Friday, 28 October 2016

We need to talk about Russia

When even the Guardian, which has sustained some fairly alternative views on world geopolitics in recent years – including running a propaganda op-ed by the Russian foreign minister – starts acknowledging that modern-day Russia has slid into a new Cold War with the West, well, it’s time to sit up and take notice.

Like a hostage with Stockholm Syndrome, the West – led by an American president who scornfully told his opponent in the 2012 election that “the Cold War has been over for twenty years” – has spent the last decade trying to convince itself that Russia was friendly and no longer a threat, in the face of stark evidence to the contrary. Obama is now choking on his unwise words, but it’s a bit late for that. Eight years of “engagement” with the US has only encouraged Vladimir Putin.

The charge sheet against Russia’s authoritarian leader is lengthy: the 2008 conflict with Georgia; the 2014 invasions of Crimea and the Donbass; sabre-rattling over the Baltics; the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko; encouragement of homophobiaby Putin allies; gradual curtailment of most independent media and increasingly dubious elections (including a referendum in Donetsk whose result was apparently known before its taking place); encouraging the rehabilitation of Stalin; and finally, interfering in US presidential elections, dammit, through Russian hacks to the Democrats’ email system and its clear allying with Julian Assange and Wikileaks in favour of the Trump campaign. Not to mention the recent, utterly reprehensible bombing of civilians in Syria, which surely constitutes a war crime in any meaningful interpretation of international law.

The absurdity of it all was highlighted last week, when Putin’s perennially-misleading propaganda channel, Russia Today (RT), was finally threatened by RBS with terminating its business and predictably cried “foul”. In an irony-free intervention, RT tried to make it into a free-speech issue, conveniently omitting to mention that it has so far been reprimanded fifteen times by media regulator Ofcom. (For the record, RBS subsequently seems to have backed down in the face of a strong reaction from Moscow.)

The best resumé of where the RT controversy leaves reasonable people was last week made by LBC’s James O’Brien (hat-tip @paulocanning):

Where is Labour in all of this? In the middle of useful idiot territory, of course. All of the above can happen in Russia with scarcely a word of criticism from Labour’s current leadership.

On the contrary, in fact: Jeremy Corbyn, who has appeared on Russia Today on a number of occasions and whose views tend to chime unusually well with its Kremlin-pushed angle, was only five years ago openly inviting people to watch it as an “alternative” source of news. And as recently as last year’s leadership election, he came up with this gem (check out the video from 9:31 here):

“Look, if you believe in peace, believe in human rights and you believe in a foreign policy that sets those at the heart of it rather than the ability to militarily dominate the world, then there are people that won’t agree with that and won’t like that, but I’m sure they will understand the need for peace and justice.”

This paragraph about “peace and justice” was made with a straight face on a Russia propaganda channel, mouthpiece of a regime which had just invaded three – count ‘em – regions of a neighbouring sovereign state and whose recent record on human rights is appalling. Was any of that challenged by Corbyn in the interview? Was it hell.

With so much broken in today’s Labour Party, it seems almost superfluous to use the phrase “wrong side of history”. But that is exactly where we currently are, in terms of the leadership’s position on Russia.

It seems increasingly clear that while Barack Obama’s domestic agenda has notched up some qualified successes, his foreign policy will be looked back on in years to come as somewhere between poor and disastrous.

And if that is the case with Obama, for all his faults a man who has held down the most powerful job on the planet, how will it look for a mere opposition leader who has openly courted the regime and embraced its political stance?

In short: if Russia continues in its current mode of an ever-more aggressive power, and we continue to argue for placating it, the damage will be lasting to Labour.

Foreign policy, like defence, does not tend to make people vote for one party above another in peacetime, it’s true. But the credibility gap that bad policy in these areas creates can decide on who people do not vote for, as Michael Foot discovered in 1983 when Labour stood on a unilateralist platform. And, as the 2013 Syria vote and subsequent foreign policy controversies have shown, they can also make decent members leave in droves. Britain is not a nation of appeasers any more than we are a nation of pacifists.

It seems uncontroversial to say that the Labour Party under Corbyn is no longer respected by the vast majority of opinion-formers in the country, as the polls and most media coverage will attest. But with this kind of stance on foreign affairs, ignoring mass murder and cuddling up to ugly regimes, it may yet come to be despised.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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