Alison Rowat: UK Minister mentions the war – and doesn’t get away with it

After the Sue Gray snafu, when the media flagged up the publication of her report only to have the Met upend those best laid plans, you might have thought there would be a wariness about predicting events.

Not when it comes to Russia’s intentions towards Ukraine, it seems. On that increasingly hot topic the forecasting business has been booming.

“Are we just days away from Russia invading Ukraine?” asked the host of BBC1’s Sunday Morning in a stark introduction. This just after the continuity announcer had promised viewers the chance to “take it easy” with Sophie Raworth.

In the papers, the Sun on Sunday declared it was “48 hours to war” with the possibility of a “bomb blitz” as early as tomorrow. But the biggest splash had been caused by UK Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, telling the Sunday Times that there was a “whiff of Munich in the air” from some in the West.

Brandon Lewis, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and yesterday the minister for the Sunday shows, was left with some explaining to do. Why was the Defence Secretary comparing diplomatic efforts aimed at preventing an invasion of Russia to appeasement?

READ MORE: Don’t hamper Covid effort, Minister warns

The host of Sky News’ Trevor Phillips on Sunday wondered how tactful it was to reference the Nazis at such a diplomatically sensitive moment.

According to Mr Lewis, what the Defence Secretary was actually calling to mind was a new Netflix movie, Munich: The Edge of War, based on the Robert Harris novel about the last gasp attempts to avoid war with Hitler’s Germany.

“In the run up to World War Two there was lots of diplomatic work people thought was progressing but turned out not [to be],” explained Mr Lewis.

Sophie Raworth wanted to know which countries the Defence Secretary was talking about when he spoke about a “whiff of Munich”. Was it France, whose President had met Vladimir Putin last week, or Germany? The new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is due to visit Kyiv and Moscow this week.

“No, no, no,” said Mr Lewis. “The point that Ben is making is that we’re all working on this to find a diplomatic outcome … but he’s expressing the fear that Russia may not be as genuine around that diplomatic engagement as we hope they are.”

By lunchtime, the Ukraine government had made clear its dismay at the mention of the Munich Agreement.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, Vadym Prystaiko, ambassador to the UK, said: “It’s not the best time for us to offend our partners in the world, reminding them of this act which actually not bought peace but the opposite, it bought war.”

The West sounding the alarm could be playing into President Putin’s hands, he added. “There’s panic everywhere not just in people’s minds but in financial markets as well.”

BBC Scotland’s The Sunday Show had Ukraine as its second item after an interview with Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s Health Secretary, on the lifting of Covid restrictions.

READ MORE: Can leaders avert war in Ukraine?

Was this the programme putting down a marker that its scope, like that of The Nine, lay in covering foreign affairs as well as Scottish and UK news?

If so it was executed slickly, with Martin Geissler’s explainer, complete with a map of Europe projected on to the studio floor, topped by a punchy interview with Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the former Prime Minister of Ukraine.

Speaking live from Kyiv, Mr Yatsenyuk said there was no doubt Vladimir Putin was armed to the teeth and ready to invade Ukraine.

But would he do so wholesale, or would he opt for a minor incursion that could trigger a conflict in some part of Ukraine? Other options were sabotage, terrorism, cyber attacks, and generally undermining the country.

Geissler put it to the former Prime Minister that Putin was not preparing Russia for mass casualties. “He’s not suggesting to them that this is a necessary and essential war and it’s about to happen.”

“Never trust Putin,” said Mr Yatsenyuk, adding that the Russian President had issued the same denials about Crimea, Georgia – and the Salisbury poisonings.

If Putin invades the consequences would be disastrous, he said. There would be millions of refugees; Nato would be exposed as incapable of preserving peace and stability; and shockwaves would hit the global markets.

As for talking to Putin, he told Geissler: “You can’t have negotiations at the barrel of a Russian gun.”

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