With events moving fast 5,000 miles to the east, events in the Commons inevitably seemed a bit off-Broadway. William Hague was at his most statesmanlike – and he does statesmanlike pretty well – condemning Russia’s “violation” of Ukrainian sovereignty, praising the government in Kiev for not being “provoked” by the “extreme situation” and urging the Russians to join talks in Paris on Wednesday.
But when the Tory backbencher James Gray declared: “I hope that a bully like President Putin will listen carefully to the strong and clear messages that the Foreign Secretary has delivered,” you couldn’t help wondering whether the Russian President might have other things on his mind. That said, the Moscow lobby was not well represented in the Commons.
Once, during the Cold War, it might have been different, at least among a few Labour fellow-travellers. Instead, in a strange reversal, the main questioning of the criticism of Russia – and there was very little – came from a minority of deeply Eurosceptic Tory MPs who probably find it hardest to understand why demonstrators should have risked their lives in Kiev to forge closer links with an institution – the EU – which they would rather keep at arms’ length.
The point that the EU might be partly to blame for the crisis was put most forcefully by the venerable Sir Peter Tapsell, a man so steeped in history that the last Crimean war doesn’t seem that distant. Tapsell prophesied “a third world war… if the already over-enlarged EU is going to continue to try to extend its borders towards Mongolia”.
He reminded MPs that “every Russian knows that the capture of Crimea and Sevastopol was the greatest achievement of Catherine the Great… and Potemkin”.
Tactfully, Hague pointed out that “Russia gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954” (when both were in the Soviet Union) and had since reached international agreements which forswore the use of armed force or territorial intrusion into Ukraine. When an otherwise supportive Douglas Alexander raised the document, photographed on Monday and saying Britain should “not support, for now trade sanctions… or close London’s financial centre to the Russians”, Hague insisted that “no partially photographed documents should be taken as any guide to HM Government’s decisions” and he was ruling nothing out.
He didn’t rule much in, either. But the cerebral Tory Andrew Tyrie, describing the Russian incursion as “nothing less than a land grab and the biggest strategic shock on the continent for decades” added: “If Putin gets away with this, sooner or later more trouble will follow in central and eastern Europe… the UK should demonstrate that it is actively considering all forms of economic sanctions.” Since Tyrie is the listened-to Treasury Select Committee chairman, it’s just possible things could get a little more robust.