Article first published in Sussex Bylines, March 3rd 2022
by James MacCleary
I am sure you, like me, are watching with horror the events unfolding in Ukraine. It was in the summer of 2013 that my partner Donna and I travelled to Kyiv and Odesa, although it seems like only yesterday. And it is hugely upsetting seeing families hiding in the Kyiv metro that we travelled on as tourists. A few years earlier I had completed a postgraduate thesis at Oxford on (of all things) Russia’s relationship with NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The language used by Vladimir Putin may seem ‘insane’ or ‘unhinged’, but it is actually consistent with Russian foreign policy over the past 30 years or so.
Putin talks a lot about ‘encirclement’ and this is a deeply held fear shared by many in Russia; NATO has long been cast as the ‘enemy’. Putin has also evoked the Nazis. From the Russian perspective their sacrifice in the Great Patriotic War was critical in victory for the allies. It is estimated that some 20 million Soviet citizens died in that conflict and the scars are still raw to this day.
Nostalgia for the Cold War and Soviet Union
Many Russians share Putin’s rose-tinted nostalgia for the days of the Soviet Union. There is no doubt that many Russians miss the global status they had during the Cold War. Much of Putin’s appeal has rested in his ability to boost Russian prestige on the world stage. However, strong warnings for years about the increasingly repressive regime in Moscow have been largely unheeded in the West.
Political opponents have been arrested and murdered and the media stifled. Heroic journalists like Anna Politkovskaya lost their lives trying to expose the corruption and violence at the heart of the Putin regime.
And now the repression is getting worse as Putin cracks down on critical media outlets, protesters and all Russians daring to tell the truth about what is going on in Ukraine. His highest profile political opponent, Alexei Navalny, is currently imprisoned in a labour colony from where he has been tweeting his views in recent days.
The ferocity of Ukrainian resistance has already started to destabilise Putin and his cronies back in Moscow. We must remember that this is not Russia’s war but Putin’s, and many ordinary Russians are appalled by it. Young Russian soldiers are dying in their hundreds (possibly thousands) to satisfy the paranoid ego of a man who these days more resembles a mafia boss than a modern, democratic leader.
So what does this mean for us politically? In my view, Boris Johnson and his own cronies have been exposed in a number of key areas by the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine.
Government turning its backs on desperate people
Firstly, his government’s shameful anti-immigration rhetoric has backed them into a position where we are turning our backs on desperate people. Government ministers are happy to wave Ukrainian flags but are unable, or unwilling, to open up the safe routes to the UK for Ukrainians fleeing the conflict. It is a product of the Conservatives’ decision to weaponise the issue of refugees for their own shabby political benefit.
The Home Office must immediately lift visa requirements so that we can offer refuge to as many Ukrainians as possible.
Secondly, there is the diminished power and status of the UK, post-Brexit, and the corrosive effect of the Conservatives’ attacks on the our pillars of ‘soft power’ in the world: the BBC, the British Council and our diplomatic service.
This war should refocus minds on the importance of these institutions to British influence.
Finally, the war has shone a harsh spotlight on the billions of Russian money sloshing around in our financial and political systems. We have provided a safe haven for dirty money accumulated by oligarchs who are key to Putin’s power base. My own football club, Everton, are heavily backed by Alisher Usmanov, a man once referred to by a senior British diplomat as a “gangster and racketeer who rightly did six years in jail”. The club has now suspended ties to companies linked to Usmanov, who has had his assets frozen by the EU.
We need to look seriously at how we regulate our financial system to find ways to put an end to our status as the preferred place to clean dirty money.
Questions about the influence of Russian backers
There are also serious questions for our Conservatives – and Republicans like Donald Trump in America – to answer about the influence of Russian backers. A foreign power holding financial sway over the party that forms our government is a matter of national security and has to be an urgent concern for all of us regardless of partisan interests.
The war is not going to be quick. If and when the Russian military finally takes Kyiv and Kharkiv it will be a long, painful occupation. The fragility of Putin’s regime is clear and Russians are taking to the streets daily to protest bravely against the war. Putin’s war may end up bringing him down but, tragically, not before it has claimed the lives of many young Ukrainians and Russians.
What we must do now is send our support to Ukraine. Many are doing so by donating to the Red Cross appeal here. We must also pressure the government to act with decency and compassion. That starts with visas but must lead to wider reforms.
James MacCleary at Kyiv’s Lavra in the summer of 2013. His visit opened his eyes to a beautiful, peaceful country now ravaged by war.
A striking view of James MacCleary outside the Lavra, one of the most important religious sites in the Russian Orthodox Church
A busy, normal day on the Kyiv metro pictured by James MacCleary in 2013. Now these same stations are being used as bomb shelters.