Russia: May needs to put up or shut up

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Russia: May needs to put up or shut up

The Government must make clear to the world its resolve against Russia. If it doesn’t then we might as well pack up any pretence to be doing so. At least that would be an honest foreign policy, says Andrew O’Brien.

The Prime Minister has given a statement calling out the Russian government for breaking international law. Parliament solemnly calls for tough measures to stand up against this blatant piece of aggression. The media demands action and calls for leadership. But this isn’t about the poisoning of a former spy. This is the invasion and annexation of Ukraine.

The Foreign Secretary quietly published an article in February about the situation in the Ukraine. He attacked Russia for breaking The 1994 Budapest Memorandum to respect the existing borders of Ukraine. It’s a fair point. But Mr Johnson forgot to mention one important thing. Britain was a co-guarantor of Ukraine’s territorial integrity in The Budapest Memorandum – alongside the United States and the Russian Federation.

10,000 square miles of Ukraine was seized. In the Donbass region, over 1m people have been displaced by the Russian invasion. We did next to nothing to stop it. The fact that this quiet surrender took place in 2014, the 100th year anniversary of the Great War when Britain fought Germany to preserve the independence of Belgium and to defend the balance of power in Europe, was barely noted.

Apart from training a couple of thousand Ukrainian troops, limited asset freezes and travel bans, the UK government lost interest and moved onto the next headline.

The one area which could have impacted significantly on Russia’s foreign policy, reducing Europe’s energy dependence on Russian gas, which Mr Cameron promised British leadership on in 2014, has not been delivered (£). Russian gas exports to Europe are actually at an all-time high.

Why should the Russians be worried about the latest moves by the British government, when the UK was prepared to stand idly by while it carved up an area of vital strategic importance?

Yet we are supposed to stand and applaud at the news that the Prime Minister is expelling a few diplomats and threatening to steal a few oligarch mansions? This is the best that Britain can now do? Is that the limit of our resolve?

Putin and his colleagues must be laughing at our weakness?

The Prime Minister is not prepared to “level” with the British people as she apparently likes to do. If we are going to draw a line in the sand with Russia, we need to hit Russia where it actually hurts: its strategic energy policy. Its efforts to expand its influence in Eastern Europe. Its war in Syria to preserve its base in Tartus.

These things would require meaningful amounts of treasure and concentration. It would require sacrifices from the British people, unlike paper sanctions which do not significantly hurt the Russian state’s interests nor our own. An effective foreign policy requires investment and cannot be carried out on a shoestring budget.

Some could call the current British government’s policy appeasement. But that is unfair on appeasement. At least Neville Chamberlain sincerely believed in the need to avoid confrontation. The current Prime Minister says she wants to stand up to aggression but won’t volunteer the means to do so.  The government’s policy is to provide enough “action” to meet the demands of the newspaper editors, but no more. Her attention is on the 10 o’clock news, not Moscow.

Cicero in his attack on the conspirator Catiline famously said: “When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience…when is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?”

Our modern-day Cicero, the Foreign Secretary, would probably have lost interest mid-sentence at the sight of a red bus with a few million pounds advertised on the side of it.

There is time for Britain to rediscover its resolve, but it requires leadership. It requires a government that is prepared to steel itself for the long term and to put pressure on Russia’s vital interests.

It needs to redouble its efforts in Syria. It needs to step up its support to Ukraine. It needs to find ways to undermine Russia’s efforts to assert control of Arctic oil reserves. It needs to back pan-European projects to reduce dependence on Russian gas.  We cannot do this alone, but we need to show real leadership. This will require sacrifices but is in our long-term national interest to create a stable and peaceful world.

If the British government is not prepared to do this, then we might as well pack up any pretence to be standing up to Russia. At least this would be an honest foreign policy.

It is four years since the annexation of Crimea. What fresh Russian aggression will we be decrying in four years’ time?

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    Andrew O'Brien
    Andrew O'Brien lives in London and works in the charity sector. Before that he worked as a Senior Researcher for a Conservative MP. Andrew holds a degree in Politics & International Studies and a Master's degree in Philosophy.
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