Russian forces look out at the Ukrainian navy ship Slavutich in the harbor of the Ukrainian city of Sevastopo. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How the west can match Putin's grand strategy

Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership should be fast-tracked and energy security pursued with far greater vigour and speed.

Putin’s endgame is clear. As former US defence secretary Robert Gates noted, he "knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s trying to re-establish influence over the former states of the Soviet Union." The west desperately needs similar strategic clarity if it is to avoid losing not just the Crimea but more of the former Soviet Union back to a resurgent Russia with no respect for democracy, human rights or the rule of law.

That clarity needs to start with a stronger response by western powers to Russia’s aggression. The start of what would prove a stronger response could be seen at Prime Minister’s Questions today as Ed Miliband began outlining an alternative to surrender to Russia’s illegal invasion. He rejected the government’s own narrow list of options and offered a constructive alternative that would exact a measured toll from Putin. In contrast, Cameron’s own revealed Downing Street national security brief appeared to indicate that a greater concern for the British government than international peace and security was the wealth of the city of London.

Miliband quoted Cameron’s own 2008 remarks on Russia and Georgia that "Russian armies can’t march into other countries while Russian shoppers are marching into Selfridges"and used this as the hook for a call for serious consideration of trade sanctions. This is exactly the kind of response that is needed to show that Russia cannot invade with impunity. But for the approach to be effective it must be in concert with a series of other actions which pave the way for the West’s own endgame.

As Left Foot Forward argued earlier this week, short-term moves should include an asset freeze, trade sanctions and the suspension of Russia from the G8. In the medium-term, Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership should be fast-tracked in a clear and unequivocal signal to Moscow that Putin’s territorial ambitions will be curtailed. Long-term, the EU should pursue energy independence from Russia. With Germany dependent to it for nearly 40 per cent of its oil and gas supply, EU energy security needs to be pursued with far greater vigour and speed.

Taken together, this approach would allow the west to develop its own endgame to counter that of Putin’s. The alternative is years and years of further meek reaction to Russia’s rising bellicosity.

Marcus Roberts is deputy general secretary of the Fabian Society

Marcus Roberts is an executive project director at YouGov. 

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.