Please note: If you are a fan of Vladimir Putin or Volodymyr Zelenskyy you might not be keen on what I have to say in this article.
The war (or military operation or invasion – take your pick) in Ukraine has very clearly polarised opinion in this country.
We all know and love or loathe Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Born in 1952 he joined the KGB in 1975 and had a brilliant career as far as we know even though KGB members did not really publicise their careers.
In 1991, as the USSR was disintegrating after General Secretary, later President, Mikhail Gorbachev had attempted to bring it up to date and join the world beyond its borders, Putin quit his work with the KGB (better to get out before the whole edifice comes tumbling down) and decided to become a politician in St Petersburg.
Five years later he moved to Moscow and hitched his star to the bandwagon of the President of the new Russia, Boris Yeltsin. Initially he was in charge of security (not much difference to his KGB days) but in 1999 he was appointed as Prime Minister (yes, not elected but appointed).
Bearing in mind that one of Boris Yeltsin’s priorities was to keep the Russian vodka industry alive and kicking, if for no other reason than to make sure his personal supply never dried up, it is not surprising that a few months later he stood down as president (probably for health reasons) and Putin was appointed acting president and soon afterwards was named as President of United Russia.
We know how it went from there: two terms as president, and then a term as prime minister (no president was allowed more than two consecutive terms) while his pal, the former prime minister Dmitri Medvedev, became president. The four years later he was “elected” president again with his pal back in the role of PM.
It also appears that from this point he has become president for life (wasn’t that how Julius Caesar upset his fellow senators which led to his sudden death on the senate floor).
Now let’s turn to his opponent, the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy, elected as the country’s sixth President in May 2019.
He’s quite a bit younger than his adversary Putin, having been born in the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine in 1978, and before turning to comedy gained a law degree at the University of Kiev (Kyiv). There are equivalents in the UK: both John Cleese and Susan Calman hold law degrees. Neither of them have become PM of the UK, however, although that might have been better than what we have been lumbered with.
One of Zelenskyy’s most famous roles was in Servant of the People in which an ordinary man became President of Ukraine. Basically it portrayed a comedian acting the part of a teacher who came from nowhere to the presidency.
The series lasted four years, 2015 to 2019, and obviously gave the star a taste of being top dog in the Ukraine, so in 2019 Zelesnkyy stood for the presidency and, to everybody’s surprise won. Nobody was surprised when Putin became President of Russia.
So there we have the background. It is a journalist’s job to look for the background in any story, especially a story as serious this.
Last year Putin started building up his forces on the borders with Ukraine as part of a “military training exercise” and then in February he announced a “tactical operation” which involved crossing the border and then, rather than just concentrating on the Donbas region (a bone of contention between Russia and the Ukraine) his troops aimed into that region but also struck at other major cities and headed for the capital Kyiv.
The Ukrainians, in the main, were not happy about this intrusion and many have since fled to safety to the West with the men, even untrained civilians, staying put, joining the army or preparing to defend their homes, their villages, their towns.
As I have said many times before, as a journalist I look for facts and do not judge a situation on what I see at first glance.
It’s a bit like a policeman at the site of a crash.
The car might be in a ditch, the driver slumped dead across the wheel, and a strong smell of whiskey as though the driver had been saturated in it.
At first glance, it could be supposed the driver had been drinking, possibly even while driving, had lost control of the vehicle, banged his head on the wheel or dashboard and died where he was.
A second glance might reveal the smell of drink was because a gift-wrapped package of unopened whiskey bottles had been thrown off the parcel shelf, between the front seats, shattering on the dashboard and soaking the front of the car and the driver in drink.
At third glance it could be seen that the driver went off the road with no sign of braking and fourth glance – or rather following a forensic examination by the pathologist – the man had died of a heartache and had no alcohol in his blood.
Thus: heart attack; car continues but goes into ditch; gift package of whiskey shatters and drenches driver. No blame, just a terrible accident.
I am not going into all the ins and outs of the current situation in the Ukraine. Stories of atrocities have been levelled from both sides and I do not have the evidence to judge for myself.
What I am going to do is to take a Twitter comment I made the other day to demonstrate how hard it is to take the middle ground.
The wording is exactly as I posted it:
A picture shows some dead civilians in Bucha had packs of military rations.
A. did they steal them and get shot by Russians?
B. did the Russians give them the packs and then shoot them?
C. did Ukrainians shoot them as collaborators paid in ration packs?
Shades of grey.
One of the first replies came from an anonymous poster who considered themself to be worldly wise:
You think shooting a person who may or may not have taken a mouldy ration pack is justified?! What is wrong with you?!
Now I must admit this kneejerk reaction annoyed me and my response might show through:
Typical. If you bothered to read that properly you will discover I asked three questions. I have not justified any potential actions or answers. What is wrong with you?
My worldlywise attacker came back with:
The fact that you posed such a question says everything!
To which question I responded:
Here endeth THAT conversation.
The next response came from another source, identified but also bearing an odd Twitter handle and using the blue and yellow colours of Ukraine as an avatar:
E. Can you **** off?
Standard response from someone who accepts everything they are told as the absolute truth. I posed three questions to which I do not know the answers. As a journalist I look at a situation and ask questions. I expect the people who provide answers to prove those answers.
PS: what happened to E?
PPS: I meant what happened to D?
To which the person replied:
You’re posing the question “are there mitigations for Russian atrocities in Ukraine?” the answer is “no”. Hope that helps.
I would not consider anything could possible (sic) mitigate any atrocities. All I seek is evidence to go with any answers. Any decent reporter would want to see that evidence. PS: I think Vladimir Putin is a despicable man who puts Russia to shame.
In that case “Shades of grey” is an unfortunate choice of phrase.
Why? My comment just means nothing is black and white.
Response (although there may have come a point where posts crossed):
The reason your seemingly reasonable questions are offensive is the notion that lofty objectivity is always justified. It is obviously true that whatever the exact circumstances of their deaths these corpses are a result of Putin’s aggression. In “no” sense did they deserve it.
At no point have I suggested anyone “deserves” anything that is happening in Ukraine. Nobody deserves to have their home invaded whether it is invaded by a thief or an army. Nobody deserves to die. Please do not put words into my mouth or think you can read my mind.
The final reply:
I’m sure you’re one of the good guys. No offence intended. X
This is an example of how Twitter conversations often go. No matter how carefully you word a comment in the main others do not read everything everything before leaping to the keyboard and condemning everything you have said.
I would like to hear from anyone who feels they have a comment make. All I ask is that you read it first and then check that your answer actually applies to the article.
Please be polite as I don’t think free speech is a defence for obscenities.