Ukraine: time for the west to pull back too

Solemn British commentators on the Ukraine crisis are wringing their hands over the west’s alleged inability to do anything to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine in the face of alarming Russian military activity, including powerlessness to persuade the Russians to pull back from their militaristic moves before the tension breaks out into war.  They are wrong.  There is one move that the west can and should make that would help to undo the consequences of recent western policy blunders, reassure Moscow about Russia’s legitimate strategic and security interests in its own region, and compel Ukraine’s leaders of all communities to adopt a more realistic attitude to its geopolitical situation and the limits which that imposes on its options.  The west needs urgently to give a clear and unconditional assurance that there can be no question of Ukraine, or any part of Ukraine, ever becoming a member of either the EU or NATO.

This would be no more than a recognition of reality.  Russia’s interests in Ukraine – strategic, cultural and historical, and personal (a third of Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language, nearly a fifth are Russian citizens[1]) – are such that no government in Moscow could passively stand by while the closest of its neighbours is being drawn into the west’s orbit.  The west’s reckless dangling of an unfulfillable promise of EU and even NATO membership in front of successive incompetent and corrupt Ukrainian regimes, contemptuously ignoring Russian concerns, bears a large part of the responsibility for the mess we’re all now in.

The dangerous crisis in Ukraine, and especially in Crimea, will not be resolved by pompous condemnation of Russia’s aggression or by unconvincing warnings of high but undefined costs for Russia if it continues to violate Ukraine’s integrity – warnings that sound especially hypocritical coming from politicians (not, incidentally, including Barack Obama) who vociferously supported western illegal aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999 and against Iraq in 2003.  The grandstanding rush by our foreign secretary, William Hague, to Kiev today is misconceived.  It will be interpreted as implying a renewed commitment of some kind to UK support for the revolutionaries in Kiev, many of whom are still dreaming of eventual membership of the EU, if not also of NATO.  Is that interpretation what Mr Hague intends?  If so, he should not be in charge of UK foreign policy.

If anyone should be rushing overseas in search of de-escalation, it should be to Brussels to agree without more delay on declarations by the EU and NATO of the impossibility of Ukrainian membership of either.  Meanwhile western leaders should be telling the Russians that we are working towards such a declaration; that it is no part of EU or NATO policies to threaten Russia’s legitimate interests in Crimea or the rest of Ukraine: that it is in Russia’s, the west’s, and Ukraine’s interests that stability, prosperity and uncorrupt government should be promoted in Ukraine;  and that the EU and the US wish to discuss with Moscow institutional arrangements for cooperation in economic support for Ukraine once a stable, representative and democratically legitimate régime has been installed in Kiev.

The basis for such a peacemaking initiative by the west as an alternative to the spear-waving bluster advocated by, for example, Sir Malcolm Rifkind (among many others), is set out in eloquent and scholarly terms by one of the greatest British diplomats of our time, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Moscow, in an article in today’s Independent on Sunday which should be required reading for all those who are indulging their out-dated cold war prejudices by sanctimoniously denouncing Mr Putin for doing what any great power leader in his position would be bound to do. Selectively quoting Sir Rodric, —

Much recent comment on Ukraine in the British press has been marked by a barely forgivable ignorance about its history and politics, an overhasty willingness to put the blame for all its troubles on Vladimir Putin, and an almost total inability to suggest practical ways of bringing effective Western influence to bear on a solution….

Today 77 per cent of the country’s population is Ukrainian. But 17 per cent is Russian, a third of the population speak Russian and many of these people have strong family ties with Russia. Only the Ukrainians from Galicia look unequivocally to the West.

Meanwhile, most Russians feel strong emotional links to Ukraine as the cradle of their civilisation. Even the most open minded feel its loss like an amputated limb. …

… Putin arrived in 2000, ambitious to strengthen Russia’s influence with its neighbours. And the West began its ill-judged attempts to draw Ukraine into its orbit regardless of Russian sensitivities.

… The first is respectable but merely rhetorical: Ukraine is entitled to decide its future for itself, and Russia has no legitimate claim to a voice. The second is a piece of old-fashioned geopolitics: Russia can never again become an imperial threat if Ukraine is incorporated into Nato and the European Union. This part of the policy is impractical to the point of irresponsibility. It ignores four things. The members of Nato and the EU have lost their appetite for further enlargement. Most Ukrainians do not want their country to join Nato, though they would be happy to join the EU. A majority want to remain on good terms with Russia.  Above all, the West does not have the instruments to impose its will.  …

The alternative is for the West to talk to the Russians and to whoever can speak with authority for Ukraine. So far the Americans have been ineffective on the sidelines, the British seem to have given up doing foreign policy altogether, and only the Germans, the Poles and the French have shown any capacity for action.

An eventual deal would doubtless have to include verifiable agreement by the West as well as the Russians to abandon meddling in Ukrainian affairs, a credible assurance that Nato will not try to recruit Ukraine and arrangements for the both the Russians and the West to prop up Ukraine’s disastrous economy….

Further obligatory background reading is a piece for Chatham House by another distinguished former British diplomat, former British ambassador in Moscow, and current member of the Chilcot Iraq Inquiry, the Rt Hon Sir Roderic Lyne.

And, finally, a comment by yet another equally distinguished British diplomat and former ambassador to Moscow, Sir Bryan Cartledge:

The key point, I believe, which the media largely overlook, is that the revolution in the Ukraine is primarily a protest against domestic corruption and misrule, not a vote for the EU or against Russia. The EU issue provided the occasion but was not the cause. In converting an internal protest into an East-West issue, the EU is making a huge mistake — Putin, of course, has been bound to follow suit. And quite apart from all this, the last thing the EU needs now is responsibility for an almost bankrupt and almost failed state.

These three know whereof they speak.  Our noisy and belligerent political leaders and their media cheer-leaders with their crude and counter-productive posturing would do well to listen to them.

[Full disclosure:  both Bryan Cartledge and Roderic Lyne are friends and my former Diplomatic Service colleagues.  All three of us served together many years ago in the British embassy in Moscow.]


[1] Postscript and correction: as Roland Smith has helpfully pointed out in his comment below, I should not have written that nearly a fifth of the Ukrainian population are Russian “citizens”: i should have written “ethnic Russians” or “Russian speakers”.  Of course the Russian habit of issuing passports to Russian speakers in neighbouring countries and then claiming the right to intervene to protect their ‘citizens’ across the border tends to blur the distinction between ‘Russians’ living abroad who are citizens of Russia, and those who are not.


39 Responses

  1. Amusing the way that you and these FCO ex-Moscow grandees all see the issue in terms of how we meet ‘Russia’s interests’. What about the interests of the 45 million Ukrainians?
    I seem to recall that you argued that bringing Poland into NATO was a serious mistake! ONLY by bringing Ukraine into the wider ‘Western’ family can the insidious post-Soviet KGB-style networks of corruption be scaled back to something approaching normalcy. The sort of appraoch you advocate leaves Ukraine subject to Russian neo-imperialist overlordism. What’s so good, wise or even stable about that?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Charles. Exactly the reaction I expected! I would only remark that “the interests of the 45 million Ukrainians” are best served by neither Russia nor the west meddling in its internal and external affairs but by both sides cooperating, not competing, to give it disinterested economic support; and that it’s not “the approach that I advocate” that leaves Ukraine subject to Russian influence and power, but the hard facts of geography (and history) which even mighty NATO is powerless to change.

    And yes, I believe that recent expansion of both NATO and the EU has been a potentially dangerous mistake. In the case of Poland, it has entailed giving the Poles a guarantee of military support if it gets into a fight with a neighbour which in practice we would be no more able to honour than we were able to honour the similar guarantee we had given when the chips were down in September 1939. It’s a bad habit, issuing promises that you can’t keep, and it leads to inevitable betrayal of trust. The statement issued by the Secretary-General of NATO today describing Ukraine as “a partner of NATO” could hardly be a less helpful contribution to the effort to calm a dangerous situation: it can only fan the flames.

  2. Tony Hatfield (@tonyhatfield) says:

    I wonder what the US would do if there was a revolution in Cuba and the new government threatened Guantanamo? 
    Brian writes: Thank you for this. The same partial parallel had occurred to me. The Cuban missile crisis is another: the Russians were prevented from installing a missile base in Cuba, inside the United States zone of influence, by arguably illegal naval action by JFK to intercept Soviet ships on the high seas bound for Cuba carrying material for the missile bases, and turning them back. Great powers will use force if necessary to prevent countries in their own region from falling under the military control of a perceived enemy, and there’s not much point in whining about it. In the case of the Cuban missiles, armed conflict between the two nuclear superpowers was eventually averted by a deal under which Russia abandoned its plan for missile bases on Cuba while the US agreed to withdraw its missile bases on the Soviet border in Turkey. Swopping blame messages did nothing to help resolve the problem.

    I also wonder what we would do to protect our military and air force facilities on Cyprus if Cyprus were to fall under communist or other hostile control? And Cyprus is not even a major next-door neighbour of the UK!

  3. Timothy Weakley says:

    I had always understood that ‘Russia’ began with the Principiate of Kiev in the tenth century: somehow it moved northwards to Moscow and the vicinity of the future St. Petersburg, leaving behind what we always used to call the Ukraine, which leter got reabsorbed when the Tsarist state pushed towrds the Caucasus and Black Sea – sounds like a great amoeba moving around.  But who did what and to whom, and when did White Russia – sorry, Belorus – appear?  Sorry, not trying to be frivolous: the present situation is fascinating in a ghastly way.  Must find a decent European history that deals adequately with Eastern Europe and European Russia.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. There’s some useful historical background to all this both in Sir R Braithwaite’s article in the Independent on Sunday and in Sir R Lyne’s article for Chatham House — see links to both in my blog post above. I am forwarding to you a recent email from a friend with some relevant historical background. The same friend recommends a paperback by Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms. He says the chapter on the kingdom/duchy of Poland/Lithuania has current resonance. Others may have other recommendations for background reading: if so, perhaps they will kindly post comments here with the details.

  4. robin fairlie says:

    As far as current policy goes, this post is clear-sighted, sensible and obvious. While I have no difficulty in understanding media comments, produced as they are by journalists and editors who are (with a very few exceptions) ignorant, malevolent, and with no responsibility for the consequences of what they write, I am nevertheless completely bewildered by the crassness of politicians who have access to expert advice – most of it, one must assume, not very different from that quoted by Brian above. Can anyone explain this obtuseness?
    For the rest, I am a little less happy with Brian’s implicit concern for Russia’s (Putin’s?) sensitivities. It is not at all clear to me how many, even of the 17% of Ukrainian inhabitants of Russian nationality are/would be content to live under the corrupt kleptocracy of V. Putin. Certainly not the 300,000 Khazars who have contrived to reverse Stalin’s ethnic cleansing and return to their national home in the  Crimea. And the incompetence and corruption of past Ukrainian regimes reflects fairly accurately what the Ukraine has learned from its Russian connections, past and present.
    Russia, for the past 600 years, has been a consistently aggressive and expansionist power, seeking to dominate, where she cannot absorb, her neighbours, and her neighbours’ neighbours. I am all in favour of not romanticising dubious Ukrainian revolutionaries, so long as we do not tip over into supposing that Russians have a “right” to anything they wish to lay claim to – which, until recently, included most of Eastern Europe, and a huge slice of Asia to boot. Acceding to the realities of geography and power is one thing (as in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the bad old days); suggesting that this is acceptable is altogether another.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Robin. I don’t think that anyone is suggesting that Ukrainians should be forced to “live under the corrupt kleptocracy of V. Putin”, as you put it. Russia should honour its promise in the Budapest Memorandum (PDF) to refrain from interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs and to respect its territorial integrity, but so should the western powers which also signed the Memorandum (the US and UK). Respecting the legitimate, repeat legitimate, interests of Russia in its own back yard, which is another way of describing Russian “sensitivities”, is a combination of realism and common sense, as I think you acknowledge elsewhere in your comment.

    As to historical Russian expansionism, I don’t dispute what you say, except that I don’t think it’s really relevant to the present crisis, whereas the relevance of the triumphalist expansionism of both NATO and the EU since the collapse of the Soviet Union is clear for all, including Mr Putin, to see.

  5. robin fairlie says:

    Timothy, the reference in Vanished Kingdoms is to the chapter entitled Litva, which documents the origins of Belarus and Ukraine, among much else, and outlines their history within the joint commonwealth of Poland/Lithuania until its collapse and partition under assault from Prussia, Austria, Sweden and Russia in the late 18th century.

  6. Roland Smith says:

    In commenting, let me begin by declaring my own interest – I was British ambassador in Kiev from 1999 to 2002 (I also served twice in Moscow).  Much as I respect Bryan Cartledge, Roderic Lyne, and of course you yourself, Brian, I do think that British diplomats who served in the former Soviet Union and have never served in independent Ukraine risk falling into the trap of believing (as no doubt Putin believes) that Ukrainian independence was all a terrible mistake.  At the time of independence, Ukraine held a referendum, and every region in the country (including Crimea, though the majority there was only about 54% to 46%) voted in favour of independence.  A majority of ethnic Russians in Ukraine also voted for independence.
    Second, I am not familiar with the latest changes in Russia’s nationality laws, but I do not recognise the statistic that nearly one fifth of Ukrainians are Russian citizens.  What is the source for this?  It is true that not far short of one fifth of the people in Ukraine are ethnic Russians, but that is not the same thing as Russian citizens.  Putin has himself sought to blur this issue, but I don’t think we should make the same mistake.
    Third, I do not think it is true that the West has been dangling an unfulfillable promise of NATO and EU membership in front of Ukraine.  What is true is that many Ukrainians politicians have themselves proclaimed their aspiration to achieve these two goals, and that “the West” has not said No, Never (as you would now have it do).  President Yanukovych and his government themselves wanted the Association Agreement with the EU, and appeared to share the long-term aspiration of EU membership, until November.  I think it is unlikely that Ukraine ever will become an EU member, but I can’t see how, if it did, that would threaten any legitimate Russian interest.  
    I think the big problem we face is an enormous difference between Russian perceptions of threats to its interests and actual threats to those interests.  And here I would seriously take issue with Bryan Cartledge.  I agree that what he refers to as “the revolution in the Ukraine” (incidentally, calling it “The Ukraine” is a clear signal that you don’t really think it ought to be an independent country) was primarily a protest against domestic corruption, not a vote for the EU or against Russia.  But his next sentence is “In converting an internal protest into an East-West issue, the EU is making a huge mistake”.  I almost can’t believe that Bryan wrote that.  It is Putin who has converted an internal protest into an East-West issue.  What does Bryan think the EU did to make it such an issue before Putin started making his moves?
    Finally, I think the question about what we might do to protect our facilities in Cyprus if there were a communist government there is to say the least misleading.  Are you really suggesting that in such a situation we should invade Cyprus?  Where is your evidence?  You can’t use such assertions about what you think Britain would do in a hypothetical scenario to justify what Putin actually is doing, now, in a situation where no-one was threatening his base in Sevastopol.  A better parallel would be Britain’s attitude towards the Republic of Ireland – a country which had been part of the United Kingdom, but whose neutrality Britain nonetheless accepted even at a time of maximum national peril in the Second World War.  
    So like Charles Crawford, I think we should focus more on the rights of the Ukrainians, and less on the alleged rights and interests of the present Russian government.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this challenging and thought-provoking comment, Roland (yet another comrade from our days in the British embassy in Moscow, of course!). This is not the place for a detailed response to all your points, but here goes on some of the main ones. No, I plead Not Guilty to regretting that Ukraine became independent. The implosion of the Soviet Union clearly made that inevitable, although I think there’s room for argument about whether on balance the disintegration of the USSR, as distinct from the collapse of communism in Europe, was a good thing. On the proportion of Russians in Ukraine, I was relying among other things on “After WWII: National structure of the population of Ukraine (2001): Ukrainian 77.8%, Russian 17.3%, Romanian 0.8% (including Moldovan 0.5%), Belarusian 0.6%, Crimean Tatar 0.5%, Bulgarian 0.4%, Hungarian 0.3%, Polish 0.3%, Jewish 0.2%, Greeks 0.2% and other 1.6% (including Muslim Bulgarians, otherwise known as Torbesh and a microcosm of Gotlander Swedes of Gammalsvenskby).” I accept that by no means all of these are formally Russian citizens: I just wonder how relevant that is to Moscow’s acceptance of a degree of responsibility for their protection, whether or not that has a solid basis in international law. Crimea in particular was so recently a part of Russia and has such a significant Russian majority of its population that Putin could hardly get away with any appearance of deserting them when they seem to be threatened by the revolutionaries in Kiev. I am confident that there have been many strong (and wholly irresponsible) western hints that membership of the EU and even of NATO could be within the reach of Ukraine, although it would take some time to dig up chapter and verse for them. Today’s statement by the NATO secretary-general alone stresses the closeness of NATO’s links with Ukraine, enough to send shivers up Moscow’s spine — a clear case of needless provocation. I don’t accept that the Russian perception of a threat to their strategic and other interests from Ukraine being drawn into the EU or NATO orbit is illusory. It seems to me inconceivable that Ukraine as a member of NATO (or even of the EU) could continue to host Russia’s sole naval base in the Black Sea and its most important warm water port. Nor do I think that the Putin regime, or any other Moscow government, could survive any apparent abandonment of Ukraine to the EU or NATO. I am confident that Britain would be prepared to use military force if necessary (although short of a full-scale invasion) to protect and preserve its bases and other assets in Cyprus, although since this is purely hypothetical there obviously can’t be factual evidence in support of that belief; and I regard it as a totally legitimate speculation of direct relevance to the Ukrainian situation. As for Irish neutrality in WW2, you’ll remember, or at any rate know, that Churchill seriously contemplated a military occupation of the Republic to prevent its ports and other facilities falling into German hands. Finally, I don’t think it terribly useful to think about the present crisis in terms of the ‘rights’ of either Russia or Ukraine, apart from Ukraine’s ‘right’ to non-interference by others in its internal affairs and independence, a right which has come close to being violated by both Russia and the west. I do think it essential however to take full account of the legitimate interests of Russia, Ukraine and indeed the west. I don’t think the interests of any of those three are served by a competition between Russia and the west for influence in or the allegiance of Ukraine. Geography will always compel Ukraine to avoid action that would be seen by Russia (even wrongly) as a threat to its vital interests, and crude western wooing of Ukraine does that benighted country no favours. Ask the Finns!

  7. Oliver Miles says:

    I would make a clear distinction between expansion of the European Union and expansion of NATO.

    When I was ambassador in Greece in the mid-90s I asked my Ukrainian colleague what his attitude was to the expansion of NATO. His answer was that Ukraine wasn’t greatly concerned, with one important proviso: expansion should not go up to the Ukrainian border, i.e. including Poland etc, and then stop.

    As long ago as 1997 I crossed swords with Brian Cartledge in the letters column of The Times on this. He wrote that the debt of honour we incurred at Munich and Yalta should be redeemed by admitting Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia into NATO: the “unequivocal statement (article V of the North Atlantic Treaty) that a threat to any of the three new democracies will be treated as a threat to the Alliance” would constitute a “stop” sign which Russia would be ready to observe. I argued that the dynamics of the situation were different. The aim of our security policy should be to strengthen elements in Russia working for the harmonious inclusion of Russia in a European system and avoid feeding xenophobic elements who interpret our policies as an attempt to isolate them. “There is”, I wrote “a parallel with the way Germany was handled after 1945, learning from the lessons of 1918, by inclusion and not by exclusion.” Pointing out that “it is not seriously contemplated” that the three Baltic states would be included in NATO, I suggested that the debt owed to the Poles, Hungarian and Czechs could be paid through the enlargement of the European Union.

    Since then, of course, not only the expansion of NATO feared by my Ukrainian colleague has taken place, but it has even extended to the Baltic states. I have yet to meet any non-specialist who realises that if there were any military trouble between Russia and, for example, Latvia (which is almost half ethnically Russian), we in Britain would be bound by that Article V.

    The idea that Ukraine should join NATO is even more likely to provoke xenophobia in Russia. As I understand it plans to join were shelved by Ukraine in 2010. Has there been any suggestion of reviving them? The Russian analyst Dmitri Trenin suggests in today’s Observer that in the Russian view the “February revolution in Kiev” was likely to have various consequences including that “the new Ukrainian government would revoke the 2010 law on the country’s non-aligned status and seek a Nato Membership Action Plan, or MAP.” This appears to be speculation at present. Let us hope that no Western leader gives it any substance.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Oliver. I, like you, have been consistently sceptical about the merits of NATO’s relentless expansion since the collapse of the Soviet Union. I accept of course that there is a huge and material difference between NATO and the EU, but it seems to me understandable that the idea of EU membership for a country on Russia’s border which was previously a constituent part of the Soviet Union and in which Russia has such enormous strategic and political interests should appear hardly less threatening to those interests than its membership of NATO itself. I also happen to think that the EU expansion which has already occurred has been at best premature and that it has made the EU almost unmanageable (which is of course why Mrs Thatcher favoured it): so that yet more expansion eastward might well be terminal for the EU, which would be a tragedy, even leaving aside the monumental crisis in relations with Moscow that it would provoke. But that’s a rather different argument.

  8. Rodric Braitthwaite says:

    Ukrainian independence a terrible mistake?
    I can’t answer for my colleagues who also served in Moscow and not in Ukraine, but I don’t believe I ever thought that. I visited Ukraine a lot between 1988 and 1991, and the Ukrainians I talked to were increasingly determined on independence and perfectly happy to say so.  After visiting the new (still pre-independence and still Communist) Ukrainian leadership in March 1991, I wrote in my diary “I leave … encouraged that the Ukraine and its leaders are playing a far more responsible and far less rhetorical game than Yeltsin & Co, or than Landsbergis, and that they deserve to, and probably will, get their way.” [Yes, in those days we all talked about “the” Ukraine, though we learned better. Of course the distinction doesn’t exist in either the Russian or the Ukrainian language]. That view was not shared by Mrs Thatcher and President Bush, who in the summer of 1991 both tried to argue the Ukrainians out of their aspirations.
    But thinking that Ukrainians deserved to have their independence from Russia doesn’t mean that putting together a functioning and fully independent Ukrainian state was going to be an easy business, for all the reasons that have been canvassed. Nor, as it turns out, does in mean that it is safe to ignore the Russians, whatever you think of their ‘rights’.
    The only constructive way forward has always been for Russia and Ukraine, encouraged by the rest of us as far as we practically can, to reach a mutually agreeable modus vivendi. Yeltsin, for all his many faults went a good way towards that. Putin has gone in the other direction. No one doubts that he and his fellow Russian nationalists are primarily responsible for the current mess, which will end by badly damaging Russia itself.
    But that doesn’t mean that the West bears no responsibility. We have intrigued in support of ‘democracy’ when we should have let the Ukrainians sort themselves out. One might argue that our meddling was intended to counter the Russian meddling. If so it has been unsuccessful.  Charles’ reference to 1939 is exactly right. The Poles (and I’ve lived there too) have never forgiven us for giving them a guarantee that we either could not or would not implement. NATO membership for Ukraine, and the Article V guarantee that goes with it, would be just as hollow a gesture. I don’t like the idea of the ‘great powers’ betraying yet another small country.

    Brian writes: I am grateful for this important contribution to the debate, with its firm basis in personal experience at a high level. One small correction: the reference to Poland and 1939 which you commend was made by myself in my response to the comment here by Charles [Crawford], not by Charles.

  9. Good to see there’s still some life in assorted ex-FCO mastodons (NB myself included)!
    The key point about NATO is that the very deepest, nastiest unreconstructed communist-type forces in the former Eastern bloc were buried deep in the armed forces (GRU etc). Under communism they were allowed to run both internal and external parallel intelligence operations. Without a country joining NATO and turning out its military pockets (so to speak) there is NO prospect of dismantling these forces who continue to play an utterly malign anti-democratic role.
    So anyone saying that Ukraine must ‘never’ join NATO is condemning Ukraine to Moscow-inspired corruption and ideological infiltration/subversion for ever. Why should ‘Russian interests’ in the modern world extend to defending that situation with the rest of us meekly backing off? Had Poland not joined NATO one shudders to think how the country would have been held back. See also Serbia, and how Mladic was defended by the Serbian army for over a decade.
    That said, it’s clearly going to cause more harm than good to press Ukraine’s NATO membership now, and Ukrainians themselves might reasonably want not to commit to it. Let them decide for themselves in due course, perhaps as part of a new negotiated European security architecture that works with Russia as an equal but respectful partner?
    I suspect that in years to come this flailing by Putin will be seen as a colossal Russian blunder that wrecked the credibility of Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union initiative (which CIS country will want to be subject to the sort of bullying Ukraine is now getting)? Plus Putin seems to be making a striking mistake in alienating Ukrainian speakers who are being treated as traitors and ‘fascists’ simply for wanting to become more European. Ukraine may come to signal the beginning of Russia’s own eventual disintegration into smaller units.
    Bottom line (Lyne?)? Russia seems to define its ‘interests’ under current management by insisting that you must be crushed in a hug of Russian affection until you can scarcely breathe, and if you ask for some fresh air you’re being hateful. That sort of policy is about as unsuited to the emerging modern world of easy-going e-pluralism as can be imagined.
    It will fail. But how many people including Russians themselves will die or suffer as it lumbers around before it crashes?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this further contribution, Charles. I take your point about NATO, but I don’t accept that it’s a legitimate function of a military defensive alliance designed to deter Soviet aggression against western European democracies to help former communist client states or republics of the USSR to shake off the nastier repressive detritus left behind by Soviet-led communism. Nor do I believe that these states would have been incapable of such essential reforms without NATO membership to help them on. Do you really think that the Poles, for example, would not have shaken off the residues of communism without NATO membership as a spur?

    But I’m glad to see that you have joined the remarkable ex-ambassadorial near-consensus that this is not a good time to press NATO membership on Ukraine. And I have no quarrel with your forecast that Putin’s tactics will in the end do Russia more harm than good, although I’m far from clear what else he could be doing, given what’s at stake. It’s also worth recalling that by rushing to press the most ruthless and socially uncaring form of primitive capitalism on the Russians as they emerged from Stalinist communism, without encouraging a transition that might have allowed them to preserve some of the positive features of the communist system, we helped to produce Putin, his oligarchs and the kleptocracy. We might have been more careful about what we wished for. But of course it might have happened anyway.

  10. robin fairlie says:

    Even at the risk of being trampled to death by ex-FCO mastodons, I must venture a reflection. The Poles, we are told (with evident approval), have never forgiven Britain for making promises to Poland in 1939, which they could not, or would not, fulfil: a tendentious remark. The British government, in 1939, assured the Polish government that, in the case of an invasion of Polish territory,  “His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power.” This may, or may not, have been a foolish promise to make, but it is surely unarguable, even in Poland, that, by declaring war on Germany precisely because it had invaded Poland, and refused an ultimatum to withdraw, Britain fulfilled the letter of its promise. I do not suggest we should now give guarantees of any sort to Ukraine, but can I beg that we keep misleading parallels with Poland, Cyprus, and Ireland out of the discussion before we all end in a bog of mutual incomprehension.


    Brian writes: Thank you again. I have just written a comprehensive rebuttal of your comment – and it has mysteriously disappeared from my hard disk. It’s too late now for me to attempt to recreate it. So I will just tell you, as a matter of fact and not opinion, that anyone (including me) who has ever represented Britain in Poland has found from bitter experience that it’s necessary to warn British visitors against boasting of Britain’s heroic declaration of war against Germany in September 1939 in fulfilment of our pledge to Poland when very many Poles still bitterly resent our failure to honour what was plainly meant to be understood as a promise of military support if Poland were to be attacked. Any self-respecting Pole would treat your literalist interpretation of the British guarantee of Polish independence in 1939 with barely concealed contempt.

    Poland lost its hard-regained independence in 1939 and didn’t effectively recover it until half a century later — and even then it was no thanks to the military support that we had plainly promised but never once provided. Yalta only rubbed salt into Polish wounds. Deterrence by bluff is a dangerous and dishonourable game. NATO membership entails a promise of support in the event of an attack against any member of the alliance. Would we really be ready to provide such military support if it meant a war with (nuclear) Russia? Making promises that we can’t keep tempts our friends into a false sense of security which in turn may lead them into needlessly provocative policies or actions from whose consequences we are in practice powerless to save them. The relevance of this to any idea of NATO membership for Ukraine could scarcely be more obvious.

    Sorry if you feel trampled by this. In fact most of us mastodons are by now pretty old and frail, and completely harmless.

  11. David Frost says:

    I have never served in Russia or the Ukraine.  This is a brief attempt to give a perspective from someone who has worked principally on and in the EU.
    1.  The fundamental problem is that the only lever the EU has ever had to generate change in the neighbourhood is to offer a “membership perspective”.  It could offer that to Ukraine but it will not because member states do not agree and will not agree.  So all it can offer to neighbours is weak support for reforms for little in return.  That is always going to be an unappetising offer and hence generate controversy and instability. 
    2.  Seen from Brussels what is most evident is the EU’s *lack* of purpose and consistency in doing even that.  The Eastern Partnership was largely seen as an enthusiasm for Eastern Europeans, to be indulged as such, just as southern Europeans cared most about the Euro-Med initiative, and so on.   The major EU members were and are reluctant to bear any significant price to spread European values to Ukraine – one reason why the FTA was so controversial in the first place and why its effects would have been rather minimal.
    3.  This lack of purpose and introspectiveness (for Eurozone crisis reasons and others) was always very clear to any serious observer and ripe to be exploited by any outsider who wished to.  The EU may have “meddled” in the region but if so only in an absent-minded and feeble way. 
    4.  For the same reason the EU will find it hard to pay sustained attention to Ukraine once the immediate crisis is over.  Underlying differences of perspective will reassert themselves and other problems will emerge.  The EU collectively simply does not care as much about Ukraine as Russia does and hard decisions there will be put off or sidestepped if possible. 
    5.  So the rational strategy for Putin is to ratchet up the threats (military action anywhere in Ukraine) but not implement them fully.  To create a sense of relief in the EU that the worst didn’t happen, and establish a new normal as quickly as possible, so that the EU reverts to type.   As Russian troops sit in Crimea as they do in Transdniestria etc, the EU will plausibly accommodate itself to the new reality.
    In the long run the only durable solution is for the EU to develop some kind of weaker membership arrangements for an outer tier, and for these to be negotiated along with broader security arrangements for wider Europe.  That is a long way down the line at the moment and conceptually most difficult for those in the EU institutions who most understand how it might be done.  Meanwhile we have to keep talking up our values and refusing to accept that doing so is somehow challenging or unreasonable behaviour.  We could start by implementing the FTA unilaterally, to prove we were willing to pay some kind of price to support economic liberals and pro-Europeans in Ukraine.  I am not holding my breath. 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this extremely interesting and rather depressing analysis of the EU perspective. It strikes me as highly plausible. Your comment that in the end Ukraine is more important to Russia than it is to the EU seems especially pertinent. I’m sure you’re right that in the last resort the EU won’t be willing to pay a high price either politically or financially (and least of all militarily) in defence of Ukrainian independence. I’m afraid that such reluctance is probably justified. In practice the Ukrainians will have to work out their own modus vivendi with their big and menacing neighbour, as the small neighbours of great powers have always had to do the world over.

  12. John Oakes says:

    One may well have  sympathy with the  Ukrainians, but  their membership  of   NATO or  the  EU must always  have been, and  will remain, a  chimera. Their proximity to  Russia  recalls  the  old  Canadian saying  -“The  Americans  are  our neighbours-  whether we like it or not.”
    And  yes, Brian , it takes  your  plumber in Warsaw to  remind us of  our total  failure  to send  a  single  Spit in 1939, or even  later. And  when the  war  was  over,  we  hadn’t  even got  the  clout to allow  them to take part in our  own  Victory  Parade, because  Stalin  expressed  displeasure.   As  the  parade passed, streets  off Trafalgar Square were  full of   Polish  airmen,  all  wearing  RAF uniform, but  forbidden to march,  sobbing in public  at  the  ignominy,  the  ingratitude, that their heroism had  earned  .   
    And  we think we can  intervene  over the  Ukraine? If  we  are  still  thinking of  using  Cyprus  as  any sort of  base  for  that, it’s  worth mentioning  that Russia now  has  parking  rights  there  too.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, John. To explain your reference to our “Polish plumber”, this is about our experience in Warsaw of asking a local plumber (or possibly glazier) to come and replace a broken window in a door. When the man arrived to do the job and realised that it was the residence of the British ambassador, he refused to do it, saying that since we had done nothing to help Poland in 1939, he was certainly not going to do anything to help us now.

    I very much agree with your comment on the wretched exclusion of the Poles from the victory parade in London in 1945 or 1946. It’s perhaps not widely known that there were more Poles flying with the British in the Battle of Britain than any other nationality apart from the British themselves — more even than the Canadians and other valiant people from around the Commonwealth. Our treatment of them after the war was utterly shameful.

  13. “It’s also worth recalling that by rushing to press the most ruthless and socially uncaring form of primitive capitalism on the Russians as they emerged from Stalinist communism, without encouraging a transition that might have allowed them to preserve some of the positive features of the communist system, we helped to produce Putin…”
    Yes. R Braithwaite, D Manning, Rod Lyne and the rest of us who grappled with the actual collapse of the Soviet Union are ALL GUILTY. Why? Because instead of running around looking for ways to inject UK/EU taxpayers’ money into helping Russia we did not think enough about helping the Russians preserve some of the ‘positive features of communism’!
    Hahaha. That would have made for a lively submission back in October 1991.
    Problem: How to help Russia get out of the civilizational black hole that Communism has dug, leading to miooions of corpses and 200+ million people having very little food?
    Recommendation: That we look hard for ways to preserve the positive features of communism
    Your basic problem in all this is that you can not let go of a naïve and in fact bonkers idea that there was indeed something noble and positive about communism as such, and that therefore the Russians who invented communism ergo must in some way be noble too. This misconception leads you inexorably to defend the indefensible, above all the idea that Russia as such has existential ‘interests’ that trump everyone else’s.
    What else could Putin be doing? He could be hosting a G8 meeting in Sochi that allows a full and frank discussion about corruption in and across Ukraine, inviting EU/Russia/US etc to work out a plan for fast-tracking Ukrainian reform in a transparent and intelligent way. In return for accepting openly that Russia’s policies are part of the problem, he could ask that we look again at security and other guarantees for Ukraine and its Russian-speaking communities. To show he means business he could allow free media in Russia to start operating fully again, and start to work with Western financial authorities to track dodgy Russian money.
    In other words, he has many options other than invading a neighbouring country and being obnoxious. He too is trapped in the idea that there was something ennobling about the USSR. He even absurdly says that “the greatest tragedy in the C20 was the end of the Soviet Union”. No, Mr Putin (and Brian): the greatest tragedy was that it was ever set up, as millions of dead Russians and Ukrainians would testify.

    Brian writes: You sarcastically misrepresent my own and others’ views so radically that it’s impossible to deal with such a scatter-shot attack except by inviting you to go back and re-read my original post. For the record: I regard, and always regarded, Soviet communism as an abomination, and unreservedly welcomed its demise; I unreservedly condemn Russia’s illegal and dangerous military takeover of Crimea and recognise the extreme danger of the possibility that the Russians will be tempted to act similarly in eastern Ukraine; and I strongly support the right of the Ukrainians to run their own affairs and decide their own future free from strong-arm interference from the outside, although it helps to acknowledge the limits to their options imposed by their geopolitical position. Where we differ is in our prescriptions for lowering the tensions and tackling the root causes of the crisis. Threatening Russia with political isolation and trade or financial sanctions strikes me as likely to be counter-productive. I have suggested what I believe to be a better way. You are welcome to disagree — as all too predictably you do; but the kind of abuse and misrepresentations in your ‘comment’ are surely beyond the pale.

  14. Simon Myerson says:

    I am not and have never been employed by the FCO.
    The argument adopts from the perspective of outsiders: it should, surely, adopt the perspective of the citizens of the Ukraine. 
    The arguments also seems to assume an equivalence between the outsiders’ position of Russia, which has invaded, and the West, which has talked about the Ukraine joining the EU of even *gasp* NATO. I am afraid that I do not understand that equivalence. It is neither argued for, nor addressed but it doesn’t strike me as so obvious as to need no explanation. 
    The argument also takes as a given Russia’s ‘legitimate’ interests. Again, merely calling an interest legitimate does not prove that it is. By and large, if an interest is protected by invading another country, which isn’t exporting violence aimed at others, it’s difficult to see why it’s legitimate. The population argument could easily be (and perhaps was) used to justify Hitler’s occupation of the Sudentenland. Equally, the – oh so easy to utter – words about all communities being realistic perhaps need a little more thought in view of at least 3 episodes of genocide in the last 80 years. 
    Ultimately, you can’t solve problems from a start point of saying that a group of people with (presumably) an entitlement to vote can “never” become members of democratic organisations aimed at securing peace and economic wellbeing. The choice is theirs, not yours. The answer is now, not never. Really, if that’s the answer, then we’re asking the wrong question. 

    Brian writes: Thank you. I think there are a number of misunderstandings here. The course that I think the west — EU, NATO, individual countries — ought to follow, for the reasons set out in my blog post, takes full account of the interests of the Ukrainians, who would (I think obviously) benefit from cooperation instead of competition between Russia and the west in jointly promoting the rescue of Ukraine from its present parlous economic and political state. I don’t understand what you mean by saying that I am wrong in asserting an ‘equivalence’ between the positions of Russia and the west on Ukraine. I have never suggested that those positions are equally valid, or equally blameworthy, or equally legitimate. I do however assert that the west must accept a share (unquantifiable) of the blame for the present dangerous crisis through having aggravated Russian neuroses about its security by extending its NATO guarantees and membership of the NATO and EU alliances right to Russia’s front door, without taking proper account of Russia’s legitimate security and other interests. Acknowledging the existence of these interests does not imply condoning or excusing Russia’s action in effectively invading the Crimea in contravention of its own obligations under the Budapest Memorandum and of international law, as you seem to imply. But it would be absurd not to look for explanations of Russia’s action and the motives for it, and to consider what could properly be done to make such behaviour less likely in future by way of reassurances as well as deterrents.

    Finally, and most importantly, I disagree emphatically with your apparent thesis that if a country’s people wish for membership of such international organisations as the EU or NATO, they have an absolute right to that membership, regardless of the views and interests of the organisation’s existing members and irrespective of the consequences for international or regional peace, stability and security. I’m sure that some at least of the people of Ukraine, Turkey, Serbia and a number of other countries would seize on your thesis with great enthusiasm. Fortunately, however, it doesn’t hold water, and I stand by my view that the best contribution the west could make to de-escalation of the present crisis is to tell both Russia and Ukraine that Ukraine will never be admitted to either the EU or NATO — in its own interests as well as those of Russia, the west and the entire region.

  15. David Campbell says:

    The next stage is apparently to be “sanctions,”  to which Russia is “vulnerable,” as proved by the crash of the Moscow stock exchange. 
    Counter-sanctions? Europe’s energy supplies?
    Hateful though Putin’s bullying and double-speak may be, the need to de-escalate is incontestable.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, David. I entirely agree that the idea of sanctions prompts a number of questions that need careful consideration. How much pain and cost are we EU Europeans really willing to endure on Ukraine’s behalf when there’s no certainty that our sanctions will have the desired effect? If David Frost’s well informed analysis of the EU position in his comment on this blog post is correct, the answer is probably not much. As the other David points out, at the end of the day Ukraine is much more important to Russia than it is to the EU. As you say, the need to de-escalate is incontestable — and, I would add, urgent.

  16. Derek Tonkin says:

    The Chinese have said, in their enigmatic way: “There are reasons for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today. ” – . We are left to guess what those reasons are, but they undoubtedly include Western meddling.  “China will follow the development of the situation closely and call on relevant parties to seek a political resolution of their differences through dialogue and negotiation based on respect for international law and norms governing international relations in order to uphold regional peace and stability.”
    In the Security Council, China would probably abstain on a Resolution if only Crimea is compelled to host Russian troops. They might well draw the line at military intervention in Eastern Ukraine. We shall have to wait and see. A 14-1 ‘defeat’ in the Security Council could have its attractions, but we are not there yet.
    The EU and NATO have surely expanded far enough already. The UK might leave the EU quite soon!
    I cannot say what will there is in the West to launch economic warfare.  The Americans would lead the charge. Should it be the Light Brigade or the Heavy Brigade? Crimea only, for historical reasons, the Light Brigade may be politically sufficient, though quite ineffective. But this may not be enough. The Heavy Brigade (freezing of all Russian assets in the West, denial of all but humanitarian visas, suspension of all contracts) could inflict much greater damage than many might realise and really set the Russian people thinking about whether Putin’s adventure has been worth the cost. Even if the EU suffers from a cut-off in gas supplies.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Derek. You posit a pretty bleak scenario. A serious sanctions war would be damaging to both sides and the result would probably depend on which side blinked first. The comments here by David Frost and David Campbell (and see my responses to them) rather suggest that the first to blink would probably be the EU.

  17. Stephen Wordsworth says:

    I have to take issue with Brian’s reference to NATO’s ‘relentless expansion’, which creates the impression that the NATO enlargement process was driven from the NATO side.  I was seconded to NATO 1994-1998 and was very much involved in it all, and it was clear to me from many discussions at that time with visitors from NATO’s new ‘Partnership for Peace’ countries and with their NATO-based liaison officers that they very much wanted to be members – it was their choice, not something we pushed at them.  In some cases – the Baltic states and Poland in particular – they were indeed looking for protection against Russia, but they, and the others with a less traumatic recent history, were quite clear that this was also about cleaning up their military and turning an overstaffed, old-fashioned structure into a reformed, modern, cheaper and more effective one.  For the same reason I flatly disagree with the line that we should tell Ukraine that they can’t ever be a NATO, or EU, member.  It may be many years away, and there are indeed lots of issues about whether the existing members have, now at least, the appetite for taking in a country the size of Ukraine.  But denying them the possibility, ever, when Ukraine is clearly a European country, would be to tell them that they have some sort of second-rate sovereignty.  I think that would be wrong.
    As for Russia, of course it was wrong for the US (Jim Baker, I think) to tell them at the time of German unification that NATO would not expand eastwards.  For the reasons set out above, this was unrealistic, and a promise that NATO could not have kept.  But whatever soreness the Russians may feel about that – and I suspect that they exaggerate their feelings on this, for effect – does not justify their behaviour now.  For reasons of his own, Putin in Ukraine has chosen to follow Milosevic’s example in Bosnia – whipping up the fears of a minority community, with distorted reports and dire predictions; supporting and very possibly arming dubious ‘local self-defence forces’/militias; encouraging separatist passions – followed through now by full-scale invasion, in Crimea.  There are many countries around the world, including the UK, which have large numbers of their citizens living in other countries.  It is natural to be concerned for them, when things go wrong.  But that concern does not justify military intervention and the attempted permanent annexation of another country’s territory.  Russia needs to understand that.  Unfortunately we were not clear enough about this, when Russia broke South Ossetia and Abkhazia away from Georgia.  We need to be clearer now – while underlining that where Russia has legitimate concerns we are always ready to listen, and to try to work together to find a solution.

    Brian writes: Thank you for that interesting perspective. No doubt your description of how NATO came to expand right up to the borders of the old Soviet Union and beyond, even to include former Soviet republics, is accurate. But the essence of diplomacy is surely the ability to understand how things are bound to look to the other fellow. Just because you think, or even know, that your adversary’s fears and concerns are without foundation, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he is deliberately exaggerating them or exploiting them for his own advantage. You need to consider whether they might be genuine, and if so what they might impel him to do and whether it might be prudent to take some action to dispel or alleviate them. During the cold war the west went to considerable lengths to prevent Russia extending its influence deep into western Europe (to Greece, for example, or Italy) because we regarded any such expansion as a threat to our own freedoms and independence. It’s worth considering the outside possibility that the Russian leadership, however brutal, opportunistic and cynical, might feel much the same way about the dramatic expansion of NATO and the EU up to their own front door, regardless of whether that expansion was part of a grand plan or whether it just happened because the new members wanted to join. As a great power with pronounced paranoid tendencies, Russia is always going to want to ensure, by whatever means seem necessary, that its immediate neighbourhood does not fall under hostile influence or control. It seems to me that the west would be prudent to accept that reality and to understand that to challenge it is to risk dangerous instability, constant conflict and ultimately even war. We know our own intentions are pure, but that may not be how they look to others.

    O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!
    It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
    An’ foolish notion….

  18. robin fairlie says:

    Brian you have talked more than once of Russia’s legitimate interests in Ukraine, and I have wondered what these are. Certainly they include a free use, under treaty, of their naval base in Crimea (never, so far as I know, in question). Plus, I suppose, an interest in not having Russian citizens (and their ethnic/linguistic siblings?) in Ukraine discriminated against, beaten up, thrown into prison on trumped-up charges, or murdered in the streets by shadowy gangs who are never caught – even though all these things happen all the time to Russian citizens in Russia, but not, so far as we know, to such people in Ukraine. (Only to Ukrainian citizens in Ukraine under the late Russian puppet government.) Are there any other legitimate interests? Like having a cordon sanitaire, which can absorb at least the initial impact of invasion and destruction by hypothetical enemies and act as a convenient doormat for wiping dirty feet on? Or is this still legitimate? Anything else?
    None of this answers questions about what policy the EU should (have) follow(ed), where I largely agree with you. But I doubt if any policy would have made (or will make) significant difference to Putin’s very Russian reaction to events in Kiev. As with every Russian autocrat over six centuries past, he will use brute force whenever he can, to enforce his will, and extend his empire, legitimately or otherwise.

    Brian writes: Thank you. I’m not qualified to write an essay on all the facets of Russia’s legitimate interests in Ukraine. The main one is obviously that Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based there at Russia’s only (?) warm water port. Continued secure use of that is clearly a really vital national interest whose importance can hardly be overstated. Ukraine is a major trading partner, e.g. grain (in 2011 it was the world’s third-largest grain exporter), with a substantial manufacturing sector, especially aerospace, arms and industrial equipment. According to Wikipedia Ukraine maintains the second-largest army in Europe, after Russia’s, when reserves and paramilitary personnel are taken into account. For such a country to join an alliance hostile to Russia would be a clear threat to Russian interests and security. Friendly or at least cooperative relations with Ukraine are of great domestic political, historical, cultural and psychological importance to Russians: no Moscow régime that ‘lost’ Ukraine to the west would be likely to survive. It’s a major interest for Russia that its large and important neighbour (bigger than France) should be not just well disposed but also stable and reasonably prosperous: unrest, economic collapse, extra-constitutional overthrow of governments (such as has just occurred), riots, etc., in Ukraine would threaten to spread to Russia and might require Russian intervention in various ways to restore stability. All this is really pretty obvious. Perhaps your question was rhetorical?

    Your suggestion that western policies towards Ukraine won’t affect Russian expansionist ambitions or relations with its neighbours seems to me unnecessarily defeatist. Just because Russia is paranoid doesn’t mean that its interests are not liable to be threatened by western expansionist activities, whether intentional or accidental, such as the recruitment of its immediate neighbours to potentially hostile western alliances. Western respect for Russian interests can help to remove or reduce Russian propensities for meddling in its neighbours’ affairs, although it will always do so whenever it regards it as necessary and safe. Such things happen. Ask the people of Panama, Haiti, Cuba, Mexico….

  19. Simon Myerson says:

    Thanks for the reply. I set out your last paragraph below.

    Finally, and most importantly, I disagree emphatically with your apparent thesis that if a country’s people wish for membership of such international organisations as the EU or NATO, they have an absolute right to that membership, regardless of the views and interests of the organisation’s existing members and irrespective of the consequences for international or regional peace, stability and security. I’m sure that some at least of the people of Ukraine, Turkey, Serbia and a number of other countries would seize on your thesis with great enthusiasm. Fortunately, however, it doesn’t hold water, and I stand by my view that the best contribution the west could make to de-escalation of the present crisis is to tell both Russia and Ukraine that Ukraine will never be admitted to either the EU or NATO — in its own interests as well as those of Russia, the west and the entire region.

    Interesting that you don’t accept sovereignty and it begs huge questions. Who decides that we can have what we want, but ‘they’ can’t? Whose assessment is said to be so accurate as to allow this decision to made for other people? What is their track record? How is it compliant with our membership of treaties guaranteeing human rights and national sovereignty? On what basis is paternalism (however benign) a basis for foreign policy? How does it differ from appeasement – another FCO policy which didn’t exactly support the thesis that these decisions are being well or effectively made? 

    Brian writes: Thank you again. This has nothing to do with ‘not accepting sovereignty’. You ask: “Who decides that we can have what we want, but ‘they’ can’t?” If this refers to membership of the EU or NATO, the answer is obviously “the members of the EU and NATO”. (Who decides who can join the Athenaeum or the Conservative party?) Guarantees of human rights and national sovereignty clearly can’t confer a right to membership of any particular international organisation. ‘Paternalism’ and ‘appeasement’ have nothing to do with it. Appeasement is about giving in to unreasonable and illegitimate demands, often backed up by blackmail. I am suggesting something very different: acting in ways calculated to help allay the legitimate (even if arguably unfounded) fears and concerns of a key player with a legitimate stake in the matters at issue. Doing that is only simple common sense. I’m not sure why you find such difficulty with it.

  20. Brian,
    As you put it to me on Twitter: You must be a doctrinaire zealot to deny that communism had positive features. Anyway it’s not what I said.
    What you said was this:

    It’s also worth recalling that by rushing to press the most ruthless and socially uncaring form of primitive capitalism on the Russians as they emerged from Stalinist communism, without encouraging a transition that might have allowed them to preserve some of the positive features of the communist system, we helped to produce Putin, his oligarchs and the kleptocracy.

    It’s impossible not to conclude from these words that in your view the communist system indeed had ‘positive features’. Why not write a substantive piece explaining to startled world what you think they were?
    I think that even putting the idea out there in such terms is dangerous and obnoxious. Imagine saying “… by rushing to press the most ruthless and socially uncaring form of primitive capitalism on the S Africans as they emerged from apartheid, without encouraging a transition that might have allowed them to preserve some of the positive features of the apartheid system…”
    Or “… by rushing to press the most ruthless and socially uncaring form of primitive capitalism on the Germans as they emerged from Nazism, without encouraging a transition that might have allowed them to preserve some of the positive features of the Nazi system…”
    Any normal person would think that someone saying that was beyond odium.
    Why? Because it does not matter if there were some allegedly positive features of such systems: (a) any such positive features probably existed despite the system, not because of it; and (b) because the horror of what the system did so far exceeds any such benign outcomes, so dwelling on the latter utterly misses the point. Plus when such revolting systems collapse, there is in practice no way to audit them for positive and negative features. The psychological imperative is to be seen to be making a clean break.
    It is simply not true that the West ‘pressed’ a ruthless and socially uncaring form of primitive capitalism on the Russians. This sort of talk is largely a smokescreen put out by the Russian post-Soviet elite as they plundered Soviet and Warsaw pact assets and shipped huge quantities of Russian/Polish money and gold overseas.
    My account of these complex issues is here: 
    I dealt with the economic side within the FCO and then in Moscow from 1991 – 96, a full five years. I can’t spell out enough that the former system just collapsed on its own, leaving all of us to try to help whatever reasonable Russian we could find to build something viable from scratch. Yes, mistakes were made. But the assertion made by many people that what the West did to try to help Russia in its own self-imposed disaster was to impose ‘primitive capitalism’ in a way ‘humiliating to Russia’ is beyond absurd:
    Far from being patronizing or prescriptive, Western governments fell over themselves to be helpful and accommodating to Russia’s new leaders. After WW2 we ran extensive courses for influential Germans in ‘de-Nazification’. Nothing comparable by way of de-communistification was even contemplated for Russia, let alone for the rest of the Soviet Union. We did not even insist as a reasonable price for huge programmes of assistance that Lenin, the supreme symbol of communist terror, be taken from Red Square and given a decent burial.
    NB that in 1946 the Allies toughly set about ‘pressing’ both market capitalism and democracy on Germany, and that worked out rather well. If anything the problem in Russia is that in 1991 there was not enough shock and not enough therapy. Had my own free market instincts prevailed with Russia moving fast to real world energy prices for all exports including to Ukraine, the shock would have been severe for a couple of years, but by now Russia and Ukraine and everyone else would be in far better shape. The murky corrupt energy trade between Russia and Ukraine is a hugely destabilising factor for both countries.
    Otherwise most of your original EU/NATO thesis that the West should ‘pull back’ has been demolished by former colleagues such as David Frost and Stephen Wordsworth, both with huge experience at the coal-face of policy since the Cold war ended.
    My main objection to your whole worldview is that insofar as the West ‘pulls back’ we leave scores millions of Ukrainians and Russians in a moral and political twilight zone, prey to some of the nastiest ideas now out there on the planet, merely to allow the post-KGB Russia elite to pursue its ‘interests’ as if they were the only thing that counted. No thanks.

    Brian writes: I seem to have touched a raw nerve by suggesting that there were some positive features of Russian communism. First you say that there weren’t any, then that there were but that they were outweighed by the negative features (on which at least we can agree, since I have never suggested otherwise) — but that it’s ‘dangerous and obnoxious’ to say so (in front of the children, perhaps?). Almost nothing you say about western support for the installation of free market capitalism in Russia after the collapse of the USSR is relevant to any of this except that you acknowledge that we made some mistakes. Your implication that I have claimed to find positive features in apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany is totally untrue (I can’t think of any off-hand) and anyway a red herring. You wilfully misinterpret my call on the west to “pull back too” (characteristically omitting the ‘too’, which rather spoils the effect you’re after) as a call to abandon the Ukrainians — and the Russians! — “in a moral and political twilight zone”, whereas if you read what I wrote you’ll see that I advocated the exact opposite: my call was for the west and Russia both to ‘pull back’ from the brink of a disastrous military collision and to collaborate instead on rescuing the Ukrainian economy. But I think you know that.

    Your lengthy pursuit of what was little more than an aside (which I stand by) in a response to a comment is in danger of causing a diversion from the main points that I sought to make in my blog post. I don’t share your simplistic black-and-white Manichaean world-view, and you don’t share my rather more nuancé one. Let’s agree that Soviet communism was a vile and repressive system which trampled on human liberty and creativity, spurned truth, didn’t work and was a social and economic disaster. If you wish to add to that, by all means do so, on your own blog. This is a place to discuss Ukraine.

    PS: Misleading jibes on Twitter referring to material on this blog don’t seem to me to add to a better understanding of what’s happening in Ukraine, nor, come to that, to the gaiety of nations. You fail to make it clear in quoting my tweet at the beginning of your comment here that I was merely replying to your own tweet misrepresenting my blog post. And, in the historic words of the over-patient editor, this correspondence will now cease — here, anyway.

  21. Jim says:

    I don’t have a great deal to say on the topic of Ukraine – international affairs isn’t anywhere remotely near any of my areas of dubious expertise – but someone passed me a link to your blog and I enjoyed it a great deal.
    Many thanks for a lucid and incisive post that has approached a number of perspectives that hadn’t crossed my mind.

    Brian writes: Thank you very much for this generous comment.

  22. Simon Crofts says:

    It’s very interesting to listen in on these diplomatic tea party discussions, thank you. Ordinary people like me don’t often get the chance, and it’s particularly encouraging to hear the sane voice of Roland Smith amongst others. I would like to make a comment – as a Brit who lived in Russia during the ’90s (and Poland during the noughties) and who has many close friends in Ukraine (mostly from the Russian areas of Ukraine).
    I think that the vast majority of Ukrainians (I am going to generalise, and of course Ukrainians are not homogenous, but nevertheless I think that what I say is broadly true) who aspire to closer connections with the EU are realists, and recognise that EU membership (leave alone membership of NATO) is not close to happening any time soon. When most talk about becoming part of the EU, what they are really talking about is a wider aspiration of becoming culturally and economically a part of Europe, not in the sense of direct membership, although the possibility of that would be nice one day, perhaps a long way off. What they hope for is a much wider sense of close cooperation, access, and adopting a system of political accountability that is the opposite of the Putin tsarist model, and an escape from endemic political corruption.
    As for NATO – I doubt that there is a strong Ukrainian political or public momentum to join NATO, most people don’t really trust NATO, but also they are more aware than any of us of the effect that it would have on their neighbour to the East. In so far as it is ever mentioned, the spectre of NATO membership is I think rather a ghost card that Ukrainian politicians may sometimes use to wave at Putin.
    Ukrainians are realists – they would also like good relations with their neighbour to the East. But politically, they want to distance themselves from autocracy, kleptocracy and imperialism, and they want close and good relations with Europe. In fact, they pretty much want the same as we want. There is a tremendous amount of goodwill towards Europe in Ukraine at the moment:  most Ukrainians pin their hopes in Europe as their future. That is doubly or trebly so since Russia invaded Crimea.
    Recognising Ukraine as being really in Russia’s sphere of influence, not doing anything that might upset Russia, or seeing Ukraine as some kind of buffer zone (or that overworked and clichéd expression that has begun to annoy everyone, a ‘borderland’) are perceived by Ukrainians as being ‘thrown under the bus’.
    As an example, I had a distressed email a few days ago from a friend who lives on the border with Crimea, who had come across an article by Jack Matlock, former US ambassador (   I explained to her that the article was genuine and that of course no payment exchanged hands, but it gives a feel for how strong the potential for a sense of betrayal at a perceived lack of support, even on the level of just one opinion expressed in an article. I understand that the article was being circulated among Russians on social media as evidence that the US was wavering in its support of Ukraine.  I’ve translated her email into English:

    If I didn’t know who the author was, then I would have guessed that it was written by Putin agitators. It is trying to justify Putin’s actions. I have a suspicion, that perhaps Matlock didn’t write it? What if in fact, it’s not his article, but Putin’s propaganda? The  former ambassador probably received a big payment for this article from Putin.

    The real risk for Britain – and for Ukraine – is that the EU steps back from Ukraine, that, as David Frost put it above, “Putin is to ratchet up the threats (military action anywhere in Ukraine) but not implement them fully.  To create a sense of relief in the EU that the worst didn’t happen, and establish a new normal as quickly as possible, so that the EU reverts to type … the EU will plausibly accommodate itself to the new reality”
    Ukraine as a volatile no-man’s-land with a sense of betrayal towards Europe is a greater danger to the West as a flash point than a Ukraine that has been firmly supported economically and socially by Europe and recognised as what it is – one of Europe’s largest and most important countries. That does not mean Europe having to humiliate Russia or cut Russia off from Ukraine. Russia has already practically done that for itself in any case – it has ruined its chances of good relations with Ukraine, and turned most even of Ukraine’s Russian minority against Russian interference.
    Regarding that Russian minority, Brian Barder writes: “Putin could hardly get away with any appearance of deserting them when they seem to be threatened by the revolutionaries in Kiev.”  This ignores the fact that there clearly WAS NO THREAT to the Russian population by the revolutionaries in Kiev. The ‘threat’ was entirely propaganda manufactured to justify the invasion. So Putin could easily have avoided the appearance of deserting the Russian population simply by not making up the ‘threat’ in the first place.
    Again, Brian Barder writes: “Russia should honour its promise in the Budapest Memorandum (PDF) to refrain from interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs and to respect its territorial integrity.
    Yes – Russia should. But unfortunately it hasn’t. And won’t.

    It is not a question of offering or refusing Ukraine membership of the EU. It is a question of showing support, of being seen to stand up to Putin (no one expects Europe to do anything militarily, but to do what it can in other ways, even if it involved the price of gas going up, or God forbid, horror of horrors, the City risking losing some money).
    I personally doubt that Putin seriously intends to invade Eastern Ukraine – it would be a political disaster for him, likely to cause a backlash in Russia once the flag-waving has died down. But the one thing that might persuade him to do so is if the European response to Crimea seems paralysed. It would be a clear message that he can walk in and help himself. You should remember the (second) Warsaw Uprising, when Stalin held the Soviet army outside the gates of Warsaw for weeks to see how far he could go in allowing the Polish Home Army to be destroyed before the Allies objected. The timidity of the Allied response (or indeed lack of response) showed him how far he could go in taking over large swathes of Eastern Europe at Yalta.
    More than anything else – that is why your Polish plumber refused to mend your plumbing, rather than any failure to send Spitfires.

    Brian writes: Thank you very much for this. I am responding in a separate comment.

  23. Simon,
    Superb contribution. Nothing at all ‘ordinary’ about your insight here. On the contrary, your insights and judgement are spot-on

  24. Brian says:

    I’m grateful for Simon Croft’s stimulating comment (, based on local experience that few of us can match. Simon, I agree with more of what you say than you might think.  Where we disagree is mainly over perceptions, especially the way things tend to be perceived in Moscow, which may be very different from how they are perceived in Kiev, Crimea, Brussels, Washington or London. Even if you are sure that Russian perceptions are misconceived and distorted, they are still an important factor in the situation, and when they reflect a misjudgement of western intentions, it must be in everyone’s interests to correct that misjudgement, not just by denouncing it and casting about for ways to penalise it. 

    For example, you say confidently that “the vast majority of Ukrainians … who aspire to closer connections with the EU are realists, and recognise that EU membership (leave alone membership of NATO) is not close to happening any time soon.”  I hope that both you and they are right in that recognition: but what matters is whether that’s how the position is perceived in Moscow. I am pretty sure that it is not. If you read Articles 4 (especially), 462, 467, and 474-475 (especially) of the draft EU-Ukraine Association Agreement (the document which President Yanukovych refused to sign and thereby apparently precipitated the present crisis), you may more readily understand why the Russian government sees the proposed Association Agreement as evidence of creeping EU and eventually NATO expansionism which seeks to bring countries on Russia’s doorstep, countries in which Russia has extensive strategic, economic, cultural and historical interests, under the influence and even control of fundamentally anti-Russian western alliances. You, and even (sometimes) I, may not believe that there is any such western intention: but western actions on the ground since the implosion of the Soviet Union provide plenty of apparent evidence that at least in some western capitals, there is.  Certainly no-one responsible for policy in Moscow could risk taking it on trust that the west has no intention of usurping and undermining Russian influence in Ukraine.  Elements in the draft Agreement look very much as if that is indeed the west’s intention, including progress towards full membership of the EU followed, almost explicitly, by membership of NATO. Why else does the agreement require Ukraine steadily to “approximate” its legislation to that of the EU, monitored and even enforced by the EU?  Why else does the agreement set up a political dialogue designed explicitly to “promote gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of Ukraine’s ever-deeper involvement in the European security area“?  This in an agreement represented as purely concerned with trade!  It’s hard to imagine language buried in a proposed trade agreement better calculated to sound the alarm in Moscow.

    Lastly, you assure us that “there clearly WAS NO THREAT to the Russian population by the revolutionaries in Kiev. The ‘threat’ was entirely propaganda manufactured to justify the invasion.” Yet plenty of western observers have expressed the conviction that the overthrow by the Maidan mob of the elected President of Ukraine, and his replacement by a pro-western, anti-Russian régime, were partially financed and clandestinely stimulated by western intelligence agencies and agents. Few of us know enough of the background to be able to judge whether there is persuasive evidence in support of this allegation, or whether as you believe it is all manufactured by the Kremlin. Similarly, it’s virtually impossible for us at this distance to be sure whether the allegations of abuse of Russians by Ukrainian crowds have any basis in fact or whether they are simply invented excuses for Russian intervention. Agnosticism seems to me the only safe position on these matters. Unfortunately, too many commentators automatically believe the version of events that suits their own preconceived ideas about which are the good guys and which the bad. 

    None of this excuses actions by Russia that contravene international law. But where those actions are driven by (?) groundless fears of western intentions, and those fears seem to be supported by the way the west is behaving on the ground, it surely behoves us to allay those fears, correct Russian misapprehensions and provide concrete reassurances that we seek to collaborate with Russia in promoting regional prosperity and stability, not to encircle it by hostile states recruited to western economic and security alliances. Hence my suggestion that the EU and NATO should state clearly and unambiguously that Ukrainian membership of both organisations is firmly and permanently ruled out. Both the EU and NATO have already expanded recklessly, provocatively, and unnecessarily.  It’s time to call a halt.

    A final postscript: it was not resentment of Yalta that made our Polish glazier refuse to mend a window in the British ambassador’s residence: you will have to take my word for it that it was Britain’s failure to honour its pledge to Poland in September 1939. Anyway, I would argue that facts on the ground rather than western weakness dictated the Yalta settlement, even if Roosevelt did take a more blinkered view of Stalin’s intentions than Churchill did. To the victor the spoils!

  25. Simon Crofts says:

    Thank you Brian for the response. I also accept a lot of what you say. But – there are important ‘buts’. First, I’m sorry that this reply is so long. I tried to make it brief, but failed!

    Yes, it is essential to understand and adapt to Russia’s legitimate concerns. I see two types of Russian concerns – public opinion within Russia, and the opinions of the government – that is, Putin. Public opinion in Russia is so distorted by the manipulation of mass media controlled by Putin that it is hard to take direct action to satisfy it – it will not be presented with objective facts no matter what you do. There are the more enlightened sections of the intelligentsia – but these are already I think to a large extent sympathetic to Ukraine in this situation. So we are left with Putin’s concerns. What motivates Putin is extremely hard to know. No doubt loss of influence over Ukraine is unacceptable to him, and seeing it being sucked into a western sphere of influence is humiliating. But I also think that he is not so much about what he might lose as what he can gain.

    I worked with Medvedev on a project in St Petersburg when he was not long out of university. He seemed pleasant and professional enough then, but my impression is that he excelled at the manipulation of rules to consolidate power on behalf of himself and his friends. We can take an educated guess at who those friends might have been. I also saw first hand how the privatisation process in Petersburg worked, and how closely the FSB were involved in that process (appointing former or current FSB officers as directors of companies, providing FSB security at auctions that helped to ensure that the right person won, and so on). The mechanisms used were sometimes labyrinthine and ingenious. Further, for private companies outside the privatisation process, it is well known that the FSB acted on a freelance basis, taking a share of profits in return for keeping non-state mafia off their backs – in other words, a protection racket. I don’t know much about what Putin was up to at that time – except that he was in charge of foreign investments into St. Petersburg – but that itself is yet another example of a (possibly ex-)FSB officer popping up in control of a key post in the privatisation process.

    I mention all this just because I think it gives an idea of the Putin/Medvedev technique and background, which is to construct, use and abuse convoluted rules (and mass media) in order to consolidate power and wealth. They emerged on top in what was an extremely ruthless and competitive environment. You can see this technocrat, legalistic approach in their foreign policy at the moment, the manipulation of meetings, referendums, quorums,, taking the trouble to deny that the troops in Crimea are Russian in order to be seen to be within the letter of the rules, when pragmatically they would almost certainly do better to admit the truth and not to be discredited and seen as brazen liars. This is the use of loopholes in bureaucracy, just like in a Gogol novel (cf. Dead Souls, Government Inspector, etc.)

    The point is that I doubt that Putin is really that interested in ‘legitimate concerns’, he is rather interested in what he can achieve in this situation.

    Brian, you said:

    it’s virtually impossible for us at this distance to be sure whether the allegations of abuse of Russians by Ukrainian crowds have any basis in fact or whether they are simply invented excuses for Russian intervention. Agnosticism seems to me the only safe position on these matters.

    I mentioned that many of my friends come from one of the more ethnically Russian parts of Ukraine, just next to the Crimea. I invited any of them who wanted to to give their views of what has been happening. It gives a good feeling for public opinion in one of the predominantly Russian regions of Ukraine (even though it’s a tiny sample, the thrust of comments I see from the region on social media are broadly consistent however). Please have a look at the comments below my post:

    Note: places like Donetsk may be different. I personally find it harder to gauge the sway of opinion there. I doubt however that the treat of invasion is winning Putin many friends.

    The impression was given in some media reports both in Russia and the West that some the new Ukrainian government was trying to prevent Russians from speaking Russian. In fact, the dispute was rather about whether Russian should be given equal status as an official language – that is, whether official documents could have equal standing in either Ukrainian or Russian. That could be – and was – a cause of minor annoyance for ethnic Russians, but it is a very long way from a crackdown on speaking Russian.

    What is true is that the state media channels have been in Ukrainian for quite a few years now, and this has been a huge mistake. It has meant that a lot of Russian speakers especially in the East switched to watching Russian TV channels broadcast from Moscow, and because of the propaganda being pumped out on those channels, public opinion in those parts is much more wary of the EU and of Maidan. After all, these were the regions that originally voted Yanukhovich in, so politically many disapprove the Maidan movement and the change of power. What would make a huge difference to Ukraine’s future, if it’s not already too late, would be if there were Ukrainian TV /Radio channels broadcasting in Russian. I really hope that will happen.

    There is one point that I feel less sure about than when I posted the day before yesterday – and that is whether Putin will invade Eastern Ukraine. Maybe I was wrong. Only Putin knows.

    But returning to your suggestion of allaying Russia’s – Putin’s – concerns by providing an assurance that Ukraine will never be a member of the EU. Perhaps such a reassurance could be given with respect to NATO membership, I can’t imagine Ukraine joining NATO. But I think there are reasons why this shouldn’t be done with respect to EU membership. The first is, that this won’t actually appease Putin, because it’s not enough. He wants to know that Ukraine will be ‘his’. I hope his ambitions stop at Ukraine. But a reassurance about EU membership won’t stop him implementing his familiar power-accumulation game, because this is what he does – he has been doing it for years, and he will carry on doing it. The pattern of provocation-legal technicality-propaganda–invasion-occupation-assimilation is one that has worked well from the start and will continue to be employed. I was living in a Moscow apartment block not far from those that were being blown up as a casus belli for invading Chechnya when Putin came to power, and I won’t forget it in a hurry.

    The second is, that, just maybe, in a number of years’ time, the time will in fact be right for Ukraine to join the EU. There is no particular reason why it shouldn’t, if there is a political will in the EU and in Ukraine (which there isn’t at the moment in either).

    The collapse of the USSR was caused partly by economic stagnation, but also because of aspirations to become part of the rest of the world. These are in the long term the two biggest threats to Putin’s power too – within Russia. Turning Ukraine away from Europe – failing to support Ukraine in its stance against Russia – would cause disillusionment and anger towards the west at a time when Ukrainians – and Russians – need the carrot of economic and cultural integration more than ever. Don’t forget that there is a substantial sector of people even in Russia who support Ukraine and believe that what Putin is doing is wrong. If Ukraine is left without support, then these Russians too are left without support. The way in the end to reintegrate not only Ukraine, but also, perhaps in many years to come, Russia, into world society is simply to behave as ethically as possible and not abandon a country to become a ‘borderland’ – a No Man’s Land – because of a bully.

    Brian writes: Renewed thanks for this further illuminating contribution, rooted in your first-hand experience. I especially welcome the link to your own extremely informative blog ( with its splendid photographs.

    On your new comment, I would stress that I am not advocating that the west should abandon Ukraine to the tender mercies of Russia (under the much abused Mr Putin or anyone else). I am sure the west should become strongly engaged with Ukraine, especially in an economic rescue operation, but in my view this should be in collaboration with Russia, not in a risky competition for the dominant position of influence in Ukraine. I don’t dispute your (and many others’) characterisation of Putin as a ruthless opportunist bent on safeguarding and where possible extending Russia’s influence and power, but it’s worth remembering that these have been the aims of the foreign policies of all big and powerful states down the ages, including our own: and that in the case of Russia, these preoccupations are intensified by paranoia, itself aggravated by the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union and by traditional Russian patriotism as expressed in pride in the ‘rodina’, the homeland. Enthusiastic demonisation of Putin by much of the media and the Westminster village tends to obscure the extent to which Putin is solidly rooted in age-old Russian tradition. If it was not Putin it would be someone else pursuing much the same agenda. The nasty features of the present Russian kleptocracy with the tight grip on it of the FSB (successor to the KGB) which you vividly describe is firmly in the tradition of Soviet Russia and perpetuates many of the features of Tsarist Russia too. Russia has never experienced a liberal democracy and it’s a fantasy to think that the centralist, secretive, repressive, secret-police-dominated, fiercely patriotic, sentimental-cynical, corrupt and inefficient characteristics of Russia down the centuries can be replaced overnight by a modern liberal free market democracy. Even Putin’s Russia is a huge improvement on the Russia of Stalin and the cold war. Treating it as an enemy, an adversary to be undermined and whenever possible punished in a perpetual zero-sum-game conflict of interests, is simply to interrupt and obstruct Russia’s slow and jerky journey into democratic decency.

    Finally, on the question of EU membership for Ukraine, I venture to query your assertion that “maybe … the time will in fact be right for Ukraine to join the EU. There is no particular reason why it shouldn’t…” I believe that there is a very particular reason why it shouldn’t: not only Putin, but any conceivable government in Moscow at any time in the future would regard EU membership for Ukraine as an intolerable threat to Russia’s security, international standing, and interests. Ukraine has a unique position in the Russian and Slav mythology and its defection to the EU will always, I believe, constitute a red line that no Moscow regime could allow to be crossed. This may sound absurd, or worse, to western ears. But some of the wording of the western-proposed draft EU-Ukraine Association Agreement (quoted in my response to your earlier comment at can only be interpreted as a cynical attempt to draw Ukraine into an anti-Russian western security system as well as a trade agreement. It’s really no wonder that Russia stepped in to stop the then Ukrainian president signing it. Even without that naive revelation of the west’s ultimate ambitions in Ukraine, integration into the EU will always, I think, be unacceptable to Moscow, and to dangle it as a possibility for the future amounts to a cruel deception of the Ukrainian people, liable to tempt them into unrealistic expectations of practical western support in any quarrel with their big Russian neighbour, and a dangerous reinforcement of Russian suspicions of the west’s real intentions.

  26. Simon Crofts says:

    p.s. Brian of course I take your word for it about your glazier being offended particularly about 1939. I asked my wife (who is Polish) about which bit she most held against us and she told me “Everything!” My mother-in-law, on the other hand, is most fond of remembering Yalta.

    Brian writes: Splendid! My wife reminds me that the episode of the resentful glazier occurred in early September (probably of 1987) and that Poles are very conscious of anniversaries.

    One afterthought about your longer comment. Russia’s straight-faced assertions that the uniformed soldiers taking control of Crimea are all Ukrainians and not soldiers of the Russian army are extremely familiar to anyone with experience of dealing with Russian government and party officials in Soviet times. Westerners always marvelled at the ability of their Russian interlocutors, frequently intelligent, educated, experienced and sophisticated operators, to say things that they knew to be untrue — and that they knew we knew to be untrue. To survive in the Soviet version of communism it was absolutely necessary to be able to hold two absolutely incompatible and mutually contradictory versions of reality in one’s mind at the same time, one of them broadly true and the other almost completely false. To respond to obvious lies by saying “That’s a lie, you know it’s a lie, and you know that I know it’s a lie” would have made any future dialogue or relationship impossible. One just had to convey that message by sceptical facial expression, almost a wink. The Russians know perfect;ly well that their military intervention in Crimea is in flagrant breach of international law, and they know that the outside world knows that too, but it’s obviously impossible for them to admit that they are acting illegally: so they advance an almost openly fictitious account of what has happened in order to cover their illegality. Before we rush to judgement over such hypocrisy and mendacity, we should remember the equally fraudulent and plainly incredible excuses devised by members of the Blair government in 2003 as figleaves to cover up the illegality of the aggression against Iraq, including the fatuous proposition that “an unreasonable veto” in the Security Council didn’t count as a valid veto and could legally be ignored. No-one was expected to be convinced by that, and those who advanced it knew it was rubbish, but anything was better than admitting that our government was about to commit a war crime. Compared with that, everything so far done by Russia in Ukraine is small beer indeed.

  27. Simon Crofts says:

    While all this may be seen a question of balance – we both agree at least (I think) that we should take account of Russia’s legitimate concerns (whatever ‘legitimate’ means – there is a whole discussion there) and that Ukrainians shouldn’t be abandoned. Unfortunately those two points may be mutually contradictory.

    However, I see two points that we fundamentally disagree on. The first is the title of your post ‘time for the West to pull back’. I would rather say – ‘time for the West to engage and support’.

    The second is where you say:

    “… Putin is solidly rooted in age-old Russian tradition. If it was not Putin it would be someone else pursuing much the same agenda…
    It’s a fantasy to think that the centralist, secretive, repressive, secret-police-dominated, fiercely patriotic, sentimental-cynical, corrupt and inefficient characteristics of Russia down the centuries can be replaced overnight by a modern liberal free market democracy.”

    The lessons of history are important and have a continuing presence in the present, and one of the most important of these is the constantly repeated mantra among Russians that ‘Russia needs a strong Tsar’. It is important to know about this self-fulfilling (in my view) fallacy, and the idea has a real effect on politics, it invites paralysis. But I firmly believe that ‘nothing is written’. I honestly believe that it would be perfectly possible for a liberal democratic state to be introduced in Russia overnight. It may not happen very soon, but then again, it might happen the day after tomorrow.

    It very nearly happened both in 1917 and in 1991-1995. In 1917, decisive action by a small group of particularly ruthless people ensured that it didn’t.

    In the 1990’s, there were two reasons why it didn’t happen. The first is that there was an overwhelming political pressure, on the advice of western advisers, to make the privatisation process ‘quick and dirty’. Privatisation may or may not have been quick, but it was certainly dirty. This was a contrast to transformation in Poland etc., where governments were criticised for not pursuing privatisation and economic transformation fast enough. Looking back, ‘slowly and properly’ would have been a better approach.

    The second turning point was when Yeltsin, with support from western governments, pushed through an illegal new constitution adopted only by his own decree, that gave all power to the President, including an effective veto over Parliament’s laws (Article 107 of the Russian constitution). The reason why the west supported the dismantling of Parliament was because Parliament was not prepared to push through reforms ‘quickly and dirtily’ enough. “To privatise” became a synonym in popular Russian for ‘to steal” (eg. “I privatised these slippers from the hotel”). Shortly afterwards, Russia’s first democratically elected Parliament was shelled into submission by the Tamanskaya Tank Regiment. Incidentally, and sorry to refer to my blog again, but I wrote a brief description of how Putin/Yanukhovich were trying to use the equivalent clause in the Ukrainian constitution (Article 94) to crush the authority of the Rada:

    In both cases, well-intentioned but mistaken western intervention was very important in leading to the triumph of oligarchs, the FSB, and the President over democracy. In each case, one important reason was because western government were willing to let what they saw at the time as pragmatism (and lack of patience) prevail over ethics and patient democratic support. I’m not really interested in allocating blame, or feeling guilty about it, there were good reasons why western advisers at the time favoured speed and good reasons to support Yeltsin through thick and thin, but in retrospect it was a big mistake.

    Russians on the whole, act like other peoples, and behave more or less rationally given the information that is at their disposal. It is worth reading Vasily Grossman’s 1955-64 work Everything Flows – Chapter 22, where he describes why Russia chose slavery in the form of Lenin:

    “But then is this truly a specifically and uniquely Russian law of development? Can it truly be the lot of the Russian soul, and of the Russian soul alone, to evolve not with the growth of freedom but with the growth of slavery? Can this truly be the fate of the Russian soul?
    No, no, of course not…
    ’Soul’ is neither here nor there, it doesn’t come into it. If the French or the Germans, the Italians or the English had been placed a thousand years ago within the same parameters of forest, steppe, bog, plain… then the pattern of their history would have been no different from that of Russian history. Anyway, it is not only the Russians who have known this path. There are many people on every continent of this earth who have come to know the bitterness of the Russian path – some only vaguely and from a distance, some closely and clearly, suffering bitterness of their own.”

    I don’t think it is helpful to analyse Russia in tired and outdated Churchillian or Dostoyevskian clichés: Russia being an enigma, the Russian soul being incomprehensible, Russia having its own route, Russia needing a strong Tsar and so on. Both Ukrainian and Russian societies need to be supported in their attempts to move on and become sophisticated modern societies. The impetus for this was demonstrated today by the 50-or-so-thousand people who came out today to demonstrate on the streets of Moscow.

    Brian writes: I confess that I’m baffled by this. I see no disagreement between us on either of the issues you raise. You misrepresent the title of this blog post by omitting the crucial word ‘too’: “Ukraine: time for the west to pull back too“. As I have pointed out to another contributor to this thread, and as the body of the post makes abundantly clear, I am not suggesting western abandonment of Ukraine to its economic fate — on the contrary, I explicitly advocate active and generous western cooperation with Russia, institutionally based and safeguarded, in supporting Ukrainian recovery and stability. What is abundantly clear from my article is that I propose that both the west and Russia (‘too’) “pull back” from the brink of conflict and crisis and work together, not competitively, to rescue Ukraine from economic bankrupcy, corruption, dangerous political and ethnic division and instability verging on collapse. It’s hard to imagine anyone seriously disagreeing with that.

    On your other point of supposed disagreement, I have never suggested that Russia needs “a strong Tsar”, nor have I referred even obliquely to “the Russian soul”, and I regard such semi-mystical talk as rubbish. I don’t recognise your reference to “tired and outdated Churchillian or Dostoyevskian clichés: Russia being an enigma, the Russian soul being incomprehensible, Russia having its own route, Russia needing a strong Tsar and so on.” Where we do disagree, though, is over your belief that “it would be perfectly possible for a liberal democratic state to be introduced in Russia overnight. It may not happen very soon, but then again, it might happen the day after tomorrow.” This surely ignores the reality that liberal democracy is not something that can be installed by fiat or even by passing a carefully drafted constitutional law. Democracy is the product of organic growth, usually over centuries, involving periods of progress and periods of failure, the slow development of social and political understandings about tolerance, compromise, consensus, broad equality of benefit and broad equality of sacrifice, respect for truth and openness, intolerance of corruption, the accountability of power, and a system of independent justice to which everyone in society from the highest to the lowest is answerable. The idea that a social consensus on all these principles can be created “overnight” or “the day after tomorrow” in a state which has never experienced anything remotely resembling a liberal democracy and whose political and social philosophy has grown out of centuries of totally different experience, is a fantasy. Apart from anything else, it ignores the reality that the centuries of autocracy have bequeathed a network of powerful vested interests whose power and wealth are threatened by progress towards democracy and who will tenaciously defend their power and wealth by every available means. Mr Putin’s background as a KGB officer is not irrelevant. The notion that these strong vested interests can be defeated and dissolved “overnight” is frankly absurd.

    I don’t say that it needs to take centuries for Russia to evolve into anything recognisable as a liberal democracy — it has made extraordinary progress in that general direction in the short period since 1991 — but I have no doubt that it will take a generation. Our own democracy in Britain is still flawed and incomplete in numerous ways and we have had almost 800 years since Magna Carta to get it right.

    Your point about the west’s mistaken insistence on instant universal privatisation after the collapse of communism in Russia, when economic reform should have been taken more slowly and deliberately, echoes my own criticism of the west for seeking to press on Russia the most coarse and doctrinaire form of instant free market capitalism, with predictable and disastrous consequences. I see no disagreement between us there.

    Finally, and going back to the need for the west, not just Russia, to “pull back”, it’s essential to recognise what the west (represented by the US and the EU, and NATO) has been doing and is still doing, as factors in precipitating the current crisis — not the only factors, but important ones. We have been urging on Ukraine an “association” agreement with the EU that would commit Ukraine to steadily bringing its laws into uniformity with EU law; to accepting EU monitoring of that process and its ‘enforcement’; and to a dialogue designed explicitly to “promote gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of Ukraine’s ever-deeper involvement in the European security area“. No doubt this language is capable of an ingeniously innocent interpretation, but can its authors have expected anyone in Moscow — not just the demonised Mr Putin — to have read it as anything less than a deliberate intention to bring Ukraine into eventual membership of the EU and after that of NATO (“the European security area”)? And this in relation to a country on whose territory the Russian Black Sea fleet is based! (True, it was a Russian government that transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, but it seems to be forgotten now that this involved absolutely no loss of Moscow’s control of Crimea, which remained part of the Soviet Union.)

    Not only does the draft association agreement contain this inflammatory and naively revelatory language: the west has shown itself prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to try to get Ukraine committed to the agreement, strongly supporting (probably by clandestine as well as open means) a revolution to overthrow an elected Ukrainian president who had refused to sign it and installing in his place a probably unconstitutional régime explicitly committed to EU and often also NATO membership. Moreover all this western pressure has to be seen in the context of the expansion of EU and NATO membership to a raft of countries that were formerly either component parts of the Soviet Union or else members of the Warsaw Pact, partially encircling Russia by potentially hostile states entitled by treaty to western military support in the event of a conflict with their Russian neighbour. Did anyone carry out an assessment of Russia’s likely reaction to all this pressure on Ukraine, of all countries, to join them? None of this is to condone what looks increasingly like Russia’s use of its military presence to annex Crimea and to threaten the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine proper, on the familiar pretext of protecting its ethnic Russian population. I simply ask: what else did we expect? And how did we imagine we could do anything to stop it?

  28. Simon Crofts says:

    Thanks for the commentary Brian. Apologies for missing out the word “too” from your title, which was unintentional. However, it doesn’t change any of my commentary. Russia isn’t going to pull back from interference in Ukraine, indeed Russia’s attempt to promote a puppet dictator in Ukraine has been a catalyst for the current problems. So while it would be lovely if Russia pulled back ‘too’, that is purely theoretical. It isn’t going to happen.
    As for your other comment where you say “I have never suggested that Russia needs a strong Tsar”, I had never suggested that you had suggested that. I only quoted you using the words that you actually used. Mentioning the idea that Russia needs a strong Tsar is part of my commentary on that. The point here is that seeing the current government in terms of what past governments have been, in terms of Tsarist Russia for example is a mistake. You did say “Putin is firmly rooted in age-old Russian tradition. If it was not Putin it would be someone else pursuing much the same agenda… is firmly routed in the tradition of Soviet Russia and perpetuates many of the features of Tsarist Russia too” The implication is that Russia always has leaders who are similar to Putin. If you were a Russian, you would immediately recognise this as being an expression of the idea that is repeated constantly by Russians today, certainly by Putin-ites, that “Russia needs a strong Tsar”, it is an idea which has a real force in contemporary Russian politics. That is why I mentioned it, I didn’t claim that you said that directly. But it is how the idea that nothing changes in Russian power politics, and the justification for Putin among his supporters, is expressed today.
    Brian writes: I’m sorry (but not very) to sound testy, but if you can’t see the difference between (a) the proposition that many features of the Putin régime perpetuate features of Russia’s autocratic régimes down the centuries, and (b) ‘Russia needs a strong Tsar’, further discussion seems to me otiose. I think each of us has now said just about everything that needs to be said about our respective views. Time to move on,

  29. Simon Crofts says:

    For some reason, when I attempted to paste a quote rather than type it – Tamanskaya, and the extra words at the bottom of my last post, they don’t appear in my comment, and I have to type them out manually (which makes it more likely to introduce errors like the missing ‘too’), but when my message is posted the pasted text reappears as unwanted text at the end. Hence the last unwanted quote which has just appeared at the end of my last quote, and all the extra words at the end of my “Tamanskaya” correction. I think there may be a bug in the blog software.

    Brian writes: The comment box has its own formatting buttons and assumes that you will type direcdtly into it. You can paste in simple text, e.g. from Notepad, but not HTML or Rich Text such as from Word.

  30. Pete Kercher says:

    I come late to this discussion, not so much to contribute in any major way as to express my thanks to all concerned for a very interesting exchange of opinions, whose value is only enhanced by the diversity I find recorded here. Any reader, I think, should not be insensible of the weight of field experience of so many of the contributors. For this reason, I have recommended it to a series of friends, particularly in Poland, for whom events in Ukraine are certainly of no less interest (and for the same, maybe more plausible, reasons of history, culture and security) than to Russia.
    At one point, I found a recommendation to read Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms: for a more extensive historical overview, I’d also recommend the same author’s two-volume God’s Playground. Davies, again, is also a good source of background for Brian’s Polish glazier’s reluctance to oblige with repairs to his residence in Warsaw on the anniversary of what is perceived there as the great British betrayal: see his Heart of Europe – The Past in Poland’s Present, and his Rising ’44. To complete the picture, Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud are the authors of A Question of Honour, a history of the Kosciuszko Squadron in the Battle of Britain and how it was so shamefully sidelined in 1945 and thereafter.
    By the way, the Poles really are very fond of important aniversries and an excellent way to a Pole’s heart is to show you know all about 3 May.
    Content-wise, I would restrict my input to the discussion to just two points.
    The first is that, while I have no doubt that Ukraine was unlikely to become a member of the EU within the near or even foreseeable future, let alone NATO, it was arguably not even intentional that the draft agreement seemed so inexorable in its terminology. Of course, Brian is right to say that in such cases perceptions are everything… all the more reason why more care could and should have been taken over drafting it. I’m afraid I’d not be overly surprised if it had been no more than a rather sloppy copy-paste job from the many comparable processes of approach to the EU that have been drafted by DG Enlargement in the last couple of decades: in addition to the 13 new member states since 2004, several other countries have signed or at least started approaching such agreements. The Commission has grown remarkably (and harmfully) complacent in many respects under the Barroso presidency, which we can all be glad is about to end.
    The second is that I think it is wiser never to say never. I sincerely hope that the EU will outlast its latest bout of growing pains and continue in existence as a permanent (and of course much improved) fixture in the lives of generations to come. In such a scenario, in due course, I would not rule out the membership of Ukraine, nor of Russia itself, for that matter. “Never” is far too big a word to apply, I believe, to the onward (and occasionally backward) march of history.

    And now I’ll allow myself a third, bonus, point: while warm-water naval bases may have been all the rage in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century strategic thinking, I have just a sneaking suspicion that a viable cyber warfare capacity will be trumping any such anachronism within our lifetimes. So maybe we’d better start reappraising some of the basic premises of our strategic thinking.

    Brian writes: Thank you for these generous words about this post and the dialogue that has followed it. I very much agree with all your own comments, including the general rule that it’s prudent never to say never, with the reservation that my proposal for a declaration that EU and NATO membership for Ukraine will ‘never’ be on the cards would be fatally weakened in its intended reassurance if the ‘never’ were to be qualified. Any qualification would be interpreted as a deliberate loophole. But this is wholly academic: no such declaration is going to be made, if only because there are powerful EU and NATO voices which would regard the recruitment of Ukraine to either organisation as a magnificent diplomatic and strategic triumph. This is probably due more to stupidity than to malevolence: quos deus vult perdere, prius dementat…

  31. Simon Crofts says:

    At the risk of pointing out the obvious:
    Your words: “Russia’s autocratic régimes down the centuries”    
    = Russia HAD strong Tsars
    Your words “the proposition that many features of the Putin régime perpetuate features of Russia’s autocratic régimes down the centuries”      
    = Russia HAS a strong Tsar
    “Putin is solidly rooted in age-old Russian tradition. If it was not Putin it would be someone else pursuing much the same agenda.”     
    = if Russia didn’t have this strong Tsar, it would have a different strong Tsar
    Ergo, from arguing that Russia must necessarily have an autocratic regime (a strong Tsar) it is a very small step indeed to “Russia needs a strong Tsar”. You are making a classic Putin-ite argument. If you really can’t see that connection, further discussion seems otiose.
    “The comment box has its own formatting buttons and assumes that you will type direcdtly into it. You can paste in simple text, e.g. from Notepad, but not HTML or Rich Text such as from Word.“
    The problem on arises when typing directly into it and pasting a quote from your own blog. The problem doesn’t arise when pasting from Word etc. (though does need reformatting in that case). No problem now I know about it, I can type in Word then paste, but just thought I’d let you know about it.

    Brian writes: Even your ingenious intellectual gymnastics, Simon, can’t close the yawning gap between ‘is’ and ‘should’ — i.e between the descriptive and the prescriptive. You are employing the well-known Today programme technique of informing your interlocutor that what he has really said is something entirely different, and then demolishing the latter with a great deal of unearned relish. Enough of that! Correspondence on this particular narrow issue will now cease.

    As to your account of what can and can’t be done in this blog’s comment box, I repeat my appeal to those writing comments NOT to paste into it text from MS Word or from any other text in Rich Text or HTML format. Occasionally that works, more or less, given a bit of further formatting; generally it involves me, as blog owner and editor, in a lot of unnecessary work editing out metres of code and other detritus. Please either write it directly into the comment box or paste it from a text file, .txt, e.g. in Notepad. You can even copy and paste a passage from Word, or from this blog, into Notepad, and then copy and paste it from Notepad into the comment box. But not otherwise. This is Ephems-specific guidance and not for any further discussion, thank you.

  32. Paul says:

    I am both amused and appalled at  these “erudite” little conversations by  gentlemen of the UK Foreign Office. As with  the Americans, it sadly illustrates a complete inability to understand another country’s perspective other than  through the lens of   one’s  own  interests  and a blindness to  the very  considerable ongoing evils committed in  the name of “democracy and freedom” by  Western powers on other countries.
    There is no  question that  Russian is an autocratic but somewhat democratic country, and certainly Putin is not a man to be admired; but then he is  not guilty of genocide like Blair and  Bush, who  were such  “reasonable” men (and who  speak English too!) . Certainly the Soviet’s  genocide on a grand scale during their reign,  including the Ukrainian Holodomor, gave good reason for Western Ukrainians to hate the Russians (along with the Jews and Poles,  but ironically not the Germans!)
    The long history of Western intelligence involvement – particularly MI5 and CIA  support before (during?) and after the Second World War, in resourcing and training Western Ukrainian nationalists who just happened ( and continue to be) Nazi sympathisers, as well as violently anti-Russian, is enough to doubt the sincerity of the voices here who surely know the extent of that ongoing involvement. Eastern Russian Ukrainians (almost half the population of today’s Ukraine) have much to fear from those extremists

    Brian writes: Thank you. Picking out just two of the many questionable points in your comment, (1) whatever grave wrongs G W Bush and Blair may have committed, ‘genocide’ was very clearly not one of them, and the misuse of that term in your comment helps to devalue the real dreadfulness of that monstrous crime; and (2) as to the comparable misdeeds of western powers now denouncing Mr Putin for his, you may care to read my response to the comment at

  33. Charlie says:

    Superb blog on Ukraine.  Confirms my belief many modern day politicians, journalists and commentators know dangerously little about many conflicts. Consequently many conflicts are created or made worse through ignorant blunders.  Perhaps politicians and bureaucrats need to be taught to say ” We need to find more about the situation before we comment . We will consult widely and study the history”. The Hippocratic Oath ” means do no harm and those without First Aid Training are told not to try and treat victims of accidents as they may make it worse but get help.   I think this approach could be applied to International Affairs.
    The rise in PPE and similar degrees as those of choice for politicians, civil servants, journalists rather than Classics, History (with a knowledge of French and Latin ) and Modern Languages  will make misunderstandings such as those over Ukraine more, common; as fewer Britons speak the languages.  I would suggest that one cannot understand another race unless one is fluent in their language.  Misunderstandings often happen because a person does not understand the nuances and subtleties of the way a nation or members perceive themselves  which can only be achieved if one is fluent in the languages an very knowledgeable on the history, religion and factors which formed a nation/ race. 
    The decline in Britons working overseas and managing offices/companies and requiring a knowledge of the local languages, customs and history decreases the percentage of the middle and upper middle classes who understand how other countries operate. The days when Britons spent decades in the ICS, Colonial Service, Engineers involved in construction/mining/oil production, shipping, managing plantations, merchants and  bank offices are long gone. Britons rarely spend more than 2 years managing a foreign office, so few develop an in depth knowledge of another country.
    As a consequence, I think British policy in E Europe and The Middle East  should be to consult widely, be a good listener, promise nothing and never use  threats unless one is prepared to undertake  violence. The complexity of much of The World   is such that I would expect it is difficult to support one group without causing offence to another. We consider Ukraine problematic but some Albanians still consider that part of Greece should be their territory which they lost in 1912.  Therefore no new membership of NATO and/or the EU should be offered
    What I think Britain can offer is a “Wise Head “.  What we can do is take a Socratic approach. If a country/race proposes a rash sort of action we could ask them ” How will your neighbours perceive this comment or action? Will this action increase or decrease tension? If you increase tension how much can your country take? Will there be a run on the currency and /or stock market  and if so, how  much can you take? Are your actions likely to create a civil war and if so how will it end?

    Brian writes: Thank you for these generous words. I agree with everything you say about the need to ask Socratic questions before rushing into hasty action. In the bad old days it was the function of civil servants and diplomats to ask such questions and to ask ministers to consider the likely answers to them before making irrevocable decisions. The second greatest post-WW2 blunder in international affairs was the criminal Suez misadventure, which was kept secret from officials until it was too late. The worst blunder (Iraq) awaits Chilcot’s analysis before we can be sure about the precise degree of collusion and support on the part of officials, but it seems to be well established that Tony Blair and some of his mmost senior ministers were prone to policy-making on the sofa with a minimum of advice from experienced and sceptical officials, or none at all; and that there was a marked tendency, begun under Mrs Thatcher, to promote to top civil service and diplomatic jobs only those officials or outsiders regarded by successive prime ministers and other ministers as “One of Us”, i.e. sharing their political masters’ ideological preferences and prejudices, so unlikely to tender unwelcome or challenging advice. The destruction of our once unified, independent, politically neutral and savvy civil service is among the most lamentable features of the years since Margaret Thatcher scatter-bombed the post-war political consensus (Suez was a blip for which a sick Eden was mainly responsible), and it accounts, I think, for the increasingly low standard of governance from which we have been suffering and continue to suffer.

  34. Charlie says:

    Brian, I think we are ignoring Trade and Technology.    Germany’s   closure of it’s nuclear plants means it is  is a major buyer of Russian Gas.  German wind powered electrical generation is in the north but manufacturing is in the South and power lines are expensive and losses are high. Wind power does not produce cheap and reliable electricity. The the industries of Germany and N Italy need reliable Russian gas . Western companies such as Volkeswagon have invested heavily Russia . Russia has $450B in gold, its debt is 10% of GDP, Putin has modernised its military and which is large and has low welfare spending. There is $250B of western money in Russia and $160B of Russian money in the west. Russia can sell its gas to China. The USA can get more for its shale gas by selling it to Far East than Europe so Europe is unlikely to buy much.  The head of Ineos has said unless Western Europe reduces its energy cost it could lose its chemical industry, the same as it lost its textile industry. Could we see BASF, INEOS and the rest of the western chemical industry move to Russia? Merkel is against sanction on Russia.
    Unless oil comes down to below $80 / barrel: Europe develops cheap shale gas: is prepared for $Billions of investment in Russia to be confiscated by Putin: is prepared to stop selling high value advanced technology to Russia, and obtains the full support of Merkel plus German and Italian industry,  I am not sure W Europe can impose effective economic sanctions on Russia. 
    Putin is a fact. To understand further on the economic strength of Russia read Liam Halligan in the The Telegraph and plus  articles by other authors. Over the next 5-10 years I see Russia in a relatively strong position , especially compared with most of Europe. Germany and Italian industry are heavily dependent upon reliable and cheap Russian Gas. Portugal, Spain, France, Poland, Ireland   and Greece are in no position to become involved in economic conflict with Russia. It would appear that the Russian part of E Ukraine is also the wealthiest.  If E Ukraine joins Russia how much will the EU spend providing economic support to the rest of the Ukraine — it could be like W Germany providing support to E Germany post re-unification? I can see a danger of the EU being obliged to provide economic support to Ukraine which cannot even pay for the gas bought from Russia at greatly subsidised prices. Could this result in massive flight of Ukrainians into Poland? What about  flight of Romanians and Moldavians  into France and Italy ( due to language) and Bulgarians into Greece. Could the revenge of Putin be the creation of conditions where hundreds of thousands of poor people flee into the EU. The prospect of fights between N Africans and Romanians/Moldavians in the banlieues of France could be horrendous.
    I think the inter connection of the modern day World, ease of travel , power of the internet and  movement of capital is so fast and so great, that to believe that encouragement of Ukraine to join the EU and/or NATO and gain  the antagonism of Putin/Russia is NOT going to have repercussion beyond our comprehension and hence our control, is absurd. The speed of modern day communication is that once a course of action has been encouraged, it is almost impossible for cumbersome and quite frankly toothless organisation like the EU and to a similar degree the USA under Obama, to respond in time to prevent conflict. As they say, “Do not try to catch a falling knife”.
    Brian writes: Thank you again. You offer a very interesting analysis which I find largely persuasive, although I don’t believe either the EU or the US (under any presidency) can be described as toothless. I think the fact is that in any war of sanctions between Russia and the west, both sides are bound to suffer serious damage with potentially grave consequences for the entire global economy and for any hope of Russia’s eventual transition to a prosperous and peaceful democracy. Both sides need to reflect on the likely cost to the whole world of an exchange of sanctions, which are unlikely to achieve anything positive and which are much easier to impose than to lift. Like Mrs Merkel, we ought to be looking for peaceful and just solutions, not for painless ways of punishing Russia, a policy doomed to return the world to a new cold war with the real risk that cold might eventually turn to hot.  

  35. Janet Gunn says:

    I note that rather few of the worthy and eminent ex-dips and other commentators have ever lived and worked in Ukraine. It is so easy to be wise from far away. I will declare myself. I am in Kyiv, working to try to overcome the crisis. I have spent three years living here and in Odessa. And I am an ex-dip. Brian’s analysis is worthy of the centuries old British imperial outlook. Thank you, Charles, for pointing out that Ukraine is a sovereign country with the right to decide its own foreign policy and regime. And to Steve for reminding everyone that NATO and the EU did not go out and court new members. They came hammering on the door. I wonder why? Precisely because of the eternally expansionist tendencies of their Eastern neighbour, conqueror, occupier. 
    Ukraine’s post-independence governance has not been impressive. But this is as proud a nation as any other, whatever language its citizens speak. They deserve to be treated as sovereign, and not the object of others’ aspirations to use them as a buffer against democracy, transparency and law-governed society, which is what educated young people in many countries seek, and will I hope one day achieve.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I of course respect the views of anyone who is working in Ukraine for a solution to its problems. And I of course share your hope that the people of Ukraine will one day achieve their goal of becoming a democratic, transparent and law-governed society. I don’t however believe that such an aim is inconsistent with a recognition that Ukraine’s freedom of action and policy will always be constrained by its absolute need, imposed by its geographical position, its culture, history and demography, to work out a mutually acceptable modus vivendi with Russia; that NATO membership could never be reconciled with any such modus vivendi (nor probably could EU membership either); that in the awful event of a conflict with Russia, the US, Britain and France would not and could not risk going to war with Russia to support Ukraine (which they would be committed to do if Ukraine were to be admitted to NATO); and that if Ukrainian policies refuse to accommodate themselves to these realities, they are bound to fail, with potentially catastrophic consequences going far beyond the borders of Ukraine. None of this is inconsistent with respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and freedom to choose its own course in international affairs. But it will require special skill and restraint to achieve good, strong, constructive relations both with the west and with Russia, which is the only practical situation in which Ukraine can hope to flourish. Ukrainian policy-makers might benefit from a study of the way Finland, a prosperous democracy on Russia’s border, handles its relations with both Russia and the west. And, finally, I repeat once again that no country has a right to membership of either the EU or NATO, however much its citizens may desire it.

  36. Charlie says:

    Brian, thank you for your compliments.  I think your suggestion to study Finland is very sensible. Family friend worked in Finland as an architect in the 70s and thoroughly enjoyed it.
    If Ukraine could replicate the horticultural skills of The Netherlands it could become a massive exporter of food and value added food products.  Ukraine could become the larder for the Middle East.
    Perhaps the EU exporting technical skills in food production, storage, processing and transport would actually be the most beneficial way of improving Ukrainians quality of life.

    Brian writes: Thank you again. I wish our western governments would think as constructively as this. Perhaps the voices of moderation and conciliation (namely Mrs Merkel and Barack Obama) will prevail in the end.

  37. Cllr David Skinner says:

    Sir Brian
    Mr Putin is, so far as I can see, an old-style Russian nationalist, resentful at the collapse of the Soviet Empire, and pursuing Realpolitik.
    Perhaps, over the next 50 years or so, with people travelling more. the Web, etc, things will slowly evolve towards more “democracy”. But the great lesson that I learned from 33 years in our Service is that tribalism is enormously powerful. Best wishes to all.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, David. I absolutely agree about tribalism, which in this context more or less equates with nationalism. Of course in some situations it’s a virtue, in which case we call it patriotism or loyalty. In others it’s destructive, irrational and liable to lead to violence, especially in divided communities (Northern Ireland, Ukraine and many others). For Russian nationalists or patriots Ukraine will always be an intrinsic part of Russia, whatever the legal and constitutional position. If Scotland becomes independent from the rest of the UK I shall never be able to see it as foreign, or as anything other than a part of the country I was born in and grew up in and worked for for my entire working life. Russians with their powerful attachment to ‘rodina’ (homeland, motherland) can’t in many cases see Russia’s recovery of Crimea as annexation or as anything other than a restoration of the natural order of things. Some will feel the same about the whole Ukraine. It’s futile to argue that they’re wrong: the point is to recognise that that’s how they see it, or rather feel it.

    By the way, I think we mislead ourselves by attributing everything to President Putin, as our media love to do: personalisation of everything accompanied by demonisation of a foreign leader behaving in ways of which we disapprove. No doubt Putin’s own background and values are important factors in Russian policy-making and international behaviour, but in my view it’s misleading to suppose that any other Russian leader currently in sight would be behaving very differently. There’s usually a rationale for what Russia does, based on its own view of its own self-interest, security and prestige. Millions of Russians inevitably saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as a tragic national humiliation for Russia and a blow to its pride and self-esteem. It’s natural that many Russians want to see their country respected by the rest of the world as a great power, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to re-establish the Soviet Union as it was at its peak, still less to establish control over the countries that were members of the Warsaw Pact. Any national leader in a partial democracy, whether democrat or demagogue, will tend to play to these nationalistic sentiments and it’s a reasonable assumption that he probably shares them. Denouncing this as revanchism or expansionism isn’t really helpful. Comparisons with Hitler and the Sudetenland are also probably unhelpful and misleading. And blaming everything Russia does or seems to be planning to do on Mr Putin and his KGB background may lead us into grave miscalculations with potentially appalling consequences. To try to understand how the world looks to the Russians is not to condone what their government actually does, but it may give us a better basis on which to try to influence events and if possible to avert disaster.

  38. Charlie says:

    I would suggest that Putin considers himself a Russian patriot with a respect for Russian traditions.  I would also suggest that Putin’s views on Russia and her present and future positions in the World are shared by a large percentage of Russians, probably even a large majority.  The EU and the USA might not like Putin’s view of the World, but I have not seen The West propose an alternative which would enhance Russia’s security and status.

  39. Cllr David Skinner says:

    Sir Brian
    I agree with the comments above. Unfortunately, we seem to be in a situation where almost  anything tends to be attributed to one person.
    How many times do we see; “why doesn’t David Cameron do…?”
    Like Charles, I really do not know any really effective action that the West can now take to prevent Russia acting aggressively, but I hope that the next 50 years may gradually lower tensions. Best wishes.

    Brian writes: Thank you again for this. As you will know from my earlier responses to comments and from my two recent posts about Ukraine, I share the growing consensus that the west’s ham-fisted wooing of Ukraine and crude attempts to draw it into the orbit (and perhaps eventually membership) of the EU and NATO, and the west’s active support for the coup against Ukraine’s former elected government, have been largely (but not exclusively) responsible for accentuating Ukraine’s internal divisions and bringing it to the brink of a civil war which in turn might prompt Russian military intervention “to restore order and protect civilians”. Those who loudly condemn the takeover of local and national government buildings by pro-Russian demonstrators need to explain how their actions differ from the takeover of the whole national government in Kiev by the assorted Maidan Square demonstrators in western Ukraine who deposed the elected president and his government and declared themselves the new government.

    Finally, I disagree with the commonly heard proposition that there is no “really effective action that the West can now take to prevent Russia acting aggressively”. Two things the west can and should do without further delay are (1) to declare formally that there can be no question of EU or NATO membership for Ukraine, and (2) to endorse the Russian proposal for a federal constitution for Ukraine with increased internal autonomy for the eastern and southern areas of the country. The west has been stirring up division and almost inviting a countervailing Russian reaction: Russia has made a concrete and constructive proposal to reduce tension in Ukraine: why do we not seize it gratefully and embark on discussions with both Russia and the interim régime in Kiev of how best to bring it about? No doubt Russia has also been egging on the pro-Russian protestors in the Russian-speaking areas in their provocative and sometimes violent activities, and giving them various kinds of semi-clandestine support, but it seems highly unlikely that they actively want either a full-scale civil war right in theor own back yard or a situation in which they will be virtually forced to intervene by military force. Both sides should be searching for a face-saving way out, not continuing to stir the pot and banging on about ‘punishing’ Russia with ever-escalating but mainly ineffectual sanctions.