Letter from London: Chinook Winds

Chinook helicopter. Photo: RAF.

‘I had no idea what the pictures would depict and still I worked quickly and surely without changing a single brush-stroke,’ said Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), a darker version of which could be applied to Ukraine right now. People understandably have no idea of the outcome and show no sign of changing tack.

At the beginning of last week, two RAF Chinooks played their part by cutting across the green sloping countryside of Buckinghamshire, over and above the chalk escarpments of the well loved Chiltern Hills, carrying a tight-knit delegation of Ukrainians led by ceaseless man-of-the-moment Volodymyr Zelensky. Alas, this interminable and tragic Vladimir vs Volodymyr battle continues, with the Vladimir of the transcontinental land to the north showing no signs of withdrawing from Volodymr’s second-largest European land to the south. If only it wasn’t so serious, we could reduce it to a game of names.

From the faithful cameras above these two progressing Chinooks, it was like watching a rock band coming to the end of a European tour, having just played Italy, Germany and France. The campaigning cortège was about to perform in front of their greatest ally outside of Biden’s United States, before reportedly flying on to Sweden. Perhaps the Ukrainians on board were being readied to tap into the spirit of WWII when Blighty was also under seige. Still watching, I wondered how over-spun or inaccurate the news coming in was that 5% of the US defence budget had so far destroyed 50% of the Russian military. The images in this live feed were clear, but the facts on the ground remained hazy.

This was Zelenksy’s second visit since the Russian invasion in February 2022, and the reception once the Chinooks touched down appeared to be as choreographed as the footage had been from above. I was left wondering what Ukraine’s other allies Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, and Latvia were thinking, if journalist Seymour Hersh was correct — despite a still disputed Nord Stream pipeline story — in saying they were quietly willing Zelensky to end the war against Russia, even to resign.

As the delegation finally stepped out from under the tandem-rotors into the idyll of Chequers, parked like a poem between Princes Risborough and Wendover, they were as primed as the leaves were full — nature having already begun her spring offensive. Moments later, the diminutive figure of the aforesaid Ukrainian president crossed the large outer lawn into Sunak’s arms, the pooled photograph of this moment soon doing the rounds of the world press, like a Hollywood poster for a brand new bromance movie. Former military intelligence officer Philip Ingram meanwhile was promoting on TV the importance of sustaining the military campaign, shortly before Sunak summoned the ghost of Churchill by a live-in fireplace, reminding people the great statesman, soldier, and writer stood exactly where they were standing during WWII. (Sunak meant post-1942, after nearby Ditchley had been ditched.) He also said to Zelensky: ‘your leadership, your country’s bravery and fortitude are an inspiration to us all.’

By the end, the UK vowed to give hundreds more attack drones with the facility to penetrate up to 200km away. On the subject of jets, the UK would do some training but not supply. Everyone, presumably including Putin, was awaiting a possible Trump intervention rumbling through the plains, steppes, or shires, adding urgency to Ukraine’s continued request for help on what would prove a successful week of acquisitions.

That night, reports came thick and fast of a large air assault on Kyiv using cruise and possibly ballistic missiles — plus those ubiquitous drones. It was the city’s eighth air raid in May, and by no means the last of the week, on this occasion raining down at the same time as John Durham’s 300-page report dropped, critical of the decision behind using the so-called Steele dossier — put together by former MI6 emissary Christopher Steele — to get surveillance warrants against a Trump campaign official. As many people know, the report also stated that investigators were over-reliant on Trump’s political opponents for tips, and eyes remained firmly on CIA director John Brennan and whether or not saying Hunter Biden’s laptop was Russian disinformation ‘was political’.

Even from the safety of the UK, it felt like the entire week was aligned to the war in Ukraine. The following day I found myself on a rooftop in central London as another Chinook followed the Thames from Westminster to Tate Modern and back again. My phone had died and I had picked up a well known newspaper, the feel of the page quaintly familiar in my hands — ditto the smell of newsprint paper and ink. In the end, while waiting for someone, I probably absorbed far more information than if my phone had not run out of juice. Nor was the close proximity of old Fleet Street below lost on me.

Presently, I stared long and hard at a large ‘10 Downing Street Handout’ photograph of Sunak and Zelensky at Chequers, this time side by side on a pale blue sofa with ample cushions. The PR was good. It was like a 16th century green room beneath stacks of framed oil portraits of the great and perhaps good, though it was unclear how many were given by Sir Arthur Lee and his American heiress wife Ruth as part of their Deed of Settlement. It was actually stated in the strap-line that this cosy scene was when Ukraine was promised the customised drones.

On the facing page — my eyes began to wander — was a foreground shot of ripening rapeseed, with north Northumberland’s epic Bamburgh Castle in the background. Memories of childhood summers flashed into my head. There was no sign in the image of the nearby Farne Islands — deemed off-limits right now after some new cases of avian flu. Two pages later came a dramatic picture of a well dressed protestor — a successful composer in his seventies — at the National Conservatism (NatCon) conference, an impotent Trump-like rant-fest close to Westminster.

Zelensky and gang would be in Sweden by now, I was thinking. This was while examining the works of previously mentioned Swedish artist Hilma af Klint with an Irish friend. What began as exquisite if conventional landscapes for her, executed at a time when it was hard enough just being a woman artist, became in the end large abstract paintings rejecting all convention. ‘My mission, if it succeeds, is of great significance to humankind,’ she declared in 1917. ‘For I am able to describe the path of the soul from the beginning of the spectacle of life to its end.’ This kind of thinking would presumably have been on the minds of some Ukrainian civilians trying to sleep that night, during which it was reported that 30 cruise missiles were freshly unleashed across the embattled country by the Russians. Thankfully, 29 of these were shot down. Troublingly, though, they had been targeting regions in the west of the country, too. (There was still debate over the Patriot system in the Kyiv area reported as damaged.) One important element I didn’t hear mentioned during Zelensky’s tour was that European natural gas prices had reverted to normal trading levels for the first time since the invasion of Ukraine, throwing a kind of gaseous curveball at Putin.

Then, all of a sudden, by the end of a long week for Zelensky, came an unannounced Saudi wing to the Ukrainian tour, with his plane unexpectedly touching down on the hot Jeddah tarmac for the Arab League summit. Some had had him down as visiting Hiroshima at that very moment in order to participate in G7, but here he was alongside another surprise guest in Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. In Zelensky’s speech, which I listened to closely, he honoured Muslim Ukrainians and Tartar history in Crimea, plus Arab students at Ukrainian universities, challenging directly those he said were turning a blind eye to war. Significantly, he did make it to the G7 summit in Japan, where immediately he was told that the US would be letting allies give fighter jets to Ukraine after all, including F-16s, thereby challenging the skies to rain yet more war. Western countries were running ‘colossal risks’ with this, said Russian deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushkothe, via the Tass news agency. Former Tory party leader William Hague said earlier in the week that discrediting Putin with a massive spring counteroffensive may be the only way to end the war, but these jets could take as long as 18 months, according to some experts.

Finally, Hilma af Klint said later in her life that she wanted to build a temple that would be like a spiral with viewers ascending to what she called a higher state of being. In war, one is tempted to conclude, we can never ascend to anything higher than the dear bodies in the ground.

Peter Bach lives in London.