Farage’s views on Putin aren’t just wrong, they’re weird

Reform UK leader Nigel Farage speaks at an election campaign event in Maidstone, Kent, Britain, 24 June 2024
Reform UK leader Nigel Farage speaks at an election campaign event in Maidstone, Kent, Britain, 24 June 2024

Nigel Farage is right to say he is consistent. He argued for placating Vladimir Putin during Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, blaming the European Union. He did the same during Putin’s invasion of all Ukraine in February 2022. He does the same now. This consistency has no virtue, however, because its premise was always false.

It flies in the face of the fact that Putin’s version of history is, like Hitler’s in the 1930s, a fiction designed to justify aggression. This column is no fan of European Union foreign policy, but it is not the EU’s fault that Putin broke the post-Cold War agreement which Russia made with the West to grant independence to Ukraine in return for Kyiv giving up its nuclear weapons.

Can Mr Farage identify a single moment, after Putin reopened this issue, when he offered good-faith negotiations? He has said the West should not “poke the Russian bear with a stick”, but what is one supposed to do when the bear, unpoked, lumbers forward, seeking whom it may devour?

I am curious to know why Mr Farage is making this electoral play now. Is he slightly crazed by his desire to eclipse Ukraine’s most active defender, Boris Johnson, or by his adulation of Donald Trump or by the dream of winning an imagined Munich Peace Prize? I find his intervention surprising because Mr Farage likes popularity. There is little sign that waving the white flag to tyrants is popular with British voters.

Polling by Crosby Textor, conducted shortly before the general election was called, shows consistently high British support for Ukraine in the war, with 80 per cent rating Putin least favourably of all world leaders (President Zelensky being the only world leader rated favourably by most), whereas Mr Farage thinks the Russian autocrat miles ahead of our leaders.

The poll broke down people’s views by party allegiance and by dividing “Intended Conservatives” from “Conservative defectors”. The views are very similar across party. It is true that the Tory defectors are somewhat more sceptical about the war in Ukraine than the party loyalists but, even so, most support both Ukraine and the present Government’s policy on the subject.

The Farage defeatist clarion call from Clacton to Kyiv feels silly, perhaps worse than silly.

Ivan’s tale: From investment banker to frontline fighter

I was in Ukraine last week, at a conference in the port of Odessa. In its margins, I met a youngish Crimean-born man called Ivan. Despite being a US-educated investment banker – the poor usually bear the brunt of war – he volunteered in February 2022. He applied for the elite 10 Mountain Assault Brigade (“I thought I could be their finance dude, but I became an infantryman”). After two weeks of exiguous training “with only half a clip of ammo”, he was sent to Bakhmut, which was to fall to the Russians in May 2023 after 10 months of ferocious fighting.

In its first combat deployment there, Ivan’s company found themselves surrounded. For 10 days, they fought all day and all night, their positions shelled non-stop for the last three. Typically, in a position of 10 men, two would be shooting, a couple more passing the ammunition and the other six crouching, “paralysed with fear”.

Such fear is not rebuked by comrades – “Everyone understands” – but it must be overcome to survive. “If you refuse an order, you become cannon fodder.” Ivan was one of these terrified six at first, depending utterly on a veteran sergeant of the Crimean invasion, the period during which Mr Farage was first publicly arguing that Russia should be appeased. “I’m going to f---ing kill you unless you start shooting!”, the sergeant shouted. At first, Ivan jumped up, “Somali-style”, shooting wildly into the air. After a bit, he learnt to be useful.

The assault brigade’s opponents were the Wagner group, divided between mercenary veterans of the Afghan, Syrian and Chechen campaigns and prison inmates released with Russian promises of pardon and money. The latter were often without bullet-proof vests and overloaded with ammunition and grenades. They would charge and be killed in huge quantities. The mercenaries would then advance, using their dead comrades as cover and raiding their corpses for their kit.

In the face of such assaults, those defending Ivan’s unit’s flank ran away. After six days of being ordered via Starlink that they must do “just one more day”, he and his comrades were told to break out. They managed to slip through the woods undetected, but came under heavy fire as they fled in the pick-up that came for them on the other side. None was injured. “In 15 minutes, we were in a place where you could sit safely and play the guitar.”

Ivan was resting in just such a place when a vehicle arrived so loaded with dead and wounded that its floor was slopping with blood. His order was to “get into that pick-up and go where it will take you”. He said the anticipation of what would happen on that journey was “the worst fear”. He served for seven months in Bakhmut, without home leave. He was concussed four times, in the end so severely that he was discharged. He still cannot cope with noisy rooms and sometimes gets disoriented walking downstairs. Now he runs a defence acquisition company with an R&D centre in Ukraine, manufacturing in the Baltics and a holding company in Britain.

Ivan’s account, though striking, is just one of thousands in this war. I juxtapose it with Mr Farage’s view because the contrast is instructive.