Why confront Putin now, after all these years of appeasing?
Thirteen years ago I was invited to give a speech at the Moscow School of Political Studies. Afterwards, I listened late into the night, over endless glasses of vodka, to stories from students who spelt out the consequences, in terms of intimidation and sometimes death, of standing up to the warlords governing Russia.
Most of all, however, I recall a long conversation with Rod Lyne, then the British ambassador.
Back then, Lyne was a forceful advocate of the relatively new Russian president, Vladimir Putin. He made little attempt to gloss over his brutality and disregard for human rights. Yet he stressed that Putin was the only Russian capable of rescuing his country from the chaos into which it had plunged after the collapse of Communism.
By then, it was already clear exactly how brutal Putin was prepared to be.
The second Chechen war was well under way. Thousands of civilians were being slaughtered by indiscriminate shelling from Russian forces. Torture and extra-judicial killing were rife. Not long after my conversation with the ambassador, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum placed Chechnya on its genocide watch list.
By comparison, with 50,000 killed in Chechnya, the recent killings in Ukraine scarcely amount to a pinprick. Yet the conflict went practically unreported. Perhaps the difficulty of getting to Chechnya had something to do with it – or more probably, the impossible danger of reporting the story. The plight of the unhappy Chechens never became a cause celebre like that of the Ukrainians. No Western government came to their aid. Indeed, after the bombing of the Twin Towers, Putin's campaign was given some kind of official endorsement under the wider umbrella of the Bush/Blair "war on terror".
It is certain, however, that the West knew exactly what Vladimir Putin was like. We knew he was a Russian patriot who would stop at nothing to restore the glory of the Soviet empire – and backed him regardless.
When the Russians invaded Georgia, we allowed them to get away with it. When Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London, the British government made the minimum fuss. Recently, it even tried to block the campaign by his brave widow, Marina, for a public inquiry into his killing (a high court sitting in London ruled in her favour last month). And when Putin resisted British requests for the extradition of Litvinenko's probable killer, the former KGB agent (and now Russian MP) Andrey Lugovoy, nothing was done.
There are all kinds of sound (though not very glorious) reasons not to take a stand. More and more, Europe relies on Russia for energy. BP has a major presence there. Russia's oligarchs have done wonders for Mayfair property prices. We rely on Moscow for intelligence on al-Qa'ida.
So one of the biggest mysteries surrounding recent events is why Britain –and the United States – ditched this policy of accommodation with Putin in the first place.
Last November, the Ukraine's President Yanukovych resolved to abandon a co-operation treaty with the EU, and entered instead into an agreement with President Putin. Up to that point, the West had concealed any distaste for Yanukovych.
But the president's removal, while enjoying popular support in Kiev, was effected with the aid of a group of violent Right-wing parties, of which Pravy Sektor (responsible for the young men today patrolling the capital with and guns) was the most effective. There are interesting parallels here with Libya and Syria, where Western efforts to work with "moderates" ended up with power going to extremists.
Should Ukraine fall into chaos and extremism, it will be exactly what Rod Lyne was warning against in our conversation all those years ago – and another in the West's dismal recent list of foreign policy failures.
Yet it would be going too far to claim that we have now abandoned the realistic principles that Lyne was articulating. For the best description of what is going on is muddle and confusion.
The truth is that Britain has at least two foreign policies. William Hague has developed a fine line in liberal rhetoric – his trip to Kiev last week was meaningless. Others – such as Hugh Powell at the National Security Council (the names of Britain's foreign policy institutions have become more grand-iose as our influence in the world has diminished) – have been making certain that no rash or decisive actions are taken.
The United States, too, has at least two parallel foreign policies. Both President Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, have erected secret private offices that work independently of the machinery of state. The result, in both Britain and America, has been a contradiction between our reckless rhetoric and our extreme caution.
Mercifully, Angela Merkel has come to the rescue. The German chancellor has put an end to talk of economic sanctions, and become the main interlocutor with Putin. This marks a vital turning point in the post-war world. Germany has long been the dominant economic power in the EU. With Ms Merkel in charge, it is now turning that economic power into diplomatic power.
This remarkable states-woman is placing the Russian/German partner-ship back at the heart of Europe – an achievement that it has traditionally been an objective of British foreign policy to prevent. But then, unlike Britain, both Merkel's Germany and Putin's Russia still have a clear vision of their world stage roles. (© Daily Telegraph, London)