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24 September, 2014  ▪  Michael Binyon

Caution and Restraint. To Be Continued…

Why it would be wrong for Kyiv to expect blanket solidarity from the West

In 1941 Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, and Franklin Roosevelt, the American president, issued a key document, known as the Atlantic Charter, which defined the principles for the postwar world. Central to the document, which was the forerunner to the United Nations charter, were the principles that no state should be allowed to conquer the territory of another and that no international borders should be changed by force. After the allied victory in 1945, these principles became the core values which America and its European allies pledged to uphold. They also lay at the heart of the NATO military alliance, set up in 1949 to stop any potential Soviet aggression against Western Europe.

By and large, those principles have remained the essential pillars of peace and stability in Europe since 1945. Of course, borders have been changed – Yugoslavia has split into six different states, Czechoslovakia has divided into two nations, East and West Germany have reunited and former Soviet republics have all won independence. But most of these changes have been peaceful, or have happened with the consent of the populations. And NATO has successfully prevented any state unilaterally annexing any other – despite the crises provoked by Soviet interventions in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

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That is the reason why the Russian annexation of Crimea has caused such a crisis in East-West relations, and why Russian support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine is proving so worrying. Western public opinion is little bothered about Crimea rejoining Russia – people argue that the majority of the population is Russian, most Crimeans would vote to join Russia (despite the referendum being rigged), and Crimea was part of Russia in the past. But the principle of changing the borders by force has upset Western governments, as it is a clear violation of the Atlantic Charter and of the United Nations.

Ukraine says Russia has repeatedly violated the charter by sending men and vehicles across the border to help the separatists, and that the unauthorized crossing of the Russian aid convoy into Ukraine violated its sovereignty.

Western nations and NATO agree. Last week Britain summoned the Russian ambassador in London to the Foreign Office to “clarify” reports of a military incursion. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, told President Poroshenko of his “grave concern” at the latest move. And Philip Hammond, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, said he was “very alarmed” by the incursion.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary-general, confirmed the incursion of military vehicles into Eastern Ukraine, despite Moscow’s denials, and spoke of a “continuous flow” of Russian weapons and fighters into eastern Ukraine.

But Western governments have nevertheless stopped short of calling these moves an “invasion”, and NATO members have made it clear that there will not be an armed response. Why? There are several reasons explaining Western restraint.

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First, Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and there is therefore no obligation on other NATO members to come to its aid if it is attacked. Public opinion is strongly opposed to any direct conflict with Russia, which could quickly escalate. As Cameron said last month, Britain was not going to “launch a European war or send the fleet to the Black Sea” over the Ukraine crisis. He insisted that the West had to stand up to Russia, and said the lessons of the First World War showed that aggression had to be stopped. But Britain was going to use its economic, rather than military, power to deter Moscow. Similar arguments have been made in Berlin, Paris and Rome.

Secondly, it is obvious that any Western military response would swiftly escalate the crisis. Western governments are still hoping that a diplomatic solution may be found, even if this may take a while. Angela Merkel, the Germany Chancellor, is the key figure in attempts to negotiate a face-saving solution that would allow President Putin to abandon the separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Britain believes such moves are more important that an immediate military response – largely because previous crises in Europe, such as Bosnia and Kosovo, have led to long and costly military engagement.

Thirdly, although there is widespread Western support for the Kyiv government, this support is not unconditional. There is concern at the scale of casualties that have resulted in the use of Grad and other heavy weapons against population centres in Donetsk and Luhansk. Britain has not condemned the Russian aid convoy, despite suspicions that it might be used for military advantage, as there is recognition that civilians in the east are suffering severely, irrespective of whether Kyiv or the rebel leaders are to blame.

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It would be wrong for Kyiv therefore to expect blanket solidarity from the West. Commentators have repeatedly pointed out that the Kyiv government has been unable to curb corruption, has allowed some extreme right-wingers to play a political role and has still not undertaken the economic reforms essential if Ukraine is to recover from its present disastrous economic state. Such comments are not used to justify Russian propaganda or to undermine Ukraine’s accusations against its neighbour. But they do explain why there is little public enthusiasm for total solidarity with the Ukrainian cause.

At the same time, European governments are angered by accusations that they are being blackmailed by Russia because of their economic dependence on the Russian market. Britain insists that while Russia is a significant source of jobs, trade and investment, it accounts for a far smaller proportion of investment than many other countries. Just 2% of Russian foreign direct investment goes to Britain – compared to 37% invested in Cyprus, 16% in the Netherlands and 3% in America. The total value of Russian-owned assets in Britain is £27 billion, which is only 0.5% of total European-owned assets in the country.

Britain imports almost no gas from Russia (although it imports a lot of coal), and Russia imports only 3% of its goods from Britain, compared to 20% from China, 15% from Germany and 6% from France, Japan and America. Only 1% of British exports of financial, business and insurance services go to Russia – compared with 37% exported to the European Union.

In London itself, Russian involvement is higher: Russians buy 2% of the city’s prime property, and a number of very rich Russians, including Roman Abramovich, live in London. Russian flotations on the London Stock Exchange account for a significant amount of money. And some big British energy firms, including Shell and BP, are still negotiating large contracts with Moscow.

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At the start of the Ukraine crisis, Britain, France and Germany were reluctant to impose large-scale sanctions on the Russian economy. But the shooting down of the Malaysian airline changed attitudes. Britain insisted that even though it might suffer, it wanted more widespread sanctions in the aftermath of the air disaster as the West needed to show an effective response to Putin.

Russia and Europe: The Splendour of Money and the Misery of PhilosophyThere is little difference in policy towards Ukraine between the coalition government and the opposition Labour Party. Labour has been strongly critical of Cameron’s policies in the Middle East and the crisis in Iraq and Syria, issues that currently preoccupy British public opinion much more than events in Ukraine. But Labour has not suggested it would take a softer line with Moscow, should it come to power in next year’s general election.

The fact is that the world finds it difficult to focus on two crises at the same time. The stunning victories of the Islamic State, the beheading of the American journalist, the fears of radicalization of young British Muslims and the calls for renewed British and US intervention in Iraq are making the headlines, overshadowing the fighting in Ukraine. This, however, may make it easier for the West to play a quiet role in the search for a diplomatic solution, away from the glare of publicity. Everyone knows that it will cost a huge amount to rebuild the infrastructure in eastern Ukraine. Western governments are not willing to pay out large sums to achieve this. That is why they are urging all sides to halt the fighting and the destruction before the costs grow any higher. 

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