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Ukraine Crisis: The role of NATO, Britain, and Labour

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The Ukraine crisis shows that only under Labour will Britain be serious about NATO and it’s commitments around the world.

These are nervous times. The rhetoric coming out of Russia, accusing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) of advancing towards its borders and posing a threat to its security and sovereignty, is expected. But the massing of it’s forces on the Ukrainian border, and steadily building pretext for war (now including claims of genocide in the Donbas, a region it has controlled since 2014), represents a serious escalation.

Of course, we know that membership of the defensive NATO alliance is not occupation, and the alliance does not pressure governments to come on board. Instead, it is an alliance of democratic countries that join of their own accord. Putin knows this too, and the fact it undermines his authoritarian leadership is why he is acting in this way.

NATO has provided security and reassurance that has enabled the growth of economies and the growth of living standards in numerous countries that have previously been threatened by the Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia. This has enabled life opportunities for millions of people across the Baltics and Eastern Europe. As Labour, we fight for better living conditions – and the security provided by the alliance has made this possible for countless people. We stand proud of what NATO continues to achieve and what it offers Europe, the world and humanity.

NATO must take Putin seriously on Ukraine; he does pose a significant risk; be it immediate or over the next few years.

In July 2021, Vladimir Putin penned a 5,000-word essay entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. He lays out his feelings that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” and blames the distancing in relations between the two countries on foreign conspiracies and plots.

He ends by writing, “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” In a clear suggestion that Ukraine only exists in its current form with the approval of Putin.

As well as Putin’s expressed feelings towards Ukraine, his views towards the collapse of the Soviet Union demonstrate that he is a danger. He sees it as “a disintegration of historical Russia under the name of the Soviet Union,” and as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.

A map of just some of the Soviet gulags, 1923-61

To demonstrate how serious this threat is, we should also look briefly at the recent military actions of the dictator: In 2008, Putin invaded Georgia, during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in what was a likely attempt to halt it joining NATO and isolate it from the West, in large part due to its strategic location.

Since 2014, Russia and Ukraine have been at war. This conflict has already led to the deaths of over 14,000 Ukrainians and left millions displaced. Russia continues to occupy Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and much of the industrial Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

Now, we see the massing of 140,000 Russian troops on the borders with Ukraine with most of the required brigades, facilities and assets to mount an invasion of the country – making an invasion a possible escalation.

It is likely that Putin is trying to achieve one of two things, or possibly both:

Firstly that Ukraine are denied entry to NATO – something NATO members should not accept. And secondly gaining influence over the sovereignty of Ukraine – this could be achieved with the Russian interpretation, or something close to it, of the Minsk agreement being implemented, which would see the Donetsk and Luhansk regions claim independence.

Independence of these regions would actually mean Russian – given that the “leaders” are Russian (in fact members of Putin’s political party), and Putin has been dishing out Russian passports to Russian speakers in the regions.

Unfortunately, failure to reach any of Putin’s aims will increase the likelihood of him ordering an invasion – be it a complete occupation of the country with a march on Kyiv or a land corridor linking Russia with Crimea.

Notably, NATO has bolstered its borders by sending additional assets and troops to Eastern Europe – this response has, as expected, been spun by Russia as aggression – when in fact it demonstrates to our allies on the borders that we are serious about their security and protection – and this is 100% the correct course of action. Unfortunately, our forces on the borders will need to move from a deterrent force to defensive as this behaviour from Moscow may become the “new normal”.

NATO must stand united on its diplomacy and given Putin’s unreasonable demands this diplomacy must be skilled. In general, a united front has been achieved, but there are worrying hints of German concessions concerning NATO membership and the Minsk agreement. Moreover, the big players at the negotiating table, discussing Ukraine’s future, has echoes of the Cold War. Ukraine must be listened to. Its sovereignty and future security are at stake and the wrong concession could lead to discontent on the streets of Kyiv, playing further into Putin’s divide and rule tactic.

Unfortunately, despite being along the right policy lines, the Conservative Government’s diplomatic response to this crisis has not been skilled. Instead it has highlighted clumsy diplomacy and a Britain lacking influence. Labour’s respected and capable Shadow Defence Minister summed this up nicely when he said it is an “embarrassment” that “with Europe facing the most serious security crisis since the Cold War, Britain has a non-functioning prime minister.”

At the beginning of February, the Prime Minister quite incredibly cancelled a phone conversation with Vladimir Putin due to the publication of the report “detailing” the Government’s rule-breaking during the lock-down. The report stated that there had been “failures of leadership” from Johnson, which is ironic given the absolute failure of leadership he displayed by missing this critical phone call to save his failing career. There is a reason that, in the UK, we have seen more of French President Emmanuel Macron’s diplomatic efforts with Russia. Our country lacks international mite and is not taken seriously on the global stage.

Our Foreign Secretary must be a true diplomat, a person of high calibre and capable of empathy, understanding and fact retention. Instead, we have Liz Truss; this should be no surprise given that Boris Johnson has denigrated this Government position in the past.

In Moscow, Liz Truss demonstrated an absolute lack of understanding and knowledge, and it appears that she was only comfortable regurgitating rehearsed lines in her meeting with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, reminiscent of Tory MP’s in front of the press. Excluding her lack of geographical knowledge, what Truss was saying to Lavrov was probably right, but it takes a capable diplomat to ensure the opposition walks away feeling understood – even if they didn’t fully agree.

Meanwhile, Keir Starmer, John Healey and the Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy have demonstrated leadership and professionalism throughout these rising tensions – with visits to NATO and displays of solidarity with the Government on policy, where appropriate. Labour, a Government in waiting, provides the leadership our country needs and expects but unfortunately lacks. Missing crisis meetings, an Instagram photoshoot in Moscow, and clumsy diplomacy are embarrassing for our country and indicate a Government that doesn’t appear to take foreign influence and reputation seriously.

David Lammy's letter to Liz Truss
David Lammy’s letter to Liz Truss

NATO must remain united in the face of Putin’s aggression as this is the most likely response to prevent the genuine threat of war. We must continue to bolster the defences of our eastern European allies, provide Ukraine with defensive weapons and ensure that financial sanctions on Russia are crippling enough to deter reckless action from Putin. But of course, there are significant actions this Government can take closer to home, as Labour’s Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves and David Lammy are calling for; the Tories must return money from donors with links to Russia.

This crisis also raises important questions about the Conservatives managed decline of our military. Its lack of ability to provide an effective expeditionary force and the meagre number of troops we provide for NATO deterrence operations.

For more on foreign policy, this time on Afghanistan, see Taliban Recognition, The Next Western Betrayal Of Afghanistan?