That was the late Christopher Hitchens, speaking in 2009, about Iran. Who would have thought that just a few years later we'd already be in that dire position, but that we'd be threatened by Russia, rather than Iran?
Well, Edward Lucas of the Economist probably could have told you, as could have Russian dissident Gary Kasparov. We even had hints from Vladimir Putin himself, who in 2005 in his annual address to the nation of Russia said “First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory."
Now Putin seems hellbent on correcting that tragedy, in the most tragic way both for Ukraine and the world.
U.S. President Barack Obama said at his press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Washington on February 9 that Putin could not be allowed to redraw the map of Europe at the barrel of a gun. But the Russian president is doing just that, with the barrels of guns, tanks and howitzers in the east of Ukraine.
But ultimately the thing that allows Putin to indulge in revanchist cartography is the nosecone of a nuke. The West is simply not prepared to stand up to a nuclear power over an issue such as Ukraine, even when its supposedly cherished values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law are at stake.
Some people in the West, particularly on the left, whom you would have thought would be natural supporters of these values wherever they were being fought for in the world, either go silent or become critical of Ukraine, of all places, when faced with the threat from Russia. You can hear such voices from the authoritarian-loving right as well, although this is probably more because of their affinity for the conservative, nationalist, and religiously defined "values" the Putin regime says it espouses than a fear that the "Russians are coming."
Nevertheless, people who should know better start muddying the issue of Ukraine with nonsense claims of a "fascist coup" or a "mob" having ousted "a democratically-elected" president as a way of justifying their lack of support for Ukraine and its struggle for their own values.
At the heart of this, I think, lies a deep-seated fear of war with Russia (or rather the former Soviet Union) that remains with us from the fearful seventies and eighties of the last century.
That's a very real fear, and one that should not be forgotten. But are we going to allow that fear to force us to roll over or go rushing off to Moscow, or Munich, because a rogue state or dictator has got a finger on the nuclear button?
In the case of Ukraine, depressingly, the answer seems to be a meek "yes."
There are some important lessons that have to be drawn from the Ukraine crisis, which are painful to learn. One is that no state, rogue or civilized, should ever give up a nuclear arsenal if it has one. Ukraine's territorial integrity was supposed to have been protected under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, which Kyiv signed in exchange for giving up its nuclear arsenal (at that time the third-largest in the world). But crazily, (and I remember thinking so at the time), one of the states that was supposed to "provide assurances" of Ukraine's territorial integrity was the only one in the world that was actually a threat to it. If in future, in a similar situation, such "assurances" are given again, they must be meaningful. Budapest has proved worthless to Ukraine, and as such treaties go, must be considered one of the most shameful blots on the history of diplomacy.
The corollary lesson for the world that Budapest teaches is that any state that wishes to guarantee its own territorial integrity in this modern world should get hold of nuclear weapons as quickly as possible, and resist any temptations, inducements or outside pressures to give them up. Be sure that lesson has been learned in Tehran.
But the saddest lesson, no matter how we in the West might prattle about "this no longer being the 19th century" and "might not making right" and "not allowing people to redraw maps at the barrel of a gun" is that when it comes down to nuclear weapons, we are not prepared to defend our values, especially if they're being fought for in another, faraway state, by people about whom we know nothing. As throughout human history, the best way for any state to fend off an aggressor is to have a credible defense. Ukraine, to its great cost, has had to relearn this due to its giving up its ultimate means of defense and allowing its army to atrophy. Nobody will now come to Ukraine's defense, for fear of provoking an unspeakable nuclear confrontation with the Russian regime.
In our fearful nuclear-armed world, soon to see the proliferation of these dreadful weapons, might still makes "right." All the Western leaders know this, but none of them will say it.