Russia on the BBC, Part 1: Putin Vs The West

Putin Vs The West, 2023.

Nor­ma Per­cy makes the sorts of doc­u­men­tary series which shouldn’t work but some­how do. And, after the equal­ly reveal­ing Iran and the West, from 2009, and The Iraq War, from 2013, she this month presents us with Putin Vs The West, screened recent­ly on the BBC. And which is yet anoth­er extra­or­di­nary win­dow on to today’s geopo­lit­i­cal landscape.

What she does is to per­suade many, and often most, of the prin­ci­pal play­ers to sit down and talk to her about some of world’s most con­tentious trou­ble spots. And the remark­able fact is, that as soon as senior diplo­mats, civ­il ser­vants and even for­mer world lead­ers vacate their posi­tions of pow­er, they’re more than hap­py to spill the beans about the con­fi­den­tial and high lev­el con­ver­sa­tions they were only recent­ly privy to. 

Iran and the West, 2009.

Far from being bound by any sense of omer­ta, they’re all too ready to tell tales out of school. They are, it turns out, no bet­ter than the rest of us. And it makes for riv­et­ing viewing. 

The most reveal­ing of Putin Vs The West’s three remark­able episodes was the sec­ond, detail­ing the plight of Syr­ia in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring. One of the first to react to the chaos that then erupt­ed was Gaddafi, who turned on the peo­ple of Libya with a vicious­ness that even they were unac­cus­tomed to. 

So the West went to Rus­sia hop­ing to per­suade them not to veto the sanc­tions they want­ed to impose on him, assum­ing that their request would be denied. But at that time, in March 2011, Medvedev was pres­i­dent and, to their sur­prise, he enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly sup­port­ed the idea of sanc­tions. So long, of course, as there were no talk of regime change. Absolute­ly not, the West assured him.

So Rus­sia abstained in the UN vote, but with­out impos­ing its veto. And the sanc­tions were passed. 

The Iraq War, 2013

But Putin, who then held the junior post of prime min­ster, pub­licly chas­tised Medvedev for hav­ing fool­ish­ly tak­en the West at its word, and for not recog­nis­ing the ‘cru­sade’ the West was on to destroy them. And sure enough, two months lat­er the West declared that actu­al­ly, the only thing that would save Libya was in fact regime change. 

Medvedev was furi­ous, and Putin used the West’s betray­al of him as the cen­tral plat­form in his bid for re-elec­tion, which, the fol­low­ing year, he won in a landslide.

A year lat­er, in 2013, John Ker­ry trav­elled to Moscow in the hope of repair­ing rela­tions between East and West, so that they could join forces to do some­thing about Assad and the hell he’d been unleash­ing on the peo­ple of Syria. 

Haven’t you learnt any­thing about your ruinous efforts at regime change, they replied. Look at what hap­pened after your dis­as­trous inter­ven­tions in Libya, and in Afghanistan and Iraq before that. 

But when evi­dence sur­faced that sum­mer that Assad had begun using chem­i­cal weapons, Obama’s famous red line had been defin­i­tive­ly crossed. And Oba­ma joined forces with Hol­lande and Cameron, the French pre­mier and British PM, deter­mined to inter­vene in Syr­ia with air strikes. 

But when Cameron put mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion to the vote in Par­lia­ment, he lost. And sim­i­lar­ly, Oba­ma learnt that he would very like­ly lose a sim­i­lar vote in con­gress. So when Putin, very much to everyone’s sur­prise, offered his word that he would under­take to force Assad to sur­ren­der his chem­i­cal weapons, if the West promised to refrain from tak­ing mil­i­tary action, Oba­ma, to everyone’s amaze­ment, agreed. 

Which, obvi­ous­ly, was an extreme­ly good thing and was absolute­ly the right deci­sion. But the way it was reached was, to put it mild­ly, murky. And, polit­i­cal­ly speak­ing, it was a dis­as­ter. The West had blinked. Red lines were, clear­ly, mean­ing­less, and the West was mired in dis­uni­ty – Hol­lande felt par­tic­u­lar­ly left out in the cold. 

The Black Sea.

A year lat­er, in 2014, Isis took over swathes of Syr­ia. And the fol­low­ing year, two days after address­ing the UN assem­bly, and to everyone’s com­plete aston­ish­ment, Putin sent his air force in to bomb Syr­ia, under the guise of attack­ing Isis – which of course was exact­ly the same excuse that the West was using for doing the same thing else­where. And for the first time in decades, Russ­ian troops were deployed on for­eign soil. 

The West’s response? It decid­ed to do noth­ing. Which, again, was absolute­ly the right response. But the mes­sage that it sent out to Putin couldn’t have been clear­er. The West was weak, divid­ed and spent, and Rus­sia was back on the world stage. And in a part of the world that was vital to its strate­gic interests. 

To the north, it had gone into east­ern Ukraine in 2014, with the cru­cial access that gives it to the warm water ports in the Black Sea – and in response to which, again, the West had done noth­ing. And to the south, it now had a pres­ence in the Mediterranean.

None of which, to be absolute­ly clear, in any way excus­es what Putin has so unfor­giv­ably inflict­ed on the peo­ple of Ukraine. But it does help explain his actions, and put them in context. 

We’ve very quick to mar­vel at how blind­ly peo­ple in places like Rus­sia accept the pro­pa­gan­da they’re fed. But we rarely stop to ques­tion the pic­ture we’re being giv­en. Putin is not the insane, unpre­dictable, car­toon vil­lain we’re con­tin­u­al­ly pre­sent­ed with. He’s pur­su­ing a clear polit­i­cal strat­e­gy that has its roots in the re-uni­fi­ca­tion of Germany. 

Thir­ty years ago, the West promised Rus­sia that that re-uni­fi­ca­tion would cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly not result in any expan­sion of NATO into the east of Europe. Since when, 14 of the 15 coun­tries to the east of Ger­many have all joined NATO. All but one; Ukraine.

What this film demon­strates so well is that Russia’s attempt­ed inva­sion of Ukraine is every bit as com­pli­cat­ed as the rea­sons behind the sec­ond world war, which so many peo­ple like to com­pare it to. And is no more black and white than that was. 

Paint­ing Putin as an irra­tional lunatic is lazy and lets us off the hook. Because it fails to acknowl­edge the arro­gance that we’ve dis­played towards Rus­sia since the breakup of the Sovi­et Union. And it con­ve­nient­ly ignores the chaos we’ve inflict­ed on numer­ous oth­er coun­tries over that same time.

None of which, final­ly, should in any way be read as any kind of sup­port for those two insuf­fer­able clowns that we Irish have sent over to the Euro­pean parliament. 

And none of which will do any­thing to ease the suf­fer­ing of the poor peo­ple of Ukraine.

Watch the trail­er for Putin Vs The West here:

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Andrew Marr’s Great Scots on BBC2 and Scottish Independence.

Andrew Marr's Great Scots: the Writers Who Shaped A Nation.

Andrew Mar­r’s Great Scots: the Writ­ers Who Shaped A Nation.

Andrew Marr is a senior polit­i­cal fig­ure at the BBC, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly edit­ed the Lon­don Inde­pen­dent. More recent­ly, in between host­ing Radio 4’s pres­ti­gious Start The Week he’s begun pre­sent­ing his own doc­u­men­taries. His lat­est, on great Scot­tish writ­ers in com­fort­ably his best to date.

The first episode was on James Boswell. Like so many Scots before and since, Boswell was torn between his blind­ing ambi­tion, which demand­ed that he leave Scot­land and head for Lon­don, and the resent­ment he felt at being forced to do so.

Bizarrely, he end­ed up team­ing up with the arche­typ­al 18th cen­tu­ry Eng­lish­man, Samuel John­son. Even more bizarrely, Boswell lured the jin­go­is­tic John­son up north for a tour of Scot­land, which both insist­ed was the most enjoy­able cou­ple of months that either of them had ever spent.

The sec­ond episode was even more suc­cess­ful, not to say pre­scient, com­par­ing the con­trast­ing styles and pol­i­tics of Robert Burns and Sir Wal­ter Scott. Scott the con­ser­v­a­tive union­ist who har­boured dreams of rebel­lion, and Burns the Roman­tic poet par excel­lence who wrote in florid Scots incit­ing actu­al rebel­lion, but who worked by day as a tax inspec­tor for the British government.

Burns not only gets his own day every year, he managed to inflict that song on all the rest of us.

Burns not only gets his own day every year, he man­aged to inflict that song on all the rest of us.

Marr strikes exact­ly the right bal­ance between lit­er­ary his­to­ry and polit­i­cal analy­sis. Plac­ing these lit­er­ary giants in the con­text of the fierce polit­i­cal debate that fol­lowed the dis­solv­ing of the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment after the act of union in 1707, he sounds out the clear echoes with­out ever labour­ing the point.

As a proud Scots­man who nonethe­less left his native soil to take the British coin at the BBC in Lon­don, Marr knows only too well of what he speaks. Wry­ly, he reminds us, as the Scot­tish so often do, that Jekyll and Hyde was writ­ten by a Scots­man. That ten­sion that gov­erns how they view the land south of the bor­der and the peo­ple who live there has always been there.

So will the Scot­tish vote for inde­pen­dence this Sep­tem­ber? I get the impres­sion they are com­ing to regard that pre­vi­ous vote accept­ing union some 300 years ago with increas­ing shame. I’ve a fun­ny feel­ing the heart might rule the head. That 9–2 is look­ing extreme­ly invit­ing. In the mean­time, Andrew Marr’s Great Scots con­tin­ues on BBC 2 on Sat­ur­day evening.

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Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s “The Trip To Italy” on BBC2.

Series 1, The Trip.

Series 1, The Trip.

Few peo­ple noticed when The Trip slipped unob­tru­sive­ly onto our screens in 2010. A cou­ple of quite famous come­di­ans are sent off on a brief dri­ve around Eng­land to knock off a cou­ple of celebri­ty restau­rant reviews. In ret­ro­spect, as an idea, it was pitch perfect.

Super­fi­cial­ly, it pro­vides an excuse for a cou­ple of gen­uine­ly fun­ny come­di­ans to strut their impres­sions. But beneath that, and much more inter­est­ing­ly it was a por­trait of two men in the lat­ter stages of their mid­dle age try­ing to get their head around the unbridge­able gap between what were once their hopes and dreams, and what they’ve actu­al­ly done with their lives.

No longer on the menu alas.

No longer on the menu.

This is made all the more fas­ci­nat­ing by the fact that for many of us watch­ing, what we dream of is end­ing up exact­ly where they are. On the oth­er side of the screen. They have made it. What was so won­der­ful­ly dark about that first series was its explo­ration of what exact­ly “it” is, and whether the two in ques­tion real­ly have got there.

The sec­ond series kicked off on Fri­day. Inevitably it wasn’t quite as sharp or as dark as the first. The Trip to Italy is no longer the secret it once was and the bud­get and expec­ta­tions have shot up. So there was a ner­vous­ness to the first episode as it tried just a lit­tle too hard to please.

But at the very end of the episode they both stood there look­ing over at a cou­ple of pret­ty young girls. They’re not even threat­ened by us, they mused. We’ve become uncle mate­r­i­al. What was so impres­sive­ly dark about this, was that it was deliv­ered absolute­ly straight.

Series 2, now in Italy.

Series 2, now in Italy.

It was com­plete­ly and gen­uine­ly free from any sense of irony what­so­ev­er. And yet at the same time, you just knew with­out in any way hav­ing to be told, that deep down nei­ther of them believed it. When some­body next asks you what you mean by less is more, these two per­for­mances are as good an exam­ple as you’ll have to offer.

Bril­liant­ly act­ed and unob­tru­sive­ly direct­ed by Michael Win­ter­bot­tom, series two promis­es at the very least to be con­sis­tent­ly if gen­tly amus­ing. Hope­ful­ly, nice and qui­et­ly, it’ll con­tin­ue to be as bril­liant­ly dark.

The Trip To Italy is on Fri­day at 10pm on BBC2. Here’s a brief clip.

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BBC2’s “Royal Cousins At War”, a 1st WW programme that’s Actually Worth Seeing.

Royal Cousins At War.

Roy­al Cousins At War.

This you’ll have noticed is the cen­te­nary of what was the Great and then became the 1st. World War. So by about, oh some time around next week, you’re going to be thor­ough­ly fed up with yet anoth­er pro­gramme mark­ing the anniversary.

On the plus side, unlike WWII, no-one’s going to be dress­ing up their jin­go­ism by pre­tend­ing that it was a black and white bat­tle between good and evil, and not just A N Oth­er exam­ple of good old fash­ioned, impe­ri­al­is­tic Empire-building.

In its stead, expect much fur­row­ing of the brow, wring­ing of the hands, and care­ful­ly pained declaim­ing of Oh the human­i­ty

BBC_First_World_War_centenary_logoVery unusu­al­ly, this was one of the very few wars that nobody involved was keen to pur­sue. What this pro­gramme did so fas­ci­nat­ing­ly, was to take one ele­ment and to show how dis­as­trous­ly its acci­dents played out.

Most peo­ple will be vague­ly aware of the story’s out­lines, with­out prob­a­bly know­ing very many of its details. Essen­tial­ly, it cen­tres around the three cousins who would grow up to become Wil­helm II, the last Emper­or of Ger­many, Tsar Nicholas II of Rus­sia, and George V of England.

As well as untan­gling the com­plex web of inter­mar­riages that the var­i­ous Euro­pean roy­al hous­es were con­struct­ed with, and the way that these pro­vid­ed the cur­rents that pow­ered the dif­fer­ent alle­giances and ten­sions that shaped the con­ti­nent, Roy­al Cousins at War pre­sent­ed a num­ber of mon­u­men­tal What Ifs.

What if Wil­helm II hadn’t had a breech birth, which left him with a with­ered left arm? And he hadn’t there­fore been shunned by his guilt-con­sumed moth­er, but had grown up as part of a lov­ing fam­i­ly, before devel­op­ing into a con­fi­dent, care-free and con­sid­er­ate monarch? Instead of rebelling against his lib­er­al par­ents to become an inse­cure, social­ly awk­ward, reac­tionary bully?

Or what if his grand­fa­ther, Wil­helm I had lived to be 80 instead of 90? And his father Friedrich III, had lived for ten years longer after he suc­ceed­ed him? Friedrich and his lib­er­al wife would have had 20 years to steer the nascent Ger­many towards the kind of con­sti­tu­tion­al monar­chy that they so admired in England.

Margaret McMillan's The War That Ended Peace.

Mar­garet MacMil­lan’s The War That End­ed Peace.

Indeed, his wife, Princess Vic­to­ria had been sent to Ger­many by her moth­er Queen Vic­to­ria, for pre­cise­ly that end. And Queen Vic­to­ria her­self was three parts Ger­man, and her adored hus­band entire­ly so. Eng­land would then have cement­ed its ties to its nat­ur­al ally Ger­many, and how dif­fer­ent the his­to­ry of the 20th cen­tu­ry might have become.

But he ruled alas for bare­ly three months.

This last What If was voiced by Mar­garet MacMil­lan, one of the many impec­ca­ble his­to­ri­ans who con­tributed to this won­der­ful­ly engag­ing pro­gramme. Her book The War That End­ed Peace was uni­ver­sal­ly praised through­out 2013 as a defin­i­tive exam­i­na­tion of the war, and sits on my Kin­dle undis­turbed, qui­et­ly mock­ing me.

Get that book, and if at all you can, watch this two part programme.

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Simon Schama’s The Story Of The Jews on BBC2.

The Jewish Ghetto in Venice.

The Jew­ish Ghet­to in Venice.

Simon Schama’s appro­pri­ate­ly eru­dite The Sto­ry of the Jews con­tin­ues on BBC2. One time Art Crit­ic for the New Yorker and cur­rent­ly a pro­fes­sor at Colum­bia, Schama signed a much pub­li­cized book and TV deal with the BBC worth £3m in 2003. Simon Schama’s Pow­er Of Art duly fol­lowed in 2006.

There, he took eight heavy­weight artists rang­ing from Car­avag­gio and Berni­ni to Turn­er and Rothko, and some­how man­aged to find fresh and reveal­ing insights into each and every one of them. Which is no mean feat when deal­ing with the likes of Van Gogh and Picas­so.

This lat­est five part series is every bit as engag­ing, and man­ages to be suf­fi­cient­ly per­son­al to gen­uine­ly move with­out ever dwelling for too long on inevitable pathos.

The first episode cov­ered the first mil­len­ni­um BC, whilst the sec­ond took us up to the cat­a­stroph­ic expul­sion of the Jews from Spain and Por­tu­gal in 1492 and ’97. It was this that led to the cre­ation of the first ghet­to in Venice, which marks a decid­ed­ly ambiva­lent junc­ture. It was won­der­ful to be final­ly giv­en a home. And yet, they were clear­ly marked out as Other.

Caravaggio's "The Taking Of Christ".

Car­avag­gio’s “The Tak­ing Of Christ”.

It’s a vast sub­ject of course, but it would have been inter­est­ing to have a bit more on the cru­cial peri­od between the 2nd and 6th cen­turies AD. Chris­tians and Jews had come increas­ing­ly to under­stand them­selves in oppo­si­tion to one anoth­er, and there were then as many Jews preach­ing hatred against Chris­tians as there were Chris­tians spew­ing vit­ri­ol against the Jews.

Incred­i­bly though, no soon­er had this mutu­al and pro­found mis­trust become ingrained, one of the two sides sud­den­ly “won”. As in the 4th cen­tu­ry A.D., and almost overnight, the whole of the Roman Empire con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty. Not only that, but over the next few cen­turies, the rest of north and east­ern Europe quick­ly followed.

Simon Schama's "The Story Of The Jews".

Simon Schama’s “The Sto­ry Of The Jews”.

So, it’s been sug­gest­ed, that anti-Jew­ish ele­ment that was so cen­tral to the ear­ly Chris­t­ian Church came to be cod­i­fied as part and par­cel of Medieval Chris­ten­dom, based as it was on the Roman Empire and its Latin lan­guage. When then the Islam­ic Empire sprang up in the East soon after, it was all too nat­ur­al for the West to lump the Jews togeth­er with their new foe.

This doesn’t of course excuse the unspeak­able treat­ment of Jews by Chris­tians in the Cru­sades that fol­lowed from the 11th cen­tu­ry on. And indeed through­out the rest of his­to­ry. But it does sug­gest an expla­na­tion as to why it is the West has always been so much more intol­er­ant of Jews com­pared to the Islam­ic world where, at the very least, they were allowed to exist.

But that’s a minor quib­ble. This is a com­pre­hen­sive sto­ry bril­liant­ly told with a mix­ture of schol­ar­ship and, unsur­pris­ing­ly, feel­ing. The Sto­ry Of The Jews con­tin­ues on BBC2.

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