Soldiers without national insignia guard the parliament building in Simferopol: Source: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

It's Gary Lineker 1, the Sun 0

The football hero has found himself at the heart of a Twitter storm over the refugee children debate.

The Mole wonders what sort of topsy-turvy universe we now live in where Gary Lineker is suddenly being called a “political activist” by a Conservative MP? Our favourite big-eared football pundit has found himself in a war of words with the Sun newspaper after wading into the controversy over the age of the refugee children granted entry into Britain from Calais.

Pictures published earlier this week in the right-wing press prompted speculation over the migrants' “true age”, and a Tory MP even went as far as suggesting that these children should have their age verified by dental X-rays. All of which leaves your poor Mole with a deeply furrowed brow. But luckily the British Dental Association was on hand to condemn the idea as unethical, inaccurate and inappropriate. Phew. Thank God for dentists.

Back to old Big Ears, sorry, Saint Gary, who on Wednesday tweeted his outrage over the Murdoch-owned newspaper’s scaremongering coverage of the story. He smacked down the ex-English Defence League leader, Tommy Robinson, in a single tweet, calling him a “racist idiot”, and went on to defend his right to express his opinions freely on his feed.

The Sun hit back in traditional form, calling for Lineker to be ousted from his job as host of the BBC’s Match of the Day. The headline they chose? “Out on his ears”, of course, referring to the sporting hero’s most notable assets. In the article, the tabloid lays into Lineker, branding him a “leftie luvvie” and “jug-eared”. The article attacked him for describing those querying the age of the young migrants as “hideously racist” and suggested he had breached BBC guidelines on impartiality.

All of which has prompted calls for a boycott of the Sun and an outpouring of support for Lineker on Twitter. His fellow football hero Stan Collymore waded in, tweeting that he was on “Team Lineker”. Leading the charge against the Murdoch-owned title was the close ally of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and former Channel 4 News economics editor, Paul Mason, who tweeted:

Lineker, who is not accustomed to finding himself at the centre of such highly politicised arguments on social media, responded with typical good humour, saying he had received a bit of a “spanking”.

All of which leaves the Mole with renewed respect for Lineker and an uncharacteristic desire to watch this weekend’s Match of the Day to see if any trace of his new activist persona might surface.


I'm a mole, innit.