Citizens in Simferopol, Ukraine watch Putin on a laptop declaring Crimea part of Russia. (Photo: Getty)
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Vlad the impatient: why timid western politics won’t wash with Putin

The world waits to see how far the fire that has been lit by Russia’s invasion of Crimea will spread in Ukraine and elsewhere.

The first Ukrainian I met was called Peter. On my first visit to Kyiv, exactly 20 years ago, Peter introduced himself to me in front of the monument to the 150,000 Jews massacred at Babi Yar. He was a retired accountant from Croydon but had been born outside Kharkiv, in rural eastern Ukraine. In 1943, when he was 16, the Red Army swept south to end the Nazi occupation. Russian soldiers dealt summarily with anyone suspected of co-operating with the Germans.

Peter was drafted. He protested. “Who is this boy?” an officer asked. A village woman replied, “His uncle was our police inspector, whom you shot in the orchard this morning.”

Peter deserted at dawn the next morning and walked 2,000 kilometres west, to Vienna. There a Wehrmacht officer found him a job in military records, writing to bereaved mothers to tell them their sons were heroes of the Reich. He arrived in England, a refugee, in 1947.

This was his first visit back to Ukraine. He looked at the Babi Yar monument strewn with roses. “And my grandfather was a Jew,” he said.

We wait to see how far the fire that has been lit by Russia’s invasion of Crimea will spread. At first our managerial government was less inclined to support Ukrainian sovereignty than it was to defend a different hearth, that of the City of London. In the end, David Cameron was persuaded, along with other EU leaders in Brussels, to announce cumulative economic sanctions if Russia refuses to talk and ultimately to withdraw its troops.

Managerial politics already looks far more reckless than it did a week ago. Leaving aside that this crisis has shown an uncanny likeness, from its first day, to the preludes of the Second World War and the Balkan wars (Hitler’s insistence on protecting ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland, Slobodan Milosevic’s on protecting ethnic Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo), it is clear that Vladimir Putin will have Crimea, and eastern Ukraine, if he can.

But a moral imperative holds here, too. Foreign policy, at its most primitive, is predicated on a willingness to abide by agreements. And specific pacts command our actions in Ukraine: the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances of 1994 and Nato’s 1997 Charter on a Distinctive Partnership, which notes that “Nato allies will continue to support Ukrainian sovereignty and independence” as well as its “territorial integrity”.

Inseparable from those obligations is the willingness to bear their cost. President Obama’s threat of “significant costs” for Russia cannot be one-sided if they really are to be incurred. It will cost us all significantly to make Putin’s actions cost Russia enough to make him pull back. Referendum in Crimea; threat of secession; intimidation and provocation in eastern Ukraine; a transfer of control over events into the hands of the thuggish and militaristic – all these illustrate the true gist of his intentions.

Individuals have grasped this far faster than the international community, for it is, always, a deeply private feeling to grasp that something has changed for good and must be faced. That feeling was written on the face of Colonel Yuri Mamchur, the commander of tactical aviation at Belbek, when he marched his 300 unarmed men up the road to try to regain access to their occupied airbase; it is in the open letter of Mustafa Cemilev, a leader of Crimea’s Tatars, with its subtextual memory of Stalin’s emptying the region of 200,000 Tatars in 1944; it is in the tense expressions of Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar women protesting against the occupation of Simferopol.

The weird element of all such situations is that life goes on. From Yalta, my friend Yuri jokes on the phone – “Are you coming to visit Ukraine or Russia?” – and insists it is quiet there. In Odessa, a Russian-speaking, pro-Yanukovych city, a huge pro-Ukraine demo indicates a possibly unexpected fall of the cards, but at this moment my Odessa parents-in-law are not talking to each other (he is Ukrainian, she is from Siberia). Another relation lost his civil-service job when the government in Kyiv changed. I asked how he was taking it. I was told he was very happy, spending all his time in bed with his new lover.

Yet if the fire in Crimea is not put out, it will certainly creep across Ukraine, across other former republics, the Baltic states, Europe. At the very least, its destabilising and corrupting consequences will be dire. A pretext of “protecting” ethnic populations – be they German, Serb or Russian – is historically how it sparks. And the only way to put it out is to show that honouring our guarantees means more to us than the cost of doing so.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.