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At War TV review: World leaders offer candid thoughts in BBC documentary

Written by The Anand Market

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The first series of Norma Percy’s excellent documentary Putin against the West examined how Western powers underestimated the Russian president’s expansionist ambitions in the decade before the invasion of Ukraine. Today, a new two-part episode of this urgent and insightful BBC program looks back at the first year of the conflict and examines the Western response to what is perhaps the greatest threat to global stability since the Second War worldwide.

It is a story of difficult negotiations, life and death decisions, regrets and occasional recriminations, told through a series of world leaders, top diplomats and policy makers. Among them: Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, CIA Director Bill Burns and UN Secretary General António Guterres. Russian perspectives are represented by a group of high-ranking ambassadors.

The program does not make direct judgments or take sides on the thorny governance dilemmas it addresses. Instead, it creates a tacit dialogue between its contributors, presenting both aligned and contrasting views on issues such as sanctions against Russia, the supply of weapons to Ukraine, the imposition of a NATO no-fly zone and ceasefire talks.

We hear, for example, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and former Defense Secretary Ben Wallace speak lucidly about the delicate balance between supporting Ukraine and fueling the narrative of Putin on Western belligerence. But for Ukrainian National Security Secretary Oleksi Danilov, this is just an evasion: “If from the first days of the war they had had confidence in our resilience, I think the number of civilian casualties would have been much less,” he notes.

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While not everyone is as direct as Danilov, most contributors speak with refreshing frankness. There are acknowledgments of difficulties and possibly misjudged appeals. Even the optimistic Johnson ruefully admits that “we always end up doing the right thing, but we always do it later rather than sooner.” This unusual sincerity is then undercut by an unnecessary gag about bats in Wuhan as attention turns to China’s relationship with Putin.

boris johnson and volodymyr zelenskyy crossing a town square and surrounded by soldiers
Volodymyr Zelenskyy discusses Boris Johnson’s visit to kyiv during the show © Alamy

That said, there’s something quite touching about seeing Zelensky smile while sharing a funny anecdote about Johnson’s visit to kyiv. Elsewhere, he challenges the definition of the war as “Putin versus the West” as slightly disingenuous. While others speak of an attack on Western values ​​and democracy, Ukraine suffers from a peril that is far more than existential. “In the end, we are the ones who die when we not only protect ourselves,” he solemnly reminds us.


Episode 1 on iPlayer now; episode 2 on BBC2 on February 5 at 9 p.m.