Ukraine: at some point, Labour will need more than warm words

by Rob Marchant

To date on this blog, we have not spoken much about the events in Ukraine: reflecting, perhaps appropriately, the priority it currently has in the agenda of both the British public and its politicians. After all, foreign policy does not win elections in peacetime.

But given that we are surely living through the most tense moment of East-West relations since the height of the Cold War, it behoves us to take a moment to see how Labour might be affected.

Britain, like much of the West, is clearly living through a period of reluctance, even quasi-isolationism, with regard to foreign conflicts. Interventionism may not be dead, but it is most certainly having a nap. A perception that fingers were burned in Iraq and Afghanistan pervades almost all foreign policy thinking, to a greater or lesser extent. And nowhere is this to be seen more clearly than on the fringes of British politics.

On the left fringe, Stop the War Coalition and their fellow-travellers within Labour’s hard left have decided that the West is so fundamentally evil, that they must oppose it so strongly as to apologise for some deeply unpleasant regimes who oppose it (in this case, the borderline-despotic Russian regime). Exhibit A: the Stoppers’ Putin apology pieces, or their frankly bonkers assertion that NATO is “itching for war”, when in fact its constituent nations are going to great pains to avoid the merest hint of military involvement.

On the right fringe, there a few odd backbench Tories along with UKIP; owners of a “little Englander” mentality all, seasoned with an instinctive mistrust of the Establishment and a longing for the smack of firm government. This strange combination ends up with their views converging on, paradoxically – as we saw recently with the Putin-admiring Nigel Farage – the same lines as the left.

Then there is the mainstream of both parties; as we saw on the Syria vote, many of these on both sides are happy to opt for happy isolationism and call it statesmanship.

And stuck in the middle, between all these are a small minority who realise that their parties, and their country, really need to wake up. That it is absurd for our past in Iraq and Afghanistan to dictate our policy against all present and future threats.

This modest little group knows that history has shown us, time and again, that isolationism can only ever be a short-term policy. It is not containment, it is worse than that: containment would be some kind of dynamic standoff between two sides taking action. Isolationism is walking away and leaving it to the other guy; it is the Pontius Pilate school of international relations. Neither is it an attitude which – aside from a couple of historical lapses – sits well with Labour’s proud history, as the likes of Ernie Bevin might once have attested to.

In amongst all of this are the party leaders: but here there is a difference between the parties.

Cameron has placed himself squarely in the middle of the stage; he intervened in Libya; he wanted to intervene in Syria but his party would not let him. Miliband, on the other hand, sat on the fence, in the most generous interpretation of events; in the back of our minds there is that best-forgotten image of his staff applauding as he returned from the vote, having stopped the “rush to war”, in his own words.

But this is not a debating club. This is not a game. Whilst Miliband is not, as some idiot Tories have said, singlehandedly responsible for the failure of the West to intervene in Syria, the reality is that the combination of Cameron’s lackadaisical whipping operation and Miliband’s whipping against, sent a message to Assad and the same to Putin.

It said: do you what you like on your own doorstep – we just want a quiet life. The US facing a unilateral action bereft of its traditional chief ally, followed suit.

Fast-forward to today: Russia is currently invading its neighbours with an audacity which reminds one of nothing so much as Germany’s 1938 annexation of Czechoslovakia (take a bit of a country; half a country; the whole country).

Cameron is likely, at some point, to be forced into taking some action against Russia, even more so if he is still PM after the next election. That does not mean, of course, direct military action; that would be unimaginably serious. But diplomatic pressure and sanctions alone are clearly going nowhere.

So, it could be anything, from contributing to UN peacekeeping; to a renewed covert, Cold War offensive; to rearmament (the latter is not as drastic as it sounds, given that the armed forces have just experienced their most drastic cuts in a generation, while Russia has quietly been rearming for some time).

So far, Miliband has been commendably forthright in his condemnation of Putin’s actions; Douglas Alexander was, it seemed even more enthusiastic than the Tories to kick Russia out of the G8. But it is easy to support the prime minister when he is standing up rhetorically for democracy and freedom. It is less easy when he is moved to take action.

Finally, there is at least the possibility – even if it is a somewhat more remote possibility than many in the party would like to admit – that Miliband may in less than a year be in charge of those armed forces himself.

Over the last week or so, Miliband has been in Israel and Palestine, where he says he has had a chance to ruminate on his foreign policy priorities. But perhaps the traditional, centuries-old conflict should not have been his main focus.

Had he been close to the border with neighbouring Syria at some point, he might have heard the shellfire. He might have reflected on the results of geopolitical inaction in that little client state, to which Russia happily supplies the weapons which have been killing Assad’s own citizens, including many thousands of children.

The same principle applies to Ukraine. It is the miserable effect of repeatedly saying “okay” to the playground bully, until he fears no-one.

At some point, Miliband will need to come down off the fence and decide which side he is on in this evolving new world order. He can be like Obama, who – and I defy anyone to argue convincingly that this will not be the case – will go down in history as a weak, vacillating president who was simply not up to the job of international geopolitics.

Or he can look to do something. As someone once said: “whatever the dangers of the action we take, the dangers of inaction are far, far greater”.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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13 Responses to “Ukraine: at some point, Labour will need more than warm words”

  1. swatantra says:

    Of course the Russian speaking ukranians are voting with their feet and heading back to the security of Mother Russia. It’ll be Civil War, and if the Kiev shambles of a Govt try to impose their order on the dissidents by using brute force to recover their bases, then can Russia stand by and watch its kith and kin being slaughtered in the east?
    As with most British Foreign policy in the last 20 years they really haven’t a clue and will land Britain in the mire.

  2. Tafia says:

    Russia has huge foreign currency cash reserves – enough to withstand any sanctions the west can throw at it for a considerable length of time. It also has common land borders with Iran and China – both of which couldn’t give a toss what the west thinks about anything. It can also cause a major recession in western europe within 14 days of cutting the gas supplies. You want a good ‘what if’ – What of Russia refused to accept dollars anymore for it’s gas and oil. America will start to slide in to recession very quickly along with western europe,

    They are not going to stop until they have at the very least cantonised Ukraine.

    Unless you are willing to fight a full-scale war with them, then they will get their way and in a year’s time we will still be buying Russian gas and East Ukraine will be a collective of Russian-looking vassal states.

    There are only two options – live with it or go to war. Looking for any other option is merely a time-wasting distraction.

    Think back to Georgia – David Miliband, Foreign Secretary was told over the phone by Ledbedev (who speaks fluent English including swear words) that he was a weak man (w@nker was the word he used apparently) from a weak country of little relevance and to either put up or shut up. According to staff present, David Miliband nearly burst into tears at the way Lebedev insulted him, brushed him off and put the phone down on him. And was left muttering ‘he can’t speak to me like that’. He can and he did.

    Only two people Russia will talk seriously with – Obama and Merkel and they are both currently singing different songs because this affects them in entirely different ways.

  3. steve says:

    “diplomatic pressure and sanctions alone are clearly going nowhere.”

    Spot on.

    The situation in Ukraine is entirely negotiable. Yet the EU foreign policy chief, the inept Baroness Ashton, having encouraged the street protesters on a visit to Maidan Square in December, now looks on in apparent befuddlement at the chaos she helped instigate.

    We can only hope the undemocratic EU is capable of drawing a lesson from this: the less meddling the better.

  4. Ex labour says:

    A friend of mine is Ukrainian and still has family there. This situation is by no means is as clear cut as the news bulletins would have us believe or indeed this blog piece. There are millions, and my friends family are counted in those, who support Russia, have always wanted to remain part of Russia and are pleased with Putins actions. Farage was partly correct in that the EU project expansionism has brought this situation to a head in making overtures to a section of the people and certain politicians in Ukraine.

    You offer much comment on the causes and varied stance of the political leaders but little in the way of a solution. The problem is we have sucked up to Russia and Putin in terms of our energy needs. Whilst we have billions of tonnes of coal and billions of meters cubed of shale gas, we have become reliant on vast imports from Russia for our energy needs. In essence we are effectively powerless to do anything without putting ourselves in jeopardy with retaliation for any sanctions imposed. When you leftie Eco warriors consider the situation just think about this.

    As for Cameron he is effectively powerless. Miliband is a waste of space and oxygen. Clegg is so damaged as to be a liability for any party. Although Farage is painted by the popular press as some sort of lunatic he is probably closer to the truth than most of the other politicians. The EU is impotent and powerless also and for many it has been hoisted by its own petard.

  5. Stephen Hildon says:

    “Had he been close to the border with neighbouring Syria at some point, he might have heard the shellfire.”

    Miliband would’ve had to go to the occupied Golan Heights to do that.

  6. b says:

    Swatantra and Steve: I agree with your analysis of the Russian mind, ‘Mother Russia’ is all and above everything. If there is a civil war, we must sit on the borders, secure them and wait. Whilst the Russian forces are nowhere as large as during the Cold War, they have been significantly modernised, become far more professional, and unlike other places we have invaded hold a large nuclear and I suspect chemical and biological arsenal.

    NATO does not have the numbers or equipment to fight any war past its borders on any scale, and members may just not support ANY military action. This scenario was played out in Dale Brown’s tecno thriller ‘Chains of Command,’ unfortunately all too likely.

    Tafia, your analysis is also spot on, what can any politician do? answer, the square root of sweet fcuk all. Putin has the western nations by the balls and remember the old adage ‘if you have them by the balls their hearts and minds will surely follow’. If Putin stops selling gas to Europe as you say he will have ready markets in China and India, who as you rightly point out don’t give a fcuk.

    At least when you politicians of the calibre of Thatcher Reagan and Kohl, you at least had heavyweights on the world stage who could and did drive policy. The present lot give absolutely confidence, Hague is a lightweight along with Kerry and Obama. Hollande is ineffectual, would rather be screwing the population of France and his mistress. The EU is worse then lightweight more like a helium balloon floating off into the distance. They in effect started this and should now be in court for instigating regime change leading with Ashton, Barosso plus van Rumpoy. This is what happens when you give power to unelected uncivil servants. NATO sec gen, needs to keep his mouth shut and stop stiring the pot.

    Would loved to have seen the look on the idiot Miliband’s when he was told he was a w****r, probably never had it happen to him before in the rarefied atmosphere of entitlement and privileged he was born into and lives in.

    Vladimir Putin has won this one, without a doubt and will keep pushing he has nothing to lose. This is just a result of the Cold War ending and the fall of the Berlin Wall, there’s not ‘balance of terror’ anymore.

  7. Nick says:

    I agree with some of what this article says about the situation in Ukraine and the need to take a tougher stance on Russia.

    But people like Rob Marchant talk about the demise of interventionist foreign policy as if it just sort of happened, completely abstracted from events. The truth is that that doctrine died in Iraq, because the war was sold on premises that turned out to be false, and the war was fought with no plan for the aftermath, leading to a disastrous situation where thousands of people died unnecessarily. So, if you want someone to blame for the death of interventionism, stop blaming the people who opposed military force and start looking in the mirror.

    And the end bit about Obama being a “weak, vacillating President” is just more George Bush apology from people who can’t accept that he was an absolute disaster who could barely function on the world stage.

    The fact that we’ve become so timid in our intervention in Syria and Ukraine is entirely the fault of those arguing for intervention.

  8. Robert says:

    Peacekeeping troops in eastern Ukraine might be sensible, although this would show that the government of Ukraine is not in control of its own country.

  9. b says:

    Nick ; do you include Blair in your denunciation of George Bush, if not why not. Obama is and has been weak, look at the Benghazi incident along with that woman Clinton, allowed the US ambassador to be murdered along with his protection team.

    I opposed military force in Iraq due to the fact I’d been lied to by the government in power. The military did not have the equipment and resources for a war and there was NO plan for the day after the war stopped. Interventionism is something I have never supported, in particular when other countries don’t go along with the idea. The fact that Michael Howard and the shadow cabinet supported military action all depended on the briefs under Privey Council rules given by people like Straw Blair and Campbell. these facts will not be known for many years if ever. Remember the ‘natural’ death of Dr David Kelly, we still do not know what happened despite the Hutton whitewash.

    Steve H: Miliband and shellfire, I think he’d need a new pair of trousers.

    Intervention against a second or third world country, the interventionists don’t have a problem, but when they have an NBC capability and would be prepared to use it, it’s a different story.

    The UN, send a peace keeping force, just where are they going to get the troops, China or India, I don’t think so they far too much to gain, Africa and South America not a hope.

    Putin has won this and will keep on winning, despite all the froth and fury from our so called politicians.

  10. Henrik says:

    I think Labour’d be well advised to steer very clear indeed of any commentary on foreign affairs. There’s nothing wonderful in either recent history or the current anti-patriotic self-loathing which would give Labour a decent platform from which to identify and promote the national interest, never mind any sort of internationalist thinking.

  11. If you ask me, a hardcore labor supporter and sympathizer from the working class and a bit of intelligentsia, I earnestly believe labor should highlight the interventionist policies of NATO and US forces. Per my understanding of Ukrainian situation, the problem cropped up when Ukraine wanted to come out of the European Union. Problem started right from there. There are enough evidences available now to the international community that NATO and US administration had covertly supported and financed the Neo-Fascist coup in Ukraine. Having said this, please don’t say that I’m a Putin sympathiser. God knows I’m not. What I believe from the core of my heart that Labor should vouch for a peaceful settlement of the Ukraine issue, keeping the international community in loop. This needs red-herring that the NATO and US supported coup in Ukraine has given rise to the Ukraine crisis and Labour supporters are not oblivious to this fact.

  12. Tafia says:

    Fiona “the problem cropped up when Ukraine wanted to come out of the European Union.”

    Ukraine has never been in the EU. It hasn’t even applied to join.

  13. Peter says:

    Fiona you are correct in your analysis however there is a bigger picture here. I have no affinity with Russia I try to read listen analyse and only then take a position.
    Having said that there is a bigger picture here. This is about a bankrupt country, USA, ignoring its own poor and printing trillions of dollars to sustain its military spending and its international intervention. Google NATO bases and you can see the Russia is surrounded and the American bases are now moving to the Chinese boarders. I have listened closely to all sides in the Ukraine crisis and I have never head such blatant hypocrisy from the West. To listen to Kerry and Psaky lie through their teeth is nothing short of incredulous.
    Both Cameron and Miliband toddy to Obama. Three weak individuals with enormous power. Very dangerous indeed.
    D Day today and the rise of Fascism and pro Nazi rulers in the Ukraine. Rather ironic.

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