I am not opposed to self determination for the people of Crimea; I am opposed to this referendum. Nobody can seriously argue there has been a chance for a campaign in which different viewpoints can be freely argued, with some equality of media access and freedom from fear and intimidation.
Hitler invaded Austria on 12 March 1938. The Anschluss was confirmed in a plebiscite on 10 April, just 28 days later, by a majority of 99.7%. Putin has done it in less than half of the time, and I have no doubt will produce a similar result in the vote. The point is not whether or not the vote reflects the will of the people – the point is whether the will of the people has been affected by military demonstration, fear, hysterically induced national psychosis and above all an absence of space for debate or alternative viewpoints.
There is no reasonable claim that Putin’s swift plebiscite is necessary because of an imminent threat of violence against Russians in Crimea. There is absolutely no reason that a referendum could not have been held at the end of this year, in a calm and peaceful atmosphere, after everybody had a chance to campaign and express their position. Putin has proved that force majeure is powerful in international politics, and there is every reason to believe that he could have finessed international acceptance of such a referendum in due course. Germany, in particular, is much more interested in its own energy supplies than in the rights of Ukraine. In twenty years in diplomacy, I never saw a single instance of Germany having any interest in rights other than its own national self-interest. It is very likely such a genuine referendum would have gone in Russia’s favour. But the disadvantages of open debate about the merits and demerits of Putin’s Russia, and his own self-image as the man of military prowess, led Putin to take the more violent course.
The vote yesterday in the Security Council should give every Putinista pause. Not even China voted with Russia. The Africans and South Americans voted solidly against. That is not because they are prisoners or puppets of the United States – they are not. Neither did they take the easy road of abstention. The truth is that what Putin is doing in Crimea is outrageous.
What happens now is going to be interesting. I greatly fear that Putin is looking to stir up as much disorder in Ukraine’s Eastern provinces as possible, perhaps with the aim of promoting civil war in which Russia can covertly intervene, rather than open invasion, but I do not put the latter past him. Against that, I am quite sure Russia did not expect the extreme diplomatic isolation, in fact humiliation, it suffered at the UN yesterday. I am hopeful Russia may step back from the brink.
The EU I expect to do nothing. Sanctions will target a few individuals who are not too close to Putin and don’t keep too many of their interests in the West. I don’t think Alisher Usmanov and Roman Abramovic need lose too much sleep, that Harrods need worry or that we will see any flats seized at One Hyde Park. (It is among my dearest wishes one day to see One Hyde Park given out for council housing.) Neither do I expect to see the United States do anything effective; its levers are limited. I doubt we have seen the last of Mr Putin’s adventurism.
Human society is not perfectible, which does not mean we should not try. I believe western democracy, particularly in its social democratic European manifestation from approximately 1945 to 2000, achieved a high level of happiness for its ordinary people and an encouraging level of equality. For approximately 20 years unfortunately we have witnessed a capitalism more raw and unabated than ever before, and massively growing levels of wealth inequality, a reduction in state provision for the needy, a distortion of state activity further to line the pockets of the rich, ever increasing corruption among the elite and growing levels of social immobility and exclusion, a narrowing of the options presented by major political parties until there is not a cigarette paper between them and their neo-conservative agendas, and a related narrowing by the mainstream media of the accepted bounds of public debate, with orchestrated ridicule of opinions outside those bounds. Democracy, as a system offering real choice to informed electors, has ceased to function in the West leading to enormous political alienation. On the international scene the West has retreated from the concept of international law and, heady with the temporary unipolar US military dominance, adopted aggressive might is right polices and a return of the practices of both formal and informal imperialism.
But every single one of those things is true of Putin’s Russia, and in fact it is much worse. Wealth inequality is even more extreme. Toleration of dissent and of different lifestyles even less evident, the space for debate even more constricted, the contempt for international law still more pronounced. Putin’s own desire for imperialist sphere of influence politics leads him into conflict with aggressive designs of the west, as for example in Syria and Iran. The consequence can be an accidental good, in that Putin has thwarted western military plans. But that is not in any sense from a desire for public good, and if Putin can himself get away with military force he does. His conflicts of interest with the west have deluded a surprising number of people here into believing that Putin in some ways represents an ideological alternative. He does not. He represents a capitalism still more raw, an oligarchy still more corrupt, a wealth gap still greater and growing still quicker, a debate still more circumscribed. It speaks to the extreme political failure of the western political system, and the degree of the alienation of which I spoke, that so many strive to see something beautiful in the ugly features of Putinism.