Alison Rowat: Standing ovations in west but east may hold answers on Ukraine

AT a time when so little seems certain we can at least, perhaps, agree on one thing: Boris Johnson can forget all about resigning if he receives that fixed penalty notice.

Real matters of life and death have a way of making cheese and wine parties in Downing Street seem such small beer, don’t you find?

When it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, each of us can probably point to the moment when what was a concern on the margins suddenly shifted front and centre.

It might have been on hearing someone say, with genuine concern, “Clive needs to get off that roof now,” and realising they were talking about the BBC’s Clive Myrie.

Maybe it was the scene at the train station when, just for a split second, you tried to imagine how your family would fare in that situation.

Perhaps it was the discussions between serious people about the likelihood of nuclear war.

Something about Ukraine has touched a collective nerve, but why?

We are, after all, no strangers to scenes of war and suffering. There are conflicts raging across the world and no end of wrongs that need to be corrected.

Yet it is Ukraine that has us talking. It is Ukraine that has united Republicans and Democrats in a standing ovation. Likewise parties in the Commons. It is Ukraine that has newspapers and politicians usually hostile to immigration throwing down the welcome mat, that has brought a new purpose and spirit to the EU, Nato and other previously drifting institutions.

Even if this unity does not last the month it is apparent now and worth exploring. One never knows when it might be needed again.

It helps that what is happening in Ukraine has no shades of grey. It is a black and white case of a bigger, better armed autocracy terrorising a smaller democracy.

That it is such a clear instance of right and wrong is why many could not believe, right up to the point where the Russian tanks began to roll, that it was actually happening.

A world that has spent the last two years wrestling with the unprecedented and the extraordinary was blind-sided.

Covid has been a factor in other ways. At the start of the pandemic there were those who tried to summon up that famous Blitz spirit that never really was. But there is no comparison between becoming ill and dying due to a virus, and being murdered by a missile.

Covid did, however, give us a sense of how life could turn, just like that. One moment you are commuting to the office, looking forward to the weekend with family and friends, the next you are in lockdown, fearing for your mental and physical health, kept apart from all you hold dear.

That same sense of sudden change emerges when Ukrainians speak of what has happened to them. One day a lawyer or an IT worker, the next making Molotov cocktails by the side of a bombed road. The unimaginable made real.

Covid also brought death closer to people than it had been for many decades. For the lucky, death was what happened to other people. Not people we knew, not yet anyway.

But when the toll climbs so high the chances of knowing someone, somewhere, increase accordingly. I don’t think we have begun to understand how being around so much loss has affected us. It would hardly be surprising if it has made life seem more precious.

The internet and social media in particular have brought the suffering in Ukraine into people’s lives as never before. Delivered it straight to their laptop or smartphone.

There is nothing too awful it cannot be shown. Television and newspapers block out faces and bodies to give the dead some dignity, but all the horror is there on the internet should you want to see it. Even if you don’t want to see it.

There are cultural and other reasons why Ukraine should strike so close to home. Those bombed streets look like the streets we walk along. Their homes look like our homes. This is not a far away nation of which we know little: it is a few hours away by plane, cheap as anything to get there, or used to be.

Nor does it take much to press that button marked “Second World War” and all that conjures up. Is there a period of history we know better, are less steeped in? After that comes the Cold War, its vocabulary, iron curtains and mutually assured destruction, right there on the tip of our tongues, ready to deploy again.

Finally, the Ukrainians have in Volodymyr Zelenskyy a leader we can admire and relate to. He is that rare creature that politicians want to be but few are, a genuine, decent kind of soul. Not a machine politician in any sense.

Yet for all that we feel a connection to Ukraine, what matters to its people is how that translates into practical help. The admiration of the West won’t stop Putin’s tanks.

But going further than governments already have takes the conflict into ever more dangerous territory, and could demand a price many are not willing to pay.

Having encouraged expectations, some leaders, most notably Boris Johnson, are trying to dial them down. US President Joe Biden, judging from his State of the Union speech, is not yet at that point. “[Putin] has no idea what’s coming,” said Mr Biden, going off script. Neither do we, and that is what is so troubling.

Imposing a no fly zone or putting boots on the ground would be disastrous. Hoping that those around Putin will topple him is a long shot. After 22 years in power he has eliminated any potential successors.

The Russian people, save for those brave souls who have already taken to the streets to protest and been arrested for it, are too busy with their own day to day struggles. Life will get harder for them under sanctions, as it will in western societies. The Russian middle class will take their money and go elsewhere.

It is a bleak assessment. For all the hopes being pinned on sanctions, China’s offer to mediate is the only bright spot on the horizon.

While the involvement of China brings its own complications, that is another crisis for another day. The Chinese President may be among the few people left who can rein Putin in and do it quickly.

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