Opinions & Ideas

Author: John Bruton Page 2 of 65


I wish to add my voice to the tributes to life and service of Alan Gillis who died on Friday.

Alan was an outstandingly effective President of the Irish Farmers Association(IFA). His calm demeanour, and his experience working outside farming, enabled him to win understanding for the farmer’s case from a wider non farming audience that would have been achievable through previously methods.

He did not just speak to farmers, he spoke FOR farmers to the whole community. 

I was delighted that, at the end of his IFA Presidential term , Alan was willing to put his name forward as a Fine Gael candidate for  the 1994 European Parliament elections and was successful.

It was a pleasure to canvass for Alan Gillis. He always seemed cheerful and positive.  He had a genuine interest in everyone he met on the canvass.

In the Parliament, he served on the Agricultural Committee where he was able to put his professional knowledge to goodeffect on behalf of the EU and Ireland. 

In his personal life, he was a truly ecumenical Christian, whose service represented his deeply held values. He will be missed.

Michael O Kennedy RIP

I wish to pay tribute to the live of political service of Michael O Kennedy.
Legally trained and accomplished in several European languages, he represented Ireland with
distinction and courtesy is many international fora. He was personally kind in his dealings with other
politicians. My wife, Finola joins me in expressing heartfelt sympathy with his widow Breda and all
Michaels family.


The Russian invasion of Ukraine…an attempt to end the independence of a sovereign country by force…would, if successful, set a precedent that should frighten smaller nations across the globe.

 It is an attack on the system on international law that has given us 80 years of relative peace in Europe, and, as a side benefit, allowed international trade to develop, thereby raising living standards everywhere.

The UN Charter of 1946 established the principles of the inviolability of borders, of respect for the territorial integrity of states and the prohibition of the use of force.

  When Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1991, its borders were formally guaranteed by Russia, the US and the UK. Now one of those guarantors is deliberately breaching those borders (for a second time)

The Helsinki Conference (1975) reaffirmed the respect of borders in Europe, and gave birth to the OSCE, of which Russia is a member. Its Charter confirms the above-mentioned UN principles.

 The Helsinki Final Act goes on to say

“They (states) also have the right to belong or not to belong to international organizations, to be party or not to bilateral or multilateral treaties, including the right to be party or not to treaties of alliance”

The Russian pre text for war, to stop Ukraine joining NATO and the EU, is a direct contradiction of this Helsinki principle.

Many, including President Putin, hoped the war would be a short one. Increasingly it is looking like becoming a long war of attrition, much like World War One, where most of the deaths are caused by missiles and shells falling for the sky. This sort of war can grind on for months and even years, until all is ruined.

The devastation will be felt far from Ukraine.

 Ukraine and Russia between them grow 25% of the wheat traded in the world. 12% of all the calories consumed in the entire world derive from crops grown in Russia and Ukraine.

It is impossible to sow and harvest crops on a battlefield. Indeed both belligerent nations are likely to keep any crops they can grow, for the use of their own beleaguered people.

The effect of this on bread prices will be dramatic. 75% of all the wheat consumed in Turkey, and 72% of that consumed in Egypt, comes from Russia or Ukraine.  Israel and Tunisia are also dependent for half their  supplies from the same sources. We can expect bread riots and renewed political instability in these countries.

The effect of the war will be to increase social tensions everywhere. The higher fuel and food prices that are flowing directly from the war will affect poorer families much more than better off ones because these items are a bigger share of the weekly budget in poorer families. They will also hit rural households much harder, because they have to rely on a private car to obtain the necessities of life.

The cost of replacement motor cars will rise because of shortages of minerals like aluminium, titanium, palladium and nickel, of which Russia is a major supplier. This will hit Germany’s car industry hard. Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Finland will be disproportionately  hit by the loss of Russian markets for their exports.

China’s Belt and Road initiative, creating a land based route for Chinese exports to Western Europe, is being radically disrupted by a war which cuts right across China’s road westwards, and  whose effects are being felt all the way from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

 Continuance of this war is not in China’s interests.

The longer the war goes on, the more the sanctions on Russia will begin to sap its war making capacity. Supplies of missiles and shells will become progressively harder to pay for. Those supplying weaponry to Ukraine have deeper pockets. This is the significance of Russia’s overtures to China.

These overtures are an opportunity. China has an incentive to broker a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine. So has Turkey. Timing will be crucial.

 But the ingredients of such a deal, where there is no trust at all between the parties, are much harder to describe.

 Ukraine could  perhaps find a formula to give up Crimea, but  it can hardly concede an inch in Eastern Ukraine. Russian language rights in Ukraine could be guaranteed, but what has Russia to offer in return?  Perhaps reparations for the physical damage they have done to Ukraine’s infrastructure. Ukraine could join the EU, but not NATO, with Russia’s encouragement (which would be a big U turn for Russia).

None of these compromises are palatable , but they are preferable to a war of attrition which could go on for years, until all the participants are exhausted, or dead.


Ireland’s independence, as a small and militarily weak state, depends more than most, on respect by other, more powerful states, of the basic tenets on international law.

By annexing Crimea and by participating in the challenge of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has already, since 2014, violated

  • the fundamental texts of the United Nations,
  • the statutes of the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member,
  • at least two regional treaties organizing peace in Europe and
  • two bilateral treaties signed with Ukraine, as well as, in passing, the constitutions of Ukraine and of Crimea.

Now, in launching a full scale invasion of Ukraine from three sides, Russia is compounding and magnifying its original crime against international law.

 It has gone further than anything the Soviet Union did as far as aggressive actions are concerned.

It is worth quoting some of the international law texts that cover this case.

 Article 2 §4 of the UN Charter establishes the principles of the inviolability of borders, respect for the territorial integrity of states and the prohibition of the use of force.

The Helsinki Conference (1 August 1975) established the respect of borders in Europe and gave birth to the OSCE, of which Russia is a member. Its Charter confirms the above-mentioned principles.

 It goes on to say

“They (states) also have the right to belong or not to belong to international organizations, to be party or not to bilateral or multilateral treaties, including the right to be party or not to treaties of alliance”

The Helsinki Final Act, of which Russia is a signatory, continues

“No consideration may be invoked to serve as a justification for the threat or use of force in violation of this principle” and:

 “they (the States) shall refrain from any manifestation of force intended to make another participating State renounce the full exercise of its sovereign rights”

 “ They will also refrain from any demand or act of control over all or part of the territory of another participating State”

 “ Similarly, the participating States will each refrain from making the territory of any of them the object of military occupation or other measures involving the direct or indirect use of force contrary to international law, or the object of acquisition by means of such measures or the threat of such measures. No such occupation or acquisition shall be recognized as lawful.”

Russia is breaking all these international laws.

Furthermore, the friendship agreement signed between Russia and Ukraine on May 31, 1997 specifically emphasized the respect of borders.

 Vital interests are  now at stake in the war in Ukraine, as they were when Iraq invaded Kuwait.


European leaders are discussing two topics this week……Ukraine and Africa.

The current situation in and around Ukraine may represent the biggest short term threat to the peace and prosperity of Europe. 

But the biggest opportunity for Europe is to our south, in Africa.

 The population of Africa is set to double by 2050. Working together Europeans and Africans complement one another.

 The past behaviour of Europeans in the colonial era has left a legacy that has not yet been fully acknowledged and overcome. 

 But the focus should be on the opportunities.

A report  by the European Council on Foreign Relations highlights some of these opportunities.


 Jacob Rees Mogg has been appointed as UK  Minister for Brexit Opportunities, with a mandate from Boris Johnson  to  change 1000 regulations, now in force , which the UK adopted as an EU member.  

This mandate, if acted upon, makes a settlement of the EU/UK dispute over the Protocol  next to impossible.

The more  EU inherited  UK regulations in respect of goods, which Minister Rees Mogg changes, the more will be the frequency and intrusiveness of checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain.

 This because, under the Protocol Minister Rees Mogg and his colleagues signed , Northern Ireland will continue to apply  EU regulations for goods, including food products.  

 Any new and different UK rules , sponsored by Minister Rees Mogg, will not apply in Northern Ireland .  This will mean even more checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland to ensure that the goods comply with the EU rules. 

 New and different UK rules for goods, will also mean more things to check at British ports facing continental Europe, and more traffic jams on the roads approaching these ports.

Of course, this applies only to goods. In the case of services, the UK can make whatever rules it likes without any impact on customs checks at ports.

But as far as goods are concerned, it is almost as if the Rees Mogg appointment is designed to sabotage any possibility of his colleague Liz Truss finding an agreement with Vice President Sefcovic on a lightening the Protocol. 

 If he does the job he has been given , Mr Rees Mogg’s real title should  perhaps be “Minister for Extra Trade Barriers”.  Of course this applies only to goods. 

A recent UK paper  on the “Benefits of Brexit” suggested that scrapping EU rules could bring £1 billion worth of benefits to the UK economy. This seems like a figure plucked out of the sky.  There is no detail of what rules might be changed, even though the UK has been preparing for the suppose benefits of Brexit for the past six years.

 Indeed separate and different  UK rules might actually increase costs, because of the duplication involved.

But there are strong suspicions that the “benefits of Brexit”  paper is  just for show, and that Rees Mogg will not actually be able to diverge much from EU standards at all, because UK businesses will not want  to lose markets in the EU.. 

In a way, his appointment is an expression of the confused expectations about Brexit within the Conservative Party……members want a bonfire of EU rules.   But they also want to be able to have their exports accepted in the countries of the EU as being compliant with the very  EU rules they have just scrapped!

 Businesses which trade internationally know the importance of regulations for both goods and services, and may not be so keen on unilateral UK regulatory changes that put the UK out of line with its neighbours to whom they want to export.

Whether it is product safety, or the transfer of cross-border data, domestic regulations and international agreements are a crucial element in making access to markets easier, or  making  them more difficult. Having different rules is a way of keeping imports out and making consumers pay more. 

Under Prime Minister Theresa May there was some openness in the UK government to aligning with EU rules, particularly in the area of goods, in order to facilitate trade and resolve issues around  Northern Ireland .

The arrival of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister in July 2019 ended this openness.   His view was  that UK regulatory sovereignty is crucial, or at least must be made to appear to be so. 

Boris Johnson’s present political difficulties weaken his ability to reach compromises with the EU on the Protocol.

 His party is, in fact, a coalition between those who want more spending and those who want less spending, between those who want more protectionism and those who want less, and between those who want more regulation and those who want less. 

 Some problems have already arisen. The new UKCA conformity assessment mark to replace the EU’s CE mark, means greater internal regulatory inconsistency between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and hence more bureaucracy at Northern Ireland ports.

 The more Rees Mogg does  his job, the more will be the differences between Northern Ireland standards and those in the rest of the UK.

Trade Agreements may be an added complication.

 For example there are suggestions that Canada will challenge the UK’s ban on hormone treated beef, as part of the accession process for the UK to the  new Pacific Trade Agreement. 

If this were to happen, it would mean extra controls on beef products from Britain coming into either part of Ireland. It would also place beef exports from either part of Ireland to Britain  at a competitive disadvantage vis a vis hormone treated beef imported from Canada. 

 But would British consumers want to eat hormone treated beef?

Whether the UK actually diverges all that much from its existing EU standards or not, the fact that the UK is SAYING now  it  intends to diverge a lot , means that the EU has to maintain tight customs controls of British goods .

  That means insisting that the Protocol is respected to the full in Northern Ireland ports,  and continuing delays on British good going to continental Europe

 So the Protocol row may go on and on, until the UK finally settles on what EU rules it wants to change, and what EU  rules it intends to keep. 

Given how slow progress on making these decisions has been in the six years since Brexit , the Protocol  dispute could drag on for years.

 This does not  augur well for stability in Northern Ireland,  or for Anglo Irish relations.


Notwithstanding the positive sounds emanating from Monday’s meeting between Liz Truss and Maros Sefcovic, the talks between the European Commission and the UK government over the Protocol on Northern Ireland are probably heading to a major crisis in the next month. There has been no movement of the UK side, and immovable deadlines are approaching.

The UK agreed to the Protocol as part of their Withdrawal Treaty with the EU. The Protocol was an intrinsic part of the Treaty. The UK Parliament ratified the Treaty, including the Protocol, but now the UK government is trying to scrap it altogether, under a this pretence of “renegotiating “ it.

The fundamental problem is that the British negotiating strategy is being driven by old fashioned, populist, and simplistic notions about trade. The EU strategy, on the other hand, is driven by a legal imperative to protect the most advanced form of economic and commercial integration between sovereign nations that has ever been achieved. The clash is a clash of mind sets. The arguments of either side are based on fundamentally incompatible assumptions.

There is the added complication that the negotiations between Liz Truss and Maros Sefcovic are taking place in the midst of a political crisis in Britain, in which any compromise is liable to be used as a political weapon in a struggle to lead the Conservative Party.
Conservative Britain always pretended to see the EU as simple free trade area. But the rest of the EU members realized one could not have truly free trade, unless there were four other things

  • common rules on the quality of products
  • freedom for people and money to move from country to country,
  • common trade policies vis a vis the rest of the world, and
  • a shared set of political goals that facilitated day to day compromise.

A big segment of English opinion never accepted this latter concept of the EU. This makes it difficult for them to even to understand the necessary implications of the Protocol .

The Protocol makes Northern Ireland part of the EU Single market for goods produced in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile Britain has left the EU Single Market. Britain has no more than a bare bones trade agreement with the EU. This makes a big difference. But it is what the UK government and Parliament agreed.
Goods produced in Northern Ireland (NI) are being treated as EU goods, whereas goods produced in Britain are non EU goods.

In the case of goods made up of parts, ingredients or components coming from different countries, The parts, ingredients or components produced in Northern Ireland qualify, for rules of origin purposes, as “European”. Meanwhile parts, ingredients or components originating in Britain are of non EU origin.

This distinction can be very important in deciding whether a final product is sufficiently “European” to benefit from duty free access to the EU market. If one wants to ensure that a sufficient percentage of a final product is “European”, it makes sense to source ingredients or parts in NI rather than in another part of the UK.

Goods coming into NI will be subject to EU Customs rules and tariffs, whereas goods coming into Britain will be subject to (potentially very different) UK Customs rules and tariffs.

This gap has to be policed, if there is not to be abuse. In the Protocol the EU and the UK agreed how this gap is to be policed.
The gap will become progressively wider, if the UK seeks to exploit the freedom it won by Brexit by making new (and different) British standards to replace the old standards that it might claim had been “imposed by Brussels”.

The more the standards diverge, the more will checks be needed on goods entering the EU market through NI, to ensure that they comply with EU requirements.

Then there is the question of the European Court interpreting EU rules as they apply to NI goods circulating freely in the EU Single Market . The UK agreed to this but now is objecting to it.
For NI businesses to be free to export their products within the EU Single Market under the Protocol they have to be able to convince their competitors and customers in France and Germany that NI goods are fully compliant with EU rules. These rules are interpreted, in final analysis, by the European Court of Justice. That ensures consistency.
The rules must be interpreted in the same way for NI goods, as they are for goods produced in France or Germany. The role of the ECJ in the Protocol is the passport for NI goods into Europe, one of the biggest markets in the world.

The role of the ECJ is, of course, confined to EU rules applying to goods. It will have no general jurisdiction in NI on other matters. There the final arbiter will be the UK Supreme Court.

There is a logjam in the negotiations because the UK side keeps repeating the same talking points , pocketing EU concessions without reciprocity, and withholding cooperation with the EU authorities on access to data. It is also stalling on building installations in Belfast Port that would allow customs officials there to do their work safely and conveniently. The UK is using “grace periods” to defer indefinitely controls it agreed to. It is almost as if the UK does not want to face up to the implications of Brexit.

The UK, and some unionists, talk about using Article 16 as if this would allow the ending of checks in Belfast port. That is not legally possible. Article 16 only allows limited and temporary derogations. To use it to go beyond that would be a straightforward breach on international law.
We are facing a moment of truth.



We can best avoid conflict by ensuring that authority is exercised legitimately and constitutionally, with due regard for minorities.

For example, those pressing for an early border poll will need to reflect on whether a poll on unity, passed by 52% to 48%, might recreate conditions for conflict in the north eastern corner of this island. Precedents elsewhere suggest this is not an insignificant possibility. The possibility of such a poll taking place arises from one the provisions in the Good Friday Agreement which allows the UK Secretary of State to call such a poll id he/she thinks there is a prospect that the poll might approve unity.

But even if there was a majority for unity overall, there would be parts of Northern Ireland where the majority of residents might be strongly opposed and might reject the outcome. Policing such areas would be a major challenge, as we have seen on a smaller scale in the past.

The underlying spirit of the Good Friday Agreement is one which seeks reconciliation between people and less emphasis on territorial sovereignty. Unfortunately Brexit has brought sovereignty back to the centre of the debate.


It was hoped by many that the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement would remove the risk of renewed conflict around sovereignty.

But many who complain that others are not fulfilling their obligations under the Agreement, are failing to fulfil some of their own obligations. 

For example,the Agreement recognises that

 “ the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly, that Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish;”

By refusing even to use the term “Northern Ireland”, and also by refusing to take their seats in Westminster, Sinn Fein is , in effect, refusing to recognise the legitimacy of that part of the Good Friday Agreement.  Their abstention is a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Union for the time being.


 It has created a precedent that will not be forgotten.

 Sinn Fein should ask itself how it would feel, if after a border poll narrowly approving unity, unionists then decided to imitate Sinn Fein and refused to take their seats in the Dail, or even went further and attempted to set up a breakaway parliament in a unionist part of the North. 

Of course, Sinn Fein is not alone in its selectivity about the Good Friday Agreement.


The UK government is obliged by it to be impartial between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland on the constitutional question. The Agreement says that that 

“whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, (in a border poll) the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions “

With her talk about the “precious Union”, Prime Minister May was hardly being rigorously impartial between unionism and nationalism, and the same applies even more to the Johnson Government. 

One must also ask the question……….if unity was carried in a border poll, would the government in Dail Eireann be able to be impartial between unionists and nationalists in the North? 

 Given the growth in support here for Sinn Fein, and recent poll data rejecting possible compromises on issues like the flag, this is a legitimate, if not necessarily an urgent, question.

Legitimate authority is crucial for civilization.

The wars of the 1919 to 1923 period were about the legitimisation of the authority of this state. 

 Legitimacy was underpinned by Cosgrave’s handover of power in 1932.  It was confirmed by Eamon de Valera, on the losing side in the Civil War, obtaining the support of the Irish people in 1937 for a new Constitution, which endures to this day. 


This Constitution affirms that the only legitimate authority that can use  force on behalf of the Irish people is Dail Eireann. 

Article 15(6) of the Constitution is crystal clear.  It says

the right to raise and maintain military or armed forces is vested exclusively in the Oireachtas. No military or armed force, other than a military or armed force raised and maintained by the Oireachtas, shall be raised or maintained for any purpose whatsoever.

These words of our Constitution were very much in my mind when, as Taoiseach in the 1990’s, I pressed for the decommissioning of arms by paramilitaries as a condition for the legitimation of political parties associated with them. This was, for me, a matter of constitutional principle.

The current Taoiseach, Micheal Martin, recently suggested that his party no longer completely excludes the possibility of serving in government with Sinn Fein, a party associated with the Provisional IRA.


 Any TD contemplating the possibility of supporting Sinn Fein participation in government, needs to ensure that Article 15 (6) is rigorously enforceable, and actually enforced.

This is not  a trivial technicality.

An independent review, submitted to the UK Government in 2015, found that , at that time in Northern Ireland,  the Provisional IRA and its leading decision making body, the Army Council, continued to operate , “albeit in a much reduced form”, and that, while it was not a security threat, the army council continued to oversee both the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein.

Perhaps this is no longer the case seven years later?   But we will need firm evidence of that.

 I hope the Taoiseach, and the security institutions of this state, will satisfy themselves as to whether the Army Council still exists. We cannot have a party in government which is associated with an armed group, whose  very existence defies Article 15 of our Constitution. 

 This Constitution is arguably Eamon de Valera’s greatest political achievement. So Micheal Martin, as his successor as Fianna Fail Leader, should be scrupulous in ensuring that the terms of the Constitution are respected

The voters of this state should recognise the value of what we have created here on the basis of  our constitution….a state whose authority rests on  sound  and  unambiguous  democratic principles, that does not need to engage in double speak .


The British Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss is holding a two day meeting this week with the EU Commission vice President , Maros Sevcovic, in an attempt to break the deadlock on the Northern Ireland Protocol. The meeting will take place in the Foreign Secretary’s country residence at Chevening. and the EU visitors will stay there overnight.

This suggests that a really serious effort is being made to resolve matters.

The fact that the negotiations are being handled on the UK side by the Foreign Secretary, one of the most senior and longest serving  Ministers in the UK government. and an elected politician, is also a good sign. 

She has a degree of political authority independently of the Prime Minister and thus has scope to make moves that her predecessor, Lord Frost could never have made.  

On the other hand, she is a contender for the Tory party leadership, and there is no sign that she has been preparing the ground for a deal.

The expectations is the Conservative grassroots remain unrealistic and Liz Truss has stoked these expectations in an article she wrote in the “Sunday Telegraph”.

She said that

“we need to end the role of the European Court of Justice(ECJ) as the final arbiter of disputes”

between the EU and the UK on the interpretation of the Protocol.

Her language may be deliberately loose here.

Nobody is suggesting that the ECJ will arbitrate a dispute between the UK and the EU. But the EU side will have to act, in any agreements it makes with the UK, inaccordance with EU law and the ECJ has to have the final word in interpreting the meaning of the EU laws, that will apply in Northern Ireland , under the Protocol Boris Johnson and the UK Parliament signed up to .

Her article was all about what the UK needed, and she made no attempt to explain, to the Tory supporting readers of the Sunday Telegraph, that the EU is a system of rules, and these rules have to be interpreted consistently in all parts of Europe, including in regard to goods in Northern Ireland.

This failure to manage expectations could lead deep disappointments and a major crisis.

 Writing in the “Irish Times “ last week, Professor Ronan McCrea, an Irish academic based in London,  speculated that, if a compromise was not reached in the discussions between the EU and the UK on the Northern Ireland Protocol, this state might be forced to choose between imposing  customs controls on the  land border in Ireland, or ceasing to be fully part of the EU Single Market.

He did not see this arising simply from the UK invoking Article 16 of the Protocol, if that is all they do.

This is because Safeguard measures that the UK might take under Article 16 must be 

” restricted with regard to their scope and duration to what is strictly necessary in order to remedy the situation”. 

So any steps the UK might take under Article 16 would have to be narrowly focussed and temporary.  But that is not the impression being given publicly in Britain. 

Professor McCrea saw a bigger threat would arise if,rather than just invoking Article 16 , the UK just stopped implementing any controls at all, on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain. This would be a much more extreme step, but it flows from some of the rhetoric being used in Britain and among Unionists.

This , he argued, would mean, if the land border remained open, that exports from this country, to the rest of the EU could, no longer be relied upon to be compatible with EU rules on quality, safety and rules of origin.

One possibility is that, to avoid this, customs checks on goods coming from here might have to be introduced at ports in France, Belgium and the Netherlands on all goods coming from Ireland. 

This would be a nightmare scenario for Ireland and would be tantamount to the UK attempting to force Ireland out of the EU. The EU will not allow this. So the sanctions it might take against the UK would be very severe. I think Liz Truss and Boris would want to avoid that, given the supply problems already being experienced by the UK economy. So I am hopeful a compromise will be reached. But the stakes are high!


I have visited Ukraine twice, once to observe their recent Presidential Elections, which were free and fair. It is troubling to see Russia massing its troops on Ukraine’s border.

But is is wise to fight a war over Ukraine’s “right” to join NATO? And even if one has a “right” to do something , is it necessarily right to do it!

Professor Gerard Toal of Virginia Tech has published a very sensible article in the Irish Times today. I shows how all sides are blind to the worries of others and acting as if everybody else is obliged to see them as they see themselves…..the most common mistake in politics.

Below is the text of Professor Toal’s excellent article.

Delusion on all sides has paved way for Russia-Nato standoff

It is hard to be objective about the Ukraine crisis. Russia is massing tanks and troops next to Ukraine. US intelligence reports Russia is planning a multi-front invasion involving 175,000 troops in the early new year.

Accompanying Russia’s posture of war is fevered rhetoric about Ukraine as an aggressor state. Russia decries Nato infrastructure, weapons, training and military exercises in Ukraine.

Late last week, Russia released a proposed draft treaty of what it sees as a desirable new security order for Europe. Viewing it as a gun-point demand for a Russian sphere of influence, Western and Ukrainian officials immediately rejected the proposals.

Russia is behaving like a bully toward Ukraine. But why? What happened to the dream of Europe whole, free and at peace at the end of the Cold War? How did we get from that hopeful new dawn to the sobering prospect of military invasion in 21st-century Europe? The short answer is this: security delusions on all sides paved the way, delusions that are now on a dangerous collision course.

Russia’s security delusions are easiest to grasp. Thinking military force can create genuine security and influence in neighbouring states is delusional. Recovering under Russian president Vladimir Putin after a decade of crisis, Russia began rebuilding its power capacities across post-Soviet space.

In August 2008, the Russian army invaded Georgia after a reckless move by its pro-Nato leader Mikheil Saakashvili to crush Russian backed separatists. In March 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine as violent protests overthrew Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Kremlin leader. Russian forces annexed Crimea, but proxy forces backed by Russia failed to create a large secessionist territory (Novorossiya) in southeast Ukraine. Only in part of the Donbas did Russian backed separatists succeed.

The subsequent Minsk Accords were designed to ensure that Russia’s proxies would influence the geopolitical orientation of Ukraine. It has not worked out that way. Indeed, in all instances, Russia’s military actions polarised states it hoped to influence, driving them to deepen ties with Nato. What aggrieves Moscow today about the creeping Nato-isation of Ukraine is partly of its own making.

The security delusions of the Nato West are more difficult to recognise. After the Cold War, the alliance decided to expand not disband. Nato’s “open door” policy allowed former Soviet republics like the Baltic States to join the alliance. Veteran Soviet security officials, like the conspiratorial-minded Putin, were forced to accept that their Cold War enemy was now at the border. Nato, of course, did not see it this way. It argued that all states have a sovereign right to choose their own defence orientation. Further, they claimed, Nato is not a threat to any power. Rather, it is a civilisational alliance advancing security and freedom.

Critics, most prominently an aging American diplomat George Kennan, saw Nato expansion as a fateful error and predicted it would strengthen the hand of hardliners within Russia. He was right. The insecurity that Nato expansion was designed to address only redoubled insecurity as Russia rebuilt its power and reacted.

A self-fulfilling security dilemma took hold. Nato expansion was justified by the very insecurity it produced. By 2008, Russia publicly asserted that Nato membership for Georgia and Ukraine were its defensive red lines. Nato radicalised matters when in April 2008 it declared, in defiance of Russia, that those two countries would one day become members of the alliance.

Claiming Nato is not a threat to anyone is a delusion. Nato does not get to define Russia’s security perception. Presuming that expanding a military alliance to the border of an insecure great power advances security is delusional. Unilaterally exiting arms control agreements with Russia – like the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty the US left in August 2019 – is reckless behaviour.

Admitting Ukraine into the Nato procurement system, training its troops, building Nato-standard infrastructure, and supplying advanced weapons to its forces without grasping that this may inflame Russian insecurity is also delusional thinking. It is living solely within one’s benevolent view of oneself.

The tragedy of the current Ukraine crisis is how both Russia and Nato seemed trapped within self-defeating policies. In seeking greater territorial security Russia has pursued a policy of undermining the territorial integrity of neighbouring states. Its imperialistic habits and attitudes endure.

In the past it has used separatists to advance its geopolitical goals. It now appears poised to pursue a more radical policy of direct military intervention to change facts on the ground. This can only further inflame Ukrainian sentiment against it. In no region will the Russian army be welcomed. Many Ukrainians may not actively resist but some undoubtedly will wage an insurgency against Russian occupation if it comes to that.

The West appears trapped by its fixation on the principle that all states have the sovereign right to choose their own military orientation. They cite articles from past security agreements. But they ignore other articles asserting that security is indivisible. Security requires responsibility and that begins with acknowledging collective sources of insecurity. The coronavirus pandemic has made clear the importance of qualifying individual free choice: we all have responsibilities to the collective good.

Many in the West are also fixated with Munich and appeasement, Yalta and spheres of influence. This desire for historically selective moralised analogies betrays a desire to purify the present into simpleminded categories of good and evil. More disturbingly, it also propels desire for righteous action. Violence is soon easily justified.

While the overall picture looks grim, let us hope that this crisis is a spur to serious negotiations and, out of these, a good enough compromise. Ukraine is a desperately poor country whose people have been victimized by embedded corruption and oligopoly since the Soviet collapse. They deserve better that to be a sandbox for a proxy war between Russia and the West. As we extend them solidarity and support in this hour of anxiety, let us also acknowledge the prevailing security delusions that got us here.

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