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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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