12 December 2019
War and Peace
By Neil Tidmarsh
Crimea, 2014: Who are these mysterious armed men, speaking Russian and wearing military battledress without any insignia – not a pip nor button nor cap-badge – to tell us what regiment or division or even army they belong to? What are they doing here? Where have they come from?
Ukraine/Russian border, 2015: Who are these mysterious armed men, speaking Russian, their military uniforms and vehicles stripped of all insignia? What are they doing here? Where have they come from?
Japan 2020: Who are these mysterious Russian-speaking Olympic athletes, competing against other nations but flying no flag and singing no anthem of their own, their kit and costumes stripped of anything which might tell us which country they represent? What are they doing here? Where have they come from?
This week, the World Anti-Doping Agency concluded that data from Russian laboratories – evidence about institutionalised cheating in Russian sports – might have been tampered with before it was handed over earlier this year – so it has banned Russia from competing in international sporting events for the next four years.
But this doesn’t mean that Russian athletes are banned from the Olympic games in Japan next summer: the IOC has said they can take part as “neutrals” – thus, curiously, allowing them to compete in the same way that Russian soldiers (allegedly) annexed Crimea and (allegedly) invaded Ukraine.
Nevertheless, the unprecedented four-year ban is a PR disaster for Russia, in a week of PR disasters:
Germany expelled two Russian diplomats as the country’s chief prosecutor took over the case of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, the former Chechen rebel commander who was shot dead in a Berlin park last August. German intelligence officials apparently believe that Moscow was somehow involved in the murder.
Western intelligence organisations – from Britain, France, Switzerland and the USA – reported that a Russian “assassination squad” of up to fifteen officers from the elite Unit 29155 of the GRU (military intelligence) operated out of a French Alpine resort from 2014 to 2018, allegedly using it as a base for action across Europe including the Skripal murder attempt in Salisbury, a coup attempt in Montenegro and the poisoning of an arms dealer from Bulgaria.
Wealthy Russian tycoon Dmitry Obretetskiy was killed in a road accident while walking his dog near his home in Surrey earlier this week. But a friend of his has suggested on Russian media that it might not have been an accident. And no doubt questions are being asked over here about the death; the same questions, perhaps, which are being asked about the recent deaths of other prominent Russian ex-pats in London and the home counties. (Nikolai Glushkov was found apparently strangled in his home in south west London in 2018; Boris Berezovsky was found hanged in his Berkshire home in 2013; Alexander Perepilichnyy died while jogging in Weybridge in 2012; Badri Patarktsishvili died unexpectedly at his home in Leatherhead in 2008; Alexander Litvinenko died of radioactive polonium poisoning in central London in 2006.)
But Russia did at least manage to pull off one PR coup this week after all those disasters. In Paris, President Putin sat down with President Zelensky of Ukraine, Chancellor Merkel and President Macron in an attempt to resolve the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. These peace talks were preceded by a prisoner-swap in September and an agreement between Kiev and Moscow about the implementation of previous peace agreements signed at Minsk in 2014 and 2015. The six hours of negotiations in Paris resulted in an agreement for a full ceasefire by the end of the year, further prisoner swaps and troop withdrawals, and another meeting in four month’s time.
If these peace talks are to be anything more than a PR exercise, however, certain thorny issues need to be addressed: the transfer of control of eastern Ukraine’s border from rebel and Russian command to Kiev; elections in the disputed regions; and the extent of self-government to be offered to those regions. Whether the first should precede or follow the second is already a highly sensitive issue; many Ukrainians insist that elections should not be allowed until the border has been secured; Moscow will probably insist that border control cannot be surrendered until elections have taken place.
Nevertheless, it appears that all four participants in the talks are sincere in their peace-building efforts. Moscow knows that peace in the Ukraine would be the first step towards the lifting of EU sanctions (and this column has argued elsewhere that the whole crisis must be a massive and unwelcome headache for the Kremlin); President Zelensky pledged during his election to improve relations with his powerful neighbour and to stop the destructive civil war; Chancellor Merkel’s Germany has always been the honest broker between Russia and the West; and President Macron knows that his plans for Europe – a vision of an unaligned, economically powerful, politically influential major power free of dependency on the USA – will rely on good relations with Russia.
And everyone must wish them well. After all, the world today would have been a much better place if the EU and Nato hadn’t tried to move in on Ukraine and shift the West’s borders right up to Russia’s, and if the West had realised, when it all blew up in its face, that the Crimea, as far as Moscow is concerned, is Holy Ground which Russia could never be expected to give up. (There are signs, however, that the West is learning; no wonder M Macron vetoed EU membership for Northern Macedonia and Albania last month – a cruel betrayal of those countries’ hopes and expectations, no doubt, but, well, that’s the EU for you and better that than more Ukraine-type problems on its hands.)
If Santa Claus could deliver peace in our time with a genuine ceasefire later this festive season, then that really would make it a very Merry Christmas for the rest of Europe and perhaps even a Happy New Year for all those Russian soldiers and athletes if they could proudly sew their country’s flag back on their uniforms in 2020.