Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Is Rodgers the man to oversee Liverpool's transfer window?

I last wrote an overview of the situation at Liverpool way back in April 2012.  A lot has happened in the intervening years, but, rather depressingly, many things remain the same.

Back then, Kenny Dalglish was  manager.  Liverpool had just been beaten at home by West Bromwich Albion and there was a sense among supporters that sweeping changes needed to be made in the summer close season.   Less than a month later, the club’s owners, Fenway Sports Group (FSG), invited King Kenny to an ‘end of season review’ in their home city, Boston, and sacked him suddenly and unexpectedly.    

Three years on, Liverpool has just lost at Anfield to Crystal Palace and Dalglish’s successor, Brendan Rodgers, has been summoned to the United States to debrief FSG after this Saturday’s game against Stoke.  It’s no wonder that some commentators wonder whether the meeting will have a similar outcome to the ‘review’ of 2012.

When I wrote that post, there was at least some silverware in the trophy cabinet.  Liverpool had beaten Cardiff City in the League Cup final and were looking forward to playing Chelsea in the FA Cup final.  This year, the club reached two cup semi-finals again, but lost both, including a devastating FA Cup defeat to Aston Villa. 

On the other hand, Brendan Rodgers’ team cannot finish below seventh in the Premier League table and is more likely to finish fifth or sixth, whereas Kenny Dalglish led Liverpool to eighth place in 2012.

There was also the little matter of a serious challenge to win the league title, masterminded by Rodgers last season.  Although the team failed ultimately to top the table, second place was regarded by most fans and commentators as a considerable achievement and the manager was thought to have exceeded FSG’s expectations.  It was an exciting season for Liverpool, full of masterful team performances and driven by outstanding attacking play by Luis Suarez.

As summer 2015 approaches, however, Suarez has long since moved on, to form part of Europe’s best forward line, at Barcelona.  His goal-scoring partner, Daniel Sturridge, spent most of the season injured and Liverpool has netted just over half the number of goals scored last term.  It also looks likely that Raheem Sterling, a talented nineteen year old forward, will be sold to Manchester City.

If the playing staff doesn’t need to be rebuilt in its entirety, it certainly requires extensive refurbishment.  Arguably only one player in the squad, Phillip Coutinho, could not be replaced easily enough with someone better, if the funds were available.

At goalkeeper - Simon Mignolet’s form improved dramatically after Christmas, when he overcame his reluctance to leave the goal-line and claim the ball from crosses.  However, his deputy, Brad Jones, will be sold during the summer and the club has to find a replacement who will compete with Mignolet for a first team place.

On this season’s evidence, Rodgers hasn’t decided whether Liverpool’s defence should contain three or four players.  Whichever system is employed next season, the club will surely decide to add one central defender to the (reasonably) solid duo of Skrtel and Sakho. 

A consistent pairing hasn't been established at full-back / wing-back either.  The Spaniard, Alberto Moreno, is young, but makes defensive errors and was recently dropped.  His compatriot, Javier Manquillo, played rarely, particularly as the season advanced.  Meanwhile, the inconsistent England international, Glen Johnson, whose wages are reputed to be high, will be sold in the summer.

Rodgers tried various midfield players and wide players at wingback.  Lazar Markovic and Jordan Ibe are youthful, fast and energetic, but their passing and decision making skills are a work in progress.  Other players, like Jordan Henderson, look more effective in central areas. 

Steven Gerrard’s departure deprives the team of its figurehead and captain.  Although his performances this season weren’t generally as powerful or dominating as previous years, he takes with him a store of experience and inspiration which will be almost impossible to replace. 

Henderson, the vice-captain, has spoken about filling the void left by the captain.  He has the enthusiasm and the work ethic required, but he’s not yet a world class player like Gerrard and, honestly, it’s not clear that he has the ability to become one.  That’s not to diminish Henderson’s contribution to Liverpool, which has been considerable.

Emre Can shows enormous potential, but Rodgers cannot decide how best to accommodate his skills.  Can played most games this season as a third centre-back, but at times looked uncomfortable defending.  In midfield, by contrast, he appears happier but is too often caught on the ball.  The German can almost certainly become an important player for Liverpool, but first his role has to be determined.

One of the chief criticisms of the team this year has been its inability to score goals.  With Sturridge injured, Rodgers was left only with Rickie Lambert, Mario Balotelli and Fabio Borini as conventional strikers.  None of this misfiring trio was able to establish himself in the first eleven.  As a result, Rodgers often used Raheem Sterling as a makeshift centre-forward, or, latterly, played Philippe Coutinho in the position known fashionably as ‘the false nine’.

The Brazilian’s creativity should surely be the hub of any Liverpool line-up next season, but he still needs proper strikers to feed.  Belgian international, Divock Origi, joins the club next year, but it’s worth remembering that he only recently ended a six month goal drought at Lille and isn’t regarded as a conventional centre-forward.  Top of Liverpool’s summer shopping list will be at least one goal-scoring striker. 

The club will have to do plenty of business in the transfer market this summer and the only question most supporters are asking is who should oversee the rebuilding exercise.  Should FSG give Brendan Rodgers a stiff talking to at the ‘end of season review’ or tell him to look for another job?

A lot of fans have made up their minds already, but I’m still undecided.

There’s a lot I like about the way Rodgers goes about his work.  He’s pragmatic and flexible about changing personnel and tactics; he encourages young players and reportedly works hard in training to improve their skills; he also seems to value and respect the history and traditions of Liverpool FC.

Conversely, his tendency to experiment with different line-ups and formations can seem like indecision or even cluelessness.  Sometimes, his readiness to give the media a quote borders on self-promotion and he doesn’t always appear to grasp the seriousness of a bad defeat.  Most seriously, there are concerns about his judgement in the transfer market.

Liverpool’s recruitment policy is famously implemented by a ‘transfer committee’, which includes chief executive, Ian Ayre and other officials, as well as Rodgers.  This body has allowed the manager to escape some of the blame for bad signings, but he is an important member and must have had significant input into the club’s investments.

Since arriving at Liverpool in June 2012, Rodgers has overseen one genuinely successful transfer window.  That was during January 2013, when Coutinho and Sturridge were added to the playing staff. 

Last summer the club spent £117 million on players, none of whom established themselves as unquestionable assets to the first team.  The arrivals included unqualified failures, (Dejan Lovren £20 million, Rickie Lambert £4.5million, Mario Balotelli £16 million), signings who seemed hugely overpriced and have not yet proved otherwise (Adam Lallana £25 million, Alberto Moreno £12 million) and young talent which may or may not eventually prove good enough (Lazar Markovic £20 million, Emre Can £9.8 million).

It’s likely that there will be lots more transfer activity this summer but it remains to be seen whether this will involve the owners ploughing significant sums of money into the squad or whether the manager will be expected to fund signings largely by selling players like Sterling and cutting wages. 

In either scenario, a manager will be required to recruit the right players and deploy them in the right formation to qualify for the Champions League and, preferably, win a trophy.  That will involve either having a firm idea of the system that he should play and the determination to buy personnel to operate it, or having the ability to find exceptional talent on the transfer market, then developing quickly the most effective tactical system to suit those players.


Is Brendan Rodgers the man to fulfil the task?  It’s possible, but I’m far from convinced.  If Rodgers fails to persuade Mike Gordon, president of the Fenway Sports Group, then he could be out of a job.  

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Demonising Russia won't stop bloodshed in the Ukraine

Despite a ceasefire agreement, signed in Minsk last week, the Ukrainian president, Petro Poreshenko, and his supporters apparently have ‘no doubt’ that the United States will provide their armed forces with weapons to fight anti-government insurgents in south-eastern Ukraine.  There appears to be an increased appetite among belligerent advisers in Washington to escalate a crisis which has caused devastation for civilians in the region. 

Providing the Kiev regime with weapons, openly, would likely transform a deadly civil war, complicated by the Ukraine’s delicate geo-political situation, into a genuine proxy conflict between the US and Russia.
 
Recently, I read Richard Sakwa’s masterful book, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands.  It’s a serious, academic analysis, which makes a change from polemical journalism cheering on one side or another in the war.  One of its important contentions is that the conflict, including the economic sanctions and breakdown in relationships, is one result of ‘the decay of contemporary diplomacy’. 

‘Abusive and condemnatory rhetoric took the place of rational debate’.

That tendency is continuing apace, despite the Minsk agreement.  Michael Fallon, the UK defence minister, has made pre-emptive noises about Russia ‘destabilising’ the Baltic States by promoting ethnic tensions in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.    It’s an interesting claim in some respects, because it rests on the fact that exclusive, nationalist regimes in those countries continue to foster discontent among their minority, Russian speaking populations.

Statements from both Washington and London, in particular, demonise Vladimir Putin, ignore  grievances of people in eastern Ukraine and gloss over the origins and character of the regime in Kiev.  Reports on the television and in newspapers, with very few exceptions, echo the same themes.  There is little emphasis on the scale of human tragedy engulfing south eastern Ukraine or how it could have been prevented.

Sakwa’s book identifies two separate but closely related crises, which have plunged the country into political turmoil and then into war.  Firstly, he says that there is a ‘Ukrainian crisis’ - the ongoing struggle between nationalists, who want to create a mono-cultural, Ukrainian speaking nation, within the Ukraine’s current boundaries, and pluralists, who want a state which reflects different cultural and linguistic traditions, particularly Russian culture and the Russian language.  The former he describes as ‘monist’.  This first strand is complicated by ongoing competition for power between oligarchs in the Ukraine, which he believes underlies many political clashes that are then coloured with a more ideological hue.   

Secondly, there is a ‘Ukraine crisis’.  This is the wider, geopolitical tug of war, between Russia and the west, which has taken place since the break-up of the Soviet Union.  Recently, it involved an attempt to bring the Ukraine into the orbit of the EU (and, by implication, Atlantic security arrangements), the finance and support of ‘regime change’ in Kiev and the installation of a government along the ‘monist’ model.  Moscow has responded with its own measures, designed to protect its strategic interests, including using forces based in Crimea to secure the peninsula and subsequently incorporating it into Russia.  It has also provided moral and strategic support, the extent of which it contests, to the anti-Kiev forces in eastern Ukraine.

If you want to read about the origins and the histories of these two crises since 1991, the breakdown of relationships which led to war and intrigues between Ukrainian oligarchs, I’d urge you to read Frontline Ukraine.  I want only to touch upon a couple of related points, as regards the latest developments around Minsk, as well as the way in which the conflict has been reported.

Most strikingly, there’s the failure of either western media or western politicians to acknowledge the ‘Ukrainian’ dimension of the war. 

The forces in eastern Ukraine, or Novorossiya, as leaders in Donetsk and Lugansk prefer, are referred to as ‘pro-Russian’, ‘Russian backed’ or even, simply, ‘Russian’.  The implication is that they have no agency of their own, that they don’t tap into real grievances about the legitimacy or policies of the authorities in Kiev and that they can therefore play no part in resolving the crisis.  The breakdowns of the ceasefire so far have been blamed on ‘pro-Russian separatists’ in Debaltsevo, while the Ukrainian army’s continued bombardment of Donetsk has been largely ignored, or the source of 'shelling' not specified.

This attitude is one of the biggest obstacles to brokering peace, or even a resilient ceasefire, in Ukraine.  The current government in Kiev has refused, for the most part, to talk directly to rebel leaders, relying instead on back-channels and intermediaries, like former president, Leonid Kuchma.  

It's an analysis which also encourages the assumption that President Putin has the authority or influence to bring fighting to a halt whenever the fancy takes him; a view which ignores the complicated relationship between Moscow and Novorossiya, as well as changes within the Novorossiyan leadership.

In the eyes of many of his so-called ‘proxies’, Putin has not done nearly enough to protect people in the Donbass from an aggressive, nationalistic Ukrainian army and there has been a 'Ukrainising' of leaders in Donetsk and Lugansk..
 
It’s impossible to gauge accurately from so far away whether opposition to the new Kiev government has hardened into genuine popular separatism across the region.  We do know that after President Yanukovych was forced to flee Kiev, demands from the east were relatively modest.  A degree of autonomy, formal recognition of the Russian language and, as conflict developed, an amnesty for fighters, would have satisfied most ordinary people from Donbass. 

Neither were anxieties about the legitimacy of the new authorities unfounded. 

The American Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, explicitly stated that the US government spent $5 billion on encouraging ‘regime change’ in Kiev.  A leaked tape also revealed that she discussed the composition of the new Kiev government, before it was formed.    Quietly, the sequence of events which led to protests in Independence Square, or Maidan, turning violent has been revised, even by media in the UK.  It seems likely that snipers from Right Sector, the virulently nationalist group which provided the shock troops of the ‘revolution’, fired the first shots. 

The important point is that, to most of the world, it is not evident necessarily that the US and its allies have a unique right to subvert governments that they don’t like and work to replace them with something more amenable. 

The character of the new Kiev regime caused understandable distress in regions where there were cultural affinities with Russia and where Russian was spoken.  One of the first acts of the new Ukrainian parliament was to attempt to repeal a law allowing regions to designate Russian as a second regional language.  The president continues to insist that Ukraine is a ‘unitary state’, where Ukrainian is the only official tongue.  

Ukrainian neo-Nazis have been part of the government, from its inception, and are disproportionately influential in the armed forces, with nationalist militias accorded official status within the Ukraine's military.  The ‘social nationalist’, Andriy Parubiy, who led Right Sector violence at Maidan, became security chief in the new government and now leads a military unit.

There is a civil war in Donbass, caused by genuine grievances, anxieties and problems, among people who speak Russian and often have cultural affinities with Russia but who, for the most part, were happy to be part of Ukraine, until its democratically elected government was forcibly removed.  Continuing to ignore their existence and their concerns can only prolong the conflict. 

It is also unhelpful to demonise every country which does not support the US / EU view of geo-politics.  Washington and Brussels might see pouring billions of pounds into ‘civil society’ groups which are explicitly anti-Russian, in countries which have cultural, linguistic and historical links to Russia, as ‘democracy building’, but it’s hardly surprising, nor is it unreasonable, that Moscow doesn’t share that view. 

Sakwa argues very powerfully that Putin has reacted to events in the Ukraine, rather than orchestrating them.  He also believes that expansion of the European Union didn't worry Moscow unduly, until EU and Nato defence policy became inseparably entwined; a position which was formalised by the Lisbon Treaty.    

In these contexts, Russia’s decision to annex Crimea, opportunistically and at the request of its residents, was a rational act of self-defence.  Sevastopol is home of the Russian Black Sea fleet, the peninsula is inhabited, overwhelmingly, by Russians and losing it to Nato was unthinkable.

The pro-Russia argument is that Cold War attitudes in ‘the West’ have yet to be decommissioned, leading to the current conflict in the Ukraine.  Nato has expanded aggressively into former Soviet territory and now aspires to advance into historic Russian heartlands, right along the borders of the current Russian Federation and well within its sphere of cultural and linguistic influence.  It is an organisation aimed at surrounding and containing Russia and it poses a direct security threat to Moscow, as well as an existential threat to Russian speakers and Russian culture.

You don’t need to accept this theory to be uncomfortable with the West’s portrayal of Vladimir Putin as a modern-day Hitler, or to lament the media’s failure to explore both sides of the civil war in the Ukraine.  You don't need to accept that Moscow hasn't had a single member of personnel west of the border, to question whether the 'pro-Russia' forces are made up predominately of Russian soldiers.  Why are so many people, who have no particular knowledge of or even interest in the region, rushing to take Kiev's side?    

Bloodshed in a neighbour, common to both Russia and EU countries, is a shared responsibility.  It’s likely to be stopped only by a genuine spirit of partnership, between the US, Russia and the EU, encouraging compromise between the warring sides  It could become much worse with the introduction of new weapons, the continued abuse of silly historical analogies and politicians demonising either party to the conflict.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Belfast Arctic veterans receive honour from Russian government



This morning, in Belfast, I was privileged to witness veterans of the Arctic Convoys receiving the Ushakov Medal, from Russia’s ambassador to the UK.  This honour is the culmination of a lengthy campaign to recognise the brave servicemen who risked ice floes and U-boat attack, to bring vital supplies to the Soviet Union, during World War 2. 

The British government presented veterans with the Arctic Star, belatedly, in 2012.  Before that, rather shamefully, there was no medal for taking part in the convoys. 

It also took some time before the Foreign Office would allow the Russian government to show its appreciation for the servicemen.  The Medal of Ushakov was first presented to British sailors in June 2013, when Vladimir Putin and David Cameron conducted a ceremony, during the Russian President’s visit to London.

Most of the surviving seamen who crewed the convoys are now in their nineties.  The event in Belfast was a poignant occasion, with many proud family members in attendance, as the veterans’ bravery was recognised after so many years.  Obviously an enormous number of servicemen received no award during their lifetimes, for their part in resupplying the Soviet Union.

The convoys are not one of the more celebrated aspects of the war, in the UK.  However they claimed the lives of some 3,000 men and they were vital in keeping open the eastern front.  It was this bloody war of attrition, between the USSR and Germany, which eventually broke the Nazi army and made arguably the greatest contribution to eventual Allied victory.

A lack of recognition for the convoys was influenced by the Cold War which followed World War 2.  The Soviet Union was viewed principally as an enemy, rather than a former ally, from the late 1940s. 

Even seventy years later, it’s important that the part which the convoys played in defeating Germany is recognised.  It’s also heartening that the Russian and British governments can now mark and celebrate a shared history of struggle against Nazism. 

The two countries have often had a difficult relationship, but hopefully the Ushakov Medal ceremonies can help to build mutual understanding and respect between the UK and Russia.     

Saturday, 23 August 2014

From Protest to Power - a snapshot of the Democratic Unionist Party

The Democratic Unionist Party is firmly established as Northern Ireland’s biggest political party and its dominance of Ulster unionism is no longer disputed.  However there are surprisingly few books which make a serious attempt to explain the DUP’s success or describe the political beliefs which motivate its members.  From Protest to Power sets out to fill that gap.

Jonathan Tonge et al’s book is not a party history, aimed at the casual reader.  This is an academic work, with a price-tag to match.  If you want a more lurid account of the DUP, from its origins in Ian Paisley’s protest politics, through to involvement with a ‘third force’ and on to the downfall of its founder and leader for 37 years, you’re probably best to look elsewhere.

Its publisher, Oxford University Press, describes From Protest to Power as the ‘first ever survey of the Democratic Unionist Party’.  The backbone of the book is extensive research into the attitudes, backgrounds and beliefs of 1,600 members and over 100 interviews with political representatives, activists and advisers from the party.  It is a portrait of the DUP, as it is today, as well as an analysis of how the profile of its membership and its politics are changing.

The authors’ findings are sometimes predictable and sometimes surprising. 

Their research confirms that the influence of the Free Presbyterian church within the DUP’s senior ranks is disproportionate, considering the tiny number of congregants in Northern Ireland.  ‘Free Ps’ still make up 30% of all members and over half the current set of MPs.   So the commonplace criticism that the party’s policy is guided by fringe evangelical Protestant theology is bolstered by quantifiable evidence. 

The DUP is considered deeply socially conservative, but the authors find that ‘religiosity’ is a more accurate guide then membership of a particular Protestant denomination, to individual members’ attitudes on social issues (non-Protestant members are practically non-existent).  They also suggest that the influence of Free Presbyterianism is beginning to wane, with the new wave of recruits who have joined the party since the Good Friday Agreement less likely to attend the church.

Many of the changes described in the book are inevitable consequences of the DUP becoming unionism’s largest party.  For instance, the Orange Order, which until 2005 was linked officially to the UUP, now has a strong presence in its political rival.  Over half of the DUP’s elected representatives belong to the Order, which may help to explain why issues around parading still command such overwhelming importance in Northern Ireland’s politics.

One of the most illuminating sections of the book deals with attitudes to identity within the party.  A lot of ink has been spilled and political hope invested in the growth of a feeling of ‘Northern Irishness’, particularly among young people, suggested by polls, surveys and the last census.  This trend is not reflected among members of Northern Ireland’s largest party.  In fact the authors found a great deal of hostility toward the Northern Irish identity, as well as an outright rejection of any trace of Irishness.

Many members seemed to view Northern Irishness as a threat to ‘Britishness’, even suggesting that the Northern Irish identity has been promoted deliberately by the Westminster and Dublin governments in order to undermine the British identity in Northern Ireland.  Although it was this British identity alone that most of the interviewees felt most keenly, many were strikingly inarticulate when they were asked to explain what this meant.

Some of the more impressive elected representatives, specifically those who had joined the party via the UUP, were able to cobble together a definition, based on allegiance to political institutions and cultural affiliations to the rest of the UK.  However the book also described a pronounced hostility to pan-UK politics, with DUP members suspicious of the Westminster government and sceptical about national parties’ involvement in Northern Ireland.

Although political analysis is not the core of From Protest to Power, the authors do highlight some aspects of the struggle within unionism, which culminated in Democratic Unionists becoming the dominant force.  The party’s pragmatism is highlighted and it is credited with negotiating prowess.  In particular, the book ascribes acts of decommissioning to the DUP’s uncompromising negotiating position and it also points to Sinn Féin’s decision to support the police, although it is acknowledged that both of these developments would probably have happened anyway.

The authors believe that the St Andrews’ Agreement, negotiated by the DUP, made the political institutions in Northern Ireland more accountable than had been ensured by the original Belfast Agreement.  They also point out that the fundamentals of the ‘Good Friday’ accord remained intact and Alex Kane’s dismissive verdict of St Andrews as ‘the Good Friday Agreement in a kilt’ is quoted with approval. 

Though From Protest to Power depicts a party which is changing, the change it portrays is glacially slow.  The DUP has a hard-edged, pragmatic leadership, whose priority is to maintain its dominance, but roots in extreme, religious conservatism still influence every aspect of Democratic Unionism. 

This is a party which has had to compromise to gain power and has been shaped by that transition.  It is bigger, looser, less dogmatic, but it is still slow to reflect changing attitudes in Northern Ireland society and it is resistant to those changes.

The book is a useful snapshot of the DUP and its analysis provides some context for the party’s success.  However it should be viewed as a significant piece of research and not, by any means, as a narrative history of Paisleyism or Democratic Unionism. 

Friday, 15 August 2014

Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev - Review

Andrei Kurkov is Ukraine’s most famous author and he may be the best contemporary novelist writing in Russian.  His books are translated into beautifully simple, elegant English and ‘Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev’ has just been published by Random House. 

Kurkov’s first language is Russian and his novel, The Good Angel of Death, does a good job of lampooning Ukrainian nationalism.  However he is also a fervent supporter of the ‘Maidan’ protesters who overthrew President Yanukovych, in Kiev.

His diaries are an enjoyable, partial account of events in Ukraine between November 2013 and June 2014.  Kurkov has little empathy for countrymen who did not support the violence in the capital which deposed Yanukovych.  Nor does he include in his book any of the atrocities committed by nationalist militias, some of which are still taking lives in the Donetsk region, where the new regime is not generally accepted. 

Although he expresses some concerns about the conduct of Pravy Sektor neo-Nazis, he does not really acknowledge the darker aspects of Ukrainian revolution.  The only hint is an aside about his son, who disapproves of Maidanistas attacking the police and is ostracised by his classmates as a result. 

Still, this is a likeable and readable book.  It discusses the politics of the crisis in Ukraine,  but it also describes banal incidents of family life which take place against the backdrop of emerging civil war.  We read about Kurkov’s daughter using rising inflation as an excuse to demand more pocket money, for instance, or his son refusing to be parted from a tablet computer, while hiking up a Crimean mountain.

Ukraine Diaries is an entertaining personal account of a contemporary conflict, written in the capital, by an enthusiast for ‘Maidan’.  Although the author travels around western Ukraine as the war unfolds, his ‘dispatches’ do not come from the eastern and southern regions where the bulk of the killing takes place. 

He is fairly unabashed about his depiction of Russia as authoritarian and backward, while he sees western Europe as a model for a hopeful future in Ukraine.   He is boundlessly cynical about the motives and claims of the Kremlin and pro-Russians, yet incredulous that there might be any misconduct by the new regime in Kiev.

To his credit, Kurkov seems not to have cleaned up his observations with the benefit of hindsight.  The emotions provoked by events appear immediate and authentic.  He has also left in several predictions which proved to be inaccurate, in particular, insisting that 'there won't be a civil war', and quite a bit of overblown instant analysis.    

It is more enjoyable, for me at least, to read a well written book, like this, making an argument with which I don’t agree than a badly written book articulating a more amenable perspective.  Simply because Kurkov writes so beautifully, I thoroughly liked his diary.

Monday, 11 August 2014

No justification for World Cup boycott

David McCardle, at the ever stimulating Futbolgrad, asks whether western countries should boycott the 2018 World Cup, which is due to be played in Russia.  He writes quite a complicated article, arguing that the competition is likely to cause popular protests against Vladimir Putin’s regime.

I’m unsure about how realistic that notion is.  The Sochi Winter Olympics were outrageously expensive, but didn’t prompt threatening demonstrations and Russia is not Brazil.  A stronger argument for refusing to boycott the Russian World Cup is simply that a boycott would be wrong.

So far the most prominent voices suggesting such action are either chauvinist American politicians, like John McCain, or English people who still harbour hopes that the tournament will be moved to England.

Ever since the decision was taken to stage football’s greatest spectacle in Russia there has been whinging in the UK media.  This is inspired, I suspect not by humanitarian concerns, but rather by resentment that England’s bid was not successful.

The fact that Russia is now embroiled in a Ukrainian civil war promoted by western money has no moral bearing on whether the competition should be held in that country.  Unlike Qatar, it is a country with a long football tradition.  It has also never staged the tournament before and it is prepared to invest hefty sums of money to ensure success.

Come 2018 visa restrictions will be waived and supporters heading to Russia will have a wonderful time.  There is no call to boycott the Russian World Cup and there is certainly no justification for FIFA to consider a change of host.  

Friday, 1 August 2014

My favourite Liverpool XI

As a Liverpool supporter, it’s hard to summon up any resentment toward Luis Suarez, even though he’s now decided to pursue his career in Spain.  Kenny Dalglish signed the controversial striker from Ajax for £22.8 million, back in January 2011, and the club recouped about £75 million through this summer’s transfer to Barcelona. 

In the intervening three and a half seasons, Suarez scored almost 70 goals, most of them sublime, becoming, in the process, arguably the greatest player to pull on the red shirt.  He didn’t spoil his relationship with Liverpool fans by joining another Premier League club and, as well as enough money to buy a large part of Southampton’s squad, he left memories which will fuel many decades of pub-bore conversations.

He’ll always be one of my favourite players, unless he does something utterly daft, like signing for Man United, and his departure got me thinking about who else might make up a completely subjectively picked XI of crowd favourites, from across the years. 

I’ve compiled my personal selection, below.  Just to emphasise, this is not an attempt to pick the best possible team out of the many talented footballers who have represented Liverpool.  It is simply a list of the players who I enjoyed watching most, or for whom I have the greatest affection. 

It is slanted unashamedly toward players I can remember clearly, rather than those who won the most medals.  It doesn’t contain anyone who played before the late 1980s, most of the team were at their peak from the mid-90s onwards and it doesn’t include Michael Owen. 

The XI isn’t chosen for tactical balance either, although it is arranged roughly in the 4-4-2 formation, without any wing-backs or ‘false 9s’, because that is the way in which The Almighty intended football to be played.
 
GOALKEEPER

Let’s be honest, even when Liverpool dominated Europe, goalkeeper was never a particularly easy position to fill.  Bruce Grobbelaar provided the archetype of the eccentric, erratic ‘custodian’ beloved of journalists in Shoot magazine.  Every now and again he would make a particularly outrageous error and get replaced, for a game or two, by Mike Hooper, who was less extravagant, less unpredictable and also had much less talent.

Liverpool has had some solid goalkeepers since those days.  Brad Friedel was not known for conspicuous mistakes and Pepe Reina had a number of flawless years, before errors began to creep into his performances.  Nevertheless, there have also been a series of less convincing players in this position.  David James, who explained one howler with reference to late night video-game sessions, Sander Westerveld, Chris Kirkland and Pegguy Arphexad.

My choice is in the Grobbelaar / James / (Mingolet?) tradition of unpredictable Liverpool goalkeepers.  Jerzy Dudek became immortal after his wobbly legged performance during the 2005 Champions League final.  The Pole was also a talented keeper, who, at 41 and having retired, is probably still better than his execrable countryman Artur Boruc.

Jerzy Dudek just pips Jose Reina for my no.1 jersey.

RIGHT BACK

No, Glen Johnson is not a contender.  The two possible choices who just bubbled under were Steve Finnan, a reliable southern Irish full-back, and Marcus Babbel, whose solid defending and attacking forays were important assets to Liverpool, before he contracted a rare illness, which forced him to miss an entire season and join Blackburn Rovers.

My selection also suffered a shortened career.

Rob Jones was a classic, old school Liverpool buy, signing from Crewe Alexandra before becoming the best player, in his position, in the league.  By all accounts he was no intellectual, acquiring the nickname ‘Trigger’, which British footballers bestow habitually on their less academic colleagues.  However there was nothing dim about his defending.  In his first Liverpool match he neutralised the young Ryan Giggs. 

Jones was eventually released, due to persistent injury problems, which prevented him from fulfilling his potential and being recognised as one of Liverpool’s greatest ever defenders.

LEFT BACK

The left side of defence has been another problem position for Liverpool over many years.  Last season Aly Cissokho was drafted in on loan to provide cover for Jose Enrique and soon became one of the most heavily criticised players in the squad.  Enrique’s injury meant that John Flanagan, who is naturally right footed, also deputised at left-back. 

My choice for this position is Jean Arne Riise (oooh aaah).  The marauding Norwegian had a vicious left foot, which made him a potent attacking threat for Liverpool.  His shots, free-kicks and corners were a vital part of the team’s armoury for most of the previous decade.
 
Unfortunately Riise’s Liverpool career ended sadly, with an own goal helping Chelsea to win the Champions League semi-final in 2008.  He was sold to AS Roma in the summer, following that incident.  I still believe that the transfer was too hasty.  He returned subsequently to the Premier League, with Fulham, and became one of the strongest players in their side.

CENTRE-BACKS

I have only hazy childhood memories of Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson, so my two centre-backs were very easy to pick.  Jamie Carragher developed from a raw youth, who was once sent off for throwing a coin into the crowd at Arsenal, and became Liverpool’s most reliable defender. 

Without his heroics in the 2005 Champions League campaign, Liverpool would not have been champions of Europe.  Indeed, with Steven Gerrard, Carragher was the beating Scouse heart of the squad for a number of years.  He now forms part of Sky Sport’s much celebrated analysis team, with an old adversary, Gary Neville.

My second central-defender is Sami Hyppia.  Liverpool invested £2.9 million in the Finn and it proved to be one of the most successful pieces of business which the club transacted in modern times.  Hyppia spent 10 years at Liverpool and was a classy fixture in the centre of defence, as well as a source of headed goals at the other end of the pitch. 

CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS

The first part of the central midfield pairing is also easy to select.  On many occasions Steven Gerrard picked Liverpool up by the scruff of the neck and carried the team to victory, practically by himself.  Most famously, the captain inspired a comeback against AC Milan in the Champions League final.

Gerrard’s thrusting runs have been a feature of Liverpool’s play since the 1990s, although Brendan Rodgers asked him to play deeper last season.  Some supporters questioned his ability to operate in the new role initially, but he soon won them over.    

His severest critics (who support rival clubs and are jealous) will say that he hasn’t reproduced his club form for England, particularly at major tournaments.  Frankly, who cares?  They’ also claim that he gives the ball away too frequently, attempting ambitious long-range passes, rather than keeping it simple.  These are the type of people who understand football chiefly by playing Football Manager on their PCs or reading statistics provided by Opta.  Anyone with any feeling for the game knows that Gerrard is a genuine match-winner, which is a priceless commodity on the football field. 

It’s more difficult to select a partner for Steven, in midfield.  There are a lot of candidates, none more impressive than Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, who formed part of what Liverpool supporters described as ‘the best midfield in the world’, a number of years ago. 

If I had a substitutes’ bench those two would certainly be on it, but I’ve plumped for another ‘character’, the German-Scouser, Didi Hamann.  He may have liked a cigarette (reputedly) and a drink with his great mates Stevie and Jamie, but he was a classy midfielder in his own right and a World Cup finalist.        

Let’s not forget, either, that he watched the first half of the 2005 Champions League final from the bench, and joined the action at half-time, just as the famous come-back got underway.

LEFT WING

I’ve delved further into the past to select my left winger.  That’s because, as a child, the player who made most impression on me was John Barnes.  He wasn’t the slimmest forward on the park, but he glided past defenders with consummate ease.  As a result, when I kicked a ball around the garden, providing my own commentary, I was most often John Barnes, masterminding an unlikely 5-4 defeat of Manchester United in the FA Cup final.

Even as he became older, slower and chunkier, throughout the 1990s, Barnes’ class was apparent.  He was deployed less frequently on the wing, but he had the deft touch and intelligence to find space infield, on a pitch filled with younger, faster and less injury-prone players.  “He’s beaten one, two, three defenders.  Johhny Barnes scores an incredible goal and Liverpool have won The World Club Cup for the tenth time!”  *wheels away from 7’ by 3’ goal and capers across the garden, jumping and punching the air*

RIGHT WING

The ‘Spice Boys’ era at Liverpool became notorious during the 1996 FA Cup final.  After prancing around the playing surface in flashy white suits, prior to kick off, the team capitulated to bitter rivals, Manchester United, conceding a late goal, scored by Eric Cantona.  Horrendous memories.

However the team also contained some bright, young English talent.  Steve McManaman was synonymous with that side and he was also one of its most impressive stars.

Like Barnes, McManaman practised the old-fashioned art of dribbling with rare skill.  He could look lanky and ungainly, but his close control was exceptional and he often made defenders appear very silly.  As a result he was one of the Premier League’s most feared creative players in the early to mid 90s, even though, ultimately, he didn’t win enough medals at Liverpool.

STRIKERS

So who should play up front with Suarez?

I’ve ruled out Ian Rush for two reasons.  Firstly, I do not remember well his initial, highly successful spell at Liverpool, when he was the most prolific finisher in the Football League.  Secondly, I do remember clearly his less lethal period, after he’d come back from Juventus.  Rush was certainly still a top class striker, but he competed with John Aldridge and others for a starting place and he struggled with injury.

Aldridge was another great goalscorer, but he was also one of Jack Charlton’s leading ‘Plastic Paddies’ and he has talked some nonsense about international football over the years.  

I would have liked to find space for Peter Beardsley, whom I remember most fondly taking apart Nottingham Forest on a couple of occasions and starring in Liverpool’s 9-0 demolition of Crystal Palace.  However, no XI of 'fan favourites' would be complete without the man Liverpool supporters nicknamed ‘God’.

Robbie Fowler had barely started his career at Anfield when he scored 5 goals in a 5-0 League Cup victory against Fulham.  He averaged more than a goal every two games during his first spell at Liverpool and was a key part of Gerard Houllier’s famous ‘treble’ team, which won the FA, League and UEFA Cups in 2001.

Simply, he was a player whose positioning and instinct for scoring goals were unmatched by any other centre-forward.  
              
A recap:
1.       Dudek
2.     R Jones
3.      Riise
4.      Hyppia
5.       /23  Carragher
6.       Hamann
7.       McManaman
8.       Steven Gerrard
9.      Fowler
10.   Suarez
11.   Barnes

So that’s my (completely subjective) favourite 11.  Please feel free to comment, criticise or share your own selection.  

Monday, 28 July 2014

MH17 passengers victims of a preventable war

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Cuba - not the easiest place from which to follow world news.  The internet is restricted and slow, wifi scarcely exists and the English language edition of the island’s only daily newspaper, Granma, publishes mainly stagnant propaganda on behalf of the Castro brothers. 

As a result, I’ve had to catch up with the tragic story of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which crashed in eastern Ukraine on its scheduled route between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur, resulting in almost 300 deaths.  Western countries and the current authorities in Kiev claim that the passenger plane was struck by a missile fired by ‘pro-Russian’ forces and supplied by Russia.  These allegations are refuted by the separatists and have drawn a flat denial from the government in Moscow.

For the time being, it is difficult to determine the exact truth.  Investigators from the Netherlands are struggling to access the crash site, which lies in territory fiercely contested by both sides in Ukraine’s civil war.  It is certainly likely enough that the plane was mistaken for a Ukrainian military aircraft and shot down.  It is also possible that the US government is manipulating intelligence information, to distort aspects of the incident deliberately, for propaganda purposes.

Whatever the precise details, this loss of life is another tragic result of war.  The eastern part of Ukraine has become an out and out warzone within Europe, with all the dreadful consequences which that entails.  There are dangers now in the air above the contested region, as well as on the ground.  Human Rights Watch says that forces loyal to the facto government in Kiev have been launching unguided Grad missiles aimed at suburbs around Donetsk and at the weekend there were reports of more civilian casualties.

War causes chaos, misery and death, often indiscriminately and almost always impacting civilians directly.  Its effects can easily spill out beyond the confines of the warzone.

It is easy to cast Vladimir Putin as the villain whose nationalist ambitions have plunged Ukraine into anarchy and Russia’s opportunism when it annexed Crimea was one of the defining moments of the crisis.  However, it was not Putin's government that sponsored ‘regime change’ on the streets of Kiev, targeting a President who was, for all his faults, elected democratically.

Ukrainians, whether they look to Washington or Moscow, are victims of governments which have used them as the rope in a political ‘tug of war’, resulting in a vicious civil conflict.  They have been joined now in their victimhood by the passengers of flight MH17.  

Monday, 7 July 2014

Northern Ireland blogging nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

I spent a little while over the weekend slimming down the ‘blog roll’ of websites on the right hand side of this page.  The majority of links were either defunct or more or less disused.  It made me think, if the ‘weblog’ is not dying, its best days are certainly behind it. 

Of course, my own site has become a fitful affair.  There are times when a visitor might expect to see tumbleweed blow across their screen, rather than a fresh new article, and when I do post, the number of hits is negligible. 

I’ve never had an enormous interest in theoretical discussions about blogging as a medium.  Personally, if I hadn’t written blog-posts, I would have written something else.  I would have pitched my material to newspapers, or offered articles to magazines, or squirreled them away in notebooks.

I didn’t start a blog because I wanted to be a blogger.  I started a blog because I enjoyed writing.

Still, all those dead and dismembered links caused more than a twinge of nostalgia.  Five years ago, when Three Thousand Versts was short-listed for the Orwell Prize, there was a rich network of blogs writing about politics in Northern Ireland.  Most of them are no longer active. 

On the pro-Union side, A Pint of Unionist Lite is gone, but not forgotten.  O’Neill’s informative and interesting posts remain available online, although the site is disused.  The same is true of Everything Ulster, although beano’s ‘EU hiatus’ has lasted now for over six years.  Burke’s Corner, which tackled philosophy and politics from a Burkean perspective, has attracted a squatter, while Redemption’s Son left behind few traces.  Its writer, Richard Cairns, like Lee Reynolds, the author of Ultonia, has moved on to bigger and better things.  Nothing remains of the hilarious Bobballs either, so far as I can see.

There were many others too.  It took quite a deal of virtual pruning to get rid of them all.  Some were good, lively sites but others were fairly boring party political blogs - little more than adverts for aspiring politicians.

On the nationalist side there is a similar pattern.  El Blogador has disappeared.  Splintered Sunrise, once very regularly updated, has remained dormant since 2012.  O’Conall Street didn’t outlive the political career of its writer, Conall McDevitt. 

Nationally, the picture is not much different.  Even the ‘blogfather’, Iain Dale, closed down his celebrated Iain Dale’s Diary, in 2011, although he does have a very slick site elsewhere which includes blogposts, but is more of a shop window for his media empire.

I’m not sure the closure of so many blogs indicates a lack of interest in the topics they cover.  It has more to do with social media and the trajectory of debate online.  Many websites and discussion forums have struggled or closed down altogether because the focus of readers and posters has switched to Twitter.  That’s unfortunate, because blogs allow for longer and more thoughtful writing.

Before the internet, to make a contribution to a debate, usually through a newspaper, magazine or journal, the writer had to order and present his or her thoughts so that an editor would deem them publishable.  The web ensured that anyone could contribute, but, with blogs and, to a lesser extent, forums, to attract readers and to get them to read your post, it had to be more or less readable.

Twitter, by contrast, allows people to spill their guts, instantly, about any topic.  There’s no price whatsoever to offering up your opinion to the masses.  You don’t need any knowledge, you don’t need to write especially coherently and you certainly don’t need to have anything worth saying.  It takes next to no mental effort - just two working fingers and an electronic device.

I suppose we should celebrate the ‘democratisation’ of debate, or some similar mumbo-jumbo.  After all, on Twitter and Facebook, one person’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s, irrespective of expertise, knowledge or intellectual capacity.   

There was, however, an element of excitement about being among the first wave of weblogs to capture attention in Northern Ireland, which it would be a pity to forget.  Those blogs formed something of a network of ideas, with bloggers bouncing off each other’s posts, debates taking place across multiple sites and playing out over many thousands of words.         

What it all amounted to, who knows?  But it was fun, while it lasted.

To the retired bloggers; wouldn’t it be great if it could all happen again someday?  To the survivors who keep plugging away, fair play, but it’s just not the same as it used to be.

Disclaimer: Just because I didn't mention your blog, doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy it!  Either you're still blogging or it slipped my mind!  

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The US never has been and never will be a football country

Why have so many neutrals been supporting the USA in this World Cup?  There is a natural tendency to back an underdog, but remember that the United States contains 330 million people. 

Some people clearly think, deep down, that the greatest sport in the world needs to be endorsed by Americans, to have truly global credentials.  Let’s be clear, the fact that the United States has never taken to football is a reflection on that country's sporting predilictions, rather than the greatest game in the world.

The US took over 90 minutes to be beaten by a small European nation with an average World Cup pedigree and that has now been taken as some type of triumph.  It really isn’t.

Football has no need to proselytise.  It already is the world’s game.  It has no requirement to expand into any new territories, because the ‘new territories’ are the freakish exception, rather than the rule. 

Meanwhile, sport in the US is generally a poor spectacle.  ‘World’ competitions span one country, cobbled out of dreadful stop-start pass-times, brought to prominence because they allow television advertisers a great deal of time to flog their wares.  Baseball may have some merits, but gridiron?   

Let them get on with it.  Football doesn’t need the US, nor does it need Qatar.  It is a sport founded on tradition, where the allegiance of supporters passes through generations.  Its heartlands are in Europe, South America, Africa, parts of Central America and parts of Asia.  There, the faithful will not be dissuaded by the vagaries of a single tournament.

If you have been supporting 'that' country and you are a genuine supporter from elsewhere, you ought to have known better. It isn’t a football nation and it never will be.  Americans will always call the sport ‘soccer’.  They’ll always associate it with teenage girls.  They’ll continue to prefer their ridiculous pass-times.  Let them get on with it. 

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Ukraine - sorrow the sensible reaction

One year ago, Ukraine had its problems, but it was stable and peaceful.  Twelve months later, the east and the south of the country are ravaged by civil war, while the Crimean Peninsula has become part of Russia.  The lowest estimates suggest that over 300 people have died so far during the conflict, and the BBC reports that over 14,000 refugees have fled the fighting and crossed the Russian border.

The turmoil which has engulfed Ukraine, since President Yanukovych fled the country following protests and violence in Kiev, is, above all, desperately sad.  From the Rada's declaration of independence in 1991, until the latter part of 2013, the country’s fractious, fragmented politics remained peaceful, barring the odd bout of fisticuffs in parliament.  The new nation state managed to span, more or less successfully, a complicated patchwork of cultural identities, languages and political affiliations.

The two sides in the civil war now badly need a little time and some common ground in which to shape an accommodation.  While the situation in Ukraine is confused and confusing, it is clear that months of propaganda and demonisation, from either side, have had a polarising effect.

This week there were developments offering some hope for compromise.  Following President Poroshenko’s proposal of a ceasefire, successful talks with ‘pro-Russia’ leaders took place in Donetsk.  The Guardian claims that this truce has been patchily observed so far, but Russia took further steps to ease tension, yesterday, when Vladimir Putin asked the Duma in Moscow to withdraw its permission for Russian troops to intervene in the Ukrainian crisis.

The new President in Ukraine is reported to have a peace plan.  It is said to be based on an amnesty for ‘rebel fighters’ and a degree of autonomy for the eastern regions of the country. 

If Poroshenko does make proposals along these lines, they would be relatively close to measures which Moscow believed could reconcile eastern Ukrainians with the new government in Kiev, toward the beginning of the crisis.  It is a tragedy that it has taken so many more months of bloodshed, hate-mongering and, now, civil war, to reach this point.  

If ever there were a time for governments in the US and EU to exercise a moderating and calming influence, it is now.  Poroshenko should be nudged along the road of dialogue and compromise, rather than encouraged to attempt to defeat militarily the various pro-Russian groups based in eastern Ukraine.

It is endlessly tempting to take a partisan or simplistic view of the Ukrainian civil war, based on pre-conceived notions about Russia, but it is also unhelpful and unenlightening.  The situation remains complicated, contradictory and difficult to decode, particularly from a distance. 

There is an increasing body of evidence which disproves the notion that groups in Slavyansk, Donetsk and other pro-Russian strongholds are waging a proxy campaign on Putin’s behalf.  Watch the Sunday Tomes journalist, Mark Franchetti, confound his hosts on a Ukrainian discussion show, by refusing to back up propaganda about ‘Russian’ militias.  Read Julia Ioffe, a seasoned critic of Putin, admitting that everything about the war is shrouded in confusion. 

Ukraine has a legitimate grievance about Russia’s annexation of Crimea, an act of opportunism which stoked separatism in other regions.  However the ‘counter-terrorist’ operation launched by Kiev against pro-Russian protesters has left a trail of civilian dead in Odessa, Mariupol and Slavyansk which has also nourished separatist feeling.

Many Ukrainians in western and central Ukraine are convinced, no doubt genuinely, that Russia is fighting a war of conquest against its troops, in the east of the country.  Many Ukrainians and Russians in the east and south believe, equally sincerely, that ‘fascist’ militias, fired up by extreme nationalism, are pursuing a campaign of genocide aimed at ensuring a mono-cultural, mono-lingual state, within Ukraine’s existing borders.

No doubt there have been incidents in the grubby, bloody fog of civil war which lend legitimacy to both of these viewpoints.  Unfortunately, rather than urge calm and moderation, politicians and media in ‘the West’ and Russia have been inclined to inflame the situation by encouraging one or other perception.  It’s a dangerous game, to which a range of commentators have contributed.

For instance, read Anne Applebaum, in a frankly disturbing article, championing the cause of Galician nationalism and dismissing the concerns of Ukrainians who are appalled by the influence of Pravyi Sektor and other far right nationalists in the new regime and its security forces.  More nationalism, rather than less is her perverse recipe for a successful Ukraine.

My gut feeling is that the only sensible reaction to the situation, from foreign observers, is genuine sorrow, rather than a rush to take sides.  The deterioration of protests in Kiev into a bloody coup and the subsequent slow descent into civil war are a national tragedy for Ukraine, as well as a serious emergency for the immediate region and the continent of Europe as a whole. 

The situation has been aggravated by powers in the west and Russia playing out their rivalries through Ukrainian politics.  The least people in Ukraine now deserve is a concerted international effort to promote peace and compromise as the basis of a solution, as well as a much more honest attempt to understand how political and cultural differences in the country have been allowed to cause violence.

Monday, 2 June 2014

The developing situation in Ukraine

A number of months on and after any number of possible pretexts, the predicted Russian intervention in eastern and southern Ukraine has not yet materialised. 

The most notorious blood-letting took place in Odessa, where thugs from Pravy Sektor and nationalist football hooligan gangs torched the House of Trade Unions along with many of the people inside, accompanied by allegations that police colluded in the incident. Russia also expressed its opposition in strong terms as Ukrainian forces killed up to 50 members of pro-Russian forces who were occupying the airport in Donetsk.  Its military, however, still did not get involved.
 
While the Kremlin has waged a propaganda war against the new regime in Kiev, which has been returned in kind, there is clear reluctance to become embroiled in any sort of conflict in eastern Ukraine.  There are even grounds to argue that, since its actions in the Crimean peninsula, Moscow has acted with surprising restraint.

Of course, the government in Kiev continues to allege that Russia is taking an active role in organising the uprising in parts of the east and south.  However there has been little verifiable evidence to sustain that allegation.
 
Meanwhile Vladimir Putin has indicated that he is prepared to deal with Petro Poroshenko, the Roshen chocolate tycoon who won a presidential election the legitimacy of which Moscow contests.  A map of Ukraine which shows turn-out figures, universally low in the east and south, illustrates graphically why there are such concerns.

The new President has not made rapprochement with Russia easy.  The bombardment of Donetsk airport happened before he was even inaugurated.  He has also cosied up to former Georgian Prime Minister, Mikheil Saakahsvili, whom Moscow regards as responsible for the war in 2008, and looked to create a joint military brigade with Poland and Lithuania, an act which will be interpreted as a statement of intent to join Nato.

The situation in eastern Ukraine, observed from distance, now bears many of the characteristics of civil war.  Atrocities have occurred on both sides and that can only cause attitudes to become more polarised.
 
There is a heavy responsibility on the EU, the US and Russia to use diplomacy and work toward an agreed solution.  If they continue to play out their geo-political rivalries in Ukraine, blood will continue to be shed.