by Dick Barry
A Parliament And Ukraine Special
The House of Commons went into recess on 14 May and hadn’t returned by 30 May when this issue of Labour Affairs was prepared for printing. The following therefore is an account of MPs’ position on Ukraine up to 13 May, when William Hague reported to the Commons. It doesn’t take into account, therefore, developments since that date.
In recent weeks the aggressive stance of the West towards Russia has gathered momentum. And the two major parties in the House of Commons—Conservative and Labour—have been singing from the same hymn sheet, vilifying Putin and Russia. It now seems that Labour’s opposition to military intervention in Syria was pure opportunism. Labour’s amendment was similar in tone to the Government’s motion, which Cameron pointed out at the time. Politicians specialise in the use of words, and most of the time that is all they are. Sticks and stones etc. But there appears to be more than verbal vilification of Putin and Russia about the attitude of some MPs. It is as if they are willing the EU and NATO to go beyond their present double-edged policy of sanctions and covert threats. Do they really want to engage militarily with Russia?
Ukraine: Yanukovych And Article 111.
The ‘mystery’ of the removal of President Yanukovych was ‘explained’ on 6 May by Foreign Office Minister of State David Lidington in response to the following question from Tory backbencher Sir Edward Leigh.
Sir Edward Leigh:
“To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he has received advice on the legality of the removal from power of President Yanukovych, pursuant to Article 111 of the Constitution of Ukraine.
“The Government is not in a position to comment on the legal system in Ukraine. On 21 February, agreement was reached between the then opposition leaders and the then President, Victor Yanukovych to resolve the political crisis afflicting Ukraine by: signing a new law within 48 hours to reinstate the 2004 Constitution; holding pre-term presidential elections in 2014; and conducting a comprehensive constitutional reform. However, later that day Yanukovych fled Kyiv, abandoning his office as Head of State and was therefore not in a position to fulfil the obligation he undertook to sign the law reinstating the 2004 Constitution. As the Ukrainian Government had already been dissolved by Yanukovych, Parliament was the legitimate state body remaining. In view of Yanukovych’s action to effectively remove himself from office, Parliament approved a Bill to remove Yanukovych from power, appoint an acting president and, in line with the constitution, to hold presidential elections within 90 days. The Bill was approved by an overwhelming majority, including by representatives of Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions which remains the largest faction in the Rada.”
Apart from the fact that the Parliament acted unconstitutionally—it did not follow the procedure laid down in Article 111, and to which Lidington made no reference—it’s odd how Yanukovych’s Party of the Region becomes, in the same sentence, a faction in the Rada, the Ukraine Parliament. Can we now refer to the Conservative Party as the largest faction in the House of Commons?
The UK Military In Baltic States
The Baltic counties, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, are protected by NATO’s collective military umbrella. Which explains why UK troops are currently in Estonia, according to Defence Secretary Philip Hammond in answer to a question posed by Tory backbenchers Mark Harper and Karl McCartney on 12 May. They asked “what discussions he has had with his counterparts in Baltic countries on recent Russian aggression against Ukraine?”
There has of course been no actual Russian aggression against Ukraine. There are Russian troops at the border and pro-Russian Ukrainian combatants in Ukraine, supported by Russia, defending the pro-Russian east against right-wing pro-western Ukrainians. These neo-fascists were recently responsible for burning a building in which a number of pro-Russian Ukrainians and others died, but no mention was made of this by Hammond. Nor did he point out that there has been no overt Russian threat to the Baltic countries. Or suggest that Russia’s stance may be related to the encirclement of Russia by NATO forces.
Mr Philip Hammond:
“The UK is committed, with other NATO allies, to delivering reassurance to the Baltic countries. I visited Estonia and Lithuania on 2 May and met my defence ministerial counterparts to discuss developments in Ukraine. I travelled out to Estonia with elements of 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, who are participating in Exercise Spring Storm in Estonia. I then visited the UK Typhoon deployment to the NATO Baltic air policing mission in Lithuania. In addition, my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for international security strategy will visit Poland and Latvia this week for further such discussions.”
“Our Baltic partners in NATO will be reassured by those visits and the demonstrable support we are giving them. Can the Secretary of State say anything about the illegitimate referendum held yesterday ahead of the further referendum in the eastern part of Ukraine next Sunday, given the Russian authorities’ comments this morning that they expect to see it implemented? The concern is that if we do not act firmly they will take irreversible action.”
“The so-called referendum that took place over the weekend was illegal. It did not meet any standards of objectivity, transparency or fairness and it was not properly conducted as a public referendum or election. Indeed, its organisers did not even pretend to meet any of those standards. In short, it was a sham and a farce. We do not recognise any outcome that might follow from it. The important decision-making point will come at the election on 25 May, and we will watch very carefully to see which countries support progress towards those elections and which impede it.”
“The latest news in the east of Ukraine marks a continuation of the salami-slicing tactics of Russia. In the course of my hon. Friend’s discussions, has a red line been identified or can we expect to see Poland with a Russian border at some point? In light of these recent threats, are there any plans to review the national security strategy, given that the dovish Lib Dem view of the world has evaporated since the document’s publication in October 2010?”
“We are sending clear signals through the reassurance mechanisms that we are delivering to our Baltic partners in particular, that NATO members take very seriously their mutual obligations to defend each other. An attack on any NATO state would be considered an attack on all NATO states and nobody, including in the Kremlin, should ever forget that important fact. As for the national security strategy, the proper point for that to be reviewed will be in 2015, along with the 2015 SDSR. I am certain that the changing context will inform that review.”
Stephen Doughty (Lab/Co-op.):
“Given the real concerns of our allies in the Baltic states and eastern Europe about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, can the Secretary of State give any further clarity on what engagement with Russia is expected at the Wales NATO summit later this year, and whether any such engagement is appropriate, as things stand?”
“The agenda for the NATO summit is a matter for NATO members, not for the host country, to determine. From the discussions I have had with my NATO ministerial colleagues, I do not think there is any appetite for a NATO-Russia meeting during the course of the summit in Wales.”
Ms Gisela Stuart (Lab.):
“What specific discussions have been had with Poland, which would play a significant part if there were an article 5 country attack, including about capacity and border security?”
“I have regular discussions with my Polish counterpart and, as I mentioned a few moments ago, my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for international security strategy will travel to Poland on Wednesday for further such discussions.”
Sir Gerald Howarth (Con.):
“What discussions has my hon. friend had with US Secretary of Defence Hegel to assess the threat posed by Russia to eastern and southern Ukraine? Might those discussions encompass the deployment of a NATO maritime force, as I have advocated for some time, with the specific purpose of deterring Russia from taking Odessa?”
“As the House would expect, we have regular discussions at ministerial and office level with American counterparts. As the House will know, the US is taking some bilateral actions alongside the actions being taken by NATO. The UK is focused at the moment on contributing to the NATO reassurance agenda, and it is not proposed that we will include the sending of warships into the Black sea.”
Mrs Madeleine Moon (Lab.):
“During the various visits made by the Secretary of State, were there any discussions on the potential use of RPAS—Remotely Piloted Air Systems—to watch the borders, so that nations can be sure no risk is coming towards them?”
“No, but as the hon. Lady will know, the E-3 Sentry AWACS—airborne warning and control system—aircraft is deployed at the moment, patrolling in Polish airspace to protect NATO’s eastern border.”
Given the above discussion, it seems that Russia has more to fear from NATO than NATO has to fear from Russia. At the moment NATO war drums are silent, but talk of a red line been drawn suggests that Russia is being forced into a corner.
Ukraine: The Sound Of Distant Drums
There was further discussion on Ukraine later the same day. Two Labour backbenchers, Steve McCabe and William Bain, asked Hammond, “what discussions he has had with his NATO counterparts on the implications for NATO defence policy of the situation in Ukraine?”
Mr Philip Hammond:
“As I have already said, the situation in Ukraine is very serious. We are responding to it through a series of activities, working together with NATO allies. In terms of UK policy, the emphasis at present is to support NATO’s reassurance measures, both in the short and longer term. The events of the past few months have reminded the world that Russia remains a significant military power and cannot be trusted to abide by the rules of the international system. Nato members will need to take the lessons of the Ukraine crisis into account in determining the future posture of the alliance. (my emphasis).
“I am sure nobody wants to see sabre rattling, but the accelerated withdrawal of all British troops from Germany was a decision taken during the rather hasty defence and security review of 2010. Given all that has happened since, is there not a case, as Lord Dannatt recently suggested, for a bit of a rethink on this?”
“No. From the point of view of military effectiveness, the presence of large numbers of British troops in Germany, which is now well behind the frontline of NATO’s border with Russia, is no longer appropriate. Those troops will return to the UK where they will be able to operate more efficiently and effectively as part of integrated UK forces based here, but appropriate units will of course be ready to deploy should they need to do so.”
“Ten years ago, the peoples of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia made free and democratic choices to be under NATO’s collective security. What reassurances can the right hon. Gentleman and the other NATO Defence Ministers give that the territorial integrity of those states will be protected and that acts of aggression from other states will be actively dissuaded?” (my emphasis).
“I have reasserted, and my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have reasserted regularly, the commitment of the United Kingdom and all of the NATO allies to the principle of collective self defence under article 5 of the Washington treaty. However, it is not just our words but our actions. Stepping up our engagement in exercises taking place in the Baltic states and deploying four Typhoon aircraft to take part in an additional rotation of Baltic air policing are tangible demonstrations of our commitment to the people of the Baltic states. I can tell the House from my meetings the week before last in Lithuania and Estonia that those tangible demonstrations are very much appreciated not just by the Governments but by the populations of those countries.” (my emphasis).
Rory Stewart (Con):
“Will the Secretary of State clarify what steps he is taking to develop non-nuclear options for deterrence to prevent a repeat of what Russia has done in Ukraine? Economic sanctions are clearly insufficient. Will he and our international partners investigate, for example, the use of cyber-attacks as a potential deterrent?”
“As I have previously announced, we are developing our cyber capabilities, and they form a part of our overall armoury. The trick here is to provide clear reassurance and to deter any moves by anybody against NATO states in any mistaken belief that our resolve is in any way lacking, while not provoking in a way that would be unhelpful. I hope that we are getting the balance right at the moment, and we shall endeavour to do so.”
Dr Julian Lewis:
“I think we are getting the balance right, but does the Secretary of State agree that the greatest possible threat to peace and security in Europe would be if modern-day Russia’s success in using old-style Soviet tactics against a non-NATO country were to be replicated against a NATO country? It is not just a question of reassuring the NATO countries: it is a question of making it clear to the Kremlin what they must not do.”
“My hon. Friend is right, but let us be clear. What they must not do is perpetrate acts of aggression against independent sovereign states such as Ukraine. Because we have special commitments, through our obligations under the Washington treaty, the red line around NATO is even clearer, and we must emphasise it at every opportunity to avoid any danger of miscalculation in the Kremlin or elsewhere.” (my emphasis).
Vernon Coaker (Lab.):
“Ongoing events in Ukraine show the continuing tensions in the region and the potential for further actions by Russia that could be destabilising for the wider region. Can the Secretary of State confirm what steps NATO has already taken, what the British involvement in those has been, and what additional steps are being considered?”
“Several measures have already been taken, including increasing the scale of exercises in the Baltic states and stepping up the level of Baltic air policing. A discussion is going on about proposals from Supreme Allied Commander Europe—SACEUR—on a menu of further measures of reassurance, and the United Kingdom expects to play a full part in helping to implement them.”
“I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Russia’s effective annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory and its threat to others in the European sphere is the sort of activity that we thought had been consigned to a bygone age. Given that the core of UK defence policy is based on stability in Europe, what impact does the Secretary of State think that the ongoing situation will have on our defence policy and that of NATO, and to what extent is it informing discussions in advance of the forthcoming NATO summit in the UK?” (my emphasis).
“The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Some might suggest that our eyes had wandered away from the potential challenge from Russia—a militarily very powerful nation, with which we do not always enjoy an alignment of interests. The consequences of the crisis will be to focus NATO member states clearly back on the potential challenge from Russia, among other challenges that NATO has to be prepared to deal with in the future.”
Ukraine: Hague Lays It On The Line
The next day, 13 May, William Hague made a further statement on Ukraine. In it he referred in passing to the burning of the building in Odessa in which more than 40 people died, including many pro-Russians. It is known that the perpetrators were right-wing Ukrainians, but Hague omitted to mention this. The following are key extracts from Hague’s statement.
Mr William Hague:
“Presidential elections will be held in Ukraine on 25 May. In the vast majority of the country, preparations are proceeding well under the observation of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The UK is contributing 100 observers to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights election observation mission, which is 10% of the total number, as well as £429,000 for the first round of elections. We have also given £1 million in funding so far to the special monitoring mission. I met the heads of both those vital missions in Ukraine last week, and I thanked them for the hard work of their teams in difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances.”
“However, in two of Ukraine’s 25 regions—Donetsk and Lubansk, in the south and east of the country—the situation has deteriorated markedly over the past two weeks. A constant barrage of propaganda by the Russian media, and a steadily mounting death toll, are contributing to an atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and division. So-called pro-Russian separatists, led by people who by their training, equipment and behaviour give every appearance of sometimes being Russian special forces, have continued to seize and occupy Government buildings in the south and east of Ukraine, using many of the same tactics that were deployed in Crimea. We have seen intimidation of journalists, abductions and murders. Missiles have been used to destroy at least four Ukrainian military helicopters, giving the lie to Russia’s claim that these are the actions of spontaneously organised local protestors, rather than well-trained, well-equipped professionals.” (my emphasis).
“On 25 May more than 40 people died in Odessa, including many pro-Russian protestors trapped in a building that was set on fire—an act we condemn unreservedly. This weekend, separatist groups staged sham ‘referendums’ on self-rule in parts of Donetsk and Lubansk. These polls were marked by blatant fraud, including multiple voting, no proper voting lists, and threats and intimidation against Ukrainians standing up for the unity of their country. The referendums met no basic standards of objectivity, transparency and fairness, and they have no credibility whatsoever. We will not recognise those or any other attempts to undermine the territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.”
“The Government believe that our national interest lies in a democratic Ukraine able to determine its own future, and in protecting a rules-based international system. Therefore, our objectives remain to avoid any further escalation of the crisis, to support the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine, and to uphold international law. I visited Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia last week, to show our support at a time when all three countries are feeling acute pressure. We look forward to the signing next month of Georgia and Moldova’s association agreements with the EU, which will also establish deep and comprehensive free trade areas, and are currently under parliamentary scrutiny. I gave our strong support to the Moldovan Government’s plans to sign and implement the agreement, and encouraged them to make more progress on reform and in the fight against corruption. In Georgia I discussed, and thanked the Government for their contribution to, their partnership with NATO.”
“As I have always stressed, the doors of diplomacy remain open. We continue to discuss the situation with Russia, and the Prime Minister had a long conversation with President Putin on 1 May. We strongly supported the Geneva agreement of 17 April and deplore the failure of Russia to join in implementing it. It is right now to try to revive the diplomatic process, and I support and welcome the efforts being made by OSCE Chair-in-Office and President of Switzerland, Didier Burkhalter. Last week I met him in Vienna, and I held further discussions with him over the weekend and yesterday in Brussels. Last Wednesday he met President Putin and put forward a four-point plan, including the immediate launch of a national dialogue by the Ukrainian authorities with OSCE support. We have encouraged Ukraine to respond positively to this, and it is doing so. The Government have announced they will hold the first meeting tomorrow, and agreed that there will be both Ukrainian and international mediation in this process.”
“At the Foreign Affairs Council, we also called on Russia to take effective steps to fulfil its Geneva commitments: to refrain from provocative acts and intimidation, to use its influence with separatist groups to compel them to disarm and to vacate illegally occupied buildings, and to cease its destabilising campaign. We demanded that Russia move its troops away from the Ukrainian border. President Putin said last week that troops were returning to their regular training grounds. However we have seen no evidence that Russia has reduced the huge number of its troops stationed just miles from Ukraine, and in fact Moscow continues to encourage the actions of separatists, including through the state-controlled media.”
“It is clear that if Russia does not take the path of de-escalation, the long-term cost to it will grow, in an economy already shrinking and suffering massive capital flight. G7 Energy Ministers met in Rome last week and committed themselves to reduce market power and political influence through energy supply. EU leaders will discuss further detailed measures when they meet in June.”
“The people of Ukraine deserve the right to choose their own Government in a free and fair election, just as we do. They also deserve to be free from external interference and duress and to have the chance to chart an independent future without the debilitating corruption and mismanagement of recent years. They should have every opportunity to be a bridge between east and west, and not to have their country pulled apart by the fanning of hatreds, the wilful sowing of violent disorder, and the insertion of provocateurs and separatists from over their borders.” (my emphasis).
The above final remarks by Hague could be a description of the behaviour of the UK and the United States in many areas of the world since the end of the second world war. Hague objects to Russia’s stance on Ukraine because Russia is an obstacle to western control and influence in the former Soviet states. Under Putin, Russia simply won’t tow the line and Hague and other western leaders don’t like it. The remarks also ignore the apparent role played by western agent provocateurs in stirring unrest in the early days of the current crisis.
Labour’s response to the statement warmed the cockles of the heart of Hague. It was given by John Spellar, Shadow Minister of State, standing in for the absent Shadow Secretary of State Douglas Alexander. The following is a flavour of his remarks.
Mr John Spellar:
“As the Foreign Secretary stressed, the situation in eastern Ukraine is deeply troubling. The violence continues, the death toll is rising and the situation is increasingly volatile. He is right to condemn unreservedly the offence on 2 May in Odessa, where more than 40 people died. He is also right to condemn the referendums in Donetsk and Lubansk on Sunday, which were both illegal and illegitimate. The priority now must be for calm to be restored and further violence to be prevented.”
“The events over the weekend have created a key moment when the real resolve and intentions of Russia must now be tested. In recent days, President Putin has publicly issued words that some have seen as a sign of possible progress. The international community however, must judge President Putin not by his words alone but by his actions. He said that the referendum must be postponed. Now, he must condemn the fact that it has taken place. He said that presidential elections might be a step forward. Now, he must help to create the conditions for them to take place peacefully. He said that he has withdrawn troops from the border. He must allow NATO to verify that. He has signed up to the Geneva accord of 17 April. Now, he must help to implement it. If President Putin fails to take the minimum steps required to demonstrate that he is willing to change course, the west must be prepared to increase pressure in the days and weeks ahead.” (my emphasis).
“I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s remarks on the EU’s preparatory work on possible wider trade and economic sanctions against Russia. Can he provide any further detail on the measures under consideration? Will he confirm that any steps taken by Russia to seek to prevent the peaceful process of presidential elections this month would be deemed a serious escalation, and further evidence of their wilful intention to destabilise the situation in Ukraine further? We welcome the Foreign Secretary’s confirmation that an association agreement is due to be signed with Georgia and Moldova next month, alongside a free trade area.” (my emphasis).
“The Foreign Secretary will be aware that many countries in the region, especially those from the former Warsaw pact and former Soviet Union, but also including our Nordic allies, have a deeper concern that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are not an isolated incident but part of a developing and worrying trend—particularly in the light of claims by the Russian Government about their need to protect Russian speakers or ethnic Russians, irrespective of their nationality or the credibility of any real threat against them. It is little wonder that this has caused apprehension and even alarm. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm what discussions he has had with our EU and NATO allies on our response to these developments?”
Here we have an example of Labour manbagging. As in many other areas, Labour is following on from Thatcher. Like Thatcher, Labour has what seems to be an incurable tendency to tell people and countries what to do. Does Spellar seriously believe that his ‘threats’ will force Putin to change course? One suspects not. But he has to talk tough, or Labour will be accused of being disloyal and weak. The kindest interpretation one can put on it is that Labour is simply following the traditionally accepted rule that, other than in exceptional circumstances, the opposition doesn’t rock the boat on matters of foreign policy. Its bellicosity, however, is what we can expect should Labour form the next Government.
Later two backbenchers, Sir Edward Leigh (Con.) and Jeremy Corbyn (Lab.), cast a different light on the subject. Leigh’s point concerned Ukraine and NATO. While Corbyn’s hit on NATO expansion.
Sir Edward Leigh:
“While in no way condoning Mr Putin’s actions, I just wonder if the EU has played into his hands. Should not peace and reconciliation be our objective now? Should we not in this context reassure Russia that we have no intention of dragging Ukraine into our orbit by Ukraine joining NATO, that any free trade association with the EU will be balanced with free trade associations with Russia, as Mr Putin proposed, and that there should be full devolution for east and west Ukraine?”
“We have always made it clear—and I make it clear again now, as I did in my statement—that we have always seen Ukraine as having strong relations with east and west and that it has never been our objective to pull Ukraine in a direction that means it loses its important economic and political relations with Russia. I think that that message is very clear and we are clearly supporting, in the work of the OSCE, decentralisation in Ukraine in a way that is acceptable to the whole of its population, including its regions. I therefore think the problem has lain in the perception of Russia—an inaccurate perception—rather than in the actions of western countries.” (my emphasis).
“Will the Foreign Secretary say something about NATO’s longer term intentions? Since 1990 we have had constant expansion of NATO and that in turn has encouraged an equal and opposite reaction within Russia. Does he not think that it is time to stop the expansion of NATO and try to bring about a peaceful central European region?”
“NATO is not an alliance designed for offensive purposes. NATO is designed for the defence of the countries concerned and there are free sovereign nations who aspire to join NATO. What is more, their aspiration to join NATO is one of the positive influences on them to adopt strong democratic systems and free and open societies. So the expansion of NATO has been a very healthy development for many countries in the world. I think it would be wrong to bring down the shutters and say, ‘This is not available to any more countries at any stage.’ Becoming a member of NATO is a demanding process, but I think it would be wrong to confine NATO to those countries that are already a member of it.” (my emphasis).
By its deeds it shall be known. NATO is a defensive alliance with offensive intentions. Otherwise the unwritten rule that an attack on one member is an attack on all is meaningless. Hague ought to know that in politics perception is all. It matters not one jot or title what Hague says about NATO not being an offensive alliance. If Russia perceives it as such, and Corbyn is right to say as much, then that is what matters. The interesting question is, how far does Hague believe NATO should expand? In spite of his insistence that the west wants Ukraine to be free to make its own decisions, the odds are on Ukraine, with the west’s ‘encouragement’, joining NATO.