Since Russia invaded Ukraine over a week ago, a shocking but not surprising development, the news has been wall to wall Ukraine. Two million people have reportedly already been displaced by the invasion, an extremely worrying incursion being the capture of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant by Russian military officials. Putin is gaslighting Ukraine and the West by telling the latter its sanctions are akin to an act of war and telling Ukraine’s leaders that their nation risks being dismantled as an independent sovereign state if they continue to resist Russia’s invasion. It’s already been confirmed that the Russian military has been less capable than expected and now 66,000 Ukrainians are returning from overseas to help defend their country. It’s encouraging that British intelligence reports confirm that the strength of Ukraine’s resistance “continues to surprise’ Russia,” despite attempts by invading troops to break Ukrainian morale by targeting populated areas.
As Ukraine President Zelensky’s request to fast track their joining the EU is considered this week, the US is considering offering Putin a so-called “golden bridge” – blocking all his avenues of advance while making retreat as attractive as possible. Some commentators doubt Putin is in any mood to negotiate, though.
It’s been appalling but again not surprising that the UK government has used the invasion for further meaningless grandstanding, suggesting the UK is ‘leading the world’ in support for Ukraine, for example Defence Minister Ben Wallace boasting about chairing a conference of Western leaders. In fact, unlike the EU (490 entities sanctioned), the UK has so far only sanctioned 16 oligarchs (the situation has shown the concerning degree to which the Conservative Party is dependent on Russian donations), giving many the opportunity the time to hide or remove their assets.
The terrible news and fear of what Putin might do are having a marked effect on the already damaged mental health people here have experienced since the start of the pandemic. It’s not only the situations themselves (Covid, lockdowns, rising energy prices, climbing inflation and now war) but the fact that the public’s anxiety is not being ‘contained’ (ie psychologically ‘held’) by the authority figures we elect to perform this task, amongst others. We have a government in office but not in charge, their corruption and incompetence on full view every single day. No wonder some are saying their anxiety is through the roof.
Alone amongst European countries, the UK has also failed to provide a safe refugee route for fleeing Ukrainians, citing the risks of a terrorist threat. This, when Germans and Poles have been converging on railway stations and on the Polish/Ukraine border to greet and take in refugees. In the House of Commons and elsewhere, Boris Johnson and his supporters continue, unchallenged, to perpetuate the defence that the UK has taken in more refugees since 2015 than any other European country, when actually we are way down the list. It’s also shameful (and again, once called out, a new line has been made available) that the visa/immigration helpline was not free to call – it was also reported that the helpline wasn’t even functioning when lawyers and others first tried to call it (delayed by three days).
The government’s hesitant and softly softly approach to sanctioning oligarchs makes predictable today’s revelation in the Times, that ‘the government has cut the budget of the anti-corruption unit tasked with investigating dirty Russian money in “Londongrad”. Ministers have slashed spending on the International Corruption Unit (ICU) by 13.5 per cent this year after Boris Johnson’s decision to reduce the aid budget by more than £3 billion. Defence experts said the resources allocated by the government to fighting kleptocrats were “embarrassing”. Conservative MPs said that enforcement agencies were “massively outgunned” by oligarchs with expensive lawyers’.
As ever the government only steps up when it’s called out and pushed into a policy it should have had all along – the BBC reports that ‘The government is to change the law to make it easier to introduce sanctions against Russian oligarchs, after criticism the UK is acting too slowly. Ministers are tabling amendments to the Economic Crime Bill which are designed to allow the UK to align with penalties imposed by allies in the EU and US’. It beggars belief that Boris Johnson, who has presided over and colluded with the set-up which allowed the laundering of Russian money (leading to Party donations, of course) said: ‘….foreigners trying to launder money in the UK would have nowhere to hide’. These amendments should be tabled on Monday in order to fast track this vital change. Food for thought, though, is a QC’s view (this chimes with evidence of other existing laws not being effectively implemented): ‘I do not understand why any new legislation is needed to impose sanctions or freeze assets. The 2018 Sanctions and Money Laundering Act is recent and provides all the powers necessary; enabling immediate action’.
As usual, Home Secretary Priti Patel has been conspicuous by her absence, never stepping forward to be interviewed on the media and shamefully having to be forced by the Speaker to make a statement in the Commons. The lead provided by the EU has obviously discomfited the government, several ministers alluding to ‘working together’ on sanctions and waiting to see what the EU does – funny how the EU has suddenly become useful rather than the foe of post-Brexit negotiations.
Amidst the gloom and fear it’s been encouraging to see many Russians risking arrest and worse to protest against the invasion, not to mention tens of thousands all over the world joining demonstrations. Some have rightly criticised the new Russian law under which criticising the invasion now carries a 15 year prison sentence, but it’s important to remember that something not dissimilar is what this government is aiming for here. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill currently going through Parliament had a clause recommending a ten year sentence for ‘noisy protests’, taken out by the Lords but this could be reinstated by the Commons.
There’s obviously been plenty of speculation as to what Putin’s real aims are although we’re supposed to believe it’s to do with ‘protecting’ Russia from the growing proximity of NATO forces. Putin himself wants us to believe it’s about ‘denazification’ of Ukraine. Said one commentator: ‘I don’t understand why experts think Putin wants to take over all Ukraine. He is ethnically cleansing the territory east of the Dneiper, presumably with a view to creating a new, pro-Russian buffer state there. He gambles that, in the end, the west will accept that.’ Quite likely. Meanwhile, the Ukraine government sees the West as weak for NATO not imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Amid the gloom there have been some flashes of irreverent humour – a wag tweeted: ‘Can we pay the Taliban to fight the Russkies? They could do with the cash – and it worked in Afghanistan’.
Despite its rapid advance, though, the column of Russian tanks is still stuck somewhere outside Kyiv and Putin is clearly rattled, curtailing news sources and blocking access to Facebook and Twitter. It beggars belief that Nick Clegg, President of Global Affairs at Facebook’s parent, Meta, said blocking the platform would cut off ‘millions of ordinary Russians from reliable information’. Putin has now taken a leaf out of Trump’s book, referring to accurate reporting as ‘fake news’. ‘The move comes as Russia on Friday passed a bill that criminalizes the intentional spreading of what Moscow deems to be “fake” reports’.
On the subject of the media, we have to wonder why the BBC has so many people in the war zone – the Today programme’s Nick Robinson all last week and now Mishal Husain, besides all the BBC journalists already reporting from there. This doesn’t seem like the best use of public money.
It’s been noticeable this last week that various institutions, retailers and service providers have issued statements to the effect that they stand with Ukraine, mostly saying absolutely nothing of substance, the worst ones clumsily segueing to how their organization is supporting people. This cynical use of the Ukraine crisis for PR purposes could well be seen as vacuous virtue signaling.
Consumers could be reassured to know that some retailers are also doing their bit, for example by removing Russian products from stock – we hear that Sainsburys has renamed the retro dish chicken Kiev as chicken kyiv and has pulled Russian made vodka off the shelves. Waitrose, Aldi, the Coop, M&S and Morrisons are also taking action and we hear that other retailers including Ikea have temporarily ceased their operations in Russia. In related news, business leader Deborah Meaden of Dragon’s Den fame, amongst others, pleaded for a boycott on Coca Cola and this has now had effect. She tweeted: ‘Coca Cola and Danone shutting down its Russian Operations. When your single voice turns into millions. You have People Power.’
Concerning support for Ukraine, the BBC has been regularly broadcasting the DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee) appeal prompting some cynical tweets, eg ‘Calling all the little people… Give a tenner to an appeal for Ukraine disaster relief because the government can’t or won’t do the necessary.’ The government has pledged to match donations but I can’t be only one sceptical about this and perhaps also the proportion of funds raised which actually goes to the cause rather than being swallowed up by administration costs. I have donated and publicised a Just Giving fund started by Ukrainians in London, one of their group currently in Poland helping to organise refugee assistance efforts.
Meanwhile, despite what the Prime Minister might think, Partygate and Covid have not gone away. The effects of his reckless lifting of ‘restrictions’, the most risky being the requirement for those testing positive to self-isolate, have yet to be feed through to statistics but there are still around 200 deaths a day and Long Covid makes steady inroads into the lives of formerly healthy people. ‘More than a third of working-age people in the UK now suffer from a long-term illness, with new figures showing a dramatic rise since the pandemic began. Post-Covid conditions, including long Covid, breathing difficulties and mental-health problems, are among the causes, according to disability charities and health campaigners’. One tweeter said, following Boris Johnson’s poor media performance on 21st February (during which Sirs Whitty and Vallance markedly struggled not to contradict the PM but were clearly uncomfortable about the move) – ‘End of restrictions – this reckless policy also removes our choice as to who we mix with eg those who’ve not been able to test and/or those who’ve tested positive but don’t self-isolate’.
Statistician Professor David Spiegelhalter admitted there was significant uncertainty about the impact of the plans. The PM’s self-declared ‘moment of pride’ was more like a moment of shame, a risky policy pursued for political reasons, flying in the face of public health precautions. As usual, the media is mostly colluding with lack of reporting on this, increasingly alluding to the pandemic in the past tense. Yes, Ukraine is of vital importance, but the media should be reporting other important news as well.
Attracting widespread derision (besides puzzlement) is the news (and amid the Ukraine crisis is strange timing) that former minister Gavin Williamson, who failed in every role he took on, has been given a knighthood, prompting speculation that he has as yet undisclosed ‘kompromat’ on Partygate. Various wags on Twitter had some fun, though this is a serious issue, the Times saying Downing Street privately admitted that it’s difficult to justify and that it looks like corruption. ‘Arise, Sir Useless’, said one tweeter. Another suggested ‘If you’ve recently donated to the Conservative party and not received a knighthood you could be entitled to compensation’ and author and broadcaster Michael Rosen said: ‘Step forward all those knights of the realm who today feel that the acknowledgement of their worth has been enhanced by the elevation of Gavin Williamson to their level of honour’.
The Guardian’s John Crace reports on how the temporarily more dignified Boris Johnson (taking himself seriously on the Ukraine crisis world stage despite his lack of credibility) allowed his mask to slip at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. ‘The Suspect was no longer being asked to just Talk the Talk. He was also being asked to Walk the Walk. And he just couldn’t do it. This isn’t a leader likely to follow the Taiwan president’s example of giving one month of his salary to Ukrainian humanitarian causes. Well, not unless he could get Lord Brownlow to cough up again on his behalf. Dear, dear David. One more time, old chap. Back came the bluster and the shiftiness. The tugging on his Toddlers ’R Us haircut. The childish outbursts of narcissistic rage that he can’t control when challenged. Anything that is not on his terms cannot be tolerated. Come the end of PMQs the new, not entirely convincing, statesmanlike Boris was beginning to look very much like the old, self-centred Boris’.
Challenged by Keir Starmer about insufficiently sanctioning Russian oligarchs, the PM said (manifestly untrue) that it wasn’t for him ‘to comment on individual cases’ and continued to mumble and stonewall on Starmer’s further questions, trotting out the fib that ‘We’re leading Europe’….Except we’re not. At a time when we’re looking for heroes – and who better fits the bill than Volodymyr Zelenskiy? – the UK government looks as if it is running scared. If the Suspect wanted to prove many people’s suspicions that the Tory party is in hock to Russian money, he couldn’t have made a better job of it. At the very least he made it look as if he wasn’t that bothered about London’s status as the world’s laundromat. Or about the extent of Russian influence in British politics’.
Despite the denial of some monarchists and the dreaded royal correspondents, it certainly seems as if the Queen is having another annus horribilis, at one of the worst times, as her Platinum Jubilee approaches. As if the recently settled Prince Andrew civil case wasn’t enough, there was also the news of possible concerns over Prince Charles’s conduct regarding his charity and Prince Harry’s forthcoming memoir, an allegedly ‘explosive’ tome to be published in the autumn. It would be interesting to know what level of support there is in the UK for preserving the monarchy although our opinions won’t be invited. We’re told Harry now ‘faces the ultimate dilemma’ this year, as he must decide whether to make the trip to visit his beloved grandmother knowing that this memoir could further harm this relationship. There’s also the matter of Harry taking legal action against the government to allow him to pay for Metropolitan police security for him and his family when they visit the UK, as his protection was withdrawn when he stepped down from royal duties and he feels his private security arrangements would not suffice. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex no doubt feel they have legitimate concerns but it seems they have become so litigious in recent times that they may have become overly attached to publicity-fuelling legal action.
Twice this last week London commuters and others suffered the effects of a total shutdown of the London Underground, unusual in recent times, when it’s usually been one or two tube lines and often cancelled at the last minute. Central London was gridlocked and, having walked one day from King’s Cross to the Strand without being passed by any buses, I was struck by the hopelessness of people waiting for them in massive queues. Although some may have struggled to walk, many of those waiting were young people who could have walked at least some of the required distance. It will be interesting to see if anything changes if these strikes persist, quite likely as the RMT union’s concerns over pensions and potential job losses continue.
Further afield (though this has links to the UK’s ‘levelling up’ agenda), it seems that Covid recovery funds to revitalise ‘dying Italian towns’ have proved unhelpful in some quarters because of prompting envy on the part of unsuccessful bidders. ‘The hilltop hamlet of Trevinano sent tremors across the Lazio region when it was announced this month that it and its 142 residents were in line for €20m (£16.73m) from a Covid recovery fund to save small villages on the verge of extinction – equal to a whopping €140,845 per resident’. Trevinano’s mayor explained how the award had caused envy and bad feeling amongst those villages which lost out, some critics asking if €20m is just too much money for one small village. The plans to reverse this town’s decline sound ambitious, including a student training hub and increasing agricultural initiatives (there’s already a vineyard here). The mayor of a town an hour’s drive away objects to so much money being given to a single village, believing it should be more evenly shared out.
While ‘Italy is the biggest beneficiary of the EU’s recovery fund, and a significant chunk of the grants and loans will need to be repaid by taxpayers’, some feel strongly that the sums are too much for small administrations to be able to handle effectively. And a key question: ‘One thing is revitalising places which have links to big cities, the other is trying to repopulate remote areas – my question is: would it be sustainable?’ A good question and although the UK’s levelling up agenda (which has already attracted a great deal of scepticism) is different in mostly not targeting similar remote hamlets, there are some parallels so it will be interesting to find out how this EU/Italy project progresses.
Finally, you may be reassured (or not) by a predicted major ‘vibe shift’ which will apparently ‘change the dominant social wavelength’. American trend forecaster Sean Monahan predicts that ‘hedonism, irony, wide jeans and messy hair’ may be on the way up but on the way out list are flat whites, earnestness, avocados, fairy lights, cocktails in jam jars, cancel culture, filtered selfies, facial hair and having babies. Such a wide spectrum many will be caught in the net!