A decade or so ago, an ordinary member of the public whose job was either that of delivery man or taxi driver (his profession, as with his name, escapes me now) strolled onto the set of a BBC news programme and was inadvertently taken for a hired expert; roped in for a response to a story concerning big tech behemoth Apple, his absolute ignorance of the item in question and bewilderment with the surreal predicament he found himself in was instantly evident, yet he managed to create a moment of comedy gold that was repeatedly parodied for as long as its currency remained relevant. In a way, it summed up the needless emptiness of rolling news channels and their habit of pointlessly pontificating on every minor headline simply to fill the vast void of hours stretching out way beyond the point at which even the most casual viewer loses the will to live. The sudden accidental injection of humour into proceedings was a brief respite from the tedium though, had it not been picked up by social media, chances are few would have noticed it had happened.
The past few days I’ve received a few flashbacks of that amusing incident whenever I’ve seen Liz Truss issue statements on the Ukraine crisis; it’s almost as though she wandered into Broadcasting House to deliver Alan Yentob’s breakfast latte and was inexplicably assumed to be the Foreign Secretary; shoved in front of cameras and questioned as to what punishments Britain would be dishing out to Russia, Truss has the same air of utter cluelessness and absence of authority on the subject that was apparent in the confused countenance of the unfortunate gatecrasher onto the BBC News Channel. So far, no reporter has had the balls to present Ms Truss with a map of Eastern Europe and asked her to place pins in some of the locations of which she has recently betrayed her lack of geographical knowledge when it comes to the region, but I live in hope.
As the current situation is the kind of Godsend to rolling news channels that in theory prevents moments such as that already discussed from happening, there’s an endless succession of stories related to the big issue, one of which is a Kremlin spokesman attributing Russia being placed on nuclear alert courtesy of some clumsy comment on the part of Liz Truss. ‘There were unacceptable statements about possible conflict situations and even confrontations and clashes between NATO and Russia,’ said Dmitry Peskov. ‘I will not name the authors of these statements, although it was the British Foreign Secretary.’ That’ll be Ms Truss, then. The statements that seemed to have caused such offence have not been quoted, but take your pick. Liz Truss so far has been focused on bigging-up the economic sanctions not so much against Russia as a country, but against individual oligarchs; although she claims to have a ‘hit list’, she won’t name anyone on it.
At the same time, having been wined and dined by wealthy Russians for more than a decade and then repaid their generosity by allowing them to become embedded in the upper echelons of society with the kind of stealth China would certainly admire, the West appears to have hit Mother Russia where it hurts via sanctions. On the global markets, the rouble has plummeted in record time, sinking to an all-time low of 26% against the dollar. The US, along with the UK, the EU and numerous other nations, has barred leading Russian banks from Swift, a system which apparently enables the transfer of money to cross national borders with ease. The assets of the Bank of Russia have also been frozen by Western powers, severely reducing the access of its international dollar reserves; Canada has been quick to sign-up to this freezing of Russian bank accounts, though Putin’s support of the Canadian truckers has yet to be established. The UK has extended the freeze to all Russian banks, leaving many British businesses waiting indefinitely for money owed from Russian businesses; additionally, the UK has imposed restrictions on exports to Russia. The EU and UK have even been briefly reunited like a divorced couple reaching agreement over childcare, both issuing a blanket ban on Russian aircraft flying in EU or UK airspace. Meanwhile, having cut off its nuclear nose to spite its green face, Germany has been faced with little choice but to postpone the opening of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from the Motherland to the Fatherland. No possible response outside of dispatching Western boots on Ukrainian soil, it seems, has been spared.
However, there appears to be the possibility of non-Ukrainian volunteers assembling in International Brigades-fashion to take on the invaders, and it’s interesting that those stating their intentions to do so here aren’t being dissuaded by the Foreign Secretary. When quizzed as to her opinion of Brits queuing-up to join a ‘Foreign Legion’ of fighters prepared to take on the might of the Russian Army, Liz Truss replied in an encouraging manner that is a notable contrast to the official line on those who sought to do likewise in Syria not so long ago. She certainly seemed to suggest she supported anyone committed enough to the cause; asked if she approved of British nationals taking up arms in Ukraine, Truss replied, ‘Absolutely, if that’s what they want to do. That is something people can make their own decisions about. The people of Ukraine are fighting for freedom and democracy, not just for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe.’
Interestingly, Liz Truss’s support hasn’t exactly been endorsed by representatives from the Foreign Office, who aren’t offering similar encouragement – though they also aren’t doing their best to prevent such voluntary actions by threatening to arrest Brits returning from fighting in Ukraine, as the Crown Prosecution Service did re Syria. The Chairman of the Commons Defence Committee Tobias Ellwood shuffled uneasily in his seat when made aware of the Foreign Secretary’s support. ‘It seems nonsensical to encourage untrained and unequipped British citizens to head to a war zone,’ he said. ‘It’d be far easier with this policy if there was some form of NATO commitment, but the decision was made some time ago to rule that out and yet here we are endorsing British citizens to take up arms.’
Of course, there’s always the chance that any volunteers for an unofficial fighting force comprising outsiders could be viewed as little more than mercenaries with an unhealthy appetite for interfering in the affairs of another country in the most dangerous fashion. That said, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has already announced such a force has been formed, with recruits in the UK (including former British soldiers who are veterans of interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan) approaching the Ukrainian Embassy to offer their services. A website has been set up as a British recruitment platform by Macer Gifford, who himself fought against ISIS with Kurdish forces in Syria for three years; Gifford claims he knows of at least half-a-dozen British volunteers who have been tackling Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine alongside Ukrainian troops for a while now, and he says that ‘judging by how many Britons contacted me in the past about going to Syria, I can imagine hundreds if not in the low thousands of people going out to Ukraine.’
I suppose if you’re old enough to remember the last time Brits volunteering to fight in a foreign conflict wasn’t something that came with the threat of arrest upon returning home (i.e. the Spanish Civil War), some of the images shot by amateur cameramen of Russian tanks cruising down residential streets and crushing private vehicles – not to mention the drivers in them – could easily evoke memories of Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. Perhaps many imagined the end of the original Cold War at the turn of the 1990s had neutralised the possibility of the worst of recent European history repeating itself, though one wonders if a Treaty of Versailles-like grievance has been quietly festering in the Russian breast over the aftermath of the Cold War’s end from a Russian perspective ever since. Well, it’s probably fair to say that’s true when it comes to one particular Russian, anyway.
© The Editor