Ukrainian veterans of the “Azov” volunteer battalion, which has been linked to the far right. Picture Credit: STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Know your Ally

Just who are our plucky Ukrainian friends?

Artillery Row

“Know Your Enemy” is a standard invocation in wartime. But, if clear-eyed appreciation of an opponent and his intentions is obviously necessary, shouldn’t “Know Your Ally” be equally imperative?

Even when war has become a spectator sport for Westerners, rejoicing in killing Putin with their mouths in cyberspace and joyously kicking Russian cripples out of the paralympics, there is a real conflict going on which is horrendous for Ukrainians, which also has serious implications even for us off-shore islanders, as well as Europe as a whole.

Romanticising our chosen side and vilifying their foes are natural reactions, but fairy-tale versions of conflict often disguise the flaws of the allies even if they pale by comparison with the vices of the invader.

Election fraud has bedevilled Ukraine

Think how in 1914 “Plucky Little Belgium” was portrayed as a damsel in distress about to be raped  by a literally monstrous Hun. But until August, 1914, Belgium’s place on the scale of victimhood was decidedly at the perpetrator end. The horrific exploitation of the Belgian Congo’s population as slaves to King Leopold’s greed — fictionalised by Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” — had been exposed by Sir Roger Casement and E.D. Morel, who both rejected the defence of Belgium. 

Casement went over the top to side openly — and suicidally with Imperial Germany — while Morel went to prison for urging men not to join up. They were deeply mistaken about Germany, but they did know something about our Belgian ally’s moral record.

Wartime Polish resistance to the Nazis and service in the RAF is fondly remembered in this country and rightly so, but the Polish junta in 1939 was as militarily incompetent as their Argentinian counterparts in 1982. The courage of ordinary Polish soldiers should not make people forget the regime which had colluded with Hitler against the Czechs in 1938. Our other ally, Stalin, subsequently “liberated” the Poles in his inimitable way. The trade-offs and alliances that defeated the Nazis were extremely ugly. 

Turning to Ukraine today, it is easy — and heart-warming — to get swept away by the pictures of Ukrainian soldiers fight back against the vast Russian army or civilians blocking the path of the “Russian steamroller” (so admired in 1914 by the British public). President Zelensky is by far the best president Ukrainians have had since independence in 1991. That might seem a back-handed compliment when we consider how low his predecessors set the bar. But the focus in Western media on this real life Charlie Chaplin defying the Kremlin’s “Great Dictator” makes good “reality tv” but overlooks the actual power-structures in Ukraine.

President Zelensky is an excellent propagandist for his country’s cause, but can he win the peace any more than Churchill?

Let’s allow that Ukraine fends off the Russian onslaught against all odds; don’t assume it will be a better place for ordinary people or even a more comfortable neighbour for the West.

Nothing justifies Putin’ aggression, but one reason why he thought that the country would collapse overnight was the deeply-flawed system which had emerged since 1991. Although Western leaders refer to it as enjoying thirty years of democracy, in reality election fraud has bedevilled Ukraine. Remember the  mass demonstrations in 2004 which were supposed to herald the birth of good governance with an “Orange Revolution”. That episode and its heroic leaders have gone down the Western media’s memory hole. The “good oligarch”, President Poroshenko was elected in the aftermath of the 2014 mass uprising endorsed by the West, only to be humiliated in 2019 by a comedy actor.   

This recurrent instability reflects the terrible immiseration of Ukrainians since 1991, when they weren’t rich to begin with. The ordinary population has been bewildered by a series of economic crises which nonetheless have seen an oligarch class get phenomenally richer by taking over natural resources and embezzling IMF loans and Western aid.

They have given little thought to who is getting their hands on these mobile weapons

When Boris Johnson was in Kiev shortly before the war, the Prime Minister threatened to take action against Russian oligarchs in Britain. President Zelensky’s stage whisper “And against the Ukrainian oligarchs too” did not get the coverage it deserved. Both parliamentary and media indignation has kept quiet about the unexplained Ukrainian wealth on display in London, for instance. Should these oligarchs get their fingers into the pie of reconstruction aid, any worries that the British banking and legal services will suffer from the exclusion of Russian oligarchs will be mitigated by the circular flow  of Western taxpayer funds back into the property and stock markets.  

Their snouts will already be sniffing chances to embezzle the generous outpouring of Western taxpayers’ money as well as charitable donations ostensibly to re-build the shattered country.

The failure to de-oligarchize Ukraine since Zelensky’s election has left the grabbing hands which impoverished ordinary Ukrainians over thirty years in key positions in the state administration and financial sector. Zelensky’s erstwhile patron of his TV channel, Igor Kolomoisky’s manner of operating Privat Bank gave credence to Brecht’s remark that he could understand why robbing a bank was a crime, but he couldn’t understand why owning one wasn’t.  Even the Kiev authorities cracked down eventually, but not to the depositors’ benefit.

The decision to flood Ukraine with advanced shoulder-launched anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons is derided by the laptop bombers as “too little, too late”, but they have given little thought to who is getting their hands on these mobile weapons.

Given the role of militant nationalist and white supremacist militias in the Ukrainian armed forces, can we be certain that we aren’t arming a new Taliban-style group whose hatred of Putin’s Russia won’t morph into violent rejection of the liberal democratic West, whether they win or lose.

Mancunians remember the media heroization of the Manchester Libyans who went to fight Gaddafi in 2011. Then some returned with a deadly vengeance in 2017. Only our government and the cheer-leaders of “humanitarian intervention” forget their role in training the Manchester Arena bomber.

It is odd how little arming the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s haunts the minds of Western policy-makers. Turning Poland into a European Pakistan as a conduit for weapons to fight Putin is the “smart move” of today, but what if tomorrow some well-armed Ukrainian nationalists, resentful of the West’s failure to go the whole hog against Russia and recalling all their grievances against the Poles turn nasty like Afghans and Libyans before then?  

Hoping that gratitude for Western charity to refugees will prevent any “Blowback” could be whistling in the wind on past performance. Maybe Ukrainians being “just like us” would never go “full tonto” like some Muslims. Of course, as stock market brochures warn us, “past performance is no guide to future outcomes”, but it is all there is. Can Ukrainians be any more confident that patriotism will temper their oligarchs’ greed especially if they win? Are Westerners, including our politicians really thinking ahead? Do they know our allies?

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