The west is letting Putin get his way on Ukraine

Published by The Guardian (28th November, 2014)

Ukraine’s new parliament was sworn in today. More than 400 members took their oaths, but 27 seats remain vacant – the annexation of Crimea, plus the war in eastern Ukraine, prevented deputies being elected there.

It is just one year since people seeking democracy and prosperity began protesting in Kiev’s Maidan Square, leading to the downfall of a kleptocratic regime and descent of a new cold war in Europe. How rapidly the news agenda moves on. Crimea was the first annexation on the continent since 1945 but is now largely forgotten, despite prices soaring and people disappearing or dying in suspicious circumstances if they cross their new rulers. Human Rights Watch has catalogued the import of Vladimir Putin’s trademark tactics of abusing activists and harassing journalists.

Meanwhile, a crippling conflict drags on in Europe. More than 4,300 combatants and civilians have been killed since Russia and its stooges began stirring up trouble eight months ago. Almost a million people have fled the afflicted region, the numbers surging in recent weeks. A report by UN monitors disclosed an average of 13 people dying a day since a supposed ceasefire between Ukraine, Russia and the rebels in early September, while all the protagonists suffer painful economic fallout.

So what’s being done? The message from last week’s G20 summit seemed clear: Putin was being sent to diplomatic Siberia. Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, told the Russian president he would shake his hand but had only one thing to say: ‘You need to get out of Ukraine.’ Then Putin was subjected to snubs, shunned at lunch and berated by other world leaders; little surprise he fled home early. Few will shed tears over such treatment of a despotic figure doing such damage to his nation’s interests both at home and abroad.

But this was gesture politics of the worst kind from western leaders, posturing in public while seeming to have little strategy for how to resolve a spiralling crisis in the midst of Europe. Instead, Ukraine seems to be slipping down the foreign policy agenda.

In the summer I saw early skirmishes at Donetsk airport, given a £500m facelift before football’s European Championship two years ago. Ukraine and the Russian rebels remain locked in lethal combat over the abandoned planes, wrecked control tower and battered terminal buildings, much of the debris filled with booby traps after the two sides slugged it out from different floors. Now a place that so recently demonstrated national pride is a depressing symbol of this destructive struggle.

Not only has Putin got his hands on Crimea, but increasingly it appears he may be getting what he wants elsewhere in Ukraine too, with the destabilising of a fledgling democracy and creation of patsy states on his border. For as Kiev halts payments of public funds for Novorossiya (New Russia), the areas of Donbass controlled by rebels seem to be sliding into frozen statehood.

This is another favoured Kremlin tactic – as seen with Russian-backed splinter states such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgie, and Transnistria in Moldova. Novorossiya would, however, be much more costly to support, with the need to rebuild a shattered, heavily industrialised pariah state of 4 million people. It reveals how Putin is at the mercy of events as much as any other player in the region, trapped by the potent combination of soaring popularity and a shaky economy.

Yet only the most deluded or sycophantic observer can blame anyone but Putin for these tragic scenes. For all his postmodern pretence of non-involvement, Russia’s president sent his forces into a neighbouring nation, tearing apart a country whose people sought the freedom and accountability he so fears in his own nation. Ukraine’s attempts to recapture its territory were thwarted by troops, tanks and artillery from over the border.

The response of western leaders is to pose as tough guys on the public stage while preparing to impose a few minor sanctions on separatists and some Putin cronies. They hope that pressure on Russia’s economy will prevent further escalation, although this might make Putin even more unpredictable. Meanwhile, Moscow continues to ramp up military spending, just as it has done from the moment that Putin, this former KGB apparatchik with Tsarist ambitions, took office – while the Baltic states (members of Nato, remember) grow ever more anxious.

Solutions should come from diplomatic, not military, action. Yet there must be deterrence alongside diplomacy. There is a danger, however, that the west is so distracted by events in the Middle East that it ignores the angry Russian bear lashing out in Europe, which possibly poses the bigger threat to our immediate futures. Earlier this year the Russian activist Alexei Navalny  proposed a list of Putin’s inner circle who should be subjected to sanctions; nearly all are now on the western blacklist, apart from the football oligarchs Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov. It would send a powerful signal to see sanctions imposed on this pair, whatever the cost to their London clubs.

Moscow is also demanding guarantees that Ukraine will never be allowed to join Nato; but Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, insisted this week that his nation will hold a vote once it meets the criteria for membership. Such a move should be welcomed if sought by the populace, as should their desire to join the EU. For at the core of this crisis lies the basic principle behind our noblest European ideals: the democratic right of people to determine their own futures, rather than have such hopes crushed by despotism or foreign aggressors.

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