Friday 22 November 2019

Sanctions? Vlad won't care if he wants more than Crimea

Sanctions won't change Putin's policies and we'll have to find some way to abandon them in a few years, says Willie Kealy

Vitaly Klitschko
Vitaly Klitschko

Willie Kealy

VLADIMIR Putin has interfered with the integrity of the post Second World War geo-political map of Europe by accepting the people of Crimea back into the Russian fold after a 60-year absence. That's the charge the West has made against him. Well, he has certainly shaken things up a bit in the region. But interfering with the map of Europe? That might be a bit of stretch.

The map of Europe is pretty confused anyway when countries that seem in their natural geography to be Asian are considered European; and the less than sacred nature of post-war boundaries is evident in the absurd division of the Middle East. Ukraine (and Georgia) are important to the interests of the Russian Federation in the same way as the US has its interests and Britain and France and Germany – and even Ireland – have their interests.

Without its neighbours, Ukraine and Georgia, Russia is isolated, depending for solidarity on a number of backward tribal outposts whose names all end in "Stan". It is unlikely it was ever Putin's objective to repatriate Crimea. He wanted Ukraine to remain an ally. But after the overthrow of the elected Ukraine government by the mob, he seems to have pretty quickly come to the conclusion that this neighbour was lost to him. Ukraine had been tempted away by the EU and its vague promises.

The Ukraine government that was overthrown was no shining example of democracy. And the first images we saw after President Yanukovych had fled were of obscenely rich presidential residences stuffed with every expensive luxury item the West could sell. His predecessor, Yulia Tymoschenko, wasn't much better. She ended up in jail for the crime of becoming too rich too quickly after assuming office. It's called corruption. Yes, the new Ukrainian masters include the former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, who seems a decent chap. But they also include the kind of fascist thugs you might have seen on TV or YouTube last week when they stormed into the office of the director-general of the Ukraine national television station. They beat him around his office, forced him into his chair, placed a pen in his hand and demanded he write his resignation. His crime? He had allowed the results of the Crimean referendum to be shown on a television news bulletin.

These are the kind of people who persuaded Putin that he would not be doing business in Kiev again any time soon. He was also persuaded that they were the kind of people who would have no problem tearing up the long-term lease the Russian Federation has on a naval base in Sevastapol in the Black Sea. Russia needs access to this warm-water port. Many of its ports to the North are frozen over for part of the year. Russia needs Sevastapol. Ukraine was lost, Sevastapol could not be. It was clear he was determined to defend Russian interests in that base, by force if necessary, should the "new" Ukraine try to reclaim it.

Putin said: "I cannot imagine that we could go to Sevastopol as the guests of Nato sailors. Most of them are excellent fellows, but it would be better if they came as our guests to Sevastopol."

That is why he sent troops on "exercises" on the Ukraine border. That is why Russian special forces made their presence felt in Sevastapol.

Then the Russian majority in Crimea gave him an opportunity to bring the stand-off to a quick conclusion. They had a referendum and reintegrated themselves back into Russia. Now Sevastopol was saved, and not just that, but a substantial chunk of former Russian territory was returned, along with its Russian-speaking population.

Looking at it from the West, there were those who saw another Hitler on the rise – annexing a small piece of territory and assuring everyone that that was the limit of his ambition. The US President made phone calls. His Secretary of State made speeches. The EU was divided over its response. Britain, France and Germany were cautious. German industry depends on Russia for 40 per cent of its energy. France is in the middle of a contract to supply new naval ships to Russia. The City of London is awash with Russian oligarchs' money. But Poland and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia together with Sweden were more strident. The Baltic states have a long and painful history under the Soviet yoke, and ethnic groups that would still have a Russian affiliation. Around 25 per cent of the populations of Estonia and Latvia are ethnic Russian – in Riga, the Latvian capital, that figure is around 50 per cent. The natives and the ethnic Russians do not get on – to the point of open hatred. So there could be those in the Baltics justifiably asking themselves, are we next?

And Poland? Well Poland has more reason than most to distrust great powers – and not just Russia. It has been invaded from all sides, divided up and repackaged; betrayed by Stalin and the Western leaders, during and after the last war.

Angela Merkel had been playing it cool, no doubt hoping things would sort themselves out. But eventually she concluded she was beginning to look weak and selfish in the eyes of the rest of Europe, in the eyes of the Americans, in the eyes of the Ukrainians. Germany is the big dog in Europe. If Germany doesn't bark, no one else will. So she did. She accepted that there is going to be trouble. Not a military conflagration. Not even a cold war. But a trade war, involving sanctions that will be painful and damaging to all sides. It is not universally popular in Europe. And even the Poles recognise it will be harder for Europe than for the US. Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, said: "It is easier for the US ... They are farther away and any economic consequences are not as painful."

Already the French are looking at the British and trying to measure who is taking the greatest pain. In Ireland we have little choice but to go along with whatever the EU decides. That's the price of EU membership.

And we too will share in the pain. As the Russian ambassador, Maxim Peshkov, said last week, sanctions are "a double-edged blade" which could do a lot of damage to our billion-plus annual Russian trade in goods and services.

At the beginning of any exercise it is good to ask: "What do we hope to achieve?" Paschal Donohoe, our European Minister, was asked this question and didn't really answer. If we are hoping Putin will reverse his position on Crimea, it seems a forlorn hope. So we will probably continue this anti-trade-and-co-operation exercise for a few years and then find a face-saving way to abandon it.

On the other hand, the purpose may be to stay Putin's hand and prevent him from further action. Well, if those who believe Putin has ambitions beyond Crimea are ultimately proved right, it will take more than sanctions to stop him.

Sunday Independent

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