Let us, first of all, put things into a proper perspective: motor sport is not ultimately important. It’s a game for wealthy people and while millions love to watch and enjoy the sport, and it supports an impressive industry, it really doesn’t matter. It is irrelevant in time of war.
In major international conflicts in the past motor racing has simply stopped. In 1940 Italy hosted the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio, the latter taking place after the Nazi invasion of France had started but before Italy entered the war on June 10 that year. The Indy 500 took place in 1940 and 1941 before the United States joined the war in December 1941.
Thankfully nothing has escalated into a global war since 1939. People don’t want to live through that again. Of course, as time passes those who experienced World War II have died. Education is important in this respect to remind people what not to do, and to avoid the world going through such traumas again. In the UK, people wear poppies in November to remember World War I and most people know the words: “they shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them”.
The same should be true in Russia, which suffered more than any other country in World War II, with military casualties five times those of the Allies. In the light of this, Russia’s attack on Ukraine is quite difficult to understand. If anyone should know about the awfulness of war, it is the Russians…
Today bombs were dropping on an area of Kyiv called Babyn Yar. It was in this place that in 1941 the Nazis murdered more than 33,770 Jews in just two days.
This did not escape Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “What is the point of saying ‘Never again’ for 80 years if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on Babyn Yar?” he asked.
A lot has happened in the last few days, not just in Ukraine but all across the world. A tidal wave of sanctions of all kinds have been declared against Russia, or perhaps one should say against President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine. It is clear that some Russians oppose what he is doing and many have been arrested for protesting against his actions, but it seems that the majority is silent, whether this means they support him is hard to judge.
Many Russians seem to believe what their media tells them (the same is true in the West), but I do recommend that people read TASS and other Russian news in order to understand what the people are being told over there. It is fascinating. Just to give an example, on February 6 Russia’s First Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Dmitry Polyanskiy said that the speculation of Western countries about how many days Kiev could last in a potential Russian invasion was “madness and scaremongering” while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov castigated critics saying that “Russia poses no threat to anyone.”
Russian people are not fools and many will see what we can see. Maybe they wonder if Putin’s attack on Ukraine is to snuff out a country that may have its faults but was beginning to look how Russia might one day look if left alone to develop as a European nation.
Putin sold the invasion of Crimea as saving the region from extremists in Ukraine. It worked and it boosted his popularity at home. But since then the support has waned again. Opposition has been growing. Trying to convince Russians that the attack on Ukraine is defending the Motherland from an aggressive West is going to be a tough thing to sell. The West is proving that it does not need to use tanks and guns as money and culture can do the job.
The impact of sanctions has been dramatic, with the collapse of the rouble, much of the Central Bank’s reserves frozen, the mandatory sale of foreign currencies for Russian firms, a massive hike in interest rates and the closure of the Moscow Exchange until March 5 to protect share prices (or at least to delay the inevitable). Russian companies listed elsewhere have been hammered. It is reckoned that £430 billion has been wiped off the value of Russian companies listed in London. Sberbank’s share price has lost 95 percent of its value in recent days.
International brands are giving up on their Russian investments. Even if Putin stops the invasion (which is unlikely), the damage is done. The future will not be like the past. Russia is no longer a member of the international community.
It is all unprecedented stuff. Putin’s actions have caused Sweden, a country that has traditionally been neutral, to decide to send thousands of weapons and $50 million in funding to the Ukrainian military. By the same token, Switzerland, for which neutrality has always been one of the primary principles of the nation, has decided to adopt sanctions that the European Union has imposed on Russia.
“We are in an extraordinary situation,” the country’s President Ignazio Cassis said.
Not even Hitler caused the Swiss and the Swedes to abandon their neutrality and take action. That is an indication of the sense of outrage and indignation that Putin has caused. He cannot have imagined that this was going to happen, or else he would not have done it.
All Putin can now do is to try to crush Ukraine – the Russian army has not done very well thus far – and then figure out how to rule what will be a very broken Russia after the fighting is over. One cannot help but wonder whether whatever now happens, his days in power are numbered.
Russia is being cut adrift. It is not just political and economic, it’s cultural as well. Yes, there are a few countries where Russian might still be welcomed in the future, but high living on the Cote d’Azur is a thing of the past. In future the buskers in Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat will no longer be playing balalaikas…
With what one might term “a cultural war” taking place, the FIA has given the impression that it is out of step with the rest of the world. The first article of the FIA Statutes states that the federation “shall refrain from manifesting racial, political or religious discrimination in the course of its activities and from taking any action in this respect”, but these were statutes that were written at a time when no-one could imagine another ground war in Europe.
At the same time the FIA likes to boast that it has full recognition status from the International Olympic Committee (achieved in 2013), in accordance with the sporting and governance standards of the Olympic Charter. The FIA says that “wholeheartedly embraces the Olympic spirit and shares the Olympic values of respect, excellence and friendship, believing that sport should be accessible, fair and enjoyable for all”, but the FIA decision regarding Russia is out of step with the IOC, which said that banning Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing will “protect the integrity of global sports competitions”.
The FIA World Council’s decision has been widely criticised and it is clear that not all the member clubs (nor indeed by all the members of the World Council) agree with the decision made.
Motorsport UK, the British ASN, which is represented on the World Council by David Richards, has announced that Russian and Belarusian license holders are banned from racing in the UK. It will be interesting to see if other FIA clubs follow suit, a couple already have.
“We stand united with the people of Ukraine and the motorsport community following the invasion and the unacceptable actions that have unfolded,” David Richards said. “This is a time for the international motorsport community to act and show support for the people of Ukraine and our colleagues at the Federation Automobile of Ukraine (FAU).”
For the world today, the FIA’s “sadness and shock” is not enough.
Why is there such a reaction around the world? That is a question that will probably be explained in time by social historians, but it is probably down to the fact that for nearly 77 years the Europe continent has been at peace. The Cold War was stressful in many respects but in that era the Soviets did not step over of line in Europe. They kept to their own territories and did not dare to venture beyond. We were afraid of what they might do, they were afraid of what we might do. It worked. Mutually-assured destruction made everyone think twice.
Putin was forged in that era. He joined the KGB after leaving university in the mid-1970s and was trained to be a foreign intelligence officer. In the late 1980s he was based in Dresden in the old East Germany when the Soviet empire fell apart. It was a time of upheaval and humiliation for Russia. Putin went home, climbed up through the ranks and became president on December 31 1999. It was clear from his speeches that he believed the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the Twentieth Century”.
Many disagree with that assessment. Many may have feared that over time Putin would do his best to rebuild the old Soviet bloc, but whatever means were possible, including supporting pro-Russian governments in countries that used to be in the Soviet Union, but Russia was weak, a shadow of its former shadow. However in 2014 Putin felt strong enough to invade Crimea. This met with sanctions, but they did not knock him out. He realised that if he was going to try again, he had to be better prepared. This time he was, but invading Ukraine did not meet with the same reaction. He has miscalculated massively.
The reality of the world today is way more complicated than one might think from the propaganda going on. Russia is not trying to conquer the world (it cannot afford to even think about that) and nor is the West trying to destroy Russia. The West wants to do business with Russians. Entrepreneurial Russians want to do business with the West. But the authoritarian leadership, a mega-wealthy elite that wants economic stability, a society that has got used to Western culture – at least in the big cities – and an opposition that will grow the more it is suppressed, means that Russia is a paradoxical place and who knows what might happen next?
The global reaction is not an attack on Russia. It is an attack on Putin. It aims to expose him and let the Russian people decide to do something else. It is a sign that the world has changed and people don’t want to fight wars any longer. They don’t want to see any more generations wiped out. The war to end all wars did not end wars – and that was 100 years ago.
Today the world has sufficient problems with the future for other reasons that should concern us all.
Time will tell if Putin has a future, but one thing is clear: in the small irrelevant part of the world that is motorsport, the FIA needs to get a little more attuned to how the world is today and not rely on outdated statutes, or whatever it was that caused the World Council to make the wrong decision.
Dany Kvyat is right that it is not fair on Russian competitors – and I feel for him – but nor it is fair that Russia thinks it can march into Ukraine and do what it is now doing there.