Another New Normal

14 April 2022

Another new normal

By Paul Branch

There was a time when all we had to worry about was life after Covid.  How or whether there would be a return to the good old days of mingling closely and indiscriminately.  Of the daily return to crowded commuter trains and airless offices.  Hugging friends and family, and consigning face masks to the waste bin of history.  Oh what happy days they now seem to have been!   All now overshadowed by the alarming preoccupation with unprecedented fuel bills which many just cannot afford to pay, and the prospect of a nutter prowling the corridors of the Kremlin at night with a finger teasingly poised on the nuclear winter button.  Even climate change doesn’t seem to figure much any more, although the ironic good news is that spiralling energy costs and/or nuclear destruction may come to our planet’s rescue.

But when the fighting in Ukraine stops, once the might of Russian armour has retreated back across its own borders or hunkered down in the new Russian Donbas region, what happens next?  Does the world breathe a collective sigh of relief, decide (albeit reluctantly and with some hand wringing) to recognise the new political geography, and move on?   Presumably that moving on would see an eventual return to calmer relations with Russia, the almost instant availability of cheap energy to get the global economy back on track, and the gradual phasing out of economic sanctions.  Putin would have achieved at least something, and the oligarchs could regain access to all of their obscene wealth wherever secreted.  Maybe the good people of Russia still won’t be completely in the picture regarding what really just happened, likewise their members of parliament, but at least the world keeps on spinning.

The others doing the spinning, unfortunately in their graves, will be the poor souls pointlessly murdered during the conflict, the Ukrainian soldiers killed defending their sovereign state against the Russian aggressor, and even those Russian soldiers who died having no idea what they were being dragged into.  They won’t go away.  Their deaths happened, so some form of recognition seems justifiably inevitable.  And with that recognition come consequences.

Whether the fighting stops or continues unabated in the form of guerrilla warfare, there will likely be no returning to the way things were.  Trust in Putin has vanished – he is no longer a viable business partner or someone to negotiate with.  The NATO armaments on his borders will continue to grow in strength and capability because they have to – there can never be another similar conflict in Europe, in Ukraine or in any of the other former Soviet satellite states.  Which is a shame for Putin really as the previous lower-level presence of such threats was apparently the reason for his insane Special Military Operation to de-militarise and de-Nazify one of his closest neighbours.  Vlad The Vicious therefore seems to have shot himself in the foot.

Someone needs to be held accountable for the dead bodies strewn across Ukraine, for the plight of millions of Ukrainian refugees, for the mindless destruction of their homes, schools, hospitals, and indeed the basic infrastructure of their country.  Just a couple of months ago they were going about their business and living their normal lives, no doubt looking forward to the arrival of Spring.  Their future now looks bleak through no fault of their own, even if there is a cessation of hostilities.   President Zelensky has suggested that Russia starts getting used to the term “reparations”, but that would need Putin and the Russian people to admit liability and accept responsibility for financial compensation, or for Ukraine to invade Russia and conquer Moscow, all of which currently look unlikely.

The chances of Putin allowing himself to be tried in person for war crimes in any international court are as vanishingly slim as his trustworthiness.  The chances of him being arrested at home and being dragged to The Hague or some other war crimes court are possibly fractionally greater.  Likewise the indictments of the actual perpetrators of the horrendous civilian deaths being uncovered.  But for any of that to happen there needs to be a seismic upheaval in awareness by a good proportion of 145 million Russians, the vast majority of whom still think the invasion of Ukraine was completely justified if unfortunate.  Perhaps the tearful mothers and wives of the dead Russian soldiers will make their grieving voices heard, but that of course needs airtime on their state-controlled media.  In the meantime much of the rest of the world looks on aghast, and regards Russians in general just as untrustworthy and barbaric as their elected leader.

There has been the start of some consequential international action with the vote by the UN General Assembly to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council, a move of symbolism rather than substance but one which will cause at least some embarrassment to Putin.   The breakdown of the voting also gives an indication of how things might pan out in terms of future international relationships with Russia, with 93 nations voting in favour of the motion, 24 against, 58 abstentions and 18 no shows.  Obviously Ukraine voted in favour, but the fact that it voted at all as an independent sovereign state recognised by the UN since 1991 gives the lie to Putin’s claim that it’s not a proper country.  Those against the motion as well as Russia included India and China (which must be acutely disappointing for Western diplomats hoping at least for abstentions), Iran, Syria, North Korea, Belarus and a couple of ex-Soviet bedfellows, and a few other extreme authoritarian states.  The abstentions also make for interesting reading:  Brazil, Egypt, South Africa, Singapore, Mexico, Malaysia, some other principal African, Middle and Far Eastern countries and members of our own Commonwealth …. perhaps these are not yet seeing the necessity to rock their own personal boats in their relationships with Russia, or maybe it’s a reflection of their increasing antagonism towards the old order.

Once we’ve shaken off completely our dependence on cheap and plentiful Russian oil and gas we could start to make serious inroads into real solutions to clean energy, and just let Russia and its coterie of friendly countries get on with it.  Always hoping of course that they too choose a climate-friendly path to the future especially if India and China remain in Putin’s gang.  But what then would be the role of the United Nations with the world split asunder ideologically and geographically?   Zelensky has already challenged the UN to do something to help Ukraine, or dissolve itself, at least in its purported peace-keeping role, which seems a logical outcome.

In reality the future shape of our world and the new normal we can look forward to looks to be in the hands of the Russian people.  Only they can decide whether they should question the information they are being fed, and then decide whether to go along with it or perform a screeching U-turn against their leadership.  Only they can determine Putin’s future, and whether to keep the faith or remove him one way or the other.  And only the Russians can decide whether to rejoin the rest of us, or return to the isolation of the cold war era in the company of the likes of Iran, Syria and North Korea.  In the meantime, happy Easter to one and all.   

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