Blair has no right to pontificate on Putin
Published by The i paper (27th February, 2023)
Last week, Sir Tony Blair published an article in The Daily Telegraph headlined “One thing is clear: Vladimir Putin cannot be allowed to win”. He spoke, rightly, about the need to defeat the dictator’s attack on Ukraine and repulse Kremlin efforts to destabilise other nations.
The former prime minister dredged up a memory that after Putin “had given up on reform”, he told the Russian president that it was Kyiv’s decision whether to join Nato. And he wrote that regions such as the Middle East and Africa were “more open to the siren song that Russia is as much victim as aggressor” because of the economic distress caused by the war.
Pass the sick bag. For this was an intervention of puke-inducing hypocrisy. Blair is a politician who demonstrates the duplicity of some democratic leaders in effectively aiding and abetting Putin’s war crimes.
He brushed aside Moscow’s atrocities, parroted Kremlin propaganda, even after annexation of Crimea and – of course – played a central role in the Iraq War, a neo-colonial misadventure repeatedly used by Russia’s repellent leader to justify invading Ukraine. Iraq is also, sadly, a key reason why much of the planet is more susceptible to Putin’s “siren song” since it undercuts arguments that Western democracies are nobly backing a nation’s defence against unwarranted invasion.
Blair demonstrates what happens when democracies ditch principles and are led by ruthless practitioners of realpolitik. He was so keen to curry favour with Putin that in 2000 he broke the convention against meeting foreign politicians during elections, even attending an opera in St Petersburg to boost the candidate. Then he invited his newly elected pal to Britain.
“Vladimir Putin is a leader who is ready to embrace a new relationship with the European Union and the US, who wants a strong and modern Russia and a strong relationship with the West,” he said, to the horror of human rights groups as Kremlin troops rampaged in Chechnya.
Supporters say that Blair tried to bind Russia into the democratic community. They argue that he saw how Putin, a former KGB operative, was – in his words – “a Russian patriot, acutely aware that Russia had lost its respect in the world”, so sought to soothe his anguish.
In his memoir, Blair admits that Putin fought the Chechen war with “brutality”, but said he was “sympathetic to the fact that this was also a vicious secessionist movement with Islamic extremism at its core, so I understood the Russian perspective”.
Reality was rather different. Putin, appointed prime minister by a drunken president, was floundering in that 2000 presidential contest so stirred up hatred to boost his popularity.
After the slaughter of almost 300 Russians in bombings ripping apart four blocks of flats, he demonised Chechens and launched an onslaught on their republic that became infamous for atrocities. Yet state security operatives were caught planting one explosive device in a residential block while an ally disclosed the site of another attack before it took place.
The Chechens – a Muslim group deported to Siberia and northern Kazakhstan under Stalin in 1944 amid scenes of hideous cruelty – were victims of abuse by a second Russian despot just a decade after being allowed to return to their capital, Grozny. Some Ukrainians fought for their cause, incidentally, just as some Chechens fight today in Ukraine.
Anyone who thought Putin was a reformer exposes their naivety or excuses barbarity. The Kremlin used the 9/11 attacks on the US in 2001 to deflect criticism by branding its crushing of Chechnya part of the war on terror.
Then in 2008, Putin tested tactics seen six years later in Ukraine to thwart Georgia’s attempts to join Nato by stoking bitter separatist tensions, making baseless claims of genocide and sparking a brief war that led to chunks of the country breaking away.
Yet only one month after the dictator used a similar strategy to steal Crimea from Ukraine – an act that should finally have woken the West from its slumber – Blair popped up to argue that we should make friends with Russia to fight a common enemy of Islamic extremism.
Blair claimed that failure to shake off the Iraq legacy and “take sides” would cause this century to be dominated by conflict. In truth, it was his disastrous invasion that made the world more dangerous by strengthening Iran, diverting attention from other issues and igniting the creation of groups such as Isis; many key figures were former Saddam Hussein loyalists.
Thankfully, 20 years later, the Western alliance has solidified in horror over Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine – but in many parts of the world, sympathy for Kyiv is softened by justified concerns at Western hypocrisy. This is fed by many issues – from colonialism through to treatment of refugees – but the Iraq legacy plays a central role.
Blair may not be as bad as his fellow Third Way exponent Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor who called Putin “a flawless democrat” and earned millions from Russian energy firms, but his stance fitted his world view. He backed an ethical foreign policy and talked of defending liberty while cosying up to despots and acting as an apologist for repressive regimes – even halting a landmark corruption case to appease the Saudi royal family.
Blair’s “realist” view of the world continued after he left office, enriching himself by assisting autocrats and even advising a bloodstained Rwandan dictator while posing as a promoter of good governance.
Next month marks the 20th anniversary of the Iraq debacle. Blair loves to offer smooth thoughts on solving global problems, yet all too often – as with this terrible war I am witnessing in Ukraine – his fingerprints turn up at the crime scenes. The day after that Telegraph piece appeared, Gordon Brown wrote an article in The Guardian starting with the words: “It is time to bring Vladimir Putin and his enablers to justice.” Was this a fresh dig at his old rival, I wondered?
Joking aside, Brown is right. While we focus on portentous problems of the present, we must learn from the past – and that demands honesty and serious reflection, not crass, self-serving spin.