What to do about Russia; avoid a modern Versailles.

Many historians agree The Treaty of Versailles signed at the end of WW1 was largely the cause of WW2, which was the very thing it was intended to prevent. The divergent views of all-powerful leaders combined to create a treaty which had exactly the opposite effect to what they intended. A hundred years, later western leaders might be making exactly the same mistake as they devise measures to contain Russia.

The conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles on Germany in 1919 were overbearing, and the financial reparations unaffordable. As an aside, The Treaty of Versailles was also the moment the Japanese, who attended the conference as victors, realised they would never be regarded as equals. As the only non-white attendees their suggestion of a racial equality clause in the charter of the League of Nations, was summarily rejected. Thus, the Treaty managed to fan the flame of nationalism in both Germany and Japan.

The problem with The Treaty of Versailles was that the specific measures designed to make sure Germany stayed weak, ie reparations, limits on her navy and army, were unenforced and therefore irrelevant. However, the offence caused to German pride was real and fueled the very nationalist sentiment it was supposed to contain.

We may well be at a Versailles moment now with respect to Russia and for many of the same reasons. Communism was a humiliating 70 year disaster for Russia from which there remains no recovery. In 1919 the West’s confidence came from victorious armies; now it comes from victorious ideas

Russia foreign policy does now challenge western interests. The danger is that the very measures intended to contain Russia will be symbolic but easy to circumvent and thus irrelevant. These measures include boycotting world cups, kicking out diplomats and even increasing western defence spending on items of doubtful value. Meanwhile, the emotional impact of those measures within Russia will be real, driving leaders like Putin to take more of the very actions the measures are designed to prevent: just like Versailles.

Russia’s vulnerability is energy. They need western technology to extract it and depend on Europe and China to buy it. Diluting European dependence would take time but would be meaningful. Reduced western dependency on Russian energy would in turn enable western powers to restrict Russian access to western energy technology which Russia badly needs. Over time less modern energy extraction technology would reduce Russias energy output, squeeze Russian government revenues and highlight just what a poor job Putin has done of modernising the Russian economy.

Western policy response to Russia has no simple single answer but avoiding the triumphalism of Versailles is a good start.

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