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Bob Seely on Ukraine: 'Our political classes collectively have been hugely naïve'

6 min read

Conservative MP Bob Seely is a Russian warfare expert and former soldier who worked in Eastern Europe as a journalist. He tells Sienna Rodgers about his recent trip to Ukraine, Boris Johnson’s Russophilia and how he thinks the war will end

Bob Seely was sitting with a Ukrainian army general in Odessa when air raid sirens suddenly went off. “You’re going to have to come down to the bunkers with us,” the MP was told. Once sheltered, they made “polite conversation, as one does in those circumstances,” before the general casually asked: “Oh, I think we hit the Moskva, do you want to see the pictures?”. Seely was shown fresh images, from drone footage, of a Russian cruiser struck by Ukrainian missiles earlier that day. The naval flagship sinking was considered a key moment in the war and a significant humiliation for Vladimir Putin.

For a Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight to travel to Ukraine in the middle of an invasion might seem puzzling. But Seely is also a former soldier and journalist who worked as a foreign correspondent in the early 1990s, living in Kyiv and travelling around Russia, Georgia and Moldova. He speaks Russian (“badly,” he claims modestly) and can “get by” in Ukrainian. His PhD dissertation was on contemporary Russian warfare and he first warned of Russia’s refusal to recognise the true independence of ex-Soviet states in the Wall Street Journal in 1994.

Armed with this expertise, Seely went to Ukraine on a factfinding mission in April. He felt it was important to speak to people on the ground, particularly given his connection to the country. “I would feel uncomfortable talking about the war not having been,” he says. “Having a sense of other people’s reality is really important, rather than just what you see and read in the media.”

I’m afraid to say that our political classes collectively have been hugely naïve

Visiting Bucha and Irpin near Kyiv, he saw people digging up their gardens: “They were exhuming bodies already.” Sitting on a kneeling chair in his tiny Westminster office, surrounded by piles of clothes, a guitar and a laundry bag, he describes this harrowing scene soberly, taking an academic perspective. But was it not also an emotional experience? “It was quite difficult, I have to say,” the MP replies. “I felt incredibly proud of the Ukrainians. Because when I was there [in the 90s], they were very Soviet, very conservative, very nervous about the future.”

Despite the language and history shared between the Ukrainians and Russians, it is a mistake to think they are similar, he says. “The Russians have retreated into a Soviet, anti-Western, almost obsessively Slavophile mindset of prejudice and bigotry against the West and indeed others. The Ukrainians have gone in a massively different direction. They’re not the same anymore.”

Seely believes this shift has been driven by none other than Vladimir Putin. He says the Ukrainians have an expression: “Thanks, Putin, for creating the Ukrainian state.” Until the 2014 crisis, there were questions over whether some were truly Ukrainian. But that has changed. “Most of the soldiers who’ve done the fighting are Russian-speaking soldiers from the south and east – and they’ve been some of the bravest fighters against Russia,” Seely points out. Volodymyr Zelensky is among those whose first language is Russian.

The MP is most scathing when talking about pro-Putin bloggers and talking heads. “I do think any Russian that makes threats of the use of nuclear weapons – these revolting propagandists – should just be banned from life from the West. Anyone who talks about nuclear weapons, and threatens nuclear weapons against us, should simply never be allowed in our country ever again. I think they’re disgusting, disgusting people.”

He also believes that Putin’s possible use of nuclear weapons is a very real threat. “I’m worried when people dismiss [the] nuclear threat,” Seely says. “Yes, it is bluster. Yes, it is designed to scare us. But there are probably half a dozen decision points between now and the end of this year where I think Putin will seriously consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons.” He adds: “I do worry about the fact we’re not war-gaming these scenarios enough.”

The backbench Tory MP has plenty of praise for Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace – who “saved this country’s honour” – but Boris Johnson’s name is notably absent. While the Prime Minister has been lauded for his response to the invasion of Ukraine, his pre-2022 record is more flawed. How does Seely react to reports that Johnson as foreign secretary wanted to “normalise” relations with Russia and advocated sending only non-lethal military equipment to Kyiv?

“I don’t know if that’s true. What I do know is that the Prime Minister described himself as a Russophile only a few years ago. Look, I disagree. The problem is just because someone likes a country doesn’t mean we should like a government. I’m afraid to say that our political classes collectively have been hugely naïve.” 

Later, Seely expands further: “When certain political leaders describe themselves as Russophiles and Sinophiles, I think, ‘really?’ You can love a culture, but that doesn’t mean you have to love a regime. I think we have to, frankly, stop being so naive about the world in which we live. There is going to be a battle for the 21st century, between open societies and closed societies. And I want our open society to be on the winning side.”

Over the years during which Russian interference in United Kingdom politics has been ignored according to the Foreign Affairs Committee, and London has become a “laundromat” for dirty money, Seely has grown increasingly frustrated. “We’re now getting it right. It’s a shame that it’s taken a war for it to happen,” he says.

“The economic crime bill was good. There is another economic crime bill [coming], and I will be supporting a coalition of people – [Conservative] David Davis, [Labour MPs] Margaret Hodge, Liam Byrne, myself – all trying to push forward on a common agenda. 

“Are our lobbying laws fit for purpose? No. Are our laws against lawfare and the abuse of law fit for purpose? No. Should they have been? Yes. Should we have done this under previous Conservative governments or [the] Coalition… or under New Labour? Yes.”

Seely will keep pushing for his party’s government to take tougher action on Russia, while also encouraging ministers to “wean ourselves off the Chinese,” as the war on Ukraine continues – and perhaps afterwards. “I don’t see much evidence that Putin is on his last legs, or that somebody’s going to remove him,” the MP says. Yet he is otherwise optimistic. 

“This war has continued to surprise us. It would not surprise me to see a generalised collapse of the Russian positions by September; certainly over winter.” If this Russian warfare expert is to be believed, the most likely outcome is victory for Ukraine – and it could be over by Christmas.

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