Bill Jamieson: West’s retort to Russia a shambles

A woman walks past a Bulgarian communist-era monument in the capital of Sofia yesterday.  Picture: Reuters
A woman walks past a Bulgarian communist-era monument in the capital of Sofia yesterday. Picture: Reuters
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The military stand-off in Ukraine has highlighted major flaws in the UK’s foreign policy, writes Bill Jamieson

I hope I am wrong with what I am about to write. It’s not unknown. But watching the UK’s response – and that of Western countries generally – to the developing Ukraine crisis in the past few days, I have been appalled at the confusion, ill-considered posturing, speak-first-think-later empty rhetoric and blind shambles on display.

To say that our response to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s actions in Crimea has exposed deep problems with UK foreign policy would be an understatement. The old discredited Blairite impulse for liberal interventionism has led us into a posturing that has lacked both understanding and credibility.

It has often been said that the UK “punches above its weight” on the world stage – one of the arguments deployed against the case for Scottish independence. That assertion might have been true some 20 years ago. Now I am not at all sure that it has force. A long-standing dictum in foreign policy is that we should speak softly and carry a big stick. Over the past few days the UK Foreign Secretary has talked loudly and altogether too often – and carried a dandelion stalk.

First there was tough-sounding talk of firm action against Russia. This was followed by pleas to “de-escalate” the crisis. Then there was stirring rhetoric about tough economic sanctions. But now we have discovered, via a snatched photograph outside Downing Street that, far from deploying economic and diplomatic sanctions, the counsel from the UK’s deputy national security adviser is that we are to avoid sanctions and take no action that would prejudice Russian financial investment in the UK.

All this – and Baroness Ashton speaking for a collective European Union position that doesn’t actually exist. How President Putin must be cowering in the Kremlin.

Sadly, we have form in rushing in with high-minded rhetoric while actually meaning – and doing – something else altogether. Scots need no reminding of the exposé of former UK prime minister Tony Blair’s self-advertised skills in “creative ambiguity” – more accurately double dealing with Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya. More recently there was David Cameron’s mooted military intervention against the Assad regime in Syria – duly stymied in the House of Commons.

We were quick to embrace the eruptions of Middle East street revolutionaries, naively confident in the belief that these represented liberal and progressive forces for whom our support should be unequivocal. But the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and the elevation of the new President Morsi were followed in barely a year by his ousting as an angry Egyptian populace recoiled at his policies of oppressive Muslimisation.

More recently, our readiness to intervene in Syria seemed blind to those extreme Muslim elements in the Syrian opposition. These include the Al-Nusra Front – an Al-Qaeda offshoot designated as a terrorist organisation by the United Nations – and the Syrian Islamic Front. This brought together no less than 11 armed Islamist rebel groups with the aim of establishing an Islamic state. This has compromised international efforts to depose President Assad – in favour of, well, which moderate progressive forces exactly?

We are now repeating this error in Ukraine; altogether too quick to assume that, while the regime of the ousted president Viktor Yanukovich was corrupt, the Kiev protesters were united behind Western-sympathetic liberal progressive values. But what, then, of those in combat jackets and military gear sporting neo-Nazi armbands?

Little wonder ethnic Russians, whose parents well remember the Nazi invasion and atrocities of the Second World War, have now come forward to be heard.

Our diplomats – accompanied by the big battalions of the BBC – have rushed to Kiev with a gush of words, but with little coherent to say. We used to be good at politic circumspection. Where has this instinct gone? The response of the UK Foreign Office has been lamentable. Its immediate verbal gush about “tough economic sanctions” against Russia was blind, both to Russia’s long-standing geopolitical commitments in the Black Sea area but also to the reality that Ukraine is heavily in debt to Russia and is as good as bust.

The country has colossal debts of more than $138 billion. It owes Russia an immediate $2bn for gas supplies not paid for. It faces $13bn of debt repayments this year and a further $16bn by the end of 2015. As recently as December Russia offered a $15bn refinancing package and a deal to supply gas at a discounted price. Who can blame Mr Putin for wishing for some assurance from the interim so-called “government” of Ukraine that its debts are not repudiated? Now the Western line has switched in 48 hours from threats of sanctions to offers of a billion dollars of aid. Could this not have been recognised earlier as a means to de-escalate?

Score so far: Putin 5, the West nil.

Western governments have also been slow to recognise the concerns of Russians and Russian sympathisers in Crimea. Too often Western liberal opinion has been quick to dismiss the resonant forces of difference – language, history and culture – as ugly nationalism. But how telling that the European Union cannot muster a united coherent response to Putin’s actions because Germany and France have geopolitical interests distinct from those of other members – and certainly from those of the US.

Here in the UK we are told that we are “stronger together” on the world stage. But I am not at all sure, either that we are indeed stronger or that the Foreign Office has a true understanding of the world we are in. At the same time the relentless cutting of our security forces and the defence budget has weakened our credibility. We seem more reliant on the US than ever. Thus the evident shambles of recent days may give impetus to the SNP’s critique of the notion that that we are “stronger together”. That is not to deny there are many areas where Scotland and the UK have common interests internationally and which would be well served by collaboration.

But for this to have effect, we must first have more thoughtful coherence in our response to international events, and a clear strategy and set of objectives to pursue. As I say, I do hope I am mistaken over the behaviour of the Foreign Office. But its performance in the past few days has not just been confused. It’s been lamentable.