Citizens in Simferopol, Ukraine watch Putin on a laptop declaring Crimea part of Russia. (Photo: Getty)
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Vlad the impatient: why timid western politics won’t wash with Putin

The world waits to see how far the fire that has been lit by Russia’s invasion of Crimea will spread in Ukraine and elsewhere.

The first Ukrainian I met was called Peter. On my first visit to Kyiv, exactly 20 years ago, Peter introduced himself to me in front of the monument to the 150,000 Jews massacred at Babi Yar. He was a retired accountant from Croydon but had been born outside Kharkiv, in rural eastern Ukraine. In 1943, when he was 16, the Red Army swept south to end the Nazi occupation. Russian soldiers dealt summarily with anyone suspected of co-operating with the Germans.

Peter was drafted. He protested. “Who is this boy?” an officer asked. A village woman replied, “His uncle was our police inspector, whom you shot in the orchard this morning.”

Peter deserted at dawn the next morning and walked 2,000 kilometres west, to Vienna. There a Wehrmacht officer found him a job in military records, writing to bereaved mothers to tell them their sons were heroes of the Reich. He arrived in England, a refugee, in 1947.

This was his first visit back to Ukraine. He looked at the Babi Yar monument strewn with roses. “And my grandfather was a Jew,” he said.

We wait to see how far the fire that has been lit by Russia’s invasion of Crimea will spread. At first our managerial government was less inclined to support Ukrainian sovereignty than it was to defend a different hearth, that of the City of London. In the end, David Cameron was persuaded, along with other EU leaders in Brussels, to announce cumulative economic sanctions if Russia refuses to talk and ultimately to withdraw its troops.

Managerial politics already looks far more reckless than it did a week ago. Leaving aside that this crisis has shown an uncanny likeness, from its first day, to the preludes of the Second World War and the Balkan wars (Hitler’s insistence on protecting ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland, Slobodan Milosevic’s on protecting ethnic Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo), it is clear that Vladimir Putin will have Crimea, and eastern Ukraine, if he can.

But a moral imperative holds here, too. Foreign policy, at its most primitive, is predicated on a willingness to abide by agreements. And specific pacts command our actions in Ukraine: the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances of 1994 and Nato’s 1997 Charter on a Distinctive Partnership, which notes that “Nato allies will continue to support Ukrainian sovereignty and independence” as well as its “territorial integrity”.

Inseparable from those obligations is the willingness to bear their cost. President Obama’s threat of “significant costs” for Russia cannot be one-sided if they really are to be incurred. It will cost us all significantly to make Putin’s actions cost Russia enough to make him pull back. Referendum in Crimea; threat of secession; intimidation and provocation in eastern Ukraine; a transfer of control over events into the hands of the thuggish and militaristic – all these illustrate the true gist of his intentions.

Individuals have grasped this far faster than the international community, for it is, always, a deeply private feeling to grasp that something has changed for good and must be faced. That feeling was written on the face of Colonel Yuri Mamchur, the commander of tactical aviation at Belbek, when he marched his 300 unarmed men up the road to try to regain access to their occupied airbase; it is in the open letter of Mustafa Cemilev, a leader of Crimea’s Tatars, with its subtextual memory of Stalin’s emptying the region of 200,000 Tatars in 1944; it is in the tense expressions of Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar women protesting against the occupation of Simferopol.

The weird element of all such situations is that life goes on. From Yalta, my friend Yuri jokes on the phone – “Are you coming to visit Ukraine or Russia?” – and insists it is quiet there. In Odessa, a Russian-speaking, pro-Yanukovych city, a huge pro-Ukraine demo indicates a possibly unexpected fall of the cards, but at this moment my Odessa parents-in-law are not talking to each other (he is Ukrainian, she is from Siberia). Another relation lost his civil-service job when the government in Kyiv changed. I asked how he was taking it. I was told he was very happy, spending all his time in bed with his new lover.

Yet if the fire in Crimea is not put out, it will certainly creep across Ukraine, across other former republics, the Baltic states, Europe. At the very least, its destabilising and corrupting consequences will be dire. A pretext of “protecting” ethnic populations – be they German, Serb or Russian – is historically how it sparks. And the only way to put it out is to show that honouring our guarantees means more to us than the cost of doing so.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories