Soldiers without national insignia guard the parliament building in Simferopol: Source: Getty
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Putin calls the west’s bluff on Ukraine and Cameron is silent

The Prime Minister used to be more honest about Kremlin bullying of its neighbours.

David Cameron used to have stronger feelings about the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbours than he does now. In 2008, when Moscow briefly went to war with Georgia, the then leader of the opposition was quick to condemn what he saw as an offence by Vladimir Putin against the territorial integrity of a neighbouring country. He called for a “clear message” of solidarity with Tbilisi.

Maybe the Conservative leader had sharper instincts back then, or maybe it’s just easier to weigh into complex international crises from the relative safety of opposition. Being Prime Minister carries more burdensome diplomatic obligations.

But still, it is noteworthy that Cameron’s judgement of Putin’s actions was that much quicker six years ago. The situation in Ukraine today is, of course, different in many ways from the 2008 Georgian crisis but the strategic calculations being made in Moscow are plainly related. As far as Russian policy is concerned, former Soviet republics are the “near abroad” – not necessarily to be considered as foreign (or entirely sovereign) and certainly falling within the natural sphere of Kremlin influence. This is more true of Ukraine – and perhaps Belarus – than any other ex-Soviet territory; they are to some extent seen as indivisible parts of a greater Orthodox Russian space. According to a Putinist history of the region, Ukraine’s independence was an accident of mismanaged transition from Soviet rule in 1991. In this analysis, while the west of the country might have some legitimate claim to cultural autonomy, the east – and especially Crimea – is essentially Russian.

I was a foreign correspondent in a number of former Soviet republics (or Newly Independent States, as they preferred to be called) at the start of the Noughties and it was abundantly clear that Moscow would do whatever it could to sabotage the ambitions of its former imperial possessions to integrate with the west. Above all, that meant opposing what the Kremlin saw as the aggressive expansion of Nato towards Russia’s borders and what potential Nato candidate countries saw as the extension of a security umbrella over their vulnerable sovereignty.

To cut a long story short, among those countries that were once USSR component Republics (distinct from communist Warsaw pact nations), the three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – got into the Western clubs. Ukraine and Georgia talked about it and their candidacy was discussed very seriously in Washington, London and elsewhere. But in the end, that was a stretch too far for Nato and they weren’t included. There are all sorts of economic, strategic and cultural reasons why the Balts were considered Nato-ready and Ukraine wasn’t – too contentious and historically convoluted to go into in this blog – but looking at what is now happening in Crimea, I am struck by how lucky the Balts were to get across that line. There are regions of Latvia in particular that are ethnically and linguistically very Russian and that Moscow never really saw as legitimately part of another country. But those are now regions of an EU and Nato state. Crudely speaking, the Kremlin can’t seriously touch them.

Not so Ukraine. This isn’t an argument for western intervention, or a way of saying we should have pushed harder for Kiev to get into the kind of security apparatus that protects Riga. It is never that simple. But it is clear (or at least clear to me as someone who lived in and studied the region) that when Nato – and to a lesser extent the EU – decided that it had hit a point of expansion fatigue and that the diplomatic priority was not provoking Russia any more, the west surrendered Ukraine and Georgia to Putin. And he knows it.

What we are seeing played out in Crimea now is the simple calculation in the mind of the Russian president that the international community will do nothing in earnest to stop him asserting his authority over his “near abroad.” There will be words of warning and pleas for moderation and mediation from the west but nothing so robust that it makes Putin reconsider. The net outcome will be that Ukraine is sucked back into an orbit where its institutions are undermined, the rule of law is weakened and corruption flourishes.

There was a time when David Cameron seemed to have a fairly clear understanding that this is the kind of raw, cynical and ultimately brutal power game that the Kremlin plays with its neighbours. No doubt he sees it all the more clearly today. I wonder if he’ll have the courage to say so.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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