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25th February 2022

Just Putin it out there: What has happened with Russia and Ukraine?

Alfie Cumberworth assesses Johnson’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and urges solidarity with those who’s lives have been endangered.
Just Putin it out there: What has happened with Russia and Ukraine?
Vladimir Putin and Boris Johnson @ WikimediaCommons

The invasion has begun. Putin’s determination for war and bloodshed is evident for all those on the international stage to see. It is now clear that Russia’s intent to solve this crisis that they created diplomatically has amounted to nothing more than superficial gesture politics. As the west finds itself scrambling to force Russia into becoming an isolated, lonely, pariah state, I believe it is important to question how, in the 21st century, the concept of a full-scale invasion in Europe is not an idea bound to the history books.

I want to start with some background. Indeed, it is easy from the news coverage right now to think of the crisis in Ukraine as something that has spontaneously occurred, seemingly out of nowhere and for no reason at all. After all, the UK has been so fixated on its own domestic politics and instilling a misguided sense of British exceptionalism since the referendum that we have wilfully disregarded international affairs.

Naturally, in a way, British exceptionalism is feeding into the discourse of how Johnson has behaved in response to the declaration of war in Europe, leading the west with a sense of patriotic pride. It is important though to remind ourselves of the international standards Johnson promotes to us and ensure that he follows up, (both in the past and currently) on his words.

He has rightfully attacked and condemned Putin for breaking international law. However, not too long Johnson’s party gloated about how Brexit gives the government the excuse to break international law in a ‘limited’ and ‘specific’ way. Obviously, the international laws being broken are incomparable in scale of damage and destruction. Nevertheless, these double standards should be kept in mind whilst we watch with wide eyes the conflict in Ukraine play out, so that we do not slip blissfully into not holding our own politicians accountable.

It is important though, to move past the failings of Johnson (at least temporarily, so that there’s room for less well known facts in this article) because this is more important than his self-inflated ego. To be fair to the guy, this conflict started way before his failed prime ministerial tenure.

I argue it began with the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The international community’s devastatingly lacklustre response to this previous invasion of Ukraine has inspired Putin to feel like he can once again employ on-the-ground war tactics. The response was so shallow that he continued to fuel tension by supporting separatists within South-East Ukraine, eventually leading to war. Is it a surprise to any of us then that he provoked the flames of separatist sentiment once again in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as an excuse to start his sorrowful invasion of a peaceful nation?

The west knew about the Russian build-up of troops for months and yet we did embarrassingly little, something I feel will be one of the great regrets we look back on in the years to come. The US estimates anywhere between 169,000 and 190,000 troops and half of Russia’s entire air force surrounded Ukraine. Diplomatic demands from Russia were not met before the invasion and should not be met now the invasion has begun.

Putin deeply desires to scare the west into subjugating Ukraine, a sovereign nation, to a block from ever joining NATO. Whatever your opinion is about NATO, of which I’m sure there are many, the debate about whether it is right or wrong for Ukraine to join completely misses the point. Ukraine’s desire for membership, or exclusion, from NATO should not be dictated to it by another state. Especially not an aggressive state intent on bullying and controlling it. A nation’s right to self-determination is vital.

The Conservative government initially imposed underwhelming and highly criticised sanctions on five Russian banks and three Russian oligarchs. Their UK assets were frozen and travel bans were issued. The issue the UK government faced immediately after Putin stated he recognised Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics is that for years now, the Conservatives have willingly accepted money from wealthy Russian oligarchs.

This week, foreign secretary Liz Truss was humiliated on live TV when she was confronted with the fact that the biggest political donation given by a female donor in recent British political history came from the wife of a former Russian minister with ties to the Kremlin. It amounted to £1.8 million.

More damningly, it has been uncovered that the group formally known as the ‘Conservative Friends of Russia’ has stated no intention to plan it’s in-person conference, due to occur in two weeks.  This group has direct ties to Tory MPs and has hosted events attended by the prime minister’s wife, Carrie Johnson.

It is no secret that the Conservative Party has questions to answer regarding its closeness to Russian money and influence from the Kremlin, despite Johnson’s vehement denials. How then can the Conservatives be trusted to tackle and challenge Putin if their party has such close ties to wealthy Russian politicians and oligarchs?

If it was not for the backing of the EU and the Biden administration, despite the latter of which not showing a preference for Johnson in the past, then the Conservative party would now be backed into a corner. Forced to stand aside as the Russians creep ever closer to Kiev.

The problem regarding Russian money in the Conservative party is not isolated to this one example. This week, the leader of the Westminster SNPs Ian Blackford rightfully pointed out that 113 limited partnerships have moved $20.8 billion out of Russian banks under the Tories.  He noted also that since Johnson became prime minster, a total of over £2.3 million has been donated to the Conservatives from Russian oligarchs. This should make it clear to everyone that the Tory party alone are completely incapable and shamefully ill-equipped to pioneer any meaningful sanctions at this point – without upsetting vital donation links.

Again, the rhetoric of British exceptionalism appears to be little more than farce when put under scrutiny. It is an aspect of reality we so often seem to forget when trying to understand exactly why our government is so horrendously incompetent.

It is important to note however that it is precisely because of the EU and the US support, that the UK is in the position to announce the impressive swathe of sanctions it did on Thursday. As Biden announced over 7000 troops will be deployed to Germany, Johnson was able to announce he intends to impose the “largest set of sanctions ever imposed anywhere by the UK government”. This includes further personal sanctions on five more Russian oligarchs, including Putin’s former son-in-law, as well as tackling more than 100 businesses and individuals through sanctioning.

Additionally, Johnson expressed desire to introduce legislation that would limit the number of deposits Russian nationals will be able to hold in UK bank accounts. The prime minister also stated he intends to work with the G7 and NATO to exclude Russia from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), effectively cutting Russia off from the international banking system. These are welcome actions from the government and are planned to be implemented next week. However, at the time of writing, the exclusion from SWIFT now appears unlikely due to the hesitancy of some EU member states to follow through on this. Only time will tell.

Regrettably, there are certainly some prominent figures on the left side of British politics whom I think have acted foolishly in their acknowledgement of this crisis. Corbyn has shown himself to be, at best, extremely naive with his response. He initially advocated a suspension of NATO’s expansion eastward, effectively conceding to the demands of Putin.

I sympathise with Corbyn’s desire for peace and negotiation, and I believe that many members of the international community have the same desired goal. However, his surrender to Russia’s demands as a solution to this conflict highlights his oversimplified ignorance to the issue. By having such a stance, he undermines the concept of the sovereignty of nation states to choose their own stance, their own alliances, and their own path. Additionally, the Stop the War Coalition made a statement criticising NATO and 11 Labour MPs signed up in support of it. They have since withdrawn that support after they were told to do so by the Labour chief whip.

If the west conceded to Putin’s demands, what’s to say he won’t insist the reversal of NATO’s already established eastwards expansion in the near future? This event should be reason enough to persuade those on the Left who are suspicious of NATO that it is very much still needed to curb Russia’s hopes of expanding its imperialist sphere of influence. It should certainly not be a reason to double down on gullible predispositions. Nobody in the west wants war, but dictating the future of a sovereign nation is not the way to prevent it. Therefore conceding to Putin’s demands should not be something considered either on the Left or Right of our domestic politics.

It is often easy, and sometimes preferable for our own mental health, to focus on the political fallout of events such as this. But I want to finish this article by drawing your attention to the humanitarian crisis we are about to see unfold. I write this on the first day of invasion, that being the 24th February 2022 at exactly 22:17. Yet already, Ukraine has announced 203 individual attacks have occurred, 169 people have been injured, and 57 people have tragically had their lives taken from them. This total is already stark and will increase steadily day by day for months to come, that I assure you.

I urge you to keep in mind, as we watch this tragedy unfold, the mothers and fathers in Ukraine who will soon hear of the deaths of their children in the defence of the country they hold dear in their hearts. This crisis is far from concluded and you will hear stories of loss and devastation throughout the year. It is because of that that I deeply encourage you to show solidarity with Ukraine and to not succumb to Putin’s fear and despair.

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