This debate between politicians, intellectuals, journalists and authorities of all kinds which agitates public opinion, opposes philosophical/moral positions as well as partisan interests, and is most often limited to the enunciation of apparently indisputable objectives, the pursuit of which justifies any means used to achieve them.
Thus, as such reasoning goes, the unanimously shared objective of ‘restoring peace’ deserves to be imposed at any cost insofar as it aims at ending the loss of both civilian and military lives, the senseless destruction of property and an unacceptable level of abuses and war crimes.
Achieving this objective makes it possible to advocate compromises which, for some, are simply a matter of pragmatism whatever the sacrifices they impose on the parties, while for others, there are red lines whose transgression is, in any case, a matter for the protagonists alone to decide. Third parties to the conflict are obviously free to support – or not – one or the other solution according to their interests, be they political, economic or moral.
However, if the question posed does not seem to be open to discussion, it is rather the question itself that is badly stated – the term ‘provocation’ having itself a connotation that is condemnable in absolute terms. Indeed, one may ask how the “provocation” carried out in this particular case by the aggressor can be ignored while the restoration of the rights of the aggressed (as recognized by international law) would constitute apparently an impediment to the restoration of peace. In such circumstances recommending that only one party abstains from provocation is tantamount to advocating an unacceptable capitulation.
In reality, one suspects that those who recommend avoiding any provocation of Putin, are seeking first and foremost to limit any extension of the conflict which would imply risks for their own vital interests. It is this policy of appeasement, reminiscent – under very different circumstances – of that of the 1930s that must be fought against at all costs to prevent that the price of restoring a peaceful and democratic future to the European continent becomes exorbitant.
Resisting firmly now is all the more the obvious choice as events on the military front in Ukraine considerably relativize the scope of the threat of an extension of the conflict (apart from a nuclear threat, which should be ignored); on the contrary, the planned extension of NATO to include Finland and Sweden not only reinforces the number of the Alliance’s partners but above all strengthens its defensive capability.
Avoiding to “provoke” Putin is an easy excuse not to implement a series of badly needed difficult reforms that cowardly compromises imposed on the Ukrainians would only delay to the detriment of our own interests and safety. These include the rearmament of the military forces of NATO members, the completion of the Economic and Monetary Union in order to definitively establish the durability of the Single Currency and the acceleration of European integration through an in-depth reform of the treaties, in order to end the institutional blockages (unanimity) resulting from past and future enlargements.
The concomitance of the war in Ukraine with other actual or potential crises (climatic, health, agricultural, migratory, inflationary, financial, terrorist, and budgetary, etc.) offers numerous opportunities to Putin to hope for the collapse of the unity of the West that he has, unwittingly, temporarily strengthened. Disintegration of the EU is certainly his primary goal; it can only be achieved from the inside. Member States are alone responsible to oppose it: only a deep solidarity within a Union that assumes full responsibility for its own future can offer hope – in a balanced partnership with the United States – of contributing, together with the whole of the Western (and assimilated) world, to the defense of the interests and values of its citizens. Failing to achieve these goals, Europe will ultimately be overwhelmed by a world in which the majority of the population does not share in its development, in its wealth and above all in its freedom.
From the above it becomes clear that avoiding any provocation of Putin cannot help engineering a solution to the Ukrainian problem but will only postpone the timeline for an increasingly costly confrontation. The late Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks, perfectly identified the parameters of the dilemma posed, in his August 2000 address to the World Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders at the UN. He referred to a rabbinic answer, dating back 20 centuries, to the question “Who is strong? Who is a hero?” Instead of the obvious answer: “He who defeats his enemies” the rabbis proposed: “He who turns an enemy into a friend!” This is clearly difficult to put into practice but oh so much more effective for all concerned. https://www.rabbisacks.org/archive/forgiveness-and-reconciliation-address-to-the-millennium-peace-summit-at-the-united-nations/). An in-depth reflection on this text and its implications would avoid a polemic that goes far beyond the superficial recipes and judgements that abound.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that “provocation” should always be avoided, but in the context of a specific dispute, this principle must be applied to both parties to have any meaning. The path proposed by Rabbi Sacks seems to offer an alternative that Russia and Ukraine (and other actors) should follow. Only then can the hope of peace be reborn between these two nations, which share a turbulent and intertwined history over the centuries, and allow, despite the deep wounds inflicted, the development of their respective Nation States according to freely assumed choices.
Brussels, 23 May 2022