‘Why the hell did you hire a lorry without a spare tyre?’ asked Rizvana. Fair question. Luckily we had just pulled into a service station near Leipzig when the front tyre blew. The bang was so loud that the cashier rushed outside fearing an explosion. We waited for five hours in the biting wind. German technical prowess came to our rescue. The mechanic arrived with hydraulic lifts, the correct replacement tyre and near-perfect English. Some onlookers gathered as three of us jumped on his torque wrench to loosen the nuts. Our mission was not going to plan.
Rizvana Poole is a Labour councillor in my town of Chipping Norton and she’s the reason we drove to Warsaw in a lorry filled with supplies for Ukrainian refugees. Two years ago she started the ‘Chippy Larder’, a community project which provides surplus supermarket food for low-income families and cuts food waste. My then 16-year-old daughter Nancy and I were two of her first box-packers. In December, I looked on proudly at a local awards ceremony when Nancy was nominated as a ‘Chipping Norton Covid superhero’. After Putin’s invasion, Rizvana asked for contributions to help refugees. The response was huge, and hours were spent sorting through the donations and packing what was needed on to my (clearly substandard) lorry.
From the times I’ve dealt with Putin, what I remember most about him is his barefaced lying. He could lie without flinching about the presence of Russian troops in the Donbas in 2012 or the fate of the Malaysian airliner shot down by Russian-backed separatists. I went to Tbilisi when he invaded Georgia in 2008 and warned that an inadequate western response would mean he would take more territory, including possibly in Ukraine. But what we are witnessing now is on another level: a full-scale invasion of a sovereign, independent European country. It belongs in another century – and Putin belongs in a war crimes tribunal.
Britain’s response to the invasion has all the right elements: military, diplomatic and political support. The slow start on sanctions is being corrected – and I am sure more will also be done to help refugees. But I do worry about humanitarian aid. The official statistics for the UK’s contribution look impressive, but is aid getting the attention it deserves from ministers? Since the Department for International Development was merged with the Foreign Office we seem to have done away with a dedicated aid minister altogether. This is a mistake. Liz Truss has had a remarkable few weeks. But by the time she’s dealt with British hostages in Iran, Russian foreign ministers and Baltic state visits, to say nothing of Article 16 and the EU, how much time does she have to think about Britain’s aid effort?
No country has done more to help Ukraine’s refugees than Poland. It was very moving to see the work being done at the Red Cross depot east of Krakow as we dropped off supplies. It was almost 11 p.m. on Saturday and freezing cold, but firefighters and Red Cross volunteers were working round the clock. Our hotel had rooms reserved for refugees, paid for by local charities. Bridges on the motorways were painted in Ukrainian blue and yellow. Even the illuminated road signs that usually tell you to stick to the speed limit were lit up with ‘Solidarni z wolna Ukraina’.
Our drive home included a 14-hour dash across Poland and Germany, dinner in Dortmund and a night in a dimly lit Dutch hotel. As we drove past the vast coalmines in Poland and the thickets of wind turbines in Germany, I thought about the energy challenge facing the EU. If Chancellor Scholz doesn’t U-turn on nuclear power soon, the thickets will have to become a forest.
We came across a few national stereotypes on our trip which made us smile. I counted 14 different types of sausage on offer at a Polish service station. The German autobahns were spotless. And in Rizvana’s hotel room in Eindhoven someone had left a set of handcuffs and a long metal chain.
At Calais we checked the empty lorry for stowaways (a point we were questioned on closely by UK Border Force before we were let into the tunnel) and headed home. On the news, Putin’s forces were shooting civilians in Kherson, shelling residential flats in Kyiv and reportedly forcibly relocating citizens of Mariupol into Russia. Britain can still do more to help Ukraine. More arms and aid. More sanctions, including on oil and gas, for Russia. Putin has made himself, and sadly his country, into a pariah. We must treat him as such.
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