Sunday, February 12

The infinite beauty of the impossibly real.

I am trying to imagine what it must be like to be intelligent and kind-natured and living in Russia, born and bred there - a good person who somehow manages to discover and be aware of the facts as to what is happening in Ukraine and how the world at large is viewing developments.

Let's call her Tanya. She has her own apartment in Rostov-on-Don, close enough to the border to be quite badly affected by any nuclear dust if the wind were blowing in the wrong direction at the time of any explosion in Ukraine. Probably close enough to see tanks and troops going West and not seeing any coming back for the past year. Her TV and radio tell her that her country is conducting a special military operation to remove Nazis from Ukraine. I am not sure whether she was also told it was to bring that country under Russian control but that seems to have been implied as, indeed, that the vast majority of Ukrainian people actually want that anyway.

It's no big deal in February 2022 when the Russian troops and tanks roll over the border and head for Kyiv. No great public announcements, life carries on pretty much as normal at first. After a few weeks, however, she starts to hear about the howls of protest not just from Ukraine but from every European country, except Hungary, Transnistria and Kaliningrad, and particularly loud anger and astonishment from the United Kingdom and the United States as well as all the rest of the British Commonwealth from Canada to New Zealand. Suddenly she's not permitted to leave the country. Even if she could take a flight somewhere the plane would have to be Aeroflot and would only be permitted to fly over a limited number of territories, no other airline now serving Russian airports and most countries banning Russian flights from entering their airspace, never mind landing. 

She wonders why there is a huge exodus of women and children from Ukraine, mostly to Poland and Finland but many also to England where the British government is paying families £600 a month to help provide a room for a Ukrainian woman, more if they have children too. What is so fearful that so many people left homes and husbands in such a hurry? It does seem quite strange.

Putin appears on TV and at various other places to tell everyone how this special military operation is just a small necessary action to rescue Russian people in Ukraine and remove the Nazis that he says are controlling things and how it is necessary to protect Russia and its people from the advance of NATO with US and European troops and armour expected to be building up on the border because of Ukraine's developing friendship with the West. Many of Tanya's neighbours and colleagues believe what they see and hear on Russian TV and Radio and in the state-controlled newspapers. They see Putin as a strong protector of all that they love about Russia. She can hardly argue with them. That would not only make day-to-day life difficult and tense for her and other members of her family but could also get her sent to jail, following new legislation which bans anyone referring to the special military operation as a war or invasion or anything except a helpful move by nice Russian troops to remove nasty people making trouble somewhere in Ukraine.

And anyway, she does have some respect for President Putin. He had made Russia a lot stronger and restored national pride after what many Russians had seen as loss of identity and influence when the Soviet Union was broken up in the 1990s. Generally, things had been going quite well. Some dissidents had disappeared and leaders of any opposition parties struggled to get the same airtime or, for that matter, any votes in elections, but the Russian Federation was a nation that we could do business with, travel to and it had McDonalds restaurants. She was quite pleased he had 'got Crimea back' although she had not really liked the way it had happened. But not many people died and the whole business about which nation should run Crimea had always been a bit dodgy. This latest action, though, worried her.

She started to read what was actually happening. It wasn't just the clear evidence emerging that this was a genuine invasion and that innocent civilians were being killed when missiles and bombs blew up apartment blocks and city centres but that Russian troops were suffering very badly. Things were not going as planned. They completely failed to reach Kyiv and almost the entire batch of tanks and equipment in the north had been lost, as well as almost all the soldiers inside them. No Nazis were being killed as far as she could make out, only people who had been threatening nobody, just going about their daily lives or, in the case of Ukrainian troops, trying to defend their towns and villages and actually doing it remarkably well. About 120,000 Russian soldiers have died in this year according to the internationally-respected organisation counting them on the ground. The true figure is likely to be double that when untreated injuries of another 300,000 are taken into account.

She learns that this was not just luck but countries like Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, Finland and Britain had immediately provided a lot of very valuable resources to Ukraine which had enabled them to maintain a strong defence. She watched as international verified sources confirmed that wave after wave of her country's troops were being sent in to replace those dying and how, over time, the sheer number of Russian troops made progress possible. But that 'progress' was the most abominable treatment of women and children in towns like Bucha, where hundreds have been found shot or beaten with their hands tied, women abused in the streets and left to die there in other towns. Populations, or those hundreds that remained, in some other southern or eastern towns were forced on trains and removed to Russia. News is still today awaited by their families as to where they are and whether they're even still alive. Talk of Nazis - who was it that used trains to remove and kill vast numbers efficiently? Tanya tries hard to think objectively and base her feelings and conclusions on facts but she does start to wonder just how her country could be doing these things to people who, until a few months earlier, now a year earlier, happily co-existed for the most part.

Then she starts to read about just who is actually doing the killing and now commanding operations in Ukraine. It is essentially a business. The Wagner Group, employing prisoners and almost anyone they can find in nations far and wide, including Syria and Iran, that wants to fight and have a chance of earning good money and their release, are very much in control of what happens on the ground. They have mostly made up for the early mistakes of ill-informed and very ill-equipped Russian troops and have demolished almost all the towns of any importance in the East and South. Just Odesa remains which, oddly, they have left for now. Huge battles have been necessary, real war, real invasion, real atrocities to achieve what is now a sort of status quo. Russia, or shall we say some paid individuals, control much of the Donbas and Luhansk region as well as a swathe of territory across the south. But that's all. The rest of the country is pretty free from fighting. There is little power and air raid sirens warn that missiles are still a threat every night but few land anywhere near their targets.

Tanya wonders what will happen next. Her news tells her nothing she can really believe any more. People are not talking as much as they did at the start. There is a feeling that all is not well. Britain and the United States, even the EU are regarded now as enemies. Reports say that they are about to attack Russia. She can scarcely believe that this could be true. What she can read reassures her a little but there are also many Western writers who feel that only by other countries actually getting involved will Putin and his advisers see that they need to negotiate sooner rather than later.

She doesn't think about the nuclear option. No-one does really. It's so terrible and is something no-one can actually appreciate unless they happened to have been around Hiroshima or Nagasaki in the 1940s. We may have a fear of nuclear war but we don't really have a clue. Tanya is much like all of us across the whole world - we close our minds to the possibility and seek only to consider what else can be done.

With more and more access to reports of what is happening she can only feel more sad. There is no obvious answer. At least the state-controlled media there tell her everything will be OK, that Russia is winning the . . . oh, no hang on, nearly said 'war', nearly completing the special military operation. It's almost better to turn off all the news and try to concentrate on a good book or watch a film, make dinner.

Tanya asks a friend in the West for more information about how he thinks it will all end. He runs through scenarios which she's already read or worked out for herself. Basically, whatever happens will not happen quickly. Very few countries will feel like forgiving Russia for what they've done and, indeed, there will be a demand for massive reparations before any trade can restart other with rogue nations like Iran, parts of corrupted India and North Korea. Even sympathetic Hungary won't be allowed to deal with Russia. Russians themselves are not to blame but they will get blamed. Despite her outward-looking nature and kindness, Tanya will suffer by not being able to travel for years, from not being able to participate actively in what much of the rest of the world is doing. Fun things like Eurovision, Olympics, sport generally, festivals, opera, ballet, the Arts as a whole will be self-contained for years with little external involvement. Children will grow up with a very jaundiced and rather inaccurately guessed view of the rest of the world.

She will carry on probably much as she did before, just wondering always what might have been and what is really going on across the border. She knows that they're not Nazis in Ukraine and that many good people will be busy there rebuilding towns and cities and factories and schools. Her English friend will be there too. She'll wonder what he looks like now but knows she'll not see him again as she's not normally the sort to risk what the new Russian regime would do to anyone caught trying to escape the country. But maybe now she's not 'normal' any more and has heard that the Finnish people can be very helpful if you can get to Vybourg. . . 

Or, if you think about it, this would be a good time for Tanya to move to Crimea. The area could get some sort of special status, under shared administration and much less dominated by Soviet state controls for a few years, during which movement of people across borders may be much less problematic.

Sunday, February 5

There will be trouble ahead . . .

That's the question many people are asking and, quite honestly, no-one knows. Some excellent writers who really do seem to know what they're talking about in The Spectator see a kind of stalemate developing. Much as we had been optimistic following the recent progress and just the fact that Ukraine had halted much of Russia's advance and had even started to take back some areas, some fear has crept in that there will be trouble ahead. It looks very much like Russia has built up considerable troop presence and is stretching Ukraine's defence preparations in two, if not three directions. The next wave of attacks is likely to come from troops trying to make progress from the South East to secure Donbas and Luhansk regions once and for all and prohibit much Ukraine advance in the direction of Crimea. By sheer force of numbers one would expect Russia to have some chance of success and then to be able to call for a ceasefire with the intention of holding those Eastern areas as a condition of withdrawal elsewhere.

It is highly unlikely that Ukraine will agree to any loss of land and will insist on withdrawal to the pre-February 24 positions and, indeed, will not simply give up the desire to bring back Crimea to its internationally recognised placing as part of Ukraine.

Russia will not agree to that, nor will they cease their demands for Donbas and Luhansk and the international community may wish to take their side on that just to get this war finished, as they will see it. The problem is that these areas, like Crimea, are now almost completely populated with people who prefer to be under Russian control. This may seem odd if they have been watching anything other than Russian TV but most probably haven't, everyone who in any way supported being part of Ukraine having left long ago. Crimea is almost completely 'Russian' in that respect with those residents who remained and do support Ukraine making very little signs of this for fear of being carted off somewhere and disposed of. They live quietly in hope as I guess several families in the East still do. But the vast majority of 'residents' in these disputed areas will vote to stay Russian in any poll, however independently that poll may be organised.

This, coupled with the difficulty that would inevitably be associated with any attempt by Ukraine to take full peaceful control of these places, with their populations as they stand today, being virtually impossible, with much resentment building up and that makes its way into the minds of those helping to decide things elsewhere. Even here in very supportive England, I can imagine much less enthusiasm being expressed for Ukraine to continue to fight when a peace deal is offered. They will almost be obliged to take it. I doubt that they will, however, and they'll simply fight on.

Russia will have no choice but to keep piling in more and more troops and my guess is that if that's all they do then that stalemate will be the result. A little movement here, a little movement there. A lot of Russian lives will be lost, far more than Ukrainian and it will be Ukraine's hope that the numbers become so vast that they really start to have an impact upon what the Russian public believe is happening. In all this unresolved mess I see mistakes being made and sooner or later a town other than in Ukraine gets hit and the huge risk of other countries being dragged into the war becomes reality. At that point, maybe, there will be some last ditch attempts to get some form of agreement as Russia really would then have to expect a lot more support, if not direct action in, Ukraine.

In the absence of a mistake or bombs being dropped somewhere in Europe or some dirty nuclear attack to bring this to a close, I can only see two outcomes that might work and allow both sides to stop. One is where some agreement is made that the disputed areas will get some sort of independent government. They're not ceded to Russian control, nor are they left solely under Ukraine administration but run by some independent entity that also represents both sides as well as the interests of those living or desiring to return to live there. For some considerable time this will need to run so that the population of the areas can settle into whatever natural grouping it would have done had 2014 or this war never happened. 

It has to be wrong that Russia simply walks away with Crimea as a prize, with the international community agreeing that it's all Russian from here on. Similarly, it would be wrong for any area to be so regarded at the outset. Maybe after some years, some rearrangement of borders does take place as these areas are not going to function as completely independent nations and will need to be part of one of the other. That new border has to be right and fair and to work or all this will just happen again one day.

As this stands, if I were to suggest that Ukraine might lose a single square inch of its land then I would be shouted down and told that simply can't happen as it would be seen as allowing Russia to have bullied them and having somehow won, especially with all the destruction to homes, lives, livelihoods and the economy generally. So Russia will have to suffer considerably more financially in order that they pay for the damage done and this, too, needs to be part of any agreement, however and whenever it is reached. Anything less simply will not be accepted. 

Refusal to agree to any peace deal will see international support ebb away and maybe Russia has already worked that out and is banking on Ukraine just being worn down over the years. Russia can keep finding troops to die even if there is no significant advance. They'll win eventually on that basis.

The second outcome is that we all get involved. NATO or, at the very least a few strong nations, join Ukraine in the fight and call Russia's bluff. Indeed, if they're effective enough they could cause Russia to withdraw very quickly and then it would be Russia who would be likely to lose the support of any international minds should they start firing missiles at anyone else. That's when they lose. And they lose all of the land in Ukraine, including Crimea. Perhaps even a new administration is ordered for Russia itself, much like Germany had to be controlled after World War 2's defeat.

Because Russia is a nuclear power and does have a lot of weapons, this would be dangerous and messy but I believe showing Russia that we are united and strong in hating this dreadful business that they started in 2014 and now wish to continue will convince them that their best policy is to stop. That way maybe they can say they don't lose and some face is even saved by people in charge there. Be that as it may. Providing tanks will help but I still want to see real help on the ground and in the air and, indeed, in Russia too where smart technology and highly secret attacks on key infrastructure could stop the threat of those weapons ever going anywhere.