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


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


The use of chemicals in warfare is almost as old as warfare itself; centuries before scientific advancement was able to produce man-made chemicals on an industrial scale, the Ancient civilisations of China, India and Greece were experimenting with ‘organic gases’ derived from toxic vegetables with a view to them being weapons. One of the earliest recorded uses of chemical weapons dates from the third century (AD) siege of Dura Europos, when bitumen and sulphur crystals were lit to create lethal sulphur dioxide smoke deployed against the invading Roman army. There’s a sad irony to the location of this landmark event – modern-day Syria.

Yesterday’s chemical incident in Khan Shiekhoun in the Indlib province of Northern Syria so far has a body count of 52 adults and 20 children; it is the first widely reported example of chemical warfare in Syria since the appalling 2013 massacre in Ghouta, which left hundreds dead. Once again, President Assad denies responsibility; his invaluable ally Russia admitted that Syrian aircraft bombed areas of Khan Shiekhoun, but attributes the deaths to the unintended striking of a rebel chemical weapons factory. Few are buying this story, with one chemical weapons expert rubbishing the idea a nerve gas could have spread in the way it did via an airstrike on a factory producing it.

News footage of those fleeing the attack shows symptoms consistent with exposure to nerve agents, choking and foaming at the mouth; some witnesses also claim the hospitals where the victims were being treated were then targeted by government airstrikes. There’s nothing quite like kicking somebody when they’re down, is there? The evidence of chemical weapons being used once more in the Syrian conflict is undeniable, though nobody wants to claim responsibility, least of all Assad.

The chemical in question is suspected to be sarin, production and stockpiling of which was outlawed twenty years ago. As a substance, it’s so nasty that even a small dose can kill; it’s estimated that sarin in its purest form is 26 times more lethal than bloody cyanide. The time it takes to do the business depends on the extent of inhalation, but the average is stated as being between one and ten minutes. Even a non-lethal dose can inflict potentially permanent neurological damage, whereas death by sarin is especially gruesome. After the runny nose, tight chest, inability to breathe, nausea and drooling come vomiting and involuntary defecation and urination, followed by the final comatose condition which ends with suffocation via convulsive spasms – and all within the space of ten minutes. As far as a way to go goes, it’s fair to say there are less horrible endings one could endure.

We have the development of modern chemistry in the nineteenth century to thank for chemical warfare as we recognise it today, though it was inevitable any scientific breakthrough would be utilised by man for malignant means. During the Crimean War, the Secretary of the Science and Art Department (yes, there really was one), the wonderfully-named Lyon Playfair, proposed the manufacture of cyanide artillery shells because he seemingly thought it a more humane way of killing the enemy. His proposal was rejected, though the horrific potential of chemical weaponry caused such concern that the Hague Declaration of 1899 attempted to outlaw the use of projectiles ‘the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases’. All the major powers ratified the declaration except the US.

However, neither the Hague Declaration of 1899 nor the Hague Convention of 1907 prevented the use of chemical weaponry in the First World War. The French initiated the practice, swiftly followed by the Germans; by the end of the Great War, it’s estimated around 1.3 million casualties could be attributed to chemical warfare. Between the wars, and despite the damage done by chemical weapons, gas was used to suppress native rebellions in European colonies as well as during the Russian Civil War, though the 1925 Geneva Protocol pledged to never use gas in warfare again. The Western allies upheld this during the Second World War and even Nazi Germany refrained from it, though the Japanese had used it against Chinese forces before 1939.

The fear of gas being used in WWII led to the widespread distribution of gasmasks and it has subsequently been revealed that mustard gas was stockpiled in the event of a German invasion of Britain. It was also intended to be used by RAF Bomber Command should the Germans have resorted to it to repel the D-Day Landings. Thankfully, none of these scenarios arose, though post-war uses of chemical weapons were said to have occurred in the likes of North Yemen, Rhodesia, Vietnam and Angola before its resurgence during the Iran-Iraq War.

The return of chemical warfare in such a high-profile conflict as Syria has shocked the world, though in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Assad was clearly so desperate to cling onto power that it appeared he would stoop to anything. The support of Russia in this clinging onto power has enabled Assad to stay put; and when he again resorts to tactics that are below the belt even in such a bloody warzone as Syria, Assad knows Putin’s backseat driving is his greatest asset.

Russia has the power to veto any resolution on the issue by the UN Security Council, claiming a draft resolution already proposed would pre-empt the results of any investigation into the incident and automatically lay the blame at the door of its Syrian sidekick. Heaven forbid! If, as most outside of Russia believe, Assad is capable of using chemical weapons on his own people, he’s hardly unique amongst dictators; a certain sadistic despot in Iraq did likewise a few years ago, after all. But when the world’s attention seems permanently focused on Syria, it does seem remarkable that Assad (if indeed he is guilty) can get away with such a crime again; but he got away with it before.

© The Editor


palsWhen Arsenal are awarded a disputed penalty, Arsene Wenger never sees the contentious incident that provoked it; on the other hand, when a penalty is awarded against Arsenal, Wenger has a meticulous recall of the foul that led to the spot-kick, as though he’d been inches away from the tackle. Similarly, Donald Trump swore the FBI were unmistakably accurate when they added to the Clinton email saga just days before the US electorate went to the polls – ‘Bigger than Watergate’, you may recall; now that the CIA have confirmed Russians hacked into confidential Democrat files that they then leaked to the media in order to assist the President Elect’s passage to the White House, Trump won’t have any of it.

What real impact intervention by hackers might have had on the US Presidential campaign is hard to tell this near to events in October and November. In many respects, Hillary Clinton didn’t need hackers to bugger things up for her; she was more than capable of doing so on her own, whereas Trump seemed able to get away with saying whatever he liked, however obnoxious and reprehensible, and it only added to his popularity ratings. He can therefore greet the CIA announcement with scepticism and dismiss those who are worried about the ease with which America’s perceived enemies can access private information. Even notable Republican John McCain went on US TV to declare his belief in the CIA’s findings, though Obama’s 2008 opponent is practically a Socialist next to some of the party’s leading loons that Trump has recruited, so his opinion doesn’t count.

According to the CIA, the Russian hackers also targeted the Republican Party, though declined to pass on whatever they found out to WikiLeaks; I suppose one might conclude it would be handy for Moscow to have something on them for safe keeping. But it was evident from the off that Trump would be Putin’s preferred candidate for the Presidency, so if the revelations of the CIA are indeed true, perhaps there’s more to this than simply sour grapes on the part of the Democrats. That said, the priority for America right now should be less about the blame game and more about upgrading their software.

Bearing in mind the increasing sophistication of hackers that forever seem to be one step ahead of the systems in place to prevent them doing their job, it would be no great surprise if the CIA’s findings are genuine. Trump and Putin have never hidden their macho admiration for each other and yet one cannot help but feel that the Al Capone of the Kremlin, with his KGB/Stasi background, looks at his American counterpart and sees a pliable idiot who only requires a little ego-massaging to make him favourable to Moscow. There are understandable concerns that this will be the case when the two men eventually meet in person as world leaders, so the timing of the CIA’s conclusions re the hackers is as fortuitous as the timing of the FBI’s conclusions re Hillary Clinton’s emails.

These revelations come hot on the heels of last week’s condemnations of Russia’s institutionalised doping regime in sporting circles, specifically the Olympic Games. I’ve no doubt Russia does engage in dubious medical practices where their athletes are concerned; the Soviet Bloc as a whole was notorious for it, and there’s no reason to suppose practices changed when the Iron Curtain was dismantled twenty-five years ago. But the allegations against British athletes that emerged via documents leaked online several months ago, presumably from Russian hackers again, revealed that many of our great Olympians are apparently at it as well – though their tracks were covered by the fact that most of them are stricken with asthma, believe it or not, which makes their achievements all the more remarkable. Again, fortuitous timing switches the spotlight East once more.

The propaganda war between Russia and the West is, as it was during the Cold War, a game of extreme exaggeration on both sides with a grain of truth always present; and the one-upmanship of acquiring a defector retains its point-scoring prestige. A Nureyev or Philby figure was a prized weapon back in the day, and with Russian athlete Yuliya Stepanova blowing the whistle on the State doping programme of her homeland – a brave move necessitating her flight from the country to a clandestine location somewhere in Western Europe – ‘our’ side holds the current moral pawn.

It suits the West’s narrative on Russia (not to mention deflecting attention away from European and American sporting doping) to focus solely on its wrongdoing in a tournament that long ago shed its amateur ethos and pretences to fair play, just as it equally suits that narrative to condemn its involvement in Syria, even when we and the Americans are effective sponsors of what the Saudis are doing in Yemen. Trump labelled Castro a ‘ruthless dictator’ upon the death of the former Cuban leader, yet the human rights abuses attributed to Fidel’s regime are far exceeded by the crimes against humanity committed by some overseas allies of the West. But, of course, the bad guys are the ones who wear the black hats, and it is those with the white ones who select which heads will be donning this season’s ebony headgear.

© The Editor


image1It’s always entertaining when a morally-reprehensible entity ascends the moral high-ground. Anyone who was around in the mid-90s will recall the memorably inappropriate ‘Back to Basics’ slogan of John Major’s Tory Government, promoted by numerous hypocritical dishonourable members, many of whom were shortly exposed as philanderers and crooks after laying the blame of society’s ills at the door of easy targets lower down the social scale. Fast-forward twenty years or more and we are told NatWest has frozen the British bank accounts of Russia Today, the pro-Putin English language TV channel that is to the Kremlin what Fox News is to the Republican Party.

NatWest is part of the Royal Bank of Scotland group, which is perhaps the archetypal appalling financial institution of our times. Under the stewardship of Fred Goodwin, RBS played a key role in the financial meltdown of 2008 and was one of the banks pulled from the brink by the rescue package masterminded by Gordon Brown’s Chancellor Alistair Darling. However, almost as soon as Goodwin fled into exile news broke that he would continue to earn £703,000 a year in his retirement.

It emerged that had Goodwin been simply fired by RBS instead of taking early retirement, his annual pension would have been the considerably lower amount of £416,000 (and not accessible until he was 60); but had the Government’s rescue package not saved RBS from extinction, then Goodwin’s pension would have been £28,000 a year and not payable until he reached 65; Goodwin had ‘retired’ aged just 50 and cannily exploited the system in his retirement as much as he had during his tenure on the throne. Although his annual pension was subsequently reduced, this only came about after Goodwin had already (allegedly) received a £2.7 million tax-free lump sum.

As if such unsavoury headlines weren’t enough, RBS was later exposed as no more trustworthy post-Goodwin than it had been during his reign; the scandal of RBS’s Global Restructuring Group, which had purported to be a non-profit venture to aid struggling client companies and was recently revealed as another sneaky cash-cow, buying shares, equity and property before selling them on and making a handsome profit, has painted RBS in a further unseemly light. That it has now decided to take a moral stand against a broadcaster with its own questionable moral agenda provokes the same despairing feelings that appear when watching the Trump/Clinton clashes.

Russia Today – or RT as its UK branch prefers to be known – was launched in this country just two years ago this month. The parent company is based in Moscow, though the version British viewers receive is transmitted from studios at Millbank Tower in London. Despite the hostile press Putin’s Russia is subject to in the UK, his regime has many friends within Parliament and RT boasts a weekly show by maverick Lefty agent-provocateur George Galloway as well as the admittedly humorous satirical rants of comedy news reporter Jonathan Pie. Although only transmitting four hours a day from London, the rest of the programming on the channel comprises other English language shows from RT’s overseas outposts, such as RT America, including veteran US political broadcaster Larry King.

From the moment it was launched, RT UK was subject to vociferous criticism from both ends of Fleet Street; The Times referred to it as a ‘den of deceivers’ and The Observer called it a ‘prostitution of journalism’. The fact that the majority of the most popular British newspapers have traditionally served as mouthpieces for the Conservative Party has unsurprisingly evaded being pointed out amidst the condemnation of RT by the UK press.

Broadcasting regulator Ofcom has also levelled criticism at RT for its failure to advocate impartiality where Russia is concerned; even before its British incarnation appeared, Russia Today’s UK correspondent Sara Firth had resigned due to the biased coverage of the MH17 tragedy, and Ofcom promised preemptive sanctions if further breaches of Britain’s broadcasting code occurred once it set up shop in London. It also upheld a complaint by the BBC over an RT accusation that the Corporation had staged a chemical weapons attack in Syria to discredit Russia’s military support of Assad and its insidious presence in the conflict.

One can only assume today’s announcement by NatWest is connected to Russia’s ongoing role in supporting (and participating in) the rape of Syria, though there has been no public explanation from the RBS group. NatWest wrote to RT in London and said ‘We have recently undertaken a review of your banking arrangements with us and reached the conclusion that we will no longer provide these facilities’, adding it was ‘not prepared to enter into any discussion’. According to RT, the freeze will not be in effect until December, though RT claims the suspension by RBS will also encompass the personal accounts of senior London RT employees.

This latest instalment in the deterioration of relations between Britain and Russia is a curious development, instigated by a company whose own code of conduct is hardly beyond reproach. Perhaps RBS views such a move as a means of cleaning up its image; imposing superficial punishment upon a media outlet for a horrible regime is a strange decision, particularly for a banking institution whose usual attitude towards the general public is one that Putin probably wholeheartedly approves of.

© The Editor


SochiWhenever Sir Humphrey Appleby wanted an especially tricky issue kicking into the long grass on ‘Yes Minister’, he would propose an inquiry to put-upon Jim Hacker as a means of burying it – never a public inquiry, of course; it would always be an in-house affair chaired by someone purposely chosen to ensure a verdict that would absolve Hacker’s ministry of all responsibility. I couldn’t help but be reminded of this process when reading of Vladimir Putin’s reaction to the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban all Russian track and field athletes from the imminent Rio Olympics following claims of Russia’s state-sponsored performance-enhancing doping of its Olympians in a damning report by the World Anti-Doping Agency. After announcing all the named officials had been suspended pending an inquiry, Tsar Vladimir nominated an honorary Russian member of the IOC to head an anti-doping commission; Putin also apparently wants his nominee, Vitaly Smirnov, to make sure the stable doors are bolted now that the horses have buggered off.

‘The official position of the Russian authorities, the government and the president, all of us, is that there can be no place for doping in sport’ – those were the words of Vlad when confronted by the claims of his nation’s own former national anti-doping laboratory head, Grigory Rodchenkov, a man who is now on the Kremlin’s hit-list after his allegations appear to have been given credibility in the eyes of the IOC by the WADA report. Descriptions of how Russia assembled a veritable piss-bank of clean urine samples that were then ingeniously swapped with contaminated ones in an elaborate scam involving the Russian secret service, the FSB, are worthy of a Cold War spy novel.

These practices are alleged to have begun in earnest following demands for improvement after Russia’s low medal count at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. With Putin viewing the 2014 Winter Olympics, held in the Russian Black Sea coastal city of Sochi, as his very own ‘Berlin ‘36’ moment, he spent £37.7 billion to impress the watching world and obviously required a return on his investment via a vastly superior performance by the host nation’s athletes than they had managed four years previously. Positive drug tests miraculously vanished where Russian competitors were concerned and the country found itself top of the medal table by the end, boasting 33 in total, considerably up from the tally of 15 in Vancouver. Grigory Rodchenkov alleges a third of Russian medals awarded at the Sochi games were won courtesy of doping. According to the WADA report, 580 positive tests across 30 different disciplines were successfully suppressed for the four-year period the scam was in use.

It goes without saying that Russian athletes are hardly unique when it comes to enhancing their performances with illicit substances; but if what the WADA report claims is true, the scale and professionalism of the operation the Russian sports authorities evidently embarked upon before Sochi is unprecedented. Blaming it on a few isolated individuals would be akin to blaming Hack-Gate on a small handful of rogue reporters as opposed to the billion-dollar organisation that employed them. But should we really be surprised?

Throughout the Cold War, there was no shortage of suspicions regarding athletes from Iron Curtain countries whenever the wider world had the rare opportunity to see them in action during international competitions. Some of the female competitors were remarkably masculine, to say the least – often making Giant Haystacks resemble a passable Lynsey de Paul lookalike. Only when the Iron Curtain collapsed and countries such as the GDR ceased to exist did some of those competitors finally speak about the systematic abuse of their bodies by chemicals provided by the state, an abuse that was standard practice for decades. Is it any wonder that the kind of government Putin has established in Russia should revert to old-school Soviet tactics now that winning at the expense of fair play has become the be-all and end-all of a tournament too huge for its own good?

The increased pressures and demands on big name countries to triumph in sporting competitions is apparent with each one that comes around; even the BBC commentator midway through the dreary European Championships Final of a couple of weeks ago was moved to ask what the last exciting international football final the viewers could remember seeing actually was. I shouted at the telly ‘The 1986 World Cup Final – Argentina 3 West Germany 2!’ There have been seven World Cup Finals since then, and they’ve all been played by men who look terrified of putting a foot wrong for fear it will lead to their nation’s humiliation. And now they also have to contend with what social media will make of them.

Sporting records are set to be broken, but one wonders how much faster a human being can run, how much higher he can leap and how much further he can jump. Yes, intensive training programmes, developments in diet and a more educated awareness of what constitutes physical wellbeing have all played their part in the vast improvements that have been made in track and field over the past fifty years; but how much does the breaking of records owe to doping? How far are nations, let alone individuals, prepared to go? Ask Vlad.

© The Editor


Barmaley, StalingradDavid Cameron invoked it as part of the ongoing scaremongering surrounding the impending EU Referendum; and now a retired NATO General has followed suit in order to plug a book. WAR! Yes, that’s what Europe’s got to look forward to if we a) leave the European Union or b) turn a blind eye to Putin’s military ambitions. But both the PM’s recent Remain ploy and the soothsayer-isms of Sir Alexander Richard Shirreff are issued as warnings that would require key incidents occurring years, even decades, beforehand to come to fruition; and unless these key incidents have indeed happened and won’t become apparent as such till the dust settles, it’s hard to discern them while the mongers are busy scaring.

The two instalments of twentieth century World War – what historian Stephen Ambrose described as ‘a European Civil War with no European victors’ – had roots that stretched back a long way. For me, the roots of the First World War can be traced back to Napoleon’s vicious dismemberment of Prussia a century earlier, whereas the eventual outbreak of the Second World War was a direct consequence of Germanic humiliation in the Treaty of Versailles. Unless Yeltzin’s poorly-thought out rush to dive into a western market economy during the 1990s is cited as the cause of Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, or the 2008 economic meltdown acts as an eventual catalyst for conflict, there isn’t really anything in the modern era that can be viewed as the crucial foundation-laying for war to match those that lit the blue-touch paper in 1914 or 1939.

The official line goes that peace has been maintained in Europe since 1945; if one ignores Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and a certain barney in the Balkans during the 90s, the line holds true. Not that the EU could – or should – take credit for that. It didn’t exist in its current incarnation in either 1956 or 1968 (the years of the USSR’s brutal intervention in failed, admirable attempts to embrace democratic freedoms), and I don’t recall it doing much to prevent the relentless bombardment of Sarajevo in 1992-96.

Granted, there is no denying that the past seventy years have been relatively peaceful when compared to the turbulent history of Europe, which is the bloodiest of any continent on the planet; but to attribute this rare stability to the existence of the EU is stretching it a bit. For an institution that spent its formative years as a purely economic arrangement between Western European powers to be promoted as some form of benign peace-keeping force in the centre of the continent for seven decades is dishonest, even if the peace angle was pivotal to its initial conception. However, it would undoubtedly be rather mean and churlish to express retrospective cynicism towards the movers and shakers behind both the United Nations and the European Economic Community when none of us were there to absorb the forward-looking determination they shared to see something genuinely positive arise from the ashes of a thirty-year conflict with a decade for dinner in the middle.

The current refugee crisis comprises the greatest mass migration of peoples in Europe since 1945, it is true, though the difference between then and now is one of direction. Today, Europe’s refugees are largely of Middle-Eastern descent and have viewed the continent they risked life and limb to get to as a kind of economic Promised Land; after the war, the refugees were home-grown, wandering from one devastated European nation to another, with the Jewish ones desperate to get out of Europe altogether and head for their own Promised Land…in the Middle East. One also needs to take into account the estimated deaths of around 70 million Europeans during the Second World War if comparisons are to be made with the immediate post-war continent and Europe in the twenty-first century. Europe in 1945 was a landmass that had experienced a population wipe-out on a par with the Black Death; today, it is a landmass experiencing a rapid upsurge in population.

A sudden influx of immigrants can provoke panic in some natives and foster grievances that, at their most paranoid, have a tendency to morph into far-right political parties; whether these have sufficient mass popularity to eventually cultivate a consensus whose natural outcome is war remains to be seen in this case – though Austria’s Freedom Party are poised to make a promising start. Similarly, while Putin has been able to do whatever the hell he pleases in the face of little worldwide opposition bar ineffective sanctions, is the only route available to the West to take him on militarily? Either way, there are so many ifs and buts (not to mention a fair few leaps of the imagination) if the doom ‘n’ gloom forecast is to be fulfilled that it’s hard not to see the motivation behind it as being a cynical ploy on the part of those with a blatant agenda and a degree in the politics of nightmares. The lights are still on in Europe at the moment, and the moment is all we have.

© The Editor


PigsThe rich and powerful have mastered the art of funnelling their finances into offshore tax havens that keep them beyond the reach of the international taxman and render the economic sanctions against corrupt regimes not worth the paper they’re written on; the systems for doing so are legal, albeit with enough loopholes to fill the Albert Hall. Tell us something we don’t know. Thanks to an enterprising German newspaper, the clandestine machinations of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca have been leaked to the world’s media in the shape of eleven million files. A dozen incumbent or former heads of state have been implicated and a billion dollar money laundering scam may or may not lead all the way to the Kremlin. Fancy that!

214,000 companies have had their dubious dealings exposed courtesy of the leak; the dozen current or ex-world leaders named and shamed include the Prime Ministers of Pakistan, Iceland and Ukraine as well as the Saudi King; six members of the House of Lords and a trio of ex-Tory MPs are also listed; football superstar Lionel Messi appears on the roll-call of offshore evaders, as does a prominent member of FIFA’s ethics committee (woah, didn’t see that coming); even David Cameron’s old man is there, which is interesting considering his son’s token and ultimately meaningless demands that tax havens show a little more transparency. Again, all perfectly legal and above board, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t stink.

Has anybody really been surprised at these revelations, though? A few politicians will issue statements justifying their greed, there will be calls for heads to roll for a week or so within the media, and then it’ll all quieten down again. Bar a bunch of dispensable journos thrown to the dogs by their employees, what did the hacking scandal of 2011 actually change re the way the people that control this country go about their daily business? Murdoch Senior remains on the throne, Murdoch Junior has been reinstated in the dynasty’s line of succession, and golden girl Brooks is back in a top job, as though none of it ever happened. All these leaked documents do is to confirm something everybody has known for a long time, that our social superiors have the clout to do what those lower down the scale cannot.

Richard Nixon may have utilised presidential privilege to an exceptionally dodgy degree, but the fact that his extreme paranoia was facilitated by systems that were already in place merely underlines how the potential for corruption is served on a silver salver at the White House. Rumours and gossip about Hillary Clinton’s private activities have followed her around for years, but should they serve as a deterrent to her becoming America’s first female President? Does anyone expect a candidate to ascend the summit of absolute power without any shit on their shoes? Trust and faith in the political classes has been wallowing in the gutter for decades, something both Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump have exploited to their advantage, and a flurry of revelations that the elite operate within a legal framework inaccessible to the man in the street won’t alter opinions that have been set in stone for a long time. An indifferent shrug of the shoulders is probably the extent of the reaction that those who aren’t excited newspaper journalists will offer in response to the latest ‘sensational’ headlines.

To actually want to climb to the apogee of power to me indicates a design fault in a person’s personality there and then. Ambition is fine (and indeed admirable) in any chosen field, but there’s something different about politics. An honourable man or woman may be motivated by a genuine desire to change aspects of the system they see as unfair to the masses, but each step along the way to their goal is littered with obstacles challenging their virtue. A nod and a wink, a funny handshake, a flash of upturned trouser leg, a free meal or tickets to a sporting event via corporate hospitality – and thus it has always been. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours if you want to get where you’re going; here’s a pot we all piss in. Britain’s first Prime Minister Robert Walpole would make a habit of inviting new MPs to dinner and promising them the world in order to secure their support and nothing has really changed in three-hundred years. In the fallout of the South Sea Bubble scandal of 1720, Walpole emerged triumphant because he had the nous to cover his back and successfully sell himself as the best of a bad bunch.

The hints of alleged shady banking practices linked to Vladimir Putin are hardly akin to discovering Doris Day used to shoot up with Janis Joplin; illegal annexations, press suppression and professional assassinations are already cluttering Tsar Vlad’s copybook, so why should anyone be shocked that he’s careful with his money too? World leaders are not necessarily the brightest of buttons, but they often surround themselves with men who are; the ones that get caught with their hands in the till are the ones who don’t.

I’ve no doubt that the documents that have seeped from the Mossack Fonseca vault are scratching the surface of something that runs deep in the DNA of every power-hungry martinet from the largest of life presidents to the most obscure of local councillors. And chances are we’ll never be told the truth, the whole truth or nothing but the truth. There is an Us and there is a Them, and never the twain shall meet.

© The Editor


PutinIt was an assassination straight out of a Cold War spy novel – an East European dissident resident in London stands at a bus-stop, waiting to get to Bush House where he will broadcast on the BBC World Service; a sharp pain suddenly shoots through the back of his thigh; he gazes behind him and sees an anonymous man walking away carrying an umbrella. Only when he develops a fever that evening is a connection made between the sickness and what resembles a bee-sting on his leg. Gradually convinced he has been poisoned by foreign agents, he dies before any action can be taken. He was Bulgarian novelist, playwright and critic of his country’s Communist regime, Georgi Markov, and a pellet containing the poison ricin had been jabbed into his leg via the tip of the umbrella carried by a man believed to be a KGB operative. Nobody has ever been charged with his murder, which took place in September 1978.

Both Markov’s minor celebrity and the novelty of the method used to assassinate him garnered headlines at the time, even though agents of both East and West were routinely engaged in such cloak-and-dagger hits back then. The notoriety attached to Markov’s murder merely confirmed the activities of operatives as played out in the pages of John le Carré novels were far-from fantasy; le Carré’s own day-job at MI6 gave him an insight into the realities of international espionage that infused his books with the kind of accuracy Ian Fleming had avoided. When the Cold War officially came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin’s attempts to implement a Western-style free-market economy on Russia in the 90s, many assumed the age of East-West antagonism was over. Not so an ex-KGB officer and rising star in Yeltsin’s administration, Vladimir Putin.

For the last half-decade of his 16-year KGB career, Putin was stationed in East Germany, where he worked in tandem with the Stasi. As the DDR entered its final days, he was instrumental in the burning of KGB files and was then recalled to Moscow; during the KGB-engineered coup to topple Gorbachev in 1991, Putin sensed which way the wind was blowing and switched sides. After a period in local government in St Petersburg, Putin transferred to Moscow and was promoted into President Yeltsin’s team, falling back on his KGB experience to head its successor, the FSB. By the end of the 1990s, his hardline approach to the conflict in Chechnya earned him public plaudits and he was awarded the post of Prime Minister before winning the nomination as Yeltsin’s Presidential heir, a position he ascended to in 2000.

During his first stint at President (2000-08), Putin’s aim seemed to be to restore pride and prestige to a country that had lost an empire and had suffered the exploitation of Yeltsin’s economic reforms by a handful of businessmen who acquired immense riches whilst the majority of the population endured hardship. Putin’s persecution of the Oligarchs unsympathetic to his rule forced most of them into exile before they could be imprisoned, whereas his crackdown on free speech and media independence attracted his first heavy criticism from the West.

When he stepped down as President in 2008, Putin was accused of being a backseat driver when his successor Dmitry Medvedev appointed him Prime Minister, a position he held for the next four years before running for President again in 2012. By this time, Putin had moved the Presidential goalposts, altering the constitution in order to extend a third term from four years to six.

His re-election was widely condemned as rigged, but despite protests both home and abroad, Putin’s grip on power was reinforced. The expansion of the Russian military and interventions in Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the annexation of Crimea, all of which were initiated to return the country to its Soviet-era size, served to restore the only kind of Russian pride and prestige a man raised in the USSR and employed by the KGB could relate to. What some have referred to as a Mafia-style concept of governance is not without its home-grown critics, one of whom was Alexander Litvinenko. The former FSB officer had defected to the UK as his ex-boss Putin was poised to be inaugurated President and embarked upon a career in journalism and adviser to the British secret service. His accusations that both the FSB and Putin were complicit in several acts of terrorism, including the 2006 murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, earned him the enmity of his countrymen

Just a couple of weeks after implying Putin had ordered the assassination of Politkovskaya, Litvinenko suddenly fell ill on the same day he had met two ex-KGB agents in London; hospitalised, his condition worsened as it was discovered he had traces of polonium-210 in his blood; evidence that he had been poisoned by a rare radioactive substance backed-up Litvinenko’s claims that Putin had been behind the poisoning, but he died within three weeks of being admitted to hospital. Litvinenko’s widow fought long and hard for a public inquiry into her husband’s death and was finally given the green light in January 2015. Now, twelve months later, the conclusions of the inquiry are that her husband was indeed deliberately poisoned and effectively murdered by two fellow Russians, named as Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy, the pair he had met on the day he fell ill.

Relations between Russia and Britain, weakened by the initial murder of Litvinenko and not helped by Putin’s subsequent military adventures and persistent macho posturing, appear to now be at their worst since the Cold War. Russia’s refusal to allow the extradition of the two men accused of Litvinenko’s murder and their counter-accusations of the inquiry being ‘politicised’, along with Theresa May’s vocal condemnation of the Russian state’s response, suggest this particular case will remain a thorn in the side of British-Russian relations for a long time to come. All accused parties deny any involvement in Litvinenko’s death, but to paraphrase dear old Mandy Rice-Davies, they would, wouldn’t they?

William Gladstone’s belief that Britain and Russia should be natural allies due to their geographical similarities, situated on opposing edges of Europe, both part of and yet outside of the continent, was an alliance he surmised would be a useful means of preventing a dominant France or Germany in the centre. 150 years later, the two nations have never seemed so distant from one another; and neither France nor Germany will lose much sleep over that.

© The Editor