Anti-government protestors in Ukraine. (Photo:Getty)
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Western weakness and indecision has fanned the flames in Ukraine

The West's politicians have emboldened Vladimir Putin with their mistakes and indecision. They need to send a signal he can't ignore.

Western leaders are trying their best to sound tough as they wait to find out if Russia sticks to the Minsk agreement and halts its land grab in eastern Ukraine. President Obama has threatened a “strong reaction” if the ceasefire is breached. Chancellor Merkel says Europe is ready to impose new sanctions. The debate about arming Ukraine rumbles on in Washington. Yet this hardly amounts to a turning point. We have already been through 12 months of ‘red line’ ultimatums, incremental sanctions and penny-packet support for Ukraine. The West is no closer to forcing Vladimir Putin to think again than it was a year ago when he seized Crimea.


This makes a nonsense of the idea, skilfully encouraged by the Kremlin, that its intervention was provoked by Western efforts to lure Ukraine into its camp. The real story of EU and US policy towards Ukraine over the last decade has been one of lethargy and indifference. The much-cited 2008 NATO declaration that Ukraine “will join” was a sop designed to make up for the fact that it had just been denied a Membership Action Plan. The EU Association Agreement that Putin induced President Yanukovych to abandon, triggering the Ukrainian leader’s downfall, was offered as an alternative to membership because the EU had become too weary and self-absorbed to contemplate further enlargement.


A West that really wanted to integrate Ukraine would have seized the opportunity offered by the 2004 Orange Revolution to embrace its Euro-Atlantic aspirations and help it to complete its democratic transition. Instead its leaders were told to go away and turn their country into a fully-fledged democracy without the political guidance and financial support given to other former communist countries as part of the EU accession process. Their failure is widely lamented. But the bigger failure – of Western responsibility – is barely acknowledged.


Western disinterest consigned Ukraine to a state of geopolitical limbo, encouraging Putin to believe that he could claw it back into Russia’s sphere of influence by force. The full implications of this only became apparent after the shooting started and policy makers in Europe and America suddenly realised the scale of his irredentist ambitions. They may not have been willing to say yes to Ukraine’s desire to join Western institutions, but they couldn’t acquiesce in the armed partition of Europe and the return of empire without abandoning the principles on which the post-Cold War security order had been built. This was a war about something far bigger than the future of Ukraine.


Every time the West has fluffed its policy towards Ukraine with half-measures and empty words, the bill for repairing the damage has risen.

The cost of failing to support democratic change with the incentive of EU accession was to drive despairing Ukrainians back into the arms of Viktor Yanukovych. The unwillingness of the EU to match its proposed Association Agreement with a package of financial support for Ukraine allowed Putin to scupper it with a $15bn bribe. Now the West is forced to provide £40bn in loans and guarantees to rescue Ukraine’s economy from the resulting chaos.


The bill will go on rising as long as the West prevaricates, and with potentially more serious consequences. Some see the conflict as a vindication of NATO’s decision to keep Ukraine at arms length; imagine if we had accepted a treaty commitment to defend its border with Russia. Well, we may not have to imagine much longer if success in Ukraine emboldens Putin to try something similar in the Baltic States where we do have a NATO commitment. To behave as if our own security in not at stake in Donetsk and Luhansk is recklessly complacent.


The West should be doing far more to support Ukraine, if for no other reason than self-interest. The immediate priority should be to help its economy. If Russian guns have fallen silent for now, it is partly because Putin’s goal of destabilising Ukraine is currently being achieved by economic means. Some financial aid has already been provided, but there is a risk that Western strategy is repeating the mistakes of the EU’s efforts to deal with the Eurozone crisis of always being a day late and a dollar short. The latest IMF package is already being overtaken as the economic outlook continues to worsen, and Ukraine has seen little enough of the money that has been promised as it is. George Soros is right to argue that a willingness to support Ukraine financially is a key test of Western resolve. Sufficient funds should be provided to get Ukraine’s economy off life support and into recovery.


Another crucial area is energy where Russian leverage has frequently been used to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty. The government in Kiev has set a target of becoming independent of Russian gas supply by 2017, a goal that could be achieved this year if the EU enforced its own competition rules and forced Gazprom to release unused pipeline capacity in Slovakia to facilitate the reverse flow of gas to Ukraine. Instead, the European Commission brokered a deal last October that forced Ukraine to buy overpriced Russian gas and pay $3bn of disputed debt. This has rewarded Russia and pushed Ukraine to the edge of bankruptcy, increasing the cost of the Western bailout. EU policy should be changed to one of supporting Ukraine’s energy independence in the shortest achievable timescale.


It is also time that the West resolved to bolster Ukraine’s defence with modern military equipment. The UK, along with the US and Russia, gave a solemn commitment to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity when the country gave up its stockpile of Soviet nuclear missiles in 1994. If we are not prepared to make good that commitment with our own forces, the very least we should be prepared to do is to help the Ukrainian armed forces to do it for themselves. The current policy of allowing aggression to succeed in the name of peace is as dishonourable now as it was in the Balkans twenty years ago.


In the face of criticism that his Ukraine policy is failing, President Obama insists that he is playing the long game. But what he likes to call “strategic patience” looks to Putin much more like strategic indecision. He draws even more strength from the EU’s weak and hesitant approach. Western policy will keep failing and the cost will keep rising until European and American leaders send a signal of intent that Russia can’t ignore.

 

David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.

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Owen Smith interview: “I’m pretty red”

The Labour leadership challenger is struggling to win over a left suspicious of his past. 

The south Wales valleys embody the history of the labour movement: its victories, its defeats, its heroes, its villains. It was this resonant location that Owen Smith chose for his speech on the morning of 22 August. Labour Party members had that day begun voting on whether the 46-year-old Pontypridd MP should replace Jeremy Corbyn as their leader.

“Our history, our party was literally hewed from the hillsides around where we sit today,” Smith told a small audience at the Ely Valley Miners Welfare Club in Tonyrefail, a short distance from his home. The Welshman cited the Taff Vale judgment of 1901, which ruled that trade unions could be sued for losses caused by industrial action. It was this decision that spurred on the establishment of a Labour Party in parliament to repeal the law (as it would do in 1906 in alliance with the Liberal government).

Smith spoke later of marching with miners from the Maerdy Colliery as a 14-year-old, on the day they returned to work at the end of the 1984-85 strike. “I saw that they were utterly unbowed,” he recalled. “But they were ultimately defeated.”

Such moments, he concluded, proved the need for Labour to win power and to maintain “a powerful voice in parliament” – something he believes Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of providing. On 28 June, less than a year after Corbyn’s landslide victory, 172 MPs (81 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party) endorsed a no-confidence motion in him. Sixty-five shadow ministers, including Smith (who was then the shadow work and pensions secretary), resigned from the front bench.

Yet though Smith enjoys the overwhelming backing of the PLP, few believe he will prevail among members. He achieved only 53 constituency nominations, against the leader’s 285. On social media, where internal party contests are increasingly decided, Smith’s reach is minuscule compared to that of Corbyn (who has 795,000 Facebook fans to his 14,000).

The day before Smith spoke in south Wales, he won the endorsement of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and Labour’s most senior elected politician. He was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband have trumpeted his cause. Yet Smith-supporting MPs fear that such declarations count for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

Corbyn’s allies and foes alike are already preparing for the aftermath of the leader’s anticipated victory. The former warn that rebel MPs put themselves at risk of deselection by members. In response, some have threatened privately to form a parliamentary breakaway group and bid for the status of the official opposition.

Smith, unsurprisingly, insists that he can win. “I think the CLP [Constituency Labour Party] nominations don’t truly reflect the views in CLPs,” he told me when we spoke after his 20-minute address. The challenger, dressed in his favoured combination of dark suit and open-necked white shirt, welcomed the black coffee proffered by his aide. “They reflect the fact that some of the people who are new members and are supportive of Jeremy were very organised . . .

“Anybody who knows the Labour Party knows that selections are very often won by the sleepers: the people who don’t go to CLP meetings and don’t necessarily shout from the rooftops.” Smith’s hopes rest on those who share Oscar Wilde’s view: “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many spare evenings.”

Cartoon: George Leigh

Smith first publicly revealed his leadership ambitions in an interview with me back in January. “It would be an incredible honour and privilege,” he said. I wrote then of a widespread view among Labour MPs that the next leader “will at least need to be from the party’s soft left to be acceptable to the party membership”. When the rebellion against Corbyn came, it was this consideration that proved decisive. Smith was embraced as a Miliband-esque socialist and a parliamentary “clean skin”, untainted by the New Labour years, having been elected in 2010. By contrast, his initial rival, Angela Eagle, had been an MP since 1992 and voted for the Iraq War.

However, Smith proved to have a more ambiguous past than some of his backers anticipated. Corbyn’s supporters swiftly unearthed a series of interviews from 2006 in which their opponent made a notably centrist pitch. Smith, then a by-election candidate in Blaenau Gwent, south Wales, defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq War), supported private-sector involvement in the National Health Service and praised city academies. “I’m not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online.

Since then, he has struggled to reconcile these positions with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent.

“To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing’,” Smith told me. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be. My views haven’t really changed at all, I’m someone who has been on the left of the party.

“My dad [the Welsh historian Dai Smith] is someone who’s been on the left of the Labour movement all his life. I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

Yet a former shadow cabinet colleague told me that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings: “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

What Smith believes in most, some say, is himself. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, described him as “one of the most ambitious career politicians I’ve met”. Others have dismissed him as a “Big Pharma lobbyist” because of his past as head of policy and government relations for Pfizer.

“I’m not ashamed that I had a life outside politics before I became an MP,” Smith told me. “Yes, I worked for Pfizer and I also worked as a BBC journalist and as an adviser to the last Labour government on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

“People don’t want career politicians – they want men and women who have had experience of working in business and in the different sectors that make up our economy. Critics may use it against me, but my time in business has helped me understand what’s wrong with it and how we can make it work better.”

Corbyn’s supporters, however, allege that Smith’s left-wing pledges would not withstand contact with centrist colleagues. The degree to which the challenger has rebutted this charge shows that he recognises its potency.

He has offered to make Corbyn party president or chair if he wins, to allow Corbyn to act as “a guardian of Labour’s values”. In his speech, Smith vowed to increase member influence by making conference votes binding on the leadership.

Throughout the 1980s, another soft-left Welshman, Neil Kinnock, struggled to assert authority as the hard left retained control of vital bodies. Smith’s proposals risk replicating this conflict. But he told me that he would respect Labour’s conference even if it endorsed stances such as Trident abolition (Smith joined CND as a teenager but later renounced unilateralism). “I do think in order to reassure members that, under my leadership, we would listen hard to them and act in accordance with their views, conference does need to become sovereign once more,” he said.

Tony Benn’s dream of internal democracy appeared to be within reach. I asked Smith whether he would support other reforms such as a reduced MP nomination threshold for leadership candidates (Corbyn allies have proposed a cut from 15 per cent to 5 per cent). “All of these things can be debated,” he told me. “I’m not sure it should be 5 per cent: I need to look at it when we get closer to it. But I am convinced that the left needs to be able to put up candidates in this contest, I’ve always felt that.”

Smith’s assertion is contradicted by a colleague who described him as having been “furious”, “apoplectic” when Corbyn made the ballot last year (he supported Andy Burnham’s campaign).

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Smith is less equiovcal over the mandatory reselection of MPs. “That would be a really retrograde step for the party,” he told me. “It would be an uncomradely way for us to do business.” He is critical of the Corbyn-aligned group Momentum, some of whose members are spearheading deselection efforts. “I fear an attitude within Momentum that they are a separate organisation and they shouldn’t be,” he told me. “It’s hard to argue that they’re loyal and supportive if they’re organising a bloomin’ great really in the same town at the same time in competition to the Labour Party” (the group will hold its own four-day conference alongside Labour’s in Liverpool).

Some of those close to Corbyn, such as John McDonnell, have unhesitatingly described themselves as Marxists (in 2006, the shadow chancellor named Marx, Lenin and Trotsky as his “most significant” intellectual influences). I asked Smith whether he believed Labour could encompass such views. “Yes, I think we’ve always been a broad church and there have always been people who’ve come from that tradition,” he replied. “There are two broad traditions: the extra-parliamentary tradition, that has always seen parliament as a compromise and parliamentary socialism as a compromise, from [the trade unionist and theorist] Noah Ablett here in south Wales with The Miners’ Next Step through to Ed Miliband’s dad [Ralph, a Marxist historian] ... and the mainstream social democratic tradition that I came from.”

He added: “We’ve had this battle in the Labour Party over the ages, haven’t we? Except now I think it’s more serious because there is a very real danger, with Labour at such a low ebb and politics fragmented more broadly, and so many more parties and so many options for people and such a lesser tribal attachment to the Labour Party, that we can’t afford those fractures.

"If we splinter, there’s lot of other places for people to put their vote.”

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Though they will not say so publicly, some of Smith’s supporters believe Labour would remain unelectable under his leadership. A former shadow cabinet minister told me that he was offering a “warmed-up Ed Milibandism, which was rejected by the voters”. Smith naturally contests this analysis. “I don’t think that we lost the last election because we were too left-wing,” he said. “The proof is that the Tories have engaged in all sorts of these policies ... Theresa May’s opening speech upon becoming leader was to talk about social injustice, economic insecurity, lack of security in the workplace. Labour values, Labour words in a Tory mouth, evidence that the broad story we’re telling about Britain is right.”

Smith said that, unlike Corbyn, he would resign if he became leader and lost a confidence vote by MPs. “Yes - I would [resign]. We are a party that believes in parliamentary democracy and, as such, it is only right that the leader commands the support of his or her colleagues in the Commons.”

Should Corbyn win the contest, as expected, Smith will not return to the shadow cabinet but act as “a loyal backbencher”.  He pledges to resist any breakaway: “I'm Labour, I've always been Labour and I will never stop being Labour," he said. 

Speaking of his fear that Corbyn would seek to remain leader even if the party lost the next general election, he said: “I’m deeply worried about it. I think he’s determined to hang on come hell or high water. And what does that say about him? ... I think he is more concerned with his version of the Labour Party being sustained and being victorious than he is with the Labour Party being victorious in elections. I think he is actually prepared to sacrifice unity and victory - two great words that have traditionally been emblazoned on Labour banners through the ages - in order to secure control of the party.”

The trouble for Owen Smith is that, for all his combative talk and appeal to the left, he is trapped between his past pragmatism and his present radicalism. 

Tony Benn, Corbyn’s late mentor, divided politicians into “signposts” and “weathercocks”: those who shape opinion and those who are shaped by it. He would have branded Smith a “weathercock”. Even if he wins, Smith risks being remembered not as a politician who resolved his party’s contradictions, but as one who embodied them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser