Opinion

The world suddenly changes when we realise how foolish our leaders have been

Putin's power grab in Ukraine has been decades in the making, we just weren't paying attention.

Protesters in Kyiv

Protesters in Kyiv Photo: Shutterstock

The balance of power in Europe has been a vexing subject for more than 300 years. But recent world powers – eg the US – have forgotten such a preoccupation. Now along comes a militarily revitalised Russia, looking more like its post-Second World War self than the limping beast that the world clapped to see collapse in the late Eighties and early Nineties.

A Russia that, under its current leader, has defined its ambition to once again be that proud power that could decide the movement of historic forces. Not the spent and broken and languishing and laughed-at former empire. The bear has regained its strength and its revanchism is not going to go away. 

One of the great pains of history is to be a smaller, less powerful neighbour of a great power. It was no historical joy to be Welsh, Scottish or Irish in the days when the superpower England was ascending to its imperial heights. It’s the luck of the geographical draw to be caught in the shadows.

It means that whatever you want to be, you cannot be yourself. You have to be subordinate to the concerns of the powerful neighbour. Ireland in particular suffered the indignity of being the plaything, at times the pain in the arse, to England’s ambition. 

Mexico and to a lesser extent Canada suffered the same proximity problem with the rising power of the United States. Mexico could no more join an alien military association that the US saw as a threat as could Ukraine wish to join NATO without repercussions. Balance of power issues would raise their ugly heads. 

And Ukraine gets caught in the mix, in the jaws of a mighty power that wants its security more than it wants the wishes of its neighbours honoured. The US had been doing this, subordinating the world to its interests, as previously had the English. The world is the plaything of big powers and, as we will see in coming times, the big new game will be what China decides to do with us. 

Empires of deep control rule, OK? Just when we were thinking that the big empires in the world were Amazon and Facebook, the real empires arrive wielding guns. How had we overlooked the geopolitical world, because we thought the big issue was how digital giants control our children and our mind, body and spirit? The reason we had overlooked it is because our political leaders are bereft of historical and political understanding. 

They were concentrating on keeping the consumer happy while forces more malevolent and more controlling were having a field day because our leaders were looking at the importance of shopping. 

Russia’s seemingly sudden arrival on the scene, as an aggrieved former power intent on revenge and supremacy, throws all of the plans of western market-led, consumer-driven thinking into the rubbish bin of history. We will now have to contend with military power and not just social media power.

The world suddenly changes when we realise how foolish our leaders have been. What they should have been doing is developing a bloody big stick to protect us from being the pussycats the powerful choose to torture or not. Armies are going to be important in the coming period as the empire builders of the east decide on their next grab.

Bear in mind they are doing no more or less than all empires have endeavoured to do in the past. I know Biden, Johnson and Macron pretend that they are some pure-driven democratic snow, but their countries’ historical roots in oppression and exploitation do not put them on the high moral ground. Hypocrisy seems to resound whenever former and current powers preach kind words of “how could they do such a thing!” 

We are exposed and we either play the game and create as many armouries as we can and outflank the gun-wielding power, or we surrender our lives to the wishes of the militarily powerful. Alas, the reality is that unless we can form alliances that have teeth, guns and thermonuclear capabilities, we will be trivialised and become the doormat that the powerful wipe their metaphorical feet on. 

Probably, as the wall that separated East from West Germany was pulled down in the late ’80s, a young KGB officer was appalled at having once felt significant and part of something of great significance. A country that could wield such power was yet broken and seen as empty and hollow. As the years passed he may well have imagined the renewal, the renaissance of such a power. And that is what he set his mind on and achieved. 

There are chances, deep chances that his hubristic grasp for power will topple him. His taking all to an endgame may backfire. But having experienced the godawful nadir of Russia’s power, a grasp for the ultimate prize – domination in perpetuity – seems worth the contest for him. 

But this isn’t just a singular madman hurting the innocent. It is the playing out of history and ambition and revenging the damages done as some stood and laughed and scorned the formerly powerful. Our hearts and minds and hands have to go out to protect and support those caught in the crossfire of history; innocent and wretched. We must rally to them and do all we can to improve their future.

A future where the well-armed as well as the well-meaning hopefully scare the predators off from their intrusions into the lives of the innocent. 

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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