Noticeably absent from the election debates was any talk of foreign policy, save for Miliband bragging about his success in preventing any military action in Syria. It is not hard to see why the leading politicians would not have wanted to talk about the future of the UK’s involvement in foreign affairs: the conservatives have failed to achieve anything great in the past five years- strikes in Libya have resulted ultimately in more chaos and action and Syria was prevented, as noted above- and Labour would very much like to forget its links to the lengthy and unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ultimately, foreign policy should have been discussed far more. The UK remains one of the largest economies in the world, with one of few militaries with the capability to strike just about anywhere. It seems to me that a nation with such great capability has a moral obligation to take a positive leading role in the international community.
Hanging over contemporary international relations is the dark shadow cast by Russia, which continues to support and arm Ukrainian factionalists. This week, we were reminded of the continued tensions with Russia by a bizarre episode: it was revealed that Nick Clegg, along with several senior European politicians who championed the sanctions against Russia last year, has been forbidden from entering the Russian Federation. This move was, quite frankly, pathetic and absurd. It is hard to grasp at what stage entry bans seemed a good way to make the EU tremble in fear of an angry Russia. Does Putin hope to strike fear in our hearts by forbidding our former deputy Prime Minister from going on holiday to Moscow? It is a strange reminder that Putin, on the surface an international hard man and an antidote to the weak leaders of the west, is having trouble imposing his will. For a man who is frequently compared to Hitler, Putin doesn’t seem to be taking many serious risks.
This brings me on to another topic of what is becoming a rather incoherent article. To what extent is Putin similar to Hitler? Any debater will tell you that you should not really compare anyone to Hitler, but some of the similarities are so compelling that they are worth discussing. In the run up to the Sochi Winter Games, Stephen Fry posted an open letter calling for the UK to boycott the games, and compared Russia’s homophobic laws to the small scale discrimination against the Jews which characterised the early stages of Hitler’s regime. While this may be a good comparison to illustrate the kind of legalised discrimination experienced by homosexuals in Russia, the implications carried by the comparison are misleading. It does not seem that Putin is ideologically opposed to the existence of homosexuals. If he was, the laws would have been introduced earlier in Putin’s leadership. Nor are the laws a prelude to anything other than increased discrimination, of the sort experienced by minorities in most police states. This is a terrible thing, but it is not comparable to the systematic extermination of a whole people. We should see these laws in the context of a highly conservative government rather than a fascist one.
Putin’s foreign policy has also been likened to that of Hitler. Is not the annexation of the Crimea just like the Anschluss, complete with its own phoney referendum? Isn’t Putin’s support of separatists in Ukraine just like Hitler’s financing of German separatists in the Sudetenland? Once again, comparisons with Hitler may be reasonably accurate if we look at snapshots in time, but they break down in a wider context. It may be that I am optimistic, but these conflicts do not seem to be part of a descent into a hellish world war, rather they are part of a long history of east-west tensions. Nor is the west as complacent as it was during the 1930s. Sanctions are having a genuine impact on Russia, and perhaps the situation in Ukraine would be considerably worse than it is if these sanctions were not put in place. The Ukraine crisis is a deterioration, but relations with Russia have never fully healed since the cold war. Small scale disputes have continued. Even in the optimistic days of the mid 1990s, arguments erupted between the nascent EU and Russia as to how the crisis in Yugoslavia should be handled.
In many ways, the breakup of Yugoslavia provides a far more helpful historical parallel than tensions in 1930s Europe. Both conflicts are set in the context of a collapsing communist nation and the troubled rise of a new, capitalist (though not always democratic) order. As the state of Yugoslavia fell apart, old ethnic rivalries were reawakened, with the Serbians reminding the world how Croatian fascists had betrayed the nation during World War Two, just as Putin now alludes to the support received by Nazi soldiers in the plains if Ukraine. In this comparison, Putin can easily be cast as Russia’s Milosevic. Milosevic rose to power by utilising the reawakening of Serbian nationalism, and exploited the division of Serbs between the different federal states to create conflict and spread his power. Just as Bosnia, with its mosaic of nationalities, was doomed to conflict when nationalist parties rose to power, Ukraine is now hopelessly split between the Russian minority and Ukrainian majority. Putin, like Milosevic did, has exploited ethnic conflict to expand his power and keep the support of the conservatives he pretends to represent. Luckily, history isn’t repeating itself precisely: ethnic cleansing (‘cleaning up the map’ through the wholesale people of one ethnicity from an area claimed by another) has not been employed as a tactic.
If the comparison with Yugoslavia is a good one, what might the future hold? Milosevic, like Putin, found himself hemmed in by international sanctions and cut links with the Bosnian Serb leadership. Putin probably won’t be forced to do this in Ukraine- with lucrative oil and gas deals still being signed with China- but sanctions may force him to seek a permanent settlement. His current commitment to peace is questionable at best, but the Russian economy has been hit hard by sanctions. I hope that we will see a brighter future, and I hope that the UK, in spite of the silence of our politicians, will be a part of it.