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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.