19 Mar 2014. Not surprisingly Russia’s annexation of Crimea has driven a wedge between east-west diplomacy. The crisis has provided a range of conflicting views; some demanding western sanctions, others military intervention (a mistake in my opinion).
I found some of the comments that were being sounded off in the House of Commons yesterday quite disturbing as they demonstrated a complete lack of knowledge pertaining to what lies at the heart of this dispute. Indeed some of yesterday’s more blatant remarks, which called for a more robust response from the UK, depicted a complete lack of understanding regarding Russian history.
I suppose that as an island race it can be said that we in Britain have long feared the threat of invasion by sea; for Russia, history has ensured its paranoia is dominated by land-based threats located to its west. Previous evidence of failed understanding and pre-conceived notions are readily apparent and undoubtedly affect contemporary politics. Our distrust of the Russian bear has deep historical roots and its consistent failure to support recent diplomatic efforts to resolving international disputes through the UN Security Council simply plays on our existing prejudices.
But we are at fault in our understanding and approach too. We have perennially failed to take Russian history on board and are still ignorant of the complex nature of Russian ethnicity and the impact this has on geopolitical developments. With the US seeking to go one big step further than the European Union in the type of sanctions that will of inevitability now be placed on Russia, it seems that we have entered a three-way split on how the ‘west’ intends to deal with Russia’s Crimean excursion.
For all the threats and sabre rattling voices of various EU foreign ministers and others who continue to express concern, shock and angst, one should be in doubt that western politicians know their limitations. Impotency reigns supreme, apart from cutting off Russia’s access to the west and hurting Europe even more in the process there is very little that can be achieved. Anyone that seeks to pretend or push forward a notion that this ‘crisis’ is about to turn from what might in all other circumstances have been a civil war into one involving NATO’s military prowess should be committed.
Attempts at further diplomatic efforts to persuade Russia about the error of its ways are similarly futile. To question the legality of what Russia did by handing Crimea over to Ukraine in the first place would be better than questioning why Russia has now decided to annex Crimea. When a country feels aggrieved by its past and threatened by its future, diplomatic maneuverability is limited. In Russia’s case we need to remember that this is a country that has felt threatened by its western neighbours for the best part of two hundred years. I am not by the way seeking to support anything that Russia has done in the Ukraine or its decision to annex the Crimea. International rules have been broken and Russia has used its great manipulative skills to undermine one of its neighbours.
As to the imposition of western sanctions, yes they will hurt Russia – particularly freezing Russian assets abroad – but Russia is sometimes far bigger than the west often credits it to be. My concern is that if our politicians choose to go too far, it will be those of us in the ‘west’ that lose out most particularly in terms of the long standing harm done to our trade. True, Russia imports huge amounts of meat and other foodstuffs from the west and its ability to feed itself without the ability to import from the west would temporarily hurt; but we should not be surprised if gas flow to the west diminishes in the coming months.
Separately I would suggest that Russia’s leaders are unlikely to lose that much sleep on being removed from involvement in the G8. Whilst its pride may take a knock, I suspect that Russia will use this move to its advantage by highlighting its diametrically opposing views when compared to other members. It is of course not in the interests of Russia to have a long and protracted period of diplomatic dispute with the west. While the Russian leader has apparently said that Russia has no intention of invading Ukraine few are in any doubt that Russia will continue to use its manipulative skills to make life for the new Ukrainian government difficult. Powerless to do anything since Russia not surprisingly vetoed any intent to halt its moves to annex Crimea, the UN Security Council is once again showing its considerable limitations.
I admit this is a controversial viewpoint given the existing state of debate. Many on Whitehall and throughout Britain feel that the UK, US and EU should have composed a more robust challenge to Vladimir Putin. The role of NATO would of course be clear had Ukraine already been a member but thankfully challenging Russia militarily is not the answer. Precedents for Russia’s actions are littered across history; one is prompted to pause and reflect the UK’s own past and consider the hypocritical bent of our current rhetoric.