Alphen, Netherlands. 29 July. French statesmen Charles Maurice de Talleyrand once said, “To succeed in the world it is much more necessary to discern who is a fool, than to discover who is a clever man”. The tragedy of MH17 is about so much more than the murder of 300 people or even the tragedy of eastern Ukraine. It is about a Moscow that has decided to become a radical, revisionist power and a Europe that simply does not want to recognise that.
Living here in the Netherlands during these dark, depressed post MH17 days the contrast between two very different cultures is stark. The Kremlin seems to have retreated into a self-justifying, self-pitying narrative that somehow the West has got it in for Russia and Moscow must act whatever the cost. The Netherlands and its people by contrast have behaved with a quiet, solemn dignity as the bodies of MH17’s fallen have all-too-slowly returned. There is little or no talk of retribution here. It is a profound clash of cultures that concerns two very different ways of seeing the world.
Yesterday I learnt that the black boxes from MH17 confirm what the world already knew – the Malaysian Boeing 777 airliner was shot down by a missile. The immediate cause is clear; one-group of pro-Russian separatists under pressure from Ukrainian forces fired an SA11 missile at what they thought was a Ukrainian Air Force military transport. It was an act of brutally indifferent incompetence made possible by Russia.
Indeed, it is not just MH17 or the illegal annexation of Crimea or even the incompetent proxy and not-so-proxy de facto occupation of eastern Ukraine that confirms my fears of a Kremlin (and I mean Kremlin) that has radically changed strategic course over the past year. Through the testing of a new ground-launched cruise missile Russia is now in possible breach of that cornerstone of European security the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.
And that is the essential problem for Europe; an inability to understand the extent to which Russia has changed track. Proof may well come in the next couple of weeks. As pro-Russian separatists are forced back on Donetsk and Luhansk Moscow must decide whether it will allow their collapse or intervene. Moscow’s worse nightmare would be a sudden collapse of the separatists with significant amounts of Russian heavy weapons suddenly falling into Ukrainian hands.
This morning the EU will agree new sanctions on Russia. Much of the haggling over the past few days within the EU has been about how best to share the consequent pain of imposing sanctions against Russia. New EU sanctions will be imposed on the defence, energy and finance sectors but they will be sufficiently limited not to hurt Berlin, Paris and London too much. The French will still sell their warships to Russia, Germany will still send advanced engineering components to Russia’s gas industry and the City of London will still be a haven for dodgy Russia money. Indeed, it appears that Chancellor Merkel only agreed to even these limited measures because President Putin did not return three of her telephone calls this past week.
Here in the Netherlands the question I have been asked repeatedly by my Dutch friends, family and neighbours is that eternal question at such moments – why? For all my many years of experience in the business of statecraft it is not a question I can easily answer. Talleyrand once said that, “The art of statecraft is to foresee the inevitable and expedite its occurrence”.
The Kremlin seems to believe that conflict is inevitable and that Russia must prevail. Working with Russian colleagues over many years I have been struck often by how vulnerable Russia is to a sense of conspiratorial victimhood to justify good old-fashioned Machtpolitik. If so then 2014 will mark much more than mere culture clash. Indeed, the loss of MH 17 may not be the 2014 equivalent of the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the Archduchess Sophie. However, it is one of those big summer moments in European history.
It has been an honour to live here amongst a great people these past couple of weeks. To see the strength of the Dutch still seared by anger and disbelieving incredulity that something like MH17 could happen in 2014 Europe. Will EU sanctions and other pressures be enough to force Russia to return to the standards of international behaviour implicit in Dutch dignity? My sense is not and that Russia is indeed committed to a new strategic course of action of which Ukraine is but one element. If Russia invades eastern Ukraine what then? Time will soon tell.