Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 12 May 2024

 

The West said Russia ‘couldn’t be allowed to win’ — so why do our red lines keep blurring?

Anger is not a constructive emotion for a columnist. Readers prefer dispassionate analysis, cogent argument. But I ask: what’s the appropriate emotion when dissecting the decision by the UK government to reverse its objection to the participation of Russian athletes at the upcoming Paris Olympics, albeit under a neutral flag? The policy reversal wasn’t announced publicly, mind. No, Stuart Andrew, the sport minister, sneaked it out via a private letter to the International Olympic Committee, which only came to light when Thomas Bach, the IOC boss, let it slip during a meeting and it was picked up by The Times.

It perhaps goes without saying that the U-turn makes a mockery of the Olympic concept of fair play. I mean, how is it fair that Russian athletes will compete against opponents whose sport infrastructure has been destroyed and facilities razed to the ground — and as Putin’s troops launch another massive offensive this weekend in northern Ukraine? How is it fair that Russian athletes will have a field clear of competitors from Ukraine, whose athletes are dying in terrible numbers as they seek to defend their land from one of the great atrocities of our age?

What of Oleksandr Pielieshenko, a Ukrainian weightlifter who finished fourth at the 2016 Rio Games, who was killed on the front line last week; of Danylo Horbenko, a brilliant 23-year-old long-jumper, who fought bravely in the liberation of Dibrova; of Victoria Kotlyarova, a footballer who died alongside her mother during an air attack on Kyiv? What of the other 400-plus athletes who have been killed according to the Sport Angels website — a site I hope Andrew will take the trouble to read?

And what of the way Zelensky has pleaded with the world to isolate Russia through sport? He knows only too well that before the Sochi Games in February 2014, Putin was ebbing in the polls at a low of 61 per cent. After the wave of euphoria triggered by Russian success, his popularity soared into the eighties, providing crucial collateral to invade Crimea. I wonder how Andrew will feel after the Paris Games when Putin invites his state-funded athletes to the Kremlin, smiling to the cameras, the sinister normalisation of this heinous war virtually complete?

For isn’t this the wider story of these past two years, two months and two weeks: the way a terrible conflict has melted into the background, red lines blurring with each passing day? Western leaders said in 2022 that Russia “cannot be allowed to win”. They said sanctions would be “watertight”. They said we would send “all the weapons Ukraine needs”. And what has happened? Russian oil flooded into Europe, after being laundered in India; dual-use equipment has poured into Russia, laundered by Azerbaijan. And as for weaponry, it’s always too little, too late.

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This isn’t just hypocrisy; it’s stupidity. The strategic miscalculation has been simple: the West feared that a robust response might cause Putin to “escalate”. The Russian leader stoked this perception by threatening nuclear Armageddon every time he felt mildly vulnerable, backed up by his sidekick, Dmitry Medvedev. But we were duped. We forgot the eternal psychological truth that bullies are impressed only by strength; that appeasement will only encourage Putin, just as Hitler was emboldened by the lack of a response after invading the Sudetenland; that the risk of escalation is — in the end — far higher if Putin banks Ukraine, regroups and rolls his tanks towards Poland and the Baltics, Nato members that no longer trust the article 5 “guarantee”. And who can blame them?

And what message does this pusillanimity send to the unaligned world wondering where to place its chips, when the West — with twenty times the GDP of Russia and many times the population — is unable to properly assist a sovereign ally from brutalities of a kind we hoped had disappeared from the world: women raped, children kidnapped and put through chilling re-education camps and prisoners mutilated? Even as they recoil from the barbarity of Putin’s attacks — aided and abetted by Iranian drones, Chinese cash and North Korean intelligence — will they not conclude that they should do deals with these tyrants and oppressors, fearing that western cravenness knows no bounds?

What has happened to us? I don’t wish to denigrate the cash and munitions that have (belatedly) gone to Ukraine, but I invite you to ponder if they do justice to the magnitude of the moment, with Ukraine on the front line of a historic battle between an ever more cohesive autocratic axis and what we still like to call the free world. Similarly, I don’t wish to rehearse how we got to this terrible place — appeasement after the annexation of Crimea; the UK welcoming dirty Russian money; Europe failing to spend on defence — but instead ask a question for the here and now. What do those who wish to do a peace deal with Putin over the heads of Ukrainians think will happen next?

I suggest we at least be clear-eyed about the consequences. First, Ukrainians living under Putin’s thumb will endure vicious reprisals from Russian troops who have already perpetuated war crimes on a grotesque scale. Prepare yourself for a stream of stories of dismemberments, sexual depravities and the abuse of children, particularly when Wagner group ex-cons return in numbers from Africa to join “peacekeeping” efforts. Second, Putin will control a territory with 117 of the 120 most widely used minerals and metals (a key reason for the invasion) and a quarter of the world’s wheat. Third, a precedent will be absorbed by all autocratic leaders with extraterritorial ambitions: you can violate borders and get away with it. I am not just talking about President Xi and Taiwan but Venezuela, Azerbaijan, “Greater” Serbia and more.

And please let’s not listen to those like the academic John Mearsheimer who breezily say that Putin’s actions merely reflect the geopolitical concerns of the Russian people. Putin has absolutely no interest in the Russian people or their concerns. He and the kleptocratic elite have stolen the mineral wealth of these people (his personal fortune is estimated at over £30 billion), turning what should be a flourishing nation into an economic backwater. He assassinates opponents who want to improve the lot of their countrymen and imprisons their supporters. He sends youngsters in their thousands to die on the battlefields of Ukraine (the latest US intelligence puts the number of dead and wounded at 465,000) because he sees them as little more than cannon fodder. Putin cares about as much for the Russian people as Orwell’s Napoleon cared for Boxer.

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As he starts a new six-year term, the question I’d ask is: are we going to realise that sending munitions of all kinds is not “aid” or “charity” but support for the front line in a conflict that involves us all? Or are we going to sit back as this aggression is normalised to the point where a British sport minister can write a secret letter offering a propaganda coup to one of history’s most brutal tyrants while nobody bats an eyelid?

For isn’t that the real meaning of that letter? Andrew wrote it, in part, because he wanted to curry favour with the IOC. He wrote it because the Olympic committee offered the opportunity for the UK to stage events in breakdancing and BMX if we withdrew our opposition to Russian athletes. But he wrote it, above all, because he didn’t think anyone would notice or care, except Ukrainians fighting for their way of life. And you know what makes me not just angry but sick to the stomach? He may just be right.

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