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

Getty
Show Hide image

Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.