Daniel Gormally: Thoughts on Ukraine

Of late my dreams have become darker and I don’t dream of the future anymore. I just dream of my childhood and places I used to frequent when I was younger. A few years back I had a vivid dream of a nuclear weapon exploding in London; and even more recently walking in the capital in the night and jets roaring ahead, on the way to some war in which we are all invested.

I doubt I am the only one extremely concerned about the recent developments in the Ukraine, and what it could lead to. A possible all-out nuclear exchange, effectively World War the end, and the dreadful implications that holds for all of us. You can almost feel it coming.

When I discuss what the war in the Ukraine means for chess, it feels pathetically irrelevant. Who cares about chess when people are dying? And yet at the heart of a recent conflict between Sergey Karjakin and members of the Twitter sphere, lies some of the truths of this whole affair. Although seemingly most of the western world finds the attack on Ukraine utterly horrifiying, it is true that Putin is not alone in expressing his desire to change the situation in that country. He is supported by many in Russia who claim that that country is culpable of crimes against ethic Russians; Karjakin is one of them.

When the western media hopes for the easy resolution of the whole affair by desposement of Putin from within, that is surely to ignore that a fair percentage of the Russian population support his policies, however abhorrent they might seem to us. The whole history of Russian politics is a long and complex one and not something I have the knowledge or scope to go into in this article. Although it is claimed that Putin has been guilty of slanting election results in his favour, he has also in the past been an extremely popular figure in Russia, and people were attracted by his tough-guy image and desire to make Russia a powerful force in world affairs.

In a roundabout way I am trying to make the point that removing Putin only removes one problem. It is easy to imagine he could be replaced by someone just as bad or even worse. It is the will of the Russia people that is so important in this consideration. Just as the majority of the population turned against the Tsars, if public sentiment is overwhelmingly against Putin then he is surely doomed. It is the Russian people that will ultimately decide the future of that country and hopefully decide on a more democratic future. Some might claim I am hopelessly naïve in this respect and Putin is more or universally despised in that country, and it is only his iron grip that keeps him in power, but the evidence that so many soldiers are willing to go into battle for him rather suggests otherwise. He still retains powerful support.

Where Karjakin has got into trouble is in trying to defend his president. This has bought ire from the Twitterati and FIDE, who are looking into some of his comments and deciding upon possible sanction. My own personal view of Karjakin is although I disagree with his views it is too simple to dismiss him completely, to regard him as a warmongerer and a puppet of Putin. As already stated, Karjakin is hardly alone in Russia in this view of the Ukraine. That is a view that in my opinion needs to be argued with and defeated. Because that is the real opponent, not Putin. We should avoid the easy route of ignorance and utter condemnation of those with a different view to us.

In the west we can too easily get on our high horse and morally dismiss those who conduct themselves in ways that we don’t agree with, forgetting that America and other western countries have their own history when it comes to bombing others and killing innocent victims. But because those who are doing the bombing are in the right, that makes it ok, I guess? This kind of moral hypocrisy and ability to put our nations above those from faraway lands, rather disgusts some of those who live in those countries. Thus, anti-western sentiment is easy to stir up in these places. We have already established the template for them to work with.

The thing that alarms us most about the Ukraine situation is that this is effectively on our doorstep; this is a modern European country, and this horrifies us. Putin and forces loyal to him carried out similar campaigns in Syria, and although we were appalled by that as well, it didn’t carry the existential threat that this Ukraine crisis has provoked. If Ukraine, then who next? Poland, Latvia, Germany perhaps? And although any further incursions might force Nato to become involved, that doesn’t seem like a very happy situation either.  Might Vlad not be bluffing after all, and be ready to use nuclear missiles?

With these scary thoughts we envitably return to Karjakin and other chess players who have expressed support for Putin. Should they and their ilk be “cancelled”, and effectively removed from chess tournaments and expunged from history? Should they become in the spirit of the brilliant novel 1984 (which now seems more relevant than ever) non-people?

I think this would be a mistake for reasons already expressed above. We need to debate with these people, to defeat their arguments. Only by doing this can we hope to change some of the sentiment that is still too pervasive in Russia. Putin is another matter, because he seems worryingly close to starting World War three, but as far as I’m aware Russian chess players have no access to any buttons.

I can see the argument that Russia needs to be punished and thus removal of Russian chess teams from competition is inevitable, at least for the moment. However, removing Karjakin from the candidates as some are asking for, would set a worrying precedent. It would mean that any view expressed on social media could effectively dictate your future chess career. Any comment out of place, that the prevailing sentiment doesn’t agree with, either made now or in the past that someone might be able to dig up, would leave you vulnerable to permament cancellement. And this surely goes against one of western societies great dictums, that of freedom of speech.

Regardless of what the nationalistic Putin might say, I believe there is something greater than Russia, greater than Nato, greater than the United States. That is the World, and we are all part of it. We are all part of that club. Failure to engage will only kick the ball further down the line, and ultimately that “club” that we are so happy to reside in will be threatened, and not just in an existential sense.