Mariupol, Kherson, Kharkiv. The names of those cities roll off our tongue. A month ago, we had never heard of them. Now they are being spoken of in the same breath as other civilian cities that were destroyed indiscriminately by bombardment; London in the Blitz, Guernica in the Spanish Civil War, Dresden by the Allies, and most ominously, Hiroshima at the end of World War II. Whether we will have another ‘Hiroshima’ is not over dramatising events, given Putin’s decision to put his nuclear deterrent force on high alert when the conflict was not even a week-old in Ukraine. Whether it is a bluff or a strategic move, it has certainly worked, given that NATO have backed away from giving Zelensky and the ordinary people of Ukraine protection from the skies. To create a no-fly zone is one thing but to implement it is another. To execute a no-fly zone, NATO could find themselves shooting down Russian aircraft and even dismantling Russian radar and ground air systems, which we know would plunge NATO into direct confrontation and possibly a global conflict.
So what is the alternative to boots on the ground? Sanctions? There is no doubt that sanctions are severely hurting the Russian economy, though probably not Putin personally, given he is one of the richest men on the planet. Part of the idea is to cause enough pain amongst his cortège that they put him under pressure to revise his plans. However, anyone who has seen the footage of how Putin controls and speaks to his cabinet and generals alike will have witnessed images of a Stalin-like grip over insubordinates. Speaking on radio this week a former European commissioner, who had close dealings with Putin for years, claimed he was not a man to back down when confronted, rather one who doubled down, which we have already seen him do in a month of fighting in Ukraine.
This of course brings us back to whether NATO, who are a defensive alliance, should intervene. I felt their application of a tiered approach to the sanctions was a sign of weakness. You can’t half crack an egg; it’s either broken or it’s not. The day Crimea was taken by the Russians in 2014, the United Nations, EU and G7, should have immediately hit Russia with every sanction at its disposal, instead of the rising, sliding scale approach currently being applied. Can you imagine the Russians say taking over county Cork and life simply moves on for the rest of the world? That’s exactly what happened after their first invasion of 2014 into Crimea. The winter Olympics went to Sochi, followed by the World Cup in 2018. Like the Berlin Olympics of 1936 in Nazi Germany, it allowed Russia to present itself in a flattering but distorted light. Putin continued to be indulged by global leaders and the world did indeed turn.
When the Russians fanned the flames of trouble in the Donbas region, and created a situation that precipitated Russia’s support for the Russian speaking peoples of that area, another instalment of weak sanctions followed suit. Even when the sovereign nation of Ukraine was finally invaded with the full might of Russian forces, the West merely slapped Putin on the wrist, told him he was a naughty boy and he might get moved higher up on the naughty step if he didn’t behave. Dozens of naughty steps later, yet more sanctions are being prepared to meet his latest defiance. I would love to know if there is a little sanctions booklet that tells our leaders in the EU how many lives lost or torn apart it takes before you escalate to the next level? Why wait till thousands are killed and mutilated, millions are displaced, and billions worth of infrastructure has been destroyed? This may never have happened if our western leaders had the guts to hit with full force the moment a Russian boot landed in Ukraine.
Now we find ourselves in a situation where Putin realises he can do what he wants. When NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says that Russia’s attack on Ukraine has shattered peace in Europe, and that the alliance would defend “every inch” of its members’ territory, what he really means is, ‘we won’t lift a finger to defend Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova or any other non-NATO country under the glare of the Russian Bear’.
It’s not as if I’m gazing into a crystal ball. The Russians invaded Georgia in 2008 and surprise, surprise, there is now a pro-Russian breakaway province within that country. The Russian military maintains a small ‘peace keeping force’ in Moldova. Do any of those strategic moves sound familiar to us? He could invade both countries in the morning and sleep soundly the night before. Putin understands that General Stoltenberg’s rhetoric of ‘protecting every inch of NATO countries’, is code for, ‘good luck to the rest of you, you’re on your own. But we have an incremental sanctions booklet guys, so hang in there’!
Parallels can be drawn with Hitler’s foreign policy. Germany after WWI and the Soviet Union after the Cold War both lost territory that included German and Russian speaking peoples. These former empires pined at their fall from grace as global powers. Democracy was used by both Hitler and Putin to rise to power, and both then dismantled the very process that got them there. Hitler started to encroach on sovereign territory; he took back the Rhineland, amalgamated Austria and Germany, annexed Czechoslovakia. Yet, even after he invaded Poland in 1939, the Allies did not respond militarily until eights months later in 1940. By then it was too late to stop the bloodiest war that Europe and the world had ever seen. Russia has been inching back into its former Soviet sphere of influence with impunity under Putin. The pathetic image of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waving a white sheet of paper, declaring “peace in our time” highlighted the impotence of the West’s ability to stop Hitler. A century later, the West has been castrated by Europe’s newest despot, Vladimir Putin.
Western governments are congratulating themselves that they are seizing the dirty money and assets of the oligarchs but it has taken a war and the death of innocents for Europe and the West to clean its dirty laundry. They pat themselves on the back for tearing up (well kind of) the contracts with Russian oil and gas companies that they were happy to keep up until three weeks ago. This war has also been like a giant broomstick, sweeping into the light all the shady Russian money, personalities and tax systems that have facilitated, even encouraged, Russian oligarchs and banks to do unsavoury business here. That’s small comfort for the 3.3 million Ukrainians who are fleeing their homes, jobs, pets, lives. They also leave behind their brothers, husbands, sons, who are compelled to defend their country not just by order of President Zelensky, but because of the indefatigable spirit we have seen the Ukrainian’s possess. Thank God, the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity has bonded together. Donations, the housing of refugees, people driving to bring supplies to Ukraine, community participation are all welcome responses. Even sporting organisations and the super companies of the world have joined in unison to do what they can for Ukraine. It does make you think, if the world could only respond this way to every conflict, like in Syria and Yemen, we might bring an end to all this madness.
The other ending is too unthinkable. The last time we genuinely faced a World War III threat was in 1962 – commonly known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. In return for Soviet money and regime support, Cuba allowed the installation of a Soviet nuclear launch site within its territory, a mere 100 miles away from the USA. Kennedy was heralded as a hero for standing up to the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev. The world held its breath and teetered on the edge of WWIII for 13 days of tense anticipation. Khrushchev eventually backed down and war was averted. What most people did not know is that Kennedy had nuclear missiles in a Turkish base pointing at the Soviet Union (merely 400 miles away then). Secretly, Kennedy had to decommission that base as a reciprocal action but, of course, we never hear that side of the story.
There may be something in this for Ukraine. Historically, Russia has always felt threatened by the West. NATO expanded into Eastern Europe, despite promises made after the fall of the Soviet Union that this would never happen. Like it or not, keeping Ukraine out of NATO and maintaining neutrality could be a compromise that might save us all. But one wonders, has Putin poisoned the well in Ukraine? Who can trust him? Why now would Finland, Sweden, Georgia and others not want to join NATO and be guaranteed protection? Tomas McCurtain once said, “It is not those who can inflict the most but those who can suffer the most who will conquer.”
The Ukrainians have already conquered our hearts and may yet tame the Russian Bear.