The American Government has imposed travel restrictions on Russian officials, and granted itself powers to seize the assets of those complicit in the Crimean annexation. The EU, led by Germany, will suspend talks on a new visa regime with Russia, abandon plans for the G8 summit and ditch plans for a new partnership deal between Russia and the EU – less forceful stuff. It is unwilling to move to U.S-style bans and seizures. David Cameron is closer to Barack Obama’s position than Angela Merkel’s, and will want to restore some of the standing with the President that he lost over Syria last summer, when the Commons voted down his plans for intervention.
For all the sending of an American warship to the Black Sea, Obama will not go to war with Vladimir Putin over Crimea. And for all his attempt to rebuild his Government’s relationship with America’s, Cameron will be unwilling for hostilities to escalate, and for Britain to be dragged into a sanctions tit-for-tat with Russia. Whatever the status of the briefing paper photographed as Hugh Powell, the Deputy National Security Adviser, took it into Downing Street, its contents clearly reflected concern in Whitehall that sanctions would turn out to be less an effective weapon than a boomerang.
America and Europe cannot simply turn a blind eye to Putin’s breach of international law in Crimea. To do so would risk sending a signal that he could act in a similar way elsewhere, particularly in relation to Russia’s NATO-member neighbours. An attack on one NATO country is an attack on them all and, were one to take place, Europe would be at risk of war on a scale unmatched since 1945. It would therefore be unwise for America and Europe publicly to rule out any response to Putin’s Crimea gambit short of military intervention – though slapping economic sanctions on Russia should certainly be avoided, since the move could both rebound on our own economy and institutionalise the present diplomatic stand-off.
Rather than do so, we should be thinking very hard about how we want the Ukrainian crisis to be resolved. One school of thought is pushing for the country to join the EU, sign up to NATO, and become part of the liberal, democratic West. The logic of that view points to a sanctions hostilities at best and military ones at worst with Russia. Another recognises that Ukraine is deeply divided between its Ukrainian-speaking west and its Russian-speaking east, and that the latter sees Russia rather than the EU as its economic and cultural hinterland.
It follows from this that no solution aimed at keeping Ukraine intact, viable and solvent can impose the will of one part of it on the other. (The divisions in the country were faithfully reflected in the last Presidential election, in which the corrupt and now-fled Victor Yanukovych defeated the corrupt and now-released Yulia Tymoshenko by 49 per cent to 45.5 per cent.) This implies a federal or confederal Ukraine with devolved government, guarantees for minorities, and Russian financial support, since Ukraine’s economy is inextricably linked to it. Certainly, American and European taxpayers will be unwilling to stump up for the country’s bills instead – and that includes British ones. Such a Ukraine might eventually accede to the EU, but it should certainly not join NATO.
If Putin is a latter-day Stalin ( the parallel was drawn yesterday by a “senior official in London” who compared the EU’s response to “the reluctance to upset Russia in the Yalta summit at the end of the Second World War”) or indeed a latter-day Hitler (the same official also compared the policy to “the appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938″), then he will presumably move to gulp up the rest of Ukraine, before moving on in due course to the Baltic States and Poland. But how much sense does it make to see the authoritarian Putin through a totalitarian lens?
If Russia invades a country whose peace we are committed to defend, then we will certainly have to come to its aid – as best we can in our debt-strapped and militarily-overstretched condition. But a less brutal and cynical Russian leader than Putin would have reacted to the Ukrainian uprising in much the same way, given the ties of part of it to Russia, the economic join of the two, and ancient Russian view of Ukraine as part of its heartland. There are echoes of Craig’s view of Ulster in Putin’s of Ukraine: “What we have now we hold.” Crimea itself was part of Russia until Khruschev amalgamated it to Ukraine during the 1950s – a fact that Nick Clegg acknowledges in the Guardian this morning, where he talks coyly of Russia having “a pronounced imprint” on the peninsular.
In short, Britain’s interest is in cooling the present crisis rather than heating it – which means not seeking to haul the whole of Ukraine into the liberal West. Russia is not an ally, but it isn’t an enemy either. Its help could be decisive in curtailing Iran’s nuclear programme. We have a common interest in preventing the return of Islamist extremism in Afghanistan: indeed, that main threat to our internal security is a threat to Russia’s too. Our economies are intertwined.
Calming the stand-off may not be possible: if Putin simply goes ahead with an illegal ballot in the Crimea, targeted travel restrictions and asset seizures should certainly follow. Either way, Cameron has cause to reflect on the part that the EU has played in precipitating the crisis. First, it pushed for a trade agreement. Next, as Lord Risby wrote on this site, “it offered nothing financially”. In the meanwhile, Putin strode in, offering cash and debt cancellation on the one hand, and border bans and delays on Ukrainian goods on the other. Finally, Yanukovych pulled the plug on the EU deal – and the rest is recent history. Now it is wringing its collective hands, unwilling to face up to the crisis which it has helped to unleash. Ashton v Putin is, with all due respect to the former, not much of contest.