As the conflict in Ukraine approaches the one-year mark, the time has come to admit that the current approach of the west is failing.
No one can seriously doubt that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, intends to continue on this path for as long as possible. With rebel forces now moving towards Mariupol in the south-east of the country, this ceasefire will soon prove to be nothing more than a pause. To imagine that Russia now suddenly intends to abide by the latest terms agreed at Minsk is fanciful.
Let’s look at the bigger picture. Putin’s aggression in Ukraine is a clear continuation of his efforts to weaken his neighbours and impose his will on them. From his intimidation of the Baltics to his entrenchment in Georgia and Armenia, his strategy of sowing instability and establishing client states on his borders has been plain to see for years.
Putin’s Russia stands openly opposed to traditional western values of liberal democracy and self-determination. This cold war mentality extends to the fact that Russia still casts Nato – the alliance many have now written off – as the primary threat to its security.
The longer the west tiptoes around Putin, the stronger he appears at home. Strident nationalism has become the Kremlin’s preferred means of distracting people from the hardships of an economy now sliding into chaos. A weak and declining Russia is, if anything, likely to be more aggressive than a strong one.
We cannot, and must not, believe a single word Putin says: about the level of Russian involvement, about Russian commitment to a ceasefire, about the fate of flight MH17 – in which one of our own citizens from Newcastle was killed.
If Russia has no active role in eastern Ukraine, why did it warn the US that any military assistance to Kiev would result in “colossal damage” to relations?
Underneath the bluster is, of course, fear. Russia knows full well that US military muscle can still turn the tide of any conflict anywhere in the world.
Opinions vary as to the best course of action. The view that we should arm Ukraine is understandably the most controversial. But it is also the one to which I subscribe as someone familiar with the modus operandi of Putin and his clique.
Opponents of this view argue that arming Ukraine would only lead to a rapid escalation of the violence within a new and frightening context of an East-West arms race.
Stoking tensions, they say, will only hurt the Ukrainian economy further. They insist there is no military solution, only a political one.
But we need to remember that this war is only continuing because Putin has gone unchallenged. No one is denying there will be costs, but Putin’s calculation is that the West will consider them too high. That’s his gamble and we must prove him wrong.
The decision by Britain and the US to send military personnel to advise and train Ukrainian forces is a welcome first step. With Canada likely to follow, it goes at least some way to demonstrating that Nato is still a coherent force with the will to act in defence of international law.
But we need to go further, to be bolder, and – most importantly – to galvanise the rest of Europe, whose leaders’ attempts to negotiate with a man no one can trust have only given him a free rein.
All this will no doubt stir anxieties in Europe about Nato’s presence there coming to the fore in response to Russian provocation for the first time since the cold war.
American involvement so close to home will make EU members nervous. This is where the UK has a crucial role to play.
David Cameron’s willingness to lead the way on sanctions has been much to his credit, but besides that he has been more or less silent while Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande have tried in vain to pursue a settlement.
That needs to change. Europe must be persuaded not only to stand with Britain and the US, but also to find the necessary resolve within itself to prevent any more of its “periphery” falling foul of a renewed Soviet-style repression.
Ukraine has been hobbled by Russia in its aspirations to EU and Nato membership. Only the Budapest Memorandum, signed by Russia and four other nuclear powers – the US, the UK, France and China – in 1994, guarantees its borders.
But this struggle goes far beyond the sovereignty of Ukraine. It is about the readiness of the West to defend its principles of self-determination, democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
After years of appeasement we have a choice to make. Either we face up to our responsibility to halt this assault on liberal Europe, or we sleepwalk into a new era of Russian intrigue and encroachment by letting Putin win not just a series of battles on the ground, but a major and widespread propaganda coup as well.
The decision cannot wait much longer.
- Alexander Temerko is a Ukrainian-born British businessman who was previously vice-president of Russian oil giant Yukos, he is now deputy chairman of Newcastle firm OGN Group, which manufactures platforms for oil rigs in the North Sea.