Putin, tangled foreign policy and a flawed case for war

Published by The Independent (23rd November, 2015)

France is not the only part of Europe under a state of emergency. All four power lines supplying electricity to two million Crimeans were blown up on Saturday night. The attack appeared to be the work of Ukrainian activists, since images were circulating on social media showing the nation’s blue and yellow flag attached to damaged pylons. But as Russian authorities worked frantically to restore electricity to the peninsula they stole last year, it was a salutary reminder of the speed with which foreign policy interests shift these days.

Just months ago, our leaders were warning, with justification, that the mendacious Vladimir Putin was the biggest threat to Europe’s safety after he deliberately wrecked a country seeking democracy by annexing part of its territory, then stirring up revolt in other regions. Now Putin is angry that Islamists bombed a Russian plane, but I saw the broken bodies strewn around fields after his stooges shot down another airliner, killing 293 innocent people. Nato beefed up its forces in frontline states, there were fears over Russian jets in our airspace, sanctions were imposed on his thieving billionaire accomplices.

Earlier this year, David Cameron warned the world not to wobble unless Putin’s behaviour changed. Five months ago, Barack Obama was asking whether Putin was wrecking Russia’s economy and continuing its isolation “in pursuit of a wrong-headed desire to recreate the glories of the Soviet empire. Or does he recognise that Russia’s greatness does not depend on violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries?” Now Obama and other Western leaders huddle around Putin as they plot the overthrow of their current enemy after the atrocities in Paris.

Putin has run rings around his foes. His behaviour did not change; instead he piled military forces into Syria to protect his ally, Bashar al-Assad, and Russia’s only remaining overseas military base outside the former Soviet Union. His invasion of Ukraine was motivated, as with everything he does, by a determination to retain his power and immense wealth. Yet while he remains arguably a bigger threat to Western stability than Isis, and has been doing Assad’s dirty work by bombing other rebel groups, suddenly the West’s rhetoric has softened, as short-termist foreign policy lurches off in another direction.

Now it is all about destroying Isis, the airwaves filled with overblown allusions to the fight against fascism. It is eerily similar to the angry mood after 9/11 that led to the bungled, bloodstained invasion of Afghanistan. As the emboldened Russian President seeks a ‘grand alliance’ against Isis, the British Prime Minister who rightly led the drive for sanctions against him is preparing to push for another vote backing intervention against Isis in Syria. Yet only two years ago, David Cameron’s Government wanted us to bomb Assad’s forces, saying our security was at risk if his regime remained in power after its use of chemical weapons.

For all the froth and fury about the debate on intervention, British aircraft will make little real difference to the campaign against Isis in its Syrian heartland, beyond providing political fig leaves. In Iraq, aircraft from our diminished armed forces have been behind just 5 per cent of bombing raids. Coalition strikes have helped Kurdish forces fighting the Islamist fanatics on the ground; in Syria, however, there seems to be no idea who we want to win beyond vague talk of diplomatic solutions and democracy in a country ripped apart by civil war. And air strikes cause ‘collateral damage’, a chilling modern euphemism for killing people.

Once again, the drums of war sound with no concept of long-term solutions and despite the catastrophic record of Western interventions over the past 12 years. Even the best of them, the French invasion of Mali two years ago, which was undoubtedly popular with local people, failed to curb the Islamist insurgency, as we have just been lethally reminded. Nor did it sort out the political failures that led to the initial problems.

Has Western foreign policy ever been in such a tangle? Just consider our relationship with Saudi Arabia, happily selling arms to a feudal regime that subjugates women, beheads people for sorcery, invaded its neighbour and uses its oil wealth to export radical Islam around the world. Closer to home, think of all that dirty money washed by accountants, estate agents and lawyers in London. Religious extremists prey on discontent partly fuelled by corruption that corrodes many societies. This is certainly true of Nigeria, where Boko Haram killed more people than Isis last year.

Isis deserves to be wiped from the planet – but blasting it to bits will not solve the issues that sparked its rise. We can destroy it, just as we defeated al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, but similar groups will flare up again in a different guise. The militants feed on poverty and poor education, the alienation of minority groups, sectarianism inflamed by repression, colonial borders that fail to match realities on the ground, and cack-handed foreign interventions. And generations are growing up for whom conflict is normal as ethnic, political and religious divisions worsen. More than ever we need focus in foreign policy, yet it seems sorely missing amid endless talk of fighting.

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