Steven Joyce: Ukraine – like a horror movie that wont stop

OPINION:

It has been gruelling to watch video footage of the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine this past week. It is shocking, senseless and unrelenting. And like a horror movie playing out in real life, you know it is only going to get worse.

Thousands of innocent civilians and soldiers killed already, more than a million refugees, stories of sickening slaughter, babies born in subway stations, defiant heroes. All from a more-or-less standing start one week ago. And all at the whim of one undeniably evil man.

I’ve never doubted Putin’s immorality. The dark tales coming out of the Chechen conflict and the Georgian war did it for me, along with the snuffing out of dissent in Russia and the blatant poisoning of dissidents abroad. Still, the brazen nature of this attack is confronting.

As is the twisted nature of his logic. Apparently he plans to de-Nazify Ukraine, the country with the Jewish President. Ukraine are “our brothers and sisters”, so apparently we must pound them into submission until they realise it.

While all this is happening over the other side of the world, it’s still close to home. Europe is a small place and many Kiwis and Australians have close connections there.

I myself have a nephew living in Germany with his young family, around 1100kmfrom the Ukrainian border — the equivalent of the distance from Auckland to Christchurch.

Romania, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Baltic republics are all pretty much next door to this week’s fighting.

I was lucky enough to visit Ukraine about 15 years ago, passing through Odessa, Sevastopol and Yalta. It looked like a normal sort of place, although very flat once you get out into the countryside. A decade and a half on from the Berlin Wall coming down, there was still a feeling of excitement and positivity, and the intoxicating joy of freedom.

Perhaps little wonder that despite everything Ukrainians have been through, they don’t want to lose that freedom now.

I’ve been surprised over the past few days to hear and see some fellow Kiwis on talkback and in social media, justifying and rationalising Putin’s actions.

Most commonly they suggest the West is guilty of setting up shop in his backyard, and “of course” he had to react to protect Russia’s interests. They make comparisons with the fear felt by the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“The West”, of course, was not doing any such thing. Rather, a sovereign nation chose democracy. There were no Nato missiles on Ukrainian soil and none planned. There was no likelihood of Ukraine joining Nato any time soon, more’s the pity.

Ukraine’s crime was to choose to be an independent state, to develop free and democratic institutions, however nascent and flawed they were, and to dare to allow its citizens to exercise their free will.

In any event, Nato is a defensive alliance. It has never attacked anyone and never will. It exists to deter aggression against member states, not promulgate it. And it may be about to undergo its sternest test to date.

In his speech launching the war against Ukraine, Putin railed against the destruction of the old Soviet Union, that forced subjugation of much of Eastern Europe under the socialist Russian hammer. If the Russian army gets through Ukraine relatively intact, you’d be very nervous in the Baltic republics and places like Romania and Bulgaria, all current Nato members.

Its hard to find good news in all this but there is some.

Ukraine is proving to be much harder to roll over than anyone thought. President Zelenskyy has been an inspiration, and so have the Ukrainian people. Their stoicism, their humour, and their willingness to resist overwhelming odds has been moving.

The Nato countries have roused themselves. They are doing the right thing, supporting Ukraine with aid and arms, while not directly confronting the Russians and escalating the war further. The much-vaunted Russian army so far looks weaker than advertised, short of fuel, morale, and tactical nous. The Ukrainian mud may be bogging down yet another invading army.

Most impressively, the world has united as never before to hit Russia with punitive sanctions. The Russian economy has tanked dramatically and the ruble is turning to rubble. It is all happening very quickly and that’s important. Sanctions often have a slow burn but in this case the Russian people can be under no illusion about who caused the massive economic shock and pain they are suddenly experiencing.

The early success of the sanctions has led more than one commentator to hopefully assert that a war that started in the Ukraine will finish on the streets of Russia. That’s one scenario. At the other end of the scale, an isolated and angry Putin who has already over-reached once lashes out further.

Regardless of how this plays out, there will be much economic pain in the rest of the world, including here. Inflation has already been well and truly let out of the bag by governments and central banks and the sanctions against Russia will stoke it much higher. Oil and gas prices are the obvious impacts, but food and fertiliser costs will also rise as two of the larger agricultural nations on earth are taken offline.

You also can’t shut down the tenth-largest economy in the world without any effect on financial markets. An already vulnerable world economy is heading into uncharted waters.

For New Zealand, that means getting our own economic house in order as soon as possible. We should be hastening the end ofthe Covid border and other restrictions as soon as we can, and putting aside untested policy experiments in immigration and the economy more generally. We need our economic engine and our businesses running as strongly as possible as we navigate these treacherous times.

We should also stand clearly with most other countries in taking punitive sanctions against Russia. The United Nations will never get there because of Russia’s Security Council veto. The Government should pass the autonomous sanctions legislation that has been on the books for years post haste.

As a small country it is in our national interest to stand clearly with a world that is proving surprisingly determined to stand up to a bully like Putin.

After decades of realpolitik and turning a blind eye, the reaction to this war is refreshing. It may give other would-be invaders pause.

– Steven Joyce is a former National MP and Minister of Finance.

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