Vladimir Putin by André Carrilho for the New Statesman
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Leader: Why we need to be honest about Vladimir Putin

Whatever the Kremlin apologists say – and regardless of the ancient historical and cultural affinities involved – there are few benefits for citizens of Crimea likely to result from their de facto annexation by Russia.

A fundamental imbalance in the international stand-off over Ukraine is that, in the short term at least, the outcome means more to Russia than it does to the west. Naturally, it is a source of alarm in Washington, London and Berlin that Vladimir Putin has violated the sovereignty of a neighbouring country. Rightly, this action has been denounced as aggression and a defiance of international law.

Yet feelings about the status of Ukraine run a lot higher in Russia than they do in the west and the country’s president acts with far fewer domestic constraints. He has calculated that neither the US nor the EU will torch diplomatic and economic relations with the Kremlin over Crimea. The ugly strategic reality is that his calculation looks accurate.

The chief argument that Moscow has brought in defence of its action – that Russian-speaking citizens are in danger from Ukrainian nationalism – is spurious. There is no evidence for it and whatever anxieties exist among Crimea’s russophone community could be addressed without armed intervention.

There is cynicism, too, in the Kremlin’s contention that the turmoil in Kyiv was somehow the expression of quasi-imperialist ambitions on the part of the EU and Nato – as if, by extension, Moscow were answering western expansionism with an act of self-defence.

It is true that the fall of Viktor Yanukovych’s administration was hastily recognised as a legitimate transition in western European capitals. There is a preference in Brussels and Washington that Ukraine pursue a transition to more functional democracy with greater respect for the rule of law – and an expectation that such an outcome is more likely if the government is not a client of the Kremlin. It is also true that the acceptance of other former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact countries into the EU and Nato since the collapse of the USSR has exacerbated anxiety in Moscow about declining strategic influence and national debilitation. However, it is naive to suppose that those feelings would have been avoided if Russia had been allowed to retain strategic mastery of eastern Europe. Cringing before the Kremlin’s wounded post-Soviet pride would have condemned countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and even Poland to the kind of dysfunctional satellite status that has been Ukraine’s misfortune. The citizens of those countries can now be profoundly grateful for the prosperity and security that EU and Nato membership brought them.

If Britain is now to start satisfying Mr Putin’s territorial appetite, let us at least be honest about the kind of man he is. Russia’s president is a former KGB agent who despises liberal democracy and excuses the crimes of Stalin. He has consolidated his power through a combination of corrupt accommodation with compliant financial oligarchs, old-fashioned po­lice state repression and the nurturing of a cult of ethnic nationalism that leads to official tolerance of racist and homophobic violence carried out by skinhead gangs who pledge loyalty to the president. No one who values freedom and civil rights should want to see citizens of another country fall under such a jurisdiction.

Whatever the Kremlin apologists say – and regardless of the ancient historical and cultural affinities involved – there are few benefits for citizens of Crimea likely to result from their de facto annexation by Russia.

The most probable outcome of the current crisis is that, after some bluster and ineffective economic reprimands, the west will acquiesce to Russia’s assertion of strategic primacy in Ukraine. There will be those who argue that no better outcome is available; that, since military intervention is unthinkable, the sovereignty of a weak state might as well be traded away to a strong one. It is indeed hard to see how Mr Putin’s ambitions can be thwarted. But no one should pretend that they will be satisfied by appeasement.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.