I am all for attempting further diplomacy in the need to bring Russian bombing of Aleppo to an end but I believe that I am old and wise enough to know that nothing the West attempts, be it diplomacy, increasing sanctions or talk about the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone over the area will stop the current round of Russian aggressions.
We should already know that because we failed to do anything to halt Russian aggression in Ukraine that Russia sees the west as weak and as being unable and unwilling to agree a military solution because public opinion within the US and many of its allies is unsupportive of direct involvement beyond what we have already committed to means that effectively Russia has a free hand. This past week has seen Britain’s Foreign Secretary ‘sabre rattling’ a number of additional threats to Russia that have included accusing Russia of war crimes. I suspect that there is a case to make out that Russia may be guilty of war crimes against humanity for the perpetuating of seemingly deliberate acts of hostility against innocent people, bombing of hospitals and other acts that it has conducted in support of President Assad. But making hard threats is one thing, getting a response is quite another. And the bigger question remains, what does Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson propose to do if Russia continues to ignore the threats?
The answer I suspect is very little. In this dreadful conflict the United Kingdom is little more than a bit player that although able to facilitate a conference talking ideas that might lead to a cease fire and attempts to establish peace, can do little else. US Secretary of State John Kerry has worked tirelessly in his attempts to bring about a cease fire in the five year long civil war raging in Syria but without US public opinion in support of increasing US involvement in the region his hands are tied. Mr. Kerry refers to current situation as being the largest humanitarian issue faced by the west since the end of the second world war but while he can continue putting pressure on Russia he knows, as do they, that without the ammunition of having domestic US public opinion in support of further military action there is little that he can do apart from provide further rhetoric of threats. And that also means that Britain’s hands are tied as well.
I don’t know about you but when I hear and see our Foreign Secretary talk on the dangerous and appalling humanitarian situation in Syria and to be fair, agreeing that the allies must work with the diplomatic ‘tools we have’, when I hear him talk about the need to discuss ‘more kinetic options’ albeit at the same time accepting that he may not have the support of the other countries, I get very alarmed about his singular lack of experience in foreign affairs and conduct of diplomacy.
It is not that I am against expending our military involvement in Syria if we, our allies and the UN Security Council deem this necessary, but I always object to idle and empty threats which one knows from experience that Russia will laugh-off.
However, Mr. Johnson did also say last week that ‘no option is in principle off the table” adding that “we should be in no doubt that these so-called military options are extremely difficult and there is, to put it mildly, a lack of political appetite in most European capitals and certainly in the West for that kind of solution at present”. No doubt this was written for him as much of it is quite lucid and intellectually correct. One smiles when Mr. Johnson says “so we’ve got to work with the tools we have – the tools we have are diplomatic and I think [that] the most powerful weapon we have at the moment is our ability to make President Putin and the Russians feel the consequences of what they are doing.” To that all that I can say is that I wish but also that I do not believe that Russia is in any mood to back down in its bombing of Aleppo, its involvement in support of the Assad regime or indeed, its interference and damage to a neighboring sovereign state in the form of Ukraine. I would however add that much of problem we have with Russia today is our constant failure to understand Russian fears.
Back to our own Foreign Secretary and for the most part I sense a complete lack of credibility in some of what he says. Can I really believe that speaking from his protected environment Mr. Johnson has a proper understanding and comprehension of just how bad the situation in Aleppo really is, or of Ukraine come to that, and that the immediate response from Russia to his empty words and threats is most probably that the UK is worthy of ignoring?
True, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Britain does have an official voice and a vote to match but when it comes to our former strengths in diplomacy and our ability to provide real underlying dialogue that can change events I fear that most of those looking at Britain today from outside see us as being a yesterdays’ man in terms of wielding necessary and required strength and power to win arguments. More’s the pity and with a Foreign Secretary who commands little international respect as far as I can see, I fear that such reflections are unlikely to get any better even as Mr Johnson gains in experience and stature as one might hope that he would. For now Mr. Johnson would do as well to work out how he might counter the ongoing threats posed by Russian ships, submarines and military aircraft in or near to UK shores. If he needs any help I suggest that he calls on the Swedish and Finnish Governments for advice.
Wise Words From Luke Coffey
Luke Coffey, an American political adviser and US Army veteran and who I happen to know well personally has made some very interesting remarks on Twitter. Mr. Coffey who for a period of time worked as a special advisor to Liam Fox when the latter was Secretary of State for Defence in 2010/11 raised the issue of how the ‘west’ continues to support Russia through opening of its ports to visits of Russian ships.
Having escaped from Westminster three years ago these days Luke Coffey oversees research on nations stretching from South America to the Middle East as director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation which is based in Washington DC. Concerning the ‘goodwill’ visit by Russian Navy to Spain that apparently began yesterday and that he tells us is now the 25th visit by the Russian navy to a NATO/EU country since sanctions were first imposed following Russians aggressions in Ukraine I am left almost speechless. On further thinking about this matter I can though conclude that not only are some NATO allies being two-faced by allowing such visits to occur but also that it is high time that our ‘Foreign Secretary’ did something about this in Brussels at both the EU and NATO headquarters.
Russian warships have also, of note was the occasion of President Putin’s recent visit, laid up in Greece which is, in case you hadn’t noticed, yet another NATO/EU member and also in Malta, an island state that is also a member of the EU. Am I missing something here or are those that say they support Russian sanctions and yet allow Russian sailors and airmen to stock up with western goods being somewhat two-faced? Let us hope that it is only the head of the Russian Orthodox Church that we are welcoming to London today on a four day visit that includes meeting her Majesty the Queen and that Mr. Johnson doesn’t on a whim invite Russia’s Navy to visit Portsmouth!
Of course, back in May this year the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, UK, Canada, USA and Japan confirmed in a joint statement following the G7 summit in Japan that they “stand ready to take further restrictive measures in order to increase the cost on Russia should its actions so require”. Those threats were based around Russia’s actions in Ukraine and also Russia’s failure to fulfill the Minsk agreement. In the end nothing was done apart from extending the present mandate for existing sanctions to continue. Just what new sanctions could be imposed on Russia has not been made clear but the one thing that is fairly certain if they are, Russia will survive and that it is very unlikely to back down.
CHW (London – 17th November 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS