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Ian Proud - Blog - The Kremlin
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Nigel Farage made three valid points about Russia (but i wouldn't vote for Reform)

Updated: Jul 2

If you search for UK Reform Party leader Nigel Farage’s recent comments about Russia online, you will first be greeted by a slew of western pundits and parliamentarians jumping on a bandwagon of condemnation.  During a recent TV interview, he asserted that Vladimir Putin was provoked into war in Ukraine.  His detractors didn’t acknowledge or debate the points that he made. The facts or arguments were incidental to their moral outrage. 

Just to be clear, I would never vote for Nigel Farage, or Reform (or, before it, UKIP) as I’m a pro-European, open borders, internationalist.  Growing up as an army kid in Germany, I remember the border checkpoints when my family took weekend trips to Holland.  Peace on the European continent has been earned, in my opinion, by allowing people of different nationalities to move and interact more easily. I don’t believe in unchecked immigration, but I do believe that the UK economy needs migrant workers across a broad range of skilled and unskilled roles.  As a good example, both the NHS and the City of London would sag if reliant on British labour alone. That’s my view, based on the evidence that I’ve seen.

But Farage’s comments illustrated a problem, particular to the UK right now, in which any discussion of Russia is more often than not driven by feelings rather than hard analysis of the available evidence.   Take a recent Twitter/X article by British journalist and labour activist, Paul Mason. He responded to Farage by announcing that the NATO expansion argument – the idea that continued NATO enlargement has been a casus belli for Putin - is a lie.  Like most journalists who support the ongoing war in Ukraine – specifically, the majority of journalists in the UK - he didn’t explain why it was a lie, simply that it was.  Outrage brooks no debate. The available evidence is entirely incidental.

This sits in sharp contrast to the US, where debate about the ongoing war in Ukraine is more open. Somewhat to my surprise, the Guardian recently carried an excellent article by Christopher Chivvis, a Senior Fellow as the Carnegie Endowment for peace.  He argued that ‘Ukraine’s leaders should stop asking for NATO membership and the Biden Administration should stop considering it.’  His article carefully laid out a series of arguments to underpin this central judgement. I happen to agree, as having been closely involved in UK policy making towards Russia from 2013-2023, it's clear to me that repeatedly ignoring Putin’s expressed concerns about NATO expansion would cause the very conflict we see today in Ukraine. You don’t necessarily have to agree with me, or with Chivvis, but let’s at least discuss it.

The British media is dominated by emotional proponents of the current UK and US policy, to continue to arm Ukraine with a view to a longer-term strategic defeat of Russia.  Whenever Zelensky makes a plea, it is always for more weapons, never for genuine negotiations. But there are counter-arguments too, that Russia cannot be defeated on the battlefield, and that the US should get behind a negotiated settlement.

In the run up to a UK general election that will almost certainly change the government in Westminster, these counter-arguments are almost entirely ignored. With the rare and pleasing exception of the Chivvis article, British citizens are subject to significant press censorship on alternative views of Russia. The Tories and Labour have entered a pre-election pact to whitewash all debate.  As with the Mason article, we are asked to accept the current government approach to war in Ukraine as a given.  Free speech has never been under such threat in a Britain that claims to stand up for liberty.  Don’t get distracted by the evidence guys, it’s enough to know that Russia is bad.

But I firmly believe that honest debate should trump blind cancellation.  So, and back to Nigel Farage, he made four specific points that haven’t cut through the blizzard of outrage. 

First, that EU expansion can help explain Putin’s choice of war over peace. In my view, this is classic Farage, using the ongoing war in Ukraine to launch another attack at his old foes in Brussels. I don’t personally believe the evidence supports this. Russia undoubtedly saw the Eastern partnership programme as a way to peel former Soviet States away from Russia’s influence. Putin offering Yanukovych a $15bn back-hander to stay out of an Association Agreement was undoubtedly a flashpoint for the Maidan protests, which precipitated the Ukraine crisis in 2014.  But since Ukraine signed the EU agreement under Poroshenko’s Presidency, the EU membership issue has largely blended into the background. Russian leaders practically never raise this as an issue now.

The second and related point – what people like Mason and others write off as a lie, while offering no opportunity for debate - is that NATO expansion prompted Putin to choose war over peace. Here, in my opinion, Farage made a valid point, a point made over many years by more reputable academics and activists.

Like many others, Mason proceeds from the argument that Putin has confected his concern about NATO only recently, to justify his actions.  This is convenient for a readership that is starved of unhelpful context.   But the facts show that this has been an expressed concern of Russia for eighteen years.  Cast your mind back to Bucharest in early April 2008 at the NATO Summit. This is the Summit where Putin agreed to allow NATO to continue to transport military equipment through Russia to support the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, Putin also railed against proposed expansion of NATO.  Two years after the former Soviet Baltic states joined NATO, he saw further NATO expansion as a threat to Russian security. ‘Let’s be friends, guys,’ he implored NATO leaders. 

He specifically warned against Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO.  He was ignored and, within four months, Russian troops poured into Georgia to prop up the separatist states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. NATO blamed Putin (though Medvedev was by that time President) for what happened in Georgia. Yet, despite this, Russia tried to maintain relations with the west, including Hillary Clinton’s botched attempt at a reset. Since then six new countries have joined NATO.  And here, Farage’s third point comes in.

‘They are coming after us again!’ Hard-wired into the Russian psyche is an idea that their enormous and difficult to manage country has constantly faced external threat over the centuries.  Those threats including Nazi Germany, Napoleon, the Swedes and Lithuanians and the Mongols. Russia sees NATO as the grouping that bombed Belgrade, dismembered Yugoslavia, and caused mayhem in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, all in the cause of liberty. We might take a different view on each of those theatres of conflict. But believe me, having lived in Moscow for four and a half years, many Russians really do believe this.  So, when the Polish President talked recently about dismembering Russia into a host of ethnic states, you might see how this feeds Russian paranoia.

Which brings me to Farage’s fourth point. The Putin has used NATO expansion as a reason to justify his war in Ukraine. Ordinary Russians look on the map and see that NATO, and its aspirant states, almost completely encircles their country as far as the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan.  Russians don’t see NATO as a so-called ‘defensive’ alliance.  To them, it is a vast military empire with far more troops and equipment than Russia has. NATO now accounts for 55% of all global defence spending – that’s at least ten times bigger than Russia, despite its vast spending on the war.  The USA alone spends 6-7 times more each year on defence than does Russia. And despite its overwhelming advantage, NATO still encourages all of its members to spend even more which, if they did so, would add over $80bn each year to NATO spending.  It therefore isn’t difficult for Putin to convince his electorate that in this fight he is Luke Skywalker, and Joe Biden is Darth Vader.

That’s one reason why domestic support in Russia for the war remains high. That’s also why developing nations in BRICS and the wider developing world increasingly see Russia as the plucky small guy, fighting for its rights against NATO.  Very few non-European or non-NATO nations signed the communique at the recently so-called Ukraine peace Summit in Switzerland.  They see a Ukraine that cannot win a war on its own against Russia despite the NATO billions. Farage is simply suggesting we have a debate about whether peace in Ukraine would be better than war. You can’t blame him for offering a point of difference when the main political parties, and the British media, as typified by journalists like Paul Mason, are set against all debate.

Let’s hope that when the new Prime Minister walks into 10 Downing Street at some point on 8 July, they look above the parapet and ask for fresh advice on how badly off-track our policy towards Ukraine has become.


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