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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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood