First of all, I “stand with Ukraine”.
One of the strange things about the last week is that people see parallels with the Past and other people don’t see any. It is a curious mixed bag.
First off, people tell us that this is unprecedented in modern Europe. I suppose it all depends on how “modern” Europe is perceived.
I am too young to remember the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 (or the British, French and Israeli invasion of Egypt) but certainly the former had a legacy that affected my 1960s childhood. As I delivered Catholic newspapers like The Universe, Irish Catholic and Catholic Herald in West Belfast, one of the great heroes to many was Cardinal Mindszenty, the Hungarian cardinal imprisoned by both Nazis and Communists and freed in 1956 who spent more than a decade in exile in the American Embassy in Budapest.
I do remember 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the building of the Berlin Wall. I have seen news footage of desperate people being shot as they tried to escape from East Berlin to West Berlin.
And as a teenager in 1968, I recall the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia (sic) .
So there is a history of USSR (and Russia is its successor) imposing its will on its satellites and former satellites.
Czarist Russia, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation is a continuum. In any form, it is an Empire. An “Evil Empire”? …….well all empires are “evil”. It can be dressed up as Civilisation, Manifest Destiny or the City on the Hill but Exceptionalism is extremely unpleasant.
And as conflicts in Europe go, the implosion of Yugoslavia led to a war involving attrocity, rape and genocide. And of course a refugee situation.
But is the West’s perception of a “refugee crisis” a graduated perception.
For those of us who have seen images of refugees from Sudan, Iraq and Syria, Bosnia-Herzegovina….and latterly Afghanistan, the Media conditions us to accept that refugee status is an occupational hazard of what we patronisingly call the Third World
To me as a father and grandfather, it was impossible to look on children at Kabul airport and not see my children and grandchildren.
Ukraine…we are told…is different. The families arriving into Poland from Ukraine are in Europe. Modern Europe. They dress as we do. They have luggage as we do. They LOOK like us. And somehow this is not supposed to happen to people who look like us.
As my wife reminded me this morning, in August 1969, she was an 11 year old girl and her father put her and her mother and siblings on a bus taking them from the Clonard area in Belfast to the safety of the Irish Aer Corps at Gormanstown, County Meath.
This seems to have been forgotten by both British and Irish media. It seems even my wife is not “people like me”.
How did this happen?
I think that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West expected Russia to be different from its predecessors. But the Russian Bear in the 21st century is as much a predator as it was in the 19th century or 20th century. Mikhail Gorbachev was an outlier…..but the Russian Doll…the Babushka Nesting doll has the face of Putin and contains Brezhnev, Kruschev and Stalin.
The simple fact is that Russia is a predatory empire, whether monarchist, communist or a fascist kleptocracy…expansionism comes naturally.
I was in USSR as it then was in 1980 (Olympics in Moscow). Of course I knew of their federation of fifteen republics but did not know how much this was part of the Russian psyche until I saw the Opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium. Yes, I knew Ukraine and Belarus were members of the United Nations and knew the “western” history of the Baltic republics but would not have been able to name the various “-stans” in the east of USSR.
With their independence and with the collapse of the broader eastern bloc, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and some joining European Union and (from a Russian point of view worse) joining NATO, modern Russia feels diminished.
Another imperialist power with an identity crisis is Britain. The post 1945 fall of its Empire and independence of several nations pushed Britain into finding a new place in the world…the Common Market. But Britain could never accept equality…Britain unable to rule the waves re-positioned itself to waive the rules and craved its imperial past…and found a rather stupid way of doing it…Brexit.
Ukraine…to an extent always a frontier….between Catholics in western Ukraine and Orthodox in eastern Ukraine. In a secular world this is less relevant Ukraine is looking to Brussels more than Rome. Indeed tonight Ukraine applied for EU membership.
This is not supposed to happen in Europe. Strangely I felt the same when I was reading a book in bed on the night of 15th August 1969. The gunshots, the tracer bullets………in Europe!
And there are images that resonate with me. The middle aged lady who walks up to the Russian soldier demanding to know what he is doing there. “Go home” she tells him. And I think that middle aged lady and many more like her were doing the same in Ballymurphy.
Living in fear of death. Children killed. I have seen this before.
The only difference is 24 hour news and social media. Back in the day, we only had dustbin lids to warn the world.
The “West” really has done some U-turns in the last week. Germany risibly supplied helmets last week. This week, the Germans and many NATO (eg Norway) and/or EU (eg Finland) countries are supplying weapons…but cannot actually deliver them into Ukraine itself.
What Ukraine wants most is EU membership. It offers protection of sorts.
What Ukraine also wants is a no-fly zone. NATO can’t agree ….they are committed to “no boots on the ground” and will not directly confront the Russians. Even delivering weapons into Poland for Ukraine to pick up is high risk.
But this is a fast-moving story.
The narrative is that the Ukrainians are putting up fierce resistance to the invader. They are undoubtedly brave. Their President is charismatic. Whether western politicians like it or not, there is a great wave of public opinion that calls for intervention. As the cluster bombs explode in Kyiv…as the body count gets higher, politicians might start listening.
Remember Kuwait….thirty years ago, that was a war about Oil.Or Iraq. The public were unimpressed…weapons of mass destruction they told the western voters. It was a lie…a great big lie. But it is easier to go to war with Saddam Hussein (who had no weapons of mass destruction) than it is to go to war with Vladimir Putin (who has a lot of weapons of mass destruction).
And the Balkans in the 1990s. The “West” was forced into action by a public who did not like the genocide and mass rape on TV screens.
Was Crimea Putin’s Sudetenland? Ethnic Germans in 1938. Ethnic Russians in 2014.
But Putin went further. Casual assassination of his enemies. Murder in Salisbury, England.
How did he get away with it? …….Money.
The Russian oligarchs own London. Literally. Houses, Cars. The estate agents have big bonuses. So do the salesmen of luxury cars.
Lawyers, Call Girls, Bankers are all feeding off Russian money.
And London is awash with dirty money laundered thru Banks. It has been known for years. Even the British Conservative Party receives Russian money. Somehow the British government has decided to deal with this….in the last seven days.
Sanctions? In some way irrelevant because they take too long to work. But let’s be honest. A Russian victory is priced in. In a week or a month Ukraine will (probably) be defeated and then the “West” can go back to what it does best…make dirty money.
For today’s Sanctions are tomorrow’s investment opportunity.
In a year or so, diplomats will talk about normalising relations, recognise a diminished or puppet regime in Ukraine and photo-ops and state visits to Putin or his successor.
No conditions apparently. Just how many Treaties have I read about as a schoolboy…Westphalia (1648), Utrecht (1580), Paris (1783), Vienna (1815), Versailles (1919). Peace prevails at the expense of lands seized and lands annexed.
Any Peace is unlikely to see Russia go back to its recognised boundaries or even the boundaries it alone recognises. Nor is any Peace likely to see Ukrainian rights enhanced.
Conflict Resolutionists? In Norn Iron, we actually have a surplus of conflict resolutionists. It seems easy enough. Just tell the Russians and Ukrainians that in every conflict, there is no right or wrong. Everyone is 50% right and everyone is 50% wrong….not sure Ukraine would see it that way but exporting every conflict resolutionist from Norn Iron to talk nonsense in Kyiv means I wont have to listen to the idiots.