Opposition to Putin must not lead the UK to appease equally repellent dictators

Show caption Saudi ruler crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photograph: SPA/AFP/Getty Images Opinion Opposition to Putin must not lead the UK to appease equally repellent dictators Simon Jenkins The war in Ukraine is showing up the inconsistency and moral sloppiness of how Britain deals with regimes Mon 14 Mar 2022 16.27 GMT Share on Facebook

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War is a good time to bury scruples. We may hate Vladimir Putin, but one dictator at a time appears all we can handle. So Britain’s Boris Johnson is to make a humiliating dash to plead with Saudi Arabia’s ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to lower the price of oil. What will he offer in return? Will it be a blind eye to the state murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the continued devastation of the Yemenis, or the execution at the weekend of 81 men, some of them political prisoners? Who next is to be appeased, the “oligarchs” of the UAE, or Nicolás Maduro, ruler of oil-rich Venezuela? How kind must Britain suddenly be to China, as the latter equivocates in its attitude to Putin and greedily eyes Taiwan?

Ukraine has brought an enhanced moral sloppiness to British policymaking. Sanctions were thought a price worth paying in lieu of coming more directly to Kyiv’s aid against Putin. But as the war has not gone well for Putin, nor have sanctions for the west. They have sent energy prices and inflation soaring. At first this was to be a noble display of sharing Ukraine’s agony, sort of. Now it has all got too much. Political scientists may call it realpolitik, but in truth it is merely starting to hurt.

Oil-producing dictators are not fools. They know it would help sanctions if they raise production to lower energy prices. Some climate activists might think a price spike is no bad thing, given the need to limit global carbon fuel consumption. But either way, the spike will not last. The Ukraine war will end and prices will fall, as they have so often before. There is no reason to grant the oil producers their brief opportunity to launder their reputations in western capitals.

Johnson now proposes to walk into the Saudi trap, to appease one, if not more, dictators to ease the pain of ever tougher sanctions. Every area of his domestic and foreign policy seems open to short-term expediency. He reportedly intends to reopen the prospect of hopelessly expensive nuclear plants and carpet the countryside with wind turbines. He is under pressure to cut fuel duty and drill for oil in the North Sea. There is talk of keeping coalmines open. Russia supplies just 8% of Britain’s oil and 4% of its gas, yet this is constantly called “dependence”. Industry minister Kwasi Kwateng pleads, “We are all vulnerable to Putin”. No we are not, just vulnerable to cunning lobbyists who race to exploit every area of policy weakness.

The government’s anti-immigrant border policy is also being revealed in all its political crudity. Afghan immigrants are interned in London hotels and forbidden to work. Ukrainian migrants, after weeks of resistance, are welcomed into Britain’s homes, welfare state and labour market. The difference lies in the headlines. On Ukraine, British ministers are being bludgeoned across Europe for their inhumanity – and forced to concede an ethical policy. The Afghans are mere victims of Britain’s own military failure and can be forgotten.

When foreign policy has to rely, as it often does, on equivocation, there is the more reason to hold tight to some underlying moral principles. Britain has been right not to join a war between foreign states that does not threaten its security. But that is precisely why it should stand up for concepts of freedom, charity and the rule of law, even at some short-term cost to itself. In other words it should see this crisis out.

Saudi Arabia is an appalling regime. If Britain regards sanctions as the proper response to Putin’s war, it should bear the cost of that response. To oppose one dictator should not require appeasing another.

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist