Is Russia beyond redemption?
Why Putin has invaded Ukraine and how far will he go?
In 2001 US President George W Bush was asked what he made of Vladimir Putin after their first meeting. He replied: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy”.
He soon changed his tune.
Smartphone images of Russian tanks rolling into a sovereign Ukraine is confirmation - if confirmation were needed - that Vladimir Putin is a dangerous autocrat, hellbent among other things on shoring up his waning popularity with another popular war.
But there is more to it than that. The appalling prospect of another European war is evidence that Russian irredentism is alive and well and still inhabits the Kremlin. The invasion of Ukraine follows an unmistakeable pattern: Poland 1939; Hungary 1956; Czechoslovakia 1968; Afghanistan 1979.
For the West fragmented by single-issue, identity politics, uncertain of its purpose as the protector of pluralism, democracy and a rules-based international, order the challenge is immense.
In the short-term Putin’s grab for Ukraine poses the question: why is he doing this and how should the West respond?
In the longer-term it raises, more fundamentally, the question: has Russia, or at any rate the Russian leadership, changed at all since the collapse of the Soviet Union? Can it ever be trusted as an international partner?
Putin may be dangerous but he is not impulsive or even, I would argue, reckless. He has been laying the ground for his lebensraum strategy for some time.
First he needed absolute control. Any opposition had to be silenced.
His third presidential term was marked by a sharp decrease in popular support and a brutal effort to choke off the anti-regime protests in 2011/12.
Putin‘s fourth term has seen more clampdowns and a crude power grab. Major opposition leaders like Alexey Navalny have been jailed or poisoned or both. Others have simply been assassinated.
The Russian constitution has been rewritten to “reset” Putin’s presidency, potentially handing him the keys to the Kremlin until 2036, something he explicitly ruled out in 2005. If he makes it, Putin will be 83 by then and the longest-serving leader since the Tsarist empire.
But what else lies behind Putin’s latest adventure? Is it, as some have suggested, a lapse in judgement driven by personal ambition and a desire perhaps to leave behind a legacy of a greater Russia when he finally goes?
This is a man who has spent two decades assiduously building his power base with great care. He plays a long game. The Putin-has-gone-off-the-rails theory is an unlikely, or at any rate, an insufficient explanation.
Does he want to put back together the former Soviet Union? This seems far-fetched. Putin is a judicious risk-taker. He is also a realist. Russia’s (recovering) economy remains weak. Incomes are stagnating. Covid has wreaked havoc. The prospect of a depopulating Russia haunts Putin.
Sanctions for invading Ukraine will hurt. The cost of going further would be ruinous. The Baltic states and Poland are NATO members. An attack on any of them would trigger NATO’s foundational principle: all for one and one for all.
To understand Russia’s and Putin’s obsessive territorial ambitions in Ukraine we need to look to the past. We need to ask where, in the minds of Russia’s rulers, does the Russian nation (the Rodina) begin and end, and who constitutes the Russian people?
Putin has, through stealth, corruption, and brute force, moulded post-Soviet Russia into a rogue state stifling alternative voices at home and seeking influence abroad by sticking a spoke in every wheel he can reach.
The ageing leader sits at the centre of a web that reaches across Europe to the City of London, which launders his money; to Syria, which gives him a foothold in the oil-rich Middle East ; and beyond to failing states in Africa challenging western, and especially, US influence.
He has outsmarted, out-spent and out-manoeuvred a fractious liberal order divided, ironically, by an upsurge in its own nationalist impulses.
When he told the FT in 2019 that liberalism had ‘become obsolete’ he was raising a red flag not merely shooting his mouth off. We should have paid closer attention.
But he would not have got this far without the wind of Russian nationalism in his sails: a heady cocktail of Cossack brotherhood and love for the cultural and geographical entity called Russia or Rus’ which includes Ukraine and Belarus.
In his prescient book The Lost Kingdom about Russian nationalism and imperialism Harvard Professor Serhii Plokhy has a telling story. In 2015 shortly after the annexation of Crimea Putin unveiled a statue at the gates of the Kremlin. The monument is to Prince Vladimir (sic) who ruled in Kyiv in the Middle Ages, early founder of the Russian nationalism.
In his address Putin hailed his namesake as a:” gatherer and protector of Russian lands, a statesman who laid the foundations of a strong, centralised state, a family of equal peoples and cultures”.
Russians are full-throated patriots. The legend of heroism, patriotism and sacrifice runs through Russian veins. Overlaying this is a profound insecurity. Russia, the world largest country, is exposed on all sides to potentially hostile powers. Its relationship with China is purely transactional and therefore fragile.
In addition Russia has struggled for centuries to choose between a European and an Asiatic identity. Russian rulers have used the “shared sense of dynastic origin” with its Slavic neighbours to justify dominance over other lands in its near abroad. But it is also the cause of a kind of collective personality disorder that leads it astray.
The invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812 slammed the door shut on Europe-leaning sentiments. Hitler finished the job with Barbarossa. The possibility of NATO troops in its backyard is the stuff of nightmares for Kremlin strategists.
This is the narrative that Putin is mercilessly exploiting by beaming it into every TV and smartphone. And it’s one, judging from his endless pronouncements, which he buys into.
When he crushed the separatists in Chechnya, Putin did so at great cost. It was a deeply unpopular war. But when he walked into Crimea annexing it (largely without bloodshed) he hit this nationalist “sweet spot”.
Perhaps he is gambling that his recognition of two ‘new’ breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and a his invasion of Ukraine will have the same effect. He knows that neither Europe nor the US will fight.
When Ukraine for independence in December 1991, they finished off the USSR. The Orange Revolution of 2004 kicked off a wave of “colour” revolutions, threatening to spill over into Russia. When Ukrainians marched in support of the European Union in 2013, Putin could see this former satellite slipping irretrievably beyond his grasp. The following year he annexed Crimea.
Which brings us to another question. One which, arguably, is more serious. Can democracy ever take root in Russia? Is it – has it ever been – a country we can confidently do business with let alone build a comfortable long-term relationship with?
It’s a question of profound importance for western democracies and western economies especially in Europe that service Russian financial interests while being uncomfortably dependant on Russia’s raw materials.
With the exception of a brief period after the collapse of the Berlin wall Russia has never been a democracy. And when democracy was allowed to under perestroika it spluttered and failed. The dreams we had after 1989 of a democratic, pluralist Russia have been blow out of the water.
Russia was founded as a princely state and later as a monarchy. Reborn as a communist state it now exists as an imperial presidency. Catherine the Great answered to her nobles even if she executed some. Putin answers to no one.
What Putin has engineered is a return to despotism without the outward trappings of a communist state. He has recreated the Soviet-era’s intelligence and subversion machine and then some. He has rebuilt his armed forces. His cyber warfare units pose a real threat to open economies and western infrastructure.
Over time they exerted a chokehold on the levers of power and the economy with the help of ex-Soviet secret policemen and his buddies from his St Petersburg’s days.
He justifies his actions by trumpeting an increasingly strident anti-Western nationalism. The US and other democracies are routinely denounced as evil states hatching diabolical plans to undermine traditional Russian values. This may play well with some Russians but perhaps not as many as Putin thinks.
It’s not a pretty picture. Scarred by failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria the liberal West is caught between a rock and a hard place. Economic sanctions have not deterred Putin so far.
It’s worth remembering that when the Soviet Empire collapsed, the West crowed. We couldn’t resist the temptation to poke the wounded Russian bear at every turn. We talked of a unipolar world. We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. We were cocky. It doesn’t excuse what Putin is doing. But it merits a post-it note at the next negotiating table.
William Hague is right in saying that we need fundamentally to reassess our relations with Russia. It is not a democracy. It is not liberal. And it is not stable. And it may never be any one of these things.
Putin already has Belarus in his pocket. Ukraine looks like it’s following. The dream of a Greater Russia is within his grasp.
Where does this leave us? War is unthinkable. Russia is a nuclear power. The world is already awash with failed states and refugees fleeing persecution, hunger and oppression. But we cannot look away. Much more than Ukraine is at stake. Where Putin leads others will follow.
This is a defining moment for the liberal, democratic world.