The West loves to talk tough on Putin... with the cameras rolling

The difficulty is that both sides have painted themselves into corners

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The Independent Online

Never underestimate the propensity for shadow-play in diplomacy. This time last week leaders of countries accounting for 95 per cent of the world’s GDP, were assembling in Australia for the annual G20 summit. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, was among them. Blackballed from the G8, which shrank itself back to seven after Russia annexed Crimea, Putin is still invited to the G20, which is a broader church.

Not, if you believed most Western reports, that he was exactly welcome there. If you took the news at face value, you would have thought that everyone queued up to read the riot act to Putin over Ukraine; that Russia’s President languished alone at empty tables, and that he upped and left early in a huff. Oh yes, and he brought four warships with him, signalling Russia’s aggressive intentions.

This is one way of looking at it. Yes, Western leaders uttered fierce words to and about Putin on camera. But how much of this was designed to play to audiences at home? You may also have seen Putin snapped sitting glum and alone. At various times, the Japanese and Chinese leaders could also be observed preferring their own company, but the image of an isolated Putin fitted the West’s agenda.

Not that Western leaders were unique in this. Putin, too, played to his domestic gallery. With the warships and the supposed walk-out, he sent his own message back to Russia, conveying to his fellow-countrymen that he would not be cowed.

So how far there was any real stand-off? Remember that, like everyone else, Putin posed beside the Australian Prime Minister cuddling a koala. And how far was the G20’s tax and trade agenda really derailed by Ukraine? Hardly at all, if you read the reports in, say, the Indian media.

Much more pertinent for the future of Western relations with Russia is what happened either side of the summit – and perhaps off-camera there, too. The European Union decided not to impose further sanctions on Russia, despite a conveniently timed report from Nato about new Russian military movements into eastern Ukraine. And Chancellor Merkel tempered her severe stance in Australia with a quieter call, once she was back home, for talks.

The difficulty is that both sides have painted themselves into corners. Putin cannot back off without alienating the domestic constituency that was so thrilled by the “recovery” of Crimea. But the West is stymied, too, and the purpose of Western sanctions becomes ever more confused.

Initially, the sanctions were a protest against the illegal annexation of Crimea. When they were increased, the stated purpose was to deter Russia from invading eastern Ukraine. But Russia insists it has not invaded eastern Ukraine, and what is the incentive for it not to do so, if the West maintains or ups the sanctions anyway?

The ceasefire agreed at Minsk has not been perfect, but it has more or less held. Russia does not need – and cannot afford – to take more territory, not least with the oil price now so relatively low. But the even weaker, less stable Russia that economic failure could produce might only increase any threat. 

A month ago, Putin reiterated that Russia recognises Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But this may well represent the kernel of the bargain that must be struck: an acceptance by both sides that Russia has gained Crimea, but lost Ukraine.

There have been other positives. In September, the EU agreed to postpone a part of the association agreement with Ukraine that triggered the protests in Kiev almost a year ago. It also proposed talks between the EU and Russia’s proposed trade bloc, the Eurasian Union. A little later, Russia and Ukraine struck a deal that should keep the gas flowing through the winter.

But there are also negatives. Nato and Russian warplanes are approaching perilously close to each other’s borders in the name of providing security assurances, which makes the potential for accidental conflict high. Russia is also it is said, angling for a guarantee that Ukraine will not join Nato, ever. No such guarantee can be given. But realism dictates that Ukraine will not join Nato in the foreseeable future. If this could be enshrined more formally, there could be a framework for discussion.

The best gloss on Brisbane is that it allowed everyone to vent their frustrations for the benefit of the folks at home, before knuckling down to the inevitable recognition of geographical and political reality. The sooner the talking begins, the better.

Fair cop for a one-time robber

A few weeks ago I wrote about the trial of two men for a particularly vicious attack on three women from the United Arab Emirates at London’s Cumberland Hotel. They were sentenced this week. The main defendant, Philip Spence, who took a hammer to the women’s skulls when they woke up during his burglary, was sent to prison for life, with a recommendation that he serve a minimum of 18 years – pretty much the maximum, short of a “whole life” term. His accomplice was given 14 years. But there was a third person in the dock for sentencing. He had avoided a trial, by pleading guilty early on to receiving stolen goods,  as charged. 

James Moss had been a friend of Spence since childhood, had in many ways a similarly troubled youth, and had once joined him in a robbery. For the past 10 years, though, he had “gone straight”, studied for the GCSEs he missed at school and then for a degree in design, which he had used to set up a successful small business.

Moss’s part in the crime was to have hidden the suitcase Spence had stolen from the women’s hotel room, with some of the loot inside. At Spence’s request, he had also tested the stolen phones. The judge said he had no choice but to impose a prison sentence. But then, prompting an amazed half-smile from the dock, he said that, in the light of Moss’s efforts over the past decade, he was suspending the sentence and giving him a second chance.

As Moss walked free, his barrister warned him in no uncertain terms that if any offence was committed over that time, it would be straight to jail. What had gone before was unrelieved gloom. Here was the brighter counterpoint. Moss’s release seemed the perfect exercise of a judge’s discretion.