The increasing divide within what can broadly be called the ‘western’ camp – people and societies you might expect to be critical of Russia – can be substantially attributed to one word “Unprovoked”. One side thinks Russia’s attack on Ukraine was unprovoked. From the limited knowledge of the situation that I have, I think this, too. Other sides (and there are several) think the invasion was provoked by NATO trying to expand its membership in such a way that it threatened the integrity of Russia’s territory. 

One of the great advantages of living in Singapore is that, as a result of the lively flow of visitors, you hear views daily from every aspect of the East-West spectrum. As with all differences, there are at least two sides to each story. I was surprised when an intelligent Asian friend of fifty years – as westernised as they come – announced at dinner recently: “Perhaps (President) Xi can persuade Zelenskyy to stop”. I almost choked on my oyster.

I expect that some of you reading this are already nodding your heads, agreeing with my friend’s sentiment. Right or wrong there is enough anti-American feeling around to speak of NATOs growth, in number and size of members, as an act of aggression. And there is quite a lot of anti-Russia feeling around, though it tends to be Putin-focused. There is suspicion about China in some quarters, especially in the USA. So much feeling everywhere that what are politely called tensions are rising in spite of the fact that the needs of the planet and its people right now require cooperation, not coercion or combat.

So what is provocation? Because I react to them physically, the presence of a cat is provocative to me. We all know of individuals who provoke us just by existing – hopefully only one or two. Provocation is more a clash between what you want and what you get than any deeply held philosophical belief. We all want peace. It would halt a ridiculous waste of the planet’s resources, would help restore the food supply, would let many people live longer and in more comfort, and would restore the world to a more balanced society where our behaviour could be about helping, not killing, other people. Most importantly, it would enable us to tackle the climate damage that is becoming serious faster than we expected. 

If peace is our dominant wish then anything that gets in its way is provocation.

Invading our neighbour’s territory is provocative. Appearing to threaten to do so is as well. But what constitutes a threat? Is wearing a seatbelt in a car a threat to the integrity of other drivers? Obviously not, but buying excessive supplies at a time of shortage certainly is. Weapoising production of vital necessities is as provocative as invasion, I would have thought. Provocation is as much in the mind of the provoked as in the actions of the provoker. And ‘in the mind’ can be true or false. I don’t think a taxi driver refusing my tip of a few cents is really insulted. His upbringing and lifestyle are such that my gesture upsets him. But then, the way someone holds a knife at the dinner table may upset a British boy whose upbringing has taught him that his social class requires him to hold it differently.

Provocation is an important part of diplomacy. Relations between countries and societies are not simply fight or no fight. Cooperation is used to reward what is seen as helpful behaviour. Sanctions, tensions, threats demonstrate displeasure and precede – or, if successful, prevent – conflict. These diplomatic manoeuvrings all say “I’m warning you”. The Russia-Ukraine war has ramped up enough warnings to worry all of us that an accident of military behaviour or a move into weaponry that is so close to nuclear as to be almost indistinguishable might start WWIII with all its ghastly consequences. 

To save the planet from hideous climate problems with their consequential food supply breakdown, physical and mental health problems and extreme comfort dislocation we need to get everyone understanding the imminent peril we are in. ‘Tomorrow’s problem’ has become today’s. If we don’t tackle it today our children and grandchildren will lead unacceptably poor lives. It is a legacy nobody wants to leave.

If Russia withdraws to the pre-Crimea status quo for the present and if Ukraine agrees to a referral of Crimea to a ‘Solomon panel’ it will allow us to address the real issue. They will both be seen as the saviours of humankind. For countries of their size and historical greatness they can both be welcomed as members of the Security Council. 

Vladimir Putin is the only person who can stop the war. He can do so tomorrow. We should all tell him that. There could be no greater legacy for him to leave. 

If he is a truly great man, he will.

Good morning

John BIttleston 

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Better still tell us an even more acceptable solution…

29 May 2023