A clash between democracy and dictatorship
Published by The i paper (14th February, 2022)
Last week Russia won gold in the figure skating team event at the Winter Olympics thanks to the 15-year-old star Kamila Valieva, who made sporting history as the first female skater to land a quadruple jump in the games. Now this talented teenager, favourite to win the solo event also, waits to learn if she will become the youngest athlete booted out of any Olympics after she tested positive for a banned substance two months ago. Her medal, along with her participation, is being bitterly argued over in Beijing after her national doping agency cleared her to compete.
This saga is not surprising. The Russian regime of President Vladimir Putin ignores rules intended to govern our world – and his repellent activities are aided with appeasement by greedy people and weak institutions. Valieva is taking part under the fig-leaf banner of the Russian Olympic Committee so if her team wins, they do not fly the Russian flag. This is due to exposure of a state-sponsored doping project designed to ensure dominance of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Russia was theoretically barred from sporting competitions for four years – pathetically reduced to two on appeal – but their “clean” athletes permitted to carry on competing.
The Sochi games perfectly symbolised Putin’s regime. Designed to reflect his glory as ruler of Russia, they were built on deception – and not just in tarnished medals secured by scientists with aid of security services. These were the most expensive games in history, funded by Russian taxpayers and costing an estimated five times the amount of their Canadian predecessor partly due to corruption on huge construction contracts handed out to the President’s pals.
Yet even as skiers and skaters competed, pro-democracy protesters were being slaughtered in the centre of Kyiv, sparking Moscow’s invasion of Crimea and stirring up of separatist revolts that led to two breakaway republics in Ukraine, 14,000 dead and up to two million people displaced.
Now as I write this column in Kyiv, Putin’s military machine encircles Ukraine. No one knows his immediate intentions, but many fear the worst. It is sad talking to friendly people in a bustling European capital who wonder whether to take all their cash from banks, stock up on food or simply carry on with life as normal – let alone whether to flee with their children or fight for their country if those Russian tanks and troops cross their border.
As Ukrainians repeatedly remind me, however, we must not forget they have been under assault from Moscow since those dark days in February 2014 with continuing conflict on their eastern flank. Wrecked homes and shattered lives are highly visible in places such as Avdiyvka, sitting on the frozen frontline beside the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic.
I met one elderly man, living in a house with all the glass blown out from its windows. A woman had seen the local shop destroyed before her eyes. A third person lost a neighbour on her street, killed while feeding dogs. A fourth told of her mother sitting alone in the house during shelling, too infirm to make the basement and knowing her best friend died in this way while one daughter was too scared to return home and another had known nothing in her short life beyond “the nightmare of war”. Such stories offer vivid examples of the horrors of conflict and reminder of the cruel impact of Putin’s machinations.
Yet even after he stole a chunk of another country’s land and started a war, many people secure in their stable Western homes casually inflame Putin’s propaganda and debate the future of Ukraine on his terms. Do not be fooled: this crisis is nothing to do with ethnic tensions and Russian speakers. Nor is it really related to expansion of Nato, although the Kremlin’s hostile moves underscore the need for a defensive shield. It is about one ageing autocrat, clinging to power after 22 years of corrupt rule that left his resource-rich country chronically under-developed and who now fears the shift towards democracy in a close neighbour.
The Defence Secretary Ben Wallace warns of a “whiff of Munich in the air”, condemning rightly the shamefully “muted” response to the theft of Crimea and 2008 invasion of Georgia. Germany sold its soul to Russia, dependent on its gas after Angela Merkel shut down nuclear power stations. France floated the idea of “Finlandisation” – which would swap Ukraine’s freedom for subservience to Moscow – without consulting its leaders, highlighting how so much of this debate is framed in geo-political terms while ignoring Kyiv’s perspective. In Britain, naive commentators on left and right play Putin’s games by sympathising with his supposed concerns.
Wallace, one of the few ministers to see his reputation boosted by serving in Boris Johnson’s government, has published a firm rebuttal to Putin’s ridiculous essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” by pointing out: “Ukraine has been separate from Russia for far longer in its history than it was ever united.”
But far too many folk prefer to engage with the Russian President’s mendacious arguments rather than challenge his brutal rule, his deception, his dirty money, his historical distortions, his lethal interventions, his refusal to play by rules. This one-eyed reluctance to see how Putin turned Russia into a rogue state over his 22-year rule – and thus respond accordingly – helped lead Europe into this frightening crisis.
We are witnessing the clash between dictatorship and democracy, the most seismic struggle of our time, playing out before our eyes after the appeasement of a brutal dictator in Europe once again. Perhaps Putin will turn back his forces – although I worry about the mindset of a despot and former spook who has held power for two decades surrounded by oligarchs and sycophants, then much of the past two years in a Covid bubble. “Do you think it will be like Syria?” asked one pregnant woman.
What a tragic question to hear in the heart of Europe.