A struggle between good and evil

Published by The i paper (30th May, 2022)

Yesterday I was interviewing more Ukrainians fleeing Vladimir Putin’s invasion, hearing sad stories of families whose homes and lives have been shattered in this senseless war. The names of the cities have changed. Now it is Severodonetsk and Lysychansk being pounded into oblivion, after Mariupol was destroyed, Bucha tied forever with horror and much of Kharkiv left in ruins.

But the tales of terrified men, women and children cowering in basements as artillery shells, cluster bombs and even white phosphorus munitions rain hell over their heads have become all too familiar over the past three months. One woman, clutching her remaining possessions in a couple of plastic bags, wore a Hogwarts T-shirt. Yet such is the twisted logic that lies behind Vladimir Putin’s war, he has used even JK Rowling’s stance on transgender issues as justification for his atrocities.

It might seem bizarre that a Russian dictator follows our culture battles so closely, yet this is a reactionary regime that tells citizens their sons will want to become their daughters if there is a change of leadership. So when sanctions began to bite in response to Russia’s attack, Putin said the Harry Potter author had been “cancelled” and “they are now trying to cancel our country”.

Russia is the undoubted aggressor in this conflict, not a victim of cancel culture. But Putin and his former KGB cronies have spent more than two decades pumping out such bilge in a stinking stream of propaganda to ensure compliance of citizens in mass murder while diverting attention from looting of national resources.

They spew out nonsense that a democracy on their doorstep is run by Nazis, Ukraine does not really exist and oppressed Russian speakers need salvation through bombardment. Then dismal diplomats such as Andrei Kelin, their ambassador to London, say the stories of execution, rape and torture that I have heard too often reporting on their war are “a fabrication”.

Last week, however, one diplomat decided he could no longer keep selling his soul. Boris Bondarev, who joined Moscow’s foreign service soon after Putin took power at the turn of the century, quit as a counsellor at the Russian permanent mission to the United Nations in Geneva. “The ministry of foreign affairs is not about diplomacy,” he declared. “It is all about warmongering, lies and hatred. It serves the interests of few, the very few people thus contributing to further isolation and degradation of my country. Russia no longer has allies, and there is no one to blame but its reckless and ill-conceived policy.”

Bondarev later gave a fascinating interview to the US website Puck that offered fresh insight into Putin’s propaganda machine. He explained how they were taught Nato was “evil” and “satanic” – although no one could tell him why – while ambitious officials learned that making the most incendiary claims pleased bosses. The attack on Ukraine, he said, was greeted with joy by his colleagues in the diplomatic corps. “They hadn’t been told till a few days prior that the Ukrainians were now Nazis but that didn’t get in the way of their patriotic pride. It was all about flipping the bird to America – we’re going to show you and what’re you gonna do?”

Now we know the answer to that. The West recoiled in horror, displayed unexpected unity, imposed tough sanctions, offered sanctuary to fleeing refugees and funnelled extensive military support to a democracy under attack. The citizens of Ukraine rallied superbly, their President, Volodymyr Zelensky, found a global voice and their soldiers fought back valiantly. So the defending nation thwarted Putin’s plan for a blitzkrieg attack to install a puppet regime. And the world’s second largest army, hindered by logistical failures and dire morale, was defeated in key battles for Kyiv and Kharkiv.

The Kremlin switched tactics. Putin’s intelligence goons behind the debacle, who predicted Ukraine would crumble and invading troops greeted with flowers, have been dumped. The military is settling in for a long war, relying on use of remorseless firepower in the flat eastern Donbas region that it first invaded eight years ago. Moscow’s approach is having some success, as that stream of miserable refugees shows – and there is no reason to think Putin has abandoned his desire to colonise the whole country.

This highlights an urgent need to rush over the sort of long-range and rapid-fire weapon systems Ukraine needs to respond. Not least when Russia’s use of tanks first deployed 60 years ago and the abolition of upper age limit for recruits indicates their continuing problems after massive losses of men and machinery.

This is a pivotal moment in this crucial battle between democracy and dictatorship. Yet a chorus of influential figures in Europe and the US has started pushing for a ceasefire, arrogantly telling Ukrainians they must swap land for peace after all their blood, pain and suffering. The German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has even started posting pathetic tweets like an angst-ridden teenager asking if violence can be fought with violence?

The naivety of these siren voices is depressing and potentially destabilising. Putin has proved that appeasement does not work and he is untrustworthy, so why offer a deal that he can proclaim as victory while regrouping his forces for another attack?

Putin’s cabal needs to be beaten. They are to blame for this war – along with the rising energy prices, global food shortages and despoliation of their own nation. We are witnessing, unusually in a complex world, a struggle between good and evil just like those seen in books such as Harry Potter.

Success relies on both Ukraine and the West remaining strong in the face of dictatorship and terror. “You just can’t make peace now,” said Bondarev. “If you do, it will be seen as a Russian victory. Russia will spend a couple years scraping together some resources and then it will do this again. This won’t teach them anything. Only a total and clear defeat that is obvious to everyone will teach them.”

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