Things that go bump in the night

The specter of Russia is haunting Europe. Right? Isn’t it? Even a little bit?

There will, very shortly, be an election in the UK. May 7th, to be exact. At stake is control of America’s most important vassal ally, the lynch-pin of the future of the EU (whether it Brexits or not), a permanent member of the UN Security Council, with a residual but significant nuclear arsenal and force projection capacity. In other words, it Putin is right and the West is all in a tizzy maniacally focused on kicking the Kremlin, you’d expect this to be dominating the political debate.

Ok, maybe not dominating. Maybe just present. A little bit?

Russia didn’t come up in any meaningful way in any of the debates (not that the debates themselves were all that meaningful). None of the party leaders have been doorstopped on the issue. But maybe that’s just the media? Maybe the parties themselves are more interested?

Not really. Reading through the manifestos of the six biggest parties in the UK (and six is a stretch, to be honest), Russia is mentioned exactly 13 times. The record — a whopping five mentions of Russia — belongs to the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives and UKIP are tied at three, Labour and the Greens at one, and the Scottish National Party, despite ex-leader Alex Salmond’s admiration for Putin, mentions Russia exactly never. (Sorry, but I skipped Sinn Fein and Plaid Cymru. Life is short.)

We’ll start with Labour, whose manifesto mentions Russia only in passing: “We live in turbulent times,” Ed Miliband and co tell us, taking the prize for foreign policy cliché of the campaign. “The rise of ISIL, an aggressive Russia threatening its neighbours in eastern Europe, and continuing economic uncertainty in the Eurozone, are each a challenge to our national security.” Their solution? Nothing specific to Russia: work within the UN, NATO, the G7, the EU and other bodies to meet these challenges. Unlike those Tories, who seek isolation, wherein lies weakness.

The pacifist Greens take on Russia more directly, but only sightly. In a brief foreign policy section of their manifesto, in which the party eschews violence and calls for diplomacy and, occasionally, sanctions against states that repress their people, the Greens promise to “work to support a negotiated settlement between Russia and Ukraine, while developing a new security structure for the region involving the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.” And that’s it.

On the other side of the spectrum, UKIP (which has allegedly received some degree of Kremlin backing) folds the Russia issue neatly into its, um, idiosyncratic manifesto not once but thrice. In the first instance, Russia is an example of a country — alongside the US and South Korea — that trades heavily with the EU without actually being in the EU. And yeah, if Russia can do it, why can’t the UK? In a similar vein, UKIP argues that being on the outside of Europe would be beneficial for the UK because, “With Russia once more flexing its muscles and controlling much of the energy supplies to Western Europe, the other EU member states will have more than a casual interest in making sure their relationship with us remains amicable.” An interesting thought, of course. Although it is at odds with UKIP’s third mention of Russia, which reads thusly:

Britain’s increasing involvement with European Union expansionism is putting us increasingly, unnecessarily, at loggerheads with Russia. The MoD recently told Ukraine it can count on ‘any possible assistance’ in maintaining its territorial integrity. It is yet another sign that our political leaders are willing to put our troops in harm’s way at the behest of other country’s political agendas.

As the kids say these days, I’m just gonna leave this here.

The Tories are a bit more straightforward, also mentioning Russia three times in their manifesto, but without mincing words: “We and our allies face major challenges: Islamist extremism, an aggressive Russia, economic uncertainty in the Eurozone…” (were the Tories my students, I’d have to write them up for plagiarism, since Labour used almost exactly the same formulation 24 hours earlier); “We will … uphold the sovereignty, integrity and capacity of Ukraine, and continue to reject Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea”; and “We will … stand shoulder to shoulder with our NATO allies, reassuring all its members — especially those closest to Russia — of their security….”

But it is the hapless LibDems — who will lose seats but likely still control the makeup of the future ruling coalition — who show both the most interest in Russia and the most nuance in their manifesto. Departing slightly from the standard Labour-Tory formulation, Nick Clegg’s gang start their foreign policy section with the statement that, “From the recent collapse of talks between Israelis and Palestinians to Russian interference in Ukraine, this is a challenging time for peace and security across the world.” Further down, the party pledges to

Promote democracy and stability in Ukraine and neighbouring countries against an increasingly assertive Russia. We will work closely with EU and other international partners to exert maximum economic and political pressure on Russia to stop interfering in the affairs of sovereign Eastern European nations, and will stand by our obligations under the NATO treaty in the event of threats to NATO member states. We will work with the EU to develop an EU energy strategy that will reduce reliance on Russia’s energy supplies.

Finally, the LibDems pledge to, “Continue to work closely with other EU governments on foreign policy issues towards Russia, Ukraine, the Middle East and North Africa.”

In sum, mild concern? Sure. Some stern words? If you say so. Hysteria? Not quite.

Incidentally, someone needs to give these people lessons in how to write a manifesto. Karl?

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One response to “Things that go bump in the night

  1. The manifestos make pretty depressing reading when it comes to foreign affairs, most leave it til the last few pages. Why this is, whether it reflects the reality of the threat from Russia, or in fact something else, is a different matter. The UK is in a strongly isolationist mood, attributable to variously Iraq, Syria, Libya, Bush, the Euro, the Great Recession or Scottish Nationalism. This current crop of politicians is not one to try to disabuse strongly held public notions. All the major parties are struggling to balance the books and see defence as a soft target and seem to be trusting to luck, and nothing else, that this will not rebound on them in the next 5 years. This short term thinking alone seems to explain the manifestos. The FP establishment on the other hand sees Russia as a very big problem, evidenced by it being the No1 the focus of think tanks and debates right now.

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