How Vladimir Putin Lost the West’s Soft Left

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

25 thoughts on “How Vladimir Putin Lost the West’s Soft Left

  • brandee says:

    Not mentioned is the influence of the US in toppling the previous Russian friendly government. The Ukrainian President Zelensky seems intransigent in his wish to join NATO and oppose negotiating with Russia. Like another intransigent leader of he seems inclined to go down with his country rather than negotiate. Zelensky is not a Churchill who worked with a Russian/Georgian far worse than Putin.
    Ukrainians are not benefiting from living in a wealthy country that its rich in agriculture and mining. The wayward Biden son did unjustly benefit from his Ukrainian board position when Biden Snr was US Vice- President and interfered in closing a Ukrainian anti-corruption inquiry.

    We have witnessed how the US Democrats are in error in regarding Russia as manipulating the election of former President Trump. They have painted Russia as malevolent and so are bound to not negotiate with the malefactor.

    The news media shows no awareness of these details

  • Peter Marriott says:

    I agree with brandee. There seems to have been a lot of meddling from outside going on in the Ukraine probably mainly from the EU, a country that the West knows full well would be regarded by Russia as it’s very own major backyard. The Crimea has the home port of the Russian Black Sea fleet, and I’m reliably informed in the Crimea the language has always been Russian, not Ukrainian. By prodding, prodding,prodding, the Russian bear with a President like Zelensky who seems to have shown no real diplomacy in negotiating via some sensible concessions with his powerful neighbour, probably because he sees the West falling over themselves to support him, all we seem to have achieved is the drive the Russians into closer ties with the real threat to us all China ?

  • Daryl McCann says:

    This is so insightful, Patrick. Thank you.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Is it really so 0ne-sided and all the fault of Russia?
    In my casual reading over the decade, I rather felt that NATO were trying to be clever and that the UE was trying to add Ukraine by subtle measures. If I could see this, maybe Putin could?
    We have abundant examples now of governments and oppositions like our telling quite serious porkies unreported by mass media. Geoff S

  • 27hugo27 says:

    Unrelated to this column , Daryl , what happened to the article on the SA election? BTW , didn’t know you were in SA .

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Geoff, it’s tempting to compare the Putin’s reaction to NATO’s wooing of Ukraine with Kennedy’s reaction to Kruschev’s intervention in Cuba. Until he actually invaded Ukraine, it could reasonably be argued that Putin was well justified in reacting as Kennedy reacted and for similar reasons. But he destroyed that analogy by actually firing the first “angry shot”. He can never regain the moral high ground and if it can be achieved without starting World War III, he should be hunted down and tried for war crimes.

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    Looking at history, a tyrant allowed to invade a much-smaller neighbouring country is unlikely to stop with one. We may eventually be unable to avoid WWIII, by which time who knows how many lives and nations will have been destroyed.
    And while it’s easy for me to say, because I’m not in Europe–even if Putin DID stop with Ukraine (which I doubt), wouldn’t it be the right thing to defend this country that is begging for the West’s help? I would hate to think that if China invaded us, the rest of the world would say, “We feel jolly sorry for you, but you’ll just have to sink or swim because you have to be sacrificed for the safety of the world.”

  • Brian Boru says:

    A man in Moscow buys a newspaper, glances at the front page, & throws it away.
    He does the same thing every day.
    Eventually, the seller snaps “Why DO you do that?”
    “I’m just checking for an obituary”
    “But obituaries aren’t on the front page!”
    “The one I’m looking for will be.”

  • BalancedObservation says:

    Rebekah Meredith

    Thank you for a very insightful comment.
    There’s really only one solution to our predicament.

  • andrew2 says:

    I’m not so deluded to believe that Putin is a good guy but neither am I deluded in thinking that the globalist system is the good guy. If China did set its sights on Australia and the world opposed it, the only certainty is that a large proportion on the Australian male population would die. Jesus said “bkessed are the peacemakers” for a reason.

  • BalancedObservation says:

    Thank you Patrick Morgan and Quadrant for an outstanding article.

    The irony is the response of Europe – with the most to lose to Putin – needed to be pulled along by a weak Biden administration.

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    It was impossible to make an honourable peace with Hitler; the attempt led to the death of millions. It was impossible to honourably be friends with Stalin; it required the sacrifice of Eastern Europe, and the death of millions (added to those he had already killed). There are times when war, in the end, saves lives. Even when it does not, some principles are worth fighting for.
    The Sermon on the Mount was direction for the attitude of individual Christians toward others, not for the actions of governments. A verse that seems appropriate, to me, is Psalm 78:9: “The children of Ephraim, being armed, and carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle.”

  • Daryl McCann says:

    27hugo27, I am not sure what you mean by the comment, “Unrelated to this column, Daryl , what happened to the article on the SA.” The fact I am running for the Family First Party in the seat of Bragg against Vicki Chapman was mentioned in Phil Shannon’s recent piece here, “A COVID form guide for SA election”. I also wrote about the new Family First Party here on December 23. And I have a piece about running for Bragg in this week’s Spectator Australia. Is that South Australian enough for you?

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Patrick Morgan, I incline more to your view than to the view that the West was simply asking for it. Of course there were elements of unhelpful attitudes taken by Nato and the West, especially over Crimea, over which Russia has historically had a reasonable claim. But when dealing with a thug who has done little to improve Russia via the economic engine power of the rule of law and democracy, and much to allow kleptocratic hands to help themselves to the National wealth, as well as killing off his personal enemies, well, that’s too old-style Soviet for my liking. So is marching over sovereign borders with full intent to destroy everything and everyone in your path. That’s a tyrant’s behaviour. Two people I admire – Nigel Farage and Douglas Murray – have recently suggested Putin’s psychology needs a way out to be offered, where he can negotiate and retreat with dignity, claiming some gained objectives, for he is definitely mired at present. In wonder if he would talk to Trump, or Farage? Now there’s a lovely piece of imagineering which I doubt we will ever see, but I’d like to. Both are good at cutting deals.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    “I would hate to think that if China invaded us, the rest of the world would say, “We feel jolly sorry for you, but you’ll just have to sink or swim because you have to be sacrificed for the safety of the world.”

    Yep. It can keep me awake in the early hours if I let it, Rebekah.
    We need some firm alliances and some high tech weaponry and some energy independence.
    Net Zero must go, and quickly. As Bjorn Lomberg suggested today, it really is a second-order concern at best. We should back-burner it for 50 years (I’m being nice, 100 years is really my preference) and take another look at it then. There is no evidence for anything much at all going on from CO2 increase right now; no ‘tipping points’, just one huge religious cult of apocalyptic panic that should be seen to have had its day. As with Covid, time is overdue to move on.
    Good news for our upcoming international travel – no masks on many planes, none at Heathrow, no vaxx bureaucracy asking to see your papers. Pfft. Going, going, gone.

  • 27hugo27 says:

    Daryl, I wanted to know why Shannons article disappeared, and you were my only point of reference , as it mentioned you were running (I didn’t know you lived here) and my wife , a first time voter wanted me to help her out on who to vote for ., so I tried to find the article, that’s all . Surprised at the snark from you .

  • lbloveday says:

    “Surprised at the snark from you”.
    I’m not, I don’t read his comments in general, but your comment prompted me to this time. Way back when I made a comment about what I considered an error in an article of his he snarled that commenters should be made to disclose their name (why?). My response was that my friends call me LB and he can call me Mr Loveday; don’t know whether he responded and until now I’ve skipped over his comments and articles.

  • Daryl McCann says:

    27Hugo27, sorry for the snark. I misinterpreted your meaning. The original article I wrote for Quadrant Online, “”Why I’m done with the Feux Centre”, can be found at the top of the Quadrant on Line website under the ‘Authors’ tag. In fact, everything I have ever written for Quadrant since 2009 is there. Cheers, Daryl.

  • andrew2 says:

    It’s amazing to see the trigger that turns a person from saying “i want peace and freedom” to “I want to send millions of men to their death”. For some you simply have to wave the image of a “Goldstein” like character in front of them to trigger the “two minute hate” response. It is bad guy versus bad guy fighting over resources and until we purify the corruption in our own institutions we have no business beating the war drums and offering the blood of our sons.

  • 27hugo27 says:

    Cheers, lb, i must say I’ve always enjoyed your posts and you are a fellow South Aussie? Not related to the former West Adelaide captain?

  • pgang says:

    andrew2, agreed. I discussed in previous articles why it’s dangerous to caricature Putin, or any other dictator when it comes to trying to understand underlying causes or strategies. Behind the man is a realpolitik, and behind the politic is a nation of Russians. Very very few commentators have looked at Ukraine’s role in this outcome either, let alone the greater West. Wars don’t happen in a political vacuum. Many, if not most world leaders are ‘thugs’. It goes with the territory. Take the Obamas, Clintons, Bushes and Bidens as examples.
    We will never purify our establishments, but some sort of workable strategy would be a good first step to being able to deal sensibly with a situation like this.

  • pgang says:

    Rebekah Meredith, while those fights were necessary at the time, you don’t go back far enough in history. All of that violence could have been avoided if the west had developed a sensible strategy rather than burying its head in the sand and wishing problems away. When asked what WW2 should be called for historical purposes, Churchill’s reply was, ‘The unnecessary war’.

  • lbloveday says:

    Yes 27hugo27, I’m SA born and reared. No, Bob wasn’t related, nor was Ron, the Education Minister of the same era.

  • lbloveday says:

    Churchill’s explanation of “The Unnecessary War” backs up pgang:
    President Roosevelt one day asked what this War should be called. My answer was, “The Unnecessary War.” If the United Stated States had taken an active part in the League of Nations, and if the League of Nations had been prepared to use concerted force, even had it only been European force, to prevent the re-armament of Germany, there was no need for further serious bloodshed. If the Allies had resisted Hitler strongly in his early stages, even up to his seizure of the Rhineland in 1936, he would have been forced to recoil, and a chance would have been given to the sane elements in German life, which were very powerful especially in the High Command, to free Germany of the maniacal Government and system into the grip of which she was falling.Do not forget that twice the German people, by a majority, voted against Hitler, but the Allies and the League of Nations acted with such feebleness and lack of clairvoyance, that each of Hitler’s encroachments became a triumph for him over all moderate and restraining forces until, finally, we resigned ourselves without further protest to the vast process of German re-armament and war preparation which ended in a renewed outbreak of destructive war. Let us profit at least by this terrible lesson. In vain did I attempt to teach it before the war”.

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    Exactly. If you don’t deal with a tyrant sooner, you will probably have to deal with him later–and at far greater costs to you, as well as to his victims.

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