UK failed Ukraine the last time Russia invaded. We can’t betray them again, says Andrew McKie

NEVILLE Chamberlain is usually regarded as a figure who was proven spectacularly wrong, though there currently seems to be, in a film adaptation of Robert Harris’s book Munich, in which Jeremy Irons portrays him, some attempt at rehabilitation. As well as being derided for waving that piece of paper about at Heston aerodrome and declaring “peace for our time” – that time turning out to be a few months – he’s often roundly mocked for his declaration that German expansion into the Sudetenland was a “quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”.

Now that most people have been to a stag or hen party in Prague and, if they live in any sizeable UK town or city, probably have friends and neighbours originally from Eastern Europe, that may seem even more insular than it did in 1938. The general sentiment now is more in line with John Donne or those irritating HSBC adverts, bolstered by the fact that you could – if you care to – find out about people of whom you know nothing quickly and painlessly, courtesy of the internet.

Even so, few of us are expert on the internal politics of Ukraine or able to declare, with the confidence that the US president seems to have, that there’s going to be a Russian invasion on Wednesday. My own familiarity with the smoking lounge at Kyiv airport isn’t, by itself, enough to tempt me to make such a prediction, or any prediction, but at least I suppose we’ll find out fairly soon.

Or not. One reason why politicians and diplomats, when they have reason to believe that a war is due to start this time next week, don’t normally go public is that, as Sun Tzu pointed out, inscrutability is a useful stratagem when it comes to combat. But you might do it, I suppose, if it stood a chance of stopping it from happening.

It’s difficult, though, to see why advising your own citizens to flee Ukraine pronto (something that nearly 40 countries have now done) does much to make an invasion less likely, rather than the other way round.

But presumably either Russia will invade this week, and we’ll know Joe Biden was right or, if they don’t move in, years from now we may get to see whatever the American intel was and realise that this statement made Vladimir Putin back down.

Or perhaps the Pentagon is wrong. Maybe the Russians routinely conduct entirely harmless long-running military exercises involving huge proportions of their armed forces on the border of a neighbouring state on which they’ve no sinister designs, even though they’ve already illegally seized a large chunk of that same country.

Quite a lot of people on the Left, particularly those who support Stop the War group, seem to be making this argument. Indeed, they’re going further, and arguing that Mr Putin assembling thousands of men and tonnes of matériel is not just innocent, but a reasonable response to the “aggression” of the West.

While it’s interesting to see imperialism being denounced by defending the literally imperialist ambitions of a belligerent state, this is the familiar knee-jerk belief that the UK, the USA and Israel are always wrong, and any warmongering tyrant with an atrocious human rights record can be right, as long as he’s opposing those capitalist states. The likes of Jeremy Corbyn and George Galloway have never yet found a despot whom they couldn’t excuse, so long as they were opposed to Western interests.

None of the rest of us, however, can see evidence of this provocative eastward expansion of Nato. The proximate cause of the friction between Russia and Ukraine, apart from Russia’s obvious bad faith and territorial ambitions, was actually the suggestion that Ukraine might join the EU – something that looked both likely and popular until the end of 2013 – and nothing to do with Nato at all.

You might argue that Nato, in its own interests, should be doing more to look out for Ukraine, since Russia’s behaviour towards it has already created instability in Europe. And, in any case, even if Nato were expansionist, or Ukraine very keen to join it (something you might see as a perfectly sensible precaution, given Russia’s track record), it would still be untenable to argue that gave Russia the right to seize another country’s territory.

The case for backing Ukraine is doubly true for the UK and US, who haven’t done anything much about the annexation of Crimea, even though, under the Budapest Memorandum which led the country to give up its nuclear weapons, we are supposed to be guarantors of its security. That may not amount to a legal obligation to go to war on their behalf, but it’s a pretty obvious moral position, which we’ve failed to do much to honour.

When it comes down to it, people in the West don’t really have to immerse themselves in whether the Crimea is naturally Russian rather than Ukrainian, or make a close study of the economics and demographics of the Donbas, any more than they needed to have a deep knowledge of Sudeten Germans in the Czechoslovakia of the late 1930s. The central issue is much simpler, and similar to the one that Chamberlain had to grapple with: an untrustworthy and aggressive bully with an obvious desire to take over neighbouring territory.

It’s self-evident that Putin, like Hitler, is a wrong ’un. Fortunately, it doesn’t follow that all of Europe is about to be plunged into all-out war, but we ought to be doing a great deal more than we are to condemn his behaviour and stop him in his tracks.

If Western countries were, for example, to seize the considerable assets of Russian nationals (something that would, incidentally, do wonders for the property market in central London), you suspect that Mr Putin would quickly become much less popular with the oligarchs who have, until now, kept him in power.

Rather than equivocation about whether Nato, or Ukraine building closer ties with western Europe, is some kind of unreasonable provocation, we should be trumpeting the country’s right to seek the same free associations or treaties that any sovereign power enjoys, and backing them with lines of credit, equipment and assurances that we recognise that their stand against thuggish intimidation is in our interest, too.

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