The story of how a photo came to be taken of a Hawker Hurricane Mk1 being readied for combat in the midst of winter, while bearing the sigil of what appears to be a swastika can tell us much about the recent history of Russia’s neighbours.
We can nowadays easily do searches online to read about the absolute hell of The Winter War and Finland’s desperate struggle to remain free of Stalin’s horrific brand of communism but back in the nineties, you either read about it in an obscure history book in your local library, or you heard from someone who knew family who’d fought in that struggle.
I had a conversation with an English friend who struggled to comprehend that millions of Russian people were sent to fight the invading Nazis with no weapons at all; they were simply and brutally sacrificed to cause the Wehrmacht to run out of ammunition. His drunken reply had been to try teasing his Swedish girlfriend that her countrymen had simply sat out the war. It was a stupid thing to say but then Anna had been exposed to far less of the Blitz SpiritTM propaganda. All four of her grandparents had volunteered to go north, despite the fact that Swedes were told to stay at home and maintain the neutrality of the nation. The Swedes could see what was happening elsewhere in Europe and weren’t in fear of arrest so much as the imminent threat to their nation.
Swedish volunteers did not have the protection of a uniform and the rules of war. They were dressed in their own winter clothes with only their own civilian equipment: skiis, hunting rifles, First Aid kits. If they were captured by the Red Army, they would be treated as spies, tortured and executed. In one battle that became part of her family’s story, a Russian tank unit was attacked with petrol bombs and knives. This was because the cold was so intense, the diesel-powered tanks couldn’t function, rifles wouldn’t fire and the detonation pins in bombs and grenades simply stuck with ice or became so brittle with cold, they snapped. When she’d asked her grandfather in his twilight years what had happened, he only told her that all the tanks were destroyed and the Russians killed because there was no way to guard, let alone feed or treat the wounds of any prisoners.
The Moscow Peace Treaty was signed in March 1940 and though Stalin had seized nearly ten percent of Finland, Hitler had observed the weaknesses of the Red Army. Catastrophically for the Russian people but critically for the world’s democracies, Hitler launched a war against his former ally Stalin.
The fighting in Finland broke out again, less than eighteen months later. Hitler saw that he could open a new front against Stalin and so began the Continuation War, also known as The Second Soviet-Finnish War, which saw The Third Reich provide Finland with critical material support and military assistance, including economic aid.
What is critical to understand here is that Britain and the US weren’t going to set themselves against the Russians, so Finland was left to her own defences not once but twice. On this island, it’s hard to understand that when you’re trying to defend your country from invasion by land, you use the allies who will help and they’re not always the people you like. A condition of the eventual peace agreement with Moscow was that forces of The Third Reich leave Finland and so another war – The Lapland War – erupted in 1944, this time pitting the Finns against the Nazis, a situation not unlike that in Italy around the same time.
In short, to understand the limitations facing Ukraine and her would-be allies in how to respond, understand that Putin’s tactics and arguments are not so different from those Stalin made, regarding the need to protect Leningrad, just 20 miles from the Finnish border, to justify The First Soviet-Finnish War.
Whatever your views on Ukraine’s current government, it must be remembered that the Ukrainians have the right to choose their own government, regardless of whether Moscow, Washington or independence campaigners in Scotland approve. It is in the nature of democracy itself that we often won’t like what’s chosen by the majority if we’re the minority – or indeed, not involved in another nation’s elections at all – but the important thing is that there is choice, now and in the future. Without democracy, our children can’t undo the mistakes that we let happen with our own votes.
The sabre-rattling around Ukraine’s borders are not about oil or gas or, are not only about gas. In reality, it doesn’t matter whether a pipeline goes through Ukraine or under the Baltic seabed. Putin saw an opportunity that arose from former Chancellor Merkel’s decision to close all Germany’s nuclear reactors in the wake of Fukushima’s meltdown. German homes now need gas to stay warm, ensuring that NATO forces can’t step into that strategic weakness without bringing a chill to much of Europe.
When you delve into why the German government has been so spectacularly poor at meeting any renewable power targets these past decades, you also learn about the balancing trick that the Federal government has been playing. Maintaining a supply of cheap coal from mines in eastern Germany to power stations has ensured that the far-right can’t capitalise on the closure of pits, often the major employer in those states. In attempting to hold back the rise of populism, Germany has succeeded in short-term political goals, but in delaying the move toward sustainable energy, Merkel’s legacy is to give Putin a say on Germany’s ability to respond to his aggression.
Yes, the continual drumbeats of war from London and Washington are exhausting and depressing, especially given that many of us in Europe have only known peace and for so long but the reason for the constant warnings of imminent invasion are simple to understand: they are an attempt to shape the information war and limit Putin’s options and by so doing, to ultimately save lives. If you find that offensive, you really need to either check your priorities, turn off the TV – or both.
Logic and a good few questions can help us cut through the fog of propaganda from both sides. Without doing a cheeky wee Google, ask yourself, what’s Ukraine’s main export? It’s grain and if you want to know why Ukrainians fear domination by Moscow, look up the so-called Red Famine. You really should.
Also, without doing a web search, how many people live in Ukraine just now? At just over 41 million (not including the contested regions), the population is roughly the same as Spain’s. How many people live in Donetsk now compared to the days before hostilities breaking out in 2014?
True or false, Ukraine is larger than France? At nearly a quarter-million square miles, Ukraine is the largest nation entirely within Europe (Russia spans into Asia).
Also, why were Russians with an Orthodox view of Christianity, so incensed when their Ukrainian brothers declared their independence from the official Moscow church as it increasingly drifted toward Russian nationalism? That’s right, religion plays a significant part in this conflict, and for historical reasons too.
In a different context, if I had asked you what was the wealthiest nation in Europe in the Eleventh Century, it would have been a safe bet that you’d have said France or something equally Western. It was what we now call Ukraine. The country we now call ‘Russia’ was born not in Moscow or St Petersburg but thanks to the Kyivan Rus, princes with grand imperial ambitions focused around the court of the Rurik Dynasty in medieval Kiev.
Imagine that England continues to lay claim to Scotland because our Scottish forefathers were the soldiers, civil servants, engineers, entrepreneurs (and slave-owners), missionaries, teachers and adventurers, who built the ‘British’ Empire: how could threat of invasion after independence on that pretext even begin to make sense?
But this is the sort of guff that’s being broadcast on Russia media, born out of a very skewed Imperialist notion that people with a common history must always belong to the same sphere of influence, but do you see the Scandinavian royal houses queuing up to make their claims on the Western Isles of Scotland? Do you see them sailing up the Liffey to retake Dublin?
If historical ties are to be the markers for how we define ‘spheres of influence’ then how about we Scots claim everything from Moscow to Vienna? Why do you think there’s Saltires on the ceilings of churches of the Kremlin? It’s not just because Scotland and Russia share a patron saint. Catherine the Great’s armies struggled against the invasion of the Ottomans until they were led by not one but two Scottish officers, one of whom, Admiral Samuel Greig, also defeated the Swedish fleet.
Imagine that a post-independence Scotland suddenly finds that the border doesn’t run just north of Carlisle but instead was to be found between Kilmarnock and Ayr in the west and just to the south of Penicuik and Bonnyrigg in the east. Would you be happy that English troops pretending to be ‘separatists’ were firing artillery shells into Colinton and Balerno, simply because Northumbria was once an Anglo-Saxon kingdom? It would be a strange state of affairs if the Scottish Government didn’t appeal to the EU, the US and NATO for help even as non-members, don’t you think?
Now, if you’re not huffing at the pain of realising that you’ve been had, that RT is itself part of a large propaganda operation, there isn’t much hope for you. It’s not so hard for us in Scotland to imagine the lies being told: we simply have to turn on the BBC at 6.30pm every weekday.
Time and again, we’re told that after independence, we’d have to wait months, possibly years, before Scotland is able to tick all the boxes needed to show our armed forces meet the criteria for NATO membership and to apply to join EFTA, let alone the EU. If that were the case, who do you imagine is going to come to our help when English Border Force ships are harassing Scottish fishermen? Are we to trust that English voters won’t again be voting for a complete shambles of an autocrat? Boris isn’t the first. It was David Cameron, after all, who asked Putin to speak out against Scottish independence in 2014, only perhaps for Russia’s president to assume he’d got the nod to do what he likes with Donetsk and Crimea.
Democracies are not islands alone but in a world awash with increasingly aggressive autocrats, they present the only hope we have that we may be able to undo much that is wrong with the world. It’s why, in Scotland, we continue to turn out on dreich days to wave banners and cheer speeches scribbled on envelopes, clutched in cold, shivering hands. We know how long a wait it can be to get the government you actually vote for but we don’t give up.
Yes, watching Tories try to distract us from their own crimes against their own people, is nauseating. Yes, the Americans have clearly dropped the ball by failing to integrate their forces into Ukraine in the same way they’ve been able to keep the threat of invasion away from the Baltic states… but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong to try and get Putin to face up to his own failures at home.
It wasn’t so long ago that RUSI was reporting on the outcome of bilateral talks between NATO-member Norway and neutral Sweden to discuss how to better integrate the armed forces of non-NATO and non-aligned nations against Russian incursion into sovereign territory. In that instance, it was submarines coming into Swedish coastal waters but the incursion of Russian forces intent on mischief is not an experience unfamiliar to anyone living on the Fife Coast. On two occasions over the past few years, we’ve had to look out at a Neustrashimy-Class destroyer parked in the Forth Estuary because the Royal Navy doesn’t have sufficient fighting ships to get them to shift, let alone stay away.
Ask yourself why you’re being told that a nation with an ill-equipped army of just 30,000, defending the 45th largest economy in the world, is supposedly picking a fight with a technologically-advanced, nuclear-capable army ten times their size. Does it make sense that a small nation would pick a fight and provoke the demise of their liberty, especially at a moment when the population are focused on ridding their society of corruption by oligarchs?
If you find yourself inclined to believe that it’s OK to leave another democracy to face such existential peril alone, first ask about what you’re not being told. Secondly, read up the Winter War and the Red Famine. Finally, understand that the truth is never pure and rarely simple. Nation states lie. State broadcasters lie. There are no gods and few heroes out there. That does not give us the excuse to stand by while another democracy is invaded. If we believe in independence and in the sovereignty of Scotland, then we should defend the same rights for others. For some day, we may require them to defend us.