Vladimir Putin by André Carrilho for the New Statesman
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Leader: Why we need to be honest about Vladimir Putin

Whatever the Kremlin apologists say – and regardless of the ancient historical and cultural affinities involved – there are few benefits for citizens of Crimea likely to result from their de facto annexation by Russia.

A fundamental imbalance in the international stand-off over Ukraine is that, in the short term at least, the outcome means more to Russia than it does to the west. Naturally, it is a source of alarm in Washington, London and Berlin that Vladimir Putin has violated the sovereignty of a neighbouring country. Rightly, this action has been denounced as aggression and a defiance of international law.

Yet feelings about the status of Ukraine run a lot higher in Russia than they do in the west and the country’s president acts with far fewer domestic constraints. He has calculated that neither the US nor the EU will torch diplomatic and economic relations with the Kremlin over Crimea. The ugly strategic reality is that his calculation looks accurate.

The chief argument that Moscow has brought in defence of its action – that Russian-speaking citizens are in danger from Ukrainian nationalism – is spurious. There is no evidence for it and whatever anxieties exist among Crimea’s russophone community could be addressed without armed intervention.

There is cynicism, too, in the Kremlin’s contention that the turmoil in Kyiv was somehow the expression of quasi-imperialist ambitions on the part of the EU and Nato – as if, by extension, Moscow were answering western expansionism with an act of self-defence.

It is true that the fall of Viktor Yanukovych’s administration was hastily recognised as a legitimate transition in western European capitals. There is a preference in Brussels and Washington that Ukraine pursue a transition to more functional democracy with greater respect for the rule of law – and an expectation that such an outcome is more likely if the government is not a client of the Kremlin. It is also true that the acceptance of other former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact countries into the EU and Nato since the collapse of the USSR has exacerbated anxiety in Moscow about declining strategic influence and national debilitation. However, it is naive to suppose that those feelings would have been avoided if Russia had been allowed to retain strategic mastery of eastern Europe. Cringing before the Kremlin’s wounded post-Soviet pride would have condemned countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and even Poland to the kind of dysfunctional satellite status that has been Ukraine’s misfortune. The citizens of those countries can now be profoundly grateful for the prosperity and security that EU and Nato membership brought them.

If Britain is now to start satisfying Mr Putin’s territorial appetite, let us at least be honest about the kind of man he is. Russia’s president is a former KGB agent who despises liberal democracy and excuses the crimes of Stalin. He has consolidated his power through a combination of corrupt accommodation with compliant financial oligarchs, old-fashioned po­lice state repression and the nurturing of a cult of ethnic nationalism that leads to official tolerance of racist and homophobic violence carried out by skinhead gangs who pledge loyalty to the president. No one who values freedom and civil rights should want to see citizens of another country fall under such a jurisdiction.

Whatever the Kremlin apologists say – and regardless of the ancient historical and cultural affinities involved – there are few benefits for citizens of Crimea likely to result from their de facto annexation by Russia.

The most probable outcome of the current crisis is that, after some bluster and ineffective economic reprimands, the west will acquiesce to Russia’s assertion of strategic primacy in Ukraine. There will be those who argue that no better outcome is available; that, since military intervention is unthinkable, the sovereignty of a weak state might as well be traded away to a strong one. It is indeed hard to see how Mr Putin’s ambitions can be thwarted. But no one should pretend that they will be satisfied by appeasement.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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What David Hockney has to tell us about football

Why the sudden glut of blond footballers? A conversation I had with the artist back in 1966 gave me a clue. . .

In 1966, I went to interview David Hockney at a rather run-down flat in Bayswater, central London. He was 28 and had just won a gold medal at the Royal College of Art.

In his lavatory, I noticed a cut-out photograph from a newspaper of Denis Law scoring a goal. I asked if he was a football fan. He said no, he just liked Denis Law’s thighs.

The sub-editors cut that remark out of the story, to save any gossip or legal problems. In 1966 homosexual activity could still be an offence.

Hockney and a friend had recently been in the United States and had been watching an advert on TV that said “Blondes have more fun”. At two o’clock in the morning, slightly drunk, they both went out, bought some hair dye and became blond. Hockney decided to remain blond from then on, though he has naturally dark hair.

Is it true that blonds have more fun? Lionel Messi presumably thinks so, otherwise why has he greeted this brand-new season with that weird blond hair? We look at his face, his figure, his posture and we know it’s him – then we blink, thinking what the heck, does he realise some joker has been pouring stuff on his head?

He has always been such a staid, old-fashioned-looking lad, never messing around with his hair till now. Neymar, beside him, has gone even blonder, but somehow we expect it of him. He had foony hair even before he left Brazil.

Over here, blonds are popping up all over the shop. Most teams now have a born-again blondie. It must take a fortune for Marouane Fellaini of Man United to brighten up his hair, as he has so much. But it’s already fading. Cheapskate.

Mesut Özil of Arsenal held back, not going the full head, just bits of it, which I suspect is a clue to his wavering, hesitant personality. His colleague Aaron Ramsey has almost the full blond monty. Paul Pogba of Man United has a sort of blond streak, more like a marker pen than a makeover. His colleague Phil Jones has appeared blond, but he seems to have disappeared from the team sheet. Samir Nasri of Man City went startlingly blond, but is on loan to Seville, so we’re not able to enjoy his locks. And Didier Ndong of Sunderland is a striking blond, thanks to gallons of bleach.

Remember the Romanians in the 1998 World Cup? They suddenly appeared blond, every one of them. God, that was brilliant. One of my all-time best World Cup moments, and I was at Wembley in 1966.

So, why do they do it? Well, Hockney was right, in a sense. Not to have more fun – meaning more sex – because top footballers are more than well supplied, but because their normal working lives are on the whole devoid of fun.

They can’t stuff their faces with fast food, drink themselves stupid, stay up all night, take a few silly pills – which is what many of our healthy 25-year-old lads consider a reasonably fun evening. Nor can they spend all their millions on fun hols, such as skiing in the winter, a safari in the spring, or hang-gliding at the weekend. Prem players have to be so boringly sensible these days, or their foreign managers will be screaming at them in their funny foreign accents.

While not on the pitch, or training, which takes up only a few hours a day, the boredom is appalling, endlessly on planes or coaches or in some hotel that could be anywhere.

The only bright spot in the long days is to look in the mirror and think: “Hmm, I wonder what highlights would look like? I’ve done the beard and the tattoos. Now let’s go for blond. Wow, gorgeous.”

They influence each other, being simple souls, so when one dyes his hair, depending on where he is in the macho pecking order, others follow. They put in the day by looking at themselves. Harmless fun. Bless ’em.

But I expect all the faux blonds to have gone by Christmas. Along with Mourinho. I said that to myself the moment he arrived in Manchester, smirking away. Pep will see him off. OK then, let’s say Easter at the latest . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times