Not all English country gardens are in the country. The one in which I enjoyed al fresco drinks before dinner last weekend is in the middle of Kensington, in central London, but behind high walls and a mile away from the noise of heavy traffic, it could be in rural Kent or Wiltshire or any of the Midsomer Murders counties. The weather had been forecast to be thunderous and rainy; so it was in fact the cool, dry end of a hot day under a blue sky. The lawns were clipped, the trees shady, the flowers barely moving in a light occasional breeze. In short, an idyllic scene.
Our hosts were a distinguished Anglo-American poet and historian and his American wife, herself a literary critic, who make an annual visit from California to see friends in London. As well as being hosts, they too are guests, since other friends make this historic house and garden available to them for their visit and entertaining.
Their dinner guests tonight included two prominent historians (one an expatriate, one at home in England), a novelist, a writer specializing in the Middle East, the wife of an EU government minister, two journalists (one American but living in London, another English but peripatetic), an English interior decorator, her daughter, who has just graduated from college, and the novelist’s wife, who, as a young woman (and a British diplomatic “brat”), had lived in the Washington embassy.
When we arrived, the other guests were clustered around the American journalist, who was saying resignedly: “I’ve spent the afternoon poring over photographs . . . the downed Ukrainian airliner . . . the crash scene . . . it all points to the pro-Russian separatists . . . beyond them to Putin . . . ”
We all wanted to know if there would now be any kind of serious judicial investigation into what looked like a major international crime. Apparently the black boxes were in the hands of the separatists and, according to some reports, already in Moscow. Would they be handed over to the Dutch or the Malaysians as the formal interested parties?
“Probably, but even if the black boxes are in mint condition, untouched, they will tell us only what happened to and on the plane. We know the basic truth about that. . . . What we don’t know fully yet is how close Russia’s own military intelligence was to the final decision to shoot down the airliner. . . . Did they let the separatists decide? . . . After all, Putin is still shipping masses of military equipment over the border to them. Will there be other missile firings? And if so, will we do anything about it?”
There was a general feeling that we would do something about it — eventually. An appeasement policy always reaches a point where either the other power is successfully appeased and becomes a friend or it is revealed to be a firm enemy that will be strengthened by further appeasement. Neville Chamberlain reached that point in March 1939 when Hitler took the rump of Czechoslovakia. Had that point now been reached?
“We are close to it, but not quite there,” said the European minister’s wife. “We are at the point where we all agree that sacrifices have to be made in containing a revanchist Russia, but where we each think the other nations should make the bigger sacrifice. But agreement can’t be too long in coming. Everyone can see, for instance, the absurdity of France selling warships to a country that is at this very moment invading its neighbor and shooting down civilian airliners.”
Allies around the garden table could agree easily enough on a general NATO-EU program of shared sacrifice: Britain should impose financial sanctions on Russian money; France should cancel its sale of warships to the Kremlin; Germany should reduce its dependence on Russian energy. The minister’s wife wanted to go beyond the energy sanctions by establishing a common European energy policy that would negotiate as a bloc with Moscow in order to prevent the Kremlin “punishing” a single country such as Ukraine in future.
That in turn would increase the power and influence of Berlin in this and later crises, others objected. But was Chancellor Angela Merkel someone who would take strong action, either now or later? The minister’s wife thought so. Merkel, she said, took a long time to reach a tough decision, but she got there in the end, and then she was firm in sticking to it.
“And she knows that Putin lies to her all the time,” she said. He was still telling her that Russia was not sending advanced weapons to the separatists in Ukraine. That was foolish of him. It would make a difference sometime, maybe soon.
But what should the U.S. do until then? And what was it doing? Here there was — well, let’s call it a nuanced view. Most people thought that the Obama administration was somewhat bolder than the Europeans in proposing sanctions and making modest military moves, but also that saying this wasn’t saying a great deal. And some were much more critical.
One of the historians, asked what he would do, suggested giving Ukraine tactical nuclear weapons. After all, Washington had persuaded Ukraine to surrender its nukes in 1994 under an agreement on which the Russians had now reneged. Returning those weapons to Kiev would be a very suitable payback to Moscow — not to mention a deterrent preventing the outright Russian invasion of Ukraine that lurks at the back of every discussion.
How likely was such a move, though? As others pointed out, the Obama administration has so far refused to send Ukraine even the modern conventional weapons systems that would enable the country to fight the “separatists,” mercenaries, and Russian military volunteers on its territory. Its recent battlefield successes have been won with older Soviet equipment.
Moreover, Obama’s overall foreign policy, characterized as it is by illusion and inertia, had helped the Europeans to treat the growing power of Russia as at best beneficial, at worst nothing much to worry about. He had presided over Hillary Clinton’s “reset” policy towards Russia and rebuffed the 2009 appeal from Central Europe’s leaders to strengthen America’s ties to its allies in the region. And his overall foreign policy was collapsing around him.
“Yes, he wins the George III prize,” said the English historian gloomily. “I never thought I’d say this about anyone, but he’s an even worse president than Jimmy Carter.”