OPINION: Brave Ukrainians are prepared to die for a chance of democracy

People take part in the Standing In Solidarity With Ukraine vigil on The Mound, Edinburgh

People take part in the Standing In Solidarity With Ukraine vigil on The Mound, Edinburgh, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this month - Credit: PA

Peter Offord, who was chair of Norwich Stop the War Coalition during the Afghanistan war and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, offers his personal view on the troubles in Ukraine

I was relieved to meet a friend at a local pub recently now that Covid restrictions have at last lifted.

However, it wasn’t long before, despite ourselves, the subject of Ukraine’s invasion emerged. “If you keep poking a bear with a stick,” he commented, “it won’t be long before it lashes out.”

Since 1991, following Glasnost, he continued, whether or not assurances were given to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that Nato would not expand eastwards, Nato has expanded. 

Countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined in 1999, along with six other former Soviet satellites, and with Ukraine, the breadbasket of the region, turning increasingly towards Europe, Russia was losing its reach. 

Added to that the de-nuclearization of Ukraine and the return of these weapons to Russia in the same period increased its level of exposure.

I agreed that Vladimir Putin is reacting like a cornered animal but this does not excuse or justify his violent invasion of Ukraine. Putin, he continued, does not want to be associated with the crumbling humiliation of the former Soviet empire. Hence the forceful annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the tug of war during recent Ukrainian elections between Russian and the European aligned candidates.

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The Ukrainian people are now paying a terrible price for not capitulating to Putin’s demands. Ukraine, larger than France, supplying 50% of the world's neon essential for microchips, holding the pipelines for Russian natural gas, and the Black Sea ports channelling exports and imports of its huge grain resources, is vital to Russia’s prestige and economic security.

Peter Offord

Peter Offord - Credit: Peter Offord

Britain, along with the other democratic countries, is keen to keep its distance and in an unprecedented move Germany, long restrained in military spending, pledged €100bn in line with Nato and is sending military equipment to Ukraine. Added to that there is talk of neutral states like Finland and Sweden joining Nato and Putin’s deranged calculation is becoming a Russian nightmare.

Desperate Poland on the front-line between Europe and Russia has accepted more than one million refugees at the time of writing. It carries traumatic memories of Soviet and Nazi occupation, and is now a Nato member.

What if a stray missile from Russia's ill-maintained ordnance strikes Poland, triggering Nato’s article five commitment, drawing 30 Nato countries into a nuclear conflagration? The implementation of a no-fly zone between Russia and Nato carries a similar danger.

Thus Boris Johnson, much criticised, is keeping his distance by supplying weapons with no intention of drawing this country deeper into the conflict. But there are always unintended consequences. There was no end to history as predicted by Fukuyama in 1992. We can be thankful that our PM is not, as he often likes to infer, Churchill.

The West and Russia are fighting a proxy war over geopolitical tectonic plates. Ukraine’s loss to Putin would be the closing door for wealth and trade for Russia via the Black Sea ports and a huge ideological and economic advantage for Europe. Putin, perhaps like Hitler's advance into Poland in 1939, had not calculated the extraordinary response of Ukraine and its Western allies.

For now the sanctions have had little effect on the Russian people, many of whom are officially supporting the war but there are many courageous Russians who are braving state terror and punishment demonstrating on the streets against it. 

But sanctions will begin to bite and as ever, hit ordinary people most, as the rich lift themselves above hardship and the returning body bags of the young Russian conscripts will sour support and it will be seen as the inglorious and grisly mess that it is; the destruction of a country that could have continued to be a vital bridge between two opposing systems. 

When we allow our thoughts to focus on this grave and terrible situation they rest upon the hugely courageous Ukrainian people prepared to stand and die for a chance of democracy.