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Dove tales

      jean rafferty on ukraine



I went to Ukraine once… for the end of the world. It was 1993, after the Soviet Union had broken up, and the world was scheduled to end one Sunday in November – according to Maria Devi Christos, the self designated new messiah. A former journalist, she was leader of the Great White Brotherhood, one of the many cults which sprang up in former Soviet republics in the wake of the great Soviet empire dissolving.

On the Friday, Christos and her followers attempted to hold a service in Kyiv’s Saint Sophia Cathedral and were arrested. The Moscow correspondents of all the newspapers immediately went home though myself and the photographer stayed on and watched Brotherhood followers assembling on the Sunday. They were wandering about like lost souls while the world kept turning as usual.

                                                                 Image by Александр Красовский, Pixabay

Ukraine had been known as the breadbasket of Russia but was in dire straits then. Prices changed by the minute. Larissa, our interpreter, went to the bakery for pastries for lunch and came back without them – the price had gone up as she got to the head of the queue. You’d see old ladies in the street, the traditional scarf tied round their heads, their coats fastened with string. They’d stand on the street corner holding a battered tin plate with one or two tomatoes in it, all they had for sale.

It was eleven degrees below zero and one of the saddest places I’ve ever been to. Larissa said that the people in power were the same as in Soviet times, but now, instead of telling everyone to be good Communists, they were telling them to be capitalists. There was still a shortage of basic goods and people still joined queues not knowing what they were queuing for, just knowing they didn’t have it.

Now nearly thirty years later, things are even worse for the people of Ukraine. Many of their beautiful, gold domed buildings have been destroyed and the poor old babushkas are living in underground cellars as the Russians bombard their homes. President Volodymyr Zelensky has just called on parliament to extend the war by another 90 days.

Ukraine is not a country which has been well served by its leaders. It is currently heresy to say so when President Zelensky seems to be regarded as a modern day saint and hero, but prior to the invasion his approval rating was on the Boris Johnson level and he was mentioned in the Pandora Papers – he himself appears to own nothing but his wife has shares in a number of offshore companies. He may have united his country in justified outrage at the Russian invasion, but his relish for war has placed hundreds of thousands of his fellow countrymen at risk while his energetic hectoring of world governments has led to many countries being dragged into a proxy war, whether the people there want to be or not.

28 countries so far have sent or pledged weapons to Ukraine, which is now awash with high mobility artillery rocket systems, helicopters, reconnaissance and attack drones, armoured vehicles and tons and tons of guns and ammunition. In the UK we’ve provided around £2.3 billion in weapons, without ever discussing the issue. Parliamentary scrutiny consisted of the Defence Secretary informing the House of Commons of decisions the government had already made. No wonder democracy is being attacked all over the world when there’s so little accountability.

Many people, including some of the peace campaigners in Dove Tales, support the provision of weapons to a country which has been gratuitously attacked. They ask, What else can we do? But we didn’t try much else, just sanctioned a few oligarchs and got Wimbledon to ban Russian tennis players. Unfortunately for that plan Elena Rybakina, the women’s champion, turned out to be Russian by birth. She’d declared herself Kazakhstani only four years previously when the Kazakh tennis federation paid her to play for them.


                                  Image of President Volodomyr Zelensky by Mike Ljung, Pixabay

What else can we do? We didn’t do the really hard thing, cut down our consumption of Russian gas and oil. Here in the UK we promised we would - but not till December. The EU say they’ll reduce theirs by two thirds, again by the end of the year, but some of their member countries are exempt and there’s no certainty that Europe will follow through – energy is too important. It’s the major world commodity and has driven many of the wars we’ve seen over the last decades, most notably Nagorno Karabakh and Iraq.

Rather than use the war as an opportunity to cut energy use across the board, something we’ll undoubtedly have to do eventually if we want to save the planet, the West has clung to its normal habits. Train travel is down since the pandemic, we continue to prefer talking on the internet to talking in person and once the winter comes, not even high energy costs will stop many of us leaving lights on in rooms we’re not using and keeping the heating up high enough to wear short-sleeved shirts indoors in winter. We prefer to go cap in hand to the dictator Mohammed bin Salman than to consider even the smallest change to our energy consumption.

What else can we do? Well, we could directly charge Vladimir Putin with war crimes. He’s attacked a neighbouring country with no justification and should be held accountable, but we hang back from threatening him with trial at the Hague, which is surely what he deserves. Personally I’d like to see him stripped of all his status and spending the rest of his life in one of his own penal colonies. At the beginning of the conflict former Prime Minister Gordon Brown set up a campaign calling to have him charged but that seems to have evaporated into thin air now. We live in the age of impunity, when tyrants and dictators are free to stifle dissent in their own countries and terrorise neighbouring ones without any personal repercussions.

Some commentators warn against pinning all this on one man – they say that just as Hitler had Goebbels and Himmler and the rest of his inner circle around him, so too does Putin. Many of them are former KGB men who helped engineer the country’s progress to supposed capitalism but who, in the process, have amassed money and power for themselves. But without the patronage of Vladimir Putin, the rotten edifice that is the Russian economy would come tumbling down; it seems clear that he controls what happens in Russian politics. And the imperial dreams of restoring Soviet grandeur are certainly his.

Putin’s People, Catherine Belton’s magnificent study of Russia after the fall of the USSR, shows that everything in Russia – every oligarch’s personal empire, every energy company, every local mayor - is subject to power from the top. An oligarch who flies too high will have his wings clipped, have his company taken away or be dragged into court to answer trumped up charges in a legal system that Putin and his cronies control – like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a tycoon accused of fraud after he set up the pro-democracy organisation Open Russia, which aimed to reform civil society in Russia. The last thing Putin and his posse wanted was reform. Khodorkovsky served eight years in a Siberian prison before being ‘pardoned’ by Putin.

Even if his inner circle did object to the war they might not be willing to speak out against it anyway – Putin’s enemies have a nasty habit of disappearing, like investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot at point blank range in the lift of her apartment building. Like former KGB man Alexander Litvinenko, who defected to the UK and died of radionuclide polonium-210 poisoning in 2006. Or Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner who was poisoned by novichok yet still returned to Russia, where he is now serving a nine year sentence for embezzlement after a trial described as a sham by Amnesty International.

                                                                      Image by Enrique, Pixabay

What else can we do? We could at the very least have insisted our provision of weapons was linked to peace talks but we seem to have abandoned the very idea of peace in Ukraine. At the beginning of the conflict a number of talks were held, but the last official one was in early April in Istanbul. Peace was discussed in the Ukrainian parliament in May but that same week both Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO, an inflammatory act given the history of Russia and NATO. As far back as 2007 Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State, was warning that Russia would consider it provocative for Ukraine to join. I am no admirer of the hawkish Kissinger, whose secret bombing of Cambodia led to devastating destruction of the countryside and aided the rise of Pol Pot. Around 100000 civilians were killed in a four year blitzkrieg in which more bombs were dropped on this small country than in the whole of the Pacific area during the Second World War.

But he correctly identified that Ukraine, which has been independent only since 1991, is not a stable country. The attack by Russia is completely illegal and unjustified but it is not an isolated act of war – it follows many years of turbulence within the country, where there has been conflict between the twin ideas of Communism and capitalism since the Orange Revolution in 2004, when protestors took to the streets to protest corruption in the electoral process.

Ten years later came the Maidan Revolution in 2014, when protest erupted at the pro-Russian President Yanukovych’s refusal to obey the Ukrainian Parliament’s decision to sign an accord of greater political and trade association with the European Union. 108 protestors and 13 police officers died in the ensuing riots and the president was ousted. 

                                                    Image of Maidan revolution by Oleg Mityukhin, Pixabay

He sought support from Russia, which considered the interim government illegal  and sent in troops to support pro-Russian factions in the south and east of Ukraine. The Russian intervention was clearly itself illegal, as is the current aggression, but it didn’t spring from nowhere. Sections of the population in some parts of Ukraine have felt so disenfranchised by the pro-European faction that they declared themselves independent republics. Both Donas and Luhansk did so in 2015.

As Kissinger wrote in 2014 in the Washington Post: ‘The politics of post-independence Ukraine clearly demonstrates that the root of the problem lies in efforts by Ukrainian politicians to impose their will on recalcitrant parts of the country, first by one faction, then by the other. That is the essence of the conflict between Viktor Yanu­kovych and his principal political rival, Yulia Tymo­shenko. They represent the two wings of Ukraine and have not been willing to share power. A wise U.S. policy toward Ukraine would seek a way for the two parts of the country to co-operate with each other. We should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction.’

If a right winger like Kissinger can recognise the dangers of ignoring the Russian world view, I find it frightening that our Western politicians seem oblivious. They have been told often enough and for long enough – way back in 2007, at the annual Munich Security Conference, Putin ranted for a full twenty minutes about the West’s encroachment into the countries of the former Warsaw Pact, claiming it had reneged on promises made to the Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He has repeatedly attacked the expansion of NATO, fearing it represents a threat to Russia.

Finland and Sweden have for many years been neutral though Finland in particular has been edging towards NATO for some time. They already spend two percent of their budget on defence, a NATO requirement, and since they joined the EU in 1995, every successive government has reviewed the question of joining. They share an 800 mile border with Russia, so joining NATO means they are now the border for that alliance too, a position I personally would find scary, though polls in Finland in May showed support from the general public running as high as 76%.

The acceptance of Finland and Sweden into NATO was initially opposed by Turkey but once the two countries had accepted new extradition treaties President Erdogan removed his objections. To put that in context: Sweden has a proud record of accepting dissidents into its country. As a member of Scottish PEN’s Writers at Risk committee I helped fight for one of them, the radical publisher Ragip Zarakolu. Under these new arrangements Ragip would be liable to be returned to Turkey and imprisoned – for having the audacity to publish books supporting the much beleagured Kurds. Fortunately for him, this gentle man now has Swedish citizenship but there are many others who don’t and who are now at risk of being dragged back to a country which is unsafe for them.                     

During the Cold War period, Finland’s 800 mile border was severely controlled, with a fearsome bureacracy preventing virtually all movement between the two countries. Property prices in the area fell and few people lived there. But once relations thawed, people started to move back and although you still need a visa to cross, there is heavy traffic between the two countries. Millions of people cross the border every year, Russians visiting Finland for the ski resorts and shopping and Finns going to towns like St Petersburg for the historic buildings and culture. Just as importantly, millions of lorries cross every year, bringing Russian goods into Europe.

Finland lost nine percent of its territory when Russia invaded it in the Winter War of 1939. Like the Ukrainians, the Finns put up a spirited fight against the Russians. (Unlike today’s virtual impunity for Russia, the country was punished by the international community for its unacceptable attack by being expelled from the League of Nations.)

But the Finns then were willing to enter peace talks. Former German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, who is close to Putin through his involvement with Russian energy companies such as Gazprom, says that Putin is ready to negotiate, but President Zelensky now appears reluctant to engage. According to Sir Tony Brenton, the UK’s former ambassador to Russia, the Ukrainian leader thinks he can win the war. ‘Ukraine has repeatedly said there is no willingness on their side, no way for talks with Russia until Russia withdraws from the territory they occupy,’ he told US television company CNBC.

But who wins when a war drags on and on? What price a border when people’s homes are destroyed, their environment shattered? What kind of a country is left when millions have had to flee? And when thousands are being drawn into the most violent and traumatic behaviour humans can engage in? There has been much talk of the atrocities inflicted by Russian soldiers on the Ukrainian population, but in war any soldier is likely to be drawn into acts he or she wouldn’t dream of committing in normal life and it would be naïve to think otherwise.

Amnesty International recently revealed that Ukrainian forces have been putting civilians at risk by setting up bases in civilian areas such as schools and hospitals, ‘We have documented a pattern of Ukrainian forces putting civilians at risk and violating the laws of war when they operate in populated areas,’ said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General. ‘Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law.’

Amnesty was severely criticised for its report on the Ukrainian military though no-one objected when they published their previous 12 reports on abuse by the Russian military. What kind of double think is that? And what else do we think happens when there’s a war on?  




Recently the brilliant journalist Jen Stout and I discussed the question of the weapons being given to Ukraine at Chrys Salt’s Big Lit festival in Gatehouse of Fleet. Jen filed poignant first hand reports from the war zone for the Sunday Post and is passionate in her support of the people there and of our military support. ‘We should listen to the Ukrainians,’ she says.  

But should the Ukrainians be driving our foreign policy? The charismatic President Zelensky has browbeaten and shamed the international community into providing weapons for the war, but by engaging in a proxy war with the Russians I believe we’re prolonging the war on the ground. We’ve been training Ukrainian soldiers since 2015 and will be training many more in the months to come. Our arms manufacturers are getting rich but at what cost to ordinary people in this country? And in Ukraine? It’s hard to believe Donbas and Luhansk will suddenly give up their calls for independence when a peace treaty is eventually signed. I fear that all those weapons we’ve provided mean conflict will just go on and on and on there.

And it appears the weapons we send are not all reaching Ukrainian troops. According to a report on CBS News, as much as 70 percent could be ending up in the hands of warlords and criminal gangs. 'All of this stuff goes across the border, and then something happens, kind of like 30% of it reaches its final destination,' Jonas Ohman, the founder of a Lithuania-based organization supplying the Ukrainian military, told the American network, while Donatella Rivera, a senior crisis advisor for Amnesty International, criticised the lack of research into where the weapons are going. 'What is really worrying is that some countries that are sending weapons do not seem to think that it is their responsibility to put in place a very robust oversight mechanism,' she said.

Jen Stout believes peace talks will solely be about what territory Ukraine is willing to concede to Russia, but sooner or later there will surely have to be negotiations. None of us know whether territory would have to be ceded in the cause of peace. I hope not but borders are fluid things, changing constantly over the centuries, and Ukraine’s have hardly been in place long enough to be set in stone, especially given the internal conflict within the country.

With Russian forces parked in the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and artillery bombardment going on all around it, we are now closer to nuclear disaster than we’ve been at any time since the Second World War with its attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. UN chief Antonio Guterres tweeted this week, ‘At this moment of maximum danger for our world, now is the time to recommit to the @UN Charter & the ideals it represents. There is no greater solution to fulfil the Charter’s promise than to replace division with dialogue & diplomacy. Humanity’s future is in our hands.’

President Zelensky is said to have unified Ukraine but without dialogue and diplomacy he will solve nothing, either in his own country or in the wider world beyond.

And I wonder, when it feels as if the world is coming to an end, do the old ladies whose life is bounded by the four walls of underground cellars really care where their country’s borders begin and end?


Please note.  This is the personal opinion of Jean Rafferty. Dove Tales does not have an official position on the provision of arms to Ukraine, though I think all Dove Tales members would join me in calling for an end to this terrible war and the immediate resumption of the peace talks.

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