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

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
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Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.