Sunday March 9 2014

How Russia tamed the Western world

By Timothy Kalyegira

As the political drama in Uganda continues to unfold before an intrigued nation, there is another kind of drama involving another U-lettered country that is gripping the world. It is Ukraine.
There is no part of the world quite like the West. Accustomed to 500 years of dominating the world, it has become second nature for them to assume that what they see fit and find acceptable, is universally true for every nation and culture on earth.

It’s hard to blame them. The world seems to be made in the image of the West.
All the tennis grand slam tournaments (Wimbledon, U.S. Open, French Open, Australian Open) golf majors (U.S. PGA, U.S. Open, British Masters, Ryder Cup), the world’s four high fashion centres (London, Milan, New York, Paris), leading news agencies (AFP, Reuters, AP), languages (English, Spanish, French), commercial aircraft manufacturers (Boeing, Airbus), soft drinks makers (Pepsi, Coke), major world organizations (UN, World Bank, IMF), world’s three top luxury car brands (Mercedes, BMW, Rolls Royce) four most visited global Internet websites (Google, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo!), world’s best-known football clubs (Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Arsenal, Bayern Munich) are of and belong to them.

They have known nothing else since near time immemorial. They won the First and Second World Wars and after 45 years, the Cold War too in 1990.
Ever since the 1990s, matters of what the world should be like had appeared settled. The West had won the Cold War. Free market, liberal democracy was now the official global standard. West was Best.
The first and second Persian Gulf wars in 1991 and 2003, both led by the United States against Iraq, were swift, hi-tech air bombings and short ground operations and victory came in a matter of weeks with very low Allied casualties.

It seemed clear to anyone watching all this that something intrinsic about western democracy, technology, diplomacy, culture, media, and character made it uniquely successful. They were the gods of this world.
And so it came as a shock two weeks ago, after another successful Western-sponsored and directed revolution succeeded. Pro-European Union demonstrations raging since November in Ukraine, the second-largest country in Europe, climaxed in the toppling of the government of President Yuri Yanukovych.
The West, once again, had won. Mass public sentiment favoured Ukraine forging closer ties with the West than its old Eastern ally and neighbour Russia.
But just when the West was starting to celebrate this latest geopolitical triumph, the President of the Russian Federation, a man called Vladimir Putin, suddenly ordered large-scale military exercises in western Russia.

It seemed too much of a coincidence not to raise suspicion. And the suspicions proved well founded. A day later, the first Russian Special Forces entered Ukraine. Then came war ships, helicopters, tanks and a blockade.
Unnerving for the West was Russia’s pretext for the invasion: the protection of the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine’s Crimea region, the same reasons Adolf Hitler gave to justify his invasions of Poland and Czechoslovakia.
The new Ukrainian government, fresh from its revolution and hardly a week in office, was thrown into crisis. Russia’s Gazprom energy company threatened to cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine over an unpaid $1.5 billion debt.
The short-lived celebration the West turned to condemnation, threats of sanctions against Russia, boycott of the scheduled G-8 summit in June, boycott of the Winter Para Olympic Games in Sochi, travel bans on Russian government officials, suspension of military cooperation, freezing of bank accounts and more.

President Putin simply sat and watched, unmoved. More emergency western meetings, NATO crisis talks, condemnation, media attacks, a 90-minute phone call from U.S. President Barack Obama, another one 60 minutes long, more warnings and denouncements.
By Friday, March 7, after all the huffing and puffing, the West discovered something it had not felt since the early years of the Cold War: a disturbing sense of helplessness.

All its assumptions of global moral superiority and power had been brought into question by Russia and without a single gunshot fired to kill.
The same West that had roundly condemned Uganda’s recent passing into law of the anti-gay bill, threatening to withhold aid and travel bans, found itself with no real answer to a world power of Russia’s stature.
NATO could do nothing. The EU was toothless. The US could at best only posture and talk big and forceful.

It is not a nice feeling to take dominance for granted and wake up to a challenge. If the entire Western world can be thrown off-balance by a single nation Russia, what happens when Russia gangs up with China, the way Germany, Japan and Italy formed the Axis alliance during World War II.
The West is going to return to the drawing board and do a lot of thinking. If they recently became consumed with celebrity culture, gay rights and other relatively trivial matters, Russia’s incursion into Ukraine has reminded them of bigger issues worth their serious attention.

Military budgets are going to soar. Alliances are going to be strengthened. Hardline, tough-talking politicians and political parties such as the Republicans in the U.S. will see a rise in public support.
As for the small nations like Uganda, the Arab world, Latin America like Cuba and Venezuela, North Korea, Iran and others, it is so satisfying, so thrilling to watch the West unable to do anything about Russia.

However, Putin has also done the West a favour. It will now be a little more modest in the way it views its place in the world. The assumptions of dominance and moral correctness in all the West does have been exposed as hollow.
The world is the better for it.