20 MERCY MERCY
Pfeffel may punch above his weight with female arm-clingers on the make but, faced with more forceful ladies, his old public school anxieties around women are not slow to emerge. Daria Kaleniuk is the executive director of something called the Anti-Corruption Centre. Hijack is probably too strong a word but her question at a press conference for Pfeffel in Poland soon became the story. She asked why Pfeffel was so slow to take financial action against Russian oligarchs and their UK investments. But we are, blustered Pfeffel. Daria went further. Ms Kaleniuk accused Pfeffel of being afraid. Pfeffel took deep breaths and blustered some more, and bang went another photo opportunity. In the middle of an international conflict Pfeffel needs to stay as far away as possible from military conflict. Liz Truss has the right idea and hammers it to death, pose with troops on a British airfield and snuggle close to tanks and aeroplanes. Pity that she later undermined all the good work with a few loose words about backing Ukraine resistance fighters. In the world of Truss and her fellow neoliberals, government is supposed to be easy. Truss inspired the Russians to call a nuclear alert. Ah, well.
Nuclear weapons have been around since the end of the second world war. For most of that time few have wasted time worrying about a pending apocalypse. Cuba was close but, as dangerous as those days were, not one life was lost in the stand-off. The conventional wisdom is that Putin is an out of control monster bent on recovering the Soviet empire that was lost after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not all agree. Some believe or hope that there is rational thinking within the psychopathic indifference of Putin to the carnage being inflicted in the Ukraine. But even those people who think Putin is best understood as a brutal 19th Century realist are beginning to feel anxious. The dry, callous utilitarians that made heavy weather of the Cold War had their limitations, as South Americans are all too aware, but they did avoid nuclear war. Of course, the powerful have always been indifferent to the sufferings of others. The Washington Post quoted an academic report on the impact of big pharma refusing to waive patents on Covid vaccinations. The academics estimated that worldwide one million lives have been lost that could have been saved. The pharmaceutical companies make twice as much money as non-drug companies and intend it to stay that way. In this they have had the support of the world leaders of a supposedly benign hegemon.
Macron has earned some sympathy because he wanted to broker a peace deal between the West and Putin. The ambition of Macron, though, was inspired by strategic interests rather than compassion for future victims. Macron is not the first French leader to believe that Europe needed Russia as a partner rather than a foe. We should not be surprised. The cultural links between France and Russia are evident in the 19th Century novels of Turgenev. De Gaulle envisaged Russia being integrated into the EU. Macron and Putin were in a minority when they supported waiving the patents on Covid vaccinations.
Whatever their failings, the post-second world war leaders of the past century did keep an eye on the nuclear weapons that were pointing at their spines. But even back then it required an alert Russian lieutenant colonel called Stanislav Petrov not to react to a computer system that mistakenly warned him that the USA had launched nuclear missiles against Russia. Petrov was not a typical Army man. Less macho than most in the Russian military, he was only in the Army because he had been directed there by his father. For once the right man was in the right place and counted to ten. These are different times. Modern politicians, groomed by image makers and opinion pollsters, are required to be grinning troopers with not too much inside their heads. Concerned with their image and status and little else, they are more interested in the trappings of power than power itself, and while on a good day that will tilt them away from egotistical destructiveness these are people that have no sense of responsibility. Pfeffel and Truss are good examples.
Modern politicians are clever at twisting arguments and reducing everything to the trivial. Alternative voices are ridiculed for being serious and are soon silenced. Modern British politicians are also burdened with an ideological faith in the always benevolent guiding hand of the market. Not only are these beliefs utopian nonsense, they ensure that the believers are not equipped for government and its responsibilities. Right now we need some grown ups in the room. Just where are the Andrei Gromykos when you need them? Gromyko was a man that did not just survive numerous international crises, he collected their resolutions like notches on his belt. Perhaps the Gromykos are like buses. You have to kick your feet while waiting for them but when they arrive they are all bunched together. Here is hoping.
There are alternative conclusions to what happens because of the war in Ukraine. These are one, Russia conquers the country and becomes an occupying power that lives with persistent guerilla resistance, two, Russia withdraws but not before it has wrecked the country and left a disproportionate and barbaric warning to the West and Nato, three, diplomats meet around the table and create a solution that is pragmatic and, because this is what peace usually requires, has a fair dose of hypocrisy, four, Putin thinks I’ve started so I’ll finish and knocks off Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, five the damned thing really gets out of hand and buttons are pressed. No prizes for guessing which is the most attractive option in that little list. And prizes to the same people for guessing which is the most terrifying.
A week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine occurred Noam Chomsky predicted that it would not happen. He was not alone in this belief. The prediction made by Chomsky and others assumed that Putin would not want to invite economic calamity into his homeland and become bogged down in a never ending battle against guerillas. And now Russian football clubs have been kicked out of European competitions and the national team will be prohibited from participating in the World Cup. If Putin thought the Russians were restless before, he needs to prepare himself. A cliche in Western diplomatic circles has been, ‘if you really want to wreck Russia, then encourage it to invade Ukraine’. Well, the Western powers did when they extended Nato and obstacles were put in the way of peace agreements such as Minsk2 and the Putin proposal for a joint Russia, IMF and EU plan for economic recovery in Ukraine, a proposal that Putin was prepared to back with a $15bn loan.
The risk being taken by Putin in invading Ukraine has convinced the Western media that he is not just a thuggish authoritarian but probably insane. The condemnation of Putin in the media is interesting. Before the crisis in Ukraine in 2014 Putin was not regarded as aggressive and having international ambitions. The man has been looting the Russian Treasury and investing his or the Russian people’s money in the West for years but there were few objections to the suffering this caused. One only has to look down the list of British Tory MPs that have received donations from Russian oligarchs. Even now when the criticism of Putin is extensive and endless the analysis of the looting of Putin has been superficial. His personal wealth is estimated to be somewhere between $70bn and $200bn.
Dominic King is a football journalist employed by the Daily Mail. King has no qualification to discuss geopolitics and is less than impressive when talking about football. He struggles with the offside rule and his journalism relies on cliches. LFC TV is a subscription channel that provides news on the Liverpool football team. This week King appeared on the channel and called Putin a monster. These are dangerous times, and we have too many eager and unqualified spokespersons, all primed by image conscious politicians and a hysterical social media. Since the invasion began the British media has beaten a drum for existential orgasms, something akin to a global Diana moment except with the bonus of wholesale slaughter. Whatever the crimes of Putin, it is in the interest of no one to think of what is happening in the Ukraine as a contest between one man and the rest of the world. Equating manageable concessions to Russia to what happened in Munich in 1938 is witless but typical of Tory ministers. The diplomats have to meet. This is why we have them, not just to use language that will not offend but also to manage the pathological urges of leaders that are given too much power and freedom to do harm.
Simple souls like me think of battles in the local pub. If the bully is intent on causing chaos and ruining the night, you talk to his mate and you do not needlessly provoke the bully. If the situation is really desperate, you buy the next round of drinks. Pfeffel, of course, is famous for his reluctance to buy a round of drinks. The West has had plenty of time to develop a strategy for handling Putin and discovering what needs to be said or done. If the Tories were that frightened of him, they should never have taken money from him and his mates. None of this bodes well for the future. These world leaders have the responsibility of shaping a world to adapt to, and mitigate, climate change. Putin has gambled and begun a war that he assumes will not provoke the West into action. We cannot assume that the leaders of the Chinese Communist party will wait for the right cards to pursue their territorial ambitions for Taiwan and the South China Sea. In a sensible world the West and Russia would be exchanging sweeteners and forging links, as De Gaulle envisaged and later Gorbachev. The Chinese are economic competitors with the USA. Not only will the Western and Chinese diplomats need a bigger table, they need to be talking now. And as Daria Kalenuik reminded us in Poland, sorting financial corruption is not like cleaning out the stables. The muck cannot be left until it fills the room.
Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Long After This is now available here.