POLITICS

Mehdi's Morning Memo: Does Vlad Want War?

02/03/2014 10:13 GMT | Updated 02/03/2014 10:59 GMT
Anthony Devlin/PA Archive
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a press conference inside 10 Downing Street, London.

Here are the five things you need to know on Sunday 2 March 2014...

1) DOES VLAD WANT WAR?

What was Vladimir Putin thinking, sending troops and tanks into Ukraine's autonomous Crimea region and deploying anti-submarine warships off the coast of the country? Does he want a proper, full-on shooting war, a la Russia and Georgia in 2008? With who? Just the new post-coup government in Ukraine? Or the west as a whole?

The BBC reports on the US president's 90-minute phone call with his Russian counterpart, in which he accused Putin of flouted international law by sending troops to Ukraine:

"Mr Obama urged the Russian leader to pull forces back to bases in Crimea. Mr Putin responded by saying that Moscow reserves the right to protect its interests and those of Russian speakers in Ukraine, the Kremlin said. Meanwhile, Canada has recalled its ambassador to Moscow for consultations... Ukraine says it has put its army on full combat alert after Russia's parliament approved the deployment of Russian troops."

Putin isn't just playing czar; he's playing hypocrite. Remember his New York Times op-ed making the case against US-led military action in Syria last September? "The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression," wrote the Russian president. Hello kettle? This is pot. You're black.

Perhaps Obama should have re-read Putin's column back to him, over the phone, yesterday. Then again, Obama (and Cameron and co) have their own credibility and hypocrisy problem here. Western leaders denounce Russia's attack on Ukraine's "sovereignty" and "borders" while doing their own violating of "sovereignty" and "borders" whenever they see fit (remember Kosovo? Iraq? Libya?). They decry the illegitimacy of foreign military occupation while continuing to turn a blind eye to the longest foreign military occupation in the world: Israel's 47-year occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Pundits and politicians on Twitter seem to have reinvented themselves, this weekend, as experts on Russia and Ukraine. Most aren't. But Rodric Braithwaite, the former British ambassador to Moscow, is. Writing in the Independent on Sunday, he says:

"Much recent comment on Ukraine in the British press has been marked by a barely forgivable ignorance about its history and politics, an overhasty willingness to put the blame for all its troubles on Vladimir Putin, and an almost total inability to suggest practical ways of bringing effective Western influence to bear on a solution."

I agree with Braithwaite but I still nodded along while watching BBC1's Andrew Marr show this morning as historian and journalist Sir Max Hastings pithily remarked that the tragedy of modern Russia under Putin - who once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century, and came to prominence after brutally crushing the anti-Russia insurgency in Chechnya in the 1990s - is that the country only has three "bankable" exports: "oil, gas and fear".

2) THE UKRAINE BLAME GAME

So how does the crisis in Ukraine affect domestic UK politics, if at all? Well, some cynical Tories want to make it about Ed Miliband's judgement. Yep. You read that correctly. Conservative planning minister Nick Boles tweeted: "PM was right to urge Parliament to stand up to Putin and punish Assad's use of chemical weapons. Look where Miliband's weakness has led us." His colleague, the Tory treasury minister Sajid Javid went further, tweeting: "Direct link between Miliband’s cynical vote against Syria motion and Russia’s actions on Ukraine. Completely unfit to lead Britain."

Really? I mean, really? First off, the idea that Putin wouldn't have sent troops into Crimea - long considered part of Russia, not Ukraine, by the former's nationalists - if the US and UK had bombed Syria for a few days last September is laughable. Did the US/UK invasion of Iraq stop Putin going into Georgia in 2008? Do you really think Putin gives a damn about Labour's foreign policy platform? Second, if Miliband is going to be blamed for Ukraine for blocking a war in Syria, shouldn't he also get credit for the Syrian chemical weapons decommissioning deal and the Iranian nuclear diplomatic deal, both of which were the direct consequences of avoiding war with Syria last autumn? Third, Javid shouldn't forget, as the Spectator's Isabel Hardman reminded him, "30 of Javid’s own Conservative colleagues rebelled on [the Syria] motion and many more abstained". Is he blaming them for the situation in Ukraine, too?

Meanwhile, on a related note, Sarah Palin is taking credit for predicting the Russian incursion into Ukraine. Yes, you read that sentence correctly, too. From the Mail on Sunday:

"Sarah Palin had foreshadowed the impending Ukraine invasion six years ago - and she is not shy about telling her detractors 'I told you so.' The former Alaska governor and one-time vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket wrote on her Facebook page Friday a strongly worded post calling out her 'high-brow' critics for mocking her. 'Yes, I could see this one from Alaska,' Mrs Palin wrote. 'I'm usually not one to Told-Ya-So, but I did, despite my accurate prediction being derided as “an extremely far-fetched scenario” by the 'high-brow' Foreign Policy magazine.' As Palin pointed out in her post, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Foreign Affairs wrote an article ridiculing her prediction that if then-Senator Barack Obama is elected into office, Russia under President Vladimir Putin will move to occupy Ukraine. Palin's statements on the campaign trail came during an armed conflict that broke out between Russia and Georgia over the contested territory of South Ossetia."

3) BORIS AND GEORGE GO TO WAR.. WITH EACH OTHER

Forget Ukraine, the real conflict brewing is within the Conservative Party, between heavy weights Boris Johnson, the London mayor, and George Osborne, the chancellor. The Mail on Sunday splashes on "Rage Of Boris At 'Osborne The Liar'". The paper reports:

"Supporters of the London Mayor claimed the Chancellor’s camp was engaging in a ‘dirty tricks plot’ to wreck his hopes of becoming Conservative leader – and boost Mr Osborne’s own ambitions for the job. The simmering ‘Boris versus George’ leadership feud burst into the open over reports that Mr Osborne had ‘delivered personally’ a message to Mr Johnson that David Cameron wants him to stand as a parliamentary candidate at the next Election... A well-placed source says that, when he was told Mr Osborne had approached him about the matter, the Mayor exclaimed: ‘Bull****! There has been no such conversation. They are trying to tie me in.’ Mr Johnson believes the manoeuvre is a ploy to ensure he gets equal blame if the Tories lose power, and make it easier for Mr Osborne to beat him in a subsequent race to succeed Mr Cameron."

If true, you've can't help but admire the chancellor's cynical and self-serving embrace of the dark arts...

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch my 60-second, semi-serious take on the week's top political stories - from Harman vs the Mail to Angela Merkel's visit to her 'naughty nephew' David Cameron. I even try speaking German in it... #mehdisminute

4) THE COLOUR OF UKIP MONEY

All is not well on Planet Ukip - the Observer reports:

"Ukip's spring conference ended in bitter feuding over funding on Saturday night as the party's deputy chairman, Neil Hamilton, accused a top donor of failing to deliver. Last year Yorkshire multimillionaire Paul Sykes promised to bankroll the party's European elections campaign, handing over 'whatever it takes' to ensure that the party topped the poll. At the time the pledge was seen as a coup for Ukip, but Hamilton, a former Tory minister, told the Observer: 'So far we haven't seen the colour of his money. This spending needs to be committed. Very large amounts of money can't just start a billboard campaign or publish a newspaper, things have to be planned – there's a lot of creative work involved.'"

Speaking on the Marr show this morning, Ukip leader Nigel Farage repeatedly denied that his party was a "splinter" group from the Tories and that the majority of Ukip members and voters weren't former Tories. He reminded viewers that a post-2015 Ukip parliamentary contingent could be up for doing a coalition deal with any party which promised an in/out referendum on the EU - that is, the Conservatives or Labour.

By the way, you didn't think we were going to get through Ukip's spring conference on Friday without a series of gaffes and scandalous remarks, did you? From the Sunday Mirror:

"Nigel Farage and hundreds of his UKIP supporters roared with laughter – as a comic cracked a string of offensive jokes about foreigners. The party’s leader clapped as Paul ­Eastwood took swipes at Indians, Muslims and Poles at a gala dinner marking the climax of its spring conference... The scenes were witnessed by Sunday Mirror investigators who joined 200 guests at the £35-a-head black-tie feast. The dinner was a chance for delegates, donors and officials to mingle after the day-long ­conference in Torquay, Devon. Earlier our reporters were invited to an exclusive boozy bash on a £1million yacht. We listened as a UKIP backer claimed Essex was 'full of Arabs'. He complained that people in East London were ­impossible to understand."

Oh dear.

5) LORD OWEN LIKES ED

Talking of donors and donations, has Labour's prodigal son come home? From the Observer:

"Former Labour foreign secretary David Owen last night swung his support dramatically behind the party he left 33 years ago – pledging a substantial donation to it – as Ed Miliband won overwhelming backing from delegates for his party reforms... The peer's move came after delegates supported sweeping internal changes, which will introduce a system of 'one member, one vote' for Labour leadership elections and end the automatic affiliation of union members to the party, by 86% to 14%. In a statement issued afterwards, Owen said: 'This is a brave and bold reform ... and one I strenuously argued for as a Labour MP at the special conference on Saturday 25 January 1981... To help Labour reverse the 2012 NHS legislation without yet another major reorganisation, I have made a declarable contribution of over £7,500 to Labour funds. Unless there is a change of government, the NHS in England will be completely destroyed by 2020.'"

Owen, however, will continue to sit as an independent in the Lords and won't be taking the Labour whip. He joins Tony Blair and Unite's Len McCluskey in endorsing Miliband's internal party reforms; as the New Statesman's George Eaton quipped on Twitter last night: "That's quite a big tent."

QUOTE UNQUOTE

"The Conservatives must ditch this statistical nonsense." - Dr Liam Fox, former defence secretary and standard bearer for Tory Eurosceptics, attacks the coalition's net migration target in a column for the Sunday Telegraph.

OSCARS ALERT

Tonight's the Oscars in Los Angeles. I'll be rooting for Jeremy Scahill and his anti-drone movie 'Dirty Wars', which is up for 'best documentary'. Meanwhile, the HuffPost UK has done a 'political Oscars' featuring, among others Barack Obama and Norman Tebbit.

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From the Sunday Times/YouGov poll:

Labour 38

Conservatives 34

Ukip 12

Lib Dems 9

That would give Labour a majority of 44.

From the Observer/Opinium poll:

Labour 34

Conservatives 29

Ukip 19

Lib Dems 10

That would give Labour a majority of 48.

140 CHARACTERS OR LESS

@WilliamJHague We oppose decision to deploy Russian troops on Ukrainian soil against wishes of #Ukraine gov and condemn any act of aggression

@jreedmp Those calling for clear response from EU and US...there is no possibility of a clear response. Every single move has a negative consequence.

@StewartWood A shame to see @sajidjavid use the Ukrainian crisis to spout nonsense in the quest for party political point scoring at home.

900 WORDS OR MORE

Matthew D'Ancona, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, says: "Angela Merkel’s visit is a small step in the long march to reform."

Andrew Rawnsley, writing in the Observe, says: "Not even Angela Merkel can bridge the vast Europe divide for David Cameron."

John Rentoul, writing in the Independent on Sunday, says: "Ed Miliband’s Labour Party reforms are good news for all."

Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan (mehdi.hasan@huffingtonpost.com) or Ned Simons (ned.simons@huffingtonpost.com). You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons and @huffpostukpol