Isis conference: International co-operation can only work if all the key players are invited, and that means Russia

The crisis in Ukraine is confusing minds in the West

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It was the sort of diplomatic gathering that London does so well: professional organisation, august surroundings, and as relaxed an atmosphere as such assemblies allow. Ministers from 21 countries converged on Lancaster House yesterday for a meeting chaired jointly by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry (more evidence of the more collaborative approach to foreign policy being pursued by President Obama) and the UK Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, to talk about Isis, Isil, or whatever anyone wants to call the thousands of Islamist fighters still cutting a swathe across the north of the greater Middle East.

The intention was to agree further measures to try to halt the Isis advance. These could include closer tracking of those leaving other countries, such as the UK, to join the movement – a task given new urgency after the Paris killings. There was also discussion of whether, how and whom, to help “on the ground”, with training, weapons, etc. And underlying everything else was a desire to breathe new life into the effort to stop Isis, which seems rather to have lost its momentum, with disagreements among members of the supposed coalition, and conditions being set by some, such as Turkey, for doing more.

To this extent, the meeting exemplified something else at which British diplomacy excels: creating the impression of agreement and immediate action where precious little exists. We shall see what we shall see.

But this meeting seems to have had another, secondary, purpose. In his closing statement, Kerry referred only to a previous meeting in Brussels. But when a similar group of foreign ministers gathered in Paris last September to discuss Iraq, it was attended by the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. Official reports barely mentioned his presence, which at least meant that no one had to defend the obvious contradiction between treating Russia as pariah over Ukraine and treating it as an ally elsewhere. Now, though, such pragmatism seems to have been abandoned. Lavrov was not in London yesterday - not because he was indisposed, but because Russia had not been invited.   

It recently transpired that Russia had not been invited to another, highly symbolic, international gathering: next week’s commemoration in Poland of the 70 anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The twin camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau were liberated by the Red Army on 27 January, 1945. The Polish government denied that Russia had been cold-shouldered, clarifying that no one had been invited, as such; foreign embassies had simply been informed of the arrangements being made by Poland.

If you were sitting in the Kremlin, however, you might deduce that the US and the EU had quietly upped their sanctions, by blackballing Russia above and beyond what was related to Ukraine and Europe. For most of last year, Moscow kept up cooperation with the US and others on such matters as helping to facilitate the withdrawal of military hardware from Afghanistan (via Russian railways); keeping channels to Syria’s President Assad open, and doing nothing that might complicate nuclear talks with Iran.

Now it may be, that with the withdrawal from Afghanistan complete, Russia’s cooperation is considered dispensable. It may also be that excluding Russia from its membership of the anti-Isis club will have scant impact on that club’s already very limited effectiveness – even if Russia stops communicating information on, say, Chechen fighters – as it did, for instance, before and after the Boston bombing.  

But there are three liabilities to such an approach. The first, and most  general, is that a feeling of not belonging, of not being treated as an an equal player, underlies the sense of grievance and insecurity that has propelled the sort of “behaviour” for which Russia is now being “punished” with sanctions. The second is that Isis, and militant Islamism more generally, is an enemy that the West and Russia have in common.


The third, and most immediate, is that to blackball Russia risks delaying any end to the conflict in Ukraine. It also underlines the conflict at the heart of the Western message. At the moment, the EU appears to be saying, on the one hand, that Russia holds the key to a solution, and, on the other, that Russia can expect further punitive action if it intervenes directly in eastern Ukraine. If what is now happening is that Russia is being cut off from normal diplomacy, the Kremlin will have nothing further to lose.

As the fighting has escalated in recent weeks, Putin and other Russian officials, including Lavrov and – interestingly, one of his veteran predecessors, Yevgeni Primakov - have talked about the urgent need to reconvene ceasefire talks and about Moscow’s willingness to arrange them. These statements have gone almost unreported in the Western media except to be ridiculed, the assumption being that Russia can switch support for the anti-Kiev fighters on and off as it pleases, and is somehow content with the status quo. Neither is necessarily true.

The danger now is that, thoroughly spurned by the West, Moscow turns round and says: All right, you want us to stop the fighting, we’ll do it in the only way we can, which is by sending in thousands of troops (not the 9,000 claimed this week by Kiev) and imposing our sort of order, which would amount to temporary, or longer-term, occupation. There is no evidence whatever that Russia has territorial designs on eastern Ukraine or that the population of this part of Ukraine would choose to join Russia. But a combination of the calls on Moscow to “do something” and the severing of so many remaining ties, could push it in precisely that direction.