A couple of days ago I suggested that most folk in Falkirk, and indeed the UK, were sceptical, to put it mildly, of the present Western government line on the Ukraine. I’ve spoken to a lot of other people since then, and there’s now no doubt about that trend in my mind. It’s not the kind of outright opposition some felt over our own invasions of other countries – along with vocal opposition, there was of course also a lot of support for our Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. And it’s not even the ‘leave them all to it, it’s nothing to do with us’ kind of thing.
My impression of the general public mood is that many people are aware that Ukraine, particularly the East, contains a big Russian interest in the form of a huge naval base, many thousands of troops and many Russian citizens (the majority of people in Crimea, in fact). Much like we have a strategic nuclear asset in Scotland. People are also aware, if only in a vague, general way, that when the USSR broke up there were many compromises to be made. The relative autonomy of Crimea was one of those; Russian access to the Black Sea was another. The maintenance of a substantial number of Russians within Ukraine’s borders was yet another, and one that has been reflected in the East v West politics of Ukraine for 20 years.
My sense is that while regular folk in the UK are not necessarily au fait with the detail, they’re puzzled about two things in particular. First, why has Europe been so headstrong and aggressive – encouraging the fall of an elected regime, arguing for the extension of the EU and NATO into an area that includes obvious and powerful Russian interest (e.g Crimea), literally on Russia’s immediate border? It ought to be clear that any nation in the world, not least Russia – and not least us – would react to such a threat vigorously. Did the EU expect Russia to quietly pack up its only warm-water base and fleet? Did it expect Russia to run away from naked threats by Swedish, Danish and Portugese politicians? And, for that matter, why are folk from such minor countries so prominent in dictating what we should be up to?
Second, what does the UK have to gain from such a position? Clearly, an aggressive position towards Russia may impact upon heating and petrol prices (and, therefore, everything else). But while those prices would begin to bite very quickly, it isn’t money that the people I’ve been talking to emphasise. Of course, there’s the awareness that Afghanistan and Iraq have depleted the political scope for military action abroad, but again my sense is that people really just don’t any longer see the Russians as ‘enemies’ or ‘threats’. People just don’t understand why we are acting like the Russians are our enemies, like in the old cold-wawr days of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).
Third, and this might seem odd to younger people, but a lot of my older constituents know exactly what happened at Sevastopol in 1941-2. They know the UK played a big role in the defeat of fascism, certainly; but they also know the scale of Russian sacrifice, exemplified by the siege of Sevastopol, and how that was decisive in the end. Ask an old soldier; you’ll see what I mean. The Orange revolution in the Ukraine led to a corrupt and unpopular government, so corrupt that Ukranians voted against it in spades. Now that result itself has been overturned, and we’ve seen the return – and not just at the margins – of fascist organisations and personalities to prominence in the Ukraine.
It’s not that there’s no way ahead for Ukraine; more that things are complicated. Hot-headedness rarely wins the day – I know that much. I also remember being the Labour party’s man in Europe, being sent to former Soviet block countries and discovering that working out who was ‘progressive’ wasn’t as simple or clear-cut as it had seemed.
Tony Blair’s former political secretary has called me an ‘apologist’ on account of my most recent post. Gordon Brown’s former Europe minister has called me a ‘capitulator’ re. the same post. Really? Well, let’s not take the latter, furiously vacillating Chris Bryant, too seriously. He helped arrange Tony Blair’s removal on account of how terribly unpopular Iraq was – no spunk there then, and no appetite for winning elections.
I spent the first few years of my adulthood, when John McTernan was interning in his dad’s office or something, as an infanteer lying on the inner (West/East) German border waiting for ‘the Russians’ to run over us. I spent the first Gulf War (to the UK) as a staff officer at the Ministry of Defence. I spent the second Gulf War as a politician taking direct instructions from the prime minister’s office about what to say to the media. That, of course, included stuff denied at the Chilcot Inquiry – although I do not think Tony Blair is aware of that. I was booed at out of public spaces when I was out socially. But it was all fine, because I was serving my prime minister. Now his former political secretary, i.e.the bod who put out the message to us lowly MPs, thinks I’m an ‘apologist’? I guess he’s waiting for the peerage in the post and in the meantime he needs money, or at least attention. It’s easy to call for war from a comfortable office in London, dreaming about ermine.
For now, all I can say is that the thing my constituents didn’t like much, along with most folk in the UK, was communism. But modern Russia? Big, important country. Special interests in Ukraine and a few other neighbours. Provides oil and gas to us all? These are the true public perceptions, surely?
Politicians in the UK really shouldn’t confuse 40 years of communism – ancient history now – with Russian interest in the Crimea. To be honest, I don’t think the UK government does. I don’t think Obama does either, actually. That’s why John Kerry’s being given licence to make an arse of himself. And it’s also why pointless politicians from wee EU countries are being put in point position. In the end, If you’re in any doubt, ask an old soldier about Sevastopol. That’s the history that matters the most.
[As a post-script (6 Feb), Henry Kissinger's Washington Post essay here is very instructive (hat tip to @stvharry). Two super quotes -
"The demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one", and
"The European Union must recognise that its bureaucratic dilatoriness and subordination of the strategic element to domestic politics in negotiating Ukraine’s relationship to Europe contributed to turning a negotiation into a crisis"]