I have been wondering these last few weeks whether it would be cheaper to excavate a basement and buy a Geiger counter and iodine tablets, or emigrate to New Zealand. Call me frit, but I don’t like the way things are heading. Probably the second option is easier: Armageddon outta here, etc. I can re-enact Nevil Shute’s On the Beach from some rocky cove near Dunedin, waiting for the fallout to arrive.
I was sentient only during the latter stages of the Cold War but from what I can remember, the two sides, them and us, behaved for the most part with a degree of rationality and common sense. (I like my politicians to be pragmatic rather than charismatic, which is why, if you were to ask who my favourite Soviet despot was, Brezhnev would always be the answer. Rather his grey, oppressive stolidity and détente than Khrushchev’s flaky, table-thumping, peasant-in-a-strop hyperbole.) Back then, when Reagan announced on microphone ‘we begin bombing in five minutes’ it was evident to everyone that he was joking. Today, when some deranged Tory MP clambers to his feet and demands we start shooting down Russian jets, it is evident to everyone that he is not joking, merely idiotic and dangerous. But it is a gung-ho idiocy which is catching. Every day sees a ratcheting up of the rhetoric against Russia. Some of it comes from our military, which is perhaps more comfortable dealing with a foe it understands, rather than with disparate gangs of nihilistic jihadi lunatics. We are warned, then, that Iskander missiles are being sited near the Baltic coast, the better to menace Latvia, with its large Russian population, and Poland. And then every day the tabloids tell us that Russian jets are flying up and down our coastline. As if they haven’t been flying up and down our coast for 70 years. And as if we have not reciprocated.
We should expect this sort of stuff from the armed forces, I suppose. It is when the politicians clamber aboard that I get really worried — for it is our side that worries me, not theirs. Andrew Mitchell was not alone in rattling the rusty sabre by suggesting we shoot down Russian jets over Syria. We also had Boris Johnson, our Foreign Secretary, demanding — in the manner of a clownish ayatollah — that people should protest outside the Russian embassy. Boris said this in response to the Russian and Syrian government air attacks upon Aleppo, which were certainly brutal. Then, about a week later, the West began, with clinical precision, to identify people in the last Iraqi Isis stronghold of Mosul with really radical beards and bomb them to smithereens, mercifully and humanitarianly sparing the local, decent, democratically minded citizens, who of course escaped the bombardment without so much as a graze.
Do people seriously swallow this rubbish? Do Boris and Mitchell? Both the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross have warned that more than one million people will become refugees as a consequence of the glorious liberation of Mosul — and probably hundreds killed. But when that happens, it will not be the fault of the coalition, it will be the fault of Isis, or vengeful Shia Iraqi soldiers, or the bloodthirsty Peshmerga. Nothing to do with us, guv.
The coalition action in Syria and Iraq is as incoherent and misguided as everything else we have done in the Middle East of late — from the invasion of Iraq, via the support for those somewhat chimeric ‘Arab Spring’ rebellions to the catastrophic and stupid intervention in Libya. What we have done in the name of dippy, well-meaning, liberal evangelism has cost far more lives than can be laid at the door of the Russkies and Vladimir Putin. In Syria and Iraq we are fighting in support of people who do not really exist: the nice moderates, not the jihadis, but also not Assad. You can count them on the fingers of one hand, the Syrian Lib Dems: Mohammed Clegg and his friends.
A month or so back I spoke to a chap who worked on behalf of the refugees in those two benighted countries and was certainly no friend of the Assad regime. What would be the best scenario now, I asked him? ‘That Russia and Assad win as quickly as possible. That would minimise the number of civilians killed.’ But we are doing what we can to prevent that outcome, thus prolonging the war.
When the battle for the liberation of Mosul was announced to an utterly credulous western media, Vladimir Putin said he hoped that the coalition would do its best to limit the number of civilians killed as a consequence of the military action, but that he understood, too, that winning a war sometimes resulted in the loss of innocent lives and would not start stamping his feet and insisting we all go and protest outside the nearest US or UK embassy. Shortly after he made this statement, the Russians and the Syrian government announced a ceasefire in and around Aleppo, so that civilians might take advantage of six well-patrolled corridors to find their way to safety — for humanitarian reasons. So, as the coalition aircraft and artillery bombarded Mosul, Putin announced his ceasefire. And perhaps this is another reason for the anti-Russian apoplectic fury of both our government and the feeble and weary US administration — Putin is a canny operator. He is winning the propaganda war with some ease.
Listen to Ben Judah and Dmitri Linnik on Putin's information war
It has been open season on all things Russian for a while now. Their athletes cheat and get banned from sporting events. Whereas ours take performance-enhancing drugs solely to combat their crippling asthma attacks which might otherwise prevent them from winning the Tour de France. The US accuses Putin of conducting cyberwarfare to influence the presidential election. Well sure, although they’re not doing quite enough right now, by my reckoning — step it up a bit, Dmitri. But are we to believe that the US has no covert cyberwarfare going on?
And then there’s Russia Today, now thrust into the frontline. NatWest, largely state-owned, announced in gravely pious terms that it intended to close the bank accounts of the British-based, Russian-financed broadcaster. Hell, we never did that to Pravda. NatWest has subsequently backed down, as soon as Russia Today — with some justification — complained about restrictions upon freedom of speech and threatened to freeze the financial accounts of the BBC operation in Russia. While our government, keeping a straight face, denied having influenced the original NatWest decision — yeah, right — a spokesman for Theresa May added, ill-advisedly: ‘More broadly, do we want to make sure that misinformation is not being spread? Of course we do.’
So I think that’s pretty clear, is it not? There is indeed direct government involvement. We try to harass and hopefully close down a broadcaster because it is putting out stuff with which our government disagrees. I thought that was what the Russians were supposed to do; stifle dissent? And yet while Russia Today is indeed reliably compliant on Putin’s excesses, its news reports — often mirroring good old UK tabloid newspaper hackery — sometimes reveal a truth which would have been otherwise hidden. The problem, then, is not that they are spreading misinformation, but that Russia Today is spreading truthful information which the UK government finds extremely unhelpful. Is it non-biased and non-partisan, does it always give balance and right of reply? No, no and thrice no. Does the BBC?
There is a certain predilection among some British people, especially men of around about my age, to admire Vladimir Putin — largely for his decisiveness and social conservatism. While the West flounders, Putin acts — and so we might forgive him the occasional homophobic spasm (or even commend him for it). I am not a member of his burgeoning British fan club, though. It is easy to be decisive when you face no democratic challenge — which Putin assuredly does not. He strikes me as amoral and ruthless and belligerent. And I do not know how deeply ingrained is that weird, stripped-naked-wrestling-a-bear machismo, or how much it is for show. This is my worry: we provoke and provoke, we distort the facts in order to suit our agenda, we vilify Putin and his country in a wholly belligerent, one-eyed, manner, ignoring our own misdeeds — in Ukraine, in Syria and Iraq, and with regard to human rights and freedom of speech.
I fervently hope that, as Paul Wood suggests on p. 12, Putin’s belligerence is just an act for international consumption, and that he is nowhere near as stupid as Andrew Mitchell or Boris Johnson. That’s what I cling to, before I book those flights to Wellington. Because it may very well be a misplaced hope. And he may be pushed further than he can be seen to endure.
Putin is at least partly our creation, too, of course. You cannot divest a country of its empire, its political system and raison d’être, its industry, its jobs, its money, its prestige and world stature in five or six short years and not expect some sort of rebound, some sort of hankering after the old way of life, the craving for a Stalin-lite. A hankering after Putin. It was a missed opportunity, back in the mid-1990s, not to have love-bombed Russia, and invited it to join Nato. Now we must deal with Putin, as a consequence. And we are failing to do so. We are losing all ends up.