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Judge not Putin lest the West be judged too

The current demonisation of Vladimir Putin is overcooked.

He is no saint, obviously, but what living world statesman is? Over the years he has avoided various chances to make opportunistic mischief when the leaders of the West have been irresponsible or misguided. He has seen Nato expand ever closer to Russia's borders, yet has still behaved with restraint. He has been helping the Americans to withdraw from Afghanistan with at least some dignity.

He has shown positive pragmatism over Syria, particularly on the issue of that rogue state's chemical weapons. He helped to prevent a reckless Western intervention in the Syrian conflict, when both President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron seemed hell-bent on that disastrous course. Further back, he greatly disapproved of the catastrophic Iraq war - as well he might - but he stood back and did not make trouble for the US and its allies in that ill-starred conflict, as he could have. I cannot prove this, but I suspect that most of the Russian people see him as a responsible leader who could, over many years, have been much more assertive. The Russians know they supply a lot of gas to Germany and other Western nations.

Meanwhile, the Americans, in particular, are furious that Mr Putin gave asylum to Edward Snowden, when the Chinese were reluctant to do so. On balance, I think Mr Putin was right to do that. Even if he wasn't, it was hardly a major international crime.

The focus is now on President Putin as never before because of his intervention in Crimea, where Russia has legitimate, and in its view, vital naval and military installations. It will be less easy to justify his actions if he intervenes in eastern Ukraine. But we should always remember our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. In other words, we seem to be in danger of applying pretty cynical double standards. Ukraine is very much within Russia's existing sphere of interest, to use the old diplomatic phrase. Afghanistan and Iraq are hardly in Britain's or America's obvious sphere of influence.

And while few people would wish to defend the regime of Ukraine's former president, the pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych, he was democratically elected and was overthrown not by legitimate means but by a mob - and some of that mob were ultra-right fascists. Meanwhile, in the Crimean peninsula, presented to the Ukrainian people in a magnanimous gesture by Nikita Kruschev in 1954, most of the population still count themselves ethnic Russians. Putin's current actions may be seen as defending his country's valid interests in Crimea, and also the interests of at least some, and possibly the majority, of the Crimean people.

Underlying the current mood in Western Europe is a suspicion, and possibly a fear, of Russia. Maybe both are justified. But surely we must always remember how much we owe the Russian people. The greatest evil Europe has ever faced was Nazism, and the Nazis would not have been beaten without the colossal sacrifice of the Russians. Of course they only became opponents of Hitler when Hitler attacked them, but that does not detract from the huge debt we in the West will always owe them.

I'm well aware that our Russian allies often behaved with barbarity and almost demonic ruthlessness. But the German war machine had to be beaten.

I'm also aware that the brave anti-Soviet resistance in Ukraine at the end of the Second World War, and for several years after it, was put down with a brutality that was inexcusable. As many as 500,000 Ukrainians died. The West, understandably, never came to their aid. Is some kind of atavistic guilt now nagging at Western leaders?

The current Russian leadership should be respected and Mr Putin should not be regarded as a pantomime villain. The diplomatic and political nuances of the current imbroglio are desperately complex as well as dangerous. If the leaders of the West must intervene, surely what they should be seeking, above all, is a diplomatic resolution based on the establishment of a credible, non-corrupt and democratic regime in Kiev.

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