William Hague was on rather shaky ground when he argued this week that Moscow has chosen “the route to isolation” by recognizing Crimea’s referendum. On the contrary, it is the European Union and the United States who look as if they have seriously overplayed their respective hands in Ukraine. Across Asia, Africa and Latin America, the cry of “Western hypocrisy” has been heard much louder than complaints about Vladimir Putin.
Even in the UK, mainstream opinion is steadily becoming more critical of Western interventionism and our “New Cold War” posturing – despite some pretty one-sided media coverage and much establishment “tut-tutting”. Independent thought is still viewed with suspicion, and even disgust, by some – and I should know, having consistently argued we should negotiate with Moscow, not threaten tough sanctions we’ll never impose.
This Crimean crisis is, perhaps, reaching its apogee. As a referendum is held on the Black Sea peninsula, a territory 25pc bigger than Wales and home to 2m people, the stand-off between Russia and the West continues, dominating the global news-cycle.
Talk of a new Cold War is deeply alarmist. Politicians on both sides are posturing in front of each other and their respective electorates. Be in no doubt, though, relations between Russia and the US are now at their lowest ebb since the Soviet Union collapsed over 22 years ago.
I’ve been struck in recent days by the growing gulf between conflicting points of view towards the crisis in Crimea. I’m not referring to the firmly held differences in opinion between respective governments in London and Washington on the one hand and Moscow on the other. What I have in mind, after numerous conversations and broadcasts about Russia and Ukraine over the last week, and having closely followed events in this region for many years, is the polarization of opinion within the West itself.
As far as our politicians and diplomats are concerned, Russia remains the Cold War enemy, our implacably foe, where little or nothing has changed since US President Ronald Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union “the evil empire”. Never mind that the USSR collapsed almost a quarter of a century ago, or that it was 31 years ago yesterday that Reagan made that speech.
Who cares if post-Soviet Russia has transformed itself, via the chaos of the 1990s, from a closed, sclerotic, planned economy based on armaments and commodities, into a nascent capitalist society, well-integrated into global commerce and, unlike any other large emerging market, with a fully-open capital account?
“There will be significant costs and consequences” following Russia’s intervention in Crimea. So said Foreign Secretary William Hague yesterday. But what can the West actually do to challenge Vladimir Putin’s Russia? How far are we prepared to go to determine the future of a small, sun-kissed territory that juts out from Southern Ukraine?
Crimea lies at the heart of a region that is, and always has always, hugely strategic. This picturesque peninsula has seen centuries of conquest, be it at the hands of Greeks or Scythians, the Byzantians or the British. It was the importance of the Black Sea ports to the grain trade, after all, which provoked the Anglo-Russian Crimean War under Queen Victoria, with its glorious, yet ultimately doomed Charge of the Light Brigade.