Russian Roulette

In Muted Response to Ukraine Fighting, the West Reveals its Weakness

Malaysia Airlines plane crashes in eastern Ukraine
Protesters on July 22, 2014, in Kuala Lumpur demanding information over the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, which killed 298 passengers and crew.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The growing weakness of Europe and the United States to influence global events is revealed in the Ukraine crisis and the tragedy of almost 300 lives lost – and the consequences don’t end there.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was hit by missile at 30,000 feet.
    • The U.S. says the missile was launched from area in eastern Ukraine where rebels are active.
    • U.S. officials believe the missile was a Russian-made SA-11.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Europe is reeling from shock. Things are happening now in Ukraine that would have seemed impossible just a short while ago. Russian President Vladimir Putin brazenly annexes Crimea and doesn’t even try to cover up his hunger for power. And the West seems powerless.

Now Russian-supported Ukrainian separatists purportedly have shot down a passenger plane with nearly 300 innocent people on board. It is a human tragedy. The images of wreckage and bodies strewn over miles of Ukrainian countryside could burn into the European consciousness like the 9/11 terror attacks did in America. And the West seems powerless.

Here and there a couple of sanctions are discussed, but neither Europe nor the United States is able to muster a unified, effective response.

The world changes with breathtaking speed in Europe. It has been 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended. It seemed then that the West had succeeded in establishing its values of human rights, democracy and market economy. Not so.

The world changes with breathtaking speed in Europe. It has been 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended. It seemed then that the West had succeeded in establishing its values of human rights, democracy and market economy.

Not so. It wasn’t the “end of history” as author Francis Fukuyama claimed in his 1989 essay heralding the triumph of “Western liberal democracy.” Instead, we are entering a new era that is distinguished above all by one thing: the baffling weakness of the West.

Europe, the debt continent, is now in its fifth year of struggling with the euro crisis. Its hub is held together in makeshift fashion by an activist central bank that is increasingly entangled in issues of legitimacy. Europe is now too weak to support effective sanctions against Russia because it fears that any economic shock will send markets back into turmoil. And slackening economic relations with Russia would be just such a shock.

And the United States – even 13 years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks – is still traumatized. The Guantanamo detention camp, arbitrary drone executions, and, most recently, the NSA spy scandal have long since robbed “God’s own country” of its moral authority.

For now, the United States is preoccupied with itself. It is even more in debt than Europe, though economic prospects are better. That makes it easier for President Barack Obama to demand tough sanctions against Moscow. Compared to Europe, he hardly has to fear negative consequences of such policies.

A Russian nation fighting to restore world power status has become today’s greatest economic risk. German exports to Mr. Putin’s country only amount to 1.3 percent of Germany’s gross domestic product. But the impact of a permanent distancing from Russia would be much greater than numbers suggest.

Autocratic nations like China and, well, Russia, take advantage of the weakness of America and Europe to give free reign to their aspirations of major power. “The West is in terminal decline,” they say in Moscow and Beijing. “Our time has come.”

That not only makes the world more complicated, but more dangerous. This can be seen across the globe as old conflicts flare up again or new ones are created. Israel, Iraq, Syria, Libya – the list grows all the time.

It all threatens a fragile world economy where Western nations struggle with historic debts. The peace dividend – which has benefited exporting nations like Germany for decades – is at risk. Soaring stock prices that investors have celebrated recently could fall just as quickly.

A Russian nation fighting to restore world power status has become today’s greatest economic risk. German exports to Mr. Putin’s country only amount to 1.3 percent of Germany’s gross domestic product. But the impact of a permanent distancing from Russia would be much greater than numbers suggest.

For Western nations, cutting off trade with Russia would be another threat to the already fragile global economy. For Russia, of course, there also is a great impact. It is more dependent on exporting oil than most other nations – and most of those exports go to the West.

Everybody in this conflict is undoubtedly aware that there will be no winners if the Ukrainian crisis continues to escalate – and that might explain the strange, indecisive behavior we are now seeing.

The author is economics editor at Handelsblatt. He can be reached at: muenchrath@handelsblatt.com 

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