Our timid tolerance for tyranny

Published by The i paper (25th April, 2022)

The president of a European nation gave a surreal press conference on Saturday. The fact that it took place in an underground station, surrounded by heavily armed guards, highlights the hideous situation facing Volodymyr Zelensky as he leads the desperate fight to save his country. And the attendance of journalists from all over the world underlines the global interest in Ukraine’s struggle for survival. Yet for all his fine words, delivered with his customary fervour while clad in olive green, the world has barely begun to take on board the significance of his nation’s fight.

Zelensky warned that Russia’s attack on his nation was only the start. He pointed to comments by one of Vladimir Putin’s military chiefs that they seek to seize a coastal strip of south Ukraine and open a route to Transnistria, a separatist slice of Moldova run by their stooges. The Kremlin is sabre-rattling on Finland and Sweden’s desire to join Nato following its aggression, while their allies threaten Baltic states.

Yet this titanic fight in Eastern Europe is simply the latest – and most horrifying – instalment in Putin’s onslaught against democracy that began as soon as he won power. The big question is whether the West has really woken up to the challenge.

After February’s invasion there has been a far stronger response than after Putin’s previous attacks on sovereign states, including the 2014 assault on Ukraine that led to such pathetic reaction despite the theft of chunks of its land. We have seen the imposition of harsh sanctions on Russia, yachts seized from oligarchs, firms shamed into shutting up shop. The outrage among democracies in Europe, North America and the Pacific Rim solidified alliances, shoring up financial and military support for Kyiv. Germany ditched its ban on transferring arms to war zones. Traditionally neutral states such as Singapore and Switzerland were jolted into applying sanctions.

But there remains a disturbing failure to see that these are opening salvos in the seismic struggle of our time between autocracy and democracy. China, the rising superpower under control of another egotistical dictator at the helm of a corrupt, cruel and nationalist regime, is watching closely as it eyes up Taiwan and seeks global domination. No wonder it is standing by Putin.

There is, rightly, anger over Berlin’s backsliding on weapon supplies to Kyiv and shameful reluctance to sever reliance on Russian energy that is, effectively, an endorsement for atrocities. Yet failure to come to terms with a fast-shifting world goes beyond the limp German government.

There is lots of smug self-congratulation in Washington, Westminster and Brussels over their belated marshalling of support for Ukraine. Certainly they deserve some praise. There still needs to be far greater supply of arms to assist Zelensky’s war effort, however, if his nation’s heroic efforts to repel Russia are to have any hope of success. At the same time, our politicians carry on playing their tawdry and divisive domestic games without showing any understanding of the urgent need to solidify democracies left so corroded by cash, corruption, low-calibre leaders and tribalism.

This is symbolised by the Partygate scandal in Britain, where ramifications of the Tory party’s refusal to oust its law-breaking liar of a leader are profound. Things are little better in Washington where Democrats are so divided and Republicans so rabid that many analysts think Donald Trump might be re-elected president despite ties to an assault on Congress, antipathy to Nato and admiration for Putin.

Or look at France, where such discontent infects its democracy that the presidential run-off featured Marine Le Pen, another far-right Putin fan whose party was bailed out by a Russian bank. Meanwhile, the European Union lacks resolve to deal with Viktor Orban, a pro-Putin nationalist in Hungary, exploiting its funds as he leads his country away from liberal democracy.

This struggle on Ukrainian soil has such significance that it should not only spark introspection over the chronic state of many democratic systems but shape our view of the world. I argued here last month that it is grotesque hypocrisy for Boris Johnson’s government to sever links with Putin’s Russia while propping up the regime of another vicious dictator who invades a neighbour, kills or jails dissidents and pushes twisted propaganda to promote his regime. Yet ministers have shaken the bloodstained hand of Rwanda’s Paul Kagame on their sordid deal, placing their fight for votes in Red Wall seats over decency, human rights or morality.

Downing Street once claimed to be putting pressure on “all world leaders” to thwart Putin’s aggression, which is unusual in exposing evil with such clarity. Yet Johnson admits he did not try to persuade India to drop its approach to the conflict during last week’s trip to Delhi – although such “neutrality” is in reality an abandonment of Ukraine’s cause that demonstrates complicity in the Kremlin horror show. Instead, the Prime Minister eased Britain’s rules for arms deals to a nation with close defence ties to Russia and facing accusations in a report by the respected Royal United Services Institute that it is a major route for smuggling arms to Moscow.

This was a missed opportunity. Britain, like other Western countries, should make it abundantly clear that any nation failing to support Kyiv’s existential fight for survival cannot be considered a friend – even if they claim to be sitting on the fence. We do not need to lecture nations, especially given our own dark history of invasion and repression – but we should use all the levers of aid, diplomacy and trade to show that we stand firmly today against autocracy and imperialism.

For too long, we have shown a timid tolerance for tyranny, pouring cash into pockets of unpleasant regimes that despise our values while failing to use our influence to fight effectively for freedom and democracy. Yet as Zelensky said: ‘When they finish with us they will start with you.”

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