From Donbas to Durham to Detroit, there’s a severe depression driving our chaotic world

Economic decay in many regions on both sides of the Atlantic is driving the affairs of nations

Slag heaps from a coal mine stand on the horizon near the village of Toretsk, Ukraine, in January. Getty Images

Durham, a city in north-eastern England, is not the first place that anyone would turn to for reading the runes of how Russia's war in Ukraine is going. Yet, it's where Fiona Hill found some talking points on the conflict.

The former US National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia is a native of Durham and took two instructive lessons from a visit to her homeland.

The coal-mining city was twinned with Donbas region in Ukraine during the heyday of the industry. Ms Hill was shown the records of a visit by a delegation from the English mining region in the 1920s to the area, where there is currently an all-out war to solidify Moscow's control of the south and east of Ukraine.

Informed by the post-industrial structures of Durham, Ms Hill explains that the reason that Moscow has affinity with the Donbas is the socio-economic make-up of the region. Its deep mines, established in the late 19th century by miners from Wales and England who travelled to the sparsely populated Don river basin, still yield the rich black treasure of the Earth. That is becoming increasingly rare.

Well-rewarded work underground has disappeared in many other parts of the world, turning whole swathes of regions into rustbelts. For the Russians, one of the aims of the conflict is to co-opt these industries. The Kremlin openly talks about protecting the Russian-speaking people in the areas and their way of life.

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France's Marine Le Pen has capitalised on alienation and her supporters want their grievances to be heard

When it first launched the operation to seize Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, it was capitalising on the alienation in the area from the pro-western tilt of the population in Kyiv and elsewhere in western Ukraine. In these places a modern economy had emerged to replace the Soviet-era structures.

In drawing a parallel with the two regions, Ms Hill notes that the north-east of England had undergone a revolt of its own against the established political order. This was done by repudiating the century or so of reliable Labour party voting and joining the so-called Red Wall that defected to the Conservatives in the 2019 general election in the UK.

The British-American adviser who has long specialised on Russia and worked for former US presidents George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump on security policy, said the backlash among traditional societies was one driving force that had altered the global balance.

She pointed also to the areas where the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen was drawing support in her two-way race against French President Emmanuel Macron. The valleys and rundown towns of northern France have turned to Ms Le Pen’s 2022 presidential election campaign, even though Mr Macron's government has been a pump-priming, big-spending administration.

Ms Le Pen has capitalised on alienation and her supporters want their grievances to be heard. "The working class like us is always at the bottom of the pile," a long-standing Le Pen voter Marcel Bail declared after a lunch with the candidate last week, summing up the great gulf she hoped to exploit in Sunday's vote.

And Ms Hill does not rule out the return of Mr Trump in the 2024 US presidential election based on the same pinch points of rust belt voters – just 70,000 votes in three rundown counties – that catapulted him to the most powerful office in 2016.

French far-right National Rally candidate Marine Le Pen poses with supporters as she leaves a polling station after casting her ballot for the second round of the presidential election in Henin-Beaumont on Sunday. Getty Images
Former US president Donald Trump hosts a rally to boost Ohio Republican candidates ahead of their May 3 primary election, at the county fairgrounds in Delaware, Ohio, on Saturday. Reuters

The importance of addressing the issues that drive people to hold the views and the demands that result in extreme choices was reflected in another observation from Ms Hill. She was asked to advise Ukraine on how it builds global support as it seeks to shake off Moscow's predations. While Europe and the US have quickly and forcefully imposed sanctions, other parts of the world have held back.

Moscow's messaging that this is a clash between the West and Russia and that it is the outcome of a 30-year unequal struggle has resonated in parts of the East and Global South. For that reason public opinion has been shaped by different considerations outside the wealthiest countries.

Ms Hill, who was in London promoting her book, There’s Nothing for You Here, said the Ukraine government's messaging was – rightly – focused on securing military support from its allies to match the firepower deployed by the Russians. But an alternative narrative exists that Kyiv would be well advised to pursue.

Depicting the assault as an act of colonial aggression would resonate differently and better in Africa and Asia. Making much more of Ukraine's role as a breadbasket for the world has great potential to shift minds and sympathies in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as much of Europe.

Ukraine does punch above its size in feeding the world and the countries that depend on it should associate its troubles with the spiral of rising prices and food shortages. This is the spring planting season and much of Ukraine is not sowing the crops for the 2022 harvest. There is only one reason for that looming shortage.

The second revelation that Ms Hill picked up in Durham was from people with Facebook connections to Russians in a town where a prominent military brigade is based. These linkages again date to Cold War-era exchanges. The English in touch with their friends reported great anger and bewilderment over the losses in the campaign, something that does not surface in news reports from the country.

Published: April 25, 2022, 4:00 AM
Damien McElroy

Damien McElroy

Damien is a  foreign correspondent who has covered politics and conflict across Europe, the Middle East, the US, Africa and Asia. Before joining The National in 2017, he worked for The Sunday Times and Telegraph titles as an editor and roving reporter. He started his career in China and has a degree in finance.