4 Mar 2014

Crimea, Ken, Germany and sanctions

Cabinet is meeting. It will be interesting to see if anyone piles in as strongly as Ken Clarke did at yesterday’s National Security Council meeting.

Mr Clarke sits on the NSC as a wise old bird that David Cameron and George Osborne have said they find hugely useful because he’s “seen it all before”and brings historical perspective to issues. In the past, this has often meant a certain scepticism about some of the scarier warnings from, say, the intelligence services.

Yesterday, a bit to some people’s surprise, Mr Clarke piled in saying the Russian incursion into Ukraine needed to have a strong response. Mr Clarke said a “line in the sand” had to be drawn – not at all the response that the NSC signed off on, nor the reaction that was out-lined in officials’ advice photographed as a document flapped in the wind on the way into No. 10.

In the end though, this is not a matter for No. 10 or the UK. We are players in a wider drama. Data here shows you who has the capacity to hurt and be hurt by economic sanctions against Russia. The US sees Germany as a central player in all this but its relations with Germany are believed to have been cool or frosty in recent times.

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One thing about the document that flapped into public view as it was carried into the NSC meeting yesterday: it was intended to and has now triggered “assessments” to be started into what would be the costs to the UK of economic sanctions against Russia. It doesn’t make them more likely, but there was no such work done already so it has now been commissioned.

Downing Street advisers believe that though President Putin currently looks like he is calling the shots, he has fundamentally ended up in a place that is fairly grim for a Russian leader. Ukraine has always been part Russia’s sphere of influence and yet, on his watch, it has appeared to be slipping dramatically away from the great bear.

He will want to rectify that, Whitehall aides hope, by establishing new and more sympathetic rule in Kiev rather than by troop incursions into eastern Ukraine. The UK fundamentally sees that as something Russia is probably entitled to as long as it is a stable and reasonably tolerant regime (never easy and harder with every day of tension).

The UK hopes “de-escalation” will create the space for exploratory talks about what is wanted by Putin and what is possible, all the time reducing the chances of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine beyond Crimea.

Crimea is clearly seen in Whitehall as something President Putin is not going to be prised out of – it is up to him whether he chooses to release it into a re-ordered, re-set Ukraine or annex it.

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