It is still not our war

Pity, despair, horror at what man will unleash – all this and more tumbles from the heart. War is not a game and the victims are innumerable. Yet it is not our war.

History will judge, they say, but how we cannot know. Those weeping for their lost children will not wait for history and that is something about war: it is always immediate. Let history judge whom it will, capricious thing as it is; but we must look now and say this is still not our war, and making it ours, out of adventure or virtue-signalling with other men’s children’s lives, would make it very, very much worse. I know how history would judge a politician who claimed he had done a moral thing while standing in front of the irradiated ashes of London.

It can end, and will. I understand the characters, have met their ambassadors and read their words and been immersed in their shared culture: were I sent in to bat, I have no doubt that I would forge a settlement bringing five hundred years of unshakeable peace and the gateway to prosperity, and that I would be cursed by both sides for it even as they roll in gold.

It may be that history books will adjudge this war as an anomalous war of aggressive conquest, or another in a series of wars waged by European nations since the end of the Cold War, or as a war of reunification, which are always seen  in a kindly light. That does not help a widow flooding her street with tears today.

There is no more that it is safe to say. Maybe our grandchildren will read books saying “the West stayed on the sidelines, and thank goodness for it”. That is for their age though. For us it is day to day, and there is no more it is safe to say.

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Человек и час

Who could have imagined a television comedian elected in a fit of humour would prove to be a great statesman?  (Although you say the same of Boris Johnson.) Vladimir Zelenskiy has proven to be the hero his country needs in its greatest distress: head and shoulders above any politician.

He seemed an odd choice for the mantle of ‘statesman’: he has been known for prancing about the stage in knock-about sketches on the box, and starring in comedy programmes. Stuck in a political office, one would think him a pushover, and maybe the other Vladimir thought so so. Instead we have a ‘servant of the people’ in amongst the people, shunning offers to help him flee, as any politician in circumstances would, but appearing on the streets, encouraging resistance to the dictator to the north.

There is a bit more to the man than his slapstick television clown persona: this an entrepreneur, creator and mainstay of a media business. It is not like dragging someone from TOWIE and sticking them in the chair. That depth may have been missed by his opponent.

The Black Earth of the Ukraine, the open steppes and the once lawless Zaparozhe lands tug at the hearts of those who live there. It was from here that a Cossack tradition grew which drove east and south to conquer  and settle Russia’s vast empire, and this was inseparably a tradition of freedom from outside control and all the promises of endless frontier lands. This was also a land once filled with little, distinct Jewish villages scattered across the steppe in their own form of independence – they are no more since the SS swept over the land exterminating them, and Zelenskiy will feel that too, as his family were lost to it. The dictator’s boot is unwelcome here.

At the same time, the Ukraine is a part of wider Russian culture. It was in attempts to break it away that Moscow’s wrath was kindled. Here it meets a contradiction in the soul of the Rus’ though: the freedom of the frontier against the autocracy of the ruler. Here too is a paradox that will cause the campaign to fail: if the Ukrainian and the Russian are all one people, then how can one fight the other?

This land at the edge of empire is a threat to the autocracy of the centre because it has shown, with whatever imperfections, that those of Russian culture can have a democracy and freedom to speak and work.  If that is allowed to continue, it gives the lie to the nature of the Muscovite norm of autocracy. Previous Ukrainian presidents have played the same game as their neighbours, crushing opponents, playing an oppressive Sprachpolitik  and allowing corruption to run riot.  In Zelenskiy, a Russian-speaker himself, but an outsider to all sides, it has been possible to imagine another way – people are free to live, to speak and to work. It is work in progress. Local nationalism is nihilistic and artificial, but freedom; that is worth defending.

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From Diffidence Warre

And from this diffidence of one another, there is no way for any man to secure himselfe, so reasonable, as Anticipation; that is, by force, or wiles, to master the persons of all men he can, so long, till he see no other power great enough to endanger him: And this is no more than his own conservation requireth, and is generally allowed. Also because there be some, that taking pleasure in contemplating their own power in the acts of conquest, which they pursue farther than their security requires; if others, that otherwise would be glad to be at ease within modest bounds, should not by invasion increase their power, they would not be able, long time, by standing only on their defence, to subsist. And by consequence, such augmentation of dominion over men, being necessary to a mans conservation, it ought to be allowed him.

Againe, men have no pleasure, (but on the contrary a great deale of griefe) in keeping company, where there is no power able to over-awe them all. For every man looketh that his companion should value him, at the same rate he sets upon himselfe: And upon all signes of contempt, or undervaluing, naturally endeavours, as far as he dares (which amongst them that have no common power, to keep them in quiet, is far enough to make them destroy each other,) to extort a greater value from his contemners, by dommage; and from others, by the example.

So that in the nature of man, we find three principall causes of quarrel. First, Competition; Secondly, Diffidence; Thirdly, Glory.

The first, maketh men invade for Gain; the second, for Safety; and the third, for Reputation. The first use Violence, to make themselves Masters of other mens persons, wives, children, and cattell; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other signe of undervalue, either direct in their Persons, or by reflexion in their Kindred, their Friends, their Nation, their Profession, or their Name.

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The Russian Enigma

No one understands Russia apart from the Russians, if even they do. It is a land and nation many have tried to explain, but I cannot tell if they fail because there is too much to explain, or too little.

I have an old map of the world on my wall, and on it Russia (or rather the Soviet Union at that time) stretches almost half the width of the world, and almost half the height of the map, from the Oxus River to the Arctic – much of that enormity is the distortion of the Mercator projection, but it has impact.  In all that space strewn across the map though, what and who are there, and how does this affect the world outside those millions of square miles? Must there really be a war over places we do not understand?

Russia has been described as being not so much a country as an archipelago; it is made up of towns and cities separated by vast, empty forest and steppe much like tiny islands dotted across a hostile sea. Its has a unique culture, not always a pleasant one, forged by the forest and steppe, the ice, Byzantine priests, Viking princes and Mongol khans; Asiatic, separate from Europe, the latter a very different culture swelling against them to the west.

If Russians see their soul in the empty wastes, there is no forgetting that the people are mainly in the western towns, closer to the influence of urban, European culture. Any Russian could be forgiven for a determination to draw a line of separation – or they might become no more than Poles.

In the south-west corner of the Russian-speaking landmass is the Ukraine. It seems small fry, but it has a population almost a third of that of vast Russia. Target or not, it is another place little understood. The very name ‘Ukraine’ means ‘borderland’, and that may be how it is thought of.

The Borderland only became independent by accident thirty years ago, and its separateness stands as an affront to resurgent Russian national ideology. It was always thought of as Russian and indeed Kiev was once the capital of Russia. The arguments for a distinction between Russian and the Ukraine seem odd for those of us brought up when the Ukraine was thought just a part of Russia not Europe . However there is no edge, no sharp line where Europe ends and Russia begins.  Lvov in the west was once called Lemberg, and was in Austria. Perhaps parts of that land are indeed European.

Thirty years – that is a generation – and as each new day passes it seems more and more normal, and more Ukrainians grow up thinking their separation is normal, and each of those days the Russians know it will be harder to convince them it has been a regretful, unnatural, temporary separation. The whisper grows louder in the head that something must be done before it is too late.

As to Ukrainians looking west, it aims to seal a separation. Lemberg is an Austrian city anyway, in temperament perhaps, and was the first to rebel against Kiev when a Russian-favoured president was elected there. To get close to the enemy-culture of Europe and to seal a separation is to invite Russia to leap in before it is too late, just as they did in Georgia to stop it joining NATO.

The reason for separation may be habit, or inertia, resisting mechanically just because that is what you do, the way the princes of Tver or Suzdal shed others’ blood to resist being unified with Muscovy.

There is another reason though for Kiev to resist Moscow: who would want to be ruled by Vladimir Putin?

If the Ukraine can grow into a liberal version of Russia, making the best of the shared culture without the stifling tyranny, that would be an enlightening sight and a promise of prosperity. Ultimately it is a part of Russian culture and discarding that for western symbols would tear out the soul of the people. It needs an accommodation, not pretending to be  separate from the great culture of the Russian people but finding a way for that culture to flower, to develop and be Rus’ who are better that those who still live in the oppressive lands to the north of them. I begin to doubt though that they will have a chance.

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Putin: we’re coming for you

You will not escape our scrutiny. we have our eyes on Russia no less than does the Skibbereen Eagle itself. Your cold brutality opposes every British value, which are the only values any decent man or woman should have. the dignity of every individual, the rule of law making freedom an everyday instinct and reality. We will not leave you a free pass nor let your practices become the way we oppose the destruction of society.

Western society is being destroyed: we see how it is going and from whom, just as you do, and we oppose it just as you do, but you are not us and we will not swap a woke tyranny for a Putin one.

Its a powerful world stage for you: I do not know if you influenced last year’s election in America, but your patsy got into the White House anyway; there has not been a weaker more submissive, pointless president since Medvedev. You may want to use this situation to impose yourself more strongly upon the world, but you have to get through us first.

Look us in the eye, Vladimir Vladimirovich. What do you have? You may have a large (or largely drunken) army, you may have agents and useful idiots everywhere, absolute control over a country 5,000 miles long, some of it even inhabited, guns, bombs and novichok – but we have keyboards, and we’re not afraid to use them.

We are British, something you can never be, so be jealous, and afraid.

Here on this site we are united: we have you, Putin, in our sights and will pursue you relentlessly. (Unless you’ve got a job going that pays well – preferably working from home – will learn basic Russian if required – all reasonable offers considered.)

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