What is Vladimir Putin up to?

What Russia wants it gets if it can.

Vladimir Putin's contempt for the useless fools of the West who fawn upon him has again been revealed by the sentence given to three members of Pussy Riot last week. An appropriate and proportionate response might be to suspend Russia from the Council of Europe until they are free. This won't happen, as Tory MPs sit with Putin stooge MPs at the Council of Europe and despite hand wringing from a junior minister on the sentence, Cameron and Hague are refusing to criticise Putin.  

In 2008, Cameron flew to Tbilisi from his Aegean holiday to show solidarity with the people of Georgia after the Russian invasion and dismemberment of their country. Last week Putin admitted it was a pre-planned and pre-meditated military assault. At a press conference, Russian reporters were astonished to learn: “There was a plan, it's not a secret”.

Putin made the remarks in response to a TV documentary, The Day That Was Lost, in which Russian generals made outspoken and unprecedented criticisms of the then President, Dmitri Medvedev. The military men accused  Medvedev, who was then commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces, of failing to act decisively in the crucial first few hours of the August 2008 conflict - a "tragic delay that cost so many lives" in their view. Putin, who was then prime minister, is portrayed in the film as the saviour of the situation - the man who "provided personal leadership" during the military operation. The then Chief of the General Staff, Yuri Baluyevsky, said that that until Putin "delivered a kick, everyone was afraid of something".
 
Now back as president and commander-in-chief Putin was not going to disavow his generals. “There was a plan, and within the framework of this plan that Russia acted. It was prepared by the General Staff at the end of 2006 or the beginning of 2007. It was approved by me, agreed with me."
 
At a stroke the Kremlin line that the Georgian war was wholly the responsibility of Georgia's leader Mikheil Saakashvili was discarded. Until now Russia has always denied taking offensive action. So why has Putin suddenly revealed the truth?
Inside Russia the slapping down of the Prime Minister, Dimitri Medvedev taking a shot across the bows of his predecessor.

According to the Russian political analyst, Mikhail Rostovsky, the comments are evidence of a "war" being waged within the Putin-Medvedev double act, as Medvedev "actively struggles for the role of real co-ruler of the country".
 
As over Syria Putin may just be fed up with pretending he has any interest in working with the West. What Russia wants it gets if it can. Belarus and Ukraine are now firmly  in Moscow's orbit and the invasion of Georgia four years ago was a signal that Russia would not tolerate an independent western aligned state that
formerly was part of the Tsarist and Soviet imperiums.

Putin's remarks were also aimed at Tbilisi. Political tension is rising in Georgia in the run up to Parliamentary elections on 1 October where Saakashvili's ruling party faces a serious challenge. A Georgian oligarch whose fortunes come from business in Russia and whose net worth is about one third of Georgian GDP is backing a recently created party, Georgian Dream. There are plenty of reasons to challenge the personalized rule of Saakashvili but big money seeking to buy power is not attractive. Win or lose Georgia is entering a period of political instability. If the post election scenario is one of chaos and confrontation Russia could be tempted to restore order and stability. This fear is heightened by upcoming Russian military exercises in the Caucasus which also were prelude to the 2008 invasion.

President Obama's reset diplomacy with Russia has produced very little. British policy wavers. Mr Cameron greets Putin warmly at the Olympics and the Foreign Office refuses to implement a unanimous resolution of the House of Commons mandating action against Putin's functionaries connected with the death of Sergei Magnitsky. The Labour MP Kerry McCarthy attended the Pussy Riot show trial on which the British government was silent until the sentences provoked global outrage.
 
Next week British Conservatives will be at the Russian Embassy in London to launch a “Conservative Friends of Russia” group and William Hague has made clear that under his foreign policy trade  trumps human rights.

In two years' time the keen skier President Putin hopes the Sochi winter Olympics will boost Russia. They take place close to the Georgian region of Abkhazia now being turned into a major Russian military zone complete with missile bases. Putin's revelation that the invasion of Georgia was premeditated are not a good augur for a tension-free Winter Olympics in 2014.

Denis MacShane MP is a former FCO minister. Follow him on Twitter as @denismacshane
 

There is now a war being waged within the Putin-Medvedev double act. Photograph: Getty Images
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Getty
Show Hide image

The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era