As Putin presses on with his ghastly ‘special operation’ in Ukraine (day 24 of the invasion today), it’s increasingly clear that the West is between a rock and hard place regarding intervention – Ukrainians and others are saying WW3 has already broken out and it’s only a matter of time before other countries get involved or are drawn in against their will. Other commentators stick firmly to NATO protocol regarding which activities would constitute declaring war. Parallels have been drawn with Pearl Harbour during WW2. The Russia-Ukraine talks are surely just window dressing, allowing Putin to buy more time while appearing to be open to negotiation. We have to wonder whether Putin has been surprised by the weaknesses revealed in the Russian military and by the strength and determination of Ukrainian resistance. Or whether he’s considered that if taking Ukraine is proving more of a challenge than he anticipated, how much more challenging it could be to hold onto the territory seized. Some commentators say the only way to defeat this lawless despot is via an economic war, targeting Russian foreign reserves so that propping up the rouble becomes prohibitively expensive. Another major concern is the role of China in aiding Putin – President Biden’s threat of ‘consequences’ if this happens isn’t likely to cut much ice with them.
Several other constituents of the invasion have also become clear: the bravery of the Ukrainian people, the positive qualities of former comedian President Zelensky (makes our shameless and lightweight politicians look even weaker) and the over-dependence of the West on Russian oil and gas. Meanwhile, this government’s position on visas for Ukrainians, compared with those of other countries, has caused a great deal of anger here because of the cynical appearance of doing something at the same time as making the process exceedingly difficult. The pathetic arguments of Priti Patel and others about the need to security check those entering the UK and this takes time etc don’t hold water (who do they expect to be convinced apart from xenophobic backbenchers and others?) because no such checks were carried out on the many oligarchs and other Russians entering.
Ministers including Michael Gove pontificate about the ‘generosity of the British people’, failing to see that yes, we, the people, are generous but our government manifestly is not. By last weekend more than 43,000 UK citizens had registered their interest in sponsoring Ukrainian refugees to stay in their homes – just hours after the government website went live, then the website crashed. What an embarrassing IT fail. Welsh MP Delyth Jewell tweeted about the government’s cynical strategy: ‘Whilst we can be proud of all the families stepping up to help refugees, it seems the Home Office is ‘outsourcing’ its responsibility to households up and down the country!’ A wag tweeted: ‘There were more people invited to a Downing Street party during lockdown than Ukrainian refugees invited to the UK during a war.’
Comments have also rightly been made, for example about the race and religion aspect, about this massive effort when many Afghan and Syrian refugees have not yet been housed. A letter to the Times suggested that as the number of offers exceeds the likely number of Ukrainians wishing to come here, the scheme should be extended to the unhoused Afghans and Syrians. But how realistic is the government’s idea (bound to be half-baked, like everything else it touches?) that councils can administer the funds and ‘vet’ those offering when local government has long been stretched to the limit? Well beyond limits in some cases. An almost amusing irony is the government ‘looking at’ (this is often as far as they ever get) the possibility of legislating to allow the London homes of sanctioned Russian oligarchs to be used to house the refugees.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy is amongst critics of the bureaucracy dogging the Homes for Ukraine scheme, saying that councils and charities should have been consulted before setting up the scheme. But we well know (remember what the sidelining of local public health experts during the initial stages of the pandemic?) how the over-centralised government likes to control processes and deny the need of help from elsewhere. Nandy pointed out that despite there being 150,000 expressions of interest in assisting those fleeing Ukraine with no family links to the UK, there was no formal central system of matching the people on the register to those in need, ‘which is pretty extraordinary’. Isn’t this exactly what the government wants? ‘When you add in the excessive layers of bureaucracy – the lengthy forms and the documents you need to prove your identity and residency – the barriers make this scheme completely unworkable. Unless urgent steps are taken to address this, we will see very small numbers of people taking up this offer and a lot of the public’s generosity squandered’.
It’s thought the government hasn’t (yet) involved the refugee and child protection sectors sufficiently but householders offering help will need DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks. Since this costs money and take time, will the government be footing the bill? Although local authorities will be expected to take on the role of vetting sponsors and inspecting accommodation, it turns out (no surprise) that before Gove came to speak to the Commons about the scheme not a single council had been contacted. Remind you of anything? It’s as if the government doesn’t think anyone will check so time and time again gets caught out, like the start of the pandemic when there was panic buying and it turned out that despite Matt Hancock’s saying he’d been liaising with the supermarkets they said he had not made contact.
A perennial theme of this blog is the worsening state of our mental health due not only to personal and world events (Covid, climate change, poverty, inflation and war) but also the lack of psychological ‘holding’ we are entitled to expect from an honest and competent government. It’s also hard for people to get support in the much more helpful form of talking therapies (rather than medication) when NHS services have been severely underfunded for years. Now there will be an additional workload because of the mental health support needed by the Ukrainians managing to get here despite the obstacles put in their way. Unfortunately, what often seems to happen is that rather than seek advice from counselling and therapy professional bodies, the government puts out to tender various packages of work, tempted to take the providers offering the lowest price, with lack of clarity over the qualifications and experience of those actually undertaking the work. It will be interesting to see over the coming weeks just what ‘support’ is put in place and at what cost – that is, if this information is made sufficiently transparent.
An interesting briefing in The Week on ‘Londongrad’ details what many of us won’t have known the extent of: just how pervasive Russian presence and money has become here in recent years and how intertwined the Conservative Party is with it. It’s thought there are about 150,000 Russians living in London, and while most won’t be connected to the Kremlin ‘it’s widely accepted that the UK was far too welcoming’ when it introduced its UK investor visa scheme in 1994. We’re told that in seven years from 2008, 700 Russians and their families invested more than £1m each in the UK in order to fast track British citizenship. This year it’s been estimated there’s £27bn of Russian investment in the UK. Of this, £1.5bn worth of British property has been bought by Russians accused of corruption or linked to the Kremlin. It’s not surprising that London has become known as the money laundering capital of the world. Even more dangerous is that numerous politicians have accepted Russian donations and the Conservative Party has received £2m since Boris Johnson became party leader. It’s both frightening and unacceptable that ordinary people here are powerless to challenge this sinister dynamic, since the government will be reluctant to bite too hard the numerous hands which feed them.
Yes, steps have and are being taken to close down the ‘London laundromat’ but these have proved slow enough for canny operators to move or hide their assets. Whereas some countries like Germany have seized oligarch yachts speeding away from European waters, the UK has allowed them to sail away. If it wasn’t so serious it would be almost amusing that some entrepreneurial anti-corruption campaigners have been running ‘kleptocracy tours’ of London, featuring numerous properties owned by high profile Russians in smart areas like Highgate and Belgravia. Belgrave Square is apparently known jokingly known as Red Square because of its association with these property owners.
It’s at least encouraging that some Russians at least can see beyond the propaganda they’re fed with (eg the deluded narrative that Russia and Ukraine are really one country) and have been protesting. Dmitry Glukhovsky, Russian author and journalist, explains in the Guardian how ordinary Russians did not want this war but Putin is trying to make them all complicit. He suggests that ‘Putin tells lie after lie to justify the horror he has unleashed, and to convince Russians this war is being waged for their survival….. This war was not wanted by the ordinary people who are going to pay for it. Nor by the businesses that will collapse as a result, nor the so-called elites who will be cut off from the world and deprived of their usual feeding troughs. Since the war began, normal life ended for everyone in Russia, and life under martial law began’. He describes how Putin doesn’t shoulder responsibility for this but forcibly gets the Russian Security Council (which had not even known about the invasion plan before members were summoned) to share it, followed by the MPs.
‘Those who believe this propaganda must remember that the rest of the world now sees Russians as invaders. Before too long, they will see us as war criminals. And this will become a part of our history for ever. We are all being smeared – smeared with the blood of peaceful Ukrainians and our conscripts, who were sent into hell “for training exercises”. This is not our war, and we must remember that. We must talk about that. We cannot let them speak for us’.
What’s painful to consider, too, when we recall what happened in Iraq and elsewhere, is the morale undermining tactic of attacking a target’s cultural history. (Some may recall that back in 2019 the Imperial War Museum in London mounted a fascinating exhibition, with accompanying events, of how the opposition to the regimes in Nazi Germany, Mali and the Balkans resisted attempts to marginalise or eliminate their culture). Now some believe that the same kind of symbolic annihilation is being practised in Ukraine. In the city of Lviv, local officials were overseeing the boarding up of the cathedral’s stained glass windows and the erecting of scaffolding around priceless friezes.
‘If we lose our culture we lose our identity,” said Lilya Onyschenko, the head of Lviv’s city council heritage protection office. “Lviv has always been multicultural. Poles, Germans, Jews, Armenians and Hungarians built it. It’s Unesco listed.” She said she and her colleagues were working their way through a long list of objects that needed to be protected’. This article is now a week old so more damage has probably occurred but as Lviv was taking its precautions, several cultural items across Ukraine had already been attacked and damaged, including a museum in the city of Ivankiv, north-west of Kyiv, which housed dozens of works by the Ukrainian folk artist Maria Prymachenko, and the assumption cathedral in Kharkiv,
‘Many Ukrainians believe this vandalism is no accident. In an essay last summer Putin claimed Ukraine and Russia were “one people” and Zelensky has argued the Kremlin’s ultimate goal is the “erasure” of Ukraine as an independent sovereign state. That includes its language, people and culture, suppressed during previous eras of Russification’. Let’s hope the Ukrainians prove able to keep at bay this sinister kind of destruction.
Meanwhile, some of us have complained about BBC presenters being sent to the war zone when excellent reporting was already underway from stalwarts like Lyse Doucet. Nick Robinson, Clive Myrie and Mishal Husain are amongst presenters broadcasting there in recent weeks but on Radio 4’s Feedback programme the policy was predictably defended by a senior controller. This not only seems like a waste of resources for the cash-strapped BBC but also a slap in the face for those already doing a splendid job there. I was personally sickened by the inclusion in one Today programme of a piece between Nick Robinson and Clive Myrie chummily swapping stories of their experiences in the bunker – this struck a sour note considering what’s going on outside the bunker.
Amidst all this, however, never underestimate our Prime Minister’s preparedness to make political capital, the stage this time being the Conservative Party’s spring conference. Brexit Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg had already covered himself in glory by saying that the Ukraine war had illustrated how the Partygate scandal was just ‘disproportionate fluff’. Boris Johnson shocked even some on his own side as he attempted to liken the Ukrainians’ struggle for freedom with that of Brexiteers. A disgusted viewer tweeted: ‘At a speech he made in Blackpool Johnson has superseded his own levels of loathsomeness today by contrasting the fight for freedom by the Ukrainians as the same for those who voted for Brexit. Let that sink in’. Another said: ‘Donald Tusk was bang on with this summary of Boris Johnson’s comparison of Ukraine to Brexit, “Your words offend Ukrainians, the British and common sense.” Every single day that he remains in office offends our country, our position in the world and our democracy’. Needless to say, senior Tories interviewed in the media were called upon to defend the indefensible, Theresa Villiers making a poor fist of it on Radio 4.
Amidst the gloom some excellent news this week – the release of two high profile detainees imprisoned in Iran, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, predictably accompanied by a media circus and, distastefully, politicians queuing up to link themselves to the release. (An exception can be made for the couple’s MP, Tulip Siddiq, who seems to have been genuinely helpful throughout). Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and others were among those present at RAF Brize Norton as the plane carrying the detainees touched down at 1 am on Thursday morning. Wonderful as this is for the detainees’ families and friends, there have obviously been questions as to why now? The government had finally paid the £400m debt owed for years to Iran but it’s been widely suggested that the Ukraine war and the pressure on energy prices and supplies has been a key factor. ‘Following the Ukraine invasion and subsequent western action to curb Russian energy imports, the US and Europe suddenly have a powerful incentive to lift sanctions and allow Iranian oil and gas back into a damagingly overpriced market’.
The media have been careful not to mention Boris Johnson’s disastrous intervention as former Foreign Secretary, misrepresenting her holiday in Iran as ‘teaching people journalism’ and setting back progress for years. The real hero has to be Richard Ratcliffe, who kept going, campaigning and even going on hunger strike to keep the case alive in people’s minds. This couple throughout has demonstrated such impressive courage and determination that it’s to be hoped they can enjoy some peace and quality family time without too much media intrusion.
Meanwhile, despite the government’s pretence that Covid has gone away, it seems to have made significant advances, with a new variant (Deltacron, containing elements of Delta and Omicron) starting to take hold. In the past week, 444,201 positive cases have been recorded – an increase of 48.1%. The number of patients admitted to hospital has also risen steeply to 10,576 in England as of 8am on 14 March – 19% up on the previous week. This makes the cessation of all precautions look very reckless and where have we heard this before, a health minister conceding that yes, there is some concern, but the UK is ‘in a good position’ so effectively will carry on regardless. ‘Boris Johnson’s spokesperson on Monday insisted there was no need for any fresh restrictions to help curb the spread of the virus’. Look out for another U-turn at some point?
Scientists and others are also concerned about the withdrawal of funding for Covid surveys and tracking studies. Ministers have been accused of “turning off the headlights at the first sign of dawn” after doing away nationwide Covid surveillance programmes, scientists saying it will almost certainly end up costing more money in the long run. So what’s new, another false economy? Although an Office for National Statistics survey, regularly checking 180,000 people will continue, we’re told the React study (randomly testing about 150,000 people across England each month to see how many are infected with Covid) will cease at the end of March, with no further data being collected. Funding is also being stopped for the Zoe Covid symptom study, the Siren and Vivaldi studies (which monitor infections in health workers and care homes) and the CoMix social contacts survey. Perhaps the most worrying thing is the cessation of free testing from 1 April, especially given the cost of tests – a YouGov poll also showed that fewer than one in four people are prepared to pay for a test if they have Covid symptoms. Stopping data tracking and free testing is such a cynical way of suppressing key statistics: it won’t be at all surprising if some systems and precautions have to be reinstated.
Given these inflationary times, it’s interesting (though it was probably planned long ago) that an entrepreneur water enthusiast has opened a bottled water shop in London, with products ranging from £2.50 to £120 per 750ml bottle. We’re told that Fine Liquids stocks 100 types of water from springs and rain pools all over the world. It’s not surprising to find that the shop is in Fulham, quite a wealthy area.
Finally, intriguing news from the retail sector is the teaming up of bakery chain Greggs and budget clothing company Primark to launch an 11-piece clothing range. Launched in February, this ‘limited-edition range of Sausage roll-adorned pants, socks, T-shirts, bucket hats and more’ has apparently proved a big hit and some items have already been sold on E-Bay at quite some mark-up. If this was around 1 April I would have assumed it to be an April Fool’s Day prank! Sausage roll pants, anyone?