‘A Whiff of Munich’?

Roger Spalding

Neville Chamberlain holds the paper signed by both Hitler and himself on his return from Munich.

I often read in applicants’ personal statements that they wish to study History to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. This is sadly, something that rarely occurs; humanity appears to have an infinite capacity to repeat its mistakes.

Yet politicians and journalists frequently draw historical parallels with the past. The current Defence Secretary said, in relation to developments in Ukraine, ‘that there was a whiff of Munich in the air’. He was referring to the efforts of the British Prime Minister to avoid war in 1938 by ‘appeasing’ Hitler.

Neville Chamberlain’s efforts culminated in the Munich Conference at which the Czechs, were forced to cede the Sudetenland to Germany. The parallel with Ukraine breaks down because, as yet the West is not asking Ukraine to cede land to Russia; though they did fail to act when Putin annexed Crimea in 2014.

In 1938 the British were terrified of war. This was partly because of the memory of the of the First World War, and partly because of the development of the bomber.

Stanley Baldwin had told the Commons that ‘the Bomber will always get through’. Its targets would include women and children, and the only defence would be to kill even more of the enemy’s women and children. Shortly after, Beverley Nicholls published his anti-war tract, Cry Havoc. In one chilling passage he argued that it would be possible for an enemy, in a single raid, to drop enough poison gas to kill most of the population of Greater London.

In 1938 Mass Observation conducted a survey this revealed that a significant number of people were preparing to kill themselves should war break out. War, it was believed, would bring Armageddon from the skies, a view vividly portrayed in the 1936 film, Things to Come.

In 1940 Michael Foot wrote that post-1918 Germany was treated harshly when she was weak and democratic; but the reverse was true when she became strong under the Nazis, this was partly because Hitler was seen as a bulwark against Communism. This proved a short-term benefit leading to long-term pain.

Historians are not supposed to speculate, but here are a number of ‘ifs’ to consider: If Western politicians and banks had been less ready to accept and handle resources plundered from Russia; if the West had taken a stronger line when the Russian state murdered journalists; if the reaction to the poisoning of British residents had been more severe; if we had not allowed Britain to become a safe haven for Russian oligarchs; a message might have been sent that the West adheres to certain norms that it would not abandon.

Clear opposition to lesser transgressions might have helped to avoid this much larger and more serious transgression…. if we had learnt the lessons of History?

Roger Spalding is Programme Leader for History at Edge Hill University.

Ukraine – What Next? Is Civil Society the Answer?

Sergej Ljubownikow

Over a week into Putin’s war in Ukraine, speculation on why, for what reason , remain high – but also to what end.

Putin appears to have a variety of conflicting, and spurious aims (some only beknownst to him) with this invasion; both with regards to Ukraine, and highly likely beyond.

Western response has been focused on weakening the Russian economy, and the sanctioning of key individuals and oligarchs (though if you have several billion, and lose a few, you probably still have enough for a good life, even in Russia). Yet for a while now, the West has had time and opportunity to take preventative action. Punishing Putin for his 2014 annexation of Crimea. Taking steps to stop Putin from ‘practising war’ in Syria. Going after ‘dirty money’ earlier – it has been swamping places like the UK or Cyprus for years. Yet none of this excuses the acts of an increasingly isolated and volatile dictator.

Moreover, Putin felt emboldened to invade Ukraine because it has become near impossible to remove him from power using democratic mechanisms. So is civil society the answer?

Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, research has illustrated that Russia civil society has struggled to gain traction, particularly at the national level. Some of this is down to path dependencies created in the early 1990s. During that time, resources (mainly funding and skills training) were provided by western donor agencies such as USAID or DFID. These resources were directed primarily at rights-based issues, specifically human, women’s, the environment, which at the time did not resonate with the broader public who were struggling with the impact of economic shock therapy, and its impact on living standards. As a result, public engagement with NGOs remained low.

When Putin came to power, he set out to rebuild the bureaucratic system after the ‘chaos’ of the Yeltsin years. Yet this ‘rebuild’ did not address some the fundamental failings that emerged from the ‘chaos’ such as the importance of individuals above bureaucratic process, the ambiguity of regulations, and (intentional) haphazard regulatory enforcement. Through a series of legistalive instruments, Putin also sought to limit the activity of NGOs. In order to survive, NGOs now need to maintain (close) ties to various state organs, often substituting for them in the provision of welfare and services. This clearly limits such groups’ ability to openly oppose to the state. There are also harsh penalties for those who do. See the recent closure of Human Rights organisation Memorial, for example.  

At regional levels, NGOs can work with and oppose (regional) state authorities, but this is unlikely to challenge the regime at the Federal level. Although these regional experiences might be seen as green shoots that could come together to form a wider movement; whether these can grow into a nationwide movement over Russia’s vast geography, is questionable. Indeed, such growth would need to be fast to challenge the regime and its inhuman war in Ukraine.

Nevertheless, there are promising signs of anti-war demonstrations across Russia, although accompanied by the associated police crackdown on dissent seen in the past. In the meantime, we all hope for an end to this war to prevent further human suffering, and our thoughts remain with all Ukrainians.

Dr Sergej Ljubownikow, an expert in the former Soviet Union, is Lecturer in Strategic Management at Sheffield University and an ISR Visiting Fellow.

Medals at all costs? Kamila Valieva discovered the ‘ice cold’ reality of failure

Anabel Timmins

The ISR interview recently conducted with Rachael Denhollander regarding sexual abuse at USA gymnastics (USAG) for International Women’s Day 2022 was recorded before the Winter Olympics. However, the scenes of a 15-year-old girl caught up in a doping scandal less than 10 years after Russia was found to have engaged in a scheme to ‘steal the Sochi’ Olympics, has resonance; both with the abuse experienced at USAG, and with recent geo-political events, where Russia clearly refuses to play by the rules. This blog entry by Annabel Timmins of LimeCulture sheds light.

Less than 10 years after Russia attempted to ‘steal’ the Sochi Olympics through systematic doping fraud, 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, who had failed a drugs test but had (inexplicitly) been allowed to compete, failed to win a medal. After being on the front page of every newspaper in the world, the pressure had clearly been too much, and she fell during her last performance.

The ice-cold scenes of her being berated by her coach, when she didn’t meet the exacting standards expected of her, was a tough watch. But what now? How has this changed what we do?  It is the path of least resistance to watch it unfold, feel uncomfortable, comment and move on.  We would be saddened but not surprised if a similar story unfolds in Paris in 2024, or down the road in a sports club in the next town on Saturday.

Can we justify our own inaction by considering Valieva’s conciliatory words to her coach: ‘You not only train, but also teach how to overcome yourself, which helps not only in sport but also in life’? I would argue not. 

To stand by and accept such treatment of athletes is to reinforce the acceptability of psychological abuse.  Collectively, we would be reinforcing the priority of performance over compassion, and the reach of this filters down from elite athletes through to grass roots participants. This is not an isolated incident taking place over 5,000 miles away or existing within the exclusive domain of authoritarian states. This is every day, in every sport.

The very definition of sport includes an element of competing. We are taught from a young age about winning and being the best. Social media oversharing children’s achievements, emphasising life’s medals is laying the groundwork for an unconscious tolerance for emotionally abusive training and coaching.

We watched the icy scene unfold thousands of miles away, in a setting unfamiliar to most of us, and allowed our everyday life to gradually wash away any sense of outrage. It is very simple to separate out what we have seen from what we do and who we are. We are professionals, parents, athletes, participants, volunteers. We are a collective army of resources and we could transform what can feel like watered down token values into something rock solid and impenetrable. We could put our collective outrage to good use by challenging what we see, modelling how we behave, expecting our shared values to be evidenced.

So what about the argument that Valiera’s coach gets results at the highest level? For every Eteri Tutberidze there is a coach who sees the child before the athlete. US gymnast Simone Biles was rightly applauded for stepping back from elite competition when she recognised it was not right for her to continue. We have a part to play in creating a culture where such fundamental acts of self-preservation are not seen as brave and requiring extreme self-confidence. Such acts should be accepted as a fundamental right of all athletes at any level.

We can support this to happen by not accepting abusive coaching methods, living out our values, dusting off and promoting policies that reinforce human rights. We need to teach children the acceptance of not always achieving and not lose the joy of taking part. Be outraged by what you saw and use that to make changes.

Annabel Timmins is Safeguarding in Sport Manager at LimeCulture, the UK’s leading sexual violence training and consultancy organisation.

Photo by Thomas Laukat from Pexels

Crossing the Dnieper: The UK political response to Ukraine

Paula Keaveney

“I have never forgotten the sheer courage and determination of pro-democracy activists whom I met on the streets of Lviv in 1989 as they risked their lives to throw off the shackles and chains of the Soviet Union.” (Lord Alton, HL Deb 25 February 2022)

The last few days have seen debates in both the Commons and the Lords. But looking at the cast list, it is hard to argue that the Commons is the important Chamber. The roll call of those speaking in the “other place”, the Lords on 25th Feb, included a former Secretary General of NATO, a former Chief of the Defence Staff, and a former National Security Adviser.

Yet for all the good advice in debates, for all the calls to do more, Parliament’s power is limited.  Parliament can “send messages”, it can “speak for the nation”, but it can’t end the war and it can’t broker treaties. 

It is this contrast between strongly held policy views and relative powerlessness that makes these debates, and the party-political process around them, so fascinating.

What we see tested in the fog of a war debate, is leadership.  What we see tested in the reactions of party members and supporters is unity.

Johnson has had to curb his usual instinct to grandstand and deploy jokes. Starmer has had to crack down hard on some unhelpful internal comments on NATO; and Blackford, the SNP leader in the Commons, potentially walks a tightrope.

Let’s start with Blackford. The SNP used to be opposed to membership of NATO.  That opposition was overcome in a close conference vote in 2012 with some members leaving as a result.  There are voices on the independence side today arguing for a rethink. The SNP’s partners in Holyrood, the Scottish Green Party, are outspokenly anti-NATO.

Starmer has generally supported the government line, but has had to face down members of his own party on the issue, most recently getting MPs to remove their signatures from a Stop the War Statement and suspending the Young Labour Twitter feed.

And Johnson?  Is he conveying the sort of confidence needed for an international crisis – a crisis which after all might mean large scale refugee movements, a shortage of basic commodities, and a growth in tension along many borders?

It is a very odd situation indeed when relief from the media focus on wine and crisps and trivia quizzes comes in the form of an international crisis; but such is politics. The next few weeks will tell us whether the PM is a calm helmsman or a storm-tossed sailor.

As former NATO General Secretary, Lord Robertson told the Lords “…there is an old saying: in Russia, everything changes in 20 years and nothing changes in 200 years. It maybe gets to the heart of the recent crisis, when the unthinkable has become the inevitable”

It is wrestling with that “inevitable” that will tax our leaders.

Paula Keaveney is the Programme Leader for Politics at Edge Hill University.

Why Ukraine? Why Now?

Professor Jo Crotty

In the last 24 hours I have received a number of messages asking ‘Why Ukraine?; and why now?’

Although media commentary has focused on Ukraine’s NATO ambitions, and Russia’s unwillingness to acquiesce to NATO forces on its border; the answer is more complex.

First, since the end of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, Ukraine has leant both toward Europe and reasserting its own identity, independent of Moscow. This has included allowing visa-free travel for all EU citizens, and aligning many of its governance structures to EU membership. When former President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a free trade agreement with the EU in 2013, Ukrainian citizens took to the streets in what became known as the Maidan or Revolution of Dignity. These protests led both to the removal of Yanukovych, but also a separatist uprising in the Donbass area of Eastern Ukraine (see below). This was not the first time the Ukrainian people had taken to the streets to remove their leader. They had done so before in 2004 during what has become known as the Orange Revolution. When exit polling revealed that the outgoing president’s candidate had stolen the election; people took to the streets to remove him. This kind of popular mobilisation, coupled with a lack of influence over Ukraine – in contrast to that of Belarus – poses a (perceived) threat to Putin’s Russia.

Second, the Soviets continued the Tsar’s policy of ‘Russification’ through which ethnic Russians were resettled across the Union. Russian was also the official first language – hence Ukrainian’s now asserting the Ukrainian spelling of their capital Kyiv, rather than the Russian Kiev. As a result, there is now is a large population of ethnic Russians living in parts of Ukraine, including the Donbass region on the eastern border with Russia. This region is rich in coal and other resources and was part of the reason why Hitler decided to go south east, rather than take Moscow, during World War II (with its attendant consequences). Following the Maidan, rebels in this region started a conflict with the purpose of ceding from Ukraine. This conflict has been going on since 2014 and has resulted in 1.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) (UNHCR) fleeing the region. This is the largest number of IDPs in European soil since the conflict in the former Yugoslavia; yet it has gone almost completely unreported. Support for the rebels’ desiring to cede from Ukraine, has been the pre-text on which Putin could start amassing troops.

Third, Putin has problems at home. Despite being the first country in the world to develop an effective Covid-19 vaccine, Russia still only have 48% of its adult population fully vaccinated. This has been attributed to a wide-spread lack of trust in the Russian state – a state that has largely removed any recourse at the ballot box to dispatch an ineffective government. So a war with Ukraine has two advantages for Putin, a distraction from problems at home, and a way to reassert his ‘strong leader’ image after 20 years in power. It also prevents the types of popular protests that have removed two Ukrainian presidents, from spilling over the border.

Finally, Putin also he knows that the West are going to do very little to stop him. So far NATO has ruled out sending troops. Economic measures such as removing Russia from the SWIFT banking system, would leave them unable to trade in US dollars, but would likely be as harmful to Western economies, and such actions do not have an immediate impact. The West also did nothing when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014; inaction that has echoes of appeasement in the face of Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938. Sadly it is now the Ukrainian people who will pay the price. Our thoughts and prayers go out to them.

Professor Jo Crotty is Director of the Institute for Social Responsibility at Edge Hill University and an expert in the former Soviet Union.

If you would like to contribute your own piece, reflecting your own research and/or constituencies as they relate to current events in Ukraine, please submit them via [email protected]

Relax… World War Three is NOT Imminent – at least not yet

Covid Anniversary Blog

What with COVID, the death of the Duke of Edinburgh and a football furore, you could be forgiven for not noticing the recent build-up of 80,000 Russian troops on the Russian-Ukraine border. Unsurprisingly, this has raised alarm within the international community, as an armed conflict between these two nations would have serious and inevitable implications.

Technically, Ukraine and Russia have been engaged in a conflict since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatist forces in Ukraine’s coal and gas rich eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, known collectively the Donbas. This reflects the ethnic and cultural split that emerged from attempts to Russify the Soviet Union through the settlement of ethnic Russians within its 15 republics. In Ukraine, such Russification was enacted in the East where labour was needed to extract natural resources. Consequently, today Ukraine is split between the Russian-speaking so-called ‘red’ areas to the east and the ethnically Ukrainian ‘orange’ areas to the West.

At face-value such a troop build-up looks like Russia is preparing to formalise its incursion into the Donbas by forcibly annexing it. Yet this is unlikely to happen for the following reasons:

  1. In recent months a number of factors have led President Putin to reassert his ‘strong man’ image. He no longer has a friendly ally in the White House. In recent days we have seen the imposition of US sanctions against Russia in response to confirmed Russian interference in the 2020 US Presidential election. At the same time Ukrainian President Zelensky and Turkish President Erdogan held their own summit that condemned Russian aggression, creating (the appearance at least) of a Black Sea axis against the Russian Federation. Amassing troops is a way to counter both this axis, and a more hostile United States.
  2. Russia will hold elections for the State Duma (parliament) in September. While Putin needs a show of force to maintain his image, he does not need another war. The cost of such an incursion would be very damaging to the Russian economy still in the throes of COVID. Moreover, despite being the first country in the world to bring a COVID vaccine to market, domestic take up has been very low. He also faces public unrest in response to the imprisonment of dissident Alexei Navalny. Putin does not need to be fighting a war on multiple fronts as voters go to the polls.
  3. Ukrainian President Zelensky also does not need a war. He was elected president in 2019 on a promise to end the conflict in the Donbas which has created more than 1.4 million internally displaced persons, most of whom are women and children. Escalating this would not be in his interest.

Thus it is unlikely that we are on the cusp of an armed conflict in the Caucuses. Recent troop build-up is much more about domestic agendas than it is about foreign ambition. So we don’t need to hold our collective breath – at least not yet.

Jo Crotty is Professor of Management and Director of the Institute for Social Responsibility at Edge Hill University.

image by Oleg Elkov

You Still Need Society! Authoritarianism and COVID-19

Covid Anniversary Blog

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided us with insights into different political regimes’ responses to what is now a prolonged, unpredictable, and difficult to manage crisis.

Parts of Eastern Europe had initially been considered as the models for how to respond to the pandemic. Nearly a year on, with cases surging and the state struggling to control the pandemic, this no longer holds.

In the Russian Federation, despite bringing the worlds first COVID-19 vaccine to market, the state has struggled to deal with the sluggish domestic take up and so it has failed to make a discernible impact on cases. This might be a surprise given the assumption that in authoritarian contexts, individuals are not only more accepting of restrictions of their individual freedoms but that the state is often more strict at enforcing compliance. One could have assumed that authoritarian regimes might have put to use their expansion of individual surveillance under the guise of combatting COVID-19, to encourage or even enforce vaccinations. Even if this failed, national pride at its scientific achievement would surely have had people queuing up to be vaccinated, but it seems not to be the case.

The nature of state-society relations might help us consider some of the issues impacting vaccine take-up rates. In the Russian Federation, political, legislative, financial and cultural limits impact the ability and reach of third sector groups to mobilise the public. In addition, the state’s, often arbitrary, use of institutions such as the judiciary, is unconducive to building public trust in such institutions.

Yet a successful vaccination programme requires both trust and mobilisation.

This is particularly true for mobilising and engaging hard-to-reach segments of society, a task and role that NPOs tend to perform much better than state institutions. Can third sector groups play a role in this process, given the restrictive context they operate in? If they do, will this enable them to receive concessions from the state with regards to the activities they can engage in? Could this lead to a reshaping of state-society relations?

A year on, answers to questions around the future shape of state-society relations in an authoritarian context remain unclear. It is too early to tell whether or not third sector groups in an authoritarian context such as Russia will be able to take advantage of arising opportunities to reshape their relationship with the state.

The imprisonment of critics such as Alexander Navalny suggests that the Russian state is not overtly open to reshaping state-society relations at the national level. However, as stated a year ago, things might play out different at local and regional levels – and thus present opportunities for change.

Dr Sergej Ljubownikow is a lecturer in Strategic Management at Sheffield Management School. He is an expert scholar in Russian civil society development and an ISR Visiting Fellow.

Photo by Ivan Lapyrin on Unsplash

Who Needs Society? Authoritarianism and COVID-19

The Wall Street Journal recently suggested that ‘western democracies’ should look to Eastern Europe to how it contained the COVID-19 pandemic. With some Eastern European countries first ignoring or diminishing the COVID-19 threat (Russia) or asserting the benefits of ‘alternative’ therapies such as the encouragement of steam baths, eating garlic, and drinking Vodka – the Eastern European approach needs to be understood with more nuance. Of course a key assertion here is not that these ‘alternative’ approaches have merit, but more that is that people in Eastern Europe, because of the legacies of their communist past, are much more accepting of restriction on their individual freedoms. At the core of this assertion is the nature of state-society relations.

State-society relations are a core part of governance arrangements in all sort of political regimes. In western democracies, be they of a liberal-capitalist or social-democratic persuasion, they tend to be open and transparent involving the ability for frequent interaction and open critique. This enables individuals, groups and organisations, often in the form of non-profit organisations to engage in a range of activities to ensure the accountability of government.

In non-democratic regimes, state-society relations tend to be used to reinforce the status quo, rather than challenge it. The current pandemic has thus provided an opportunity for authoritarian regimes to further shape state-society relations to ensure their continued existence.

The academic literature highlights that authoritarian regimes ensure their resilience and survival by adapting their governance arrangements. COVID-19 has already been a godsend for them in terms of their ability to curb individual freedoms (such as freedom of movement or assembly) and a way to justifiably increasing ‘big brother’ tendencies and to further centralise power. Likely they will find it difficult to walk these back when the pandemic is over. Conversely, such regimes may now be more reliant on non-profit organisations to ‘manage’ the response to the pandemic – both in terms of protecting the vulnerable, but also identifying who the vulnerable are in the first place.

A good example is the Russian Federation. Over the years it has used political, legislative, financial and cultural means to limit the ability and reach of NPOs (albeit keeping a few organisations going to maintain a veneer of democracy). At the same time, the state has worked directly with some non-profit organisations to help address key social problems. These have become an important part in maintaining social order, particularly at a local and regional level. In the event of this health crisis, it is likley that state is now reliant on such NPOs to access ‘hard to reach’ vulnerable groups including drug addicts and victims of domestic abuse. Might NPOs be able to take advantage of this opportunity to reshape their relationship with the state? Will the Russian states new abilities to surveille the individual mean that there is less of a need to control what NPOs do? But also maybe less of a need to engage with them? One thing is for sure, state-society relations in Russia and elsewhere are unlikely to be the same again.

Dr Sergej Ljubownikow is a lecturer in Strategic Management at Sheffield Management School and an expert scholar in Russian civil society development.