Trying to justify his aggression against Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is accusing the West of expanding NATO, ignoring legitimate Russian security interests, of being manipulative, domineering and exploitative. He is upset that Russia is not treated with the deference befitting a great power. Despite lacking substance, coherence and rationality this reasoning has worked with the Russian people. Things are changing, however. Overconfident when the invasion began on February 24, 2022, Russia’s state media’s TV talking heads (“We’ll take Kiev in three days!”) now sound confused, perplexed and scared. The reason? ‘They are not scared of us anymore!’ Who is this ‘they’? The answer is the ‘collective West’.
Alas, the ‘collective West’ provided many reasons for Russia’s elite to believe Western democracies were afraid of a resurgent Russia. Moscow felt (and still does) that it could cheat, bully, intimidate the weak and terrorize them with impunity. This brazen attack on a defenceless state during Putin’s presidency was the result of Western fear and a mistaken belief in the Russian Army’s might. The fact is that a ‘hybrid war’ conducted by the Russian Federation against the West over the last 20 years did not attract an immediate and substantial response, thus inviting Russian escalation and setting the stage for the Ukraine outrage. Continuous insistence by the US that NATO countries increase their defense budgets was met with indignation. President Trump was accused of destroying NATO when all he did was ask — impolitely, it must be admitted — that his European allies pick up their share of the defense bill.
Thanks to the bravery and determination of the Ukrainians, this fear has largely been overcome. Western governments have realised the only way to deal with Moscow’s criminal regime is to inflict retaliatory damage commensurate with the harm caused. It should have been done in 2008, at the time of the unprovoked war against Georgia, or at the latest, in 2014 during the Crimea annexation. Hopefully, the liberal democracies have now ceased supporting its enemy with their passivity. To continue the same way would be akin to stepping on the garden rake, getting smacked hard in the face by the handle, and then repeating the exercise again and again.
The Russian Empire has long been seemingly determined to self-destruct. It was saved from the consequences of its own follies by an extraordinary confluence of good fortune, plus a lack of foresight and fear of unintended consequences in the West. Its survival was paid for by the immense suffering of Russia’s peoples amid the failed hopes of the rest of the civilised world. Sometimes it seems that the Almighty chose Russia to demonstrate how not to govern, how not to live and how not to communicate with the rest of the world. Consider this three-part timeline of the West saving Russia from itself.
1917 -1936: Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks managed to prevent the empire’s disintegration after the October Rrevolution and the civil war that followed. The West then helped Stalin to industrialise, creating a strong, well-armed anti-Western USSR. The human cost was horrendous, but who has ever cared about human suffering in Russia?
1941 -1945: After the initial period of hesitation at the beginning of Germany’s surprise Barbarossa invasion, Russians decided Hitler was no better than Stalin and united under the dictator they knew. The West again saved Russia, this time with its Lend-Lease program. After the war, it was only Stalin’s death and the deterrence of America’s much larger nuclear arsenal that prevented WWIII.
1989 – 1992: After the formal dissolution of the USSR, the Russian Federation emerged from the wreckage. This triggered the “phantom pain” an amputee feels, the lost limbs in this case being Russia’s vanished “greatness”. The Federation was kept together by the massive injections of Western investment, right up until the Ukraine invasion and the sanctions that followed. As soon as Russia is strong again a succession of wars follow and the anti-West rhetoric turned up to maximum volume.
This time, ideally, a Ukraine victory might actually succeed in breaking the vicious cycle.
THE Cold War ended not with the bang but a whimper. Nobody came to the USSR’s rescue – not a solitary Russian patriot with a Kalashnikov, not a single tank drove into a city square, no artillery was heard, no swashbuckling navy steamed forward. That is how 72 years of bluff and smoke and mirrors, of terror against its own people, idiotic economics and no less inane Marxist theories ended. The unique alliance of former communist functionaries, the security apparatus and organized crime then coalesced as the new ruling elite of what is in terms of land area the largest country on the planet.
Incredibly, the liberal democracies, contrary to their core interests, decided to be gentle and accommodating. Instead of completely disarming a well-known predator, we respected Russia’s sensibilities and indulged its bruised national pride. We in the West treated it as a genuine partner, even admitting it to the G7. Instead of encouraging the national aspirations and genuine security concerns of the long-subjugated former Soviet republics, we deferred to the inflated pretensions of a never-has-been superpower. Georgia and Ukraine were strongly advised not to seek NATO membership. The Budapest Memorandum (1994) was signed by the Russians, among others, guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for handing over to the Russian Federation its nuclear arsenal, third-largest in the world at the time. Once again, Western democracies saved their enemy only to then be mesmerised by its misperceived strength, by its bluff and brazen arrogance. And here we are today, not 20 years later and confronted once again with the prospect of a wider war, its threat underscored by Moscow’s insistence that nuclear weapons remain an option.
There are many parallels with 20th-century episodes, such as the Spanish Civil War of 1936 and the appeasement of Hitler as preludes to a WWII. Then, as Ukraine is now, Spain was a battleground between actors fighting it out for supremacy. The weakness and indecisiveness of the leaders of the West emboldened predators — Hitler and Stalin then, Putin today. History’s obvious relevance explains the extraordinary, unprecedented unity and generosity of diverse liberal democracies in extending help to Ukraine. This unity caught the aggressor by surprise. Instead of a weakened, fearful and avoidant West, as was the case during the Georgian assault in 2008 and 2014’s Crimea annexation, the Russian Federation had to contend with the newly awakened political will and resolve of the Free World. Make no mistake, this unity is no mere feel-good compassion for an underdog but a manifestation of hard-headed clarity in recognition of the possibility of a future and much larger clash. This is the perennial error dictators make: when a democracy is slow to anger it is mistaken for weakness.
We should be clear about the nature of the adversary, and by that I mean Russian society in its entirety. While Putin is both the architect and symbol of current Russian aggression, he is a mirror reflection of a significant part, if not a majority, of Russia. Certainly he is extremely popular amongst the people born during the USSR’s existence, but not so much amongst the elite, who realise the war in Ukraine is a trap and see Putin as responsible for bringing down the sanctions that are denying them the mega-rich trappings they regard as their right and due.
The majority of the Russian population is convinced, unthinkingly and rather naively, that the “collective West” is an enemy intent on destroying Russia because, to cite a common explanation, it is “envious of Russia’s spiritual strength and its riches”. There are other lame and unconvincing appraisals of the Western nations’ alleged malice, and together they maintain a grip on the national imagination. The last remaining Russian public opinion institute, the Levada Centre, consistently finds 83 per cent support for Putin.
One way to think of Russian society is through the lens of cult pathology. These traits are: fealty to the system while scorning outsiders, lack of external political feedback, fear, contempt and a severely limited understanding of how the world works beyond Russia’s borders. Add to this a baseless conviction that an outside enemy is always there, just waiting to pounce, and then add censorship, blind faith in a leader, an intolerance for opposing views, lack of capacity for critical thinking and a widespread political naivete. What is sometimes called the “mysterious Russian soul” is, in reality, a catch-all for a traumatised and isolated mentality shaped by an ever-present background paranoia. Among other traits, it means a high tolerance for violence and aggression, plus a widespread lack of empathy. It also means learned helplessness, lack of initiative and a disregard for boundaries and rules.
According to numerous observations by the Russian oppositional bloggers, as well as personal anecdotes of people I know and trust, the amount of anger in Russian is increasing exponentially. The elites know well that the possibility of these feelings reaching the stage where they erupt and confront them with losing systemic control is drawing closer. That civic explosion needed to be stymied with a distraction — a home-front safety valve, if you will — to redirect anger away from the real causes of Russian domestic failure and its perpetrators. This is, in my opinion, is one of the key reasons why Putin launched his “small victorious war” against a neighbour blithely assumed to be a military pushover.
And there is another factor in the war’s genesis — the fear of where the gradual decrease in Russia’s Slavic population will lead. The influx of the non-Slavic migrants, mostly Muslim, from the former Soviet republics is becoming a threat to Russia’s traditional ethnic identity. Some Russian towns are already critically short of the Russian men, who have been drafted and, according to intelligence estimates, killed in the tens of thousands. The nightmare of the present generation of Russian women having no prospect of building families of their own, known only too well after the WWII, looms large. Reincorporating and absorbing into Russia’s population Ukraine’s Slavic population might ameliorate this looming demographic catastrophe — or so the theory goes.
AFTER one and a half years of the baseless war on Ukraine, Russia has an astonishing number of private armed formations, more than forty of them, according to reports. Should things go bad, expect chaos as these factions fall out and fight each other in a repeat of the turf wars that marked the 90’s, when the spoils of the USSR’s collapse were up for grabs. The ensuing chaos — smootah in Russian — might well turn out to be spectacular in its lawlessness, self-destruction and human cost.
Another historical precedent also begs to be considered. When the last Czarist government felt imperiled by the possibility of a revolution it sought to use antisemitism as a safety valve. Similarly, today’s Russian government has sought to deflate the level of dissatisfaction within Russian society by demonizing Ukraine and “Nazi Ukrainians”. Astonishingly, according to the official Russian propaganda, Ukrainians now occupy the scapegoat spot assigned to Jews for 2000 years.
We are living through a painfully stark moment of truth. Our triumphalist, self-congratulation at winning the Cold War is over. The reality of future confrontation, the possibility of the WWIII, the first real clash of this war’s beginning, is upon us. With it comes the polarization of democracy versus autocracy, with resurgent China leading the charge. Autocracies and dictatorships are uniting. We should do the same.
It pains me to repeat this, but we, the people of the Free World, and our governments have emboldened our enemies to attain positions of strength from which they feel strong enough to attack us. The late Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky begged the US Congress not to permit trade, any trade at all, with the Soviet Union: “Your trade puts the handcuffs on our hands”. I can only ask you to mull Bukovsky’s words, while adding that the same wisdom should apply to trading and co-operating with the Russian Federation, Communist China, bizarre North Korea, fanatical Iran and similar actors. They will put handcuffs on all of us.
So, the key question: Will we step on the same garden rake again?
I’d like to express my gratitude to my friend , mentor and editor Dr Peter Arnold OAM, for his help with this essay.
Dr Michael Galak and his family came to Australia as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978
Here is incomplete list of wars of aggression, not counting WWII, the USSR or its legal successor, the Russian Federation, have pursued:
1918 – 1920 1st Soviet – Finnish war
1918 –1920 Soviet – Estonian war
1919 -1920. Soviet – Lithuanian war
1921 – 1922 Soviet – Polish war
1921 -1922. 2nd Soviet – Finnish war
1929. Special Military Operation (SMO) Afghanistan
1930. SMO Afghanistan
1934. China operation
1936 – 1939. Spanish Civil War
1938 – 1939. Soviet – Japanese war
1939 Soviet invasion of Poland
1939 – 1940 3rd Soviet – Finnish war
1941 Invasion to Iran
1944 – 1956. Western Ukrainian war
1944 – 1956. Lithuanian war
1950 – 1953. Korean war
1956. Hungarian revolt
1957 – 1975 Vietnam war
1968 Czechoslovakia invasion
1975 – 1991 Angola war
1979 – 1989 Afghanistan invasion
1991 – 1993 Georgia/Abkhaz intervention
1992 Moldova/Transnistria intervention
1992 – 1997 Tadjikistan intervention
1994 – 1996. 1st Chechen war
1999 – 2000 2nd Chechen war
2008. Georgia war
2014. Crimea invasion
2015 Syria intervention
2018. Central African Republic intervention
2022 Ukraine war