Malcolm Rifkind: Putin must feel pain over Ukraine

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THE crisis we are living through is a crisis not just for Ukraine but for every European country, including the United Kingdom.

For the first time since 1945, a European state has invaded the territory of another European state and annexed part of its territory.

The Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister, President Obama and other European leaders have stressed, as has Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, that this is a crucial moment in the history of Europe.

That fine rhetoric will be justified only if it is matched by our response to what is happening and what could still happen.

Sadly, the measures on visa controls and asset freezes for individuals, which have been announced by both the United States and the European Union, are a pathetic and feeble response.

They do not match the seriousness of the situation, which those implementing the responses have acknowledged that we face at the present time.

The issue is not simply one of Crimea. Crimea is of no strategic importance to Russia – Sevastopol is important but it has had control of Sevastopol for years.

The Russian objective is effectively to control all the areas of the former Soviet state, not necessarily by reintegrating them into the Russian Federation but by ensuring that they become Russian dependencies. That will happen because we have seen already that the response to the measures announced so far has been one of contempt by Moscow, and that could continue if we do not respond more robustly.

The only way in which we can effectively hope to have a significant impact on Vladimir Putin’s thinking is through financial and economic sanctions.

That approach has become much more effective in recent years. We know that Iran is at the negotiating table because of the success of the financial and banking sanctions it has experienced.

Dare I say it, but the United Kingdom withdrew from Suez because of the United States’ threat of financial sanctions against this country – a threat that was very effective even many years ago.

The Russian economy is not the Soviet economy. It is much more integrated and I noted with some interest that the chairman of Gazprom apparently sold all his shares in the company some days before the crisis reached its peak.

Financial sanctions will not change the world, but Putin would have to live with a Russian economy in which no other part of the world would invest and in which billions were coming off the Russian stock exchange. The crucial ingredient is access to the world financial markets.

I have listened with great interest to William Hague, the current Foreign Secretary, and I was encouraged when he said that the further measures for which the British government will be pressing will be economical and in trade: they have to be, and they have to include financial sanctions.

Of course, one cannot impose sanctions against another country without accepting some difficulties for oneself. I was encouraged that the Financial Times, of all newspapers, given its normal clientele, said in its editorial that the Europeans “must decide whether it attaches more importance to its international credibility than its commercial interest”. I believe that that is a proper reflection of the measure of events.

We must also face the crucial question of what happens if the British government is robust – I hope it will be – but cannot get the agreement of some other European countries. What will happen if they remain, in my words, feeble in their response?

Western unity is important – I do not doubt that – but Western action is even more important.

If, at the end of the day, we cannot get unanimity, I would want to see the British government, as well as, I hope, the American government and those of a range of European countries, imposing financial sanctions, even if we cannot get full unanimity in the international community.

We must ensure two things. First, Mr Putin must feel financial pain in the Russian economy because of what he is doing.

Secondly, we must be able to look ourselves in the eye and say that we did all that we could, all that was reasonable and all that was available to us to ensure that the horrors of the 1930s were not repeated, not in exactly the same form, but in a form that will damage European security and stability for a generation to come.

• Sir Malcolm Rifkind is a Conservative MP. He was Foreign Secretary from 1995-97. This is an edited version of his Commons speech on the Ukraine crisis.