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.

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