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The tragedy of Ukraine and the demise of meaningful dialogue

Today, I’m thinking of an interview the comedian Russell Howard did a few years ago with Daryl Davis, a Black musician and activist whose remarkably civil conversations and friendships with members of the Ku Klux Klan gradually lead them to disavow their own racism. It is a fascinating, at times inspiring conversation. Specifically, I’m thinking of the way he described the power of dialogue, the role it plays in preventing conflict, and how the lack of a conversation between different people only fuels polarisation and violence. Today feels like a day that dialogue has died.

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Vladimir Putin is a man seldom in the mood for talking. Especially when he has no reason to talk, certainly not to the West, least of all to Ukraine. He knows that the division and lack of unity in the West offers a chance to exploit and avenge the Soviet ‘defeat’ he feels so personally tarnished by. Tonight, the West has valued Ukrainian freedom and democracy at a value roughly equal to the use of a financial transaction operating system (SWIFT), such is the dilly-dallying in the EU over sanctions. I can only presume how Ukrainians at home and abroad consider such a paltry valuation.

Talk of military intervention against Russia in Ukraine isn’t even on the table, a reflection of the seemingly ever-growing international isolationism gripping the West. The excessive overreach at the height of the Bush doctrine feels like an age ago. But now, in its place, are rival autocrats, each seeking to expand their spheres of influence. Emboldened by the botched US-led withdrawal from Afghanistan, Xi Jinping can eye-up Taiwan, aware the US is not the reliable ally it once was. Kim Jong-Un can continue his missile testing, in open defiance of the United Nations, a beacon of liberal internationalism. Can South Koreans sleep easy at night? When it comes to Russia, it feels like (at best) a hark back to the Cold War. But, as summarised by the former German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, when negotiating with the other side, you have to be militarily strong enough to make walking away from the table worse than staying seated. Which is what made it all the more easy for Putin to twiddle his thumbs.

This war is Putin’s vanity project, his reclamation of what is wrongfully his. The pain and fear in the eyes of members of his Security Council as they stumbled and mumbled their way through trying to agree with the President was painful to watch. They are puppets in the most vicious game known to humanity. And unfortunately, this man has finished playing with the toy soldiers. 

It is too kind to say what so many Putin-sympathisers say, that he wants respect on the international stage for both Russia and himself. This is a man seared by power and ego. The most naked form of ambition married to an occasionally semi-naked machismo. Disillusioned by the freedoms and choices Russians were discovering, he asserted and inserted himself into the lives of the Russian people, on their televisions, in the newspapers, in their consciousness. The only consolation of today has been watching the bravest of protesters in Russia rail against this militarism, risking their lives and their families to openly defy the Father of the Motherland. Representing many more within Russia, they too are soldiers in this tragedy of war, fighting as passionately as they can to prove that the President may have their attention, but will never have their hearts. 

But what for Ukraine, a country today being bombed by an impatient, omnipotent neighbour, all in the spurious allegation of ‘denazification’. Unlike Russia, Ukraine is led by an elected Servant of the People. Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian, just hours after Putin gave a speech of xenophobic bile, preached love, respect and the mutual bond that transcends borders, and doesn’t warrant aggression. He leads a country of people fed up with corruption and oligarchical influence, desperately seeking the security of an until recently much-maligned NATO. Unfortunately, it is this precise will of the people that has seemingly provoked their neighbour so badly. For Putin though, his lines in the sand always ran far deeper into the ground.

It won’t be Putin, Zelensky, the wider ‘West’ or indeed any ideology that are as affected by this crisis as people. It is always people who suffer in conflict, their hopes and dreams stifled by the plans and nightmares of those instigators of war. To hear that Poland and Romania, two of the poorest nations in the EU, are preparing to collectively welcome 1.5 million refugees from Ukraine is heartening, yet a remarkable reminder of the humanitarian emergency that could soon unfold. It makes the clock tick ever more slowly and urgently on the rest of Europe to take stock. It also obliterates the now infamous allocation of 20,000 places for Syrian refugees announced by David Cameron in 2015 out of the water.

Until the time arises, we as individuals can only do so much. We can donate, lobby, protest and raise awareness. But at large, we can only watch and wonder, when did our words at the table become so hollow that they could be laughed at by those uninterested in playing Diplomacy, and more interested in this most morbid game of RISK? Until we can muster the answer, it will never be just the dialogue dying.

Image courtesy of Taras Gren via the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine on Flickr

By Callum Devereux

Editor-in-Chief, May-September 2022
Former Deputy EiC & Opinion Editor