Churchill’s commandment

Would a more Churchillian prime minister have reacted more robustly to Russia going rogue?

Manchester Square Politics
Angela Merkel: "We can change things for the better. That is the message of the fall of the Wall." (photo: Aleph)

As this issue goes to press, a resumption of hostilities in Eastern Europe seems imminent. Columns of Russian tanks, artillery and missile launchers have taken up positions in eastern Ukraine, where separatists have set up two puppet republics. A Ukrainian civil war was halted by a ceasefire in September, but by then at least 4,000 people, mainly civilians, had already been killed. The truce seems unlikely to hold. Last month’s joyful celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall were already overshadowed by the prospect of a new Cold War — or even a hot one. 

Ever since the Russian invasion of Georgia six years ago, writers in Standpoint have been warning against the threat posed by “Uncle Vlad”. In his obituary of Solzhenitsyn for our third issue in September 2008, Robert Conquest sounded the alarm: relations between Russia and Ukraine were, he wrote, “also heated and just as potentially inflammable . . . The question of the Ukraine is more sensitive still”. Professor Conquest even took issue with Solzhenitsyn, whom he knew well and admired, over Ukraine. The Nobel laureate denied that Stalin had deliberately caused the Terror-famine of 1932-33. “Here Solzhenitsyn is clearly in the wrong,” wrote Conquest, though he added: “Whatever his faults, we should bow to his memory.”

It is worth pondering the fact that one of Russia’s greatest writers, a staunch anti-Communist, nonetheless supported Putin’s nationalist foreign policy. Artists and intellectuals everywhere, but especially in Russia, are always drawn to a leader who reasserts national glory and patriotism after a period of decline. There are continuities in Russian history that preceded the Soviet Union and have survived its demise. To these there is no better guide than Winston Churchill, who understood Russia better than any British prime minister, before or since. In October 1939, during the dark days of the Nazi-Soviet pact, Churchill was as perplexed as everyone else: “I cannot forecast for you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is the Russian national interest.”

Seven long years later, at Fulton, Missouri, Churchill returned to this theme. Everybody knows the words for which this speech became famous: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” But few recall Churchill’s main point. “From what I have seen of our Russian friends and allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.” If the Western democracies remained united, he added, “No one is likely to molest them. If however they become divided or falter in their duty . . . then indeed catastrophe may overwhelm us all.”

How well is Nato living up to what we might call Churchill’s commandment? Angela Merkel addressed the problem in her Berlin Wall speech on November 9: “We can change things for the better. That is the message of the fall of the Wall — it is directed at us in Germany no less than to others in Europe and the world, just now especially to people in Ukraine, in Syria, in Iraq and in many, many other regions of our world, where freedom and human rights are threatened or even trampled underfoot.” It was striking that she, who among Western leaders knows Mr Putin best, did not shrink from placing him in the dock alongside Islamic State. But she did not explain how to stop him.

Nor did David Cameron in what was otherwise a robust Lord Mayor’s speech. “Russia’s actions pose a grave danger to the rest of Europe . . . we shouldn’t need to be reminded of the consequences of turning a blind eye when big countries in Europe bully smaller countries.” Indeed not; but the Prime Minister specifically ruled out “a military solution” and merely warned that “if Russia continues on its current path, then we will keep upping the pressure, and Russia’s relationship with the rest of the world will be radically different in the future.”

What would Churchill have thought of such vague threats as a reaction to tanks and missiles? He would surely have insisted that Britain, the United States and their allies deploy economic sanctions and military strength to deter Russian aggression. Yet even as Mrs Merkel and Mr Cameron were demanding a tougher policy towards Mr Putin, President Obama was posing for pictures with him in Beijing. Churchill’s warning against division and dereliction of duty could not have been more vividly illustrated. Only Canada’s Stephen Harper had the courage to confront Mr Putin at the G20. “I have only one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine.” The Russian denied he was in Ukraine. “That’s why I don’t want to have a meeting with you. You’ll just lie to me,” Mr Harper replied.

Would a more Churchillian prime minister have reacted more robustly to Russia going rogue? Boris Johnson may think so, having just published a book on “the Churchill factor”, reviewed by Paul Johnson. The theory may soon be put to the test: the Mayor of London is the favourite to succeed Mr Cameron in the event of a Tory defeat next May. The implications are considered by Iain Martin.

Meanwhile, Ukraine needs action this day. The Syrian civil war has killed a quarter of a million. If the Ukrainian civil war is allowed to resume, the consequences may be even worse. General Philip Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, says: “There is no question any more about Russia’s direct military involvement in Ukraine.” It is time to stop Mr Putin’s tanks in their tracks.