Sir Gerald Howarth is the Member of Parliament for Aldershot.
‘Russia will ruthlessly expose any even-handed indecision by the West and mercilessly exploit it as a weakness,’ wrote my colleague, Mark Field MP, on these pages a month ago in advance of Putin’s clinical annexation of Crimea. How right he was.
In the face of this ruthless exploitation of Western weakness by Mr Putin, it was extremely foolish of Nigel Farage to offer the view that the Russian president was the leader he most admired. He may have sought to qualify his remark by adding the rider, ‘as an operator, but not as a human being,’ but as others have already observed, such niceties will not trouble the Kremlin who will interpret this folly to reinforce their view that Russia can effectively act with complete impunity, whether in seizing other people’s territory or thwarting the international community in Syria.
Does it matter what Russia does? Yes, it does matter. The annexation of Ukraine was not unique; it followed a very similar move by Putin in 2008 when he provoked an angry backlash from the Georgian government to justify the annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As David Wilshire MP told me at the time, one of the captured Russian armoured personnel carriers was full of Russian passports to be issued to the newly conquered people of the annexed territory.
Thus, when tensions rose in Ukraine it was very clear that Russia might be tempted to make a similar land grab. With a fair proportion of the population of the Crimea being well-disposed towards rejoining Russia and with the spiritual home of the Russian Navy based at Sevastopol, the Kremlin no doubt calculated that a swift seizure would be excused by some in the West and welcomed with wild rejoicing in the Russian Motherland, further enhancing the President’s patriotic credentials and popularity.
Some say that, given the historic connections between Russia and the Crimea, only disrupted by Khrushchev in 1954, why get excited about it? First, if Russia can act with complete impunity in Georgia and now Ukraine, where next? Putin said on the 4th March, just days before the formal annexation, that military force in Ukraine would be a ‘last resort’, so protestations of reluctance to invade other countries’ territory have proven to be what they are – worthless.
So, why should we accept the current assurances that Russia will not invade Eastern Ukraine? Clearly, Crimea is now isolated with no land connection to Russia, dependent upon sea access or a land link through Ukraine itself. The temptation to annexe Eastern Ukraine, securing valuable mineral resources and a land link to the Crimea must be enormous, although I now doubt that we will see an immediate move as Russia waits for a more suitable moment to pounce.
They have already bussed plenty of Russian nationals into Donetsk and elsewhere to give the BBC and other outsiders the impression that there is a natural affinity between the Eastern cities and Russia. Such a move would carry risks, but even more worrying is the position of other former Soviet states. What must current thinking in the Kremlin be about the resolve of the NATO alliance to enforce Article 5?
Make no mistake, they have been testing NATO’s resolve for years prior to the Crimean crisis. NATO launched the Baltic Sea Policing Operation in 2004 to protect the sovereign airspace of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Whilst only one jet was scrambled that year, last year no less than 40 were scrambled.
After 12 years of continuous military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, war-weary Americans and Brits, the backbone of NATO, appear to have little appetite for further military adventures, so the question must arise: would our people be prepared to put their sons and daughters’ lives on the line to save one or more of the Baltic States? Would President Putin be willing to take a gamble that NATO lacked the will to enforce Article 5?
Secondly, the annexation of the Crimea was a flagrant breach of an agreement to which Russia was itself (together with the USA and the UK) a signatory just 20 years ago. Under the Budapest Agreement of 1994, the three countries agreed to ‘respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine’ in return for Ukraine surrendering its massive stockpile of nuclear weapons. Russia would undoubtedly have thought twice about an invasion if Ukraine still had nuclear weapons.
What this tells us is that you cannot believe a word Vladimir Putin utters. He has no respect for international law in complete contradiction of his commitment in 2002 when he told the NATO-Russia Council that ‘Russia is prepared to act in accordance with international law, international rules in the course of a civilised dialogue for the achieving of common and joint ends.’ He has this week told German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, he will be withdrawing some of his troops massed on the Eastern Ukraine border, yet there is no sign of that. His defence budget is set to rise by 44 per cent over the next three years.
Mr Farage is unlikely to be taken too seriously in Moscow, but he is taken more seriously here. As Sir Malcolm Rifkind says in today’s Telegraph, he has an audience in the UK. He is holding himself out as a party leader seeking to top the Euro election polls and gain seats at the next General Election.
His remarks about Mr Putin risk not only giving succour to a man who really does have the potential to threaten the peace in Europe but also risk lulling the British people into thinking he is a ‘brilliant operator’ whom we should admire. For those of us who are Eurosceptics and Thatcherites such folly should ring alarm bells.