Blaming Nato and the EU for the Ukraine crisis, as populists of right and left have done, is dangerous nonsense

David Aaronovitch

Wednesday February 23 2022, 5.00pm, The Times

If there was one thing they could all agree about before Monday night, it was that the whole business was our fault. “We” being the West, Nato, the EU; the “whole thing” being the crisis over Ukraine; and “they” being the people who always understand what’s really, truly happening.

Like Stop the War. Earlier on Monday that organisation issued a statement, apparently addressed to the whole anti-war movement, under the title “No War In Ukraine: Stop Nato Expansion”. The lead signatory was the man who, mirabile dictu, led the Labour Party into the last election but now sits as an independent. Jeremy Corbyn was joined by a small clutch of Labour MPs, a bevy of union leaders (has anyone yet told Britain’s railway employees that they want to be out of the western alliance?) and the inevitable Miriam Margolyes. The policies of the British government had “poured oil on the fire” of a conflict in Ukraine (which apparently has a “regime” not a government) but now things had to be settled so as to “address Russia’s security concerns”.

Meanwhile at GB News a remarkably similar diagnosis was on offer from the channel’s star turn, Nigel Farage. Addressing viewers directly, a presidential Farage told them that the European Union had instigated the Maidan revolution in 2014 that had led to all this trouble. Also he had thought for 30 years that Nato expansion had been a mistake. So why not just “take away Putin’s casus belli” and declare that Ukraine could never join Nato? “Putin doesn’t want to invade Ukraine,” he reassured everyone, “he’s trying to frighten the West.”

In that strangely influential nexus created by the implosion of the Revolutionary Communist Party and its re-communion in the Brexit Party, the Institute of Ideas, Spiked Online, numerous discussion programmes and the House of Lords, the view was the same. Through January Spiked warned of western “meddling” in Ukraine, and mocked the “disarray of the West” and its insistence on an outmoded alliance. Last week their leading columnist on this subject denounced western warnings concerning Putin’s intentions. Despite all the hyperbole concerning hostilities, “of course, nothing happened. Russian soldiers didn’t cross the border.” Spiked’s authors then went back to talking and tweeting about the foreign issue most exercising them — the authoritarian regime of Justin Trudeau of Canada.

And then there was Alex Salmond and his mini-Scots nats Alba party, which also expressed the view that possible Nato expansion was a provocation and ought to be ruled out. Salmond has a show on the Russian propaganda channel Russia Today but is clear that this hasn’t affected his judgment. Which, uncharitably, I believe.

Meanwhile on another Russian TV station, this time in Russia, Donald Trump’s former secretary of state and putative Republican candidate Mike Pompeo was shown saying of Putin that he is “very shrewd, very capable. I have enormous respect for him.”

Weeks away from the presidential election in France the far-left and far-right candidates were also agreed. Marine Le Pen opined that “like it or not, Ukraine belongs to the Russian sphere of influence” and the EU and Nato should butt out, while Eric Zemmour advocated the dropping of all sanctions against Russia, including those imposed after the Salisbury attack. The main left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon defended the Russian military build-up, given that Ukraine was “associated with a hostile power”, ie America.

Kaboom! On Monday at 10pm Moscow time Putin himself, following up a bizarre nod-along ceremony, torpedoed their arguments. The problem wasn’t Nato and it wasn’t the EU. It wasn’t Russia’s “security concerns”. It was, as he told it, the terrible errors of Lenin and Stalin in creating an autonomous Ukrainian entity when historically it was all really Russian. That had led to an unnatural separation when the Soviet Union split apart. But “Ukraine is not just a neighbouring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.” With that came the “recognition” as governments of two Russian-backed rebel groups in the territory of Ukraine and their claims on areas currently held by the Ukrainian government.

The speech might have been rambling and emotional but its motivation was clear. And it immediately created a quandary for many West-blamers and Putin-understanders. How would you square your belief in national sovereignty and the effective declaration by the Russian president that Ukraine shouldn’t have any? Over on Spiked the headline suddenly appeared: “Hands off Ukraine: Russia must immediately withdraw from Ukrainian territory”. The territory, you will recall, that days earlier was only threatened in the West’s imagination. For softer Corbyn supporters the condemnation of Putin by their other great hero Bernie Sanders allowed an opportunity for a quiet retweet and you could almost hear the sigh of relief as the “send” button was pushed.

For over a decade now left and right populists alike have opposed western policy towards Russia. Corbyn famously, like Salmond and the Spiked outfit, questioned whether Russia was behind the Salisbury poisonings. On the left Russia stood as a flawed bulwark against imperialism, on the right against the supranational machinations of the New World Order (the EU, Nato, the UN, whatever). Russia itself always felt more comfortable dealing with nations individually and so encouraged politicians who advocated looser alliances and associations or none at all. Sometimes, as in the case of loans to Marine Le Pen’s operation, money was involved.

In the case of a few other western politicians the attraction of Putin has, frankly, a more erotic dimension. After Monday’s speech the former president of the United States Donald Trump, in an interview with two softball online radio hosts, was large with admiration. “Oh, that’s wonderful,” he told them. “That’s the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen. There were more army tanks than I’ve ever seen. They’re gonna keep peace all right. Here’s a guy who’s very savvy.” Power is such a thrill.

Finally there’s the “truth-is-out-there” brigade that has done its research on the internet, follows a contrarian journalist on a news channel, just knows that the MSM is pure propaganda and is too sensible to believe anything but the totally incredible.

I don’t call these western apologists for Putin traitors, or fifth columnists, or paid agents of Russia. They’re none of those things. I note that as of today, courtesy of Putin, these people all look foolish. But if the Moscow autocrat follows through the logic of his own words, then things may get very difficult for us all. A price will be paid, economically certainly and possibly in something more precious. It will be Putin’s doing but there will be an increasing number of voices raised blaming our own governments and institutions. Voices that must be heard but must be countered.