View from London: Elections approach, Ukraine looms

Commentary

The UK supports sanctions, but the Ukraine crisis has become a political football in the campaign for the upcoming general elections.

David Cameron is credited at Westminster for having strengthened the resolve of the European Union in toughening up sanctions on the Putin regime. Some were critical of the fact that Britain did not play a leading role in the recent Minsk peace efforts. But the prime minister has focused on the economic flank against Russia, making it clear that he is prepared to see the City of London lose out from increased sanctions. The Labour opposition has supported the sanctions process, but are wary of any move towards military engagement. As we head towards the general election in May, the shadows of Iraq and the Commons vote against military action in Syria in 2013 hang over all British foreign policy discussions. This has led to a more pronounced “Little Englander” isolationist sentiment across the political spectrum.

Britain has been increasing support to the Ukrainian government, most recently with a deployment of military advisers.

The criticism that Britain was not at the forefront of the Minsk peace efforts gained little political traction. General Sir Richard Shirreff, Britain’s highest ranking NATO commander until last year, said in February: “Where is Britain? Where is Cameron? He is clearly a bit player. Nobody is taking any notice of him. […] He is now a foreign policy irrelevance”. This tied into a wider debate within the Conservative Party about the level of defence spending and Russian jets flying close to the United Kingdom’s airspace. But Britain has been increasing support to the Ukrainian government, most recently with a deployment of military advisers. Most observers accept that it was appropriate for Germany and France to lead the peace effort, especially given Britain’s difficult relations with Russia in recent years. And on the diplomatic front, in Simon Smith we are lucky to have one of our most effective ambassadors in place in Kyiv.

Cameron’s rhetoric on sanctions has been increasingly robust: he noted in a recent Wall Street Journal interview that the West must be ready to take sanctions “to a whole different level” if there is a repeat performance of what happened at Debaltseve. While it is difficult to predict what impact the asset freezes and travel bans will have on the UK economy, Cameron has warned the City of London to be prepared to take a hit as the sanctions take effect. He met Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko at the recent EU Council meeting and it is possible that they discussed what would be the most effective new measures to take.

Labour have supported the sanctions approach, but are wary of military engagement.

Labour have supported the sanctions approach, but are wary of military engagement. Labour leader Ed Miliband welcomed the Minsk peace initiative and said “it is vital that the international community stands ready to increase the pressure by extending economic sanctions if President Putin refuses to change course.” Douglas Alexander, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, has pointed to the collapse of the oil price and the impact this could have on Putin’s thinking. In a recent article, Roger Boyes, the diplomatic editor of the Times, put forward the view that “the Labour leader has changed his tune on tackling Kremlin-inspired crimes”, arguing that Labour had made a volte face on a vote on bringing in new legislation to put travel bans on the Kremlin elite. He probably read too much into it, but it does not seem that foreign affairs, let alone Ukraine, are at the forefront of the minds of the Labour leadership as the election campaign gets under way.

It should be noted that there are voices in UK politics that are more sympathetic to the Russian perspective. Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, has blamed the European Union for the recent crisis and noted “if you poke the Russian bear with a stick, he will react”. In a Times article entitled “It’s time we washed our hands of Ukraine”, columnist Matthew Parris argued that Britain should focus its defence efforts on the Baltic states, and that sanctions actually help Putin win support at home. Edward Leigh, the Conservative MP, has warned of the risk of war with Russia, arguing that the majority of Russians believe “that eastern Ukraine is inhabited by Russians who want to be autonomous and for centuries have been associated with Russia”. Boyes said in his column that “there are plenty of Labour people, in and out of parliament, who will ask you: why pick on Russia? They say the West is as much to blame for the Ukraine crisis by enlarging the EU and Nato eastwards, encircling Russia.”

Defence spending and the Russian threat are moving up the agenda.

Britain will vote in a general election on 7 May. Defence spending and the Russian threat are moving up the agenda. The legacy of intervention in Iraq, and lobbying from Russian financial interests, will encourage politicians to look the other way. We are not likely to hear much about Ukraine or sanctions during the election campaign, but the fierce battle taking place on our continent may well dominate the premiership of whoever wins.

James Connal was a special adviser in the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office from 2004 to 2007.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: View from the Capitals, Wider Europe, Russia, EaP, Ukraine

Latest from ECFR

ECFR Podcasts

Our experts and eminent guests talk about Europe's role in the world. Subscribe on iTunes or Soundcloud.