Russia Crimea and Ukraine - my thoughts on the current crisis.
The crisis in Ukraine has dominated matters in Parliament and on our television screens over the past two weeks, as diplomatic talks continue to try to resolve what is the most serious threat to European security in decades. There are disturbing parallels with the errors and blunders which led to the horrors of the first World War a century ago.
It is worth noting that Crimea was made part of Soviet Ukraine sixty years ago. Twenty years ago following the break up of the USSR, Russia, the USA and the United Kingdom negotiated removal of Soviet nuclear weapons from Ukraine. In return they all agreed a treaty to recognise and guarantee Ukraine's territorial integrity. Whatever excuses and justifications are put forward today Russia’s incursion into Ukraine is an unprovoked, unjustifiable violation of the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine. The immediate priority must now be to de-escalate the crisis and stabilise the situation . There are worrying developments in Ukrainian politics with a few ministers in the interim Ukrainian Government with far right neo-nazi links. Nevertheless the new interim government which has shown remarkable restraint in the face of severe provocation by Russia, has a key role to play in helping to diffuse the situation. I believe the UK Government, the European Union, the USA and the international community now need to give the Ukrainian Government necessary support while making it clear that they must be inclusive and protect the rights of Russian-speaking and other minority populations within Ukraine.
Here is my exchange with Foreign Secretary William Hague on 24 February
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): Given that Russia has developed a customs union with Belarus, Kazakhstan and, suddenly and more recently, Armenia, is it not the case that despite the Foreign Secretary’s wish—he said that there was not a choice between Russia and the European Union—President Putin sees things in a different way?
Mr Hague: It is very important for us, however anybody else may see this, to maintain this narrative and perspective, which is true: we do not intend association between the Ukraine and the EU to be hostile or damaging to Russia. However anybody else may present this, we should be insistent on that point.
All diplomatic and economic options should remain on the table.
Despite having $500 billion dollar reserves Russia is not economically in a strong position. The reaction of the markets in weakening the ruble and wiping billions from the value of Russian businesses may have given Putin pause for thought. In fact Russia's economic difficulties were already clear before this crisis broke. Growth is stagnant and likely to remain so. Little progress has been made in modernizing and diversifying the economy despite years of talking about it. Much of the Russian elite are taking money out of the country into foreign banks and property, and despite foreign capital investment in big energy and infrastructure projects overall there is net capital outflow of tens of billions of dollars each year.
Moreover Russia's status as a huge energy superpower may be under threat from American shale gas and EU competition measures against Gazprom. But Russia however still has a huge nuclear arsenal and it can as we have seen on Syria and Iran play a major role, for good or usually bad, in the United Nations system and international diplomacy and security.
There is a clear need for more robust action by the European Union. So far the measures European leaders have been prepared to discuss fall far short of what is required to get Russia to change its behaviour. They suspended trade talks that were in any case going nowhere. Cancellation of the G8 summit was merely gesture diplomacy. At their Brussels summit they went further and agreed to suspend talks on Schengen area visa-free travel with Russia and to shelve talks on a new bilateral treaty with Russia. They said that unless Russia starts negotiations with Ukraine’s new government “in the next few days” and agrees in “a limited timeframe” to pull back troops, the EU will impose visa bans and asset freezes on Kremlin officials and cancel the next EU-Russia summit. They also said if Russia “further … destabilise[s] the situation in Ukraine” there will be “far reaching consequences … which will include a broad range of economic areas”. They also backed a European Commission proposal to pay Ukraine €11 billion in loans and grants in the next seven years in return for an ethnically “inclusive” government”. EU leaders also expressed the will to go ahead with the signature of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU. The last minute decision by Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian leader, to refuse signing the Association Agreement, led to massive pro-EU demonstrations in Kiev, which eventually caused the overthrow of his regime. European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, said the early signature “will seal the association between Ukraine and the EU, as was the wish of the Ukrainian people.”
So far the Obama administration has been much tougher in thinking about the kinds of sanctions that are needed. This is probably because some European leaders feel they have more to lose from trade and energy links and are also more reluctant to endanger a fragile EU economic recovery.
Europeans must face the fact that business as usual is not an option. There has to be a direct EU challenge to Russia's material and geopolitical interests. The British Government must also make clear to President Putin and to Russian oligarchs buying properties or putting their money into London banks that there will be costs and consequences if Russia does not alter its present course.
This is an incredibly delicate and dangerous moment for international security. It will take a combination of skilled diplomacy and unity and resolve from the international community to help stabilise the situation and step back from disaster.