In many years of international negotiations and on-the-ground work in conflict zones I have learned that leadership is not a choice between a good option and a bad option. The choice is easy. Pick the good option.
But leadership is having the right ethical framework to choose the least bad of competing bad options, knowing that everyone will criticise you for taking a bad choice.
This is where we are today with Ukraine and Russia. Decision-makers squandered good options when the 2014 Crimea situation was appallingly handled.
What will play out now is one of three broad and bad possibilities. There are no good choices left.
Firstly, the Western powers can make half-hearted attempts to impose relatively light sanctions, wave impotent fingers and then head off to lunch. Bad option. It will signal a victory for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the victory of violence and the beginning of a much more unstable world.
Secondly, the Western powers can revive the Domino Theory, and launch a full-throated military response in the hope they can constrain Russia, with the consequent risk of nuclear war. Very bad option.
Thirdly, there can be an attempt to find some sort of compromise solution where ultimately Putin gets to keep a land bridge to Crimea, a promise that Ukraine will not join NATO and, possibly, a puppet regime in Kiev. Also not a good option.
If there is a fourth option still available better than the above, I don’t see it. So which way are we heading?
Australia will follow
The sanctions being proposed thus far do not seem to deter Putin. His new ‘no limits’ friendship with China, his new trade deals with China, his membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Council, increasing gas and oil prices together with a knowledge that Germany must eventually turn on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, means that he can quite happily ride out most of the sanction currently being proposed.
US President Joe Biden has offered ‘prayers’ much like presidents do after US school shootings. Strangely enough, those prayers don’t seem to stop the next shooting nor will they protect Ukraine.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnston stands ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with Ukraine – so long as he doesn’t have to physically be shoulder to shoulder, nor place soldiers on the ground, shoulder to shoulder.
In Australia, Defence Minister Dutton and Prime Minister Scott Morrison are madly wagging the dog trying to repeat John Howard’s rise from the ashes on the back of a burning refugee boat in 2001.
There is no doubt that if the US and UK did go to war with Russia, Dutton and Morrison would do what Australian governments have always done: follow blindly.
A wider war
Thankfully there is no proposal to confront Russia in a shooting war. To do so would be madness and Putin knows it.
While Putin’s actions cannot be supported, neither can they be stopped. That is the real-politick of it all.
However, the signal that is being sent to nuclear-armed China, North Korea, India and Pakistan is clear: Forget the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The only way to really protect yourself is to have nukes and seem unafraid to use them.
The signal being sent to China and Taiwan is clear too. China has nukes. China can ride out sanctions imposed by the West, but Western powers could not ride out China’s economic retaliation for those sanctions. Putin’s Ukraine journey has turned Taiwan into ‘when’ not ‘if’.
The West’s sanctions seem like impotent finger-waiving. The saying that ‘Russia is playing chess and the Americans are playing checkers’ seems to hold true. Putin has played a long and careful game.
A full-throated ‘Domino Theory 2’ style war is unlikely and highly undesirable. The West waving impotent fingers is probable, but undesirable.
The question is, can some sort of face-saving fudge be found?
Ukraine will be feeling very alone today and getting ready to lose the east, confirm the loss of Crimea and lose the land bridge to Crimea, but can it stay in existence as a sovereign nation? Maybe this is the only hope to halt things before they get even worse.
If the solution is not saving face, then can an unpalatable yet tolerable solution be found? This is the challenge for policy makers now.
In Taiwan people will watch all this with trepidation.