Has this carnage woken up the West?
Published by The i paper (7th March, 2022)
Beside my hotel in western Ukraine there are scruffy sheds and cluttered yards filled with snow-dusted piles of rusting metal. These have become a hive of activity over the past week as elderly workers cut and weld metal into “hedgehogs”, which are placed on roads to stop the advance of mechanised military forces, and create stoves from disused gas canisters to send to their soldiers on the frontline.
Walking down the road I come to a church, filled with volunteers, and then the town hall, which has so many donations for refugees and troops that the mayor has set up two big tents in the square to process all the blankets, clothes, food and medicines.
Ukraine is fighting for survival and almost all those who have not fled the advancing Russian forces seem to have joined the struggle. This unwanted war is not just about all those Ukrainian soldiers who appear to be performing miracles in resisting the Kremlin military machine. Even here in Chortkiv, far from the front line, the resolve of this nation is impressive.
Spend a few minutes by the town hall and you see young mothers handing over bags of medicine and elderly couples donating jars of their pickled vegetables. Go on social media to see citizens displaying such courage in face of the invading troops as they wave their flag, sing the national anthem, and sometimes even stop the tanks.
The Ukrainian people know they are fighting for freedom – of both their nation and their society – and that Russian President Vladimir Putin has only strengthened their desire for democracy, for the kind of liberal values we have taken too readily for granted in our own land. Older generations have told me of being influenced by memories of Communist dictatorship, with all the cruelties and deprivations of the Soviet Union, while many younger people have been impatient to join the community of Europe.
The hail of missiles and shells hammering down on vast swathes of this country ensure that – regardless of who wins this war in military terms – Ukrainians will not be reconciled to rule from Moscow.
Having been in this country for the past seven weeks, it has been hideous to see a modern nation shredded by the malevolence of one dictator determined to stop democracy from infecting his own repressed people. Last week I watched video footage of an explosion in Kharkiv’s Freedom Square, where recently I had coffee in a cafe as children slid by the window on skates around a huge Christmas tree. I have watched with horror the hell descend on Mariupol, where I stayed last month in a small hotel set up by a hospitable man investing his future in a property he had recently renovated. And I have seen the streets of Kyiv, a modern European capital with cool bars and smart shops, turned into a battleground with bombs and bullets.
I have argued that this invasion is a symbol of Putin’s persistent failures, something underlined by his success in uniting so much of the freer world against his repulsive regime. A few fools on both political extremes still promote Kremlin propaganda as they blame the West for his terrorism while brushing aside Russian imperialism.
But the atrocities in Ukraine seem to have shaken the democratic world out of its torpor at last. Even Switzerland and Singapore are imposing sanctions, while Germany has been shaken into reality over reliance on Russian gas under its quietly impressive new chancellor Olaf Scholz and the Tory party has started talking tough on stemming the tide of dirty money washing through Britain (although still doing far, far too little).
It is a crying shame it took such evil events to wake up the West. Putin is using the same deceitful playbook he used before – in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine in 2014 – to excuse his actions. Eight years ago I was here reporting on the slaughter of pro-democracy protesters in Kyiv, then in Crimea seeing Russia’s theft of the peninsula and in Donetsk watching their first tanks roll in. The West simply slapped on a few mild sanctions, despite the first annexation of sovereign terrain in Europe since the Second World War, then returned to business as usual with Putin’s corrupt circle.
The lure of Russian cash and gas crushed any sense of morality for the grasping accountants, arms dealers, business bosses, estate agents, lawyers, purveyors of luxury goods – while politicians on all sides assisted Putin with pathetic weakness.
Putin’s arguments are palpably ridiculous. The big difference now is the belated realisation that our world is embroiled win a titanic fight between democracy and dictatorship after this bloodstained front line exploded with such disturbing force in Ukraine.
Our leaders are being forced to choose which side they are on in this conflict, the most seismic and important struggle of our time. And not just the politicians, but even the greediest accountants, the most venal corporate titans and the most mendacious lawyers. And those that carry on appeasing Putin and persist in doing the dirty work for his billionaire pals deserve to be hounded and shamed.
But this raises two questions. The first is for history books of the future: why did it take so long for the West to wake up when the warning signs flashed so clearly? The second demands attention now. Look at China, Saudi Arabia, Rwanda. Do we demonise Putin and pretend he is unusually diabolical – or has this carnage woken up the West to the perils posed by despotism across the planet and the need to defend democratic values far harder both at home and abroad?
Alternatively, I could put this question another way: do we share the determination shown by Ukrainians – or is this just a blip before we betray them when our resolve melts, cash registers start ringing again and the appeasement of dictatorship continues as before?