Putin is turning both left and right-wingers into apologists for despotism

Meanwhile, Britain retreats into splendid isolation

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The Independent Online

It’s difficult to think of a time when politics in Britain has been so parochial and solipsistic. International affairs have all but dropped off the Westminster political agenda, Nigel Farage’s Ukip looks set to do nicely in next month’s European elections and the public’s biggest fear is immigration – all symptoms of a gradual British retreat from the so-called ‘world stage’.

Despite the astonishing scale of the killing in Syria and the increasingly belligerent posturing of Vladimir Putin, turn on a television and you will largely hear gossip about the Royal Family or the latest Ukip racist scandal - and it’s debatable which is the bigger soap opera. A group of intellectuals recently questioned whether Britain was still a Christian nation; a more pertinent question might be whether Britain is a post-internationalist nation – the political ambitions of ‘Boris’ seemingly more important than Assad’s genocide or chauvinism in the Crimea. That, at least, is the impression you get from watching the news.

The reasons for this retreat into splendid isolation are actually quite straightforward. The noughties were defined by the so-called 9/11 wars, and our aversion to all things international is no doubt part of a more general backlash against the era of Blair and Bush. The economic crisis must also share some portion of the blame – today people are more concerned about how they are going to pay the bills than they are worried about bombed out Palestinians in Aleppo. “We have our own problems to deal with,” we solipsistically say.

But there is another reason we are less inclined to ‘do’ international affairs, and this is that nobody is quite sure where they ought to stand anymore. On issues relating to foreign policy, distinctions of left and right have dissolved and become about as useless as a milk bucket under a bull. This is why supposed left-winger George Galloway has a television show on BNP leader Nick Griffin’s favourite station; it’s why ‘neo-con’ is no longer an insult throw around strictly by the left; and it’s why Lord Tebbit's position on the situation in Ukraine is indistinguishable from that of the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition.

For an idea of just how confusing things have become, take a look at where the chips have fallen in light of the crisis in Crimea.

Not so long ago any serious conservative would have been the first to condemn Russian despotism. Today it is the shires and the City where one is most likely to hear someone singing the praises of the strongman in the Kremlin. Indeed, a short film produced by the Tory-dominated Bruges Group blames the Russian invasion of Ukraine not on Putin's well established desire to restore the Russian 'sphere of influence', but on the “meddling” of mild mannered EU technocrats. SNP leader Alex Salmond (and before you say it no, he's not left-wing, he's a nationalist) admires 'certain aspects' of Putin's leadership; and like the Tory MPs who cheered the news that British ships had been bombed by the Italian airforce in the service of Franco, Nigel Farage, the supposed champion of national sovereignty, has praised the Russian leader for “playing a blinder” in Syria (death toll 150,000 and counting). Putin, previously the gay-bashing leader of Europe’s most unfree country, has for many conservatives morphed into the plucky defender of traditional values and Russian ‘prestige’.

Useful idiots can also be found on the left. A Guardian columnist recently said that the Russian annexation of Crimea was the “fruit of western expansion”. It was, claimed the author, “a product of the disastrous Versailles-style break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s”.

Now that’s certainly a point of view, it's just not a reality-based one. The Soviet Union is no more largely because its member states could no longer stomach being ruled dictatorially by elderly men in Moscow. “Disastrous” for the Kremlin maybe, but hardly for the principles of democracy and self-determination. It's difficult today to imagine the people of Lithuania and Latvia, two modern and democratic states, pining to be taken under the wing of the ex-KGB man in the Kremlin, hence why they joined NATO as soon as they could.


Others on the left have pointed to the West's 'hypocrisy' in condemning Putin's incursion into Ukraine. Because of the invasion of Iraq (or Kosovo) this logic holds that we in Britain have 'no moral authority' to condemn others for violations of international norms, however egregious.

The problem with this sort of thinking is that it wasn't 'the West' that invaded and occupied Iraq at all. As far as 'we' are concerned it was a specific 2001-2005 administration of Tony Blair that participated in the toppling of Saddam Hussein, and Blair left office seven long years ago. That's the beauty of democracy you see: you can throw out the leaders who behave badly. As a consequence the West of today is not the West of 10 years ago. That's demonstrably not the case with Russia, where Putin has effectively stolen from the Russian people their right to depose of him peacefully via the ballot box.

It isn't hard to work out why Putinism appeals to a certain type of conservative. The gay-baiting ally of 'traditional values' puffing himself up like a bullfrog on the world stage is probably invigorating when set against the vacillating no-content conservatism of David Cameron. What should worry any thinking person is how run-of-the-mill it has become right across the political spectrum to praise or excuse the KGB thug, homophobe and butcher of Chechnya Vladimir Putin. Just as during the Cold War, Russia is making respectable people say very silly things. But this time they’re getting away with it.

Correction: The article originally claimed that Liam Halligan had worked as a strategist for RT (Russia Today). Mr Halligan has clarified that he has never worked as a strategist for RT