A lot of folk that were experts on the Ukraine did not see the Maidan Revolution coming. Afterwards, other such experts said talk of Putin invading Ukraine was wild and mis-placed. Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea, every man and his dog has given his perspective, usually expressing fearful admiration for Putin’s “chess-like mastery of strategy” and attacking the UK’s supposedly weak response.
Well, I don’t pretend to be an expert on what will happen in the Ukraine, and to be frank I’m not convinced anyone really is. But since my perspective is a bit different from most other folks’, I might as well chuck it into the mix – make of it what you will.
During the Maidan protests, much political commentary appeared captured by the same revolutionary fervour that we saw in the Arab Spring revolts. Well, I warned against getting carried away with welcoming revolutions in the Arab spring and the same principles seemed to me to apply in the Ukraine – revolutions can occasionally be justified, but it’s almost always better to seek the redressing of concrete grievances and the delivery of incremental change within an existing constitutional framework rather than overthrowing everything and starting from scratch. Nonetheless, despite scepticism, as always, being appropriate, the Ukrainian situation was at least arguably one of those that justified revolution.
Then we had Putin’s entry into the Crimea and the West’s response to it. There seem to me to be at least four importantly distinct questions about that:
1) Was Putin’s action morally justified or otherwise in our interests to support? I’m going to leave that one hanging because, strange as it may seem, very little rests upon it, as I shall explain below.
2) Did Russia’s incursion into the Crimea constitute the sort of violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity that the US, UK, France – and, separately, NATO – had undertaken to prevent, if necessary by military means? The Ukrainian interim government certainly tried to claim that it did, and asked the US and UK to back up its past assurances with intervention. Reactions on this point have varied. Some have tried to claim that we didn’t provide any such assurances at all. Others claimed that “any military incursions by the Russians into Ukraine would almost oblige the West to provide some form of military assistance to Kiev“. In my view a certain degree of legalism is important in how we express ourselves on this point, because the West provides analogous security assurances to many countries across the world – Belarus, Moldova, the Baltic states, Taiwan, Korea, Japan. It could be disastrous if confidence in such assurances were undermined.
So here’s how I see it. We should state quite openly that the situation of Russia entering the Crimea, a strategically important area around its own military base, which it had an established right to enter under appropriate invitation, having been asked to do so by the Russian-speak regional authorities and the elected ruler of Ukraine – albeit a totally discredited ruler, in the process of being ousted in a revolution – is quite different from that of Putin marching on Kiev at a time the country was stable. The key distinction between these situations for our purposes is not whether Putin is right to invade in the one case and wrong to do so in the other. The distinction is whether our assurances of military support apply – we could believe we had undertaken to protect the Ukraine from military violation and that Putin is totally wrong to enter the Ukraine even in the current situation, whilst still believing the Ukraine was not entitled to call on our military assistance in this case.
Let me put the point a different, blunter way. If Putin had invaded Ukraine a year ago, it is arguable that the West’s military response should and would have been very different.
3) If Putin stays in the Crimea, should we be content to leave him there without serious economic or military sanction? In the past few days, in response to the camera-spotted memo saying the UK should, for now, oppose significant economic sanctions against Russia, there has been much wailing about how “weak” that response would be and how Britain’s role in the world has diminished. I have not been convinced by this narrative at all. In my view if Putin stays in Crimea and the rest of the Ukraine stabilizes and looks to the West for protection – eventually probably even joining the EU – that is a huge defeat for Russia and a huge win for the West. Why would we want to imperil that by stirring up a hornet’s nest if we can secure it with a more softly-softly approach?
Think about it: six months ago Putin had his puppet – horribly corrupt and incompetent, but biddable nonetheless – in control of the whole of the Ukraine. He was working his way towards joining the Eurasian customs union. Ukraine still sat within Russia’s general sphere of influence. Today, instead of the whole of Ukraine, Putin controls a small piece surrounding a military base that he controlled anyway, and the rest of the Ukraine looks to the West for inspiration, support and protection. For all the discussion about Putin’s “grand master” skills, he’s way behind in this game at present. If the UK government wants to cash its chips whilst it’s ahead, taking the bits of the Ukraine it can have and leaving Putin to control the Crimea – which, given it surrounded a key Russian military base was never really a candidate for being allowed to be a pro-Western area anyway – that isn’t weakness or cowardice. It’s knowing how to quit when you’re still ahead.
4) What should and will happen if Russian forces enter the rest of the Ukraine? I have also read much claiming that no European power is going to get involved in the Ukraine under any circumstances, unless the US does. The first thing I’d say on that is that, if it can be avoided, a military conflict between nuclear-armed powers seems to me to be the very definition of a Bad Idea. If any Western military action in the Ukraine were to occur, we would definitely want it to be by non-nuclear players. Second, it appears to me that the many assertions that no European power will become involved in the Ukraine under any circumstances without US military assistance is both dangerous in concept and also sufficiently doubtful that the Russians ought to reflect upon it. In particular, I don’t believe we should by any means be certain the Poles would not fight to prevent Russian forces entering the Ukraine-Poland border region around Lviv. I wouldn’t guarantee the Moldovans, Romanians and Turks staying quiet if the Poles did become engaged. Between them, those countries would be more than enough to create a significant conventional headache for Russia. Why must the US imperil its own citizens and interests in a military conflict with Russia in order to defend territories in the middle of Europe in the midst of economies enormously wealthier than Russia’s and with conventional forces that (in combination with Ukraine’s own military) ought, with enough commitment, to be able to deter Russian conventional actions?
My point here is not that Europeans should seek war with Russia. It’s that Europe should be (and, if pushed, probably would be) independently willing to defend itself and its interests from at least conventional forces aggression.
Given that non-nuclear countries should be the ones (if any) deploying military forces into the Ukraine in support of the interim government under this scenario, that leaves the question of what the UK and the West more generally should do. Furthermore, there would be the question of what non-military sanctions might be applied if all other European powers did indeed leave the Ukrainians to be taken over.
There are many things. We could forbid any business from having dealings with a Russian firm. We could force any bank to sell Russian bonds and forbid it from buying others. We could promise the Turks support if they closed the Dardanelles to Russian commercial vessels. We could refuse to purchase gas or coal from Russia or wheat from the Ukraine. Obviously such economic conflict would be very painful for us. But it would be extremely painful for Russia, which might become internally unstable very quickly if sufficient economic pressure were applied.
Overall, then, my take is this. We should be in no hurry to escalate matters precipitately whilst Russia stays in the Crimea. A bit of tut-tutting in the form of visa bans and G8 meetings exclusion to express general disapproval could be enough to defuse the situation leaving the West far ahead in the grand scheme. We should not condemn No 10 and the Foreign Office as weak if that is its strategy for now. But if Putin attempts to take over more of the Ukraine, we should be very clear that there will be sudden and brutal consequences – economic and (if push really comes to shove) non-US military as well.