Warfare, as the Israeli General Moshe Dayan observed, is at once the most deplorable and most exciting of human activities. Traditionally, watching it without taking part was not on the menu. Either you attended and ran the consequent risks or you had to be content with dispatches.
Television offered the illusion of spectatorship. You cannot do much in a 90-second standard report. Also television crews found that one of the unmentionable problems of war reporting was to find images which were not so gruesome that they would be vetoed as unfit for family viewing. Feature films were of course fiction.
But now all this has changed. Every phone owner is a potential camera person, and the internet is available to all. You can get as much of the fighting in Ukraine as any reasonable person could want.
Much of the resulting footage illustrates the old truism that killing is much less disturbing from a distance. Rockets flit across the landscape and tanks erupt in a volcano of flames and smoke. We do not see what happened to the three people who were inside the tank.
Sometimes the all-seeing drone looks down on an apparently peaceful scene. A few distant ant-like figures move about. The drone releases an alarmingly amateur-looking projectile, which wobbles visibly as it sets off for the ground. Puffs of smoke erupt. Some of the ants are now no longer moving.
A lot of this footage clearly came from the Ukrainian military, no doubt keen to show its supporters what they are getting for their money, though a surprising amount of it is circulated under the logo of The Sun, a change from that newspaper’s usual hot and salty tastes.
The bits that stay with you are usually those with people you can see in them. I was much moved by the video of a lady playing a last tune on her piano – surrounded by the ruins of her flat, wrecked by a near miss – before she left to join the flood of refugees.
Then I stumbled on a piece in which a Ukrainian reporter interviewed a Russian soldier in a Ukrainian military hospital. Would the interviewee mind if the interview was taped? The interviewee would not. We went through some of his recent experiences and he expressed concern that his family did not know where he was.
Our reporter then offered to telephone the family, which he did. Again the polite request for permission to record. Then he passed the phone to the prisoner, who talked to his sister. She had, of course, heard nothing from the Russian Army but had drawn ominous conclusions from the interruption in the usual flow of calls and messages.
So she was pleased to hear from him, and took calmly his other piece of news, which was that he was now minus one leg. Perhaps she thought this sacrifice was worth it if it ensured that he would not be fit for further military service.
Indeed the Ukrainians seem to have tapped a rich vein of disillusioned calls home by members of the invading force, who all seem to be understandably miserable. At least that is the impression you get from the ones chosen for broadcasting, carefully sub-titled with the profanities replaced by asterisks, of which they need plenty.
Altogether it’s a sad picture, made all the worse for those optimists who supposed that, at least in the more developed parts of the world, we had put this sort of thing behind us.
In Hong Kong we have had the interesting spectacle of various writers trying to wriggle round the basic fact that we are here dealing with an unprovoked invasion motivated by the desire to impose on Ukrainian people a regime they do not want. And this controversial enterprise appears to be supported, in a tacit sort of way, by China.
One suggestion is that Russian paranoia is justified by the continuing enlargement of NATO and the potential threat this presents. The problem with this idea is that the last substantial enlargement (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia) took place in 2004. The only countries to join since then have been militarily inconsequential and a long way from Russia: Albania and Croatia (2009) Montenegro (2017) and North Macedonia (2020). So this looks like an excuse.
A more learned offering points out that Russia was invaded by France in 1812, and by Germany in 1914 and 1941. Well not actually – in 1914 Russia invaded Germany, though this did not go well. With more success they invaded Galicia, then a province of the Austrian Empire. In two years in control they introduced the full colonial kit: Russian as the official language, secret police, censorship of the media, jailing of suspected dissidents, loyalty oaths required of civil servants and teachers, and so on. Galicia is now part of Poland and part of Ukraine
On the other hand we must in fairness also record the Swedish invasion of Russia in 1707 and the Anglo-French invasion of the Crimea in 1854.
What this misses out is the considerable traffic in the other direction. Russia participated in the three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, 1795) and two Turkish wars (1768, 1787). It invaded Italy in 1799 and Switzerland (Switzerland!) in 1800. It invaded Finland in 1808, France in 1814, had another Turkish war in 1828 and intervened in Hungary in 1849. It invaded Manchuria in 1858, and there was yet another Turkish war in 1877.
After the end of World War 1 the Russian Empire, now under new management, shrank a bit. But it continued to be a worrying neighbour. It invaded Poland in 1939, occupied the Baltic States and then invaded Finland. There was also a brief and rather neglected invasion of Manchuria in response to incidents involving its Japanese occupiers. The Russians also continued to control many non-Russian parts of the old Tsarist empire, including Georgia, Armenia and much of Central Asia.
After the Second World War the Soviet Union effectively adopted as colonies all the countries later known as the Warsaw Pact. This was generally not a happy experience for them and there were revolts in East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, all put down by force. Since the collapse of the old Soviet Empire, Russia has on various pretexts inserted garrisons or supported separatist movements in Moldova, Georgia and Central Asia. And of particular relevance to current conflicts, it invaded Ukraine in 2014.
Russian expansionism is sometimes put down to some inbuilt geographical force which compels them to seek a warm-water port. And indeed for a long time Russian statesmen made no attempt to hide their ultimate ambition, which was to take Constantinople from the ailing Ottoman Empire. But this is just a retrospective excuse, like the suggestion that Louis XIV was aiming to give France “natural frontiers”, or that the British Empire was acquired in a “fit of absent-mindedness.” A better explanation for Russian behaviour is provided by Thucydides: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Mr Putin, like his predecessors, will grab whatever he thinks he can get away with.
Readers will gather that I am not very impressed by attempts to exonerate Mr Putin’s activities as either a natural response to the CIA’s perfidy in seducing Montenegro from the paths of neutrality, or an attempt to fend off a potential invasion. Why do aggressive dictators, like abusive husbands, always want to pose as victims?
But these arguments are at least relevant. What are we to make of the local columnist who wondered why human rights enthusiasts were neglecting the outrages inflicted on Russian citizens in Europe, where individuals had been abused in the street, millionaires had been expropriated and (if you have tears to shed, prepare to shed them now) Russian tennis players had been barred from Wimbledon.
Well, abuse of innocent individuals in the street is wrong. But the only examples of this offered came from Poland and the Czech Republic. These are places which were Russian colonies for a long time in recent memory. Russians would probably be unwelcome to some people whether there was a war or not.
Some memories last for a long time. English visitors to Yugoslavia in the 60s flaunted conspicuous Union Jacks to avoid being mistaken for Germans. It was noticeable in those days that the Eurovision Song Contest involved a national jury in each country, and some of those juries would not have voted for a German entry if Beethoven had risen from the grave and penned it personally. Brits in my age group still feel a bit twitchy about Argentina. So it goes.
These legacy prejudices should not, though, be confused with “Russophobia” as allegedly revealed by opinion poll surveys of what people think of different countries. People are entitled to superficial opinions about different countries and Russia has no shortage of things to dislike.
As for the yacht-deprived millionaires and the Russian tennis players (who are also millionaires), their treatment is certainly unfair. They did not start the war and may actually oppose it. But losing your yacht or you chance to add to your prize-money pile is not the worst thing that can happen to you in wartime.
As Max Hastings observes in a recent work we tend to think of our wars as uniquely horrible but all wars always have involved suffering. And that suffering is of course not fairly distributed. Some civilians are traumatised, terrorised and driven from their homes. Others are not. Soldiers, if they survive, are haunted by terrible memories, lose their friends and suffer injuries they will carry for the rest of their lives. Distant mothers and sweethearts get awful news. Equally blameless individuals find the military experience enjoyable. War is the province of chance, as Clausewitz put it.
As far as warfare is concerned, Hong Kong since 1945 has led a sheltered existence. This is why we are treated to casual abuse of war as a description of social afflictions like the Covid epidemic. The real thing is a parade of horrors. Being prevented from playing pro tennis in London is not one of them.
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