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

Daily Mail
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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle