Vladimir Putin: Saviour of NATO

Vladimir Putin: Saviour of NATO

To my knowledge, NATO does not have a “Person of the Year” award, but it should, and the inaugural award should go to none other than Vladimir V. Putin.  No one has done more for the Atlantic Alliance in many decades.

In a few days, NATO has experienced an intense revival.  Allies have re-committed themselves to Article 5 (An attack on one, is an attack on all) and publicly vowed to defend “every square inch” of NATO territory.  Significant military forces are being activated and moved to the allies who share a border with Russia.  Germany has committed to massively increasing its defence budget, and other allies will soon follow suit.  

But Putin’s contributions to Western defence do not end there.  After decades of fruitless talk about a European diplomatic and defence capability, the EU takes serious steps.  For the first time, the EU has committed to shipping weapons into a war zone (Germany has also decided to do so for the first time in its post-1945 history).  Expect much more European action.

Putin has thus not simply revived the fortunes of NATO, but he has simultaneously given a dramatic impetus to the growth of another Western military force.  Taken together, the nations of NATO and the EU utterly dwarf Russia in terms of population and economic might – approximately 1.3 billion people and 36% of total global GDP, to Russia’s 146 million people and slightly over 3% of global GDP.  It takes a particular kind of genius to pick this sort of fight.

Beyond his contributions to Western unity, Putin must be congratulated for the economic lessons he has taught the world.  After decades of their half-hearted application, Putin has shown that they can be applied with real vigour and that they bite.  Very few people had heard of SWIFT a few days ago.  Now it is on everyone’s lips as the thing to do when a dictator decides to attack a neighbour.  Even Switzerland is abandoning economic neutrality to freeze Russian assets. 

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This is a lesson that will not soon be lost on autocrats.  No two situations are ever completely the same. Still, Putin’s friend Chinese President Xi must have noticed the renewed credibility of economic weapons that may one day be used against him.  More immediately, Putin’s friends amongst the Russian elite – those multi-billionaires who have joined Putin in criminally gorging themselves on the assets of the Russian people – must be grateful to him for seeing their accounts frozen, their jets excluded from Western airspace and their football teams are taken away.

Of course, Putin’s economic policies over the past two decades have much to do with the success of sanctions today.  Russia may be a military power, but it is otherwise a lightweight on the world stage.  Individual Russian citizens face a declining life expectancy – a quite incredible accomplishment.  The only thing Russia produces that anyone wants to buy in significant quantity is stuff it digs out of the ground.  Russia’s customers are well along in their consideration of where else they can get these commodities.  Russia will have no significant source of foreign income when they find it.

Beyond all of this, Putin must be credited for re-teaching the world than turning the other way when an autocratic bully attacks his neighbours, but only just a little, is a recipe for an eventual larger war.  Appeasing Putin’s previous attacks on Georgia, Crimea and others, turning the other cheek when he sent people abroad to kill people with chemical and nerve agents, rather than standing up to him then, may have seemed a good idea.  After all, it was said that we wouldn’t want to provoke him, and sanctions don’t really work anyway.  But we have learned yet again, as we did in 1939, that appeasement does not ultimately pay.  

Of course, these valuable contributions may not endure.  We have a striking ability to forget these things when a situation calms down.  But Europe has been shaken to its very core by what Putin has done.  Ordinary Europeans see images on their TV screens that most thoughts had been firmly consigned to a dark and terrible past.  Perhaps they will not forget Putin’s lessons too quickly.  

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