Almost two years ago, it was becoming clear in Britain and most other countries that the coronavirus was a global problem and not merely a regional one. There were cases identified in the UK in January 2020, through February its news coverage slowly outgrew that of Brexit, with stories of panic buying and rising case rates, but much of ordinary life went on. By mid-March the crisis had become unavoidable – the government was giving daily press conferences and many public places (including universities) were shutting down. Hand sanitiser dispensers and social distance signs popped up all over. Then, on 23rd, the entire country went into the first lockdown. The Britain at the end of that month felt like a wholly different world from what it had been at the beginning. For other countries the exact dates vary but the overall phenomenon is very much the same. In retrospect, there was something particularly surreal about the week of 17th-23rd, where for many it may have felt like an unplanned holiday, the full weight of the disaster looming but having yet to hit.
Now, after twenty-three months of on-and-off disease control, much of the developed world is transitioning from “pandemic” to “endemic” and returning to something like normality. In Scotland and Wales, all remaining COVID-induced restrictions are set to be lifted by the end of next month. In Northern Ireland they were lifted on 15th of this one. In England they went on Thursday. By superb coincidence, that was the same day the Vladimir Putin launched a full-on invasion of Ukraine.
Compared to the virus, this is neither as surprising nor as sudden – Russia has been in a state of war with its western neighbour for just over eight years, and diplomatic relations with other countries have been tense throughout that time, including many accusations of election meddling, political bribery and even assassination. Over the last few months the pressure could be seen rising. It was generally understood that war would properly break out at some point, but not exactly when. I remember Lucy Worsley’s Empire of the Tsars airing in early 2016, with quite a few online quips that the BBC wanted to get the filming done quickly in case war was imminent. Now, at the time of typing, it looks as if momentum has gathered – countries are, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, freezing (soon it could even be seizing) the financial assets of Russian businessmen and officials, as well as banning such people from their airspace. Sporting organisations look to ban Russia from their games. Britain is even sending troops to Eastern Europe. Other countries are doing likewise, or at least supplying equipment to the Ukranians themselves.
All that being said, we are not yet actually at war. British and Russian embassies to each other remain open, as do those in most other countries. It remains to be seen how long that lasts. The situation of the tens of thousands of Russian people living in Britain is perilous, as is that of Russian businesses trading here, or vice versa. This week’s invasion has been dubbed the largest conventional warfare operation in Europe since World War 2, and cries of World War 3 are widespread – and they are not meant jokingly this time. In the books that my late grandmother bought for me about the first two, it was mentioned that before the United States’s involvement, British and German ambassadors in Washington DC were competing with each other for American military contracts, and that private businesses within the allied and axis territories continued trading with each other (including weapons) right up until the declarations of war took effect. It will be interesting to see how much of that is repeated with Russia Today.
Speaking of Russia Today, RT continues to broadcast in this country. Suffice to say, its coverage of the invasion differs sharply from that of most other networks. The channel has been under review by Ofcom, and the leaders of the Labour and Scottish National parties have called for its termination. This has already been done in Poland and Germany, though the latter’s own public broadcasting service was reciprocally banned in Russia and there are fears that the BBC would suffer the same fate. I discovered RT in late 2012, at the same time as I was covering the Soviet Union for GCSE history. I appreciated the level of attention it gave to topics other channels thought less important, such as SOPA/PIPA/CISPA/ACTA and the Snowden revelations, as well as its documentaries on a variety of topics. If nothing else, it was good for checking the aspect ratio settings on one’s television, being for the time one of very few networks still airing in 4:3. All that being said, as a state-controlled news outlet it was never entirely trustworthy, and one could always sense that it was going out of its way to depict western democracies – and indeed “The West” as a concept – in the worst possible light and to encourage any kind of crankery that would undermine Russia’s strategic rivals.
As many are now pointing out, the true strength of Russian propaganda is online rather than on television, and that will be much trickier to sort out. The powers, rights and obligations of the large social media sites to intervene on political matters has long been controversial, as have measures to restrict the digital activity of Russia in particular. If the situation continues to escalate we may well see YouTube channels and Twitter accounts being suspended en-masse, as well as purges of suspicious users from message boards. As far as the pandemic comparison goes, we must currently be at least at the second or third week of March. I dread to think what the fourth looks like.
- Putin’s Power and Western Impotence by David Starkey. He says that Putin seeks to revive Tsarism not Stalinism, and that he understands that all authority derives from force whereas Western nations have forgotten this. Starkey condemns Angela Merkel for shutting down Germany’s nuclear plants in favour of Russian gas, as well as all European nations for letting their militaries wither. This being Starkey, he also takes potshots at 16-year-old girls.
UPDATE (2nd March)