It is tempting to see the incursion of Russian troops into the Crimea – and the threat of similar action elsewhere in Ukraine – through the prism of the Cold War. In this view of events, that country becomes Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968; Putin is transformed into Khrushchev or Brezhnev, and the Government of the Ukraine acquires the moral legitimacy of Veres or Dubcek – or Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement in Poland. Judged by this standard, Barack Obama and David Cameron look like dwarves set against the giant shadows of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. During the 1980s, the West seemed increasingly in control of events. Today, with Russian boots on the ground in Crimea, an Iranian nuclear truce, and Assad on the march in Syria, it is Putin who seems to be calling the shots – as he did during the collapse of Obama and Cameron’s Syrian policy last summer.
But is this really the right way of reading the crisis in Ukraine? After all, the country is not, say, the Poland of the early 1980s, united in groaning under the jackboot of the Russian occupier. It is a country divided on east-west lines – linguistically and politically. The eastern part is Russian-speaking, and the further east one travels, the larger the percentage of Russian speakers is likely to be. Indeed, Crimea, was part of Russia until Khruschev (who had a Ukrainian background) amalgamated it to Ukraine during the 1950s. The western part, by contrast, is Ukrainian-speaking, and parts of it were in Poland until 1945. This division was neatly represented in the last Presidential election. The now-fled Victor Yanukovych – he of the pet ostriches, gold-plated golf clubs, and fleet of luxury sports cars – won 49 per cent of the vote against Yulia Tymoshenko’s 45.5 per cent.
Putin, meanwhile, presides over an authoritarian system, not a totalitarian one – for all his KGB background. Brezhnev sent Soviet advisers into Africa to support Cuban troops. Putin’s ambitions are more limited: as Mark Field pointed out on this site over the weekend, the Russian leader “accepted a second stage of NATO enlargement to the Baltic states, allowed the US to withdraw from the anti-ballistic missile treaty and stood shoulder to shoulder with George W Bush in the “war on terror” (a useful alibi given his domestic problems in Chechnya)”. Essentially, Putin is a nationalist strongman fixed on holding what he sees as his own – which includes the whole of the Ukraine, full stop. In believing so, he is scarcely unique, as Lord Risby explained on this site last week. In cultural, emotional and religious terms, Russia sees Ukraine as an integral part of itself.
Claims, then, that western “weakness” in Syria has “emboldened” Putin to act are wide of the mark. Sure, last summer’s debacle was scarcely a triumph for western leadership (though it was certainly one for common sense: hurtling into that country’s civil war would have been to leap into quicksand). But a more emollient Russian President than Putin would be unwilling to sit back and see his clients toppled in Ukraine. In any case, Russia’s interests are bound up with ours. We are allies in the struggle against the main security threat to Britain – Islamist terror. Its co-operation is desirable if Afghanistan is to have any sort of viable future and Iran’s nuclear aspirations aren’t to spark a middle east arms race. Russia’s economy may be rickety, but we import a lot of its coal. All in all, those cold war analogies reveal more about us than the Ukraine.
In any event, what we can do for it is limited. Military action is impracticable as well as undesirable. Most of the floated responses to Putin so far have either been so small-scale as to be ineffectual (he will not be quaking in his boots at the news that British Ministers are to boycott the Paralympics at Sochi) or so large-scale as to have consequences that cannot possibly have been thought through (such as John Kerry’s threat yesterday to expel Russia from the G8). Daniel Hamilton set out on this site last week what would be needed to rescue Ukraine, and perhaps shift it decisively towards the West and the EU: guarantees for minorities, action on corruption, a Marshall-style plan. This would cost – and there is no guarantee that the money would be well spent or that Ukraine can swiftly be transformed into a liberal democracy. His piece also reminded readers that not all anti-Russian protestors are western-style democrats.
None the less, it doesn’t follow that because our interests are bound up with Russia’s we should turn a blind eye to Putin’s Crimean venture, or that because what we can do for Ukraine is limited it follows that we should do nothing at all. It would be wrong simply to sit back, shrug at Putin’s cynical view of the world, and accept that Russia can flout international agreements with no consequences. This would be to send a very dangerous signal both to Russia and to others. Conservative MPs have an opportunity to send a different one to Putin today. Those that are part of the Party’s delegation to the Council of Europe sit in the same group as members of Putin’s United Russia party. To say that this has long been controversial is a bit of an understatement, though some Tory MPs have defended it on the ground that it keeps a line open to the Kremlin (and one alternative arrangement, sitting with the EPP group, is out of the question).
This, doubtless, is not the only reason for joining up with United Russia: bigger groups mean more and bigger committee places, just as they do in the European Parliament. But the Ukrainian crisis is driving home to some Conservative MPs on the delegation what should have been evident before – namely, that the current arrangement should end. Together with MPs from other European countries, they have asked the Russians to suspend their membership of the group. The latter have refused. The Tory MPs meet this afternoon to debate whether to leave the group altogether. They should do so – and seek to establish a new one. The price may well be a loss of clout and reach in the Assembly. And such a move, admittedly, won’t make Putin quake in his boots either. None the less, it would be the right thing to do. Conservatives shouldn’t sit side by side with autocrats.