Precise language and a sense of history would have prevented war in Ukraine
In the second episode of the TV programme Putin Vs The West in which western leaders talk about their experience of the Russian leader from the beginning of his tenure in the Kremlin, former UK prime minister Boris Johnson provides a fascinating glimpse of a most revealing telephone conversation he had with Putin about this time last year when he and other western leaders were desperately trying to persuade Putin not to order the invasion of Ukraine.
Putin was concerned that Ukraine was gearing up to join Nato and Johnson was trying and failing to allay his fears:
Johnson: Ukraine is not going to join Nato any time soon.
Putin in English: What do you mean any time soon?
Johnson: For the foreseeable future.
Putin jokingly: You know Boris our missiles can take you out in a minute.
According to Johnson, Putin was very familiar and friendly, calling him by his Russian name of Boris and lapsing into English which he speaks quite well. My take is not that Putin threatened Johnson but rather that he was not taking Johnson seriously as a leader of a nuclear power he respected – he would certainly not have talked to Margaret Thatcher that way.
Also, the habit of native English speakers of talking to foreigners using English idiomatic expressions is a problem. In important telephone calls on which war and peace depends, and the wrong signals can have catastrophic consequences, it is best to use plain English free of idiom.
So, it was not at all surprising that Putin found the use of the expression “any time soon” as wholly unconvincing. To persuade an old KGB hand like Putin, who was based in Berlin during the collapse of the Soviet Union when it peacefully withdrew from Eastern Europe only to find that Nato had absorbed all of Russia’s buffer zone in Europe soon afterwards, Johnson needed to do a lot better than ramble on mouthing meaningless vacuous words.
The use of English worldwide does not mean that the English spoken by native speakers is easily understood by foreigners, who understand and speak English correctly, but do not always get English idiom.
The Irish writer George Bernard Shaw observed that England and America are two countries divided by a common language, and I can see what he was getting at. Not because of the number of words that differ, but because like most foreigners Americans do not recognise or understand English idiom.
Johnson needed to write down what he was going to tell Putin after advice from the best Kremlinologists the foreign office could muster, with words deliberately chosen to allay Putin’s sense of insecurity and betrayal. To avoid war why not just tell Putin that Britain would not support Ukraine joining Nato instead of using weasel words? Has the death and destruction caused in Ukraine been worth backing its wish to join Nato?
But it was not just Johnson’s wrong use of the English language that sleepwalked the West into a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine. It was also how unhistorical the current crop of western leaders have shown themselves to be. Despite two world wars last century in which Russia, Ukraine and East Europe were fought over tooth and nail and changed hands at least twice, there has been no mature consideration in Europe and America of the historical context in which the conflict arises.
One can go as far back as the Crimean War of 1854-56, but the last century will suffice for the minute. In 1917 the Germans agreed to allow Vladimir Lenin to travel through Germany in a sealed train bound for St Petersburg while Germany was still at war with Tsarist Russia. Germany did this in the hope that the Bolsheviks would take over and agree to end the war in the East.
The Bolsheviks did exactly as expected. In 1918 in the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Russia agreed to withdraw to the east of modern-day Poland, the Baltic states and most Belarus and Ukraine including the Crimean peninsula. Lenin labelled it “that abyss of defeat, dismemberment, enslavement and humiliation,” which he lamented not as a Bolshevik but as a Russian.
Except for Poland and the Baltic States, the Soviet Union reabsorbed Ukraine and Belarus after the defeat of Germany in 1919. Poland and the Baltic States survived until the Nazi-Soviet Non Aggression Pact of 1939 when Poland was divided between Russia and Germany and the Baltic States came under Soviet control.
Then in the most anticipated volte-face in history Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in furtherance of the German imperial dream of acquiring lebensraum (living space) as well as to acquire the oil fields of Azerbaijan, which the Russians believe was done with the assistance of some anti-Russian Ukrainians.
The Nazi panzer tanks rolled into Ukraine en route to Moscow and Stalingrad. Millions of Russians perished, but in the end Nazi Germany was defeated by the Soviet Union that took control of the whole of East Europe as a buffer against future invasion from the West. In the words of Winston Churchill, an iron curtain descended from the Baltic Sea in the north to Trieste in the Adriatic. The iron curtain metaphor was not inapposite, but the West was not innocent of its wish to destroy the Soviet Union.
In the event the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 but the West continued to expand eastwards swallowing up all Russia’s buffer states in Europe. It is true that some Russian leaders have lost the plot in their assessment and interpretation of the overall picture in the West and in Ukraine.
Dimitri Medvedev lost it completely when he claimed that a war between France and Germany was on the cards; and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov made no sense when he likened what was happening to Russians in Ukraine to the Holocaust.
However President Vladimir Putin’s speech last week in Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, that Russia is facing German leopard tanks with crosses on them rolling across Ukraine towards Russia struck a chord. It is too close to the bone to be ignored.
Alper Ali Riza is a king’s counsel in the UK and a retired part time judge