My most formative political experience was undoubtedly the time I spent in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, particularly Romania. Although the Cold War was officially over, the legacy of communist rule was still very vivid, especially in the minds of the families I stayed with and children I taught English. Above all, one came to understand the sense in which the country had been sacrificed – in terms of its freedom and prosperity – to the ego and power-obsession of its totalitarian tyrant, Nicolae Ceausescu. For Ceausescu then, read Putin today.
My most shocking experience in Romania was visiting one of its infamous orphanages in Siret, a town on the border of Ukraine, and now a principal crossing point for thousands of refugees escaping westwards from Putin’s bombing. The conditions were horrific and I will never forget the cross-eyed look of toddlers who had been deprived of affection and care such that they didn’t display ‘normal’ facial expressions.
The point is that in such a country, under such a dictator, corruption – rather than compassion – rules the state and its apparatus. In our country, if we phone for an ambulance, we take for granted that the ‘system’ will do what it can to help us; from time to time there may be delays, for reasons beyond the control of the operating crew. But nobody would expect the ‘system’ to work on any other assumption than seeking to help those needing care. In countries where Mafia cronyism determines authority, one can make no assumptions about the value placed on humanity.
That is why a leader such as Putin can shell a nuclear reactor facility, risking truly catastrophic collateral damage; order tanks to fire at civilian tower blocks; bomb women and children fleeing via routes that have been promised are ‘safe’; and that is why he can lie and deny all such acts, and then carry on repeating the process with no regard whatsoever to the toll of death and destruction that results. He can repress at home, at will, because there is no corrective power to overrule, and no advisor questioning his wisdom who would dare utter such thoughts in public. Above all, there is not a shred of compassion. As Lord Acton wrote so brilliantly and aptly in 1887, a sentence that has stood the test of time for every despot down the ages: ‘power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely’.
I contrast the callousness of Putin’s regime with the incredible courage of President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people, bravely defying the odds despite all the firepower ranged against them. Hearing the Ukrainian President address a packed of House of Commons via video link was a great privilege, and an experience I will never forget.
I also contrast the brutality of Putin’s aggression with the inspiring humanity shown by people here in South Suffolk. I visited the Cock Horse in Lavenham last Friday, where volunteer nurses working their annual leave were receiving a mountain of donations for onward transit to Ukraine.
Nevertheless, it is inevitable that questions are asked of our response. This has been particularly true on the pressure to take more refugees, but hopefully the significant enhancements to our offer in recent days will have reassured readers that we will be a welcoming nation, doing our bit.
Yet what really matters is dealing with the cause of the refugee crisis, and if we are to avoid actions that might risk wider war, the most important action we can deliver in trying to overcome Putin is arming the Ukrainians so that they can continue to robustly defend themselves. We led the way as the first country to provide lethal military aid to Ukraine and have now delivered 3,615 NLAW anti-tank missiles together with rations, medical equipment and other non-lethal military aid. This support predates the Russian invasion - since 2015, the UK has helped build the resilience and capacity of the Armed Forces of Ukraine through Operation ORBITAL which has trained around 22,000 Ukrainian troops, giving them the skills they need to take on Russian aggression.
Ultimately, the only thing a bully fears is superior force. So I do understand why some argue we should go further and send NATO forces to directly attack the Russian invaders. But such action would risk nuclear Armageddon. The fact is our military assistance, combined with strong economic sanctions that are hurting Russia at home, means we are more than playing our part in supporting the people of Ukraine against Putin. They deserve no less.
- Published in the Suffolk Free Press on 17th March 2022.