Leading article

Playing chicken with Vladimir Putin

The only way to stop Russia's escalating displays of aggression is to show western strength

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

An official end to the Cold War was declared at a summit between President George H. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev on a Soviet cruise ship moored at Malta on 2 December 1989. It is only a matter of time before western governments will have to admit that it has recommenced. While the rhetoric against Islamic State has been at full volume for the past few months, a soft and diminishing response has greeted Vladimir Putin’s escalating aggression. It is as if, Crimea having been ceded, western governments want their citizens to think that the rest of Ukraine is settling down into a mere domestic disagreement. The truth is very different: Putin’s ambitions have not retreated an inch since March.

This week, the European Leadership Network published a report into 40 incidents of militaristic aggression by Russia during the past eight months. Together they constitute a huge escalation from the occasional skirmishes between Russian and Nato forces which continued after the end of the Cold War. From the Black Sea to the Baltic, the North Atlantic to the Pacific, Russia has engaged in what appears to be a deliberate and concerted effort to test the West’s defences. On four occasions, US and Swedish reconnaissance aircraft have been harassed by Russian fighters in international airspace. Russian fighters, unarmed, have buzzed US warships in the Black Sea. On one occasion Russian forces carried out what appeared to be a mock bombing mission on the Danish island of Bornholm — with planes turning away at the last moment. In September, Russian bombers appeared to stage a mock missile launch in the Labrador Sea. Most grave of all, an airliner en route from Copenhagen to Rome narrowly avoided a collision with a Russian fighter in the western Baltic; the fighter plane had not signalled its position to air traffic controllers. That near miss, we can assume, was an accident. But there is nothing accidental in the repeated targeting of the Baltic states in military exercises. On six occasions Estonia has reported violations of its airspace. In September, an Estonian security official was seized from a border post and taken to Moscow for questioning over accusations of spying. The incident registered as little more than a faint blip on the radar of news channels.

No one should underestimate the threat of terror attacks posed by IS. But that organisation does not pose an existential threat to any western nation. Putin does. Whether he has active plans or not, the pattern of incidents over the past six months suggests that he is at least carrying out a mental invasion of the Baltic states, to fit with his ominous declaration that the break-up of the Soviet Empire was a great tragedy. It is inconceivable that he has not asked himself: what if I invaded a Baltic state? Would article five of the Nato Treaty — which declares ‘an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all’ — be enacted or would the more powerful members of the alliance shuffle their feet and just mutter about sanctions?

The Russian economy has been greatly harmed by western sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea and the downing of flight MH17. Finance minister Anton Siluanov warned this week that sanctions, combined with a falling oil price, will cost Russia $140 billion this year. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that Putin will draw from this the conclusion that he needs to tone down activities in Ukraine in order to get the sanctions lifted and open up trade again with the West. It might lead him to the opposite conclusion: that Russia was better off when it was a closed empire. If you can’t open up to what you see as your natural markets, there is always the possibility — at least for a country the size and strength of Russia — of invading them. The challenge to the West is to make this an unthinkable option for Putin. There is really only one way to do this: to make felt the presence of western military might. It isn’t necessary to issue great threats; just to assert that Nato is still the organisation it was during the Cold War. At present, this is far from clear.

The eastward march of Nato was more of a branding exercise than a military one. There was no great deployment of firepower in the former Soviet bloc states; no extra troops were stationed east of the Elbe. This didn’t matter so long as Russia was fully engaged on a path towards democracy and the observation of international law. But under Putin Russia is pursuing a different path. Subtly but unmistakably, Nato needs to draw a new line in the sand along the borders of its easternmost neighbours. There are signs that this is happening.

Sweden was thought by the Russians to have been a possible weak spot in western defence, but Sweden’s response to incursion of its waters by a Russian submarine in September suggested otherwise. The Swedish navy pursued the submarine and threatened to use military action to bring it to the surface. A little more of that stern vigilance could go a long way. As in the Cold War, peace will best be assured when Russia is left under no illusions that invasion and expansion is not a sensible option.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Babeouf

    More significant than this Cold War rehashed pap is the emerging Chinese /Russian alliance. If the US quislings who govern Europe are told by their masters in Washington to start a war with Russia who would be surprised? Regime chane in Ukraine,regime change in Russia. Stupid policies advanced in a desperate doomed attempt to save US hegemony and to preserve the Glory of its European colonies.

    • NotYouNotSure

      When is there going to be regime change in the USA ?

    • Grace Ironwood

      EXACTLY, I have drawn attention to their rapprochement in posts on other threads.
      We pushed Putin into making major concessions to suddenly conclude negotiations with China that had been going nowhere for years.

      We have leaders who dont seem able to discern our national, civilisation all
      Interests, distinguish friends or potential cooperative powers from enemies.

      See my post below.

  • Bumble Bee

    I can’t help myself, but feel that his sudden and very aggressive focus in Russia is designed to distract from the civil unrests that are brewing under the surface of pretty much every European country.
    Russia is not our enemy, Islam is our enemy. Russia has saved Europe’s moronic backside before, when they appeased the Nazis. It’s only a matter of time until weak and spineless and incompetent Europe will beg Russia to save them from the new Nazis – again. Because stupid never learns. Stupid destroys itself, their own country, their own people, and then has the galls to criticise others.
    A country that sits happily by, while thousands of young vulnerable women are groomed, drugged and raped on an industrial scale over 20 years, for fear of offending the rapists, has no business telling anybody, anything.

    • caap02

      Actually all the focus on Russia is because it is the first European country to have invaded, occupied and annexed a part of a neighbouring state since the 40s. That’s news, wouldn’t you agree?

      • crosscop

        Yes, the Russians are so old-fashioned. These days, all other European countries are invaded on a daily basis by the much more modern method – immigration.

      • Big Mouth John

        I live in Central London, and I feel invaded and occupied every single day

    • Dr. Heath

      Russia and Islam are BOTH our enemies. What happened in Chechnya is a war crime. What has happened in Abkhazia and the east of the Ukraine are wars of aggression. In many ways, Putin’s crimes are worse, from the point of view of the greater threat they represent to the free peoples of the former Soviet bloc and the USSR, than the threat from IS. IS is a manifestation of Islam’s civil war. Putin hates the West every bit as much as IS does but he has far more weaponry at his disposal, much of which is presently being used to kill people inside the borders of another sovereign state member of the UN.

      Russia barely managed to save its own ultra-moronic backside between 1941 and 1945. Subsequently, it reverted to type. Soviet totalitarianism died a quiet death, of course, but to everyone’s horror has been re-incarnated in the form of Putinite fascism, something that only surrender monkeys and appeasers seem to think is an improvement on Stalinism.

      • Big Mouth John

        After Beslan, nobody will ever convince me of the innocence of Chechnyans. In fact I spit on them and I spit on you for even mentioning them in a position victimhood.
        A people who are capable of storming a school, shooting children and blowing themselves up amongst them, deserve to have their rancid spat-on sh@t-on innards, fed to vile smelly swines.

        As usual, Muslims just showed how low they were willing to sink. Lower than animals, lower than vermin, and that’s how the world should them, because that’s how they treat everybody else, including their own people!

        rant over.

  • John Carins

    The attitude of the West, the US in particular to Russia has been lamentable. A little more generosity and understanding in return for assistance on foreign policy matters would have benefited both sides. Instead, we have a standoff which does neither side any favours. The blame for this lies mainly with the US and EU.

    • BFS

      Agreed John. The press should also grow up, stop acting like hyperventilating teenagers and trying to throw people against each other.

      If they have bellicose instincts they should man up and go to the front themselves or send their kids or do some charity to help the families of which lives were uprooted and devastated with their complicity.

      The lack of calm, intelligence and compassion and historical perspective of hysterical journalists like the one that wrote this article is frightening.

      • John Carins

        Worryingly. the press supposedly the guardians of free speech seem to be acting as government propagandists. I agree that the journalists are lacking intelligence or the ability to question. The Spectator has just failed the test with this lazy article. A scintilla of doubt and more balance would be refreshing

        • Pavel

          Do you think the publisher is interested in the views of the majority of readers? To do this, they must respect the readers first.

      • C_Before_E

        Yes, and what’s worse, a hyperemotional loose cannon like Angela Merkel with no experience of Russian rule is joining the media in showing distrust and dislike to Russiat. Just part of the lamentable hysteria.

        • Grace Ironwood

          Ooh sarcasm of the driest kind. 🙂

          • Grace Ironwood


    • Dr. Heath

      Nothing, nothing whatsoever, that the US or the EU could have done would have made the least difference to the views of Russian citizens and Russian leaders. The animosity towards us is visceral and, to anyone not brought up in the USSR, completely irrational. But it’s there and Russians think it’s perfectly reasonable and that we’re out to get them. There is nothing we can do about it. Generosity is wasted on people who hate you. If you have enemies, you need to be vigilant, not morph into a platitudinising milquetoast.

      • Guest

        “Generosity is wasted on people who hate you.”

        ISLAM is a nutshell, you know, beheading aid workers, raping red cross workers, killing polio vaccinators, not to mention giving them freedom in our countries, safety, a future for their children, home,s mosques, schools, and how do they repay us? By raping our daughters, beheading our soldiers and worst of all: the deafening silence every single day, when horrors are committed in their name all over the globe – they blame us!

        • Bumble Bee

          well said

      • Grace Ironwood

        Dont matter. Our interests dictate we avoid nonsense like schooling russia in progressivism overukraine thats irrelevant to us – but not them.respect their interests, not to make them like us, but because our interests lie elsewhere.

    • Andrejs Faibuševičs

      So, what about Ukraine, John ? Crimean Tatars ? What about international rules Russia has formally signed for ? Do I understand correctly your “understanding” actually mean selective (non)hearing and (non)seeing of reality ? To whom do you suggest EU people to sell their souls ?

      • John Carins

        I understand that there are many complex issues and that people tend to take sides. You have clearly taken one particular side. I have not taken any side but merely suggest that the approach taken by the West over Russia is unimaginative and likely only to inflame the situation further. Don’t believe all of the so called “reality” fed to you by Western governments.

  • cambridgeelephant

    Better Putin than the EU any day.

    • Dr. Heath

      All thoughtful people agree with you. Every educated person in Britain would be so much happier if the Prime Minister had Putin’s
      dictatorial powers and if the state became a collection of thieves without an
      independent judiciary, opposition parties or free press to constrain it. [I’ve cribbed these sentiments from one of The Spectator’s bloggers because I thought it’s time to go with the flow. Putin’s trolls are appearing here as frequently as they appear on The Guardian’s site.] I’d always thought that having journalists assassinated and carpet bombing a city within your own state’s borders were symptoms of Putin’s criminal, demented personality. Now I realise what Putin really is. If he’s so popular with the people who post their views with the nation’s most progressive newspaper, then, clearly, this must mean Putin is….a progressive. Bless.

      • cambridgeelephant

        Hello Ted ! Still on a three day week are we ? I think we know where we are with Putin and he’s quite entitled to stand up for himself and for Russia.

        I can’t remember the last time he sent us a bill for 2 or even 34 billion £. Nor do I recall him forcing any absurd diktats down our throats. I suspect he’d be quite happy to let us govern ourselves. Good for him I say !

      • Grace Ironwood

        Putin is not popular with me, nor am I some operative of his,

        Let’s just discern our real enemies. Non of his posturing happened until well after the west intervened with useless Ukraine

  • Irakli Bokuchava

    Putin declared Russia as leader of anti Western World.Its open hostility.Lavrov in his last statement called West Christianophobic.Russia testing defense system of neighbor countries again and again,even NATO members.No,Response.The only way to stop Russia’s escalating displays of aggression is to show western strength.Absolutely righteous position.Putin must stop timely,till WWIII opens door of our planet.

    • Bumble Bee

      ‘western strength’

      are you having a laugh Irakli?
      the west hasn’t been this weak and vulnerable in decades – all self inflicted

      • Irakli Bokuchava

        West needs charismatic leaders,like Reagan.West stronger,than Putin’s Russia,but not solid,united with one will.Frustrated,egocentric West encourages Russian barbarian aggression. Solidary,united response of Europe and USA easy solve problem with this former KGB officer Putin.

        • Big Mouth John

          are you Georgian? I agree with Bumble Bee but I do adore Georgian food

        • Bumble Bee

          the west needs leaders with a brain bigger than that one of an amoeba

    • Grace Ironwood

      Lavrov isn’t wrong in his statement.

  • GenJackRipper

    George Soros & The Bilderberg Group approves this comment.

  • Laguna Beach Fogey

    Clearly, our true enemy currently resides not in Russia, but in Western government, media, and academia.

    Should a new Cold War begin and escalate into WWIII, I shall do my best to support Russia and undermine the libtard multikult regime at home.

    The leaders of the US, EU, and NATO are the new Bolsheviks.

  • NotYouNotSure

    Lets all man up and fight Russia so that it gets homosexual marriage, cultural marxism, 3rd world immigration, an Orwellian surveillance state and the elimination of free speech in the name of “social harmony”. I am so glad that our Western militaries exist to defend these Western values.

    • caap02

      Russia already HAS Orwellian surveillance, and free speech has already been eliminated, and not in the namby pamby way that the politically-correct way, but in the tried and true KGB way.

      • NotYouNotSure

        To be honest I don’t know what one can and cannot not say in Russia, but in Britain you will get a police visit if you say something bad about gays, any ethnic group, religious groups (except for Christians), even Mandela, and this is not hyperbole here all of these are real world news stories you can find. People like talk about freedom of speech, but other than being able to call Cameron an a hole, I very much doubt people are restricted more in Russian than in Britain.

        • Greygoose

          Quite a few Crimean Tartars tortured to death say otherwise. And Magnitsky, the lawyer who defended whistleblowers and so was left to die in jail with his pancreatitis untreated. But apart from that, pretty similar.

        • redsquirrel

          keep dreaming. We can’t speak out in public against islam. Apart from that we are free as the birds. Tell that to pussy riot.

      • Big Mouth John

        hey in Britain Muslims can rape young women, burn poppies and carry placards calling for beheadings and killing, but put me on a corner shouting ‘Mohammed pedophile’ and I’ll get 20 years

  • Bill_der_Berg

    When it comes to aggressive action, the West has been no slouch since the end of the Second World War, so perhaps we should not be to ready to believe what we are being told by our politicians. Saddam and his non-existent WMD’s should not forgotten.

  • Charlemagne

    What Russian Submarine? Spectator seem to have more and better intelligence then the Swedish Armed Forces. Perhaps Fraser Nelson had a first hand encounter with the Russian Submarine from his vacation cabin in the Stockholm archipelago? Cheap shot.

  • polistra24

    The West started this war. Now the West is SHOCKED to find that Russia doesn’t love being attacked and threatened and besieged on all sides.

    Monstrous chutzpah.

    • Laguna Beach Fogey

      Chutzpah is the appropriate word here, considering the modern West.

    • Greygoose

      I thought this war started when Russia annexed part of a neighbouring state with force, then sent gun, tanks, artillery & soldiers into a another part. Silly me.

      • Bill_der_Berg

        If there is one thing that recent history has taught us, it is that it is quite normal (even commendable) for a nation, or group of nations, to invade another. We saw that in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

  • Bonkim

    Russia can stand the punishment – the question is whether the West can be united and not chicken off – the answer is no as most are dependent on Russia gas/oil and also investment. The EU is in shambles and calls for US/NATO assistance every time they are threatened – you cannot shout wolf too many times.

  • The puffing Billy

    NATO is a vehicle for American commercial expansion.

  • Carla Chamorro

    Nothing, nothing whatsoever, that the US or the EU could have done would have made the least difference to the views of Russian citizens and Russian leaders. The animosity towards us is visceral and, to anyone not brought up in the USSR, completely irrational. But it’s there and Russians think it’s perfectly reasonable and that we’re out to get them. There is nothing we can do about it. Generosity is wasted on people who hate you. If you have enemies, you need to be vigilant, not morph into a platitudinising milquetoast.

    • Grace Ironwood

      See my answer above.

      We have no national interest in Ukraine. Russia does. Needs it’s “near abroad”

      Despite Russia’s history as a spoiler, we can combine on occasion for serious projects that involve primary national interest of both parties.

      No love lost.

  • mickc

    Russia poses no threat to the West whatsoever, other than to the West’s eastward expansion.

    The claim that the East European states joining NATO was a “branding exercise” is nonsense. It was an expansion by a military structure whose purpose has long since ceased, but now regards itself, unasked, as the world policeman.

    It bollocksed up Iraq, and now needs another enemy to justify its existence, so Russia has been chosen. Not China, of course, the West owes it too much money and would lose an economic war with China…so Russia it is.

  • Grace Ironwood


    Far from “manning up” (we can’t/won’t) the West should be seeking accommodation with Putin after bringing this on ourselves.

    The A OF ABC of Foreign Policy is to be good to your friends and bad to your enemies.

    Obama has spent his time in office betraying his friends and sucking up to his enemies. Friends are dismayed and now making other arrangements – which involves Russia which has stood at the ready to help.

    EU & Obama have a Progressive Foreign Policy Doctrine of White Guilt.

    The West’s interests lie in the complete destruction of Islamic State and the
    Global Islamic Revolution of conquering the West. Russia also has an interest in this.

    Although Russia is a bad actor that usually acts as spoiler, we have mutual interests to combine against this major threat.

    Instead the progressives in the EU and the White House want to school Putin in progressive politics by a provocative overtures to the mendicant failed state of the Ukraine. This state needs an economic and military Daddy and Russia has been it
    In order to maintain the tradition buffer state in Russia’s “Near Abroad” .

    US & EU never had any intention or capacity to be Ukraine’s Daddy, they just wanted it to transfer into the West’s orbit & demonstrate their progressive credentials

  • ABT123

    It’s surprising how many Putler’s apologists there are in the West. He is a criminal and common sense Russians understand this too.

    • mickc

      Most commenters are not “apologists” for Putin, but point out that Russia is bound to be concerned about expansion by the West up to its borders. Naturally, whoever is in power in Russia will take steps to safeguard the motherland.

      I have no idea if Putin is a “criminal” and it is as irrelevant to the point as whether Obama was born in Kenya.

  • Anthony Papagallo

    War is part of the mechanics of Capitalism, one cannot exist without the other, and Nato is Capitalism’s ‘war department’. A full scale military confrontation with Russia is inevitable at some point in the near future because Capitalism will demand it.
    Soon Iraq and Afghanistan will run out of children to feed our appetite for blood, the blood that lubricates the financial centers of Europe and America…and Russia will start to look like a mouthwatering oasis of flesh and blood that must be gorged on. Good Luck to Putin, whomever is left of us two hundred years from now will say he was the last sane man on the planet.

  • John H Newcomb

    Make no mistake about Putin and his New Russian Empire – Russia is the biggest country in the world and its military might is a huge part of Kremlin geopolitical strategy to prevail over the West. Russian military, media and now Putin have been threatening to play their nuclear card for several years but so far in 2014, the threats coming a bit thicker:
    – March: Putin’s chief propagandist Dmitriy Kiselyov pronounces on television that Russia is the only country capable of turning the United States into “radioactive ashes.”: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/03/16/russian-tv-host-russia-is-the-only-country-with-capability-to-turn-u-s-into-radioactive-ashes/
    – July: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said “We have the doctrine of national security, and it very clearly regulates the actions, which will be taken in this case.” This is a not-so-subtle threat to use nuclear weapons to retain Crimea.: http://thediplomat.com/2014/07/russia-threatens-nuclear-strikes-over-crimea/
    – August: Putin speaking to a Putinist youth summer camp assembly, “I want to remind you that Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations,” the President said. “This is a reality, not just words.” http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/29/world/europe/ukraine-crisis/index.html
    – October: Putin issues new ‘large nuclear power’ warning to West: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/vladimir-putin/11167192/Vladimir-Putin-issues-new-large-nuclear-power-warning-to-West.html

  • gfsdyughjgd .

    Western imperialist should stop sodomy there is nothing like gay marriage which is sodomy it is prohibited by GOD.Now that Brittain and USA and has fail to create pedophiles their have now resort to gay marriage (SODOMY.) Saudi Arabia and Turkye will continue to use Muslim as terrorist by creating this evil organizations to please USA masters.There are enough women online seeking men stop (sodomy marriage) Gay marriage.We want beautifull black and white kids no men rapes.If USA and Brittain can convince Russia that man and man can create kids then we will accept that,and tell the ladies to leave all man alone so that man and man can marry.

  • Spot-on. Russia has no ideology to sell. This is all about a man who has been in power for by far too long, living in his own bubble and completely detached from reality. Putin is a de-facto dictator. His popularity within Russia may be high, but so was Hitler’s (even though he clearly is not quite in the same league!). Putin is displays all the classic symptoms of a man hanging on to power at any cost. And who can blame him? At this stage, he’s got nothing to lose. Who will be the next Bond villain? Surely, the answer is Vladimir Putin. The president of Russia fits the bill perfectly and his role in the next Bond movie alongside Daniel Craig looks assured. Further to this: http://pinkerspost.com/?p=342

  • Jaria1

    Dont think the way to stop Russian aggression is to show Wests strength. On the contrary id be inclined to hide it until its something Putin must take seriously.
    He is obviously aware that Europe is reluctant to spend money on defence apart from the US the West might find it difficult to best IS.
    He saw what in his mind was Gorbachovs d’Etente was a failure and prpbably loks upon him as a traitor.
    I have no doubt what his intentions are and unfortunately what the Wests response will be so of course has Putin who has more of a touch of Stalin and Hitler about him

  • Terry Field

    He loves his mum. What is the problem.

  • King Ahmad

    putin is a war criminal……