Sunday 25 September 2022

Safety, Honour and Welfare

What is Britain’s interest in Ukraine? Why are we shovelling weapons and equipment into that country, despite the fact that our national budget is stretched to bursting and our own armed forces have for many years been starved of money, men and kit?

If we were a proper open society, surely this question would be asked all the time. But it is not. So I am asking it now, as the Ukraine war threatens to ignite the whole of Europe and has already brought us closer to actual nuclear warfare than we have ever been.

I ask as a British patriot, whose main concern, above all things, is the ‘safety, honour and welfare of this realm’, as the old Articles of War say. I would not shirk a necessary fight, or desert an ally. But why are we stoking this war instead of trying to bring about peace?

This would once have been a perfectly normal British view. Margaret Thatcher was far from keen on Ukrainian nationalism. On June 9 1990, Mrs Thatcher, still then in power, spoke to what was then the Ukrainian provincial assembly in Kiev.

She briskly batted away a question about opening a British embassy in that city. This, she explained, was as likely as Britain opening an embassy in California or Quebec. ‘I can see you are trying to get me involved in your politics!’ she scolded her questioner, adding:

‘Embassies are only for countries which have full national status. Therefore, we have ambassadorial diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, with the United States, with Canada, with Australia. We do not have embassies for California, for Quebec, for states in Australia.’

Once upon a time, the Americans, likewise, would have stayed out of it. On August 1 1991, President George H W Bush delivered an oration which would later become known derisively among American hawks as ‘The Chicken Kiev Speech’.

Bush was not keen on an independent Ukraine. He told what was still Ukraine’s Soviet puppet parliament, ‘I come here to tell you: We support the struggle in this great country for democracy and economic reform. In Moscow, I outlined our approach. We will support those in the centre and the republics who pursue freedom, democracy and economic liberty.’

But when he used the phrase ‘this great country’, he was talking about the Soviet Union, not Ukraine. He expected and wanted the USSR to continue to exist. During his visit he had refused to meet campaigners for Ukrainian independence.

After praising the reforms of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he warned against independence if it only changed a distant despot for a local one, suggesting that this was the outcome he feared. What the Western democracies had wanted was a reformed, free version of the old Soviet Union.

They had never expected or calculated on an explosion of nationalism in the region and did not much like the look of it. It was only after the USSR fell to pieces in 1991 that the unthinkable became the unstoppable. But some people in American politics wanted to push further. They feared that Russia would one day rise again and challenge American power.

Paul Wolfowitz, also one of the authors of the Iraq disaster, set out a policy of diminishing and humiliating Russia back in 1992, long before anyone had ever heard of Vladimir Putin. While it found supporters in the Pentagon and elsewhere, many others, from the brilliant veteran Cold War diplomat George Kennan to the ultimate master of cynical diplomacy Henry Kissinger, opposed the resulting policy of Nato expansion. Kennan prophetically said in 1998, when Putin was an obscure politician, that ‘I think it is the beginning of a new Cold War.’

He warned: ‘I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake.’ He said it was an insult to Russia’s then fledgling democrats, arguing: ‘We are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.’

And so it was. Prominent Russian liberals, such as Yegor Gaidar, begged influential Western friends to challenge the Nato expansion policy. But there is a lot of money in the making of weapons, and a lot of fame to be won in pursuing warlike policies, and so it went ahead, gathering speed and strengthening Russian nationalists and antidemocrats as it did so.

Then in 2008 George W Bush, a pathetic parody of his war veteran father, suggested Ukrainian Nato membership. That was probably the moment at which conflict became inevitable. The prominent American neoconservative Robert Kagan has put the matter well: ‘While it would be obscene to blame the US for Putin’s inhumane attack on Ukraine, to insist that the invasion was entirely unprovoked is misleading.’

The point of all this is that the current policy, of militant and indeed military support for Ukraine, is a very old one, and a very controversial one. There is a serious case against it, made by serious patriotic people in the West. Yet it is seldom heard.

Nearly as important, there simply is no direct British interest here, though the fact is never discussed. We have very little in the way of trade, political or cultural links with Ukraine. Or with Russia, for that matter. We have no territorial conflict with Russia.

Not since the long-ago Crimean War, now recognised by most people as a futile folly which achieved nothing, have British armed forces been active in that region. As long as the war was a distant battle, this perhaps did not matter so much. But even before the Putin invasion those, like me, who opposed goading Russia were defamed as ‘Putin apologists’ (I have for years referred to him as a sinister tyrant) and falsely accused of ‘parroting Russian propaganda’.

Aren’t we supposed to live in a free democracy in which both sides of a question can be discussed, without one side being accused of treachery? Surely it is Putin who regards dissent as treason? Once Putin had invaded, I was constantly accused of ‘justifying’ the action, even though I clearly, and without hesitation, condemned the invasion as barbaric, lawless and stupid, and have never deviated from this view.

Yet not a day goes by without someone smearing me as a traitor of some sort. Actually, anyone who has Russia’s best interests at heart is grinding his teeth in fury at Putin’s idiotic crime, which has done limitless damage to the peace and security of that country for decades to come and perhaps forever. And now it has brought us closer to nuclear war than ever before.

Surely that development – and it would be extreme folly to dismiss Putin’s words as bluff – compels us all to be more thoughtful, not less. I would just like to make a plea for us as a people and a nation to start discussing this in a grown-up fashion, rather than by assuming the present policy is the only right or patriotic one. Perhaps it isn’t. In which case it has never been more important to approach the subject with an open mind.