Kyiv, 20 February 2022

Kyiv: The strategy of relaxation

Ukraine’s people greet Putin’s threats with a giant shrug

It was the Cold War elite of Italy who invented the so-called “strategy of tension”, staging false flag attacks, collaborating with neofascists and continually ramping up apprehension, uncertainty and social strife.

Watching the actions of the pro-Russian separatist leaders in Eastern Ukraine over the past 48 hours, it’s a classic reiteration of the technique.

They have declared themselves victims of “genocide” and begun evacuating civilians to Russia; they have massively increased cross-border shelling and are overnight warning they will shut down cellphone networks. It’s a clear attempt to create the trigger for Russia to invade Ukraine.

In response Kyiv’s population has adopted a strategy of relaxation. The Stalinist architecture of Khreshchatyk Street, Kyiv’s main boulevard, framed an ordinary post-Stalinist Saturday night. A big group of teenagers stood in a circle outside McDonalds while young men did breakdancing. Another group of under-18s — at least 200 strong — moved from place to place to perform TikTok dances.

There was a minimal police presence; the restaurants were subdued because the tourists (and, it’s said, the oligarchs) have gone. The busiest places are the hotels, clustered with journalists waiting for the bombs to drop — in one case, running a permanent live feed over the rooftops to catch the first moment of carnage.

Two million people are going about their daily lives, in a city that — if Vladimir Putin pulls the trigger — will become the 21st century’s Guernica.

This plebeian strategy of relaxation mirrors the stance of the Ukrainan government. Last night, at the Munich Security Conference, president Zelensky flayed the West’s inaction during the eight-year Donbas conflict. He said what Biden and Johnson will not say — that the security architecture of the world is brittle and no longer works. He pleaded for a timetable to allow NATO membership and criticised Western elites for appeasing Russia’s criminal oligarchy.

Above all he mocked Joe Biden’s repeated predictions that Russia will invade, saying:

“To really help Ukraine, it is not necessary to constantly talk only about the dates of the probable invasion. We will defend our land on February 16, March 1 and December 31. We need other dates much more….”

He meant a date for joining NATO, which he is not going to get.

Zelensky has refused to mobilise the military’s reserves. I don’t know where Ukraine’s 28 regular army battalions are deployed, but I cannot see any evidence of deployment around key centres of power, nor at the airport — where the security was markedly less visible than at Heathrow on a normal day.

I flew into Kyiv from London. Given the hype and tension surrounding the situation I expected it to be empty apart from journalists in flak-jackets. It was two-thirds full. Forty eight hours after Biden predicted all out war “within days”, kids sat doing their homework, or watching cartoons; mums and dads read the papers and did crosswords; grandparents slept — all flying towards danger.

It was a flight that could have been going from Minneapolis to LA, or Manchester to Krakow. The ordinary working people of the world just trying to get on with their lives, but threatened with imminent mass destruction according to the whims of a lonely narcissist in the Kremlin.

Why should those kids, those parents, those grandparents and — yes, the poor bloody journalistic infantry in their flak jackets — have to suffer the possibility of a unilateral declaration of war, massive loss of life and the destruction of sovereignty for a country of 41 million people?

Because Zelensky is right. The security architecture of Europe is broken. The tanks massed on the borders of Ukraine were once massed opposite Frankfurt. Ukraine, through it’s the Maidan uprising which reached its peak exactly eight years ago today, disrupted the informal “spheres of influence” arrangement that succeeded the Cold War.

But it is not just Putin, and Xi Jin Ping, who have broken the security architecture of Europe; nor just buffoons like Johnson, whose party has taken millions of pounds from Russian oligarchs while shrinking the British Army.

Ultimately the security architecture of Eastern Europe was broken by the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, and the failure of the West to respond seriously to the counter-revolution — for that’s what the annexation of Crimea and the separatist seizure of the Donbas was.

That’s what has upset the layer-cake of pledges, from the Budapest agreement onwards, on which stability rested. And that’s what revolutions do: they interpose the will of the people into agreements between capitalist heads of state.

This morning, Kiev’s skyline is golden. The whole city centre with its cobbled streets, brass domes and minarets is framed against clear turquoise as the sun comes up. Today, the last day of the Olympics, is the moment many security experts expect to watch that sky turn red with devastated ministries — and the streets fill with panicked people.

I hope we can still stop that happening — through negotiation, realism, dialogue and mass public protest — but time is tight.

I’m in Kyiv as part of a solidarity delegation including lawmakers from the Welsh Senedd, two trade union leaders and some left activists from the UK. All of us protested against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re here to do what the politicians in their fur hats and sancitmonious smiles don’t do — promote dialogue between the workers and minorities of countries faced with conflict. I’ll keep these despatches unmetered.




Journalist, writer and film-maker. Former economics editor at BBC Newsnight/Channel 4 News. Author of How To Stop Fascism.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Lebanon Receives Relief With Electricity Deal Signed With Jordan

Complementing the Development Paradigm

Using by-laws to tackle local service delivery

Tackling the culture of secrecy in Tunisia

The day without VAT — Colombia

Joined Against Sectarian Fanaticism declares the authority send-off

Member Spotlight

Support Ethnic Nationalism or Just Make an Exception for Israel?

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Paul Mason

Paul Mason

Journalist, writer and film-maker. Former economics editor at BBC Newsnight/Channel 4 News. Author of How To Stop Fascism.

More from Medium

International law: dead or just resting?

#Operation Ukraine

The Ukraine-Russian Conflict From Commercial Aviation Point of View

Expert Comment: The UK is failing to meet its obligations to refugees from Ukraine

Dr Catherine Briddick