Ukraine – the crisis of our lifetime

I’m trying to get some perspective on what’s happening in Ukraine. Why are we where we are now? If I was Ukrainian (and younger), would I be picking up a gun from wherever I could find one and learning how to use it? Would I be fighting?

For context, I’m thinking back twelve years to when I began this blog. Russia and China were asserting themselves, one chafing militarily, the other increasingly dominating our Western markets. But we still thought in the West that the world was moving in the right direction. Our direction. The financial crisis didn’t seem to have geopolitical implications.

All is so different now. The crisis took centre stage, Chinese imports, abundant and cheap, fooled us into thinking that we could keep spending as before. China upped its military spending. We had Brexit and Trump, both inward- and backward-looking exercises. We protested over the Uighers. We watched Hong Kong’s special status erode. America obsessed internally. In the UK we absurdly tried to break treaty obligations with the EU over Northern Ireland – what chance of our carrying any weight on the international stage? Biden, who I admire for his integrity, is a weak president. Johnson has mired us in scandals petty in scale but serious in their import – a government bereft of a moral sense and obsessed with its survival.

And what has been happening all the while? Belarus was the warning. But, to be fair, we couldn’t imagine an invasion, a brutal tanked-up invasion, coming. Not at least until last October, when American intelligence first reported on a troop build-up on the Ukrainian border. Even then, would Putin be so stupid, so careless of Russia’s status in the world?

We’d missed how paranoid he’d become, now expanded into veiled nuclear threats.  We’d kidded ourselves there was still internal opposition which might hold him back. But the siloviki, a new word for me, his security set-up, have a firm hold on the media, ever more on the internet, and a national guard which knows where its loyalties lie – so street protest is a dangerous game, a path to being beaten up, prison, maybe torture. The Russian elite overseas no longer has influence. They must play along.

That paranoia, about NATO expansion … I can, to a point, connect to it. Yes, NATO had pushed out its frontiers, taking in the old Warsaw Pact countries. Ukraine is, as Russia sees it, next. Promises were made that NATO wouldn’t push its boundaries eastward when the Soviet Union broke up. Not treaty promises, but an understanding that allayed Russian anxieties. Many in Russia rejoiced in democratic freedoms but to lose an empire, and so much status in the world, and so abruptly …. even hardened democrats would want reassurance.

A sane and measured route out of that dilemma, balancing democracy and national pride, while at the same time giving up all pretensions to empire, would that have been possible?

Russia would have won for itself a new sphere of influence. Armaments, space travel, vast natural resources: Russia’s status as a leader on the world stage would have been guaranteed. Poland and the Baltic states would have been happy in time to look both ways. Russia would have been able to keep China at arms’ length.

But the sell-off of state assets was chaotic. A new elite which had benefitted from the privatisations of Russian industry indulged itself abroad, Abramovich and Chelsea being the example for us that’s closest to home. Could there have been another way? Who knows. With a different leader. But it too quickly became a kleptocracy.

Remember that some of us in England have yet to come to terms with our own loss of empire, and the superior status they imagined went with it. France has the likes of Marine Le Pen and the new guy, Eric Zemmour. America has Trump and MAGA.

Putin is MRGA. Doesn’t have the same ring. Make Russian great again. MSUGS. Recreate a version of Soviet Union, crony capitalist and oil dependent. But claw back the old boundaries – I can just about connect to this.

The Russian national myth dates back to the 10th century, to Kiev, as the birthplace of modern Russia. I’ve always loved the Eisenstein movie, Alexander Nevsky. Nevsky was the prince of Kiev, a 13th century hero, defeating the Teutonic Knights in the Battle on the Ice. Prokofiev’s music captures the mood. Yes, for a proud Russian, Kiev (Kyiv, in Ukrainian) must have a special place… But it’s now another country. It has a identity separate from Russia built up over eight centuries.

Eight centuries of invasion and counter-invasion. The Ukrainian language is one marker of identity. But wide sections of the population have Russian as their first language. Ukrainian president Vlodimir Zelensky is showing great courage facing up to Putin – and he is a native Russian speaker. Also, he’s Jewish, which makes Putin’s avowed de-nazification of the Ukraine a very sick joke indeed.

The issue of course is that the east of the country instinctively looks over the border to Russia. Democratic elections prompted by Russian had divided the country rather than brought it together.

It is that split identity that is the pretext for Putin’s invasion. Ukraine is of course a democracy, but back in 2014 the pro-Russian section of the population in the east of the country lost out when Yanukovich fled.

On the other side, over the western border, we’ve had NATO – expansionist but at the same time complacent. Assuming they had European security sewn up. They didn’t pick up on how deep-rooted Russian nationalism was and is to many Russians, and not just Putin, and how Putin and a tame media were exploiting something almost visceral.

We’ve also practised a good line in arrogance. British and American media have for a long time felt they could tell Russia what to do. That somehow our pressure would mean they’d change tack. That Navalny would be released. We didn’t pick up on how the Putin-dictated Russian mood had changed. One over-riding lesson might be – always engage with the other side’s point of view. They have as many contradictions as we do ourselves. Never assume you, the outsider, understand them better than they do themselves. We may as liberal democracies think we have right on our side. But ‘right’ in terms of world history is a highly relative term.

Remember the post-Berlin Wall optimism of the nineties.That was before Putin brought his old KGB attitudes and suspicions and disregard of human life into play. How much is it one man – working with old contacts, and old disenfranchised security elites which had found themselves discarded, and now had a way back in – who has taken Russia down this tragic path?

How will this play out? Will Putin impose his will on Ukraine, at great cost to his country and its economic and moral well-being. Will he negotiate a new status quo with Russia in control of wide areas of the Ukraine? The West, he could say, has been taught a lesson. Or will the siloviki come to realise they’re backing the wrong horse? But their loyalties will be difficult to turn. Likewise the Russian media has been tamed into replaying this myth of a genocidal Ukraine. How many Russians really believe it? But dare anyone in the state-controlled media step out of line?

What’s happening in Ukraine will change the world in ways we can’t yet comprehend. Peace treaties, maybe. Vast reputational and economic damage. Maybe a re-assertion of democracy – even liberal democracy – in the West. We’ve been too complacent, and tied up in ‘death of democracy talk. Too self-absorbed. Germany is radically increasing its defence budget, and is now supplying Ukraine with arms – did Putin foresee this? Rogue states as we’ve recently seen them, Turkey (now blocking the Bosphorus to Russian vessels) and Hungary (remembering 1956), are now supporting Ukraine. (Why did India abstain on the Security Council vote condemning Russia?) China and Taiwan: what lessons will China take from all this? Will the USA now re-balance its foreign policy – equal status for Europe and the Far East? Economic implications – shorter supply lines, energy sources closer to home, more political savvy, less talk of ‘rational’ markets when there are so many other forces in play.

Never in my lifetime has the world been in such a state of flux, with so much uncertainty.

Trespass – good or bad?

A few thoughts on The Book of Trespass, by Nick Hayes. Published in autumn 2020 it was released in paperback last autumn.

Hayes has written a remarkable book. He trespasses on some of England’s biggest estates, climbing walls or crossing rivers as necessary. But all his trespasses would be allowable under Scottish law.

His focus is on property, and on how attitudes to property have evolved to accord with (or, put another way, dictated) the status quo in each generation. He’s not advocating revolution or confiscation. The world is as it is. His argument is for open access, and he makes it with learning and skill, and of course the necessary irreverence.

Vast acres of our landscape are the results of enclosures going back to the 16th century. And earlier. He’s good at that break-out into early modernity which followed the Reformation. Captain Pouch, and the brutality that followed rebellion in response to hunger, in the 17th century, is just one example. Hayes’s is an outsider’s view of history, and you learn new things – see them in a different way. All the while he’s gently trespassing and lighting fires and camping out.

One hero is Roger Deakin, another natural outsider. But Hayes for his part has a more  political message. There are so many examples one could quote. The 1824 Vagrancy Act as a response to soldier returning from the Napoleonic Wars without employment and hungry. He homes in on the Drax family and fortune (the head of the family is an MP) and its origins in slavery. They see no reason to feel any guilt.  William Beckford’s fortune was also based on slavery, his reputation muddled up with his status as a gay hero. Basildon Park and India, and the cornering of trade and disempowering of India and Indians, on which its fortunes were based.   

Early on Hayes brings in then foundational tome of English law, Blackstone’s Commentary, to show how the law was on the side of the men of property. Thomas Hobbes has property as a man-made construct, ‘designed to lift us out of our state of nature’. Grotius considers property as an institution invented by man but once invented it became a ‘law of nature’. For John Locke Locke if you mixed labour, ‘something this is his own’, with land he ‘thereby makes it his property’.  Blackstone asserted that ‘occupancy gave also the original right to the permanent property in the substance if the earth itself’.

We haven’t moved on much from Gainsborough’s gentleman’s idea of the English countryside. We don’t challenge the origins of the great estates. Or at least we didn’t. Which side are we on in that great debate? The National Trust is doing its best to steer a course.  There’s Croome Park in Worcestershire, half an hour from where I live, where the Trust is restoring the park to its Capability Brown glory, with some farming added in. It’s what the public wants and there lies the great irony.

We love the landscapes we’re allowed into, but don’t worry too much about being excluded. Or most of us don’t. We’re urbanised. Open up the country and most of us wouldn’t go there anyway. Hayes’s will never become a great national cause. Landowners needn’t worry. Wilderness, the festival, is safe (less so the real thing, but that’s not Hayes’s subject), despite Hayes’s attempt to fray the edges.

‘Sealing of one part of the world from another’ is Orwell specifically on nationalism. Immigrants as cockroaches. Legitimised superiority by virtue of inherited property, birth and land, blood and earth. Fascist ideas of Blut und Boden. Now we have Putin: like the rest of us Hayes didn’t see him coming.  

Hayes is the forever outsider. At Heathrow or Basildon Park or Windsor Park, he captures the landscape and the mood and the story. If they weren’t there and we were all insiders… but that can never be. (Each generation generates its own breed of powerful men, and maybe women, and they marry into the old money and land. Socialist experiments have got nowhere. Private enterprise allies with land and as liberalism is shoved aside, the boundaries shift a little or as in China radically change but boundaries remain. What do William the Conqueror and modern China have in common?)

Hayes the outsider. But I want to go with him where I can. To the hills above Hebden Bridge, bought as a shooting estate, where the moors are ‘systematically burned each year to increase the yield of new green shoots…’ I can’t see why I shouldn’t kayak on wide stretches of river. Apart from the fact I’m maybe too old. The USA seems to have got river access right early on. I’d like to see multiple footpaths opened up through great estates. And scrap this crazy world of breeding birds and then letting them out on the land for a few months in managed woodlands before shooting them.

Hayes begins with the 1932 Kinder Trespass – that’s my part of the world. Setting in train the idea that ultimately we’ll follow Scotland and open up access. Is he right that once you’ve seen the importance of land rights you can’t unsee them? Once seen, you can’t unsee the cat, as Henry George put it.

I love the ideas of heterotopia, spaces for outsiders forged deep inside society, and ‘third spaces, ‘where real life occurs’. Check them out. My daughter used to work for an organisation called ‘Free Space’, which found temporarily unoccupied spaces in London where arts projects (as I recall) could base themselves.

We need more wildernesses. (But that isn’t really Hayes’s subject. He’s not a romantic, a Muir or a Hopkins, espousing wildness for its own sake.) And charging for Stonehenge – maybe we have to. That means we exclude ‘whole sections of the population’. But is there anyone out there, other than midsummer Druids, who actually feel themselves excluded?  

So I’m with him all the way… only I’m not. And maybe he isn’t either. Turning the world upside down with some utopia at the end of the rainbow is a mug’s game. Anarchy will get us nowhere. Hayes would be lost. He’s happy with his tent and campfires. But a Robert Tombs-style history, upbeat about England and everything English, won’t get us anywhere either – unless it’s deeper into Brexit and petty nationalism. And we’d continue to walk as landowners dictate, and we may find as I have local field paths barbed-wired into the sides of fields, and rights of way diverted at a landowner’s behest, so that he can, as in one case I know, keep the best view for himself.

Apart from anything else it’s beautifully written and illustrated. In its own way it is a wonderfully wise book.