Throughout the Black Sea Peninsula’s history, it has been invaded and colonised a great many times by the Greeks, the Romans and the Ottoman Empire to name just a few. In the 20th Century it was an autonomous republic of the Soviet Union, settling finally as a region of Ukraine in 1954, which it remained a part of upon Ukraine’s independence in 1991.
Seven years ago yesterday, a new colonisation – this time under the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin - was underway, and we should not let the anniversary pass unnoticed, events in Crimea have an immediate resonance in Scotland too.
Crimeans were again to be centre stage of geopolitical events, as the redrawing of a European country’s borders by force would set in train a conflict that also extended to Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas. It has claimed the lives of more than 13,000 Ukrainian citizens, displaced over 1,000,000 people from their homes, seen continued violations of human rights – particularly against Crimean Tatars - and saw Russian backed terrorists bring down civilian flight MH17, killing all 298 passengers on board, 80 of whom were children.
This week, Ukraine’s Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, issued an appeal to the international community urging us to not forget the illegal occupation of Crimea and to condemn it. We in Scotland should do so without reservation.
In February 2014, Scotland’s debate on independence was in full swing ahead of our vote on independence in September that year. As we in the North West corner of Europe engaged in a nationwide discussion about the governance arrangements of our own nation, in the South East corner of our continent an act of military aggression that continues to this day was being carried out against a fellow European country.
This followed the Revolution of Dignity in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, which saw a democratic uprising against a corrupt and anti-democratic government that was responsible for violence against its own people, all because they wanted prosperity and integration with their European Union neighbours.
February 20th, 2014 was the day that ‘little green men’ appeared in Crimea: soldiers wearing Russian combat gear but without any insignia, which Russia initially denied was their forces but later admitted to. The military build-up that followed set the scene for full occupation, takeover of its democratic institutions and a sham referendum on Crimean accession into the Russian Federation.
That referendum, put together in a matter of days by an occupying power, was condemned and not recognised by the vast majority of international community, with some exceptions such as Syria, North Korea and Venezuela. Not only was the referendum a violation of the constitution of Ukraine which gave voters no status-quo option; it was conducted under Russian military guard and the result – 96% support for joining Russia – was quite literally not believable.
Since those days, the international community responded with a whole range of sanctions against Russia. The UK Government was amongst them as a then member of the EU but has, to give credit where it is due, also taken measures to stand by Ukraine, as a signatory of the Budapest Memorandum, with security and aid cooperation. At a time when adhering to international treaties is becoming worryingly unfashionable in some quarters, that is to be commended.
What happened in Ukraine, following the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, was a wakeup call to Europe.
Putin doesn’t play by the international rules-based system – indeed he is one of the greatest challenges to it - and we saw it for ourselves when he deployed chemical weapons on UK soil against Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei and Yulia Skripal, which saw the murder of Dawn Sturgess.
Attached to this campaign of military aggression has been a well-resourced and sophisticated network of propaganda output, which has sought to simultaneously outright deny or downplay these crimes, and even admit to them under claims that Russia was provoked by the West.
Right across Europe, Russia’s Internet Research agency and state news outlets such as RT, Sputnik and TASS pump out disinformation about its actions on their various online and offline platforms. Seeking not only to deny and distort the truth about the actions of their own government, but also sow discord and division in Western democracies, the most high-profile example being interfering in the 2016 US election.
This wilderness of mirrors is active in Scotland too, only a fool would pretend it isn’t. All of this underlines the need for maximum solidarity amongst free and open societies. Whether it is small democracies such as Estonia or larger nations such as France, alliances such as NATO, the EU and the OSCE are of vital importance in ensuring that we are able to work together to protect our democratic way of life. It’s why it obviously makes sense for an independent Scotland to seek accession to these bodies - they are international solidarity made real.
But for now, even as part of the UK, we can and should agitate for the UK to do better.
Last year’s Intelligence and Security Committee report on Russia was a watershed moment for the UK.
The cross-party committee concluded that ‘Russian influence in the UK is the new normal’. Their report outlined how we are vulnerable to Russian attempts to influence our democracy through targeted disinformation about our own domestic political debates, poor financial governance structures that are routinely exploited by Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin, and many members of the UK Parliament – largely in the House of Lords – having financial interests connected to the Russian state. Of all 21 recommendations made by the committee to counter these threats, none of them have been implemented by the government.
This muddled posture – spending millions to counter Russia’s threat to European democracies whilst leaving ourselves exposed to the same threat domestically – can be found in many areas of UK foreign and security policy, and is something that the UK Government must rectify when it publishes the integrated review next month.
Condemning Russia’s actions in Crimea is worth doing, but it’s not enough. Meaningful solidarity also means ensuring we aren’t the weak link in the chain.
Stewart McDonald MP – SNP Spokesperson for Defence
Alyn Smith MP – SNP Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs