Show Hide image

30 reasons to celebrate in 2009

Good news has been in short supply in 2008, so we offer reasons for excitement and optimism in the n

1 The US administration

There is a scene early in Barack Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father, written when he was in his early thirties, in which he describes how as a boy he was taken by his mother, Ann, to live with her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, in Indonesia. There was something wrong in the marriage, and very soon Ann, suffering acutely from loneliness and fearing that she and her young son were a burden to her troubled husband, found a job teaching English at the American embassy in Jakarta. Many of the men employed at the embassy were, Obama writes, "caricatures of the ugly American".

The caricature of the ugly American: this would do as a description of George W Bush. No American president has done more to besmirch the international reputation of his great country than the man who, in January, will leave the White House, unmourned and unloved even by those who might once have counted themselves among his most loyal supporters.

The years of the Bush presidency have been a time of profound shame and disgrace for the United States. Bush was unfortunate that the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 happened when he was commander-in-chief. His presidency has been defined by those attacks and will be remembered for the way in which he and his closest allies and advisers, the neoconservative cabal led by Dick Cheney, responded to them, not with largeness of vision and Wilsonian multilateralism, but with dogma, violence and war. He will end his second term with the US deep in recession, with the banking system on life support, with US troops still an occupying force in Iraq, with the Guantanamo Bay detention camp still open, and so it goes on. No one should ever allow Bush to forget the horrors of Abu Ghraib Prison, or his intransigence on climate change, or how his social and religious conservatism perverted policy at home and abroad on a range of issues from a woman's right to abortion to the use of stem cells in scientific research.

How different things will be under President Obama. We all know that Obama presents as the candidate of change, the hyperarticulate outsider who comes from the margins to win control of the very centre. In reality, he is an arch-politician, a pragmatist; he believes strongly in continuity, hence the appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and the retention of the Republican Robert Gates as defence secretary. He is not the liberal idealist some of us would like him to be. But nor is he in any way the caricature of the ugly American.

In addition to the differences of tone and style from the Bush administration, the Obama presidency will be marked by significant policy shifts. For a start, he will lift the so-called global gag rule (more formally: the Mexico City Policy) that restricted US-funded organisations from promoting abortion in their aid work in the developing world. He will put a much greater emphasis on nuclear non-proliferation; in the Senate, one of his few accomplishments was a non-proliferation bill, with the Republican Dick Lugar (he has even spoken of "setting a goal of a world without nuclear weapons"). He will be multilateralist. Having appointed one of his most influential advisers, Susan Rice, to the role of ambassador to the United Nations, he is expected to take that institution more seriously than his predecessor, even if he has expressed scepticism about the limits of its effectiveness.

On climate change, he supports a cap-and-trade programme that would reduce emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. On social policy, he is obviously a religious moralist, as any serious politician must be in America to make progress, but he is not a religious conservative. He has said that he will lift the ban on federal funding for research on new embryonic stem-cell lines, thus ideally increasing the chances of groundbreaking therapies.

Above all, by his very presence as a black man in the White House, with a black wife and children, Obama is and will continue to be a symbol of hope and possibility to people of colour not only in America but in the world.

Jason Cowley


2 The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act

From October 2009, the British government will for the first time be committed to research unhampered by prejudice, which ultimately may help to deliver healthy lives for many, many people. In this country, 350,000 people live with Alzheimer's, one in every ten couples need fertility treatment and five children are born with cystic fibrosis each week. All of them could benefit from new research. There is no guarantee that research with stem cells and admixed embryos - containing human and animal material - will provide miracle cures, but with well-regulated experimentation we can test the boundaries. Science will progress, through either co-operation or competition, and humanity will benefit. We are indeed looking at a brave new world - and it's exciting.

Frank Furedi


3 The Convention on Cluster Munitions

Amazingly, 2009 will be the first year from which armies will face restrictions on the use of cluster bombs. A convention signed by 100 nations in December 2008 is due to be ratified in June 2009. It restricts the use, stockpiling and transfer of the weapons, and provides for clearing up unexploded munitions. The treaty is not a blanket ban, nor has every nation signed it; but it may still mark the beginning of the end for these cheap, vicious and inaccurate weapons.


4 Fourth-generation biofuels

At the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in February 2008, the geneticist Craig Venter told an audience including Al Gore and Larry Page, founder of Google, his modest ambition: "replacing the whole petrochemical industry". How did he plan to do it? By genetically re-engineering simple organisms to feed on CO2 and produce octane-based fuels as waste; he expected to be producing these fourth-generation biofuels "in about 18 months". Venter, who has made Time's list of the 100 most influential people two years running, is not someone whose predictions should be taken lightly. If he achieves this latest goal, energy will enter a new era in 2009.


5 The indictment of Omar el-Bashir

Early in 2009, the International Criminal Court is expected to issue an arrest warrant against Omar el-Bashir (below) for his role in the crimes committed by the Sudanese government and its allies in Darfur. It will be the ICC's first indictment of a head of state, and its first for genocide, sending a powerful message to leaders around the world.


6 The economy

Economically speaking, it is extraordinarily difficult to be optimistic about anything in 2009: even the buoyant Chinese economy looks to be suffering, with riots as factories close. However, new Labour has moved rapidly to try to ease the pain for pensioners and low-income families. We can be grateful that this is not the 1930s, that there is a strong welfare state in place and that, although we may yet see pictures of soup kitchens, they will be unreal and unnecessary distortions.

More people will find themselves out of work but the intellectual and commercial life of the nation goes on. Britain is still a highly innovative place, as two recent blockbuster drug breakthroughs illustrate: Crestor, from AstraZeneca, will keep the nation's hearts healthier; and Ceravix, the cervical cancer vaccination from GlaxoSmithKline, will provide protection for millions of young women. And ethical drug breakthroughs such as these will continue: GSK has one of the best late-stage testing pipelines for new medicines in the world.

With several banks under government control after 16 months of the credit crunch (which began in August 2007), mortgages and finance should begin to become available again. The really good news for people with tracker and variable-rate mortgages is that in 2009 we should see the lowest interest rates in modern times, with the bank rate falling as low as 1 per cent by the spring. The weaker pound should also be good for exporters over the longer haul - and all the strongest recoveries in the British economy in the post-Second World War era have followed substantial declines for the pound.

Alex Brummer


7 Antiretrovirals

I am looking forward to the outcome of something a bit off the wall: the first trials of pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV infection, which will investigate whether uninfected people can take antiretroviral medicines, then screw around without condoms and stay uninfected. If the trial results are "positive", they will raise interesting scientific possibilities and challenges, as well as a huge moral dilemma - and a potential political maelstrom.

Elizabeth Pisani


8 Mammoth cloning

Bringing back mammoths might not be the most obvious focus for human endeavour in 2009, but that doesn't make it any less exciting. The prospect of cloning long-extinct species reared its head thanks to two scientific discoveries in November. At the beginning of the month, Japanese scientists announced they had created clones of mice that had been frozen for 16 years; a couple of weeks later, an American-Russian research team announced it had pieced together most of the woolly mammoth genome, the essential building block for bringing the animals back from the dead.

As seismic as these discoveries are, the real-life Jurassic Park is a long way off. Science has plenty of questions to answer before that can happen, ranging from the vagaries of producing artificial chromosomes, to how to gestate a fertilised mammoth egg. Still, in 2009, it is likely there will be plenty of research into cloning, and perhaps also discoveries in more practical areas, such as the cloning of tissue from healthy organs for surgery. Who knows - an explanation may even be found for our fascination with the prospect of re-creating prehistoric animals.


9 Justice for the Gurkhas

In September 2008, the high court ruled that the immigration policy preventing from settling in the UK Gurkhas who had served in the British army, but retired before 1997, was unlawful. More than that, the judge, Mr Justice Blake, declared the policy "irrational". The case for a fairer ruling has been made even more compelling by a petition, presented to the government by Joanna Lumley in November, containing more than 200,000 signatures in support of the Gurkhas' cause. Gordon Brown has pledged to publish guidance in "the near future". The outcome of the Gurkhas' campaign is still uncertain, but 2009 will, at the very least, provide further publicity for their cause - and, with any luck, a ruling in their favour.


10 Paul Dirac's reputation

In January 2009 comes the publication of The Strangest Man, Graham Farmelo's biography of Paul Dirac (below). Barely remembered outside the scientific world, Dirac was one of Britain's greatest theoretical physicists, a figure of heroic international stature - and, as the book's title indicates, a very peculiar person. Farmelo has unearthed a great deal of new material. I hope this biography will not only make people think and talk about Dirac as the important 20th-century figure that he is, but also raise new questions about that curious phenomenon we know as genius.

Brian Cathcart


11 Climate change

The next 12 months will be critical in the battle against the biggest threat the planet faces: climate change. But there are many reasons to be optimistic about the progress that can be made both at home and abroad.

Here in the UK, the Climate Change Act has firmly established an important commitment dramatically to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by at least 80 per cent from 1990 levels by the middle of this century. It's a challenging target, but the nation's efforts should be aided by the scrutiny of the new, independent Committee on Climate Change. Already it has made a significant impact: its first report, at the beginning of December, recommended the intermediate "carbon budgets" that will be presented for the next 15 years.

With targets now set, we need to take the vital steps that will make our economy less dependent on fossil fuels, and begin investing in more low-carbon technologies and sectors. The approval of the Gwynt y Môr project, one of the world's largest offshore windfarms, off the Welsh coast, and the government's proposal to develop the technology and infrastructure to make electric and low-carbon cars a practical reality, are steps in the right direction.

In his pre-Budget report, the Chancellor presented a "green stimulus" package, which, by including measures to improve the energy efficiency of households, has made some advances towards a low-carbon future. However, the 2009 Budget, which will probably be the last major chance for a concerted fiscal response to the present economic crisis, should provide an even stronger impetus.

Along with the other members of the European Union, the UK should in 2009 reach agreement about how to realise its commitment to reduce emissions by at least 20 per cent by 2020, and to increase the share of energy consumption met from renewable sources to 20 per cent. In November, the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen will look to establish an ambitious global agreement to come into effect from 2012, when the first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol expires. And the success of the Emissions Trading Scheme, which puts a price on carbon and caps emissions, should put the EU in a position to negotiate new international targets.

Barack Obama's positive statements on the need for domestic action and international co-operation to tackle climate change have opened up the possibility of re-establishing a sense of common purpose among the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Emerging economic powers with rapidly rising emissions, such as China, are also showing increased recognition of the need for all countries to participate in an equitable plan to make reductions worldwide.

Around the world, governments and businesses need to seize the clear opportunity that is offered by the current economic crisis to increase demand for low-carbon growth in a way that lays the foundations for the future. So let us hope that 2009 is a watershed year in the battle against climate change.

Nicholas Stern

Professor Lord Stern of Brentford is chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics


12 Balkan states heading for EU membership

If all goes well, most of the states of south-eastern Europe will be heading irrevocably towards EU membership by the end of 2009. Croatia, Turkey and Macedonia have been granted candidate status; the rest of the western Balkan countries have the EU's commitment to eventual membership. After more than a century and a half of violence, the ground is being prepared for an end to major conflict in this troubled region.


13 A neutral view of race

There is a real possibility that, by the middle of 2009, commentators around the world will no longer feel the need to describe Barack Obama as "the first black president of the United States". Certainly the election of a candidate with his racial characteristics was a cause for rejoicing. But we need to move on. In the 2009 which I hope to inhabit, Obama will be, or will become, a president who happens to be black, and none of us will regard that as being more worthy of comment than his status as the first president who has edited the Harvard Law Review. Commentators can begin the process by identifying other traits of Obama's that are as obvious as his colour. And that will allow them to make judgements. Race is, or ought to be, a neutral description.

Roy Hattersley


14 More safe water

In 2009, more people worldwide will gain access to safe water and sanitation, and take their first steps out of poverty.

Nonosoa is from Soavina Antokofana Ambohitrano, a remote Madagascan village that last year suffered outbreaks of bubonic plague. Her life has been transformed by a simple handpump. "I often used to get sick," she explains. "Everyone is healthy now. In future life will be better and health will keep improving."

Currently one in eight people lives without safe water and 2.5 billion have no safe, clean place to go to the toilet. About 5,000 children die every day from easily preventable water-related diseases. But progress is being made. Water and sanitation are now on the G8 agenda, in part thanks to WaterAid's advocacy work. "Water is life - let us act like we mean it," said the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, at the recent UN High-level Event on the Millennium Development Goals.

This year, WaterAid and its partners reached more than one million of the world's poorest and most marginalised people with safe water and brought sanitation to more than three million. Next year, we're aiming to reach millions more. For them, and for people like Nonosoa, 2009 marks the beginning of a brighter future.

Barbara Frost, chief executive of WaterAid


15 Political Parties and Elections Bill

In the wake of the Oleg Deripaska affair, this bill, which is going through parliament, should give the Electoral Commission greater powers to regulate and investigate donations to political parties and close loopholes, bringing into line the letter and the spirit of the law on donations. The chances that dodgy handouts will be entirely prevented are pretty slim - but at least the new legislation might save George Osborne from a repeat of one of the embarrassments he was afflicted by this year.


16 Broadband for East Africa

Towards the end of summer 2009, three huge new fibre-optic cables will bring broadband internet to East Africa, with particular benefits for Kenya and Tanzania. The cables will link Asia, South Africa and East Africa, and the benefits will be enormous and immediate. The internet will be cheaper, quicker and much more accessible for millions of Africans, with all the benefits that entails - not least encouraging foreign companies to outsource business to the region.


17 The Bristol Festival of Ideas book prize

For months, the judges of this major new book prize have been working their way through piles of fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose. "There are numerous book prizes, yet none specifically celebrates one of the best things non-fiction books give us: ideas," points out Julian Baggini, one of the judges. The winner will be announced in March - and awarded with £10,000 for his or her efforts.


18 The new face of opera

Skin Deep is a thoroughly modern opera: a satire on society's obsession with beauty, youth and wealth, sung in English, with a libretto by Armando Iannucci. Opening at Opera North in January, and playing in Salford, London and Newcastle later in the year, the darkly comic tale of Doktor Needlemeier, an overzealous plastic surgeon, will be a vicious sideswipe at celebrity culture and a rejuvenating shot in the arm for opera.


19 75 years of Liberty

At this exciting moment in world history, I believe that there is a real prospect of renewed commitment to human rights on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. The year 2009 marks the 75th anniversary of Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties), the domestic rights and freedoms campaign in the oldest unbroken democracy on earth. In recent months, in preparation for the new US presidency, we have been deepening our special relationship with the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and we will support its mission to end torture as a tool of US security policy. Closer to home, now that the successful Charge or Release campaign against 42-day pre-charge detention is behind us, we look forward to broadening the consensus around fundamental rights and freedoms. We plan to lay waste to the myths around the Human Rights Act, nail down the coffin of ID cards and promote the values that bind democratic people together: dignity, equality and fairness.

Shami Chakrabarti


20 Football 2010

I'm looking forward to England confirming their place at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. I couldn't bear to go through all that again: pretending it didn't matter, pretending we could always support the foreign players in the Prem because, really, they are one of us. If England don't make it this time, that's it, I'm taking up fretwork.

Hunter Davies


21 Hu Jia, Chinese activist

By awarding Hu Jia, one of China's leading activists, its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Parliament has sent out a strong message of disapproval to the Chinese government. Hu's campaigns have tackled China's civil rights record, its treatment of HIV sufferers, and its environmental concerns - with the result that, in April, he was convicted for inciting subversion and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. China has reacted angrily to European "interference", but Hans-Gert Pöttering, the parliament's president, has been unrepentant: "The European Parliament is sending out a signal of clear support to all those who support human rights in China."

Hu himself has said that he expects "big changes in the next five years" in China. Continued attention from the EU in 2009 can only help.


22 Better chances for cancer sufferers

More cancer patients are surviving for longer and that is sure to continue in 2009. As a result of recent announcements by the Health Secretary and Nice, almost all cancer patients will have access to effective new drugs. Improved radiotherapy, targeted to the individual patient, will be more accessible and we will be opening our Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology at Oxford University to develop even better techniques.

In 2009 we will see legislation to ensure that all tobacco is sold in plain packaging and to make it illegal for under-18s to use sunbeds. Cancer Research UK will also be leading a joint initiative with the national cancer director to make symptom awareness and early diagnosis top priorities in the fight against cancer.

So although 2009 will be difficult economically, it will be more important than ever for people to continue supporting Cancer Research UK. Further improvements in cancer survival depend on the public's generosity.

Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK


23 The closure of Guantanamo Bay

Soon after 20 January 2009, Barack Obama will begin to close Guantanamo Bay. It will be a grand day for justice, for the prisoners held there, and for the reputation of the United States. At present, roughly 250 prisoners are held at Guantanamo. Of these, as many as 40 will be brought to the US for a trial of sorts; 160 will be sent home with expedition.

Yet the joy with which we bid farewell to this unpleasant legacy of George W Bush's administration must be tempered by the reality of what he has bequeathed us. The remaining 50 stateless refugees will need to be resettled, and we must hope that countries which resisted helping Bush out of his self-painted corner will offer asylum when Obama comes calling.

Despite its secretive qualities, Guantanamo is the public face of the Bush "secret prisons" programme. The men there constitute less than 1 per cent of 27,000 ghost prisoners - many in Iraq, others in Afghanistan, and in far-flung prisons in Bosnia, Diego Garcia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kosovo, as well as in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco - held by the US under worse conditions than their Guantanamo counterparts. What will become of this secret renditions programme? First, will anyone even admit it happened? There is already pressure on Obama not to dredge up all the terrible things that happened under the Bush administration. Yet until the truth is exposed, it is unlikely that we will learn the lessons necessary to avoid a repetition of this dark period in US history.

The second, self-interested motivation for silence comes from the perpetrators of these wrongs. The CIA is unlikely to lead the charge for revelations, given that its agents are those most likely to face indictment for the patent illegalities they committed. And there is a third reason to think that this process of rendition may not simply melt away with Bush. He was not its progenitor. That distinction went to Ronald Reagan, but Bill Clinton also joined the party. Obama will inherit plenty of US-sponsored violence around the world, with prisoners taken every day. What is happening to them? What will be done in the future?

Presidential policies are only as well formed as the facts that a president receives. Obama's information about those we deem "terrorist captives" will come from those who capture them - the Pentagon and the CIA, which have a vested interest in portraying them as dangerous jihadists, no matter what the true facts may be.

So hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners will remain divorced from their legal rights. As Guantanamo Bay closes, a swell of goodwill towards the new president will release the pressure to resolve this darker legacy. As economic stimulus packages monopolise the front pages, let us hope that in 2009 these prisoners are not wholly forgotten.

Clive Stafford Smith

Clive Stafford Smith is the director of Reprieve, the UK legal action charity that uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantanamo Bay. For more information, visit http://www.reprieve.org.uk, or contact: Reprieve, PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640


24 UK Supreme Court

On 1 October 2009, the UK Supreme Court in Parliament Square will open its doors for the first time. It will take over from the House of Lords as the final court of appeal, and play a part in the development of UK law. Lisa Harker, of the Institute for Public Policy Research, commended the move: "It's a further step towards the separation of powers in the UK, with the House of Lords no longer the highest court in the land."


25 Picasso exhibition

From February 2009, the National Gallery will host the first major British exhibition of Picasso's work since 2002 - with the unusual aim of undermining its star's reputation. "Picasso: Challenging the Past" looks at some of the artist's most famous work in relation to the artists who came before him, including El Greco, Delacroix and Manet. Nicholas Penny, the gallery's director, has described Picasso as "a very great artist, but a very much more uneven one than many people realise". Works seldom seen in this country will be on show; and the debate about whether one of art's biggest names deserves his reputation for innovation and brilliance should be enjoyably contentious.


26 Stricter licences for lap-dancing clubs

Peter Stringfellow might scoff, but almost everyone else has reason to applaud the government's decision to license lap-dancing clubs as "sex encounter establishments". In 2009, it will be easier for councils to close clubs down - just one of the benefits, as Katherine Rake, director of the women's rights group the Fawcett Society, points out: "Local communities will have more say about what happens around them - and, hopefully, a bigger debate over the sexualisation of our society will be opened up."


27 Advances in nanomedicine

Nanomedicine - a suite of medical tools that measure or manipulate extremely tiny interactions - will be on the cusp of making it big in 2009. Interest in the technology has been building for some years, and a few simple tools are already in use. Now society seems ready for the more powerful possibilities.

Cancer patients will benefit hugely. Miniature capsules that deliver drugs exclusively to diseased cells enable patients to take toxic medicines that would otherwise be lethal, and make existing therapies far less unpleasant.

Nanotechnology also opens up the potential for new methods of diagnosis. The most dangerous cancer cells are much squishier than healthy cells; researchers have discovered that they can measure how rigid the cells' membranes are by using tiny cantilevers, rather like diving boards with a point on the end, to prod individual cells. This technique can pick out cancer cells that are otherwise undetectable. And molecule-sized cantilevers have also helped scientists at University College London to work out how some bacteria have become resistant to vancomycin, a common antibiotic.

Nanomedicine will have many more applications a little further down the road. Membranes with clever molecular architectures should improve dialysis, while "nanosuspensions" will allow for more soluble compounds. BioSante Pharmaceuticals, an American company, is investigating the possibility of producing insulin that diabetics can take as a pill.

Researchers at Tsinghua University in China say they have developed a nanomedical scaffold that delicately guides young bone cells to where they are needed, then gradually disintegrates as bones heal. This useful development should cut the cost of treatment, especially in developing countries, speeding recovery and reducing the need for repeat visits to hospital. That innovation probably won't be ready in 2009; but nanomedicine at large is poised to make its name outside the scientific world.

Anna Petherick


28 Change for Iraq

Finally, British troops are planning to quit Iraq in 2009, after a deployment lasting longer than the Second World War. The end in sight is not a precipitous pull-out but a sense of how stability may return to the country. The city of Basra provides a vision of that future.

Controlled for months by Iranian-backed Shia death squads that fought the British and terrorised the people, Basra is transformed. Friends just back say it is a place at last free from bomb blasts and intimidation.

But it took the arrival of US troops finally to make that change - helping the Iraqi army in April 2008 to overturn an "accommodation" by the British with the death squads. British soldiers ultimately joined the battle, but not quickly enough to erase the humiliation of being "bailed out", as history seems to require, by the Yanks.

The result is not a democracy. The city is ruled by the Iraqi army. Yet if martial law works and saves lives, we should celebrate and go.

In 2009, Basra may at last see "mission accomplished" - though not quite the mission the neoconservatives intended.

Stephen Grey


29 The voice of a real European electorate

In 2009, EU leaders are likely to ask Ireland to vote again on a new EU constitution, which cannot help but reopen the debate. There is - understandably - a lot of anger and resentment about the constitution, but I'm hopeful that people will find ways to come together and hold politicians to account both nationally and across borders, to begin to constitute a genuinely European public.

Dolan Cummings, Institute of Ideas


30 The Ashes

Australia return to these islands in the summer as England attempt to win back the Ashes over a five-Test series, starting in July. The 2005 series - one of those rare national occasions when nearly everyone you met, man or woman, seemed to be talking about the cricket - was the greatest contest of its kind in the modern era. It was a thrilling series, which England, having lost the first Test at Lord's, eventually won 2-1 against an Australian side then considered to be one of the best in the game ever.

England lost the return series in Australia 5-0. Now, they have a chance to regain the Ashes against an Australian team diminished by retirements.

A sporting contest not to be missed.

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

How Vladimir Putin lost Ukraine

Putin’s war cost Russia its centuries-long shared identity with its neighbour. Now, Kyiv risks betraying the spirit of the Maidan revolution.

When the Russian inquest finally comes, the answer will be clear. It was President Vladimir Putin who lost Ukraine – after a millennium of shared east Slav identity. When the Ukrainian inquest into who lost the ­Euromaidan’s “Revolution of Dignity” finally comes, the answer, on the present evidence, will also be clear. It was an elite core of politicians and oligarchs who first worked a miracle in fighting Russia’s military Goliath to a stalemate – only to revert to kleptocratic business as usual when the acute threat eased.

Ukrainians’ consolidation of a distinct national identity after centuries of being regarded as a fuzzy subset of the dominant Russians – and after a quarter-century of independence – began in February 2014. It sounds banal to say that when one nation attacks a neighbour, especially if the two have regarded each other as brothers for a thousand years, the victims feel aggrieved and pull together against the attacker. But this is what happened when Putin launched his undeclared war on Ukraine, sent hooded “little green men” to take over Crimea’s regional parliament by intimidation, and then annexed the peninsula. The mutation of this early tactical success into strategic failure is best traced by reviewing the players and the dynamics as Ukraine held off Russia and crystallised its singular new identity.

On the Russian side only one actor matters: Putin. When the old Soviet Union split apart in 1991, its kleptocracy was replicated in its two biggest east Slav successor states. By 2015 Russia ranked a joint 119th out of 167 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Ukraine was 130th. A Wild East capitalism prevailed, in which emergent oligarchs carved up the state’s wealth through murky privatisation deals. But there was one main political difference between the two countries. Putin quickly restored the primacy of politicians over Russian tycoons after he became president. In Ukraine, oligarchs were able to use their new wealth to dominate politics.

When Putin suddenly broke out from Europe’s seven-decade peace order in February 2014, Western policymakers asked the diminished number of Kremlinologists in their midst why he was acting this way. Some, such as Dmitry Gorenburg, an associate at Harvard’s Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies and a military analyst, pointed to fear as the Russian president’s root instinct. Putin has shown little interest in economics; he has not worried about looming inflation or capital flight, or Russia’s distorting reliance on oil and gas revenues. What he was afraid of, it seemed, was unchecked democratic contagion: as transmitted from Poles in the 1980s to restive East Germans and then Czechs in 1989, to Ukrainians in the mid-2000s, and even on to Muscovites in 2011/12 before Putin managed to stop their street protests.

This analysis is plausible. In 1989, as a young officer of the Soviet Committee for State Security, Putin was serving with the KGB’s Dresden outpost. He saw the Berlin Wall fall – overnight, under the press of East Berliners who mistakenly thought it had been officially opened. He later faulted the then Soviet Communist Party chief, Mikhail Gorbachev, for failing to intervene militarily when the wall crumbled, or when protesters stormed the Stasi headquarters across the street from his office to halt the incineration of incriminating files by East Germany’s adjunct of the KGB. He watched Moscow’s 20 top divisions, which encircled Berlin for half a century after the glorious Soviet victory over Hitler in 1945, retreat ingloriously a thousand miles to the east.

Putin further witnessed the swift break­away of Moscow’s external empire, in the stampede of the freed central Europeans, from Estonia to Romania, to join the European Union and Nato, and the 1991 break-up of Moscow’s internal Soviet empire. He called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. And as late as 2008 – 17 years after more than 92 per cent of Ukrainian citizens, including the 21 per cent ethnic Russian minority, had voted for independence – he told President George W Bush, “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country.”

***

Most agonising of all, in his first term as Russia’s president in the 21st century, Putin had to listen to American triumphalism about the series of pro-democracy “colour revolutions” in the streets of ex-communist Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. For him, as a career secret policeman, these revolutions represented no broad social yearning for “dignity”, as the Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa first phrased it. Rather, it was an inexplicable victory by American CIA manipulations – in what was Moscow’s own sphere of influence, by right – over the manipulations of Russia’s FSB, successor to the Soviet KGB.

The uprising that aroused the most angst in the Kremlin was the Orange Revolution on Kyiv’s main square, or maidan, where protesters demanded and won a repeat of the 2004 election after blatant vote-rigging in favour of the then prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian heir apparent to the Ukrainian presidency. It was bad enough for Moscow when the west Slavs in Poland and Czechoslovakia instantly ditched their Slavic identity for a European one in the 1990s: Poland uprooted systemic corruption, built robust democratic and judicial institutions, and went from having a poverty rate that matched Ukraine’s to a per capita GDP three times the size of its neighbour’s today. It was devastating when the Little Russians, too, began to do so, rejecting Yanukovych and Russia’s network of control in the rerun of the vote in 2004.

In the event, Putin need not have worried. The Orange Revolution self-destructed in the fratricide between its two top leaders, who forfeited leadership to Yanukovych in the reasonably fair 2010 election.

On the Ukrainian side of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, four figures stand out. The two chief rivals are the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko (worth $979m, and number six on Novoye Vremya magazine’s 2015 list of the richest Ukrainians), and the then governor of Dnipropet­rovsk in central Ukraine, Ihor Kolomoyskyi (number two on the list, at $1.9bn).

Poroshenko was a second-tier oligarch who had served briefly as foreign minister in the Orange Revolution government and as minister for trade and economic development under Yanukovych in 2012. He helped fund the pro-Europe, anti-corruption protest against Yanukovych’s authoritarian rule from the movement’s spontaneous inception in November 2013, and his TV news outlet Channel 5 gave full coverage to the three-month agora and its estimated one million participants.

After Yanukovych finally sent his special police to suppress the protest by killing dozens of the demonstrators in late February, the Ukrainian president’s own Party of Regions deserted him. He absconded to Russia overnight with an estimated personal fortune of $12bn, amassed in four years in office. Parliament, by a majority that suddenly included the Party of Regions, appointed an interim president and government and set presidential elections for May 2014. The “Chocolate King”, as Poroshenko was nicknamed for his confectionery empire, was duly elected president of the new Ukraine with a 54 per cent majority.

Kolomoyskyi, who also holds Israeli and Cypriot citizenship, was called back to Ukraine from his Swiss residence by the improvised government just as Russia was annexing Crimea. He was appointed governor of his own regional stronghold of Dnipropetrovsk with a mandate to mount a defence against the Russia-stoked secession brewing in neighbouring eastern Ukraine. Kolomoyskyi was famed for his hostile takeovers of rival banks as well as oil, media and other firms. He quickly raised and underwrote several militias among the 40 to 50 volunteer battalions that sprang up to fight against westward spread of the start-up separatist Donetsk (DPR) and Luhansk (LPR) People’s Republics. These battalions were instrumental in holding the line against separatist/Russian forces and giving the Ukrainian state time to rebuild the army that Yanukovych had bled of its budget.

Two oligarchs who did not cast their lot in with post-Euromaidan Ukraine were Rinat Akhmetov (at $4.5bn still the richest Ukrainian, even after losing more than half of his wealth over the past year) and Dmytro Firtash, whose net worth has fallen to $1bn. Both had been leading supporters of Yanukovych and his party, and since his departure they have hedged their bets between Kyiv and Moscow. Their recent losses have resulted partly from a redistribution of their wealth to other oligarchs.

Akhmetov, the son of a coal miner who rose to become the “godfather” of the Donetsk clan – and the owner of Shakhtar Donetsk football club – has his coal and iron base in the war-ravaged Don Basin (Donbas) and relies on Moscow’s goodwill there. Firtash, who under President Yanukovych controlled the lucrative distribution of Russian gas through Ukrainian pipelines to Europe, is also dependent on Russia. In spring 2014, he asked the Russian oligarch Vasily Anisimov to pay a record Austrian bail of €125m ($141m) in cash to get him out of jail. Under the bail terms, Firtash is barred from leaving Austria as he awaits the final legal decision on a US extradition request on charges of international bribery. Yet from Vienna he still wields his political clout, funds several Ukrainian parties across the political spectrum and, it is widely reported, brokered a division of power between Poroshenko and Vitaly Klitschko in the run-up to the May 2014 presidential election, in which Klitschko stood down as a candidate. (The former world heavyweight boxing champion is now mayor of Kyiv.)

***

Putin no doubt saw his annexation of Crimea – and his follow-on campaign to reconquer Catherine the Great’s “Novorossiya”, comprising the eastern 40 per cent of today’s Ukraine – as compensation for the abrupt downfall of his acolyte Yanukovych, and thus the end of Russia’s rightful suzerainty over all of Ukraine. Europeans, Americans and Ukrainians, on the contrary, saw the first formal takeover of a neighbour’s land in Europe since the Second World War as Putin’s return to a 19th-century concept of “might makes right”, as well as a violation of international law and treaties Moscow had signed to respect Ukrainian borders.

The West was cautious in reacting. It baulked at getting sucked into another intervention in a theatre of complicated logistics and little geopolitical interest. It knew as well as Putin did that Moscow enjoys escalation dominance in its home region by virtue of geography, its claim to a vital interest in Ukraine that the West lacks, and the Russian president’s willpower in a world of European peace and US exhaustion. It had no desire to put Putin’s repeated brandishing of his nuclear weapons to the test over a second-order confrontation. The West therefore responded by imposing financial rather than military sanctions, which Putin prematurely scorned as a pinprick.

In addition, Putin misread Ukraine’s military resilience. Easy success in Crimea – and strong domestic approval of his boasts that he was restoring Russia’s greatness in the world – emboldened him to probe further in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s ragtag army had put up no resistance in Crimea, for three reasons. First, years of embezzlement of defence budgets had left it with only 6,000 combat-ready soldiers and with two-decade-old weapons. Second, it was subverted by the many Ukrainian officers who were loyal to Moscow rather than Kyiv. Finally, there was Ukrainians’ sheer disbelief – despite Stalin’s mass starvation of Ukrainian peasants in the 1930s – that Russians would actually shoot at their proclaimed younger brothers.

Putin expected an equally cost-free operation in the Donbas. He seemed to believe his own propaganda that disgruntled Russian-speaking citizens of eastern Ukraine were Russians manqués and would rush to rebel against Kyiv, if only the charge were led by a few Russian commandos. Eastern Ukraine was, after all, the part of the country in which identity was most blurred; easterners paid little attention to differences between Ukrainians and Russians in everyday life, and most had cousins in both Russia and western Ukraine. In a way, the region was the ideal test of Putin’s construct of a unifying goal to fill the vacuum left after futurist communist ideology evaporated. The campaign was first presented as Putin’s dream of a Eurasian Union, but that was dropped once it became clear that Ukraine would not be a part of it. Thereafter it was repackaged as gathering in fellow ethnics left outside the “Russian world” by the Soviet collapse, and then as retaking the tsarist Novorossiya.

At first, the Russian-backed secessionists took quick control over roughly two-thirds of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, or provinces. Putin, however, overestimated the warrior zeal of the easterners and the usual gripes of any province about the meagre payouts it gets from central government. In the early days, the local people warmed to the promises of higher pensions made by the separatists. And grandmothers visibly enjoyed acting as civilian shields by surrounding local administration buildings that were occupied by separatists and preventing Ukrainian soldiers from reclaiming the offices. But as the novelty wore off and the hardship of war increased, Moscow and the secessionists it sponsored increasingly had to rely on a motley band of mercenaries and Donbas criminal gangs that did well in firefights only when they were assisted by Russian “volunteers” and armed with the heavy weapons the Russians were shuttling across the border.

In purely military terms, Putin probably could have escalated in the spring of 2014 from the kind of limited, disguised and therefore deniable warfare that the West calls “hybrid”, replacing the hooded “little green men” with regular Russian soldiers in marked uniforms in an all-out invasion of the Novorossiya oblasts. That was certainly the Russian president’s threat in massing 80,000 troops on the northern, eastern and southern borders of Ukraine and exercising them on high alert.

As late as September 2014 Putin boasted to President Poroshenko that if he so desired, “Russian troops could be in Kyiv within two days – and also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw, or Bucharest.” But he did not invade when Ukraine’s provisional government was still shaky – and still reeling under the Russian show of force.

Three reasons for Putin’s decision not to order an invasion in spring 2014 might be inferred. The first was a tactical reduction of his bellicosity at a time when the European Union was still debating financial sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea. The second was the weakness of the novice Ukrainian government, which could foreseeably have collapsed and left Kyiv with a political vacuum the Russians could fill without firing a shot. The third was perhaps a premonition in the Russian army that it was being overstretched and that an occupation of its neighbour, given Ukraine’s strong military tradition, might turn into a quagmire of messy guerrilla warfare.

Putin’s military threats to Ukraine were counterproductive and stoked Ukrainian anger. In May 2014 a Pew survey found that 77 per cent of Ukrainians, including 70 per cent of those living in eastern Ukraine outside the Donbas war zone, thought that their country should remain united instead of breaking up. And in early July, even before the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines MH17 civilian jet by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from insurgent territory, Pew reported that 60 per cent of Ukrainians had a general negative view of Russia. It was a sharp reversal from 2011, when 84 per cent of Ukrainians had viewed Russia positively.

The Euromaidan spirit drew in ever more Ukrainians who had been politically passive. Volunteers flocked to enlist in the army, in the revived National Guard and in the private militias raised and paid for by Kolomoyskyi and other oligarchs. Civilian volunteers cooked and delivered food to recruits. Techies designed and built their own surveillance drones from scratch to observe border areas that Ukraine no longer controlled.

Ukrainian veterans who had once formed the backbone of the Soviet army’s rough equivalent of Western non-commissioned officers, together with local Afgantsy – veterans of the Soviet army’s doomed expedition in Afghanistan in the 1980s – gave the rookies accelerated basic training. Weapons factories in Ukraine that had once supplied the Soviet army managed to repair 20-year-old tanks and build new ones even as the battles raged. And morale was vastly better on the side of Ukrainian defenders against a threat to their very existence than it was among opportunistic rebel mercenaries and criminal gangs. By mid-August 2014, Ukrainian troops had recaptured most of the rebel territory and reduced the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to two small pockets.

That was too much for Putin. At the end of August, he signalled his red line in the sand: he would not let his proxies be defeated. He sent elite airborne troops into the Donbas to mount a counteroffensive alongside separatist/Russian ground forces armed with Russian heavy weapons. Within days, they broke the Ukrainian siege and restored the secessionists’ control of about half of the territory that the DPR and LPR had ruled at their height.

President Poroshenko understood the message and immediately proposed a truce, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, brokered the Minsk ceasefire of 5 September. The shaky agreement at least reduced the scale of violence for five months, until the separatist/Russian forces made a fresh effort to break through strengthened Ukrainian lines in January and February of 2015 – and failed. A further shaky “Minsk-2” truce followed. But on 1 September 2015 the heavy guns abruptly fell silent and, for the most part, remained silent. For the first time in a year, overjoyed babushkas in the separatist Donbas enclave could walk across the front lines to reach Ukrainian-held towns seven kilometres away and buy salo (pork rind), butter and eggs at far cheaper prices. They returned to tell journalists that their greatest wish was simply for the fighting to stop.

***

At the end of September Putin opened a front in Syria, and reportedly redeployed some special forces from Ukraine to the new battlefield. Ukraine dropped off Russian TV bulletins. The war there had
caused 8,000 deaths and forced 2.4 million people from their homes. It was clear that Putin was belatedly acknowledging that the war also had strategic costs for Russia.

He had first lost all of Ukraine, with the exception of Crimea, to the Euromaidan that he despised. He had failed to salvage Novorossiya for Russia. He had failed, too, to maintain the shelled and charred Donbas region in any form he wanted to annex or subsidise – and keeping it as a zone of frozen conflict for future mischief-making wasn’t much of a consolation prize. He had provoked the West into resuscitating Nato and imposing sanctions that damaged the Russian economy. He had alarmed Belarus, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan into distancing themselves somewhat from Moscow.

Moreover, the Russian war in Ukraine raised the spectre of the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that killed 15,000 Soviet soldiers in the 1980s and gave birth to the Russian Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, which tries to ferret out facts about their dead sons. Last May, after many inquiries by the committee about Russian casualties in Ukraine, the Duma passed legislation banning the spread of information about Russian casualties across the border. In this context, it seemed unlikely that Putin would risk incurring a rise in Russian deaths by resuming heavy fighting in Ukraine.

This appraisal, however, takes the pressure off the Ukrainian oligarchs to grow beyond the robber-baron stage and become patriotic philanthropists. On the present evidence, they no longer sense much urgency with regard to implementing reform legislation, installing the rule of law, building democratic institutions and rooting out kleptocracy as opposed to exploiting it.

Putin has surely lost Ukraine. The Ukrainian oligarchs have not yet surely lost their own country. But how ironic it will be if he manages to melt their urgency into complacency by easing the pressure on Ukraine, thus paving the way for that final loss of the Revolution of Dignity. It would give the last laugh to Georgy Arbatov, the Kremlin’s leading Americanist who prophesied as the Cold War ended: “We are going to do to you the worst thing we possibly could – we are going to take your enemy away.”

Elizabeth Pond is based in Berlin and is the author of several books about Germany, Europe and the Balkans. They include “Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification” (Brookings Institution)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war