Today Ukraine, tomorrow central Europe: why the west needs to wake up to Putin’s ambitions

The Russian president is trying to rebuild the Soviet empire and in doing so offering an alternative to liberal democracy.

Yesterday, the EU officially halted trade talks with the Ukraine. Tomorrow, the country is due to sign a "road map" agreement with Russia aimed at deepening trade relations between the two countries. All of this adds up to a genuine crisis for liberal democracy, the consequences of which no element of the western press has really touched upon thus far.

It is sad but understandable that Stefan Fule, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, should announce that trade talks with the former Soviet Republic should come to a halt. "Words & deeds of President [Viktor Yanukovych] & government regarding the Association Agreement are further & further apart. Their arguments have no grounds in reality," came a tweet from the official. It is clear that Yankoyvch and his people were asking for what they knew the EU could not deliver simply to force Europe’s hand. But still, it leaves the mass of protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square dangling – all 200,000 of them.

Those who still take for granted that the world is on an inevitable march towards more liberal democracy should pay close attention to what happens between the Ukraine and Russia. But perhaps this is an out of date remark in and of itself. What I found most depressing about the recent Russell Brand mania was finding out to what degree people in Britain, particularly young people, appear to take both liberal democracy and peace throughout Europe, at least western Europe, for granted.

This attitude is also evident in discussions surrounding whether Britain should remain part of the European Union or not. It is as if peace has come to Europe via some sort of mystical edict, and as such is now eternal and need be based on nothing whatsoever. This, I believe, is the chief reason that the EU is not synonymous with peace and stability in Britain but rather with strictly a helpful single market at best and with resource draining, unnecessary bureaucracy at worst. I also think this is why no one in any of western Europe’s various cognoscenti, in particular the British version thereof, has any real sense of urgency about what is happening in Kiev right now. People seem blind to the fact that a real battle of civilisations and possible futures is being waged.

Vladimir Putin is trying to rebuild the old Russian/Soviet empire and in doing so offering an alternative to the EU model, one that he personally controls. Ideally for him, this would eventually involve pulling the old Eastern Bloc countries that are currently part of the European Union back into the fold: Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria. Whereas the European model is based on open markets, a standard of human rights for all citizens, and rule of law, the Russian model is almost the exact opposite: a market dictated by the whims of Moscow, a legal system entirely run by local despots loyal to Putin, and widespread kleptocracy. Those who think that the countries which are currently EU members such as Poland being pulled back into the Russians’ sphere is wildly unrealistic are being wilfully naïve and underestimating Putin dramatically (there’s a great deal of depreciating the Russian president’s talents going on across the globe at present, oddly). Don’t think it can’t happen; the man has taken on bigger beasts recently and come out of each encounter with his aims being precisely met.

If Putin achieves another victory, as looks inevitable, and the Ukraine is officially and irrevocably drawn into his terrifying quasi-Soviet trading block, it will almost certainly have grave results for the world very few people appear to be seriously contemplating at present. It is very like western attitudes towards Syria; no one can see just how close to home these battles truly are.

People raise their hands as they take part in a mass opposition rally on Independence Square in Kiev on December 15. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nick Tyrone is Chief Executive of Radix, the think tank for the radical centre.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.