The release of a list of 89 European figures that the Kremlin will no longer allow into Russia has drawn an angry response from EU leaders, while confirming Russia’s utter lack of interest in winding down the confrontation with the West over Ukraine. No surprise there.
Nato’s supreme commander, General Philip Breedlove, recently claimed that Russia was sending more troops into south-east Ukraine, indicating that a fresh offensive aimed at expanding rebel-held territory is on the way. If that happens, all hope of re-establishing some kind of working relationship between the West and Moscow – if only over the common scourge of Islamist terrorism – is doomed in any case.
The Kremlin may therefore feel it has nothing to lose now by ratcheting up the dispute with the West. The list of personae non gratae, meanwhile, provides a glimpse into the mind-set of the Putin regime. For all the furore here over Nick Clegg, the list suggests Britain is a sideshow in Russian eyes. Only seven names from this country appear on it, including such obvious suspects as the head of MI5.
By contrast, the three tiny former Soviet Baltic states supply a whopping 20 names and an almost equal number come from Poland. Add to that another 13 from Scandinavia, and that total is well over half of the entire list. Russia’s continued hostility to the nearby countries it once controlled is laid bare. It is hardly surprising that leaders in Warsaw, Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius are the most alarmed in Europe about Russian actions in Ukraine.
As Russia-West relations remain stuck in permafrost, the big question is which side will blink. For now, as the robust response to the blacklist indicates, the US-European camp looks united in its determination at least to keep Vladimir Putin in diplomatic quarantine. No invitation for him to come to Dresden for the G7 summit. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has called a return to the old G8 format that included Russia “unimaginable”, until the Kremlin changes course on Ukraine.
However, Mr Putin is playing a long game. Western leaders are singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to condemning the Kremlin blacklist, but more important, unity over economic sanctions on Russia continues to fray, including within Germany itself. The crisis in Greece has given Russia new room to manoeuvre in the Balkans. Then, while there is persuasive talk of how Russia’s economic decline must eventually curb its great-power pretensions, Russia’s economic woes are nothing compared with Ukraine’s. The economy there is in such a mess – a point often missed amid the focus on the war in the east – that it could bring an abrupt end to the whole experiment of a pro-Western government in Kiev.
No wonder plausible-sounding voices across the Continent are making a case for quietly easing the sanctions regime, recognising realpolitik in Ukraine – Russia’s de facto annexation of chunks of the south-east – and getting back to business with Mr Putin, if only to use Russia’s good offices with the Assad regime to get a peace initiative for Syria off the ground.
Tempting ideas are not always good ones, however, and that certainly applies here. Past history suggests that the offer of concessions to Mr Putin will only whet his appetite and not make him a whit more conciliatory. We should not overreact to the Kremlin’s latest, absurd stunt, but this is no time to roll over. Of course, it will be hard to maintain a united front over Russia for the foreseeable future, especially when there are so many splits and problems on our side. But the message must continue to be sent that Russian aggression towards Ukraine will neither be recognised nor rewarded.Reuse content