How to respond to Russian aggression?

No doubt the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been dominating your thinking this last week or so – it certainly has mine. Such events seem to provoke everyone into having strong views as to what is happening and what should happen next. Well, I certainly have a view, but I’m not sure how strong it is. It’s at times like this that I realise just how quickly a situation can escalate out of control, and just how irrational we humans actually are.

The most expedient response from this (and every other) country requires a good understanding of Putin’s motives, but the complexity of the situation resists any simple analysis. It is too easy to simply dismiss Putin as mad, as many of the tabloids have done. We need to try to understand the how Putin views the place of Russia in the world and how he sees its ‘sphere of influence’. We may well disagree with this world view, but we also need to realise that we all have a world view that is not strictly true. We all tell ourselves a story, both individually and collectively, a fiction that allows us to make sense of the world as we experience it. We need to understand that none of our stories are objectively true. In order to resolve conflicts resulting from a clash of world views we need to try and understand the story from the other side.

Having said that, this invasion must be understood and responded to as a major global threat. For me the three most serious of these threats are nuclear, financial and a massive refugee crisis – threats that will affect us all. We need global solutions to global problems. We need to work together to resolve them. I have a real fear that Putin’s ‘story’ is one of extreme Russian nationalism, one in which he is looking for excuses to exhibit Russian strength on the world stage, an exhibition that could potentially involve the use of nuclear weapons. To prevent this, other countries need to be very cautious in their military response. They need to show a united front and effectively isolate Russia from the world stage. I am cautiously optimistic that this is happening.

However, a major refugee crisis has already begun. With reports of well over 1.3 million people fleeing Ukraine this is already becoming the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Again, such a global crisis needs a global response. All countries need to play their part in offering a safe home to those fleeing war, but the European countries (including the UK) have an obviously greater role to play. So far the UK government’s response has been dysfunctional, to say the least, with different ministers saying different, often contradictory, things, all against our own nationalistic background that seems to take a very negative view of refugees. We really do need to get over this. People do not flee war for the fun of it. They are our fellow human beings that need our help and our sanctuary.

With the obvious exception that this conflict escalates into a nuclear exchange, a major threat to the UK arises from a global energy shortage resulting from Russia shutting down its gas and oil supplies to Europe. This should be a wake-up call to us. As a matter of priority we need to become self-sufficient in energy. We need to do this, however, without resorting to the exploitation of any gas and oil reserves we may have – these need to remain firmly in the ground. We need to rapidly develop our use of off-shore wind and on-shore solar such that we become far more resilient against global threats. To repeat a well-used phrase from the green movement, we need think globally but act locally.

There needs to be an investigation and public debate about the extent to which the UK has encouraged the situation in Russia. A recent article in The Economist reported a “strong connection between Russian money and illicit finance”, whilst in 2020 Parliament’s intelligence committee concluded that London was a “laundromat” for tainted Russian money. We need to ask ourselves whether the development of London as a ‘global financial centre’, with all the associated sweeteners that attract the money of the global rich without asking too many questions about how the money has been acquired, has promoted government by oligarchs in many countries where democracy is fragile. Of even greater concern, perhaps, is the accusation that since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister the Conservative Party has accepted more than £2million from donors linked to Russia. We need to know what influence these donors have had on government decision making.

As I’ve said, the best way to deal with leaders like Putin is through strong international collaboration. All governments must resist any urge to ‘go it alone’, and we must do all we can to avoid escalation. However difficult this may be for some governments, this is not the time to demonstrate individual strength. The only way is to show global solidarity and effectively isolate such regimes, a response that requires us to prioritise international cooperation over competition.

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