past two decades is that Russia has to be considered as one of the superpowers, one of those countries to which normal rules do not apply.

    He already established it, in a smaller but still significant way, through his military intervention in Syria in 2015 to preserve the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Now, through his invasion of Ukraine, he is seeking to establish it in a bigger way, on the entire Eurasian land mass. His immediate goal may be to preserve a sphere of influence for Russia around its borders, especially in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. But his bigger aspiration is for Russia to be recognised as a key voice and influence on the whole of European security. And to serve that goal, his imperial aspirations may not end with Ukraine.

    The joint statement made by President Xi Jinping of China and President Putin at the beginning of February when Putin visited Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics represented China's decision to support and profit from that aspiration. The long document spent a lot of time criticising western countries for seeking to intervene in other nations' affairs and for promoting democracy. It also claimed to stand in support of the "United Nations-driven international architecture and the international law-based world order."

    Since both countries have chosen to break international law at various points during the past decade, such phrases are presumably not meant to be taken literally. Or, rather, they are not meant to indicate any constraint on the freedom of action of either China or Russia, just as the United States was not constrained by international law when it invaded Iraq in 2003. The UN architecture and the law-based world order are favoured merely as constraints on other countries.

    However, the Russia-China agreement should not, and cannot, be interpreted either as an alliance between these two superpowers nor as an indication that they see eye to eye on everything. A famous British prime minister in the 19th century, Lord Palmerston, once said in a speech that Great Britain "had no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies," but what it did have were "eternal and perpetual interests." The Russia-China relationship falls exactly in that Palmerstonian tradition: they are connected solely by their shared interests.

    Chief among those interests is to be recognised and respected as superpowers in a world which is not dominated by any other superpower. In other words, not dominated by the United States or, through its alliances, the West. Their shared interest is therefore to prevent or reduce western domination.

    Russia's recurrent invasions of Ukraine clearly violate China's often-claimed objections to interference in the sovereignty of other nations. But any action to prevent or reduce western domination would suit China's goals perfectly. We can therefore conclude that China does not favour such Russian invasions but nevertheless accepts them because they serve to erode western leadership.

    But do they erode western leadership? Certainly, Russia's invasions reinforce the reality that, as far as superpowers are concerned, power is everything. But in some ways such uses of military force to alter territorial boundaries reinforce the case for the West and for alliances with the United States. Finland and Sweden, both of which are formally neutral nations with regard to military alliances, now look more likely to apply to join NATO, the western defence and security alliance. In Asia, no country will overlook the lesson that in the future China may come to behave in the same way as Russia does.

    President Putin's aims are very clear: as he keeps on saying in speeches, he believes Ukraine should again be part of Russia, as it was under the Soviet Union and in the Tsarist times in the 19th century, and so should other former parts of the Russian empire, including the Baltic States and Finland. He knows the likely cost of attempting full wars of conquest, so his method has been to move one step at a time, what we Europeans call "salami-slicing," while constantly intimidating his targets through cyber-attacks and military exercises.

    The impact on the countries he intimidates and slices is immediate, and the full conquest of Ukraine is now setting a brutal and terrifying example. The impact on the rest of the West will be seen only over the coming months and years: it may make it more resolute and united in any negotiations over European security, including arms control; but that unity will be challenged when it comes to the use of economic and financial sanctions against Russia in response, for if sanctions are truly serious such measures will hurt powerful interests in western countries as well as in Russia.

    One thing is clear, however. In this new world in which power is everything and superpowers feel able to act as they please, no country can feel immune to future intimidation or even invasion. So, although implementing and maintaining sanctions will be painful in the short term, it is essential to fight back using this method now so as to deter worse situations later. This is as important for Japan as it is for the U.K. and other European countries.

    (By Bill Emmott. Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)

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