Understanding of the post-Cold War era is at stake with Ukraine crisis

Alastair Stewart

Former ITV News presenter

A man stands next to a monument, with a Soviet-made tank at the top, near the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol Crimea Credit: Reuters

Last night's 'News at Ten' was the sort of bulletin I relish. Great correspondents in the field - James Mates in Crimea, Emma Murphy in Kiev and Robert Moore in Washington DC: not a loose cannon among them but a corps of focused, experienced fusiliers, on top of their games.

This morning a wave a Russian helicopter gun-ships had flown, low, across Ukraine towards Crimea; a warship, bristling with weaponry, cruised menacingly off the coast at Balaclava; and battalions of uniformed but not 'badged' militia seized the main airports of Crimea.

By mid-day, there had been little tangible resistance according to James. As he observed on News at Ten, that truth gave the signal to Moscow to send in the 'big boys' - reportedly 2,000 troops and some more 'green hard-ware' flown in by heavy-lifting air-force transporters.

As he and Emma reported, grave mutterings came from Ukraine's 'initiates' to Government - an acting President and a temporary Interior Minister, neither long in post, spoke of 'invasions of sovereign soil', of 'provocation' and 'aggression'. It is what they say on these occasions. There is little more they can say, let alone do.

Armed men patrol at the airport in Simferopol, Crimea. Credit: Reuters

In the late afternoon, Foreign Secretary Hague said he'd fly to Kiev on Sunday to talk to them. Reassurance, money, support, adherence to treaty obligations - and more of that sort of thing.

Shortly after 9pm came the word from the US that the President, the Commander in Chief, would hold a press conference.

Obama hadn't started when we went on air at 10pm. I'd written 'bongs' with and without him. We went with 'without'.

President Obama met with Russian President Putin at the G8 Summit in June 2013. Credit: G8

James and Emma then set the scene brilliantly; minutes later, up popped Obama. Twitter gave me the basics for an ad-lib intro to James for an 'up-sum' from Crimea which he did superbly.

That allowed us to go to Robert Moore and the President who confirmed the invasion, presumably having studied NSA & CIA satellite pictures and the dispatches of the brave men and women on the ground. He then talked of the 'consequences' of the invasion.

It was brief, matter of fact-ish but ended with a sting in the tail; a possible hostage to fortune. Robert, with but seconds to think and reflect, was masterful as is his want. He 'topped and tailed' the bit that mattered perfectly.

Then came the rest of the days news.

I was proud of what we did and now sit in the car, on the way home, reflecting.

Winston Churchill uses the phrase "the Iron Curtain," referring to the Soviet occupation of much of eastern Europe in this speech. Credit: PA Archive

In 1956, just eleven years after the end of the Second World War and Churchill's globally perceptive post-script of an 'Iron Curtain' descending across Europe, Russia invaded Hungary - for showing signs of not toeing the party line. Fleets of tanks and stomps of infantry put the 'Magyrs' in their place.

The West knew the cut of the jib of their former Hot-War ally and now Cold War adversary. Spheres of influence would be protected from internal, let alone external, challenge. Much muttering but not a finger was raised. It was never going to be different.

In 1968, the 'Czechoslovakian Spring' met a similar fate as a flirtation with liberalisation - social , political and economic - was crushed by the latest model from the Soviet 'T' tank stable, soldiers and the rest of it. The West muttered, again, and did nothing, again. Twice, in twelve years.

It split the British Communists party into two factions - the 'Tanky' pro-Stalinists and the reformers, and it caught the eye of a rising generation of young Soviet leaders including one Mikail Gorbachev.

Former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev. Credit: Jan Woitas/DPA/Press Association Image

Fifteen years earlier, in 1953, Nikita Khruschev had set a tiny ball rolling with his brave and dramatic denunciation of Josef Stalin; but, for a decade or so, that was it and he was then ousted . It's how they did it. Various cadaverous souls took over until, in 1985, the smiling Georgian with the strange, raspberry birth-mark on his forehead came to power.

The stage had been set for Russia's Gorbachev in 1982 in Poland in a Gdansk ship-yard by Lech Walensa and the foundation of Solidarity.

There was no invasion of Poland.

Former Polish President and Solidarity founding leader Lech Walesa (L) speaks to workers during a strike at the Gdansk shipyard Credit: Reuters

The Czechs and Hungarians had continued to quietly evolve as market economies - and now there was no invasion in either of those countries, either.

I remember standing in Berlin in 1989, as the Wall fell, asking, to camera, if we'd see a re-run of 1956 or 1968. I secretly hoped and, in truth, believed, we wouldn't. It didn't. And the rest, even via the alcoholic antics of Boris Yeltsin, is history.

Until tonight.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) pictured delivering the inauguration speech with Boris Yeltsin in 2000. Credit: Photas/Tass/Press Association Images

Putin, awash with oligarch cash, liberally distributed by Yeltsin to shore up his genuinely reformist and brave regime, runs the risk, as an ex-KGB man, of returning to form.Ukraine is today's Hungary or Czechoslovakia - Crimea its battle-ground.

Obama talks of 'consequences'. It is a game of post-Cold War poker. Today Putin went very close to 'All in' as us players say when we think we have the unbeatable hand or an opponent who will buckle to our bluff.

Obama has the eye of the croupier and his opponent but, after tonight's holding statement, will he 'see' Putin or 'fold'?

Not only is the peace and integrity of Ukraine at stake; the great understanding of the post-Cold War era is too.