In the last few centuries, when European powers needed capital and materiel or support with which to fight would-be tyrants, Britain was usually the place they called at first. Under William Pitt the Younger, the nation’s finances paid for the upkeep of the continental armies battling Napoleon. Before that, it was the prerogative of his predecessors to resist any potential hegemon; threatening the peace and security of Europe with rapid territorial expansion or particularly aggressive rhetoric.
After it, the armed forces of the Isle protected Belgium in 1914, Poland in 1939 and Kosovo in 1998. Sadly, in more recent times we have seen a palpable decline in this phenomenon, with Britain less likely to intervene in places where such action is needed – with a post-Iraq distrust of doing things outside our own borders.
I believe that such a position is wrong, and, with the credo that ‘in a globalised world: all tyranny is local’, I am convinced that we need to keep all options on the table (financial and military) when contemplating foreign intervention in general, and the recent travails of Ukraine in particular.
The Daily Mail, with all the tact of a newspaper which decided that damp feet in Somerset were more important than starvation in Cameroon, have implacably placed themselves against military and economic assistance to Ukraine – with dubious the rallying cry of financial responsibility.
The financial case is a poor one – considering that even the most critical assessment of the cost of the British war in Afghanistan (which has lasted for thirteen years at present) said it represented less of a dent in the national coffers than the government spent in any single month of the last fiscal year. What we are seeing is lazy isolationism dressed up as concern; parochial mutterings stealing the public focus from vital international crises.
“But why is Ukraine so vital?” you may ask. “Well”, I reply, in a fittingly grave and solemn tone, “because it is the latest manifestation of Russian aggression, and we cannot allow the sabre rattling (and unsheathing) of a tyrant like Vladimir Putin go unpunished.”
I expect you will have read about the Russian strategy in Syria, which appears to mean risking international opprobrium in return for an ally to counter American and Saudi Arabian power in the area. Putin and his government mooted the ludicrous suggestion that Assad’s gassing of the Ghouta region of Damascus last year was likely a rebel action, despite the trajectory of the rockets, the gas contained within, and the fact that they fell in a rebel-controlled district.
They also continue to arm and defend the repressive government of Bashir Assad, long after most Western, democratic nations saw through lame protestations from the President-for-life about “terrorists”.
Add this to the invasion of Georgia in 2008, undertaken with the same objectives in mind: the expansion of Russian influence and power beyond its borders.
When I spent some time in Russia a few weeks ago, I was greeted with rather unpleasant news. En route, I leant about the evolving nature of Russian relations with Egypt.
I read that Putin’s government had thrown its support behind the leader of the Egyptian military junta, General al-Sisi, who is yet, at least technically, to announce his candidacy for the presidency. This was accompanied by an eye-wateringly large dose of arms dealing, just to underline the situation. Egypt’s leader, a man who once was seen, certainly by me, as a source of optimism, has joined forces with another autocrat, as he seeks to extend and entrench his undemocratic powers.
Putin has been willing to scheme and ally with questionable regimes, and also to physically intervene in order to safeguard geopolitical interests. This is why what has amounted to the Russian invasion and occupation of the Crimea in Ukraine is so worrying. Not only is it a flagrant breach of international law and national sovereignty, it also represents a continuation of the old ways, with a physically threatening Russia striking closer to the heart of Europe.
If we understand that, to men like Putin, concerns about bloodshed and national autonomy are immaterial, and then we can begin to appreciate the game that is being played. Putin is not a madman but a rational actor, who – despite occasional lapses in judgement – will determine policy based on data, experience of previous crises and the like.
That is why Western posturing over the ‘red line’ of Syrian chemical weaponry was such a disaster. Not only were Syrian children left to painfully expire in the immediate clouds of the airborne death implementing Sarin: the Russian supply of other hardware continued, and Russia now sees that it can act in a similarly imperious manner. If we had stood up to Putin in Syria, we would not need to do so in Ukraine.
With Ukrainian soldiers trapped in their bases, and with reports swirling of Russian soldiers digging defensive ditches at the border of Crimea and the rest of the country, the time to act – or to appear ready to act – is at hand. The precarious Ukrainian government has begun to mobilise their military: a clear sign that there may well be a conflict of sorts. The West, through such organisations as the UN, NATO, the G8 and so on, must act to face down Russian aggression and oppression, before it is too late.
Putin and his cronies have form in annexation, and with the familiar excuse (military “exercises”) already doing the rounds in Moscow, it seems that the Russian government aims to hold on to its ally by any way possible. Western powers must intervene in order to stop this illegal action. John Kerry offered strong words yesterday, in which he accused Russia of playing a ‘19th century’ game.
But words are one thing, and action is another matter entirely. It would be easy for the Obama Administration and others to talk a good game and then shirk their responsibilities when it came to crunch time – just like Syria. I can think of nothing worse.
James Snell is Contributing Editor of The Libertarian