While this country is gripped by the future of Boris Johnson and what parties he did or did not attend the attention of our European and Transatlantic neighbours has been seized by rather weightier matters. Specifically confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. How we should deal with a country that’s been keeping western leaders awake at night ever since Stalin and his reign of terror nearly ninety years ago. It is not the first time in recent years that the country at the heart of this latest crisis is Ukraine. Russian forces invaded in 2014 and annexed the region of Crimea. Once again Russia has a vast number of troops and armour massed on the Ukrainian border and the question facing Nato is what to do if there is another invasion. The American secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov when they met met briefly on Friday of a ‘united, swift and severe’ response if there is an invasion. But what does ‘united’ mean? How far is the west prepared to go to thwart whatever ambitions Russia might have? And where does this country stand?
There is arguably much more at stake here than the sovereignty of a single European country about which most of us probably know little. The future of Nato, the most important military alliance on the planet, is at risk and so is the credibility of the most powerful nation, the United States. That credibility was seriously called into question this week by the remarkably inept language used by President Biden at a press conference. It had been set up by the White House in a pretty desperate attempt to boost Biden’s flagging authority. It had the opposite effect.
What Biden’s supporters had been hoping for was a ringing declaration that delivered a clear, unambiguous message to President Putin: if Moscow orders its troops to cross the Ukrainian border the consequences will be severe. Nobody expected Biden to threaten military reprisals. Ukraine is not a member of Nato so that’s not an option. But they did expect him to warn Putin he would pay a very large price. There would be severe economic sanctions targeting not only his country but also his own vast personal wealth. That, indeed, seemed to be the direction in which Biden was heading with his opening remarks. Russia, he said, ‘will be held accountable if it invades Ukraine’. It was what he went on to say that caused jaws to drop in the West Wing.
‘It depends on what it does’ he said ‘It's one thing if it's a minor incursion, and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera... but if they actually do what they're capable of doing with the force amassed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia.'
The immediate question was what exactly is a ‘minor incursion’? Maybe just a thousand soldiers and a couple of dozen tanks with only limited support from fighter jets? Was the president of the United States actually telling the president of another (unfriendly) country that he could go ahead and invade but please don’t make it a big deal?
Unsurprisingly, the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, was outraged. He tweeted: 'We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations,' he tweeted. 'Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the president of a great power.' His foreign minister went further. He saw Biden’s comments as an invitation to Russia to attack his country.
It did not take long for the White House to try to repair the damage. Not an easy task, given that they could scarcely assure the world that their president was talking rubbish or that he had been misunderstood. Instead they tried to take refuge behind that familiar formula: a ‘clarification’ of what the president had really meant. So Biden made another statement. ‘I've been absolutely clear
with President Putin. He has no misunderstanding ... If any... any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion.'
So that’s clear then? Maybe. But maybe not. We still don’t know how the United States would react. Nor, indeed, what Putin intends to do. What we do know is that he has already spent very large sums of money appearing to prepare for a possible invasion and arousing expectations around the world of something dramatic that will bolster Russia’s reputation as a force to be reckoned with. Given that, it seems pretty unlikely that he will now send his soldiers home with instructions to wave a cheery farewell to the nervous Ukrainians on the other side of the border, possibly mouthing ‘see you again soon’! That’s not what this country’s own most senior military figure expects. The UK’s chief of defence staff, Admiral Sir Anthony Radakin, has said a Russian invasion could trigger conflict on a scale ‘ not seen in Europe since world war two’.
For many of Putin’s critics in the west such warnings are entirely justified. They regard him as a ruthless despot who has shown he will do anything to stay in power and who has abused that power to become immensely rich. He presides over a corrupt regime that makes a mockery of democracy. He destroys his political opponents through a legal system that promotes a corrupt judiciary and sanctions the murder of those he fears most. He uses his country’s vast reserves of oil and natural gas to put the squeeze on European countries when they most need it.
He has never accepted that the west won the Cold War. He regards the Soviet Union as his country’s finest hour. Allies of the west are automatically enemies of Russia and vice versa. Think of Afghanistan, North Korea and Syria.
But diplomacy is a nasty, brutal game and there is only one inviolable rule: my country right or wrong. It’s in that context that, many would argue, we have to ask whether it would be in our interest to get involved in the conflict now brewing on the Ukrainian border. To some extent we already have. We’ve sent some sophisticated military equipment for the Ukrainian armed forces and a few military experts to train them to use it. But that might be considered little more than a gesture of support.
Some say we in the west have only ourselves to blame for Russia’s aggression. Many wise heads argued after the end of the Cold War that it would be a serious mistake to humiliate Moscow in the way we humiliated Germany after we defeated them in 1918. When Boris Yeltsin was president he begged the west not to push Nato to Russia’s borders. It would risk, he said, “the flames of war bursting out across the whole of Europe”. But we took little notice. Nato expanded eastwards through Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and the Baltic states. Little wonder, say Nato’s critics, that Russia feels besieged.
Ukraine is an independent state but one that has usually maintained peaceful relations within Moscow’s sphere of interest. When Putin seized its province of Crimea in 2014, the west imposed economic sanctions on Russia that seem to have achieved precisely nothing.
That wise commentator Sir Simon Jenkins, points out that Putin has ‘never indicated the slightest wish to invade, damage or interrupt trade with Britain or the US. He behaves outrageously towards his critics, at home and abroad, and offends western standards of decency and liberalism. The result is an ageing, emigrating and demoralised Russian population. But that is his country and his choice. We may choose to exert soft power over Moscow, through cultural, educational and economic forces but we cannot police Putin’s borders or stop him mistreating his neighbours. That is not our business.’
Is he right? Do you think we should offer our support to the United States if Russia does invade Ukraine and, if not, what should we do? And if we do nothing do we risk encouraging Putin’s aggression.
Let us know