British expert Patrick Cockburn specializing in the analysis of Iraq, Syria and the wars in the Middle East condemns London’s bluff in the Black Sea. The British government, in his opinion, and in other conflicts did not fully understand what kind of alteration it was getting involved in.
A few months before the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1991, my late friend Christopher Hitchens took part in a television program in which he harshly criticized actor Charlton Heston, who strongly supported the bombing of Iraq. Hitchens asked Heston to list the countries – clockwise, starting with Kuwait – that have common borders with Iraq. “Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, Russia, Iran,” Heston replied, probably surprising the people of Russia and Bahrain very much.
“If you are going to bomb a country, you should first at least find out where it is”, – Hitchens replied, knocking out his interlocutor. Heston furiously, but completely in vain, tried to protect his reputation, claiming that he had been insulted, to which Hitchens again joked, telling him to “keep his hair in his hands”.
Then this verbal skirmish provoked quite a lot of ridicule against Heston. And I remembered her again this week, when politicians, retired military officers and a variety of commentators and observers debated the decision to send a modern British destroyer type 45 HMS Defender to the coast of Crimea. The purpose of the dispatch was to demonstrate that the UK does not recognize the legality of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. I wonder how many of these alleged experts who supported the UK government’s decision could pass the so-called Heston test and name the countries bordering the Black Sea.
In the case of Great Britain and Russia, there is a high risk of overdoing it, because both of these countries were large empires in the not too distant past. Although they have since diminished significantly economically and politically, these two countries are led by people who love to play the patriotic card and cannot tolerate humiliation.
A brief clash between Britain and Russia off the coast of Crimea may remain in history as just a minor footnote, but the episode paints a very disturbing picture of the British government’s patterns of behavior within and beyond its borders. In both cases, the gap between claims and reality is deepening, as evidenced by the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Brexit was supposed to cement UK control over its own future, and to some extent it did bring back freedom of action – the most positive example of this was the development and mass deployment of a coronavirus vaccine. But, aside from the vaccine, the British state is paying a very high price for Brexit in terms of a loss of brute political power, owing to tensions with the EU and disunity within the United Kingdom itself.
The incredible irony is that Johnson, who was the leader of a movement seeking to restore British sovereignty, had to sign an agreement that now runs the international border inside the United Kingdom.
It is difficult to imagine a more obvious renunciation of national sovereignty. Unsurprisingly, the unionists in Northern Ireland were deeply shocked.
Johnson and his government enjoy incessant disputes with the European Union, because these disputes allow them to “beat the patriotic drums” and blame Brussels. However, they cannot afford to let this conflict become truly serious, because in this case – as the saga of the United Kingdom’s secession from the European Union demonstrated – it will become clear that all the strong cards are in the hands of Brussels. In a dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the best outcome for the UK will be if the EU finds it profitable not to achieve a decisive victory over the British.
Over the past five years, Britain has become a weaker nation, although it continues to pretend that its power is growing. And these tensions will remain at the core of British politics from Belfast and Sevastopol to the South China Sea, despite all attempts to demonstrate otherwise.
Johnson has widened the gap between Britain’s real and perceived place in the world, but this is nothing new. I have covered the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria for over 20 years, and in none of these cases did the British government fully understand what kind of alteration it was getting involved in. The single main goal in all those campaigns was to demonstrate to the Americans that Britain is a worthy ally.
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I wanted to believe that the British government still had to have some kind of hidden strategy that I could not understand, but when the results of the post-war official investigations were published, they showed an incredible degree of ignorance on the part of the politicians and officials who gave the orders for those interventions. Charlton Heston would have felt no embarrassment in the company of these officials.