Richard North, 24/03/2014  

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One would have thought that the sensible way for our politicians to handle the Ukraine crisis would be to downplay the rhetoric and seek every opportunity for calm evaluation and discussion.

On those grounds alone, yesterday's input from William Hague was crass beyond belief. But if we then consider what it is that the UK, alongside the EU, is trying to achieve, Hague's rhetoric seems even more inappropriate.

As it stands, the realities on the ground are that Crimea has gone. It is now part of Russia, and the process of full integration is under way. Nothing Mr Hague says, nor anything the western nations say or do, will make the slightest difference to this.

Thus, the only possible thing – in the short-term – that Mr Hague and his friends could achieve is to prevent fragmentation of Ukraine. The further break-up is something that cannot be in our interests. We would risk ending up with the rump of a bankrupt nation aligned with west, with the remainder joining Russia and international relations returned to a Cold War level.

The talk of "illegal annexation", of an "outrageous land grab", and of the referendum being "a mockery of democracy", cannot in any way be calculated to calm the situation, nor can accusations that Russia, "has invaded a fellow European nation, and used force to change its borders".

Throughout the crisis, though, we have seen this tendency to ramp up the tension and, in his piece, we see Hague doing it again, talking of "thousands of Russian troops still massed on Ukraine's borders", and of there being "a grave risk of the Ukraine crisis deepening".

Yesterday the Obama administration was playing the same game, CNN reporting that officials were "concerned" that Russia – as early as coming days – could use any number of pretexts "to justify further military incursions into Ukraine".

Lord Owen then adds to this meme, on the one hand calling for diplomacy to become "upfront and real", with face-to-face negotiations rather than telephone calls and "tit-for-tat sanctions". But that is against his "warning" that Russian military incursions into eastern Ukraine were "a strong possibility".

Yet Owen is just another voice in the clamour. He is joined by NATO's top military commander, US General Philip Breedlove, who told a conference in Brussels today that Russia had mobilised a "very, very sizeable and very, very ready" military contingent on Ukraine's eastern borders.

Andrii Deshchytsia is the foreign minister for the interim government of Ukraine and he too is ramping up the rhetoric, speaking glibly of Putin pulling off his "blitzkrieg", and of Russia's "anschluss".

He calls for Ukraine to become a functioning, future-oriented European democracy and, once it succeeds, he says, "it will represent a viable democratic alternative to many interested onlookers in the post-Soviet space".

The European Union can find in Ukraine a new drive, he adds. The United States can find here a "long game" it is destined to win. The rest of the world, he asserts, "will sleep better at night knowing that the new international reality doesn't depend of the whims of ever more Hitler impersonators".

Vying with Deshchytsia in the diplomacy stakes, Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council chief Andriy Parubiy then asserts that Putin's troops are ready to attack Ukraine at any time. "The aim of Putin is not Crimea, but all of Ukraine ... His troops massed at the border are ready to attack at any moment", Parubiy told thousands of demonstrators gathered in central Kiev. 

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Peter Hitchens thus has it, writing under the headline, "We're being dragged into a new Cold War by a puffed-up bullfrog". Stupidity and ignorance rule the world, he says, but the trouble is that the stupid and the ignorant think that they are clever and well-informed. He rails against the likes of Hillary Clinton who, like Deshchytsia, has directly compared Putin to Hitler.

But, in particular, he berates our prime minister for "puffing himself up like a bullfrog, and busily creating a new Cold War that will benefit nobody except spies and weapons-makers, for a cause he doesn't understand and can't explain".

The whole pack of them are stoking the fires, seemingly yearning for death, destruction and war. And, remarkably, against that, it seems that the public are taking the contrary view, not in any way buying the bellicosity of their masters. As diplomacy dies on the streets of Kiev, never more have the likes of William Hague seemed so out of touch with ordinary people.

Cooler analysis suggests that eastern Ukraine is unlikely to follow Crimea in the near future, while the Russians themselves deny that troop numbers in border regions exceed those permitted by international agreements, verified by independent inspection. Furthermore, Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov also denies any intention to invade.

As before, we see no evidence on the ground of invasion forces assembling, and there is no chatter nor political indications that would suggest an imminent cross-border incursion. But the media and the politicians, it seems, aren't listening. They want to see bodies in the streets; blood lust is running the show.

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The bizarre thing about this all though is that the politicians seem to be in a world of their own. For instance, Frank-Walter Steinmeier in an interview for Die Welt was asked whether there were any lessons in this crisis on the weakness of Europe, or even the whole west.

Steinmeier's answer is perhaps indicative of them all. "I can not see any weakness in our politics", he says. "It is good and important that Europe and the US act in close coordination in this crisis". He adds they the parties are sending "a clear message", and they will respond quickly and in a united manner. At the same time, he says, "we remain ready to talk, on both sides of the Atlantic".

In Steinmeier's, view, he does not think the occupation of Crimea will ever be a success for Russia in the long term. Russia, he says, is already isolated internationally. Even within the Commonwealth of Independent States, close allies have distanced themselves from Moscow.

Anyone who can be that confident in their own actions, and that unequivocal about the future, cannot be fully in touch with reality, especially and diverse signs indicate that the situation steadily deteriorating.

Of the many, one of the more disturbing comes from the outskirts of Artemovsk, eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border. There, pro-Russian activists have set up protest camps and checkpoints to monitor Ukrainian government troop movements and to try to protect weapons stockpiles.

Their checkpoints are outside what looks like a salt mine, but locals say it's common knowledge that 150 metres under the facility is a top secret Soviet-era military base, which still houses to an enormous stockpile of weapons. The protesters say they acting to stop this arsenal from falling into the hands of what they see as "the new fascist government" in Kyiv.

The reference to the "fascist" government is interesting, as this description keeps coming up. A local report (personal communication) from Kiev suggests that it is "really tough for normal people there". There is virtually no law and order there and most official things have ground to a halt. Banks are limiting withdrawals to the equivalent of about €30 a day and government activities (taxes, visas, permits, etc.) have virtually stopped.

The Maidan government is considered to be fascist. The communists have boycotted parliament. The government is popular in Kiev itself, but intensely hated elsewhere. Their activities are considered to be in breech of the constitution and it is this that gave the Crimea the chance they had been waiting for. They had tried to hold referenda in the past but the government had always succeeded in stopping them. This time, with practically no functioning government, there was nothing to stop them.

The separatism issue at the moment is not so much a desire to join Russia as a burning desire to get away from the hated Kiev government. In that sense, things are falling apart. If anything, the EU leadership are thought to have chosen completely the wrong side.

As the rhetoric locally becomes more intense, with divisions widening, the situation cries out for emollient words and genuine peacemaking. But western politicians are doing nothing to restore a sense of calm and order. The word "warmongers" springs to mind here, suggesting that the political classes really have lost touch. It is the people of the western democracies, rather than their leaders, who seem to be seeing things straight.

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With that, the talk of invasion must be taken with a very large pinch of salt.  The initial reports from the White House were broadcast by CNN on Saturday but it has taken until now – strengthened by General Breedlove and others – for the meme to have spread widely. Now, hundreds of journals are running with an invasion scare, from this morning's Guardian, to obscure online journals, all based on the same original material.

The weight of repetition, with the reference to multiple sources, tends to lend credence to the meme, but it must be appreciated that all the different sources rely on one disputed intelligence appreciation, while repetition alone does not improve the accuracy of a flawed report. And there is no more substance to the current scare than there was to earlier reports of invasion, which did not materialise.

Over the next few days, we will doubtless hear politicians and the media talking up the crisis, but there is nothing of substance in their reports and views that would suggest that a Russian invasion is imminent. The greatest danger, is seems, are Hitchen's "stupid and ignorant" people, who are capable of making a fragile situation worse and doing untold damage in the process.

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