A woman pushes her bicycle past a non-exploded rocket in Ilovaisk, 50km southeast of Donetsk, 4 September. Photo: Getty
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When one mistake can lead to catastrophe: what next for Ukraine?

A ceasefire has been agreed but it remains in doubt whether Russia plans to conquer eastern Ukraine or establish a quasi-autonomous state there. 

Just when you thought an all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine had begun, a “ceasefire process” was agreed between the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia on 3 September. There was no immediate response from the rebel forces, who have been fighting the Ukrainian army since April and are likely to continue doing so – with Russian help – no matter what is agreed.

The news followed weeks of mounting tension, as recently released satellite imagery appeared to show Russian armoured vehicles and soldiers in battle formations travelling through the east of Ukraine. On 31 August the EU gave Russia a week to reverse its course or face new sanctions. A few days later, Nato announced that it was considering sending troops to eastern Europe as a counterweight to what it perceives as increasing Russian belligerence.

As ever, the Kremlin denied that an incursion of any kind was taking place, although a leak revealed Putin boasting that he could take Kyiv in two weeks if he wanted.

Over the past few months Ukrainian fears of a Russian invasion have peaked and receded almost by the week. As long ago as May, Ukrainians were telling me that Russian troops would be in Kyiv “within days”, only to backtrack when their claims never materialised, informing me (with who knows what sort of “inside info”) that the plan had been “abandoned for the time being”.

This perennial feeling of uncertainty – which on occasion spills over into paranoia – has played directly into Russia’s hands. As long as there is chaos in the east, Ukraine cannot move forward. The country elected a new president in May but the crisis has prevented him from pushing through domestic reforms necessary to combat the corruption that threatens Ukraine’s viability as a functioning state. Rhetoric aside, little progress has been made to fulfil Kyiv’s desires for EU and Nato membership, requests that enraged Moscow.

As the New Statesman went to press, few details had emerged of the terms of the ceasefire and it was not clear if it would hold. It remains in doubt whether Russia plans to conquer eastern Ukraine or establish a quasi-autonomous state there. A cost-benefit analysis would argue against both. The EU and US have already placed a host of sanctions on Russia, hindering its banks from getting access to international finance as well as targeting leading figures around Putin. The Russian economy is largely dependent on the price of oil (which has fallen recently) and further sanctions would be imposed if Putin attempted to annex the region, dealing another blow to Russia’s economic well-being.

The first question is: is Putin thinking rationally? Russia’s actions over recent months indicate that all may not be going to plan, if indeed there is a plan. Putin has alternately intensified and softened his public pronouncements as fighting between the separatists and government forces has increased, along with the death toll. There seemed to be a line Putin did not want to cross. Rebel leaders have at times lambasted Moscow for insufficient support.

The second question is: if Putin is not thinking rationally and is determined to increase the aggression, what can stop him? Many experts are gloomy about the options. “If we are not prepared to commit militarily, there is little we can do to change Putin’s mind,” says Peter Pomerantsev, the author of a forthcoming book on Russia, Nothing is True and Everything Is Possible.

In the days leading up to the supposed ceasefire, Ukrainian national forces were more prepared than ever for war. I spoke on Skype recently to Anton Skiba, a fixer I’ve worked with in the past, who spent late August travelling across eastern Ukraine. He told me that the main military action was concentrated on the Russian border, with security officials mobilised to protect strategic positions such as bridges and railways. “People are worried about invasion – and patriotism is growing as a result,” he said. “There are far more national symbols like flags in the eastern cities controlled by the army than ever before.

“Both the people and politicians are in almost total agreement: Russia has begun open war with Ukraine.”

In such a militarised atmosphere, the longer the uncertainty continues, the greater the chance of a miscalculation or miscommunication by either side, which would have devastating consequences. In the meantime, President Putin is destroying European stability, and with it the post-cold-war order that has ensured peace on our continent for the past 25 years. 

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood

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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