We watch with horror the Russian invasion of Ukraine progress with admiration for the bravery and resilience of its people. Ukraine's remarkable Volodymyr Zelensky*, an actor who played a comedy role in which he became an unlikely president only to do so in reality, is acting out the greatest role of his life. Displaying the Ukrainian flag is pretty much an empty gesture, but....
Putin's invason of Ukraine will surely soon take much or all of that country effectively back into the USSR though, unlike the Beatles song, most Ukrainians will not feel lucky. The West woke up too late to a situation which has been slowly unfolding not just over the last few weeks but over many years.
Many strategic and policy errors have been made pretty much since the end of the Cold War. The largest has been assuming that Putin, like Yeltsin and Gorbachev, was "someone we could do business with" while not paying enough attention to the rogue state behaviour of cyber criminality, intrusions into other nations sovereignty (including the UK's with the novichok poisonings) and general mischief making. With hindsight I feel the West acted with a degree of triumphalism over the end of the Cold War which could be likened to the treatment of Germany after World War 1 which, it can be argued, led to the economic collapse of the Weimar Republic, the rise of Hitler and the inevitability of World War 2. I accept, however, that once Yeltsin made the error of annointing Putin as his successor it might have been difficult for more constructive relationship to have been fostered.
Given Putin's tendencies, which have been evident for a very long time, I opined to Mrs H on our walk a few days before hostilities commenced that the only way I could see that Ukraine just might have saved itself would have been for it to declare itself neutral, like Switzerland or Ireland. I noted that this had one big problem - it wasn't what the Ukrainian people wanted. But, as Mick Jagger sang, you can't always get what you want.
The reason I say this is that I feel the west, in the form of the EU and NATO, flirted with Ukraine, encouraging it to believe that it could become fully and quickly part of the west as its neighbours to the west had done after the fall of communism. The considered opinion was that, for the time being at least, NATO membership could cause more problems than could be answered, leaving Ukraine in limbo and having unsettled the Russians or at least having given them a pretext for grievance.
You can see why Russia felt threatened even by an alliance that is inherently defensive and why NATO didn't hurry to admit Ukraine looking at the following map showing the countries admitted to NATO since 1997 (this one comes from many useful maps on the BBC website):
Putin may also have felt that his "special operation" would have been a bit like Soviet tanks rolling unopposed into Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968.
The reason I think that the West ought to have steered Ukraine to declaring itself neutral, rather than leading it half way up a garden path, is that it has had long historical trading links in both easterly and westerly directions. The country has spent much of the three decades of its independence convulsed over how close a relationship to have with Russia and with the EU. I accept that this argument has been substantially settled in recent years in favour of looking west but Ukraine was not likely to be admitted to the EU anytime soon.
If you doubt just how threatening Russia sees Ukraine being part of the west, just think for a moment what the USA would say - and do - if Mexico announced it was entering into a military alliance with Russia. Or China.
Ukrainian neutrality might have given it the best of both worlds in terms of trading relationships and avoided the need for high spending on defence. I accept that the flaw in my argument is that Putin would still have seen a free Ukraine as a threat to his regime, especially if it thrived economically. The sight of increasing living standards just over the border in a country seen by his people as very similar would almost certainly have caused Putin to go tonto, to use Ben Wallace's term, anyway. It would have inconvenienced Putin to the extent that he couldn't have used "NATO aggression" as a pretext. The bizarre "nazification" claim would still have been available, I suppose.
Plenty of people are saying that we should have stood up to Putin sooner. Many of these are also the same people who oppose war anywhere, were totally against our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and oppose higher miltary spending whenever it is proposed. Quite a few of them would long since have relinquished Britain's nuclear deterrent. The hand wringing going on now makes me want to ask just what people expected us to do, then or now.
In the circumstances of now NATO was surely right to make clear it would not fight over Ukraine, especially with Putin's chilling hint of using nuclear weapons if the west got in his way and given what we can tell about his mental state.
So for now we can just marvel at the bravery of the Ukrainian people and assist in any refugee crisis while the West invokes sanctions and provides material (and materiel) aid where it can. And make sure we do spend appropriately on defence and that all NATO partners pull their weight. (Yes, I'm talking about you, Germany - aren't you ashamed at having to finally say you'll meet your commitment of 2% of GDP? Though, you've promised it before, so I'll believe it when it happens).
Personally I would fast track neutral Sweden and Finland's wish to join NATO as well, despite - or because - of Putin's hissy fit over the suggestion.
The West also needs to think carefully about what it can do to destabilise Putin's regime. There is plenty of evidence about just how dangerous going against Putin is for individuals but I do hold out some hope that either the clique of oligarchs around him, or his military leaders, will see that their boss's behaviour has become a liability. The sanctions are broad ranging and, over time, will hit Russia hard. Russia can only lose in an economic war wioth the West. At least we, as individuals, don't need vet many goods for embargo, unlike China.
In the meantime I say "Budmo, Ukraine!" It's the shortest and most common toast in Ukraine and means more than just cheers - broadly "let us be".
* Some sources give the president's surname as Zelenskyy. Of course it's actually Володимир Зеленський, so you can see it does have a double letter at the end but I would have thought the issue is whether we need that to produce the phonetic equivalent. I recall an Iranian student I knew at uni telling me of difficulties he had faced because his surname, spelt phonetically on his passport in American English didn't match his father's, spelt phonetically in French. When I visited Ukraine a bit over 20 years ago the difference between the Ukrainian alphabet and Russian was explained to me as, at first sight standing looking at signs in Kiev, having visited Moscow a few years earlier, I couldn't tell the difference. They are both cyrillic with 33 letters but there are four Russian letters which don't appear in Ukrainian and vice-versa. However the "spot" I was given was that there are two letters which appear in one language quite a lot in common words and which are missing from the other. Of course I don't remember the detail. In practice the languages are more diverse than that would make it seem and non-Ukrainian speaking Russians would apparently struggle to understand much Ukrainian which has a lot in common with the Slavic languages as well as Russian. So much for Putin's "we all all Russ together".
Ukraine has no great strategic interest to the West though it does produce about 8% of the world's grain. This stat was no surprise to me, having been driven for several hours through what seemed never ending wheat growing prairie en route from Kiev to Chernobyl. The news that Russian forces had "taken Chernobyl" made me smirk. None of the four Russian designed reactors there are operational, so it wasn't contributing to power supplies. The striken unit 4, which basically blew up in 1989, is in a stable state and enclosed by a shelter, funded by the West. If Putin really did want to take it back for Russia he truly is crazy, but I'm sure it was just sloppy reporting. Chernobyl is very close to the border with Belarus and there are main roads direct to Kiev (or Kyiv as it seems to have become).