Do we really want war with Russia? Do we want to risk one, even a tiny one? The prospect has certainly taken British minds off Brexit. It has exhilarated the press. It has given Theresa May an immense boost and helped the defence lobby in its campaign for more money. There is nothing democracy seems to enjoy so much as contemplating war, to unite it and raise its spirits. It is never unpopular – beforehand.
The official British response to the attempted killing of the Skripals has been precipitate but measured. We do not know the mix of greed, vendetta and shambles that may have fuelled the Salisbury outrage, but it is hard not to treat Moscow as guilty until proved innocent. May’s portfolio of expulsions and ostracisms is the traditional diplomatic ballet. It has received welcome support from the US, France and Germany. Matter closed?
Sadly not. History warns us to distinguish the banality of a single incident from its wider contribution to an emerging crisis. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo in 1914, the killer was not a state agent but a terrorist with a gun. It could have been settled by a mediating conference. Instead, a continent roused to war fever craved escalation. Soon Austria declared war on Serbia, Germany on Russia and France on Germany. As AJP Taylor wrote afterwards, nothing “caused” the first world war. “Statesmen miscalculated and became prisoners of their own weapons.” At a certain point armed conflict was unavoidable, as nations raced to re-enact some primitive tribal rivalry.
Russia’s method of settling its internal feuds is obscene and archaic. The BBC’s vivid profile of Vladimir Putin this week depicted a paranoid, money-obsessed bully who, in an international context, needed handling with firmness and clarity. But even if the Skripal poisoning was “state sponsored”, it was clearly a specific act against an individual, like the Litvinenko killing. Why elevate it, as May did this week, to the “unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the UK”?
Parliament parroted the same nonsense. The Tories’ Tom Tugendhat said the poisoning “if not an act of war, was certainly a warlike act”. Labour’s Chris Leslie and John Woodcock worked themselves into a lather over “our country under attack” and “the gravity of the threat Russia poses to this nation”. In these bidding wars of exaggeration, words lose all meaning. Attacking people with poison is detestable. So are Russia’s infantile cyber-attacks and crude fake news trolls. They are unfriendly acts, but they are not war. Why be driven by some fiendish yearning for them to be so?
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the west has revelled in the humiliation of Russia. Every act of the EU and Nato after 1989 was to the same destructive end. Russia’s neighbours were welcomed into the EU. Nato extended its defensive border to the edge of the Russian Federation, despite then president Boris Yeltsin (and to an extent Germany) pleading with the west “not to play with fire”.
As Yeltsin plunged into his botched privatisations in the 1990s, London egged them on by opening its banks to handle Russia’s stolen billions. Britain was complicit in creating the world’s greatest kleptocracy, brazenly and for a quarter of a century. Even this week, the prime minister lacked the guts to face down the City of London and call a halt to Russian money laundering.
All this is a grim echo of how the allies treated Germany after Versailles in 1919. They rubbed its nose in defeat, occupying its territory, destroying its dignity and stripping it of its flimsy wealth. Germany eventually found refuge in dictatorship. When in 2000 Russia found in Putin a leader capable of asserting a degree of order staging a nationalist revival, the west and Nato seemed almost to sigh with relief. Devoid of ideology or creed, Putin was a cynical autocrat of the old school. He was eager to liberate his country from the stain of cold war defeat. He wanted to reassert tsarist supremacy over Russia’s “space”, its Russian-speaking neighbours in parts of Georgia, Ukraine and possibly the Baltics. Nato had a recognisable enemy.
Putin duly feasted on an image created for him by the west, of a Russia rising alone above a sea of misunderstanding, encirclement and ostracism, a country with little to be proud of but pride itself. His every misbehaviour seemed to invite an over-response. The the west kept them coming – as if wanting to strengthen him.
Even on its own terms, the west can have no interest in declaring cold war 2.0. It may indeed be that Putin only understands power in an enemy, and when he clearly oversteps a mark, as now, he needs to be “sent a firm message”. But he is not another Stalin. He is not Napoleon eager to bestride Europe. Russia is not the Soviet empire. It is rather a dangerous bundle of insecurities.
Putin is riddled with what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences”. Nothing could be more calculated to exacerbate them as western confrontation, denying contact and engagement with Russia and its people. May is thus playing Putin’s game by exploiting each incident as a statist threat – as she does threats from Isis and “world terrorism”. It is the oldest trick in the populist book. It “nationalises” a crime. It summons patriotism to the suppression of reason. It gets in the way of proportionality. It raises the risk of mistakes.
Camus wrote that “plagues and wars take people equally by surprise”. The idea that Skripal may be the Franz Ferdinand of the next European conflict may seem ludicrous. Yet the west’s responses to post-Soviet Russia, however reasonable in the short term, have been disastrous in general. A war with Russia would be the west’s fault.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist
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