Strange, isn’t it, how every time we have a “crisis” in the Middle East, the Russians step in to take advantage of it? Or so it looks. No sooner have we identified Isis/the Islamic Caliphate/Daesh as the most apocalyptic, end-of-the-world antagonist since Hitler/Napoleon/Nero/Genghis Khan, than old Mother Russia stretches out her bear’s claws and tickles a former Soviet Republic, namely Ukraine.
While the Isis boys consolidated in Raqqa and Mosul, the Russians took over Crimea. Weapons poured in to help the Kurds in Kobani while the Ukrainians pleaded for more guns. Moscow’s “experts” now regularly appear on Russian television – many have an odd habit of flapping their hands in front of the screen – to tell us that “our” war is in fighting Islamist “fascism” in Syria and Iraq (and, I suppose, Afghanistan), not in supporting the “fascists” of Ukraine.
Flash back now to the forgotten war in Chechnya – forgotten by us, that is. We were indulgent when Boris Yeltsin fought the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s, firstly because we wanted “democracy” to break out in the wreckage of the Soviet Union – even at the cost of the destruction of Grozny – but also because the Russians had accepted the West’s liberation of Kuwait with scarcely a whisper of concern about Iraqi-Russian relations. We owed the Russkies one for this.
And when Vladimir Putin was concluding Russia’s second war in Chechnya in 2002, we were far too preoccupied with our new adventure in Afghanistan and our forthcoming “liberation” of Baghdad to worry about the poor old Chechens again. There was Western condemnation aplenty during the two conflicts, which lasted from the early 1990s to 2002 – the aftermath much longer – including threats of sanctions and international isolation. Foreshadowing Barack Obama’s fatuous “red line” in the Syrian war 10 years later, George W Bush even talked of how Russia had “stepped over the bounds”.
The Russians didn’t care. Indeed, the civilian casualties of the two Chechen wars, which mounted to perhaps 125,000 dead, elicited far less passion than the West demonstrated when fatalities of the Syrian civil war reached 125,000 last year, a statistic – and all such figures must be regarded with the deepest scepticism – which included several thousand armed rebels as well as civilians.
In both Chechnya and Syria, of course, the “enemy” mutated. The brave freedom fighters of Grozny turned into the black-clad Islamist killers of Beslan and the Moscow children’s theatre. Then the friendly Free Syrian Army lads and lassies fighting to the death against the Assad regime turned into the monsters of Isis – or were cruelly put to death by the same Isis when they didn’t join in the holy struggle for a caliphate. In this sense, both national struggles transmogrified into something we could condemn – and thus cancelled each other out.
Ruffle the pages of our history books a little further, however, and we find another far more momentous self-negation in 1956. For no sooner had the British and French connived with the Israelis to go to war over Suez – and drive Nasser out of power – than the Soviets sent their tanks into the streets of Budapest to suppress the Hungarian Revolution. The disregard for international law demonstrated by both the Soviet forces and the Anglo-French armies flattened out each other’s outrageous conduct. And although the Soviet tank bombardment of Budapest was long in the planning and thus unlikely to have been timed to coincide with the Suez invasion, it was difficult to condemn the Russians for taking advantage of our European aggression in Egypt.
Operation Musketeer (the UK version of the Suez invasion) morally cancelled out the subsequent Soviet Operation Whirlwind in Hungary (intriguingly, the same name Saddam used for his assault on Iran in 1980). It was all very well for The Daily Telegraph to use the headline “Free World’s Shock and Horror” of the Russian onslaught on Budapest or for The Guardian to trumpet the “Inspired Resistance to Soviet Brutality”, but the Europeans had been committing a few war crimes of their own in Egypt, not least the French paratroopers who massacred civilians with the same panache they were displaying in Algeria.
Only the freedom of Western reporters to roam the streets of Budapest during the uprising and the extraordinary censorship imposed by the Anglo-French authorities on their own journalists in Egypt allowed the Europeans to win the propaganda war at home.
But internationally – and especially in the Arab world – the cruelty of the Russians was matched by the brutal hypocrisy of the British and French. On 4 November 1956, the Soviets reached the centre of Budapest. A few hours later, British paratroopers were preparing to land at Port Said. Checkmate.
And who are the winners of this decades-long burlesque? Well, the Arabs for one. Field Marshal President Sisi of Egypt feted Putin in Cairo, but is happy to host UK businessmen to assist his pharaonic projects for a new Egyptian administrative capital (total cost around $45bn) and a “new” Suez Canal. And President Bashar al-Assad can count on Putin’s support in his war against the rebels of Syria while benefiting from US air strikes on his Isis enemies.
And there’s Israel. Its alliance with the US is as strong as ever despite Bibi Netanyahu’s tomfoolery on Capitol Hill. Israel is offering to mediate between Russia and Ukraine – an interesting proposal, since Israel has plenty of experience of occupying other people’s land. And remember, Putin once praised the political career of Soviet-born Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – who believes that disloyal Arab-Israelis should have their heads axed off – as “brilliant”.
At least the dictators and racists of the Middle East understand the hypocrisy of the superpowers.