Just as we thought we were creeping towards the end of one major society changing crisis, along comes another. A devastating war in Europe at a time when such wars should be completely unthinkable is a disaster on so many fronts. Once again, it feels like the world has changed for the worse. I know my emphasis has been on health and the pandemic, but this will affect us all.
It is now too late to avoid troubled lives for millions of Ukrainians, who might, with the emergence a nascent democracy, have sensed some relief from the recurrent horrors of its last century. Prevention might be better than the cure, but the chance for the former is gone, and a cure is not much in prospect right now, so what now?
A modern Ukraine apartment block – Putin style!
Recipe for disaster
Ukraine is a modern nation formed from an incredibly complex history featuring divided loyalties between the west and Russia evident even before Ukrainians fought in both sides in WW1. Having been forcibly integrated into Russia after the Russian revolution, most sided with Russia in WW2. The nation had a horrific time during the war and in the violence which continued for years after its end. Ethnic cleansing was pretty much the order of the day as Europes multiculturalism, so much a part of Europes history was a grim casualty.
Now to be stuck between an unintelligent, divided West and a Russia armed to the teeth was never a comfortable place to be.
It is sobering that Russia has 1,400 battle tanks, 1,200 of them fairly new. Germany has 150, France and the UK about 200 each. Russia can win any land war it wants with the overarching threat of back up with nuclear weapons to deter resistance.
What might have been done?
It is not unreasonable to look at the Wests role in all this. The profit driven nuclear arms race after WW2 need not have happened. It was led by the USA and contributed to the failure of Communism while having little to say or offer regarding the disintegration of the USSR. At that time we could then have grasped the opportunity to embrace Russia, even, crazy though it now might sound, making it a part of the EU.
Instead, reminiscent of the settlement after WW1, which pretty much sealed the deal for WW2, we have gloated over its troubles and expanded NATO to weaponise more and more nations on Russias border.
Instead of economic and cultural integration, which might have encouraged civic society, empowered democracy and fostered interdependence, we have continued with the philosophy of weaponised enmity and have thus we have encouraged autocracy and corruption.
Q. How many Russian Oligarchs have attended how many Tory party fundraisers?
A. Too many!
Simultaneously, we have embraced Russian corruption, welcomed those who have stolen Russian state fortunes and in the case of the UK, happily offered a high street money laundering service for some of the most corrupt people on earth. To now announce sanction against them while right, is like quitting smoking when you have lung cancer. Sad, late, worth doing, but hardly clever.
When it comes to Russia, it seems we have done everything wrong. We have been greedy, belligerent, populist, corrupt, and now we stand by while Putin pretty much does what he likes. As always, ordinary people suffer.
Adding to our own hypocrisy, on the other side of the Atlantic, the placement of weapons anywhere near the USA border would have represented one world threatening Cuban missile crisis style after another. Yet we have encircled Russia in an attempt to ‘protect’ independent nations against her and now reap the rewards of a belligerent, isolated Russia biting back with a powerful ageing leader who has crushed dissent and wants to leave his mark on history.
Consider our own roles in the world wars and latterly in the Middle East which lay the foundation for a Russian mopping up operation in Syria, as well as our own reluctance to deal with refugees from wars we create. The Ukraine, while near, is the latest. I suspect our attitude to their refugees will be different. Perhaps not.
The USA would not tolerate Russian weapons near its borders.
No doubt a part of the tragedy is the need for Russia to act before Ukraine joined NATO. However unlikely that might have been, it was provocatively written into Ukraines constitution. The Minsk agreements attempts at de-escalation were complex, fragile, and needed more political weight behind them. For the Ukrainian military, loss of Donetsk and Luhansk following the annexation of the Crimea was unthinkable, but hardly like Kent joining France. Middle ground was a messy place, but it was there. This war has had a very long, brightly glowing fuse.
Since the lost chance of integration with Europe, Russia has been planning. It is now sitting on piles of cash in Sovereign funds, based on impoverishment of its own people and wealth accumulated from fossil fuels. It has reduced its dependence on the Western economies, providing a buffer against sanctions, however complete they might be.
Putin has made big efforts to improve its relationship with China whose domination of global economics had been embellished by the pandemic. In any case has his own fortunes are pretty much hidden from view. Sanctions as they do, will hit ordinary Russians.
Whats around the corner?
China will now be looking towards conquest in Taiwan, and from a similar position of strength. How will the USA react to that? Will it be war on two fronts? If so, might it be a cyber war, with the winner the one who can hack into the others systems? Always in the background are nuclear weapons, use of which would take us into a new and terminal phase of human history. Putin has threatened their use if the West intervenes militarily in the Ukraine. I never thought I would hear that, but it was crystal clear.
If I were in the Baltic nations, I would be very nervous. They too have many Russian speakers and difficult histories. What will Putin be thinking there? They are a part of NATO, which will either protect them, or will an energised Putin realise that a fraction of his tanks cold overrun Baltic defences and humiliate a NATO whose leaders would not risk a nuclear war. Mutually Assured Destruction seems no longer a theory.
Perhaps Ukraine will transform into a Belarus like Russian puppet, and fulfil Putins dream of an expansion back to a USSR style empire. Or there will an ongoing Western supported resistance based war. The Ukraine however, is not Afghanistan. Perhaps there will be a time to return to the negotiating table, but there will be only crumbs of comfort left for independently minded Ukrainians to haggle over. Trump is already eyeing Putin with admiration and making political hay. What leaders we have!
Back in the USSR
There have been significant heartening demonstrations against the war by those with the courage to do so, attendance at which hints at many more without the courage but with anti war sentiment. Putin is killing his own. He will have planned for this as well as a wider insurrection and crackdowns will be severe. There have been thousands of arrests. Some protesters apparently picked up even as they were leaving their homes.
Anti war demos in Russia – Now thats courage!
Might Putin fall Ceausescu style? That would be incredible, amazing and pretty unlikely.
While we don’t import that much fuel from Russia, loss of the 5% we do will have an impact and the globalised market for gas will mean ever bigger increases in bills which so many already cannot afford. This is a big issue over here and little to suggest it is being addressed by Conservatives whose philosophy remains that you get what you deserve.
In the last two days I have noticed queues at our own petrol stations, more out of need to save money than fear as prices increase.
Ukraine also used to export massive amounts of the grain which used to sit in its processed form on our supermarket shelves sited at the end of delicate webs of supply networks. This is another reason we are not immune from increasing food prices and potential shortages.
We need more than ever to get away from our dependence on fossil fuels, with all its dramatic if so far too gently whispered lifestyle implications for us all. Perhaps to accept that levelling up must mean levelling down and the time for individual wealth is over Yet the words that come to my my depressed mind in writing this is Blah Blah Blah!
To conclude this depressing ramble, here are the last few stanzas from a poem I penned at the time of the 2014 WW1 Armistice Anniversary. Sadly, then don’t need any editing.
But nations grumble on we find, old lessons learned, unlearnt.
Disputes make profitable wars to fight, more fingers will get burnt.
Wars begin and finish, but the causes seldom die
Consequences live among us, the forgotten wonder why
As health is more than no illness, peace is more than just no war
With weapons in our hands and minds, we repeat what went before
There are new and angry faces, no longer in black and white
marching under flags and banners, rekindled bitterness and spite
Meanwhile rolling wheels of trade, forged from rusty steel of war
Led to the march of the machines and the global combustive roar
There is a price for everything, and costs that will be born
Foundations we depend on, sink trampled, wearing, worn.
The atmosphere lies beaten back for now, the creatures clearing fast
the next big war will likely be, finally, our last.