MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE JUNGLE…

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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YESTERDAY’S MAN

Gorbachev and VladHe was always good at timing, Mikhail Gorbachev. His elevation to de facto Soviet leader in 1985 was good timing for a West wearying of four decades playing a chess-game with only one potential checkmate in sight; he offered a far more optimistic future than the diehard dodderers he succeeded and arrived in office right at the very moment when his opposite number in the White House was open to de-escalating the arms race. His death at the age of 91 has reminded the world there once was a time when Russia was led by a man who (to paraphrase Mrs Thatcher) the West ‘could do business with’ – as opposed to a warmongering megalomaniac turning back the clock that Gorbachev stopped. And his death comes at a point when his most despotic successor is doing his utmost to trash the progress made by one of the world’s last great statesmen; after all, if any single individual deserves credit for accelerating the end of what I guess we must now refer to as the First Cold War, it was Mikhail Gorbachev.

Ghosts have an inconvenient habit of haunting the headlines and giving those left behind an inconvenient reminder of how lowly they languish in the long shadows these apparitions cast. For the last Premier of the Soviet Union to shuffle off this mortal coil when one of the worst legacies of the Soviet era is currently waging an old-school imperial war in Ukraine, dismantling every achievement of his far more illustrious predecessor, is a sad irony. But for a moment, we pause and recall that it wasn’t always like this. Unlike Putin, who has an incurable appetite for starting conflict, Gorbachev actually brought a phenomenally futile military engagement to an end (Afghanistan) and also oversaw the death throes of another long-running farce with innumerable casualties, the USSR.

By the mid-80s, it was evident to anyone not spoon-fed Soviet propaganda that the Iron Curtain was so corroded by ideological rust that it could crumble away with little in the way of pressure; if it were to be removed as painlessly as possible, the task required a man whose vision was not clouded by misguided nostalgia for – and blind faith in – a system not fit for purpose. Both Gorbachev and Putin were schooled in this system, yet one realised its days were numbered and sought to reinvent it while the other is desperate to bring those ‘glory’ days back, regardless of the collateral damage along the way. Gorbachev was a consummate politician, whereas Putin is a military man with a one-track mind. How Russia went from one man to the other probably has something to do with the corrupt, pissed-up disaster wedged historically between them – Boris Yeltsin – as well as the fact the Russian people never forgave Gorbachev for waking them up from the comforting dream of the Soviet Empire.

Born in 1931 to peasant stock of Ukrainian descent, Mikhail Gorbachev was raised in a country suffering from the stranglehold of Stalin, yet by the time Gorbachev had graduated from Moscow State University with a Law degree, Stalin was dead and Nikita Khrushchev was attempting to reform the nation with a process of de-Stalinization that was to be echoed on a far wider scale 30 years later when Gorbachev himself instigated unheard-of freedoms of speech without fear of arrest and imprisonment known as glasnost. Although beginning his political career loyal to the principles of Communism, the deposing of Khrushchev in 1964 and his replacement with the less flexible and far more hardline Leonid Brezhnev perhaps indicated to the ambitious young politician it would take longer to wrestle the nation free from the grip of traditional totalitarian approaches to governance. This awareness was also expanded during Gorbachev’s visits to Western Europe as he climbed the greasy pole and was regarded as safe enough to venture beyond the Eastern Bloc. The shock of seeing how the other half lived in West Germany and, particularly, France – where he experienced open criticism of government that wouldn’t be tolerated in the USSR – caused him to make comparisons that his more isolated, not to say insulated, colleagues back home were denied.

Gorbachev’s rise up the ranks was aided by the death of Brezhnev in 1982 and by his replacement Yuri Andropov, who served as Gorbachev’s mentor and was clearly grooming his pupil to succeed him; it seemed the ultimate prize was within Gorbachev’s grasp. However, Andropov had barely a year as Soviet Premier before he too passed away, and the Central Committee demonstrated their timidity and lack of vision by opting for an ageing Brezhnev leftover called Konstantin Chernenko as Andropov’s successor rather than take a chance on the younger man; this move seems to have parallels with the election of Joe Biden as US President – an elderly, ailing and ineffective individual too old and bewildered to achieve anything in office other than having the correct credentials for a governing party incapable of looking to the future. As it turned out, Chernenko’s unremarkable rule lasted not much more than a paltry twelve months and Mikhail Gorbachev’s moment finally arrived, elected as de facto Soviet leader by the Politburo. Nobody, not even Gorbachev himself, had any idea at the time that the new man would be the last leader the country would ever have.

Realising that if the Soviet Union was to survive then it had to move away from the detached distance of the out-of-touch fossils in the Kremlin, Gorbachev certainly created a different impression than the men who came before him. The distinctive birthmark that baldness revealed made him immediately identifiable to a global public and he seemed possessed by a youthful dynamism that especially found the kind of favour in the West that no other previous Soviet leader had achieved. In order to bring in the reforms he knew the nation needed, Gorbachev filled the Politburo with allies and began relaxing some of the more severe curbs on personal freedoms, even releasing notable dissidents who would otherwise have seen out their days in Gulags. The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 provided Gorbachev with a further opportunity to publicly air his views on decades of Soviet mismanagement and incompetence, confident the public would henceforth understand the urgent need for change.

Gorbachev was made for the world stage, charming America’s NATO allies en route to his first summit meeting with US President Ronald Reagan and enjoying tea and crumpets with Her Majesty; despite mistrust and suspicion on both sides from the aides and advisers surrounding Reagan and Gorbachev, several summits took place and though neither man entirely warmed to the other in the beginning, by the end of Regan’s term in the White House relations between the two Cold War superpowers were undoubtedly better than they had been in decades. At home, however, Gorbachev received it in the neck from both liberals (who thought his reforms not far-reaching enough) and hardline Communists (who thought his reforms were too close to capitalism for comfort); he was also criticised for standing back and allowing the old Soviet satellite states to rise up and reject the system that had kept them under Moscow’s thumb since the end of the Second World War.

Boris Yeltsin, a man Gorbachev had promoted, turned out to be a persistent thorn in his side during this period and the fact Yeltsin was credited with successfully extinguishing the attempted coup d’état by Communist hardliners in August 1991 further weakened Gorbachev’s position. The writing was on the wall for both Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. He resigned as President on Christmas Day 1991 and the USSR itself ceased to exist on New Year’s Eve. What followed is another story for another day, but like any loss of a world leader whose era now seems a long way away, one can’t help but make comparisons – not just between Gorbachev and the psychopath who today wears his shoes, but with all the other excuses for world leaders we have in 2022. From Boris to Biden and from Macron to Trudeau, this is not an age of great men, and greatness can obscure a multitude of sins that utterly exposes those without it.

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MAN AND BOY

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.

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OPEN DOOR

Old WomanIt wasn’t so long ago – barely a year – that the British people were barred from allowing more than six people into their abodes. They couldn’t visit ailing family members in hospitals or care homes; they could only attend funerals in small, specified numbers – and heavy-handed Jobsworths were on hand to gleefully ensure there was no physical contact between the grievers; they couldn’t gather in the open to mark Remembrance Sunday; they couldn’t celebrate Christmas together; they couldn’t hold a vigil for a murdered woman in an outdoor environment without the police treating them like violent protestors; they couldn’t stage a demonstration unless their cause was one approved by the authorities – climate change or BLM, yes/anti-lockdown or anti-vax, no; they couldn’t even worship in churches whose doors were bolted. Small businesses went to the wall, crippled by both enforced closure and then uneconomic restrictions when tentatively reopening (if they’d managed to survive).

The damaging legacy of the past couple of years remains blatantly evident in the rising unemployment figures and the breathtaking level of national debt, not to mention the amount of folk continuing to wear masks in safe environments such as on the street or in the privacy of their own bloody cars, their brains fried by the pandemic propaganda of Project Fear. One wonders if they mask-up on the loo, in the bath or in bed. Probably. Yet, while it would be natural to imagine the unsurprising and hypocritical revelations of what those lying bastards who imposed such rules on the populace were getting up to behind closed doors at the height of the pandemic had served as a wake-up call on how conned the people were, so deep is the psychological damage done by lockdown and its affiliated curbs on civil liberties that the illogical neurosis of millions remains something that will probably take years to heal.

So, how strange that the same people who had to conduct conversations with family and friends from ridiculous distances – and out of doors, at that – are now being battered anew with fresh emotional blackmail that encourages them to open their previously hermetically-sealed homes to complete strangers, as though 2020 and ’21 never happened. Memories of the Syrian ‘children’ with their remarkably advanced examples of male grooming have been smoothly erased as the request for impromptu landlords goes out again. Of course, the awful humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine naturally stirs deep feelings in anyone who has a heart; for some, this provokes a desire to tackle the forces of oppression head-on by signing-up for an International Brigades-like foreign legion of fighters to repel the Russian invasion; for others, it’s marked via a boycott of Russian goods or cultural exports; and for others again, it manifests itself as a craving to offer a safe roof over the heads of those faced with no option but to flee their own homes thousands of miles away. Yesterday, the British Government announced it would offer UK homeowners £350 a month to take in Ukrainian refugees, with Housing Secretary Michael Gove unveiling the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

After so many recent exposés of precisely how untrustworthy and slippery our elected leaders are, people can be forgiven for greeting this announcement with cynicism and discerning something more than motives emanating from the goodness of politicians’ hearts; one now finds it difficult to take any such move at face value and not detect an ulterior motive. In the case of the current administration – and, it has to be said, its predecessors over the last couple of decades – this kind of response to an appalling situation cannot entirely eradicate the lax attitude towards the dirty money fuelling the Russian war machine which has been a hallmark of British governments for a long time. The amount of desirable British properties in the hands of offshore shell companies engaged in money laundering both in the UK and its more luxurious overseas territories has been mirrored in the close ties forged between British politicians and institutions and those Russians who have taken advantage of the so-called ‘golden visa’ scheme. Perish the thought, but could certain members of the Government and the Conservative Party be covering their own corrupt backs by utilising the same emotional blackmail tactics employed during Covid to persuade the people to open hearts and doors to Ukrainian refugees as they themselves gloss over their cosiness with representatives of the regime responsible for the crisis?

Just how deeply governing bodies with pound signs for pupils have allowed countries with dubious reputations to become embedded in the fabric of British life was highlighted when Chelsea played Newcastle Utd at Stamford Bridge on Sunday; the home fans chanted the name of the now-toxic Putin bitch Roman Abramovich, whereas the away fans cheered their own suddenly-wealthy club’s Saudi owners, emanating as they do from a regime that executed a staggering 81 individuals the day before the match in a ruthless display of despotic inhumanity. What a glorious advert for the beautiful game, one that no token knee-taking will ease the grubby stain of. Football fans desperate for success will seemingly overlook the source of the financial fuel filling their trophy cabinets, though they’ve hardly been set a good example by their social ‘betters’. The filthy lucre floating around the national sport at the highest level is one more noticeable consequence of the golden visa rule introduced by a Labour Government in the wake of Peter Mandelson quaffing champers on the yacht of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, one that has allowed Russia to get its feet under the establishment table with very little in the way of opposition.

According to stats in the most recent issue of Private Eye, since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, 406 wealthy Russians have bought their way into Britain via the required £2 million, with a mere 20 refusals; following the 2018 poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, 92 golden visas have been issued, with just six refusals; eight were even issued at the back end of last year, a time when Vlad’s intentions re Ukraine were well-known. At times, the Russian infiltration of British politics and all its interconnected entrails are reminiscent of the way in which Nigel Kneale’s 1950s TV series ‘Quatermass’ featured collaborators with the alien invaders in the upper echelons of British society as a knowing nod to the pre-war ruling class’s flirtation with fascism. The abrupt about-turn on oligarchs by this government as everyone with Russian skeletons in their closet seeks to distance themselves from Uncle Vlad’s activities is something that understandably provokes cynicism, though being offered cash incentives to house those who have suffered most from these activities seems another cynical move by an administration that inspires little else but cynicism.

Local councils who have spent the past two years pleading poverty, cutting public services to the bone and yet simultaneously feathering their own personal nests are also having a tempting carrot dangled in their direction re refugees. One cannot help but wonder if they will spend the money wisely. Considering how well GPs’ surgeries have managed to avoid doing their jobs and yet have continued to bleat about being overwhelmed during the coronavirus, how will a sudden influx of immigrants with obvious ailments affect the dereliction of duties the medical profession has achieved since Lockdown Mk I? It goes without saying that those whose needs are attended to on Harley Street won’t be affected, though the calamitous disappearance of the cheap household labour that Brexit brought about may at least be solved.

Materially comfortable individuals with the spare rooms to welcome refugees should be in a position to carry out their intentions without their kindness necessitating a financial reward, and those whose sadness with the situation in Ukraine doesn’t stretch that far shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for choosing not to do so, despite the lure of being paid in a scheme that will undoubtedly be open to abuse. One can’t blame many for being reluctant to invite strangers into their homes when they were faced with heavy fines and possible prison sentences for extending a similar invitation to people they actually know not so long ago. Funny old world innit.

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OUT IN THE COLD

VladWhen a long (ish) life means you find yourself with feet on either side of a divide that separates one era from another, it can be interesting to realise how a personal living memory is little more than a Wikipedia entry to those who emerge in the years and decades after the world map is redrawn. Unencumbered by any remembrance of how things used to be, those for whom the Iron Curtain or Apartheid are as irrelevant to the here and now as Ancient Egypt or the Incas invariably see the past in a completely different light. I guess for anyone of a certain age – i.e. over 40 – the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the release of Nelson Mandela had an immense significance that is difficult to articulate to someone born after 1990; and, to be honest, it can sometimes be easy to forget the way things were even if you were there. I remember once watching a documentary about Live Aid in which a member of Paul Weller’s Style Council recalled how the band had a testing journey to reach Wembley Stadium on the day, flying from an overseas tour that required taking the long way round on account of not being able to venture into Soviet airspace. The recollection served as a reminder of just how different the global situation was then.

A couple of decades earlier, when television satellite technology was in its infancy, an attempt to link up the four corners of the globe for the first time in the groundbreaking ‘Our World’ broadcast was confronted by an effective no-fly zone when Eastern Europe declined to participate; the programme may best be remembered for the unveiling of ‘All You Need is Love’, but the ambitious aim of the enterprise was squandered by the opting out of Iron Curtain countries. Back then, the Eurovision Song Contest was the optimistic TV showcase for post-war European harmony, though no East European countries ever took part bar Yugoslavia. At the same time, however, Eastern Bloc sportsmen and athletes competed in events such as European club football tournaments and the Olympic Games, and there was also the cerebral Cold War clash on the chessboard that came with the infamous battle between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972; so at least the East had a degree of visibility denied South Africa during the 70s and 80s.

Often it was sport that provided the most high profile example of South Africa’s international isolation, notably cricket and rugby union, when regular tours by South African teams were scrubbed off the sporting schedule from the early 70s onwards – a situation it had actually taken a surprisingly long time for the rest of the world to agree on. Once agreed, however, the boycott was enforced with a heavy dose of moral and emotional pressure imposed on those who wavered from it. Hard to remember the uproar now when so-called ‘rebel tours’ of South Africa by cricketers took place in the 80s or when the likes of Elton John, Rod Stewart, Queen, Status Quo, Sinatra and even Shirley Bassey played profitable gigs in Sun City. Anyone named and shamed for participating in breaking the boycott was severely criticised thereafter; Freddie Mercury and the lads were added to the UN’s blacklist of sanctions-breakers following their ill-timed 1984 concert at the luxury resort, which took place at a point when serious civil unrest in South Africa had highlighted the injustices of the regime for the world to see once again.

The cultural Apartheid could also extend into some bizarre areas. Clout were a relatively inoffensive all-female rock band – itself something of a novelty in the 70s – who enjoyed the dubious status of one-hit wonders via their 1978 smash by the name of ‘Substitute’; the record stalled at the No.2 spot behind the immovable ‘You’re The One That I Want’ for several weeks that summer, yet ‘Top of the Pops’ had to settle for airing a clip of the band on a foreign TV show as the blanket ban on all things South African meant Clout were prevented by the Musicians’ Union from appearing in-person on the nation’s most-watched music show. The anti-Apartheid crusade was a particular passion for the Left in the 80s, and then – as now – the Left tended to monopolise the creative industries, meaning the boycott was the leading cause of the day in a way Palestine has become in the 21st century. Artists were expected to fall into line and most of those with any sort of conscience did so. The white South African was a cultural bogeyman during this period, so much so that a South African-born actor like the recently-deceased Anthony Sher was in denial of his origins when trying to make it as a thespian in the UK, conscious that he’d be confronted by a degree of prejudice that could jeopardise his ambitions.

Perhaps more than any other form of sanctions, a cultural boycott tends to be effective. A country’s art, along with its sport, can often be the way it successfully sells itself on the world stage. For example, what do most people immediately think of when they think of a country like Brazil? The Bossa Nova might spring to mind, but chances are the Brazilian football team will get there first every time. Likewise, during the era of the Soviet Union it was Russian composers and musicians sharing the international spotlight with athletes like Olga Korbut that offered a far more positive image than Leonid Brezhnev observing the parade of nuclear missiles on May Day. The USSR may be defunct as a nation now, but Russia has continued this tradition to project a less-toxic brand to the world; the coup of hosting what turned out to be a highly enjoyable World Cup in 2018 was a great leap forward that even managed to edge the country’s appalling record of using performance-enhancing drugs at the Olympics off the back pages. Recent events have put the brakes on this progress.

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the universal cultural condemnation has been swift and fairly unprecedented – nowhere more than on the football pitch. After announcing that the prestigious Champions League Final, scheduled to be staged in St Petersburg, has been moved to Paris, UEFA then linked arms with FIFA and barred all Russian clubs and the national side from competing in domestic and international competitions as well as the former dropping its sponsorship deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom. The close ties many oligarchs and Russian corporations have developed with numerous Premier League clubs in this country has been uncomfortably underlined this past week, resulting in Manchester United and Everton cancelling sponsorship deals with Russian companies; but perhaps Roman Abramovich deciding to put Chelsea up for sale is the most notable rat looking for the lifeboats.

Elsewhere in the world of sport, the Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix has been cancelled whilst Russia and its warmongering sidekick Belarus have both been banned from rugby union competitions by the sport’s governing body. The International Olympic Committee may have taken away the rights of Russia and Belarus to host sporting events, but initially allowing the nations to compete in Olympic tournaments under a ‘neutral’ flag received such severe criticism that the IOC has now announced the two countries will not be participating in the upcoming Winter Paralympics. In the arts, a prominent scalp came in the sacking of Valery Gergiev as conductor of the Munich Philharmonic; Gergiev, known to be favourable towards Putin, failed to condemn the invasion of Ukraine and after the orchestra was confronted by a string of cancellations, the Mayor of Munich fired him from his position.

Unlike the usual suspects of ill-informed Hollywood halfwits queuing-up to signal their virtue, the cultural boycott when applied across the board has a habit of hitting the target where it hurts. It can’t stop a war, but it can rob those in whose name the war is being fought of all the things that can truly enhance life. It’s worth a try.

© The Editor

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PLAYING CHICKEN IN KIEV

VladThe legend used to go that it’d be King Arthur who’d awake from his slumber to come to Albion’s aid in the hour of her greatest need; but there’s no real point him chartering a ferry from Avalon back to the mainland at the moment. After all, why bother when we’ve got Ben Wallace? In case you didn’t know, he’s one of those dimwit types Boris Johnson has a habit of handing a Ministry to (see Liz Truss), presumably in order to make himself seem far smarter by comparison. Wallace is the incumbent Defence Secretary, a post – like Foreign Secretary – that has a habit of receiving an upsurge in media coverage whenever the world faces one of its perennial crises. Now that the pandemic is so 2020/21 as a hot news story, there’s nothing quite like the prospect of armed conflict to get the MSM excited all over again, and they’ve been indulging in feverish speculation re the tension on the Ukrainian border for weeks now. For journos who’ll never have to fire a rifle in anger, the thought of covering a war is their equivalent of Viagra.

On the surface, Ben Wallace sounds like one of those Mark Francois types, whose idea of warfare – and Britain’s role in it – has been shaped by formative years engaged in repeated VHS viewings of ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘The Dam Busters’. Unlike the Honourable Member for Rayleigh and Wickford, however, the Defence Secretary’s military fantasies stretched a little further than the TA – he was a graduate of Sandhurst and a captain in the Scots Guards before entering politics. Yes, he probably wears Union Jack underpants, but one would like to think a little life experience beyond the public school/Oxbridge/Spad/Westminster conveyor belt would make Wallace a refreshing alternative to the tiresomely familiar professional politicians clogging up the Commons. However, we’re talking about a Minister in Boris Johnson’s government, of course; and one can’t expect a miracle such as the Defence Secretary not actually making a prat of himself.

Ben Wallace yesterday took it upon himself to give the troops a pep talk in the grand tradition of Henry V, albeit not on a foreign field but in the rather more sedate surroundings of Westminster’s Horse Guards building. As Russia is once again seen as the enemy, he couldn’t resist referencing the Crimean War of 1853-56, reminding the military personnel before him that Britain had ‘kicked the backside’ of the Tsar back in the day – with a little help from the Ottoman Empire and the French, lest we forget. ‘We can always do it again’, he declared before adding Putin had gone ‘full tonto’ (such an elegant turn of phrase). His comments chose to gloss over the fact that the Crimean expedition wasn’t exactly celebrated as a Great British victory at the time – largely due to a disastrous episode history will always know as the Charge of the Light Brigade – and cost a Prime Minister (the Earl of Aberdeen) his job. Wallace was sat beside Priti Patel when he delivered his rousing rhetoric, and the Home Secretary was – to keep the Victorian theme going – not amused.

Ben Wallace’s clumsy motivational technique hasn’t been mirrored by the Prime Minister, who is keeping a lid on his own gung-ho tendencies as he tries to play the serious world leader in the hope the Ukraine crisis will serve to sweep the ‘Partygate’ affair under the wine-stained No.10 carpet. ‘In light of the increasingly threatening behaviour from Russia,’ he said, ‘the UK will shortly be providing a further package of military support to Ukraine. This will include lethal aid in the form of defensive weapons and non-lethal aid.’ His Foreign Secretary, on the other hand, emphasised the sanctions being imposed. ‘There will be even more tough sanctions on key oligarchs, on key organisations in Russia,’ she said, ‘limiting Russia’s access to the financial markets, if there is a full scale invasion of Ukraine.’ Brave words from a woman whose Party’s coffers have been boosted by the generosity of numerous oligarchs in recent years, oligarchs that successive British Governments have allowed to buy up great chunks of our capital city’s prime real estate, not to mention bankrolling some of the country’s leading football clubs.

The prevailing mood in the West is more concerned with slapping Putin on the wrist via sanctions than indulging in the kind of giddy jingoism of Ben Wallace. There’s also an abundance of irony at play in the criticism of Russian aggression by Western leaders. Even those too young to have okayed Middle Eastern military interventions 20 years ago can’t help but evoke the words pot, kettle and black when they decry Putin’s incursion into Ukraine. To have Justin Trudeau join the chorus of condemnation is perhaps the richest irony of all.

As we all know by now, Trudeau is a man whose method of dealing with protestors who don’t think that highly of him is to freeze their bank accounts and even threaten to take their pets away; offering cash incentives to grass on anyone suspected of involvement in (or simply supporting) the truckers’ protests and promising heavy fines and house arrest for those caught posting anti-government tweets – well, I’m pretty sure Russia (not to mention China) would heartily approve of Canada adopting the time-honoured tactics of totalitarian Communist states in suppressing opposition and monitoring every move their citizens make. Pandemic policies or power grab? Indeed, was anybody remotely surprised to learn that not all of the emergency Covid legislation in this country will be repealed? Fancy that.

No, Vlad must look at the weak West’s response to his actions and…well…piss himself laughing. It certainly hasn’t made a jot to his decision to launch his long-awaited invasion today. But there was an inevitability to events one could see coming for a long time. His tried and trusted tactics of deliberately stirring pro-Russian separatist sentiments in corners of Ukraine he recognises as independent states served as a pretext for crossing the border. The Ukrainian Government has clearly lost control in these regions, he claims, thus requiring Russian troops to play the ‘peacekeeping’ card and prevent further civil disorder. That’s his excuse, anyway. Over the past 48 hours, Ukraine has been unsurprisingly plunged into a state of emergency, anticipating the full-scale invasion that has finally arrived; as an opening shot, one of Russia’s most effective modern weapons – the cyber attack – was unleashed upon Ukraine’s government departments and its banks, creating additional chaos before the physical conflict got underway.

Ballistic missiles aimed at major cities have accompanied the troop movement into the territory whilst the sounds emanating from the Ukrainian military claim the invading forces are being resisted, shooting down six Russian planes and four Russian tanks as an immediate response. Be prepared for much propaganda on both sides as the conflict unfolds. The Ukrainians may publicly call upon NATO assistance, though I suspect it realises any resistance will largely be down to itself. The West’s inability to repel Putin is a legacy of the very weakness Vlad has witnessed from afar for many years; chronic underfunding of the major European powers’ individual armed forces means they are all poorly-equipped to deal with the crisis, and the Western fetish for ‘green’ energy has seen similar underinvestment in home-grown energy sources in tandem with an increasing dependence on Russian gas.

Although not quite as excitable as Ben Wallace, on the eve of the invasion General Sir Richard Sherriff nevertheless told the ‘Today’ programme, ‘Absolutely there is a possibility that we as a nation will be at war with Russia. If Russia puts one boot-step across NATO territory we are all at war with Russia – every single member of the NATO alliance.’ Well, it’s happened, so I guess we’re at war with Russia according to the former NATO commander. Here’s hoping the Defence Secretary can lead our brave boys from the front.

© The Editor

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THE BEAR FACTS

Russian BearIt may have opted out of the Eurovision Song Contest, but the USSR nevertheless competed in competitions of a more sporting bent during the Cold War, mining the athletic riches available in the countries that had been involuntarily absorbed into the sprawling Soviet Union. The national football team of the USSR had a vast geographical pool of talent to draw from in this period and made use of it. Imagine if the England national team had chosen to call upon players from across the British Empire in the pre-War era and label all of them Englishmen; chances are the World Cup might have fallen into English hands a good deal earlier than 1966. The Soviets essentially did just that and were eventually rewarded with the inaugural European Championships in 1960, as well as ending runners-up on three other occasions; in the World Cup, the team’s best finish was the semi-final loss to West Germany in ’66. On the domestic front, Iron Curtain countries competed in the club competitions of the European Cup, UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup throughout the tournaments’ formative years. Whenever a team such as Dynamo Kiev played an English side, they were referred to as a ‘Russian club’, just as the likes of Belarus gymnast Olga Korbut was referred to as a ‘Russian athlete’ when scooping multiple gold medals at the 1972 Olympics.

The existential crisis many Russians experienced as former Soviet states declared independence from their ex-masters in the 1990s was exacerbated by the symbolic blow of the expansive landmass that had been known as home shrinking back to merely Russian soil. Not unlike the demoralising loss of international prestige felt by Brits as one overseas colony after another lowered the Union Jack during the 1950s and 60s, Russians took the reduction of territory personally; the chaotic drop in the standard of living at home as Yeltsin sought to transform the Russian economy to a free-market Western model overnight and facilitated the sudden rise of the multi-millionaire Oligarch in the process hardly helped matters. Therefore, when the old soak was succeeded by a former KGB colonel who’d earned his spurs in East Germany, a man determined to ‘make Russia great again’, it was no great surprise that the Russian people responded favourably to the reincarnation of the Strong Leader so admired in cultures beyond the West.

Putin flexing his macho muscles has cleverly tapped into the grievance of many Russians over the independence of the old Soviet republics; when Ukraine first tentatively sought to join NATO in 2008, Vlad made it clear he didn’t approve, and following Ukraine’s so-called ‘Revolution of Dignity’ in 2014, Putin effectively annexed Crimea from Ukraine as a means of expressing his disapproval. The annexation was internationally condemned, though other than the token sanctions imposed by the UN and the EU, little else was done by those who condemned it. Putin has repeatedly emphasised he has no interest in further incursions into Ukrainian territory, yet with an estimated 100,000 Russian troops camped out on the border and threatening talk emanating from Moscow whenever Ukraine expresses its desire to be welcomed into the NATO family, it’s no wonder the Ukrainian Government has been more than happy to accept military assistance from Western nations, just to be on the safe side. Putin’s response is to regard any Western presence anywhere near Crimea as a sign of ‘NATO expansion’.

The ‘NATO expansion’ into Eastern Europe basically translates as nations with a history of being subjugated by Russia understandably seeking protection from history repeating itself; the likes of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland know that being members of NATO means any aggressive actions on the part of their volatile neighbour will result in their newfound military partners running to their aid – in theory, anyway. Whichever way Russian eyes view the move, this is the reality of it; Ukraine still wants to join the club, something that Mr Putin sees as ‘NATO expansion’. Some of the language that has been aired in recent months is straight out of some dusty old Cold War manual; Dmitry Kiselyov, the media personality-cum-propagandist known as ‘Putin’s mouthpiece’, issued a threat against the US sticking its nose into Ukrainian affairs, promising that Russian warheads could reduce America to ‘radioactive ash’. At the moment, however, Russia is certainly in a strong position to issue such melodramatic threats, sensing the weakness of the West when led by such an ineffective patsy as Joe Biden.

Sleepy Joe held a press conference this week in which he stated Russia would pay ‘a serious and dear price’ for invading Ukraine, yet underlined the toothless response of the West towards Putin’s regime by adding the caveat that ‘a minor incursion’ might be treated differently to a full-on invasion. One wonders how far Russian troops have to encroach onto Ukrainian soil before a minor incursion is rebranded an invasion, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wasn’t impressed by Biden’s comments about minor incursions, tweeting ‘There are no minor incursions, just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones.’ Tellingly, the US President’s characteristically incoherent statement was later altered by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki once Joe had been put back to bed, declaring any Russian military forces moving across the Ukrainian border would be instantly interpreted as a renewed invasion, met with a ‘swift, severe and united response from the United States and our Allies’.

The US claims that Russian Intelligence has been engaged in recruiting current and former members of the Ukrainian Government to take over as a puppet administration in the event of an invasion, though with so much rumour and propaganda circling this story, it’s hard to differentiate between truth and speculation. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has this week met with foreign ministers from France, Germany and the UK in Berlin to co-ordinate strategy should Russia do what the West seemingly expects it to, though if that amounts to a ‘minor incursion’ the Western strategy probably won’t have much of an impact. Even before the meeting with Blinken, the British Government had announced it was providing Ukraine with extra troops for training purposes, whilst both Denmark and Spain are sending warships to the Black Sea. This willy-waving was a response to the unveiling of plans for Russian naval drills featuring over 60 aircraft and more than 140 warships, as though Putin was intending to stage some sort of Mayday Parade throwback on the Ukraine border. Any sign of a peaceful resolution via talks between Blinken and his Russian counterpart in Geneva today has so far been drenched in the ambiguous diplomatic description of ‘open and useful’.

As with China’s stealthy economic and cultural infiltration of Western governments and institutions, Vladimir Putin is smart enough to exploit the West’s current crisis of confidence and comparative weakness as it allows itself to be torn apart by a combination of self-loathing and ideological polarity; he’s seeing how far he can push the West before provoking a more serious response which he evidently doubts will come, though to be fair, he’s been doing that for most of his reign and has got away with it time and time again. Even if his tactics continue to find favour with a large section of the Russian public, the unlimited powers that come with his persona as a Strong Leader also allow him to crush opposition and silence his critics – often with a nice cup of tea. Biden is little more than the saccharin to Putin’s polonium. From the perspective of a man raised in a Soviet Empire that spanned a landmass of 22,402,200 square km and housed 293 million people in eleven time zones, the West has no business in the East; to him, Eurasia is Russian and always will be. And, to paraphrase the title of this post, those are the bare facts.

© The Editor

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IT’S PUTIN WOT WON IT!

Well, Tsar Vladimir must be crapping himself; receiving a public ticking-off from a woman whose own Cabinet pays no heed to her authority must be like being asked outside by Walter the Softy. The PM last night used her speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet to issue a warning to Russia over its alleged cyber interference in recent European affairs, as well as the US Presidential Election of 2016. Trump remains unconvinced Russian online infiltration had any part to play in his unexpected victory last year, though to be honest he’s hardly likely to say otherwise. Granted, no concrete evidence of cyber skullduggery on the part of Moscow has yet to emerge, but the rumours persist.

If the desperate straw-clutching of our Democrat cousins across the pond a year on from Hillary’s disastrous attempt to return to the White House isn’t demoralising enough (for further details, see her whinging blame-game of a book), the need to attribute one’s own failure to another party has continued apace as all responsibility is absolved yet again. In case you didn’t already know, the reason a majority of Brits voted to leave the EU was due to the Russians. It’s official. No proof is available, naturally, but it had to be down to a malevolent alien force influencing the thought processes of those too stupid to make their own minds up, of course. It couldn’t be that many in this country were sick and tired of being dictated to by wealthy elites of tax-evading wankers and told that the grandiose gravy train of unelected Brussels bureaucrats was something their lives would be immeasurably poorer without.

I don’t believe Bob Geldof or Eddie Izzard truly understand the daily struggles of making do and mending at the bottom of the social ladder any more than Iain Duncan Smith does. The latter has never had it hard, so his perspective is formed by a lifetime of material comfort; on the other hand, the former may have both begun in humble surroundings, but were beneficiaries of eras when the edgy side of the entertainment industry offered a way out for terminal waifs and strays. For Izzard, it was the arse-end of ‘Alternative Comedy’; for Geldof, it was Rock ‘n’ Roll.

The Boomtown Rats reaching No.1 with ‘Rat Trap’ in November 1978 was a hugely significant pop cultural moment and shouldn’t be underestimated. No act from the Punk/New Wave scene had scaled the summit of the charts up to that point; yes, The Sex Pistols had unofficially done so the year before, but the music biz had conspired to prevent ‘God Save the Queen’ from hitting No.1 during Jubilee Week, so it was down to a bunch of Oirish Oiks to curtail the reign of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John a year later. More significantly, the success of ‘Rat Trap’ opened the floodgates for Blondie, The Police, The Jam, Tubeway Army and others over the following couple of years, so it was no mean feat. Sadly, it’s an achievement Geldof himself has summarily trashed with his post-Live Aid activities.

Izzard at one time appeared to be a breath of fresh air, particularly during the ‘Loaded’ Lads era of the mid-90s, challenging stereotypes by openly flaunting his penchant for feminine cosmetics and making those of us who didn’t subscribe to the prevailing masculine trends feel as though we weren’t alone. Since then, however, Izzard has sabotaged his credentials by becoming a self-appointed spokesperson for every ‘phobia’ and ‘ism’ to pollute the dictionary and has engineered an atmosphere in which a teacher can be suspended from his job for the crime of (I kid you not) ‘misgendering’; yes, such a thing apparently exists amongst stupid people obsessed with identity politics trivia that most of us don’t have the luxury of being distracted by.

The late 70s and even the mid-90s are both a long time ago, though; whatever relevance either Geldof or Izzard once possessed is something that has no currency in 2017, certainly not for those who once bought the records of the former or applauded the outré appearance of the latter. Their willing submission to the Gina Miller manual plays upon the cultural importance both could lay claim to in their youth, but one that means bugger all as they career towards their pensions. Narcissistic egos, confronted by the uncomfortable reality of achievements with a vintage of 25-40 years, require fresh injections of the zeitgeist and they have hitched a ride on the Brexit bandwagon as a means of keeping their respective hands in. The mistake both have made is to attach themselves to a vehicle whose passengers are the kind of figures whose detachment from the day-to-day lives of the uneducated multitudes is as potent as hereditary peers of old, and one that inspires similar loathing.

Geldof and Izzard are contemporary cheerleaders for a trait characteristic of the left for decades – the paternalistic ‘we know better than you’ approach to the plebs, one that complements the contempt of the right for the lower orders, and one that treats them with equal condescension. It assumes the position that those who rose from the bottom of the heap in a distant era of easy social mobility are somehow qualified to preach to those that haven’t a cat in hell’s chance of following suit – and are more qualified than those who were born with a silver spoon in their mouths as opposed to those that waited until they could afford said utensil. The distance of the rise, however, renders the opinions of Geldof and Izzard out of touch and out of reach. Both have long moved in exclusive circles, and their grasp of reality is rooted in the reality of their pasts, a reality that is irrelevant to the here and now.

Geldof making a particular hand gesture on a flotilla hired at great expense to cruise down the Thames in the run-up to the Referendum is as detached from the concerns of the average voter as Izzard calling upon half-a-dozen Met Officers to wrestle a pleb to the pavement for nicking his silly beret. Neither has any real notion as to why those they view with such patronising cluelessness voted in a way that jeopardises their tax-evading lifestyles, and the more they sponsor Icke-esque conspiracy theories over Russian involvement in a democratic process, the more they remove themselves from those they purport to support.

© The Editor

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mr-Yesterday-Johnny-Monroe/dp/154995718X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1510587486&sr=1-1

DIG FOR VICTORY

Trump and Russia – it’s the gift that keeps giving and one that continues to give hope to those who couldn’t accept the Donald’s victory last November. Fake news issues aside, the problem with the constant insinuations and rumours that have bedevilled the Trump presidency ever since before the inauguration is that they simply won’t go away; even if there has yet to be any absolute and indisputable proof that Russia played its part in Trump’s triumph, small scraps are being constantly thrown up as teasing trailers for the Big Reveal. How long do we have to wait for it, though? Shouldn’t we have had it by now?

There are too many with a vested interest in Trump’s removal from office to let the Russia connection slip off the radar, and their constant carping in media circles makes it hard to sometimes see the wood for the trees. How deep does Russian involvement in Trump’s victory go, and was there any real involvement at all? Some of us just want the facts, but there are so many conflicting elements at the heart of this ongoing story that it’s often difficult to decide what genuine crimes have been committed and what angles are being promoted merely to undermine the current administration at the White House.

President Trump’s son Donald Jr meeting a Russian lawyer during the Presidential Election campaign and being promised ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton was something daddy’s boy decided to confirm to the media this week as a pre-emptive strike against the New York Times. Even if Trump Jr claims the meeting was ‘a wasted 20 minutes’ and excavated no desired dirt, the release of emails confirming the heir to the Trump fortune did indeed meet with a certain Natalia Veselnitskaya during the campaign in the hope of gaining an advantage over his father’s opponent can be viewed as further proof that the Kremlin had an influence on the outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election – or not. Ms Veselnitskaya apparently carries no weight whatsoever in Russian government circles.

Those of us who remember the ‘hanging chads’ debacle of 2000 will know by now that long-running sagas arising from contentious Presidential Elections are nothing new, and the allegations surrounding Russia and Trump are the latest in a series of awkward associations that perhaps stretch as far back as JFK’s Mafia connections in 1960. Unless definite evidence emerges one way or the other, the rumours will linger as long as people are interested enough to pursue them, and Trump has so many enemies in America that the interests of those who are desperately seeking any advantage they can gain over the Donald will naturally receive excessive media coverage, whether rooted in genuine fact or not.

The President has unsurprisingly leapt to his son’s defence this week via the medium that Trump Senior depends upon as a means of sidestepping what he perceives as a perennially hostile press – Twitter; he regards coverage of Trump Junior’s confession as ‘the great witch-hunt in political history’. At the same time, the Kremlin has denied the lawyer who had dealings with Trump’s son had any damaging info on Clinton, while the lawyer herself also claims she wasn’t in possession of the kind of goods that could have been useful to the Trump campaign, despite the fact that she met the President Elect’s son at Trump Tower in June 2016.

It goes without saying that any kind of dirt on one’s political opponent can be regarded as an advantage during a campaign, so if Trump’s son thought he had the likelihood of receiving any last year he’d have been foolish to spurn the opportunity; but Hillary Clinton had such an impressive back catalogue of accessible dirt already available in the public arena that one cannot but wonder why Team Trump had to enter into any association with Russian representatives to add to that back catalogue. One can only assume naivety played its part, perhaps; after all, this was one of the most inexperienced teams in terms of public office ever to run for the White House. Then again, that’s assuming there was any collusion between Trump and Russia in 2016, and the jury remains out on it.

2016’s no-holds-barred campaign was characterised by dirt-digging; yes, dirt is an integral element of political campaigning, but both sides dug deeper for it in 2016 than had ever been seen before. The bizarre line-up of women pushed forward who claimed to have been sexually preyed upon by either Trump or Mr Clinton was just one ugly aspect of the campaign that marked it out as uniquely amoral. But a foreign government allegedly intervening in a US Presidential Election is a new development; lest we forget, it’s a tactic usually reserved for the US itself, certainly where numerous South American countries have been concerned over the decades.

Trump claims he asked Putin if Russia had intervened when the pair met in person for the first time during last week’s G20 summit; naturally, Vlad denied the allegations, and the President appears satisfied with that denial. He also claims he had no idea his son met the Russian lawyer until a few days ago, though added he wouldn’t have objected had he known at the time. It must be endlessly frustrating for Trump’s opponents that they just can’t get hold of what they really want; maybe they never will because it simply isn’t out there. But I’ve no doubt they’ll keep digging.

© The Editor

STRIKE ZONE

Well, after all the endless gossip of a mutual admiration society between The Donald and Vlad, not to mention persistent accusations of Russian interference in last year’s US Presidential Election – both of which have been recycled by Trump’s opponents at home for months – one wonders what Mr Putin’s opinion of the President is now. American-led coalition airstrikes against Jihadists in Syria have been an under-reported element of the Syrian Civil War since 2014, but the deliberate targeting of one of Assad’s airfields by US missiles in the early hours of this morning is the first time the Americans have attacked government forces. Where this leaves opinion on western involvement in the Syrian conflict, not to mention US-Russian relations, is probably too early to speculate; but it’s fair to say the Kremlin isn’t happy.

Russia has called the American strike that struck Shayrat airbase at 1.40 GMT ‘an act of aggression against a sovereign nation’ – unlike annexing Crimea, then? All the doom-laden predictions that Moscow would be pulling the strings of a puppet President in the White House appear a tad premature now. The Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said: ‘Instead of the previously touted idea of a joint fight against the main enemy – the Islamic State – the Trump Administration has shown that it will carry out a fierce battle against the lawful government of Syria’. Russia has also suspended a joint air safety agreement between it and the US in Syria as a result.

It would seem the appalling nature of events in Khan Shiekhoun on Tuesday has prompted a change to American foreign policy re Syria, certainly where Trump is concerned. From the off, he has repeatedly stressed domestic issues were at the top of his agenda, and his suspected softness towards Putin suggested he’d steer clear of Syria. But a President with such a swaggering personality and combative approach to governance was clearly presented with the kind of challenge to flex his muscles on the world stage that he couldn’t resist.

Not that this familiar Trump persona was the one on display in the press conference he gave following confirmation of the attack. Unusually – though not unexpectedly, considering the circumstances – subdued, the President didn’t mince his words and seemed to suggest America was acting on behalf of all nations who attributed the nerve gas bombing to Assad. Most nations were rightly appalled by what happened in Khan Shiekhoun, but even when Trump called on ‘all civilised nations’ to contribute towards ending the conflict, everybody knew only one would be prepared to react to Tuesday’s incident with force.

Caution has characterised the western powers’ attitude towards Syria, as though everyone was holding their tongues, waiting for America to make the first move; Obama preferred the sneaky drone game, essentially military involvement through the back door, but his successor has now stated his case in a far more decisive manner. If today’s target was indeed the same airbase from which Tuesday’s chemical attack was launched, then Trump has certainly laid down the gauntlet. What next, though? Rather worryingly, a Oklahoma Senator who praised the President’s actions hinted the attack should herald the rebuilding of the US military after Obama’s budget cuts in order that America can achieve ‘peace through strength’, the old Republican call-to-arms catchphrase.

In 2017, Vietnam is now probably too distant a memory for many to recall with the shudder it provoked for decades, but the shadow of Iraq is still a potent influence on the Commander in Chief’s decision when it comes to where US forces are deployed today. I doubt Trump would want to commit ‘boots-on-the-ground’ in Syria any more than his predecessor wanted to, but airstrikes don’t send body-bags back to American airfields. Launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from two US Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean is a shrewder option when there remains such reluctance to send in the troops.

Every western country that dispatched soldiers to Iraq has subsequently shied away from repeating the same mistake in Syria, though some would argue this has enabled Assad (with the invaluable assistance of Russia) to continue getting away with murder. There was a proposal put forward two or three years back, particularly where British recruits to the fight against Assad were concerned, that the situation was comparable to the Spanish Civil War, when the International Brigades recruited multinational volunteers to the anti-fascist cause as many western powers preferred inactive neutrality. Perhaps the memory of the First World War was still strong in the minds of western leaders back then, just as Iraq is today.

Not all parallels with the Spanish Civil War stand up to scrutiny, but I suppose one could say that in that conflict, Nazi Germany effectively played the Russia to Franco’s Assad, with the Luftwaffe’s role in the bombing of Guernica a barbaric test-run for the horrors to come. However, what did follow in the same year the Spanish Civil War ended is hardly the most optimistic comparison one can make with what might follow Syria. We can only hope history’s habit of repeating itself takes a break for once.

© The Editor