John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay.
Siren voices are calling for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. This is dangerous talk. Notwithstanding the savagery of Russia’s attack or our Article Five commitment to NATO, the Government must stick to its policy that there will be no direct military intervention – and keep saying so. For such an approach would lead to a wider conflict.
And whilst continuing our support to Ukraine it is essential that the international community works to find an exit from this conflict that is acceptable to all sides – something that, despite the harrowing scenes on television and social media, remains possible.
The universal revulsion at Russia’s unprovoked, unjustified and illegal invasion of Ukraine is rightly leading to a sense of outrage across the international community. For all of the criticisms of the post-1945 rules-based international system, it has at his heart a strong belief that small countries should be treated equally and should not be dominated by their larger neighbours.
The British Government has done well in the early responses to this crisis. It was delivering lethal weapons to the Ukrainian Government well ahead of most, and our world-class intelligence agencies have played a valuable role in ensuring the worldwide narrative is overwhelmingly the right one – that of a peaceful country being unjustifiably invaded by an aggressive neighbour. The Chinese noticed, and did not vote with their Russian partners at the United Nations.
After an underwhelming start, Britain’s economic sanctions régime is cranking up. The Government was an early proponent of excluding Russia from the SWIFT network. There is scope to go further, especially as regards the cryptocurrencies which may still allow the Russian authorities, including Putin and his cronies, to move their funds around. More can still be done to sanction the oligarch class, although this should be done carefully and sensitively. Not every Russian in the UK is a friend of Vladimir Putin. Indeed, some of them are here because they are not – Marina Litvinenko and her son for a start.
The Government deserves credit for significantly improving our offer to take Ukrainian refugees, which is in keeping with our longstanding and proud history of offering sanctuary to those fleeing violence. Despite his critics, Boris Johnson has a good record in this regard – in addition to the large numbers of Afghans given sanctuary, there is also the generous offer to BNO passport-holders in Hong Kong (which was recently extended). We should stand prepared to take many more in the event of the long drawn-out conflict that many anticipate.
However, as regards more direct help, we must keep a cool head and refrain from direct military intervention while giving Ukraine every assistance in terms of humanitarian support and the supply of lethal weapons. There must not be a scenario in which NATO and Russian forces are involved in a shooting war, as this will very quickly escalate into a broader and more dangerous conflict.
The siren voices suggesting direct military intervention, including a no-fly zone, should acknowledge that this would require NATO aircraft, perhaps based in neighbouring NATO countries, shooting down their Russian counterparts and bombing relevant radar and anti-aircraft batteries, all of which will be manned by Russian military personnel – and vice versa.
Russian forces might then feel justified in attacking NATO aircraft and personnel based in those neighbouring NATO countries. Article Five would be activated, triggering a wider European conflict and also involving Canada and the United States in a confrontation with a power not unafraid of threatening thermonuclear warfare. Expanding the conflict will do nothing to help those in Ukraine.
In addition, as the Defence Secretary has rightly pointed out, a no-fly zone would favour the Russians by equally removing the threat from the Ukrainian Air Force, which is still operational, from the air. Indiscriminate land-based Russian rocket and artillery fire, which is giving great cause for concern as regards civilian casualties, would also be unaffected by this measure.
At the same time as maintaining pressure on the Russians and their war effort, it is also essential that the international community works to find an exit from this conflict that is acceptable for all sides. The more people are killed, the harder this will be. A ceasefire or an armistice as soon as possible would be preferable pending a lasting settlement.
One possible option could be an internationally-monitored set of referendums in Ukraine to allow the populations to self-determine whether they are independent republics, part of the Russian Federation or (as I suspect) part of Ukraine. A trusted mediator could be used to facilitate this process, with Angela Merkel as a possible choice.
In the battle for democracy globally it will be increasingly important to reach out directly to oppressed people – soft power having played a key role in our victory in the Cold War. Accordingly, throughout this frightening time, it is essential that the Russian people understand that we have no quarrel with them, and that such economic, travel and other difficulties that they are experiencing are as a direct consequence of the unacceptable actions of Mr Putin and his cronies.
A key part of this is ensuring that the Russian state is not the sole source of news for the Russian population, so added resources should be given for the expansion of the BBC Russian and Ukrainian Services. The BBC is synonymous with impartial and accurate reporting, and investment now will be realised many times over in due course.
In a similar vein, the British Council has been working in challenging countries for much of its existence, and there is much to commend in opening the eyes of the next generation of Russians to the fact that there is a better life out there and that they don’t have to accept the harsh reality they are given – this is not a time to be cutting budgets and reducing footprints.