Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

7 March 2014, 16:35

In common with other NATO allies, Britain sees the Russian military occupation of Crimea as a blatant infringement of Ukraine’s sovereignty and a threat to world peace. All weekend there were frantic telephone consultations between Britain and its European partners and the United States. British commentators and the press have described the events as the biggest East-West crisis since the Cold War.

While urging Ukraine not to respond to Russian “provocations,” there is strong support across the political spectrum for Ukraine’s sovereignty. “It is clear that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine has been violated,” said Hague. “This cannot be the way to conduct international affairs”.

The British Government has demanded that Putin withdraw those Russian troops who appear to be in control of the airport in Crimea and to halt preparations for a military invasion. But there is also caution about what to do next. In a year when many people have been remembering the anniversary of the start of the First World War, politicians have warned Moscow – and also Kyiv – not to do anything hasty to precipitate a chain of events that might end in open hostilities. Britain is trying to persuade the Russian and Ukrainian governments to talk directly to each other – either at the United Nations or in European security forums.

For many Britons, Crimea has an emotional resonance because of the long and bloody war fought against the Russians in the peninsula some 160 years ago. But today there are mixed feelings about Crimea. On the one hand, television news has shown the Russian-speaking population demonstrating against the fall of Yanukovych and has underlined the split in Ukraine between the westward-looking West of the country and the south and east that have closer links with Russia. On the other hand, the British press has been forthright in condemning what it sees as aggression by Russia and Putin’s attempt to crush the new government in Kyiv.

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What everyone realises, however, is that the West would find it difficult to halt any Russian military incursion into Crimea. There is little public appetite for a full-scale military confrontation with Moscow, and few NATO countries are willing to commit troops to the defence of the Ukrainian government. NATO called an urgent meeting of its members, but is unlikely to issue a military ultimatum that could complicate the search for a diplomatic solution. Comparisons are being made with the war between Russia and Georgia. The most that now seems likely is that all normal relations with Russia will be suspended while diplomats frantically try to work out a face-saving compromise between Kyiv and Crimea.

Those urging a tougher line against Moscow are aghast. Sir Roderic Lyne, a former British Ambassador to Russia, said at the weekend that the initiative would have to be taken by the Polish, German and French governments as it was clear that President Obama had little wish to get involved and that Britain no longer seemed to have an effective foreign policy.

Despite the strong support for the new government in Kyiv, commentators have largely blamed Ukraine for bringing this tragedy upon itself. Newspapers and television have poured scorn on the country’s record of mismanagement and bad government since independence. There were high hopes in the West that democracy would triumph after the Orange Revolution in 2004. But the subsequent record of bickering, corruption and incompetence by the Yushchenko government has led many to conclude that no Ukrainian politician seems able or even willing to control corruption or run a democratic government free from factional bias or ethnic division. The Economist this week called the Rada a “nest of crooks and placemen”.

The news that Ukraine now needs an urgent injection of USD 35bn to avert bankruptcy has produced incredulity: few Western countries will lend any money at all to a Ukrainian government without guarantees of political reform, transparency, national consensus and the recovery of the huge sums embezzled by Yanukovych and other corrupt politicians and oligarchs. Sir Roderic said Ukraine now needed “tough love” from the West. He added: “A lasting solution is not within sight. Ukraine is not a ‘prize’ to be won or lost by Russia or the EU. Ukraine, in its current state, is a liability”.

There is also some dismay at the influence of extremists and anti-Semites who were present on Maidan. Their views have been given publicity in Britain and have not attracted support for the anti-Yanukovych cause.

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Nevertheless, despite the very high numbers of Russians living, investing and working in Britain (more than 100,000 live in the London area), there is virtually no political support for President Putin and his nationalist policies. His uncompromising anti-Western and anti-American positions, authoritarian style and repression of dissidents and political opponents at home have given him an image of an old-fashioned Soviet dictator, who is not to be trusted and who is invariably hostile to Western interests.

Indeed, some on the Right in Britain see the Ukrainian crisis as an ideal opportunity to confront and humiliate Putin. Wiser politicians say this would be extremely dangerous and counter-productive. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Britain has to work closely with Russia on global issues. The danger of confronting Putin over Ukraine is that co-operation over Syria, for example, would become impossible. Britain also has huge investments in Russia, which could be confiscated or frozen. And the large number of Russian tourists coming to Britain could be halted, hurting Britain’s tourist economy. On money-laundering, global terrorism, disease control and climate change Britain and other Western countries still need to keep open a dialogue with Moscow.

So far, there has been almost no lobbying from the Russian community in Britain – many of whom are in any case strongly opposed to Putin. Some of the richer ones, with property and investments in Britain and children at British private schools, have no wish to get involved in a political confrontation with their home country. The Ukrainian community, comprising about 11,000 people, has also been restrained in its comments, though Ukraine’s ambassador to London has offered strong support to the new government and appealed for British solidarity.

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The main worry for Britain and other Western governments is that Ukraine will collapse as a unified country, with old divisions between east and west becoming ever more acute. Politicians have been trying to convince Moscow that anything that sharpens the divisions within Ukraine would be disastrous as much for Russia as for the West. There are calls for NATO to invite Russia to become more closely involved in its discussions on security across Europe, and to give Russia a stronger presence at NATO headquarters. In the present tense atmosphere it seems very unlikely that Putin would contemplate any such offer. The Government, Parliament and the press in Britain all see a rapidly worsening crisis over Ukraine, with no obvious way out.

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