The unfolding situation in Ukraine is utterly desperate. As of last night there have been 240 civilian casualties, 160,000 people displaced within Ukraine and more than 116,000 forced to flee the country altogether.
There’s a few principals that need underscoring. The first is that Ukraine is a sovereign country with a democratically elected government that has broken no international laws or acted in no way that could plausibly justify external threat of the kind currently being meted out by Vladimir Putin.
Ukraine is a fully functional state that has been recovering and building a new future since independence from the Soviet Union. It conforms to international norms, to the rules agreed by the international community, and over time has been granting more rights and freedoms to its citizens.
The second is about NATO.
NATO is not a state, it is an organisation who’s member states have agreed to combine and coordinate their defensive capabilities in order to ensure the security of allied countries after WWII. The principal of countries coordinating in order to ‘add up to more than the sum of its parts’ has served us extremely well. The core rule of ‘an attack on one NATO country being an attack on all NATO countries’ has created a defensive barrier around us that has proven a hugely effective deterrent.
The Labour Party in power signed the UK up to NATO in the first place and our commitment to it is as unshakable today as it was back then.
This shouldn’t need pointing out but it does as some misunderstand NATO’s aims. NATO is not a state and it does not roam the world looking for countries to join. In other words, it’s not a colonial power looking to take over other countries! Countries who wish to join must apply and every legitimate state has the sovereign right to do so. Ukraine has asked to join in the past – no one forced it to – and it has every right to do so as a sovereign country.
Vladimir Putin fears the success of Ukraine. He genuinely sees it as a threat to the success of his gangster regime in Russia. Both being slavic countries with some shared cultural history and both in the past being part of the USSR, should Ukraine modernise, democratise and liberalise its society in the way of other European countries and become more successful at delivering prosperity and contentment to its people than Russia under Putin, then you can see the threat straight away.
That is the simple reason behind the invasion and attempted subjugation of Ukraine: Putin can’t allow Ukraine to succeed as a modern, European country because Russian citizens might desire the same.
I worked as an aid worker on the Albanian / Kosovan border in the 1990’s. I worked in a town with a population of 50,000 and in one night 50,000 refugees poured over the border instantly doubling the population. For months the organisation I worked for, called Children on The Edge, worked with refugee families in hastily erected shelters, tents and sports halls. Almost all were women fleeing with their children, leaving their husbands and adult sons behind to fight. An appalling number had been sexually assaulted or raped on their journey as all too often these are used as a weapon of war.
We did our best to comfort, support and get medical services to them. Hundreds of families we stayed with right to the point of returning back to their home communities which we payed a part in rebuilding.
In all honesty I never thought I’d live to see the day when such scenes would unfold again in Europe.
The experience I’ve had is relevant today despite being a different time and place.
For example, last night a Tory immigration minister announced that people looking to come to Britain were free to apply for ‘season worker’ visas. Yes, you heard me right. Women, heartbroken about being forced to leave their homes, unsure about the fate facing their husbund and possibly children, who might also have caring duties for young children too – they can come to Britain if they agree to work in our fields picking fruit.
I know some of you would’t have ideologically agreed with the Tories before, but believe me this is a whole new ball game. During the last world war we allowed, with Tory support, the Kinder transport for Jewish children and many thousands of Jewish people fleeing Hitler. Today, in one of the most mean-spirited comments I have ever seen, they must agree to work in our fields to come here. The comment has been withdrawn, but we can’t forget the sentiment that drove it and still drives this government.
At times like this, MPs like me must make decisions based on the world as we find it not as we’d like it to be. And right now it’s an ugly mess. But never forget that we in Labour tried to avoid being here. Remember the Autumn of 2019 and the ‘Russia report’? The Commons Security and Intelligence Committee has completed an inquiry into Russian activity in Britain and the British state’s response to it. This was a cross-party committee that has access to classified material and has a key role in holding our intelligence services to account. It often produces report and requires prime ministerial sign-off before release because of the security implications. This is a formality though and never takes more than a week.
But back then the prime minister didn’t sign off, in fact Boris Johnson actively blocked it from being released. He said he didn’t have time to read it (it was 55 pages long!). The we had the election in which he promised it would be released just after the election. The election happened in December and the report was eventually released in July 2020.
Of many aspects of concern in that report was one standout, that government “failed to investigate evidence of successful interference” in British elections which it called “inexcusable”. In order to turn a blind eye to Russian activity in Britain, the Conservative government chose not to look in the first place.
Two years on and most of the recommendations have not been implemented, a self confessed communist who supported the IRA and refused to unequivocally condemn the Birmingham pub bombings was put into the House of Lords, as was Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedev who I don’t suggest is working for the Russian state but seeing as in the past he was a friend to Putin and Boris Johnson put him into the British parliament it would certainly be interesting to know if conversations are being had about what insight he can offer.
At the time of the Russia report Labour where accused of scaremongering and ‘playing with politics’. We weren’t and now you see why. Putin’s Russia has been deepening its roots into democracies around the world and using that influence to distract us, occupy us, and sew division between allied countries and the institutions that bind us together.
Now we’re at this point though Keir Starmer and David Lammy has put forward suggestions for the way forward.
We need to reform Companies House to ban overly complex shell companies that allows Russian money to covertly establish finance and influence in the City. We need to ban all avenues for foreign donations to political parties as government are currently trying to – astonishingly – weaken those rules to allow more of it. We need greater transparency in the property market to see where Russian money is being laundered and accrued, particularly in high-value parts of London. And the Tory party and its MPs need to return the £2 million in donations it has received from people with direct links to Vladimir Putin (how about giving it to the Ukrainian government to help them in their struggles?).
I know from my experience as an aid worker that most people fleeing the violence will want to stay close by, most likely in a neighbouring country, in hope of a speedy repatriation. Some will have a connection to Britain, speak English, or have family here that they can stay with. We need to offer a speedy, bureaucracy-free way of allowing that. Let’s show our humanity as a country, not use extremely vulnerable refugees as political pawns to appease hardliners among the Tory base. Let’s try our best to elevate out polite to meet the scale and nature of the problem.
Finally, I’m asked a lot about why we’re not intervening directly to protect Ukraine and repeal Russian forces. This is a heartbreaking issue. The fact is, if Britain or another NATO country, even unilaterally, imposed something like a ‘no fly zone’ in Ukraine then at some point it would bring us into direct conflict with Russian forces. At that point Article 5 would be triggered and all of NATO would be dragged into direct battle. This option would open up too many avenues for this conflict to spiral into a wider conflict and even all-out war and, having failed to contain Putin’s global activities early enough we must now fight for a free Ukraine in other ways for the time being.
As we’ve seen time and again, there are consequences to inaction just as there is for action. When it comes to use of our armed forces in direct conflict we’ve chosen inaction and we must shoulder the consequences of that. I do, and feel that weight heavily. We must do as I’ve described above and in addition restore the savage cuts of our aid capacity as a country (remember the government actually closed the department for aid altogether). And we must work in lockstep with our global allies to isolate Vladimir Putin and his cronies and never, ever tire of efforts to hold them to account for what is unfolding.