It is curious what actions we will overlook when committed by our friends, which we condemn when committed by our enemies. Since the collapse of the USSR it was clear that a majority in the Crimea wished to be incorporated into the Russian and not the Ukrainian state, and yet we heard no calls for democratic-self determination during this quarter of a century. The Russian seizure of the Crimea was illegal, underhand, and deceitfully done. But the desire to re-unify the Crimea with the Russian state was a perfectly reasonable one.
It couldn’t be argued that Russia’s Crimean invasion was qualitatively different from Turkey’s illegal occupation of northern Cyprus. This has subsisted for over 40 years, despite an absence of any international recognition. Nor is the Russian government’s authoritarian attitude to press-freedom worse than that of Erdogan’s AKP administration in Turkey (I avoided the use of the word régime – invariably used to mean ‘government I don’t much like’). Yet Turkey is an ally and a fellow-NATO member (as is Greece, ironically).
It seems crass to even mention Saudi Arabia or China, whose human rights abuses are off-the-scale by comparison with the countries I’ve already cited. Our relationship with Riyadh is both tight and deeply uncomfortable. We are a major exporter of arms to Saudi Arabia, which may well currently be being used in Yemen.
We are clear in our support of a government which beheads homosexuals, and which funds the propagation of Salafism in British Mosques. It is reliably suspected that the UK helped to get Saudi Arabia elected to the United Nation’s human rights council. I am not suggesting that we ought to make an enemy of the Saudi government; but it is not unreasonable for us to hold all governments to similar standards. If it is often necessary to accommodate yourselves to unpleasant governments around the world then we should be honest about that, and stop isolating one or two governments for exclusively negative attention.
Turkey and others became our allies during the Cold War. Marxism-Leninism was an internationally revolutionary ideology which wanted to spread into Western Europe. It was a serious, credible threat, and we needed allies in order to neutralise it. If they were sometimes unpleasant, that was too bad. I do not object to any of this.
But the Cold War ended in 1991. We won; communism lost. Russia was liberated from more than 70 years of applied Marxism-Leninism, and has been slowly reconstructing its society amid the ruins (social as much as economic) left by that decayed and broken ideology. Yet we still treat her as an enemy. We gave explicit promises to the Kremlin in the ‘90s that in exchange from abandoning (reluctantly, under Gorbachev) the Baltic states, we would not extend NATO into those states. Despite our assurances, we did just that.
We are sending more than 800 troops to Estonia this year, alongside tanks, armoured vehicles, and drones. Next year we will be sending fighter jets to Romania. Andrew Mitchell suggested recently that the UK ought to help enforce a no-fly zone in Syria which would inevitably result in conflict between Western and Russian jets. How can any serious person view this consequence with equanimity?
Currently our chief objection to Russia is that it is backing the Assad government in Syria, and being cavalier in the causation of serious human collateral damage, resulting in many civilian deaths. The second of these charges holds water, and should serve as a reminder to those Westerners who have an instinctive hatred of their own country that not all societies hold themselves to the same standards that we are accustomed to.
But our own policy in Syria must first be reviewed. Our attitude for the previous 5 and a half years has been that if only Assad can be removed then a new dawn of secular liberal democracy can be ushered in. Cameron provoked the incredulity of those with any knowledge on Syria in his statement in favour of intervention in 2013, when he alleged that there were 70,000 moderate rebels just waiting for our assistance.
But have these moderates necessarily materialised when the customary brutal dictator has been removed? Even when they have been present, when have they been the majority? Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist Iraq was a murderous and lawless state, but is either Iraq or the region improved for our intervention there?
What of Libya, which now barely functions as a state? Or Egypt? where it transpired that if you give a Muslim country democracy it doesn’t necessarily follow that all their residents suddenly become right-on liberals. The US government doesn’t give aid to regimes that have been established through a coup, so it was necessary to distort their official terminology in order to avoid describing the military takeover in 2013 as such. It seems we’re not that keen on democracy when it doesn’t suit us: was Mubarak not preferable to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood?
Our policy in the middle-east during recent years has been all over the place. We have pretended that the continued existence of unpalatable governments has been intolerable on certain occasions, such as that of Gadaffi in Libya. Yet we have accommodated ourselves to the equally wicked government in Riyadh. But the immediate tragedy of this situation (from our vantage point) is that we are allowing our flailing middle-eastern policy to heighten tensions with Russia.
I dislike Putin’s government. It is authoritarian, repressive, casual to human suffering in the middle-east, and cronyistic. But Putin is neither Brezhnev nor Stalin. Russia is not the USSR.
Whatever faults it has, domestically or internationally, are faults we can and have ignored in those countries with whom we have tried to be on good terms. It would be the greatest of tragedies if our frustration with Russia, for stymying our incoherent middle-eastern policy, was allowed to become the catalyst for a war which nobody wants, and would do nobody any good.