“There is no more serious an issue for the world, and it’s the world that’s gathered here, than one country invading another in this completely illegal and unacceptable way. And the whole world should get behind Ukraine, should support Ukraine, and should call out the illegality of what Putin and his cronies have done.” 

I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down

The words of British Foreign Secretary David, Lord Cameron to the gathered assembly at the G20 in Brazil. We could not have put it better ourselves. Facing Cameron, Sergey Lavrov, the completely impassive Russian foreign minister with the lugubrious face like a Basset hound. Lavrov did not bat a droopy eye; he merely looked at his mobile phone in resignation. He’s heard it all before. And he’ll hear it a lot more. He doesn’t give a damn. Nor does Vladimir Putin. After all, at the United Nations meeting of the Security Council on 24 February 2022, while the delegates including the Ukrainian ambassador were warning Putin to think very carefully before crossing the Ukrainian border, there was the tragicomic scene recorded on film for posterity of all the members including Russia’s representative, suddenly all looking in complete disbelief at their mobiles and listening to the newsfeeds reporting live that the tanks were already rolling and the missiles were raining down on targets inside Ukraine, proof that their embassy was completely futile and redundant. The reaction of Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, particularly sticks in the mind: frozen, stunned, like a rabbit in the headlights. It was quite a moment for everyone there, not least the Russian who appeared to have no more idea of Putin’s actions, or at least the timing, than anyone else.

Exactly two years later, this week’s G20 summit illustrates the West’s ongoing diplomatic impotence when it comes to dealing with Russia and President Putin.

Poker with the devil: it all went wrong a decade ago

Britain and the United States along with Russia were the guarantors of Ukrainian sovereignty under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Under the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, Ukraine, then the state with the second most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world by dint of it being the geographic home to most of the old Soviet fixed-site strategic nuclear capability, agreed to surrender all nuclear weapons on its soil in return for security assurances.

Roll forward two decades, David Cameron was the British Prime Minister in 2014 when Putin annexed the Crimea. Expressing ‘concerns’ about Russian ‘interference’ in Ukraine, Cameron was Tough and Decisive: UK government officials would boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi as a public embarrassment to Putin. That would show him! Prince Edward was advised not to go. The US also withdrew its delegation from the fortnight’s winter holiday but went one stage even further and issued some sanctions. And that, as they say, was that.

Putin was shaking in his boots. With laughter.  As revealed in the excellent BBC2 series “Putin versus the West: Path to War”, virtually every western leader thought they had influence and leverage over Putin. President Hollande, like his successor Emmanuel Macron, through Gallic charm and flattery. Germany’s Angela Merkel thought Putin would demonstrate diplomatic reciprocity and bend to EU values if Germany mortgaged its economy to Russia by buying its gas. Cameron thought he had it via the London Olympic Games and his invitation to Putin to come and watch the men’s Judo gold medal match which had a Russian finalist. As candid Cameron admitted later, he and his peers had none, and their unanimous reaction with varying degrees of rueful embarrassment and disbelief at being duped was, “he lied to me!”. Putin is an ex-KGB colonel! What did they expect?

As the second largest donor of military aid to Ukraine, the UK is right to be to be ‘calling out’ Putin and his cronies and it has every right exhorting everyone to get behind the Ukrainians. But that Budapest Memorandum still rankles, pointing the accusatory finger not only at Russia as the aggressor, but the US and the UK for failing to prevent the desecration of Ukraine’s border in the first place, as far back as a decade ago, as guarantors of the country’s sovereignty. As for the US, with Congress having blocked any further aid to Ukraine, Cameron’s is now also a public appeal to Washington’s Republicans to honour the US obligation. The weakness of Biden’s situation is only highlighted by the fact that with the US funding tap to Ukraine turned off and his being able to bring no influence so far to alter that, he has only sanctions left as any tangible form of help.

The diplomatic solution that nobody will take…

But the reality is that while the West still prevaricates over military, financial and humanitarian support to President Zelensky, losing sight of what the consequences might be if Putin wins, the G20 is showing that NATO and its Five Eyes allies have very little political leverage left that has not already been applied. Cameron has announced individual personal sanctions against the commanders of the labour camp which housed the recently and (in the minds of Russian officialdom) inexplicably dead Alexey Navalny. Big deal. So what?

Joe Biden has announced 500 sanctions including export restrictions on 100 companies and individuals supplying military equipment or components to Russia. One of the targets is a North Korean company: presumably, the White House has the demonstrable means of enforcement otherwise the sanction is irrelevant.

The sanctions imposed so far clearly have not worked, despite both Biden and Boris promising two years ago that what at the time was billed as the strongest sanctions regime in history would bring the Russian war machine to its knees. Half of Russia’s assets are frozen under sanctions. But the economy is proving remarkably resilient thanks to the sanctions wall leaking like a sieve allowing a constant and strong stream of foreign income. Sanctions are pointless unless 100% enforceable (they have been no more successful against Iran). There has been a multitude of appeals to the international community, and two formal votes in the UN to condemn Russia. What is evident is that countries amounting to half the world’s population have no intention of taking sides. Realistically, the only way of breaking the Russian economy and therefore its war machine, is to sanction any and every country provenly purchasing Russian oil, gas, wheat, minerals and other commodities, and to sanction any government and individuals who actively supply or who entertain negotiations with Putin about the source of raw materials or goods not available in Russia.

All of that would include China and India and many administrations in Africa and South America, not a few of whom are sitting in that G20 talking shop. And that is simply not going to happen.

…and the military one that is struggling to make itself evident

Like any strong-man leader, what Putin really respects is strength in his opponent. He might be wary of NATO but he is not frightened of it. Not unless NATO governments show they mean business and every one of them more than doubles its defence expenditure, even those that already meet the 2% minimum commitment of their national GDP. A US security expert on the BBC news said that he did not believe that Russia had any intent towards invading the Baltic States, or Poland or Finland (all of which have at some stage in their recent history belonged to Russia or been invaded by it). Putin may invade, or he may not: who is willing to call his bluff? As the author mentioned in his recently published analysis “War and Peace; Preoccupations of an Unstable World”, deterrence is the watchword: “The key to defence is deterrence: having the demonstrable military capacity to scare the living daylights out of your enemy: leaving him in no doubt that should he come aggressively close or cross the line and there will be all hell to pay.” Putin is not getting that message yet from NATO about its resolve because NATO is emitting few if any signals that it is taking the threat seriously, that there will be hell to pay.

As for our own nuclear deterrent, he’ll be quite happy that of the two British Trident live firings since 2016, the hapless Royal Navy has 100% failure rate. No doubt the FSB, scouring the Daily Telegraph for intelligence, will have picked up the Matt cartoon the day after the latest misfire was made public: as the captain of one of His Majesty’s submarines peers over a crewman’s shoulder at the radar screen, he says “Our Trident missile is veering off course. I hope it doesn’t hit the UK’s only working aircraft carrier”. Amen.

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