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2 March 2022

Leader: The age of impunity must end

Vladimir Putin's malevolent advance has shown the West the cost of its inaction.

By New Statesman

For years Vladimir Putin’s malevolent advance was met with little or no resistance. Under his leadership Russia invaded Georgia, annexed Crimea, poisoned political opponents and committed war crimes in Syria. Yet each time Russia encountered only token opposition.

It was the West’s lack of courage, and the dream of a Greater Russia informed by an erratic reading of history, that prompted Mr Putin to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But this time the response has been different.

Faced with its gravest threat since the Second World War, and the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people, Europe has awoken from its slumber. Rather than token reprisals, it has imposed bold and unprecedented economic sanctions. Several Russian banks have been expelled from Swift, the global financial messaging system, and the country’s own central bank has been sanctioned. This has prevented Mr Putin from using most of the $640bn “war chest” of foreign currency reserves that he accumulated. Even traditionally neutral Switzerland has replicated the EU’s sanctions (targeting the $11bn held by Russian companies and individuals in Swiss banks).

“I need ammunition, not a ride,” declared Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, as he declined a US evacuation offer. The West is beginning to heed his call.

For the first time in its history, the EU has approved the use of its funds to buy lethal arms, promising to supply 70 fighter jets to Ukraine. In Germany, meanwhile, Olaf Scholz’s recently formed Social Democrat-Green government has overcome the country’s long-standing pacifism by announcing that it will send 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles to Kyiv. As he addressed the Bundestag, Mr Scholz spoke of a “Zeitenwende” – not merely a turning point but the start of a new era. Germany, he rightly pledged, will now spend more than 2 per cent of its GDP on defence (compared to 1.4 per cent at present), a €100bn promise that will make his country the largest military spender in Europe. For too long European states have been hiding behind the US’s nuclear umbrella.

A new era has begun and there should be no return to the old ways. Owing to the EU’s continued reliance on Russian gas (which accounts for 40 per cent of its imports and 65 per cent of Germany’s), energy is exempt from the sanctions. For reasons of democracy as well as sustainability, the continent must accelerate its shift away from fossil fuels and break its dependence on autocratic petrostates such as Russia.

Faced with European and Ukrainian resistance, Mr Putin will deploy ever more brutal methods in his quest for victory. His bloodstained record in Chechnya and later in Syria, where Russia reportedly used thermobaric missiles against anti-Assad rebels, shows that he has no regard for innocent civilian life. British MPs such as Tobias Ellwood, the ubiquitous chair of the Defence Select Committee, have responded by calling for the West to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. That would be reckless, risking a direct conflict between Russia and Nato – and possible world war. As Fiona Hill, the former US national security official, has warned, there is every reason to believe that Mr Putin is prepared to use nuclear weapons.

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But the West should not be a passive observer as Russia intensifies its assault. It should supply Ukraine with the arms it needs to defend itself and offer sanctuary to the millions of refugees the conflict will create.

Yet while the EU is preparing to give Ukrainians the right to remain for up to three years, the UK has failed to waive visas for asylum seekers. Indeed, the British government’s Nationality and Borders Bill would actively criminalise refugees who arrive via “irregular” routes such as in small boats or the back of lorries. There has never been a better time to withdraw it.

Over the past decade, autocrats such as Mr Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and Syria’s murderous Bashar al-Assad have acted with impunity as the democratic nations of the West have appeased them. As authoritarianism spread, too many leaders were complacent, while others, such as Donald Trump, were complicit.

Mr Putin’s advance has shown the cost of inaction. If the West is to honour those Ukrainians risking their lives for democracy, the age of impunity must finally end.

[See also: The truth about Putin’s “denazification” fantasy]

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This article appears in the 02 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Hero of our Times