Russia needs to be given clear red lines

By Martin Ivens (THE TIMES, 31/08/08):

The paint may have been peeling on the headquarters of the Black Sea command in Sebastopol, but the architecture was in the grand Russian imperial style. In the bay, Russian warships gleamed proudly in the sun. Captain Andrei Lazebnikov explained that the navy had “virtually no contact” with its Ukrainian equivalent. “Our two countries are historically friendly,” he added with a glint in his eye, “but let us just say that in this fleet these days, they are not as friendly as they might be.”

Fifteen years ago Russian crews had responded to Ukrainian demands for the division of the fleet by defiantly raising the St Andrew flag on 200 vessels (he is Russia’s patron saint as well as Scotland’s). In Moscow, the parliament declared that the Crimea was part of Russia, despite the Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev’s gift of the region to Ukraine in 1954, “as a token of friendship of the Russian people for Ukraine”.

The present quarrel between Russia and Ukraine over the lease of Sebastopol as a naval base therefore is not new. Back in 1993 the wine in the Crimea had a bouquet like dirty feet; the beds were like stone; the food was scarcely less hard than the beds and my hotel let in the rain. It was tempting to sneer: “Let the worst side get the Crimea.” The beauty of the country, the elegant villas in the town of Yalta, where Allied leaders settled the fate of Europe in 1945, and even the charming house where the playwright Anton Chekhov recuperated from TB, belied such flippancy. Crimea was and is a prize. Now, as then, it is also a flashpoint.

The puzzle for western leaders is to devise a foreign policy that refuses to be craven to Moscow, but avoids war over countries their peoples can neither identify with nor locate. Students of the 1930s will be familiar with the problem. The young post-cold-war politicians David Miliband and a dashing David Cameron have tried to put these places on our mental map (Gordon Brown, as on all foreign policy matters, has never said a foolish thing, nor a wise one). It’s a necessary start.

For a new defeatism is abroad in Britain. The anti-American left have made common cause with a stay-at-home right. And so the foreign secretary has been accused of warmongering for making a speech in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, in defence of liberty but calling for restraint. Only the old remember that the price of ignoring — Neville Chamberlain’s words — can be costly.

Reeling from the Russian invasion of Georgia, the West has to decide how and where to contain Moscow’s aggression. Drawing a red line through old Europe was easier in the days of the cold war. Yalta’s brutal divisions were respected. We in the West watched in horror as Red Army tanks crushed the freedom of East Germans, Hungarians, Poles and Czechs, but ignored their pleas for help. Prudence overcame democratic principle. The price was the long entrenchment of Soviet power.

With the collapse of communism, the boundaries between East and West, in the words of Britain’s leading strategic thinker, Lawrence Freedman, “have become fuzzy”. Take the Crimea. In a perfect world, frontiers would be decided painstakingly by a conclave of international lawyers. Together they could disentangle the rights and wrongs of its chequered history — converted into a naval base by the empress Catherine the Great; its native people, the Tatars, deported by Stalin to the wastes of central Asia; Russian settlement; the validity of Khrushchev’s “gift” . . .

But reality intrudes. Here and elsewhere along Russia’s borders, millions of people live on the “wrong” side. If Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, wants to go looking for trouble, he doesn’t have to go far to find it. Alas, he has every incentive: the patriotic card plays well. He has already turned the clock back on democracy at home and dislikes it in neighbouring countries. It might be infectious.

It is wise not to give Putin an excuse to intervene. Angered by the Russian invasion of Georgia, the Ukrainian leader Viktor Yushchenko is questioning the Russian navy’s lease on Sebastopol.

This is not the world envisaged by academics after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The end of history, the new world order and the clash of civilisations just don’t cover it. This is the brutal old world of power politics.

We should not abandon ourselves to self-flagellation. There is a school of thought that puts all the blame on Washington and its London poodle for “a new cold war”. No doubt we could have been more adroit in handling Russia’s sensitivities down the years — but Moscow’s bullying of its neighbours has a history prior to and independent of our belated involvement. They certainly weren’t the product of some American-led conspiracy to “encircle” Mother Russia with military bases after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Indeed, when President Bush’s father was in the White House, his notorious “chicken” Kiev speech, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, warned the Ukrainians against “suicidal nationalism” as they prepared to break away from Moscow. Many of the former satellite countries that reluctantly joined the West’s military alliance, Nato, did so because the rich man’s club, the European Union, then dominated by Germany, selfishly refused to let them in at first.

Georgia’s quarrels with its Russian-supported minorities also flared up long before the question of Nato accession ever arose. Latterly, Putin had been making it clear he personally loathed Georgia’s leader and American ally, Mikhail Saakashvili, and was itching to get rid of him. A pretext was sought for invasion and found in Saakashvili’s rash behaviour.

Emerging powers across the world are now free to defy the Yankee neocons, gloat our new isolationists. That seems rather tough on the poor Georgians who are to be sacrificed on the altar of anti-Americanism. But look again at this new multi-polar world and see who is actually rejoicing.

Putin now recognises the “independence” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia. China, India and other large multi-ethnic states are aghast. Putin has abandoned his own first principles which emphatically don’t include self-determination for minorities. The Russian leader and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin flattened Chechnya twice in order to prevent it breaking away from Russia. Most big countries believe that a right to secession is a threat to their power.

Honesty, however, is called for. The Russians have won in Georgia. They caught the West napping — our leaders were at the Olympics or on holiday. There is nothing we can do for the Georgians militarily. But we can as a matter of urgency help them rebuild their country. The European Union rather than Nato should be taking the lead here as in Ukraine, along with other Western economic organisations. We have got things back to front once again.

As for restraining Moscow, sanctions are of limited value and in this case are as likely to damage us as the Russians, though we should be making a priority of our energy security. Mr Putin realises that the West is divided on Georgia. In the words of Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy chief Lord Powell, “It’s a defeat and a setback and we have to recognise it as such. What we can and must do is to stop it happening again.” Powell is a key adviser to Cameron on East-West security.

So we must make a principled stand behind the Baltic states, successful members of both Nato and the EU, whose substantial Russian minorities may tempt Moscow to mischief. This means repeating our security guarantees to them and boosting their defences. As Powell says, “This should include laying down clear red lines with actions which the West will take if the Russians overstep them.” That is Nato’s immediate task.

Miliband is right, however, to make it clear to our democratic friends in Ukraine they can’t go picking fights with Russia. No-one can pretend that getting this balance between prudence and principle is easy, but it is the sensible course. Some even propose that Nato can evolve into a wider security system that includes Russia. That might take another Russian revolution, a peaceful one this time.