John McTernan: The UK sparked new Cold War

Failing to live up to our responsibilities by allowing Russia to seize Crimea weakened us in the eyes of Vladimir Putin, writes John McTernan
Russia annexed Crimea despite the UK guaranteeing Ukraines borders. Picture: APRussia annexed Crimea despite the UK guaranteeing Ukraines borders. Picture: AP
Russia annexed Crimea despite the UK guaranteeing Ukraines borders. Picture: AP

What is Europe? Where does it stop? Different organisations have very different definitions. Eurovision includes Israel. Uefa stretches to Azerbaijan and beyond. The European Union has far tighter boundaries –but these are constantly growing. The list of countries trading with the EU and seeking to join is growing. A far cry from the debate in the UK, and a salutory corrective to the dismal nonsense that constitutes much of the debate about the EU in the UK.

Yet while the EU is a destination highly sought after it is also the trigger for vicious conflicts in Europe. It was when president Viktor Yanukovich backed away from engagement with the EU that Ukraine rose against him and drove him out of office. It wasn’t a peaceful “colour” revolution, it was a violent struggle but it has been followed by the election of a pro-EU president and an overwhelming pro-European parliament. It also led to something we’ve not seen in Europe since the Second World War – the illegal annexation of the territory of a free and independent country. The seizure of Crimea by Russia was a violation of international law and of the post-war settlement. And yet, Europe shrugged. Protested? Yes. But only in an ineffectual way that signalled to president Putin that not only would we do nothing about this, we also thought there was nothing we could do. A classic example of what Henry Kissinger meant when he said: “Power without purpose led to posturing; diplomacy without power exhausts itself in rhetoric.” Does any of this now matter to us?

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Well, judging by the behaviour of the UK government and opposition, it doesn’t. They seem to have drifted back to a 19th-century mindset where competing powers had “spheres of influence” within which they pretty much had free rein. If Russia wants to tell Ukraine it can’t join the EU, and then invade, annexe and Balkanise the country; if Ukrainians stubbornly refuse to bend the knee, what can we do? Of course, they don’t say that out loud. Such bloodless amorality would be rejected by British voters. Instead the actions of our political leaders – here and in the EU – are criminally negligent and they hope we don’t catch on to what they’re up to. It’s not good enough.


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It is not acceptable that fellow Europeans who live in a democracy can be dictated to by a neighbouring authoritarian state. For the UK, more than any other country, Ukraine matters because we are guarantors of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became – accidentally – one of the world’s largest nuclear powers, since they had a large part of the submarine fleet of the USSR. Ukraine had a total of a third of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons. It was a triumph of modern diplomacy that this and other arsenals were relinquished quickly and peacefully.

In Ukraine’s case, something called the Belgrade Memorandum was signed by the UK, the US, Russia and Ukraine. This guaranteed its borders in exchange for relinquishing nuclear weapons. It must have seemed a fair exchange – two of the great western powers backing the largest country to leave the USSR. But it has turned out that Britain’s word means nothing. It wasn’t just the Ukrainian government who were humiliated by the seizure of Crimea – we were too. For anyone who believes in the UK as a force for good in the world, this was a shocking moment. We walked by on the other side.

Maybe it just seemed too hard for our leaders. Well, foreign policy is hard – as they are finding in Libya, Syria and Iraq. It is about power and force as well as principles – and about strategic patience in the face of threats. Any inaction against aggression sends a very strong message – one of weakness. Putin has seen this and is exploiting it. Not content with seizing Crimea, he has supplied arms to rebels in Ukraine – aiding and abetting a civil war, and deploying Russian troops within Ukraine to support rebel militia to reverse the territorial gains made by the Ukrainian government.

Now Russia is going further, encouraging secession within Ukraine by recognising elections in the breakaway “republics” in the East around Donetsk and Luhansk. This is not the end of the issue. Those enclaves are not sustainable on their own. They need supplies from Russia, but the Russians also need land access to Crimea, which is currently not connected to Russia by any land corridor. Aggression is expected in order to seize both sea access for the rebel “republics” and to create land routes between Crimea and Russia. Then there is the economic viability of these territories. They are already eyeing up the industrial parts of eastern Ukraine they don’t control. This would bring the virtual partition of the country – and a massive impoverishment of the democratic west. Do we intend to defend Ukraine? We should, but we won’t.

Does any of this really matter? Sure, it’s embarrassing – at least for those who care – that our word means nothing internationally and we have been publicly and humiliatingly shamed. But it doesn’t cost us anything, does it? That depends whether you think our national security matters. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is part of a pattern of aggression against the West -– testing us to check our responses. There was the recent Russian submarine testing non-Nato Sweden’s defences. By late October this year there had been 100 interceptions of Russian aircraft by Nato planes – three times as many as in the whole of 2013. And in March this year a Russian surveillance plane nearly crashed into an SAS airline passenger jet taking off from Copenhagen. Only good visibility and alert pilots averted a tragedy.

Speak to senior staff in British forces – veterans of the Cold War – and they will tell you Russia recognises only one thing – strength. Where we don’t push back we show weakness in Putin’s eyes. Mikhail Gorbachev has already called this a “new Cold War”. Are we ready for it? Russia certainly is.


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