Ukraine has some resemblances to France: both are large, temperate, fertile, rectangular land masses at each end of the European continent. Putin claims Ukraine is not a nation. It was recognized as a country under the United Nations, and became fully independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. Crucially it signed an agreement with Russia in 1996 whereby it gave up its nuclear weapons and granted a lease of the Sebastopol naval base to Russia, in return for Russia guaranteeing its sovereignty. The fact that Putin soon broke this agreement does not annul this Russian recognition of Ukraine’s existence, but it did give us a foretaste of Putin’s attitude to his international obligations.
There is a more sinister meaning to Putin’s claim that Ukraine is not a nation: it is both a threat and a forecast. We normally take notice of events happening around us and then try to understand them. Putin’s mind, unlike ours, starts with his ideological fixations and then contorts reality into bizarre shapes so that it may live up to his preconceived expectations of it. His present invasion has the effect of confirming in Putin’s mind his long-held notion of Ukraine’s non-existence in the natural scheme of things. In one mood, Putin, to justify his takeover, claims Russians and Ukrainians are Slavic blood brothers, members of the same race, which is a little difficult to reconcile with his present treatment of Ukrainians. Ludicrous statements recently made by Putin include: Ukrainians are Nazis and drugs addicts; Ukraine committed genocide in Donetsk-Lugansk; the West is the aggressor; Western sanctions are a declaration of war; Soviet invaders are peace keepers; the invasion of Ukraine is not a war, just a limited military operation.
Russia claimed to be insecure (unlikely for such a powerful nation) because NATO was aggressively moving its forces up to Russia’s sphere of influence. This convoluted argument was an example of role reversal: Russia had been acting so aggressively that the newly released nations of Eastern Europe felt genuinely insecure and asked for NATO protection. The West became so justifiably scared of provoking the nasty Russian bear it did little to reinforce Ukraine. Russia invaded not because the West was aggressive but because, on the contrary, Ukraine had been left weakened.
Putin is not as he claims a Russian nationalist. He has never in his two-decade rule revealed any grand plans for revitalizing Russia’s failing systems and infrastructure. His eye was elsewhere, bent on military and political destabilization in Syria, Moldova, Georgia, the Central African Republic, the Crimea, Donetsk-Lugansk, Venezuela and so on. Forget Russia, his focus was to make himself a powerful figure on the world stage. He has allowed no middle-level civil society to arise in Russia, ruthlessly erasing any green shoots. Neglected far-east Russia for a time traded fruitfully with Japan, buying Toyotas amongst other things, until he sacked the local governor and made them drive Ladas. Governors who previously had been popularly elected are now Putin appointments, one example of his continual tightening of control over the years. The successful governor of Novgorod, Boris Nemtsov, was removed. He thereby became the most popular alternative figure in Russia, a dangerous position, until gunned down under the shadow of the Kremlin walls. The next popular figure to emerge has been Alexei Navalny, who has fared little better.
Why did Putin invade Ukraine? The contrast between it and Russia was too great: Ukraine was becoming a peaceful and contented country gradually establishing its own mores, modestly wishing to be neither East nor West, but just itself. This contrast became greater with each passing year. For Putin the existence of a flourishing Ukraine was an existential reproach he couldn’t tolerate. Putin now aims to change facts on the ground, to wipe out the Ukrainian nation’s physical structures, its roads, buildings, infrastructure, government systems, the lot, but no nation building. Tacitus said of the Roman invasion of Britain they turned it into a desert, and called it peace. In Putin’s mind there will be no need for further negotiations; all future decisions will have been pre-empted by Ukraine’s total defeat and absorption into Russia.
Putin has a sledgehammer approach to all problems. He does not acknowledge that countries grow naturally over time, layer by layer, but does know how to invade and smash everything. Nothing is done in measured steps – it’s all apocalyptic escalation. When civil society and the desire for more freedoms appeared in the old Soviet Union, it successively invaded and destroyed Hungary, Czechoslovakia and by proxy Poland. The former KGB officer sings from the old Soviet playbook – he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
Near the end of the First World War, nations watched as four great imperial ventures – Ottoman, German, Austria and Russian – came crashing down. Worldview thinkers like Spengler and Toynbee suddenly became fashionable as they thought in grand terms of nations and empires rising and falling over the long term. People plundered history trying to explain the catastrophic upheavals unfolding before their eyes. Hitler and Stalin were common-garden exponents in this mode, contorting the past and altering the present to fit them into their nascent ideologies. Putin is just the latest in a long line of these obsessed pseudo-thinkers, who ransack history for post hoc facto justifications of what they are going to do anyway. What do Stalin, Hitler and Putin have in common? They were all keen to invade the strategic crossroads of Crimea.
Putin never believed in a quick victory, as he is taking on the whole of Ukraine, which has many different battle fronts, many cities and many differences of terrain which, using salami tactics, he intends to overcome, grinding the country down slowly, thoroughly and bit by bit, not by a blitzkrieg assault. Will he be satisfied with just the eastern half of Ukraine, and shovel refugees west towards Lvov so the West bears the financial burden he has caused? Or, more likely, will he go for the lot? He may use siege tactics, as he believes time and momentum are on his side. He now has his troops in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, which suggests on previous form he may consolidate those contiguous conquests as his base, digesting them more completely before selecting more prey to swallow. As I finish writing this piece it is impossible to know what may eventuate, but Putin does seem psychologically incapable of de-escalating. Hopeful views – that Putin is mad, that Ukraine is winning, and that the Russian army is bogged down – are unhelpful as they cause us to relax and take down our guard.
In the week before the invasion of Ukraine the US suddenly reversed its messaging. Led by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, it dropped its defensive strategy and boldly told the full, horrible truth — that Russia was about to invade, providing many further strategic details from its intelligence sources of the dire situation about to unfold on the ground. This may have blindsided Putin, who had no immediate rebuttal nor comeback, as he had lost his deception narrative for the days ahead. His cool may have evaporated as anger overcame him, and led him to suddenly threaten the nuclear option. This was a major propaganda mistake, as he scared off the soft Left around the world, which up until that stage hadn’t decided which way to jump. Everywhere the snowflakes melted, with Russia losing its biggest passive supporter base.
The EU and Germany, not the US, were most to blame in the West for letting the strategic situation slip, but now all, almost too late, are unified and alert to the great peril. In the short term, Russia may successfully pulverize Ukraine, but in the medium term after sanctions and more resolute military actions begin to bite, there is a chance the new Russian adventure may collapse. In the longer term Russia supplying raw materials and wheat to a higher tech China may be a neat fix for both.
Patrick Morgan’s most recent book is Living Memory: Selected Essays 1964-2014, published by Connor Court last November