Friday 25 February 2022

No good solutions


Had Putin stopped at recognising the independence of the two breakaway republics, and agreeing to their requests for military support to bolster their defences, he might have got away with it, in the sense that the position is at least arguable and most of the west would have thought it a small price to pay. Although the regions concerned undoubtedly voted for Ukrainian independence in 1991, opinions can change and it is at least ambiguous whether they want to be part of Ukraine, part of Russia, or independent of both. Worst of all, no-one seems particularly keen to find out. It would have led to a few paltry sanctions and decades-long negotiations to attempt to come to some sort of longer term agreement. What the people think is – and never was – of any great import in the power games. But he didn’t stop there, and there is little room for doubt about the wish of Ukrainians to be a free and independent state. There must be serious consequences, although there can surely be little doubt that the puniness and futility of the sanctions announced earlier this week will have emboldened Putin significantly.

On the underlying principles, there are some double standards being applied.

·        Putin believes that ‘allowing’ Ukraine (and others) to become independent was a huge mistake which must be reversed. The Ukrainians are really just a different type of Russian, and not a nation at all. Their country should be reunited with the motherland, restoring the ancient boundaries of Russia. Allowing them to decide for themselves what they want is unthinkable.

·        The Ukrainian government believes that Ukraine is a unique nation with its own history and culture, that its Soviet-era-determined boundaries are sacrosanct, and that the breakaway regions in the south-east are populated by people who are just a different sort of Ukrainian and should be reincorporated into Ukraine. Allowing them to decide for themselves what they want is unthinkable.

·        Whilst supporting Ukraine’s right to independence, Johnson also believes that ‘allowing’ Scotland (and Wales) a degree of autonomy was a huge mistake which must be rectified by undermining and rolling back that autonomy. They are just a different sort of Briton, and not a different nation at all. Allowing them to decide for themselves what they want is unthinkable.

All of them accept, of course, the inalienable right of all nations to determine their own future; it’s just that they also want to give themselves the right to decide which groups are or are not nations, and impose that view on others. None of that serves to excuse Putin, or establish some sort of moral equivalence. It is merely to point out that the idea that the right of a nation to enjoy its freedom and independence can or should be constrained by what a larger neighbour is prepared to ‘allow’ isn’t confined to Putin, and for further evidence, consider the way in which the US meddles in the affairs of countries in its own ‘back yard’. There’s more than a whiff of hypocrisy about a PM demanding that the sovereign right of one nation be respected whilst personally denying another the right to even ask itself the question. There is a difference in the level of violence involved, but the mindset is basically the same. And the bit missing in each case is asking what the people want – those with the might and the power will take that decision for them.

For those of us who genuinely believe that the people living in any area have the right to determine their own future, yesterday was a black day, and it’s hard to see a way forward. Becoming involved militarily would be folly, whether that’s troops on the ground or the more limited intervention of trying to impose a no-fly zone as called for by some Tories. Either risks escalation, whether by accident or design, into a conflagration which has the potential to end civilization in Europe and perhaps the world – and it’s hard to interpret Putin’s warning about anyone trying to stop him as anything other than a threat to do just that. Arming insurgents, as promised by Johnson, looks like asking people to fight a long and bloody war in which many more would die – it’s too easy to stand a thousand miles away and urge others to fight. Putin says he does not intend to ‘occupy’ Ukraine. To the extent that anything he says is believable, that might well be his wish; but it’s hard to see how merely installing a puppet government which may struggle to command the loyalty of the police, armed forces, or civil service, never mind the general population, can be made to work without an occupying force to impose its will.

That, inevitably, brings us back to sanctions, as being the only useable weapon in the West’s armoury. To be meaningful, they need to bite, and bite hard; something which is difficult in a country the size of Russia, with so many resources at its disposal. Targeting a few – or even a few thousand – rich Russian individuals or banks whilst continuing most trade links simply won’t cut it but those who are likely to suffer most from more serious sanctions are the ordinary Russian people, who have no say in what Putin does anyway. Johnson’s address to ‘the nation’ yesterday was long on rhetoric but short on detail. There was, in a rare departure in the direction of truth for Johnson, an admission that there is no quick solution. Regime change in Russia looks unlikely to happen soon, and the record of sanctions changing anything is poor. The one thing missing from Johnson’s speech was any admission that serious sanctions will cause us pain here (an omission which was not made by our own Mark Drakeford, who was very clear that effective sanctions will cause us pain as well). It leaves me doubtful, to say the least, as to whether Johnson is serious even now about the severity of the sanctions to be imposed.

Russia’s alliance with China doesn’t help the situation either. As a result of profit-driven cost-cutting and globalisation, China has been gifted (by capitalism) the potential to significantly damage western economies at any time should it choose to support its ally, a point which Covid demonstrated well, almost by accident. And what Russia can’t sell to, or get from, the west, it can probably sell to, or get, from China, which will certainly not support any sanctions imposed.

The truth is that, for all the sloganizing and outrage, there are no good solutions, and no good outcomes. It’s a question of finding the least worst, and whilst Johnson boasts about the UK leading the way on sanctions, the reality is that most of the rest of the world sees the UK as a weak link in the chain, largely due to the UK’s addiction to Russian cash. Whether the west is serious, and prepared to take the pain involved or is merely involved in a game of rhetoric and bluster remains to be seen. Putin is probably assuming the latter, and the history to date suggests that isn’t an entirely irrational assumption.


Geraint said...

General Kutuzov is report to have said after the battle of Borodino in 1812 that neither the French or Russians were were content with the result of the battle. He went on to reflect that the only people that were pleased with the result were to be found in Horse Guards Parade. I wonder if a modern general today would substitute the British military HQ with what ever the PLA HQ is called?

Spirit of BME said...

Your post outline clear and excellent points that should be discussed, along with why the West broke the agreed NATO/Russia agreement made in Paris in May 1997 which gave a road map for NATO-Russian cooperation.
Interference in Ukraine by the West has been rife with the EU putting money in from their Accession Funding Budget and other NGOs from funding from God -knows where, with NATO countries turning a blind-eye to the whole thing.
The standard of debate in the Commons did not serve the electorate well, with the Leader of the Opposition and Plaid Cymru in agreement with the propaganda machine now in full flow – if the Opposition agrees with HMG, why bother turning up?
If a Welsh government were established and tilted to a ‘hostile ‘power, I think we would hear tanks rolling west.