Sometimes an event happens meaning that all else in politics dwindles to something of an irrelevance, at least for a time, and we had that this week with the horrifying Russian invasion of Ukraine. Europe’s largest state invading its second largest. Scenes of tanks rolling through cities, sounds of air raid sirens and explosions, and all in a modern, democratic European country. These are scenes that we all thought – or at least hoped – we had left behind, and we are now witnessing the beginning of a war that could have far-reaching consequences for Europe and beyond.
The fact that the Russian invasion was foretold by western security agencies doesn’t seem to have done anything to diminish the shock and the anger at Putin’s gangster regime in the Kremlin. Indeed, some thought the west was hyping up the threat for its own ends. Even Putin wouldn’t do this, would he? And if he does it will be a minor incursion in the east. He won’t rain missiles on Kyiv (which we have all need to learn to pronounce as “Keeev”, rather than “Key-ev”, in order to use the Ukrainian, rather than the Russian, pronunciation). Tanks won’t roll through the streets of Ukraine’s capital. Except the missiles do rain, and at the time of writing the tanks are just a few miles from the city centre.
How Britain and the international community collectively respond to this is still a work in progress, with NATO and G7 allies in talks to figure out the next move over the coming days. Aid in the form of both military weaponry and health supplies is making its way into Ukraine, but as Putin’s assault escalates it is becoming clear that the people of Ukraine are going to need more than this to make a real difference.
As the UK prepares to play its part in international talks, last night Boris Johnson announced a second, more sweeping set of sanctions designed to start stemming the flow of money into the Kremlin’s hands, and in the long-term, starve them out of the resources to fund a war.
And yet for many, these sanctions still seem much too weak. In the 1980s we made apartheid South Africa a global pariah, cut out from the economic, social, cultural and sporting life of the rest of the world. Why, many ask, would we not do the same to Russia right now?
Certainly, tougher sanctions is broadly Keir Starmer’s position today. And whilst the domestic political considerations are very far from the most important thing, they will of course influence how the UK does respond.
In truth, relations with Russia cause complications for most of our political parties. As Russian oligarchs – many friends of Putin – have bought up lavish properties across London over the last 20 years, they have also become significant donors to the Conservative Party. On the Labour side, just days before the invasion 11 of its MPs signed a letter appearing to blame NATO, rather than Putin, for what then were just tensions. And it’s not simple for the SNP either, with former leader Alex Salmond having been in the pay of the Kremlin as a presenter on Russia Today for several years.
On the other hand, the crisis does at least allow Boris Johnson to turn the focus away from his difficulties over the lockdown-busting parties. This week he became the first Prime Minister ever to be interviewed as a suspect under police caution, and we barely noticed. For Keir Starmer, early focus group evidence is that the public are also judging his responses to be Prime Ministerial, and the war reinforces the difference between him and his predecessor who spent his entire political career attacking NATO and sympathising with Russia. As one wag put it this week, it’s not just that Corbyn was to the left of Labour. It’s that he was to the east. The Starmer approach could not be more different, and the public have approvingly noticed.
But for today we all ought to put these domestic considerations to one side. War rages in Europe again, and the situation worsens by the hour.
Успіхів Україні. Ми з тобою – good luck to Ukraine, we are with you.