Orcadian Column, 10 March 2022

Representing the islands in which I was fortunate to grow up has always been a source of enormous pride for me. I have rarely felt more proud of my community, however, than over the last fortnight as it has sought to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Ukraine.

As the horror of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine unfolds, the prospect of the NS Champion, a vessel owned by the Russian state, sailing serenely into Scapa Flow and berthing at the Flotta oil terminal was more than Orcadians could stomach. By taking a stand, however, our community – and it truly was a community endeavour – not only prevented NS Champion from docking in Orkney but triggered a process that led to the UK government implementing a ban on all Russian owned, leased and flagged vessels accessing ports across the UK.  As a result, monies that would have flowed into the coffers of Putin’s bloodthirsty regime have been halted.

Since then, local fundraising and other initiatives have sprung up on a daily basis, including Gaan the Distance, a tie up between the Orcadian and local haulier, McAdie & Reeve which will deliver much-needed supplies to Ukrainians fleeing the conflict. The support locally for all these efforts has been overwhelming and is doubtless replicated in communities across the country and beyond.

Yet so much more needs to be done given the scale of the mounting humanitarian crisis. Approaching 2m have already fled Ukraine, while many more have been displaced. Civilians are being deliberately targeted by Russian artillery bombardments. Ceasefires are agreed then quickly broken, with fleeing civilians coming under fire. Putin has even cynically proposed ‘humanitarian corridors’ into Russia and its ally, Belarus, an offer even the most desperate Ukrainian would see as distinctly unattractive.

So far, unfortunately, the UK Government response to this humanitarian crisis has fallen short: short in terms of the overall number of refugees who might be accepted into the UK; short in terms of the criteria to be met and obstacles to overcome; short in terms of the capacity to process applications in a timely fashion. This week, mixed messages from Ministers about possible changes to the eligibility criteria have simply added confusion.

Most Ukrainian refugees, of course, will want to remain closer to home in the hope of returning as soon as it’s safe to do so. This, though, underscores the importance of the UK and others providing support to those countries, such as Poland, that neighbour Ukraine and are bearing the brunt of this forced migration.

Meanwhile, the debate rages over the case for NATO enforcing a ‘no fly zone’ in Ukraine. This has been the increasingly desperate plea of President Zelensky, who has rightly earned admiration for his courage and leadership over the past fortnight. The risk, though, is that NATO shooting down Russian aircraft escalates the conflict beyond Ukraine’s borders, a prospect one suspects Putin would relish. Instead, Ukraine’s armed forces, which have put up such inspiring resistance, should be supplied with aircraft and anti-aircraft equipment with which they are familiar and can begin to deploy immediately.

President Zelensky’s other main call this week has been for tougher sanctions against Russia. He is right and it seems increasingly clear that these now need to target the energy sector. Unlike seizing the assets of prominent oligarchs, which the UK should also be doing more and with much greater urgency, the effect of energy-related sanctions will be felt around the globe. In the UK, for example, it may supercharge an already alarming cost of energy and living crisis.

That is not argument against tougher sanctions, rather an argument for bolder action by both UK and Scottish Governments to minimise the impact of price rises, particularly on vulnerable households. Ultimately, the consequences of not taking the firmest possible stance against Putin and his regime would be more costly, far-reaching and long-lasting. Moreover, the effects felt here will pale in comparison to what has befallen and still lies ahead for the people of Ukraine over the coming weeks and months. We must, and I’m sure we will, be steadfast in continuing to stand shoulder to shoulder with them.

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