BearNot so long ago – at least using the widest historical perspective – wars undertaken on foreign soil were sufficiently detached from home not merely in terms of geographical distance; prior to advances in communications it’s all-too easy to take for granted today, the latest news from the front might not reach those with an emotional investment in the outcome for weeks. We’ve all grown up with stories of WWII telegrams being delivered to doorsteps that informed a war bride her bridegroom was either missing in action or had been killed in conflict; but before the 20th century’s technological innovations, the lengthy wait for news must have made whichever war was being fought overseas seem as though it was taking place on another planet. Ironically, the advances the last century brought us didn’t just shorten the interminable gap between events on the battlefield and deliverance of reports to the housewife, but also served to bring the war to the streets of the nation waging it. Zeppelin raids on England during the First World War were a wake-up call that distance was no longer a hindrance to experiencing the horrors of war for those who hadn’t been called-up to fight it, and what followed a generation later shattered forever the comforting illusion of isolationist security that a bit of water engendered.

The USA certainly received such a wake-up call with Pearl Harbour in 1941 and was again shaken out of its torpor 60 years later in New York; but some had received it a little earlier, at a time when it was thousands of armed men rather than advanced technological hardware that presented citizens of a country engaged in a war abroad with the consequences of their nation’s actions. Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812 saw the Emperor overwhelmed by the vast landmass before him as well as the onset of winter – factors which also played into the demoralising defeat of another failed conqueror of Mother Russia 130 years after Bonaparte embarked upon his humiliating retreat back to the West. But whilst the sheer mind-boggling scale of Russia as a country may prove to be a deterrent to invading forces of flesh-and-blood, the 21st century doesn’t even require the manned aircraft that the previous century depended upon to bring the conflict closer to home.

Recent drone attacks on Moscow that the Kremlin credited to Kyiv have belatedly alerted many Russians that it no longer matters how far from the frontline they are. Explosions that rang through some of the Russian capital’s more exclusive gated communities – ones lined with expensive residential homes of the kind certain wealthy Russian exiles have bought up Monopoly-like in London – came hot on the heels of drone strikes on the Kremlin a few weeks ago, ones which Moscow claimed to be an attempt to assassinate Vlad himself. The latest drone assault last week was aimed at the suburb of Rublyovka, a neighbourhood that is home to some of the country’s most powerful political and business movers and shakers. Even Putin himself has a pad there. The Russian Ministry of Defence claimed more than half-a-dozen drones were either downed or intercepted via electronic jammers en route to Moscow, whilst media reports suggest upwards of 25 to 30 were involved in the attack. The Kremlin points the finger at Kyiv, and though Kyiv itself has denied any involvement in the attacks, one Ukrainian presidential aide found it hard to hide his pleasure. ‘Of course we are pleased to watch,’ said Mykhailo Podolyak, ‘but we have nothing directly to do with this.’

Reactions to a war instigated by Moscow suddenly encroaching into Moscow itself have been greeted by some residents of the affected neighbourhood with a weary resignation – one reported response was that the assault was ‘to be expected…what else were we waiting for?’ The solution from the hawk side of the argument is to hit Ukraine even harder, though considering the Russians bombarded Kyiv with its own drones and missiles on at least 17 separate occasions in May alone, the evidence hardly suggests Moscow is easing up. The pro-war factions have been critical of the Ministry of Defence for allowing the drones to breach Russian defences, and those actually engaged in the conflict on Ukrainian soil have been even more vocal. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the so-called Wagner mercenary group fighting in Eastern Ukraine, has repeatedly criticised the Russian military establishment for not providing his troops with adequate ammunition and support as well as decrying the ineptitude of their strategy; he laid the blame on last week’s drone attacks at the feet of the same out-of-touch military officials that reside there. ‘Why the f**k are you allowing these drones to fly to Moscow?’ he snarled. ‘Who gives a shit that they are flying to your homes on Rublyovka? Let your houses burn!’

There certainly appears to be a clear disconnect between those directing events on the ground from afar and those actually on the ground itself, though hasn’t this always been the case in warfare? We’re all aware of the gulf that existed between WWI generals stationed in grandiose mansions several miles from the trenches and the soldiers bogged-down in them, even if that awareness stems from ‘Blackadder Goes Fourth’; and support for Putin’s warmongering is far-from universal in Russia itself, something drone attacks on home soil will surely only intensify. Vlad’s appearance on state television in the wake of last week’s assault saw him railing against Kyiv and its attempts to ‘intimidate Russia and Russian citizens’ with such a ‘terrorist attack’, pointing out that the drones were aimed at residential rather than military targets, as though Ukraine (if it was indeed responsible) was somehow veering from the honourable rules of engagement; but anyone who has witnessed the aftermath of Russia’s own attacks on Ukrainian towns and cities will know Russia never honoured these rules in the first place.

Ukraine’s multiple allies in the West have observed events with caution though, as our very own Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said, ‘Ukraine does have the legitimate right to defend itself within its own borders, of course; but it does also have the right to project force beyond its borders to undermine Russia’s ability to project force into Ukraine itself.’ Washington, on the other hand, said it doesn’t support attacks inside Russia – officially, anyway. Given the convenience of today’s technology to wage war from a distance – even if boots are still being deployed on the ground – it’s no surprise the conflict will eventually be deposited on the doorsteps of those who launched it; every advance in the hardware of warfare – airships, fighter jets, drones – enables those engaged in war to inflict damage ever further from the frontline, and events in Moscow last week have demonstrated this yet again.

Incidentally, current reports of another troubled spot on the map – Sudan – suggesting historical artefacts are at risk from the bombardment of Khartoum, highlights the short-sighted idiocy of returning precious archaeological treasures to the country of their origin on ideological grounds; the reason so many have survived is precisely because they were dispatched to Western museums in the 19th century; the locations they were sourced from have been unstable regions for decades and the fact the latest conflict in Sudan is putting those that stayed put in danger shows up the fanatical determination of our museums to ‘decolonise’ their collections for being the futile moral crusade it is. The loss of such artefacts in Iraq and Syria in recent years should surely have served as a warning, though it’s almost as though brainwashed British curators are prepared to sacrifice the priceless objects in their possessions simply to secure their place on ‘the right side of history’. What’s happening in Sudan at the moment is an internal struggle, though one could say Russia sees the Ukraine issue in exactly the same way, a civil war in which neighbours sharing a common history are at each other’s throats just for a piece of bloody land and a bloody border. Maybe the war was on home soil all along.

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LoreenSo, normal Eurovision service has been resumed. Sweden won it, and after finishing second-from-top last year, the UK is back in its rightful place on the board as second-from-bottom. Mind you, with no danger of a second consecutive win for Ukraine, the rest of Europe didn’t need Brits to foot the bill as surrogate host again and voted accordingly. Not that one was allowed to forget Ukraine, however; despite Liverpool’s best efforts to big itself up, the Contest was awash with that now very-familiar flag as well as numerous subtle and not-so-subtle expressions of solidarity with the under-fire nation on Putin’s doorstep; the show even opened with an interpretation of last year’s winning number performed by various artists in the manner of the 1998 BBC version of Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ – just in case anyone watching hadn’t got the message.

Presentation-wise, at one time Katie Boyle on her own would suffice as hostess; then it became a male/female double act, and this year we had no less than four of ’em – including Graham Norton, following in Wogan’s footsteps last time the UK hosted the Contest 25 years ago, emerging from behind the mic and onto the stage. We had the usual toe-curling scripted banter to endure, only this time spread between four; and then we were straight into the first act. In order to make the writing of this post less reliant on online checking, I decided to differentiate between the acts by jotting down my immediate thoughts on each performance as it happened, and I thought I’d reproduce them here in all their raw and uncut glory. So, here we go…

1: AUSTRIA – Two girls singing 90s Europop-style number about Edgar Allen Poe (sounds like it took about 10 minutes to write); 2: PORTUGAL – Blonde girl in red dress singing 90s Europop-style number with ‘ethnic’ flourishes; refreshing to hear native tongue; 3: SWITZERLAND – Creepily boyish solo singer; ballad in Wilkos background Muzak style; lyrics about not wanting to be a soldier a bit ‘political’; 4: POLAND – Ace of Base B-side; standard nursery rhyme vibe on ‘chorus’; dance routine Britney Spears circa 2001; 5: SERBIA – ‘Pretty boy’ solo singer with moody ‘electro-pop’ number attempting to sound ‘mysterious; looks like a young Hugh Grant in eyeliner; 6: FRANCE – Girl singer channelling Piaf spirit until we plunge into routine Europop beat; 7: CYPRUS – Clean-cut solo singer; standard ballad in Enrique Iglesias mould with accompanying ‘fire fountains’ to liven up performance; 8: SPAIN – ‘Ethnic’ intro straight into electronic backing; girl singer with thigh-tastic dancers; actually not bad; 9: SWEDEN – Girl singer with mad talons doing a Johnny Logan (won in 2012, apparently); laying down at beginning of song; lung-busting voice doing Leona Lewis-style ‘power ballad’; 10: ALBANIA – Six family members; another ‘ethnic’ intro that tumbles into routine ‘electro’ beat.

11: ITALY – Macho bearded solo singer; usual routine piano-led ‘moody’ intro before melodramatic chorus; 12: ESTONIA – Girl singer; another moody piano intro – this time on a ‘pianola’; not bad, can hold a note; 13: FINLAND – Solo singer with ‘basin head’ cut, slightly ‘non-binary’ in ensemble; dance-type rhythm Ibiza 1999; chorus like nursery rhyme for 21st century toddlers; 14: CZECH REPUBLIC/CZECHIA – Six-piece girl group; same backing as so many others this evening; slight ‘ethnic’ touch plus ‘rapping’ element ala Pussycat Dolls circa 2005; all in pink with platted ponytails; 15: AUSTRALIA – Novelty ‘rock’ band with electro-pop airbrushing; performance gimmick includes car; vacuous stadium rock ‘woah-oh’ chorus; 16: BELGIUM – 42-year-old gay-boy; early 2000s neo-Disco vibe; not bad; different from rest so far; 17: ARMENIA – 21-year-old also starts on her back (like Sweden); soft ballad opening that leads into predictable high-speed ‘rap’ vocal; 18: MOLDOVA – Another 2012 veteran; bearded bun-head with dancing midget; more ‘ethnic’ sounds set to electronic rhythm; 19: UKRAINE – Male duo; Nigerian-born singer and other guy on decks.

20: NORWAY – Girl singer (Italian); bouncy electro-pop rhythm (any point saying that again?); rather thigh-tastic; 21: GERMANY – Eyeliner-infected ‘rock’ act with camp visuals; look like a fictitious band from a 1980s Channel 4 drama series about the music business; 22: LITHUANIA – Another Eurovision veteran (2015); girl singer; yet one more moody piano intro leads into rather plodding chorus; surrounded by plump Gospel-style backing vocalists to presumably give ‘soulful’ touch; 23: ISRAEL – Another early 20s popette; third female singer to open her act looking like she’s in bed; standard ‘X Factor’ audition vocal and routine Europop beat; dance routine same as every other Eurovision act of this ilk for last 20 years; 24: SLOVENIA – Boy band with guitars, though backing is same electronic rhythm wearing a little thin after two hours; 25: CROATIA – Comedy ‘gay’ look – anti-war song; old-school not-taking-Eurovision-too-seriously vibe ala early 2000s; bloody awful, but refreshingly silly after two hours; 26: UNITED KINGDOM – That electro-pop backing for one final time; quite catchy from the off; coming at the end might help it stick in the head more; presentation and tune adhere to successful Eurovision formula; bit too lightweight, though?

Perhaps my thoughts on the UK entry were accurate, but it was no better or worse than anything else I sat through; somebody has to finish second-from-bottom, I suppose. It was evident fairly early on in the long, drawn-out voting segment of the show that the European juries weren’t going to do us any favours this year; few included the UK in their initial results and none gave us the magic 12 points. Watching the voting could be a depressing experience were it not for the entertainment factor of those announcing the jury votes as they either go for the hyperactive kids TV presenter thing, competing to see who can declare the loudest what a great show it’s been, or they attempt to be self-consciously wacky. One guy was dressed like a gimp Jedi and took forever to unmask himself before simply saying ‘Australia’, for example. Sweden took an early lead and pretty much stayed there throughout, despite surges from Israel and Italy; when we had the strange ‘viewer vote’ addition after the jury votes, the appalling Finnish entry momentarily toppled the Swedish chanteuse with the fingernail implants; but she won out on the viewer vote in the end.

Unsurprisingly – considering his less than gracious treatment by the BBC recently – there was no Ken Bruce commentary on Radio 2 this year, but other than that it was really a case of ‘business as usual’ with the Eurovision in 2023, following the unique atmosphere of the post-pandemic/post-invasion of Ukraine Contest last year. Paying extra attention in order to jot down my instant opinion of what I was watching and hearing, the repetition of the ‘slow piano intro-into electronic Europop beat’ formula throughout the evening began to grate fairly quickly, and let’s be honest, when you’ve seen one dance routine you’ve seen ‘em all at the Eurovision, however thigh-tastic some of the dancers might be. There was less of a ‘Trans’ aspect to it than I’d expected, though perhaps all the drag queens were eliminated in the qualifying rounds this year; and even the ‘gay factor’ wasn’t quite so in-yer-face as usual; but the similarity between the songs and presentation, right up to the fact that three of the female performers opened proceedings laid down, would’ve have made it even harder to distinguish between them if I hadn’t made those notes. Still, there are apparently worse ways to spend a Saturday night; and I did it so you didn’t have to.

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Drone MoscowBefore the name became synonymous with an earnest rock band whose ideological offspring have emasculated the genre beyond saving, U2 equated with a US spy plane of the original Cold War era. U2 went from being a mundane military term to a global buzzword in 1960 when the aircraft flown by American pilot Gary Powers was shot down in Soviet airspace during a clandestine surveillance mission. The plane was downed by a surface-to-air missile and the American authorities initially insisted the plane wasn’t a plane but was actually a weather research aircraft – perhaps a bit like those Chinese balloons spotted over the US a month or so ago. However, in one of the great propaganda coups of the period, the Russians paraded Powers (who had parachuted to safety) before the cameras and produced the aerial photographs of military bases the pilot had been dispatched to snap. An embarrassed America was forced to come clean just weeks before President Eisenhower was scheduled to meet Soviet Premier Khrushchev (a summit meeting which was cancelled as a consequence), despite rightly pointing out their tactics were hardly unique at the time – and indeed proved priceless when it came to Cuba a couple of years later; Powers was tried, found guilty of espionage and received a characteristically harsh seven-year sentence before returning home via a prisoner exchange in 1962.

Over half-a-century later, manned missions are no longer necessary for that kind of work, but even their automated successors can run into trouble. Aided by the conflict in Ukraine, relations between the US and Russia are arguably at their lowest level since the days when Gary Powers took his ill-fated flight, and yesterday an American MQ-9 Reaper drone – a small surveillance aircraft – had a too-close encounter with a Russian fighter jet and was last seen plunging into the Black Sea. As is traditional, both sides offer different explanations for the incident and both see the collision as an act of provocation by the other party. A statement from the Pentagon said ‘Our MQ-9 aircraft was conducting routine operations in international airspace when it was intercepted and hit by a Russian aircraft, resulting in a crash and a complete loss of the MQ-9’, before adding the alleged Russian actions could lead to ‘miscalculation and unintended escalation’. Well, that’s something else to help you sleep better at night innit.

The Black Sea itself has been what one might call ‘a hot spot’ since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, but the invasion of Ukraine last year has seen an increase in surveillance jaunts over the area; whilst US and UK aircraft hovering around the region have officially remained in international airspace, there’s always the understandable suspicion the odd plane sneaks ‘behind enemy lines’. Russian aircraft are hardly noted for scrupulously observing the rules when it comes to the airspace of a sovereign nation, so it wouldn’t be a great stretch of the imagination to envisage Western aircraft doing likewise. The incident that occurred yesterday was clearly viewed by Washington as deliberate rather than an accident, which implies that if the drone remained in international airspace at the time of the collision, this was indeed the Russians overstepping the mark. This perspective certainly holds sway in the US, resulting in the Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov being summoned to provide an explanation; back home in Moscow, however, the state media regarded the presence of the drone as ‘a provocation’. Tit for tat, then.

The Pentagon claims the ‘unsafe, unprofessional’ actions on the part of the Russian aircraft consisted of dumping fuel in the flight path of the drone in a ‘reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner’, followed by a collision with it that eventually caused it to fall to earth. According to the National Security Council, this incident wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it was the most significant to date in terms of damage done. The US didn’t reveal the precise location where the drone landed or if the Russian Navy had embarked on a search for it, but the notion of such sensitive equipment falling into enemy hands is naturally undesirable; it would seem the US used remote pilots to ensure the drone splashed down somewhere in the Black Sea following the collision, which was probably the safest option given the delicate situation, though that doesn’t necessarily mean its secrets are secure on the sea bed. The support being given to Ukraine by the West isn’t limited to providing military hardware, but military intelligence; Kyiv has become dependent on the findings of Western surveillance drones revealing everything from the launching of missiles to the movement of Russian vessels in the Black Sea. It goes without saying that this information going astray wouldn’t help the Ukrainian cause.

Russia, on its part, has demanded the US cease what it refers to as ‘hostile flights’ into Russian airspace; the same Ambassador who was called to provide an explanation for his nation’s actions yesterday, Anatoly Antonov, was prompted to say, ‘We presume the United States will refrain from further speculation in the media space and will stop flying near Russian borders’. There have certainly been some fairly unambiguous indications via Russian state media that the remains of the drone are being actively sought by Russian authorities, though the White House’s spokesman John Kirby has insisted the likelihood of it being recovered – by either side – seems fairly slim. ‘I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to recover it,’ he said. ‘Where it fell into the Black Sea – very, very deep water; so we’re still assessing whether there can be any kind of recovery effort. There may not be.’ Mr Kirby then did his best to affirm that any information the drone contained wouldn’t be much use to Moscow anyway – ‘We did the best we could to minimise any intelligence value that might come from somebody else getting their hands on that drone,’ he added. Two lines from the old Megadeth song, ‘Hanger 18’ now spring to mind – ‘Military intelligence/two words combined that don’t make sense’; Thrash Metal, not known for its profound observations, occasionally delivers the goods.

This incident is clearly not on the same propaganda level as the U2 affair of 1960; for one thing, there is no all-American boy to present as evidence and (as yet) no drone to produce as the next best thing. But it does perhaps highlight yet again the tensions along an international fault-line between East and West that appears as wobbly today as it was 60 years ago. Events in Ukraine and Putin’s persecution complex have combined to create a climate of suspicion and mutual mistrust that has a distinctly chilly whiff of Cold War air about it, with the Kremlin declaring that relations with the US are in a ‘lamentable state’ on the same day that RAF and German fighter jets intercepted a Russian aircraft drifting into Estonian airspace on behalf of NATO. Indeed, sometimes it feels like the Berlin Wall never fell after all.

I suppose a key difference re the West on our rebooted Cold War front is the notable lack of pro-Russian sympathies on this side of the divide. First time round, there were strong Soviet leanings on the Left that ran all the way from university campuses to the grubby backrooms of Trades Union branches; the same attitudes that had turned a blind eye to Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and were strengthened by our alliance with the USSR against Nazi Germany during WWII held firm that Communism was the only alternative to capitalism’s iniquities; even events in Hungary and Czechoslovakia couldn’t shake that conviction. Today, the sole Russians the West courts are exiled oligarchs whilst Putin’s regime is viewed as akin to Hitler’s by all but a few scattered apologists; the popular cause is Ukraine, and Russia is regarded very much as the evil aggressor. A superior state of affairs to those in the past, perhaps; but still very black and white, still very Us and Them – which rarely bodes well for future international relations.

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Old Father Time2022 – yet another one of ‘those years’; yes, this glorious century hasn’t exactly been short on them, and if you, like me, had a fittingly crap Christmas then you won’t be sorry to see the back of 2022, even if 2023 is hardly loaded with optimistic anticipation. When a year is characterised by chaos, chances are the chaos is as prevalent at the top as it is at the bottom, and we certainly had that in abundance from our ‘betters’ this year. The fact that 2022 saw the UK led by three different Prime Ministers – including one who had the shortest run in the history of the office – suggests either those at the top are keeping up with the rest of us, or they’re largely responsible for the chaos, depending on how one apportions responsibility. But when one recalls the year began with the fall-out from the Partygate affair that eventually led to Boris’s premature exit, and that by the autumn his immediate successor managed to set off alarm bells in the City – provoking an even more premature exit – then looking to leaders for leadership proved an utterly futile exercise, fracturing even further the already fragile faith and trust in our elected representatives.

And then, the Health Secretary overseeing the pandemic response turns himself into a tawdry celebrity with a staggering absence of shame and guilt in a desperate attempt to court redemption; who in their right mind could respect an unprincipled worm like Matt Hancock, a man whose actions seemed as emblematic of the corrupt, degenerate decay at the amoral heart of an amoral administration as Boris Johnson himself? If that’s the way those at the top behave, perhaps it’s no wonder those of us who reside closer to the bottom express nothing less than absolute contempt for them – and no longer have any belief in their ability to make our lives better; and if they can’t, who can? That can’t really be good for democracy. But it’s not as if the UK was alone in being exceptionally ill-led in 2022. Out in the colonies, Monsieur Trudeau reacted to a grass-roots challenge to his authority by unleashing every verbal weapon in the Woke arsenal to demonise and discredit the protesting truckers and their supporters; he even stooped to freezing their bank accounts, exploiting the vulnerability of a monetary system the public has been bludgeoned into depending on and using lessons learnt during the pandemic, when those doubting the wisdom of lockdowns and untested vaccines were smeared as enemies of the people.

Closer to home, in Soviet Scotland, the even more authoritarian and illiberal SNP pressed ahead with their plans to allow men who simply ‘identify’ as the opposite sex to be legally recognised as women – surgery not included – after a mere three-month trial period. Hot on the heels of wee Nicola’s attempt to push for yet another independence referendum being rendered null and void without Westminster’s say-so, the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Bill not only faces potential legal challenges in the rest of the UK, but could prove to be an Identitarian step too far, certainly if the uproar amongst women’s and children’s rights campaigners is anything to go by. One hopes it might belatedly alert the more English-phobic Scots that their nasty nationalist darlings don’t necessarily have their best interests at heart. The long-overdue revelations of the crimes committed in the name of ‘diversity’ by the likes of the butchers at the Tavistock Clinic and the pseudo-paedophilic charity Mermaids had at last enabled dissenting voices to finally be heard without censorship, yet the SNP turned a blind eye to all this, displaying greater sympathy towards the ‘human rights’ of male sex offenders than in preserving natural-born women-only spaces.

The ‘empowerment’ of confused adolescents by such a bill is a dangerous development that threatens to set back progress just at the point when it was finally being made; the scandal of Tavistock and its ilk was gaining exposure as endless stories of children brainwashed into believing gender reassignment was the answer to all their teenage problems were being heard, yet the SNP bill fails to acknowledge the damage done just as it fails to recognise Transgenderism in its most superficial form is effectively the latest adolescent cult. Online videos of schoolboys in makeup undergoing ‘period pains’ in their bedrooms is a sick trend that recalls devotees of fanatical religious sects being possessed by the Devil; however, unlike past tribal loyalties with a short sell-by date, any emotionally disturbed teenager buying into this particular cult and paying the ultimate price with life-changing surgery can’t simply bin the clothes and haircut that served as the visual hallmarks of the cult once he or she moves on to the next one – as teenagers are prone to doing; and the SNP bill ignores the evidence to appease its rainbow flag-waving activist friends. Mind you, those activists now have such a deep foothold in so many of our institutions that the 2+2=5 dogma they espouse is in danger of becoming legal fact; even revered dictionaries have capitulated to this fantasy reality, further adding to the sense that the West is rapidly disappearing down the toilet.

No wonder Vladimir Putin doesn’t see the West as an obstacle to his imperial ambitions; in his own way, Vlad is as much a fantasist as the Trans activists or the Net Zero climate zealots vandalising works of art, and he’s getting away with it as much as they are; only a couple of days ago, yet another former ally who had the nerve to question Putin’s Ukraine adventure ‘committed suicide’ via the familiar leap from a skyscraper window; I wonder why Putin’s enemies never just opt for the old gas oven or bottle of pills, eh? Funny, that. But while Vlad disposes of his foes on foreign soil completely unchallenged, he found that his assault on Ukraine received its most devastating setback not from the timid West, but from the courageous Ukrainians themselves. The perfectly natural wave of sympathy for the innocents exposed to the merciless march of the Russian war machine led to Brits who just a few months earlier weren’t even allowed to visit each other being encouraged to open their doors to Ukrainian refugees; less public sympathy was reserved for illegal economic migrants hailing from the war-less environs of Albania as the unscrupulous people-smuggling trade appeared to be one of the year’s few boom industries. Whether Rwanda is the answer is another matter; sadly, the Channel has rarely been kind to opportunists.

If Vladimir Putin was shaken out of his complacency by the unexpected resistance of the Ukrainian people, Iran’s similarly ruthless rulers were equally taken aback by a rebellion on home turf, largely led by incredibly brave young women publicly trashing the symbols of their oppression – something that was again met with notable silence from the gutless West. And when overseas protests did receive tacit support from the West, such as those that occurred as a result of China’s futile attempts to maintain a ‘Zero Covid’ policy, that support came from none other than Justin Trudeau, incapable of discerning the parallels between the inhumane authority of the Chinese Government and his own approach to both the truckers and the coronavirus. Indeed, having been presented with unimagined control over their own people during the pandemic, it was unsurprising that many Western leaders have been reluctant to relinquish the powers they’d acquired, continually extending their over-reach into the private lives of their citizens in an insidious trend that needs to be resisted.

Back home, a series of strikes by both rail and postal workers served to gift additional joy to a British public already browbeaten by a surge in fuel costs, though at least the whole ‘cost of living’ narrative has provided the MSM with a boost to the flagging Project Fear plotline. The fact that the one certainty of 70 years’ vintage should breathe her last in the middle of all this chaos seemed almost symptomatic of a year in which nothing and no one could be relied upon or trusted anymore. 2022 was a year bereft of certainties, and after the last twelve months, only a fool would confidently reach for the crystal ball and predict what comes next.

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Kerch BridgeThe absence of commemorative events marking the occasion could easily blind the ignorant to the fact October 1962 was something of a pivotal turning point in recent history. Yes, on the 5th of that month 60 years ago, two significant pop cultural events occurred that elevated Britain out of its post-colonial hangover and gave the nation – and eventually the whole Western world – the kiss of life: the simultaneous release of the first Beatles single, ‘Love Me Do’, and the first James Bond film, ‘Dr No’. But the importance of these releases in shaping the 60s wasn’t immediately apparent, what with global eyes distracted by an island 80 nautical miles off the coast of Florida. Mind you, Cuba had hogged its fair share of headlines since the overthrow of President Batista by Fidel Castro and his band of hairy revolutionaries in 1959; the Bay of Pigs fiasco had only taken place the year before 1962, of course, and when Cuba’s new regime found its Faustian pact with the USSR required setting aside land for Soviet missiles aimed at America, the US response to this encroachment on its doorstep was to blockade Cuba and mobilise its troops into war mode.

As is obvious due to the fact we’re all still currently here (for the moment, anyway), the anticipated apocalypse many were preparing for in the autumn of 1962 was averted via a staring contest between Kennedy and Khrushchev; the Soviet leader blinked first and the missiles were shipped back to the USSR. Barely a year later, Kennedy was gone courtesy of an assassin’s bullet and Khrushchev himself was ousted a year after that. The Cold War’s most dangerous impasse passed into history and the world breathed a sigh of relief, turning its attention to Swinging for a bit. Yet the Cuban Missile Crisis, particularly since Tsar Vladimir decided to revive old enmities between East and West, remains a cautionary historical reference point whenever nuclear strikes are evoked as a loaded threat to escalate a conflict such as that currently taking place in Ukraine; Putin’s media cronies get off on this kind of sabre-rattling and Sleepy Joe himself was momentarily prodded awake to resurrect the ghost of Cuban missiles by claiming we were closer to the prospect of Armageddon right now that at any time since 1962.

There are numerous differences between today’s Cold War franchise reboot and the original series, however. The US and the Soviets were engaged in a long-running ideological battle in the second half of the 20th century that often translated into a geographical one. Their tussles on foreign fields mirrored the global clashes over territory between the superpowers of the previous century, the British and the French, but Soviet and American collisions tended to be by proxy. The Soviets would provoke and back a coup in Asia or South America and the Americans would do likewise, with both superpowers providing their chosen side with military and financial assistance in a constant tit-for-tat engagement; but whenever either the US or the USSR sent their own troops in to the disputed territory, both became bogged down for years. It was easier to pull the strings of the natives. Also, unlike the 19th century, there was no defining endgame along the lines of Waterloo, probably because if there had been, the nature of the weaponry would have wiped out the majority of the human race. Cuba in 1962 could have been that endgame, but the genuine catastrophe the planet was poised on the cusp of 60 years ago has no real parallels with Ukraine today.

Right now, evoking the Cuban Missile Crisis seems to be another scaremongering tactic as the 20th century’s two leftover superpowers are engaged in a pissing contest like a pair of incontinent pensioners; but both are well-versed in reciting Project Fear narratives to get what they want, and the recent attempts by Vlad to call-up every Russian male of fighting age (or ‘reservists’) has prompted thousands earmarked as cannon-fodder to head for the hills – or in the direction of the nearest border. The sudden imposition of the draft has widened divisions between the hawks and the doves in Russia, backfiring badly and failing to unite the country against an alleged common enemy; it looks like precisely what it is – a desperate throw of the dice by a man confronted by the failure of his own overstretched ambitions. Putin’s invasion has proven to not quite be the swift walkover it was painted as before the tanks rolled into Ukraine, and lingering memories of past military blunders that ended up as prolonged, vainglorious exercises in imperial futility (i.e. Afghanistan) are resurfacing as the Russian forces in Ukraine are belatedly realising they’re up against the kind of fearless resistance they didn’t expect.

Saturday morning’s explosion on the Kerch Bridge, the main artery from Russia to Crimea used to ferry troops, ammunition and equipment from the Motherland to units in the south of Ukraine, leaves another chink in the armour of Putin’s war machine and could be of potential significance. Erected following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the impressive construction is both symbolic and strategic, and even if the damage done is repaired in record time the incident nevertheless stands as an important propaganda victory for the Ukrainians as well as one more blow to beleaguered Russian morale. After all, it’s embarrassing enough for the invaders that their own abandoned weaponry is being used against them; according to the latest estimates, over half of Ukraine’s tank fleet currently in the field has been captured from the enemy. Some estimates have speculated the Ukrainian forces have helped themselves to upwards of 440 Russian Main Battle Tanks and the best part of 650 other armoured vehicles, with fleeing Russian troops failing to destroy the equipment they left behind, so speedy and demoralising was their withdrawal.

The vital logistical supply route the Kerch Bridge has been throughout the Ukraine conflict means the blast that collapsed part of it leaves Russian forces occupying the southern regions of Ukraine dependent upon a solitary railway line from Krasnodar to Melitopol as a transport link; following the attack on the Kerch Bridge, it seems this route too now falls within range of the Ukrainians. The Russians had long imagined the Bridge well beyond the reach of Ukrainian forces, along with the rest of Crimea; the major assault on this ‘safe space’ is bound to have shaken Russian (over) confidence even further, coming as it has hot on the heels of recent explosions in Russian-held Crimean locations such as the naval air base in Saky, giving Ukraine the belief it can retake Crimea. And whilst responsibility for the Bridge blast has yet to be owned by Kyiv, a tweet from one of President Zelensky’s advisers proudly proclaimed, ‘Crimea, the bridge, the beginning. Everything illegal must be destroyed, everything stolen must be returned to Ukraine, everything belonging to the Russian occupation must be expelled.’

Whether the forced conscription of those civilians the authorities can actually catch before they escape Russia, or four regions of Ukraine being annexed via the signing of dubious ‘treaties’ by Vlad, or the threatened deployment of chemical and nuclear weapons, the battle being conducted away from the battlefield comes across as having the same air of desperation as the actual military campaign. Dissenting voices are apparently now emanating even from within the Kremlin itself, though Putin’s persecution complex means they’ll only be interpreted as treasonous, as is all criticism of the great dictator. Putin’s Soviet predecessor Nikita Khrushchev was removed via an internal coup largely organised by Leonid Brezhnev; but less power was invested in the person of the Soviet Premier than rests in the hands of the Russian Presidency, with Putin himself being the author of so many rewritten elements of the constitution that has strengthened his position over the years. It remains to be seen how much this current crisis will weaken that position; all depends on how it goes. And at the moment, it’s not going well.

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BearIn the wake of other (somewhat distracting) events over the past seven days, footage that has snuck largely under the radar nevertheless glaringly highlights the contradiction in the narrative the Kremlin has been pedalling ever since the Russian military encroached into sovereign territory earlier this year. Fancy that! Yes, some may recall the fairy stories of ‘Far-Right Nazis’ running riot through the former Soviet outpost that the Ukrainian people begged to be liberated from (fairy stories served-up as one element of the justification for invasion), though the reaction of the Ukrainian people via videos posted on social media as Ukrainian forces stormed into town and retook territory didn’t necessarily portray a terrified populace bereft at losing their Russian liberators. In many respects, the footage evoked archive of the French people reacting to Allied Forces recapturing Paris in 1944 – with little old ladies in headscarves tearfully embracing Ukrainian troops and giving every impression they were actually pleased to see the ‘Nazis’ back in town.

The disorientated Russian units fleeing the land-grabs seized in the first flush of invasion have employed a variation on the old ‘scorched earth’ policy on their way out: They’ve bombed civilian infrastructure, targeting power-plants, electricity substations and water supplies as they exit with their tails between their legs, provoking blackouts in the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions en route. Just yesterday, cruise missiles hit a reservoir dam of no military value in Kryvyi Rih, flooding hundreds of homes. Even as the tide momentarily appears to have turned in this conflict, Russia’s achievement in exterminating centuries of kinship and shared cultural ties between the Russian and Ukrainian people – something even the disintegration of the USSR couldn’t eradicate – is arguably as significant as any military loss; Putin’s war machine has managed this in just six months. The legacy of the damage done will probably linger a little longer, however, though at least the impressive victory of the Ukrainian counterattack has humiliated the supposed, superior military might of the motherland and strengthened Ukraine’s spirit in the process.

Unverified stats from the Ukrainian Army claim 20 villages were taken back in less than 48 hours, though indisputable territorial gains for Ukraine in the past week have undoubtedly put a massive dent in the Russian armour that appeared impregnable when the operation began. The State flag has been raised again in the city of Izyum and Russian troops are reported to have spurned orders from Moscow by shedding official uniforms and resorting to donning civilian threads in order to save their individual skins in a manner that has uncomfortable echoes of the actual Nazis during the period when the death camps were being liberated over 70 years ago. Reports suggest considerable Russian ammunition has been abandoned in the evacuation of the north by the retreating regiments; clearly, unlike the carcasses of the US military hardware that littered the countryside of Vietnam for decades, Ukraine is making use of what its uninvited guest left behind. The actions of the Ukrainian military have also shown that being able to call upon the assistance and support of every Western nation will pay off as long as you have the tactical nous to use their weapons wisely – and the bulk of American weaponry hasn’t even been delivered yet.

Ukraine claims it has recaptured 1,158 square miles of occupied land from Russia and even some Russians in Ukraine are going on the record by stating the Ukrainians outnumber them by eight to one in the key regions following the Kharkiv counterattack. It can at least be verified that in a matter of days, 70 kilometres of Ukrainian soil that was in Russian hands has returned to its rightful owners. The institutionally corrupt Russian Army appears to have overstretched itself in certain strategic quarters of the country and the Ukrainians have expertly exploited their enemy where it was at its weakest. Yes, around a fifth of Ukraine remains occupied, but it seems the momentum is currently firmly with the invaded rather than the invader. Needless to say, anyone who thinks it’s all over will no doubt be in for a long wait before they can cry ‘Is it now!’ But recent gains by Ukraine have been a significant reversal of Russian fortunes that deserve noting. A canny strategy by the Ukrainian forces to spread rumours of an attack on vulnerable Russian troops in the south via social media sent Russian reinforcements pouring into the region, only to leave the Russians exposed in the north, which is how the Ukrainians were able to launch their successful counteroffensive in that part of the country. Clever.

The morale-sapped Russians are even attempting to step back from the borderline genocide-speak some espoused early on by romanticising the traditional connections between the two nations that the invasion has severed with such ruthlessness; but it’s too late. Reports of brutality beyond the rules of engagement have emerged in the wake of the towns and villages being liberated, including the Kharkiv city of Balakliya, where a six-month occupation by Russian troops saw the police station used as an interrogation centre by the occupying forces. Grim accounts of torture involving electric shocks have been relayed to the outside world by those who suffered in the temporary Russian HQ and by those who heard the cries of the tortured ringing across the neighbourhood – something the Russians made sure were broadcast by switching off the loud ventilation system in the building. The liberation of many towns has also revealed hundreds of civilian corpses, atrocities representing the final nail in the coffin of Russian/Ukrainian ‘brotherly love’.

The contrast between defender and attacker in terms of their approach to this conflict is perhaps best highlighted by how Russia is pretending it’s not engaged in a war – after all, Vlad insisted he was ‘liberating’ Ukraine from those pesky invisible Nazis, not perpetrating an act of aggression against an independent neighbour; the majority of the Russian people, spoon-fed propaganda by state media, have accepted this premise and haven’t been mobilised onto a war footing. Their perception of the truth being shaped by this platform for Putin has also enabled the great dictator to avoid the kind of resistance he anticipates should he exhibit actual honesty. The Ukrainian forces, on the other hand, have recognised Russia’s actions for what they are and have risen to the challenge, galvanising the entire nation into fighting back against an almighty aggressor. Russia might have begun the war with the superior hardware, but the dysfunctional structure of its Army means it was ill-prepared for a prolonged conflict. In part, it’s almost reminiscent of how the British Army once was, with its incompetent aristocrats leading regiments simply because they bought a commission – before the worst calamities of the Crimean War belatedly brought about some much-needed change.

Thankfully, six months of this hasn’t anaesthetised outsiders to the horrors inflicted upon the Ukrainian people; the sheer visceral revulsion provoked by some of the images that have made it to Western screens hasn’t descended into the fatigue the American public allegedly experienced when Vietnam was recognised as the first televised war in the late 60s. Some of the snippets I’ve caught on TV or online have stayed with me for days, as I’m sure they have millions of others – mainly the footage of town centres peppered with people trying to go about their daily business as missiles hit and the carnage unfolds in real-time. Such images strengthen convictions that what Russia is doing is wrong, convictions that will remain strong. Yes, of course, propaganda is not a tool invented by (or exclusively used by) Russia in times of war; but they’re so much better at it than anyone else because Putin has excelled in its usage to justify every crime he and his regime have committed for years. However, if you happen to find yourself in Russia and point this out, probably best to make sure you steer clear of standing near a window in a tall building.

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LamplighterIt could be worse, I guess – we could be Germany; no, this isn’t anything to do with the War, not the 1939-’45 one, anyway. Events in Ukraine that have been in full swing for six months now have undoubtedly impacted on life in Western Europe, especially when it comes to the import & export trade, though Tsar Vlad’s invasion does provide politicians with a convenient get-out-of-jail card, one that serves to obscure their own failings over the past two or three years. Don’t blame it on the sunshine, don’t blame it on the moonlight, don’t blame it on the good times – blame it on Ukraine. Don’t blame it on the lockdown, don’t blame it on Covid, don’t blame it on Net Zero – blame it on Ukraine. Considering Germany’s somewhat…er…problematic history with Russia, perhaps Frau Merkel reckoned it was a nice reconciliatory gesture to entrust the old enemy with providing the majority of Germany’s gas imports. She obviously (not to say inexplicably) didn’t foresee a time when Comrade Putin might use this to his advantage; after all, it’s not as if he hasn’t sought to extend his nation’s current borders via military means in the past, is it?

Following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Mrs Merkel eagerly embraced the ‘renewable energy’ agenda and announced all of Germany’s nuclear power plants would be gone by…well…this year. Eight of the country’s 17 were permanently closed in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s very own Chernobyl, yet the alternative to the system being phased-out overnight wasn’t necessarily very ‘Green’, reliant as it is on coal-fired electricity production; since 2011, this has led to an increase in deaths caused by fossil fuel pollution. Is the idea to save the planet by killing its inhabitants? Like many a political leader, Merkel seized upon renewable energy as a move to boost her short-term popularity, yet the swift winding-down of the nuclear power industry in Germany continued apace throughout her lengthy tenure in office; as things stand, there are a mere three remaining plants still operational today. Reliance on Russia for natural gas was underlined by the controversial Nord 2 pipeline project, which has yet to open for business; largely financed by Russian-owned energy giant Gazprom, final construction on the pipeline was suspended when Russia invaded Ukraine; Russia responded by slashing supplies of gas to Germany down to 20% of its capacity.

Despite pleas by the German nuclear power industry to extend the life of the three plants left when confronted by the prospect of an energy emergency following Russia’s response to sanctions, the German Government is refusing to budge and waver from its rigid Green commitments. Instead, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s administration has announced severe restrictions on the use of electricity that will come into effect this winter. Anyone who either lived through – or has experienced second-hand via numerous TV documentaries – the power-cuts imposed upon the UK during the 1972 Miners’ Strike and the 1974 Three-Day Week will recognise some of the measures. To the no-doubt relief of muggers and cat burglars, street lighting will be one of the first casualties; this blackout will also be extended to the illumination of monuments, buildings and shop-fronts; moreover, heating of public buildings will be reduced with the exception of hospitals. Anyone wondering what these measures will make the German capital look like at night need only track down the footage of Piccadilly Circus deprived of its gaudy light-show 50 years ago. But it’s hoped the restrictions will save upwards of €10.8bn, so that’s alright.

Prior to the closure of three further plants at the end of last year, nuclear power was responsible for 13.3% of Germany’s electricity, whilst up until the fallout from the Ukraine situation, Russia was providing Germany with as much as 55% of its gas supplies; yes, it doesn’t exactly sound like economic sense to be dependent on such a notoriously untrustworthy foreign power for your fuel, but that’s the position Germany finds itself in. And it’s not alone. Russia was supplying the best part of 40% of gas across the EU before sanctions provoked a hasty reduction, and despite Monsieur Macron’s much-publicised freezing of gas prices and a cap on energy increases, neither measure will see out the winter, when gas and electricity will naturally be far more in demand that they are at the moment. The French are already switching off street lighting every night for around three-and-a-half hours in parts of Paris, but most are more concerned with the impact of restrictions in the workplace, and especially the home. Mind you, the Germans are way ahead in their Project Fear preparations, for the country is also looking forward to a fresh wave of Covid infections come the autumn, giving the population something else to look forward to before the fun-packed winter arrives.

According to the German Government, lockdowns will not constitute their strategy this time round. They’ve left such a damaging legacy in every country that imposed them that even Rishi Sunak, desperately seeking an 89th minute winner against ‘Stars in Their Eyes’ Thatcher Ms Liz, has publicly declared he thought they were a mistake. Any further school closures have also been frowned upon by German Health Minister, Karl Lauterbach; let’s be honest, the disastrous interrupting of children’s education all over again would hardly be a vote-winner. Instead, Germany has opted for the safe option of reintroducing and reinforcing mask-wearing on public transport as well as Covid tests being a requisite for entering any institution housing the vulnerable, such as hospitals or care homes. The World Health Organisation has also got its scaremongering hat on once more re the coronavirus; perhaps disappointed that Monkey-pox has been such an anticlimactic sequel to 2020’s blockbuster, the WHO has this week been issuing melodramatic predictions all over again.

‘It is now abundantly clear we’re in a similar situation to last summer,’ read the WHO statement, ‘only, this time the ongoing Covid-19 wave is being propelled by sub-lineages of the omicron variant…with rising cases, we’re also seeing a rise in hospitalisations, which are only set to increase further in the autumn and winter months as schools reopen, people return from holidays and social mixing moves indoors with the onset of colder weather.’ Yeah, move indoors to escape that colder weather, only to find it’s colder in than out due to power-cuts. At least the persistent lobbying of the pharmaceutical industry will be rewarded with the announcement that a new booster jab for the over-50s will be available in Blighty as of September, though cases here have fallen anyway, without the aid of yet another booster; stats show infections have declined nationwide across all age groups, with children unsurprisingly boasting the lowest levels – just as they always have done.

Alas, Covid can’t be blamed on Ukraine, even if the ill-thought-out policies to combat it that we endured in 2020 and ’21 are more responsible for the state we’re in (and the state we’ll be in this winter) than what’s currently going on in Eastern Europe. Still, entrusting Russia with the contract to supply Western Europe with so much of its gas was an arrangement that was hardly guaranteed to progress along a smooth, uneventful course with a man like Vlad at the helm, and the whole Ukraine situation is clearly playing no small part in the gloomy narrative of the moment. But the futile pursuit of the Green dream that has taken possession of so many Western Governments is one that can also take its fair share of the blame; our own Net Zero fantasy threatens to condemn more to fuel poverty than anything Russia can use as a bargaining chip, whereas Germany’s determination to exclude nuclear power as a viable option when its suicidal reliance on Russia for energy was destined to end in tears is an extreme example of what can happen when just the one basket contains all your eggs.

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ElenaMedia types who weren’t even there have spent several months now banging on about how Britain is going ‘back to the 70s’ simply because they assume today’s perilous economic climate is somehow comparable to that of a decade they only know through endlessly recycled clichés of candlelit households, picket lines, and pavements piled high with rubbish. Ironically, however, whilst the hysterical heads on our news channels were promoting the cost-of-living crisis as the embodiment of this narrative, the summer’s premier sporting contest came close to experiencing a moment genuinely reminiscent of a 70s incident that almost caused its cancellation 49 years ago. Like Wimbledon 2022, Wimbledon 1973 saw a British man reach the semi-final of the singles’ tournament, yet the achievements of both Cameron Norrie and Roger Taylor were overshadowed by events off-court.

In 1973, the Open Era was still a relatively new innovation and the leading tennis players of the period were feeling liberated by the sudden change in their circumstances – especially financially. Take a player like Rod Laver, still the only man in the history of the sport to twice hold all four Grand Slam titles in a calendar year; the fact he achieved this in 1962 but then not again until 1969 highlights how from 1963 to 1968 Laver was unable to compete in such tournaments, as their Olympian ideal stated one had to be an amateur to take part; once you turned pro and tried to make a living from your talent, you were effectively exiled from the competitive game thereafter. A long-overdue change to the rules in the late 60s restored the world’s greatest tennis players to the Grand Slam stage, including Laver; but who knows how many more titles he could have added to his 198 (which remains a record) had he not lost five years in the middle of his career. By 1972, buoyed by the lucrative Open Era, the formation of the Association of Tennis Professionals had given players some independent clout and this was something they demonstrated the following year when they flexed their muscles against the International Lawn Tennis Federation, the global governing body of the game.

The first opportunity for players to take a stance came when Nikola Pilić, Yugoslavia’s No.1, was suspended by his own national lawn tennis association on the grounds he had bowed out of a Davis Cup tie played by his nation; the suspension spanned nine months and was supported by the ILTF; it was eventually reduced to a month, but that month encompassed the Wimbledon fortnight. The ATP responded to the ban by stating that if it wasn’t lifted they’d pull their players out of the tournament in support; what followed next were weeks of legal wrangling which eventually ended in an ATP boycott of the men’s singles at Wimbledon. 13 of the intended 16 seeds pulled out, with only the likes of the 1972 Wimbledon runner-up Ilie Năstase and Britain’s Roger Taylor defying the boycott amongst the more established players; up-and-coming youngsters such as Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors took advantage to progress in the absence of the bigger names (including defending champ Stan Smith), and the title was won by Czech Jan Kodeš, whose presence representing an Eastern Bloc country probably meant he had no option but to compete.

49 years later, the Russian invasion of Ukraine provoked several measures by the world of sport; the ATP – not quite as anti-establishment as in its original incarnation half-a-century earlier – responded with the token gesture of relocating the St Petersburg Open to Kazakhstan at the beginning of the conflict, but didn’t enforce a ban of Russian or Belarusian players from tournaments, unlike other sporting bodies, such as FIFA, UEFA and the IOC. When Wimbledon came around, however, a ban was imposed. The ATP’s rather petulant reaction, one that perhaps emphasised how far it had come since its formation 50 years before, was to remove world ranking points from Wimbledon. Prestigious competitions such as the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup upheld the same ban of players from Russia and Belarus, yet both the French and US Open declined to follow suit; in the case of the former, it decided to go with the unsatisfactory compromise of having players from the guilty countries participate as ‘neutral players without national flags’. The decision of the All England Club was applauded by several Ukrainian players, though the ATP sided with the now-ITF this time round. Defending Wimbledon men’s champion (and a man who retained his crown yet again yesterday) Novak Djokovic criticised the ban, though as someone who has already suffered at the hands of a political incursion into sport via his experience at the Australian Open at the beginning of the year, perhaps it’s understandable he wants to keep politics out of tennis. At one point, it seemed as though the tournament was threatened with a rerun of 1973, though in the end it didn’t quite work out as planned for the All England Club.

One might say Wimbledon’s ban has backfired – and the moral conundrum of holding sportsmen and women responsible for the actions of the nations whose flags they perform under is a contentious one; it denied the competition the men’s world No.1 Daniil Medvedev, for one thing; but if the non-appearance of Russia’s former Wimbledon champ Maria Sharapova (who sensationally defeated Serena Williams as a 17-year-old in 2004) at the past champions’ parade was a notable casualty of the ban, it was perhaps viewed as less of an awkward absentee than usual BBC pundit Boris Becker, who no doubt tried to catch what he could of the tournament whilst sewing mailbags on D Wing. No, the implications of the ban became more embarrassing for the All England Club as a girl born and raised in Moscow progressed through the tournament and ended up making it all the way to the ladies’ final; up against Ons Jabeur, the Tunisian No.1 and the first North African woman to make the final, Elena Rybakina was not exactly the winner the burghers of Wimbledon were hoping for. Jabeur winning the opening set of the final eased a few furrowed brows; but Rybakina dug deep and struck back for a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory.

There was no doubt Ons Jabeur was the woman the All England Club and the BBC were keeping their fingers crossed for, but Rybakina spoilt the party and maintained the impressive trail she’d blazed throughout the tournament, none more so than when crushing in-form 2019 champ Simona Halep in the semi-final, 6-3, 6-3. After the pre-tournament headlines had been so focused on the enforced absence of Russian and Belarusian players – a decision that was entirely in line with the UK’s support of Ukraine, lest we forget – perhaps the ultimate embarrassment for Wimbledon came when the Duchess of Cambridge in her capacity as patron of the All England Club had little choice but to present the Venus Rosewater Dish to a player destined to be used as a propaganda weapon by Moscow, regardless of how much distance Rybakina has attempted to place between herself and her homeland’s government. At the same time, she remains rather evasive on whether Moscow is still where she lives.

To be fair to Rybakina, her defection to Kazakhstan dates back to 2018 rather than being a convenient switching of flags to evade an international boycott; she’s not guilty of the kind of canny relocation that South African cricketers routinely engaged in during that nation’s lengthy stint as a sporting pariah during Apartheid. She only really represented the country of her birth at junior level; when she turned pro and embarked upon the women’s circuit full-time aged 19, it was the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation that offered her financial support and far superior coaching facilities than that which were being provided back home. She changed her nationality and has therefore competed under the Kazakhstan flag for the past five years; the fact remains, however, that the women’s winner of Wimbledon in a year when Russian players were exiled from the competition was a born-and-bred Muscovite. Maybe there’s a point to be made somewhere in there – a match-point, perhaps.

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ShishimarinAlmost 60 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson swore that his escalation of the US intervention in the distant Cold War battlefields of South-East Asia (which had been instigated by his prematurely-retired predecessor in the White House) was not one in which civilians were deliberately being targeted; LBJ claimed the upsurge in American bombing raids over North Vietnam was a calculated attempt to target industry and military installations, thus weakening the Soviet-backed Viet Cong. If the civilian population happened to get in the way, it was a pure accident and not intentional. Ever since, this has been the justification mantra of all Western leaders engaged in overseas conflicts whenever the subject of civilian casualties has been raised, though so successful has this tactic proven to be that even the likes of a world leader full of Eastern promise such as Vladimir Putin have adopted it as official protocol where opposition to foreign interventionism is concerned.

In order to vindicate his stance, Russia’s elected dictator has also cynically evoked a deep-rooted, romantic attachment to an ideal of the motherland that echoes everything from an ISIS recruitment manual to the IRA’s sentimental appeal to the displaced Irishmen of Boston and New York whenever it was time to produce the green-coloured begging bowl. Saving the Ukrainians from an enemy within – one bent on perverting the ancient ties between Ukraine and its invading ‘liberator’ – seems to be the Russian excuse to justify any number of war crimes as recognised by international standards. However, that ‘enemy within’ has learnt its lessons and has taken the opportunity to capitalise on global revulsion to Putin’s war machine by going through the war trial motions a long way from The Hague. A hastily-convened tribunal in Ukraine has judged a 21-year-old captured Russian tank commander, name of Sgt Vadim Shishimarin, as being guilty of murdering a civilian and has imposed a life sentence upon him.

Sgt Shishimarin has been convicted of the murder of a 62-year-old Ukrainian called Oleksandr Shelipov in the village of Chupakhivak back in February, and his defence (for what it was) fell back on the old Nazi excuse of ‘only obeying orders’ to highlight the unique conditions of wartime. The Kremlin’s response to this judgement has been to issue the threat that Ukrainian prisoners will receive equal treatment when tried as war criminals in Moscow, placing an ongoing conflict in the dirty hands of a legal profession hardly guaranteed to deliver justice when demands for a specific verdict will be overwhelming. The spur for Russia to engage in judicial tit-for-tat came via the judge at the trial of Sgt Vadim Shishimarin, who proclaimed ‘Given that the crime committed is a crime against peace, security, humanity and the international legal order, the court does not see the possibility of imposing a shorter sentence of imprisonment.’

At a time when the world’s focus – or the focus of the world online – appears to be fixed on a courtroom spat between a pair of overpaid and unsympathetic Hollywood planks, the first war trial of anyone involved in the current Ukrainian skirmish has come as a sobering contrast to the self-indulgent and highly public marriage guidance counselling of Tinsel Town; yet the trial of Sgt Shishimarin has had its own moments of drama shaming the simultaneous acting class being acted out by Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. During the televised trial, the widow of the man Sgt Shishimarin has been found guilty of murdering confronted her husband’s killer and asked him why his presence had even been necessary in her country to begin with. ‘Tell me please,’ she demanded, ‘why did you come here – to protect us? Protect us from whom? Did you protect me from my husband, whom you killed?’

Sgt Shishimarin’s story was that he and several of his soldiers had requisitioned a vehicle when separated from their Kantemirovskaya tank regiment in north-east Ukraine; upon sighting the unfortunate Mr Shelipov, Shishimarin was pressurised by his fellow troops to open fire with an assault rifle, an action he was reluctant to carry out and twice refused; on the third asking, he did indeed shoot, which resulted in the death of an apparently unarmed Oleksandr Shelipov on his doorstep. If Shishimarin’s version of events is to believed, it’s evident he was an extremely young man plunged into the kind of nightmarish scenario it’s difficult to imagine the extremely young men of the privileged Western world reacting any better to, but none of this truth had any bearing on the verdict of the war crimes tribunal when it sentenced him to a life behind bars. Oleksandr Shelipov was just one of an estimated (by the UN) 3,838 civilians to have suffered a similar fate ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine three months ago, though his case was the first to have received the war crimes treatment and naturally sets an unedifying precedent for the months ahead.

The sorry story of Vadim Shishimarin paints a picture of raw recruits thrown into the deep end and faced with life-or-death decisions their limited life experience has barely prepared them for. Even Shishimarin’s defence lawyer claimed that his client had received no orders from his superiors, nor from the Russian Embassy in Kyiv, which has shut up shop anyway. One imagines Russian units manned by novices and left to their own devices as Putin’s platoons venture so far from Moscow that communication has been all-but abandoned; the anticipated quick ‘n’ easy victory has not materialised and Russian troops have continued to plough on, faced with a virtual guerrilla war that none of them are old enough to recall their forefathers capitulating to in Afghanistan. If one were to travel even further back in the timeline of military history especially sensitive to that corner of the world, one might evoke the equally green German soldiers drafted in to fight a losing battle on the Eastern Front during 1943-45, with only a parade ground pat on the head from the Fuhrer to send them on their doomed way.

Sgt Shishimarin pleaded guilty to the murder of Oleksandr Shelipov, a Ukrainian citizen responding to the invasion of his country like thousands of his countrymen by opposing it in thought if not in deed; the accused didn’t deny the crime, but argued it was carried out in circumstances specific to the theatre of war and under extreme pressure from commanders entrusting boys to do the work of men. Whilst Kremlin denials continue unabated, the Ukraine authorities are eager for the trial of Sgt Shishimarin not to be viewed as a show trial staged in the middle of a war still in full swing and are consequently assembling evidence of upwards of 11,000 alleged war crimes on the part of Russia with a future veritable festival of tribunals in mind that will at least be under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

How many genuine war crimes committed during the Second World War were recognised as such either at the time or in the immediate aftermath of is disputable; it can amount to years, if not decades, for the truth to emerge, and even then the truth can routinely come too late for justice to be enacted. It took the best part of fifteen years, for example, before Adolf Eichmann stood trial in Israel, yet the pursuit of suspected Nazi war criminals was still going on until relatively recently, however decrepit the accused had become by the 21st century. Ukraine appears to have started the process far earlier than is the custom, though one cannot help but feel the actual instigator of the conflict that the likes of Sgt Shishimarin are the patsies of will evade justice – and, unlike the name of a 21-year-old tank commander, we all know it.

© The Editor

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Eurovision UkraineIt wasn’t exactly the same as the sinister sabotage that prevented Cliff and ‘Congratulations’ from claiming the crown in 1968, though it did seem a tad unfair that a recent tweaking of the Eurovision voting system resulted in the UK’s first win for 25 years being downgraded at the eleventh hour. Having soared ahead on the jury vote – and the jury vote always used to be binding – ‘Space Man’ by the hirsute Sam Ryder topped the board once all the individual nations had had their say. Up until the last five or six years, that would’ve been enough and the embarrassing nul points and relegation zone finishes for virtually the whole of this century were poised to be swept aside by a surreal scenario few viewers in this country thought they’d ever see again. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and (even more so) Brexit hardly made us the most popular nation on the Continent, and our European neighbours seemed to relish inflicting an annual humiliation on us. We’d grown so accustomed to it that once Saturday’s votes began to be announced in the broken English of each country’s equivalent of a ‘One Show’ presenter, we expected the same old punishment.

However, despite the standard Swedish Euro ballad and the nutcracker-tastic posteriors of those three Spanish ladies making a big impact in the Turin arena, it was evident more or less from the off that the British entry had impressed almost all of the individual juries. As the voting progressed, we were even receiving maximum points from countries ordinarily regarded as traditional enemies, i.e. France and Germany. The gate-crashing Aussies couldn’t bring themselves to award us anything, though it turned out the Poms didn’t need ‘em; our new bezzie mates Ukraine gave us twelve points instead (as did seven other nations), and Sam Ryder was odds-on to do what only Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Brotherhood of Man, Bucks Fizz and Katrina and the Waves had done before him. And then it went to that relatively new innovation, the televote – one that wasn’t a fixture last time we were in pole position…a long, long time ago.

On the eve of the Contest, it was more or less a foregone conclusion that Ukraine would walk away with the title without even having to sing a note. The beleaguered nation’s entry could have strolled on stage and simply mooned the audience and they would’ve still won it – if one believed the pre-Contest hype. Yet, the juries weren’t entirely swayed by sentiment on the night and at the end of the jury vote Ukraine were placed fourth on the board with 192 points, behind Spain (231), Sweden (258) and the UK (283). The televote was a different animal, though; widespread sympathy for Ukraine from viewers was manifested as a surge of points – 439, to be precise – and the UK could only manage 183. Any other year and we’d have won it, but this is no ordinary year where Europe is concerned. When combined with their jury votes, Ukraine were undisputed victors.

So unfamiliar was the territory the UK found itself in on Saturday night, chances are Sam Ryder would’ve been knighted by the end of the year had he won it. As it is, he finished with the silver medal, adding to the runner-up spots Brits have now achieved on a record sixteen occasions; but it still made a pleasant change from the usual predictable formula from a British perspective. Even though we’re one of the ‘Big Five’ nations who automatically appear every year due to the financial contributions we make to the European Broadcasting Union, the underwhelming songs and poor receptions of the last couple of decades has made watching a bit like tuning in to the World Cup when England don’t qualify; deprived of patriotic possibilities, UK viewers tend to pick a favourite from one of the other participants; this year, we didn’t have to do that and it made the Contest a much more engaging experience as a consequence.

Despite the disappointment of the UK missing out, few would begrudge Ukraine their symbolic win, even if the song itself will probably be forgotten in less time than it took to perform it. The second of their now-three triumphs this century was six years ago, and that victory was also charged with a political frisson that infuriated the country currently acting as an uninvited guest in Ukraine. ‘1944’ by Jamala dealt with the wartime deportation of Crimean Tatars from the Soviet Union by Stalin – yes, I know, it’s a long way from ‘Jack in the Box’ by Clodagh Rodgers. Anyway, the song was judged by the EBU as not having a relevant political context due to its subject being a historical event – as was the case with the title of a certain winner by Abba in 1974, I guess. But, of course, Crimea was a hot topic at the time due to the annexation of the country by Russia just two years before, and the Russians took umbrage with the number. In the end, they couldn’t prevent the song from being included and could only voice their protest by withdrawing from the Contest the following year, when it was held in Kyiv.

Of course, political elements are nothing new to the Eurovision narrative. From General Franco’s (alleged) intervention to ensure a Spanish victory in 1968 to Greece’s 1976 entry being a song about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus two years earlier – not to mention the always-controversial presence of Israel – politics have routinely bled into the Eurovision as much as they have into sport. The event commands such a massive television audience across the Continent – and beyond it – that many nations with a point to prove naturally see it as an ideal platform to get that point across to a uniquely huge viewing public. Since the map of Eastern Europe was redrawn 30 years ago and former Iron Curtain countries have been allowed to participate, political bias has become a regular feature of the show, especially in the voting – a factor which Terry Wogan wearily criticised as it increased and eventually prompted him to hang up his commentator’s microphone. This year’s programme, for instance, opened with a mass chorus of ‘Give Peace a Chance’, which didn’t really require much in the way of explanation.

The perception of Russia as an international pariah state on a par with North Korea or Iran has been fairly unanimous in the wake of the country’s invasion of Ukraine, and with most major global sports having expelled Russian teams and players from their ranks, the Eurovision was bound to follow suit. And the absence of Russia for only the fourth time since the nation’s debut at the Contest back in 1994 was no greater a surprise than the wave of public sympathy that propelled Ukraine to the winner’s rostrum. Considering the horror stories emerging from Ukraine on a daily basis, it’s only right that Russia was kicked-out this year, not to mention it being something of a minor miracle that Ukraine was able to put together an act to compete at all.

The other day, I read a remarkable story of an escape on foot from the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol by one man and his dog that sounded like a movie waiting to be made; but to dramatise something that remains very much miserable reality for millions of people would seem beyond tasteless at the moment. The portrait painted of the damage done to Ukraine in such a short space of time was more than grim, and one feels it will be one of those conflicts whose gruesome truths will be released to the wider world in dribs and drabs for decades. With such a gory backdrop to something as frivolously camp as the Eurovision Song Contest, it feels fitting that Ukraine won it, however nice a change it would’ve been had the UK finally staged the most unlikely of triumphant comebacks. Right now, I suspect the people of Ukraine will grab at anything that represents even the slimmest glimmer of optimism for their nation – and love it or loathe it, the Eurovision today at least means something to them.

© The Editor

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