Some Eurocratic wit – it may have been the unusual British diplomat Robert Cooper – was the first to define the EU motto on foreign policy as: “Speak softly but carry a big carrot.” In the scornful view of several MPs, that was about as far as the Europeans had gone in standing up to Russia over Ukraine.
In the aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s statement declaring Crimea a “sovereign and independent state” – it’s reassuring to know that the old tsarist habit of issuing draconian decrees has survived through the Soviet era to the present day – there were MPs across the party divide in favour of wielding the big stick instead.
Among those questioning the widespread consensus – held by William Hague and his supportive shadow, Douglas Alexander, and others – that military options were a non-starter, Labour’s Chris Bryant promised MPs that he was “not arguing for war” but contrasted the approach to Russia with that of not ruling out military action against Iran.
“I want to ask now why we ruled out any military intervention, in whatever set of circumstances… from the very beginning of Putin’s advances into Ukraine,” he said.
The right-wing Tory Gerald Howarth went even further. Noting that Russia was “repeatedly” conducting exercises on Ukraine’s border, he suggested: “Nato should have a maritime exercise in the Black Sea to serve notice on the Russians: ‘You do not go near Odessa.’”
The problem with these threats from the safety of the Commons, however, is that they had the ring of the old Glasgow bar-room joke: “You want a fight? I’ll hold your coat.” Former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who condemned the “pathetic and feeble” measures so far taken by the EU, did not suggest military measures.
Instead Rifkind, who in the 1980s played a key ministerial role in Margaret Thatcher’s “Ostpolitik”, culminating in her political love affair with Mikhail Gorbachev, urged real financial sanctions which would oblige Putin “to live with a Russian economy in which no other part of the world would invest and in which billions were coming off the Russian stock exchange”.
You didn’t need to be a Bletchley decoder to realise he meant sanctions that might actually hurt the City of London.
Far from being alone in invoking pre-Second World War appeasement, Rifkind, speaking as usual without a note, added: “We must be able to look ourselves in the eye and say that we did all that we could… to ensure that the horrors of the 1930s were not repeated, not in exactly the same form, but in a form that will damage European security and stability for a generation to come.”
Against this background, it was pretty brave of his fellow Tory Sir Edward Leigh to be the lone voice appealing to MPs to appreciate the “sensibilities” of Russians over Ukraine.
Declaring an interest – namely his absorption with Russian history and culture “since my wedding to my Russian Orthodox wife” – Leigh insisted that he was neither “pro Russian nor pro-Ukrainian” but said: “We must stop playing power games. It is too dangerous a situation, and the West must realise that it cannot tear Ukraine away from Russia.”
Earlier, Hague had been at his most eloquent in warning, more sharply than before, that there is a “grave risk that we have not seen the worst of this crisis” and that “the credibility of the international order would be at stake” if it did not stand up to Putin’s “profound breach of international agreement”.
But while he promised that Britain would push for further EU sanctions, he acknowledged only that “preparation is under way” for the kind of measures that might satisfy Rifkind.
So Hague spoke not softly but harshly. It was hard, nevertheless, at the end of the debate to escape the feeling that faced with Putin’s determination, the Europeans lack a carrot, let alone – so far at least – a big stick.