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  1. Politics
1 March 2014

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.

By Rafael Behr

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.

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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.