Putin must be stopped from meddling in Ukraine

Published by The Daily Mail (11th February, 2022)

When I arrived in Ukraine three weeks ago to report on the escalating fears of war in Europe, I went initially to the city of Kharkiv sitting just 25 miles from the border where Russian forces are building up with such menace.

This prosperous industrial centre – the second biggest city in Ukraine – was formerly the country’s capital.

Eight years ago, separatists backed by the Kremlin tried to seize it with protests and the capture of civic buildings.

Their efforts were thwarted by police – unlike in two other big cities in east Ukraine where Russian intervention sparked a brutal war that led to two wrecked breakaway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, 14,000 dead and two million people displaced from their homes.

This is the reality of Russian meddling in Ukraine, seen repeatedly under both the Communists and the current dictator – death, decay and devastation.

Yet one of the first men I met in Kharkiv spoke of his admiration for President Vladimir Putin – ‘the only person who tells the truth’ – while lamenting the ‘useless’ politicians in the capital Kiev failing to make his life and financial situation better. 

So did he want his home city to become part of Russia? ‘No,’ he said firmly in Russian, shaking his head. ‘Kharkiv is a Ukrainian city.’

This conversation is just one of many that have driven home to me again the political, territorial and emotional complexities of this part of the world – along with the phoney narrative pushed by Putin in his propaganda that it is such people, the Russian speakers in Ukraine, who need his salvation from the ‘fascists’ in Kyiv.

I have met patriotic Ukrainians who struggle to speak the Ukrainian language declaring a readiness to die defending their country, along with people born in Russia but who live in Ukraine and are ready to pick up guns to fight to protect the freedoms denied in their native land.

One young woman, artistic and thoughtful, told me she felt shame that Russian-born people such as herself in Ukraine were being used by Putin to justify his aggression towards her adopted country.

How is it then that in Britain we hear arguments that endorse Putin’s malevolent stance on the basis that millions of Russian speakers in Ukraine supposedly regard the government in Kiev as hostile?

Such claims have been made in this newspaper by my colleague Stephen Glover. He argued that while the Russian president is a nasty piece of work, he had a point in his belligerent claims over Ukraine.

Certainly, Ukraine and Russia have firm ties over their border – embracing commerce, culture, family and history – even if Ukraine has spent much of its past pushing for independence from both Russia and a motley collection of other invaders.

But shared language among Russian speakers does not necessarily equate to the desire to switch flags and loyalties.

Russian speakers were not bullied in Ukraine. Indeed, before Putin inflamed these issues eight years ago, people were more likely to face problems over their failure to speak good Russian since this was the sign of being a county bumpkin.

This is not an ethnic conflict despite the barrage of propaganda from Moscow. Indeed, even people whose lives have been shattered by the continuing discord since 2014 keep stressing to me that they feel no fury towards ordinary Russians, merely sorrow for Slavic cousins trapped under Putin’s terrible and thieving government.

And ask yourself this – if language is so important, would that have given the Nazis the right to grab German-speaking parts of Switzerland?

Alternatively, should we help Chechnya and Tatarstan escape Moscow’s clutches – as they have tried to do in their post-Soviet past – given their linguistic differences?

Nor is this crisis really about Nato. Bear in mind that Putin once flirted about Russia joining the alliance before he began invading neighbours, using conflict to boost popularity and deflect attention from the disturbing lack of development in his resource-rich nation.

This is also a president who has lied persistently, most memorably when Russian forces – the ‘little green men’ in unmarked green uniforms – arrived in Crimea in 2014. Yet Putin denied he was invading the Ukrainian peninsula.

Those who defended the illegal seizure of Crimea on the grounds that it is ‘overwhelmingly ethnically Russian’ might remember that this is because its indigenous Tatar people were deported to Siberia in horrific circumstances by Joseph Stalin.

It seems curious then that many in the West are suddenly questioning Ukraine’s aspiration for Nato membership – but not the membership of other frontline countries that joined the alliance such as the Baltic states and Poland where democracy has become embedded.

Or do those useful idiots echoing the Kremlin also believe, like Putin, that we should roll back Nato to its pre-1997 membership before those nations struggling to escape their dark Soviet past joined our shared defensive shield?

This crisis, this looming possible catastrophe for both Ukraine and Europe, is about one thing only – the determination of a thuggish dictator to stay at the helm of a profoundly corrupt regime that impoverishes his own country.

It reflects Putin’s fear of a close neighbour struggling towards democracy that might influence his own people.

We cannot sweep aside the fears of Ukrainians with their long history of Russian repression and ignore their desire to live in a fairer and freer society – possibly under the protection of Nato.

And it is hard not to wonder what we would think of those who might have marshalled similar arguments about Adolf Hitler, trying to understand his mindset instead of facing up to the challenge of preventing the expansion of his evil empire.

Putin knows Ukraine is slipping from his grasp. Polls show the change in attitudes – just one in five Ukrainians wanted to join Nato in 2009 but now a majority want to sign up while Putin’s meddling has also tipped the mood firmly against his nation.

Yet ultimately, these issues go far beyond even the future of Ukraine. They pose a fundamental question for our times: do we aspire to a world based on rules where people are free and nations can determine their own futures?

Or, as one Ukrainian said, are we content to return to medieval times when muscle wins leverage and brutish bullies can steal bits of other countries without a fuss?

If Russia – having built up massive financial reserves from its gas and oil sales – can grab slabs of Ukraine with just a slap on the wrist with sanctions, what does this say to other expansionist countries, such as China eyeing up Taiwan? Or even Argentina looking across the South Atlantic at the Falklands after its claim over the islands was recognised by Beijing?

Ukraine’s future should not be debated on terms set by a nationalist dictator with a bloodstained past of lying, killing opponents and repeatedly invading other nations.

Putin stole a slice of Georgia. He is slowly taking over Belarus. He has bitten chunks out of Ukraine and now he is threatening the rest of the country.

I have met no Ukrainian who expects to see our troops on their soil. Instead there is only gratitude for British support. We must not let this be corroded by refusing to face up to unpleasant evidence unfolding before our eyes.

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