Sunday, 2 March 2014

The powers that blunder and their victims in Ukraine

It’s agonising to watch the suffering of Ukraine today. And I feel it all the more strongly because of the work I was doing only fifteen months ago, with a group of Ukrainians who impressed me as much for their competence as colleagues, as for their warmth as friends.

At the time I worked for an American company whose founder and his seriously ill son, had undergone the pain of finding a way through the maze of the healthcare world. He emerged appalled at how little information is available about hospitals.

He decided to launch a software system to tackle the problem, and assigned the work of building one of the first modules to two Ukrainian students at Berkeley, near San Francisco. They amazed him by turning it around in a few day. He gave them a second much bigger task, and again they’d completed it in astonishingly quick time. There was more to them, he decided, than met the eye.

“You’re not doing this alone, are you?” he asked.

“No,” they admitted, “we’re getting help from a bunch of friends back home.”

“Well, why don’t you form yourselves into a company and I’ll give you an exclusive contract to develop the system for me?”

By the time I joined the American company, the arrangement had been working well for seven or eight years, and a pretty remarkable system had emerged from their collaboration. They were two separate companies, but they worked as though they were one. The people I met when I travelled out there didn
’t behave as though they were in a partner company, but like colleagues. Skilled and dedicated colleagues. I was proud to work with them.

Where in Ukraine was this happening? That’s a question one can’t answer without making a political statement. It’s like that city in Northern Ireland: call it Londonderry, and you sound like a Unionist who regards it as part of the United Kingdom; call it Derry, and you sound like a Nationalist who feels the place is Irish.

I knew next to nothing about Ukraine at the time, and had barely heard of the city, which I called “Kharkov”. That’s a Russian name, and arguably it makes sense to use it, the population being overwhelmingly Russian (it’s only twenty miles from the border).

On the other hand, it is in Ukraine, and many of my colleagues used the Ukrainian name “Kharkiv”, which was probably more politically correct. I didn’t meet any Russian speakers from there that objected to the name, and so made an effort to use it too.

Kharkov/Kharkiv illustrates the problem of that whole region. Russian speakers belong to the same community as the people half an hour’s drive away, the other side of the international border. Many of my colleagues had close family in nearby Russia.

The problem is particularly acute in one area of Ukraine that most Britons have actually heard of: the Crimean peninsula. British and French troops fought Russians there in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1854, at the battle of Balaclava, the British plumbed the depths of military incompetence at the same time as they scaled the heights of glory (glorious incompetence being one of the great characteristics of armies in combat). Tennyson summed it up for us:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!” 

Was there a man dismay'd? 
Not tho' the soldier knew 
Someone had blunder'd: 
Theirs not to make reply, 
Theirs not to reason why, 
Theirs but to do and die: 
Into the valley of Death 
Rode the six hundred.

A British blunder,
where the Russians are blundering around today
The Brigade captured the Russian guns, couldn’t hold them, and had to retreat to their starting point. Of the 600 who started out, just 195 were still unhurt and on horseback at the end. 

“C’est magnifique,” French Marshal Pierre Bosquet observed, “mais ce n’est pas la guerre.”

In truth, it wasn’t magnificent, it was carnage, and it was very much what war’s about.

That was in October 1854. A century later, in 1954, Crimea was the subject of another historical blunder. In a fifteen-minute interlude in a meeting of the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party, its General Secretary Nikita Kruschev told his colleagues that Crimea was being given to Ukraine.

He liked Urkaine, where he’d spent some time, and his wife was Ukrainian. At the time it probably didn’t seem to make a lot of difference: no one imagined the Soviet Union was going to unravel, so transferring a territory from one administrative unit wholly dominated by Moscow to another, was an empty gesture.

But then the Soviet Union fell apart, Ukraine became a sovereign state, and found itself in possession of Crimea. The Russians hastily agreed a lease to allow their Black Sea fleet to keep using the port at Sevastopol, but otherwise they were out.

Although not really. Ukraine remained heavily dependent on Russia, particularly for energy, as Russia showed by turning off gas supplies when it felt the need to exert some pressure. And it was glad to be able to work through a friendly President, in the form of Viktor Yanukovych.

But now Yanukovych has gone, to be replaced by people far less under Moscow’s thumb, far more inclined to look westward. We’ve seen the results: explicit military threats from Russia, and open army action in the Crimea, where “self-defence” groups, looking suspiciously like Russian forces without identifying insignia, have seized key locations.

’s deeply depressing.

But I’m particularly distressed for my former colleagues. Because just as the international political atmosphere around them deteriorates, the international commercial world has turned toxic for them too.

It was announced on Friday that the Ukrainian arm of the operation I worked with is suing the American company for $30 million. Why’s that? Because the Americans, under entirely new management, have unilaterally decided not to extend the contract after it expired on 28 February. After ten years outstanding work, my friends in Kharkov/Kharkiv now have to go the Californian courts to try to protect their position.

I don’t know whether those friends in Kharkiv/Kharkov will still be Ukrainian in a few months, or will have been made Russians by force of arms. I don’t know whether they would welcome such a change or resent it. Equally, I don’t know whether they’ll still be delivering services to their old American partners or whether they’ll be struggling to find new sources of work.

What I do know is that in both instances they have been the victims of international forces beyond their control.

All I can do is wish them well. These are tough times. I hope you and your compatriots emerge from them quickly, and unscathed. 

Unlike the Light Brigade.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am pretty sure I feel like 90+% of people here when it comes to Vlad. Putin. If you insist, I'll spell it out and say he 's a reprehensible specimen of humanity. BUT
When it coms to Ukraine, I don't believe he is at fault when he wants to hang on to Crimea with its Russian majority. The press her make little mention of the fascist elements in KIev; the first wave of killing in Kiev, entailed the death of 12 police, and it was presented as a massacre of civilians by them. The massacre did come, but later. San