BY PAUL NEWALL
Vladimir Putin inserted himself into the Brexit discourse this week and the result was interesting :
“The referendum happened” he said. “What can she do? She should fulfil the will of her nation, as expressed at the referendum. Or it isn’t a referendum.”
Is wily Vlad being mischievous or does he have a higher purpose?
Nigel Farage took a great deal of flak for saying that he admired the way that Putin operated and there’s little doubt that he’s a gangster, but to write him off as only an authoritarian dictator is probably selling him short.
Russia has throughout its history been ruled by absolutist leaders, strongmen – and indeed women – whose words alone carried death to opponents. Its population would appear to like it that way – there is still a large communist movement in Russia that yearns for the reformation of the Soviet Union although the Russian People is increasingly capitalist.
Throughout its history Mother Russia has been constantly attacked, primarily from the West. As a consequence there’s a large streak of paranoia in the national DNA. Every time that there has been an effort at European integration Russia has paid a huge price in human suffering. Dictators like Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolf Hitler all tried to turn the Steppe into a European bread basket and naturally the Russian people weren’t ever keen on the idea.
The practical upshot of this siege mentality has been an intensely nationalistic foreign policy focused on providing a buffer zone between Western Europe and the homeland, the most successful of which was the Warsaw Pact (though it wasn’t so hot for the other members of course).
So let’s fast forward to more recent events. The Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych was first wooed then toppled by EU and liberal US influence in 2014. Yanukovych was Putin’s man in a country that the since the fall of the USSR had been considered part of the New Russian Federation’ s sphere of influence and Putin felt threatened. So Putin reacted in two ways – firstly he annexed Crimea which had been a Russian possession from 1754 up to 1954 when Nikita Khrushchev gifted it to Ukraine in possibly the largest wedding gift in history to his Ukrainian wife. Secondly Putin started a very dirty war in the ethnically Russian area of Donbass which persists to the present day.
There have been all kinds of accusations about the Russians interfering in European and US elections including our own Brexit referendum and the short answer is going to be almost certainly – yes they did. But Remoaner arguments about Russian bots invalidating the Referendum results are nonsense – because every major vote in the last 25 years has been subject to covert dirty tricks by various players that cancel out each other’s misdeeds. Why wouldn’t Vladimir want to toss the odd hand grenade into the European project? The EU is a direct and real threat to not only him but to his country.
The EU are forming a military union which Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement ties us into and there are quotes from Guy Verhofstadt and Emmanuel Macron about the EU becoming an “Empire for peace”. Just yesterday Juncker talked of the Second World War never materialising if the EU had existed in the 1930’s.
No doubt it would be a delicious irony to see fresh faced middle class remainers being conscripted to fight on the Ukrainian front (there’s an aspect to freedom of movement they didn’t see coming). Still, no Brit or European wants to see a new Pan European war . Might it just be possible that Vlad the Bad shares a vision of a Europe of strong nation states rather than one overwhelming supranational conglomerate (albeit for very different reasons)?
No sane man approves of Russian spies tootling around Europe spraying nerve agent or dumping polonium in dissidents’s teapots. Nor is it a great idea for us to keep prodding the Russian bear with a pointy stick in order to provoke another war of annihilation just to realise a new geopolitical landscape that some technocrat with a Nazi Grandfather drinking in a Brussels bar sees as the way forward.
Perhaps Putin values European democracy more than he values democracy in his own country but that’s not for us to judge. That’s a question for his own people. As the fall of the Soviet empire proved, if Putin’s constituency abandon his world view then he’ll be consigned to the dustbin of history but a United Europe can’t bring that about.
Paul Newall is a child of the 1960’s from a traditional Labour-supporting household. Paul dabbled with Trotskyism in the 1980’s but then “grew up and thanks to having responsibilities I slowly migrated across the political spectrum until instead of hating Maggie Thatcher I admired her for beating my side in the miners’ strike”.