Judo, not chess

One could have been excused for forgetting about Ukraine. As events unfolded in the Middle East and the threat of ebola in west Africa continued to scare western audiences, coverage of Ukraine fell flat. Yet, far from calming down, the number of people dying in the conflict continued to rise, and if the presence of 50,000 Russian troops in Crimea is not cause for alarm, the presence of Iskander tactical missiles has no doubt troubled the minds of Angela Merkel and François Hollande, who have rushed to Moscow in search of a Franco-German-led peace bid.

Yet judging the severity of a situation through recourse to media coverage is not an exact science. Indeed, this level of confusion can roll into the political realm, and when the United Kingdom’s relations with Russia were debated in parliament late last year the house was divided on the issue.

At polar ends of the debate were two leading voices, with the majority of members of parliament falling somewhere in the middle. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown made direct comparisons between Russia and the Nazis, and argued that Britain should pursue a strong response. In contrast, Edward Leigh argued that we should see this from the Russian perspective, and in way of a hypothetical, stated that the United States would not stand to see Mexico aligned in some way with Russia. The middle ground held the consensus that Russia had shown a complete lack of respect towards international norms, yet little was put down in way of a solution.

Although the UK government has backed sanctions, these were deemed not strong enough by Labour, which called on the government to push for European Union-wide agreement on imposing further tier three sanctions against Russia. Yet, apart from agreeing to sanctions, Britain has been largely absent from the debate, and UK actors have treated the event more as a political football in the run-up to a general election than a precursor to world war.

As the minister for Europe, David Lidington, has already stated, the UK is not seeking a hostile relationship with Russia, and the aim is not to cripple the Russian economy. Indeed, the role of sanctions and decreasing oil prices has drastically devalued the ruble, and the central bank of Russia has forecast that the nation’s GDP will fall by 4.5 per cent this year. This is a significant figure, but in the wider geopolitical landscape a 4.5 per cent fall is worth the risk.

As foreign leaders work out how to outthink Vladimir Putin, one must remember that his background is in judo and not chess, a sport that relies on reacting to situations from the floor and less so about long-term strategic thought. So far, Putin has been far more adept than the west at reacting to situations on the ground, and, as many would argue, Ukrainian attempts to join Nato were a clear provocation. Some analysts have claimed that Putin is planning to create a corridor between Crimea and Russia by capturing the port of Mariupol, and news coming out of Moscow on Monday stated the possibility of elections in eastern Ukraine as well as US arming of rebels.

The west has tried to challenge Russia, and, although sanctions are having an effect on the Russian economy, they are not working in the way they were intended – to change Putin’s behaviour. The intervention from Merkel and Hollande comes at a critical juncture, and it remains to be seen whether the diplomatic route is still viable. One thing is clear. Given how the situation has played out thus far, it is impossible to predict what the geopolitical make-up of the region will be next year. Europe is right to be worried.

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Photo: Tjebbe van Tijen

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