Politics

Brian Taylor: Ukraine leaves us all feeling helpless – but here are three things we can do

SUNDRY politicians have been heard commending the thorough UK media coverage of this gruesome conflict in Ukraine.

In general, journalists are, intuitively, somewhat wary of praise from those in power.

Still, in these grim circumstances, it is perhaps welcome. Would that such extensive content could be made readily available to people in Russia.

One must hope that such information as they obtain from the web and social media is well-sourced and relatively free from interference.

You will forgive me if, while commending warmly, I draw passing attention to one or two remarks which struck me as slightly curious or dissonant.

I heard it said that this war “has gone viral”. Trust me, I grasp the sentiment which is to the effect that information is reaching even those areas where the authorities apply vigorous suppression.

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As noted earlier, such informal dissemination is vital. It just seems to my no doubt antiquated ear that the phrase itself is a little crass in these circumstances. Still, let that pass as of no account.

Consider another comment which I noted. It was to the effect that Russia had to calculate whether it was “winning this war”.

Again, I understand the comment, in context. But “winning”? How can this brutal, wicked shriek of terror result in anything remotely resembling victory?

Yes, Putin can smite and subdue. Backed by the might of a resurrected super-power, he can torment the population of Ukraine. He can bomb their nuclear power plants.

But can he subjugate these sturdy people? For a period, perhaps. But for ever? No.

Can he rule Ukraine? Also no. If he does take over, he will govern a vacuum, a desert called peace.

What would “winning” mean in this conflict? It would mean driving millions more from their homes and their land. It would mean slaughtering or capturing those who stay.

It would not persist. It would not endure. Not for ever. The people would return, with global backing, to retake their country.

So, what might be the avenues out of this dreadful crisis? Might President Putin back down and relent? Might he listen to international condemnation and bend?

That seems highly unlikely. He is a solipsistic dictator. To a large extent, he appears to heed only his own opinions, his own contrived view of Russian history.

He keeps his own military and economic advisers at a distance. Literally, given his intense fear of Covid. In turn, they seem understandably frightened to challenge him. Such is the way of the despot.

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Global opinion he seems to count at nothing. In the preparations for war, he held desultory talks with world leaders. But, rather than round table, they were long table – as he kept them physically distant, while paying their suggestions little serious attention.

President Macron of France tried again, by telephone, to plead for a change of tack. With, it seems, little success.

If anything, global criticism appears to entrench Putin in his world view: that he is correct, and his counterparts pitiful losers. The empire of lies, as he described Europe.

Might the West engage in direct armed conflict to assist Ukraine? Again, highly unlikely. Intervention could lead to a global nuclear war.

Might Putin then extend the reach of his armed incursion? Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, suggested that the Baltic states or other former Soviet territories might be next to face Russian aggression.

In a highly emotive phrase – plainly designed to summon the spirit of World War II and its aftermath – the Ukrainian leader told the European Parliament that President Putin would “march to the Berlin Wall.”

Certainly, those countries close to Ukraine, and their allies, must be alert to this danger. But, again, it seems unlikely at this stage.

President Putin may be remote from reality, detached from sensible advice. But he knows that to attack even one NATO member would risk, under the rules of that organisation, creating a state of war between Russia and all the NATO adherents.

Which leaves three avenues open. Firstly, to circumvent Putin. To use back-channel diplomacy to stay in touch with officials and others in Russia.

This is, of course, happening. It is perhaps part of the conduit for the talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials which have been held even as the bombs descend and the tanks advance.

I am very far from saying that this approach is guaranteed to succeed. Again, Putin’s inflated sense of self-worth may dispel common sense among Russian officials.

They will, frankly, be scared of acting in consort with the west. But it is vital to maintain such links. Putin will not be in power for ever.

Secondly, sanctions. These can have a trickle-down effect. Perhaps, if legal obstacles can be surmounted, the most effective method is to target Putin’s super-rich buddies.

If their wealth and status is genuinely threatened, they may be inclined to have a few sharp words with their sponsor.

In this context, I was struck by the consensual note deployed by Nicola Sturgeon. Instead of criticising, she said UK sanctions were “admirably tough”, while she argued for more, and announced plans to cut Scottish trade with Russia.

Given Putin’s distorted patriotism, it may also be useful to ban Russia from big sporting events.

The Paralympics finally got it right, excluding Russia and Belarus. Even then, the organisers complained. They said they were “very firm believers that sport and politics should not mix.”

Really? So, the flags, the anthems, the parades, they are nothing to do with politics? Behave yourselves.

The SFA put it rather well. While noting that “football is inconsequential amid conflict”, their President Rod Petrie explained that a boycott of Russia conveyed “a strong sense of solidarity communicated by fans and citizens.”

Quite. And that is perhaps the spirit we can all summon. Of course, we feel helpless. Listen to my Herald podcast this week and hear Hannah Rodger tell how she witnessed MPs giving a standing ovation to the Ukrainian ambassador, while she could only think of his family.

Yet still we can express solidarity and hope, somehow, that fellowship prevails, as this futile war persists and the bombs blitz down upon the people of Ukraine.

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