I read somewhere (not sure where) that Putin would wait until the Winter Olympics finished and then act. And that is exactly what happened as the Olympics ended on Sunday and the next day Putin recognised the independence of the two disputed areas in the east of Ukraine, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. That was serious, as although they have been controlled and the separatists armed by Russia ever since the Russian Ukrainian war in 2014, they were considered by one and all to be part of Ukraine. The thinking behind that Russian grip on those two areas being that Putin wanted those areas to remain Ukrainian so that he could influence Ukrainian foreign policy – but that all changed on Monday.
This ‘recognition’ also pretty much destroyed any possibility that the implementation of the Minsk Agreement might be the way to get out of this dangerous situation. Putin signed a presidential order, then signed two treaties with separatist leaders, and Russian troops marched in to conduct ‘peace-keeping’ duties. Now if that had remained as the status quo, with Russian forces remaining in the disputed areas, some pundits took the view that this was the least-worse case scenario. However, do not forget that the disputed territories do not extend throughout the entire Donbas area so a slightly higher level of a worst-case scenario was thought to be Russian troops extending the borders to include the whole Donbas area. This scenario would have still meant some pretty awful fighting between a very well trained Ukrainian army and Russian troops.
Unfortunately, there has been nothing swift or stealthy about Putin’s next steps as the absolute worst-of-all-cases scenario has happened. On Thursday 24.02.2002 at 5.0am GMT Russian troops began advancing on many fronts throughout Ukraine and war has come to Europe.
So, what now? Well, there are still questions to be asked and issues to be examined, including: what does Putin want, where will this fighting go, and what if anything can the West do?
What does Putin want? You began to realise that Putin’s world view was somewhat distorted during his hour-long televised speech on Monday night. Apparently the speech was a truncated version of his 5000 word thesis “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” published last year in July.
So reader, I only went and read it. And it is an astonishing document and I wish I’d read it earlier because it’s all there and if any pundit or politician says they weren’t expecting this full invasion from Russia (actually most did think Russia would invade) they obviously had not read Putin’s words and understood that he sees Ukrainians and Russians as one people and that genuine sovereignty for Ukraine is only possible under Russia’s supervision. In other words, the entire country of Ukraine is basically Russia.
Putin justifies this view with a history lesson that begins in the 9th Century and takes an unverified ramble from those earliest moments through to the Bolshevik revolution ending with the amazing notion that Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era and these Bolsheviks, who are basically the bad guys, robbed Russia of the Ukraine.
So there you are, and note that I put a definite article before Ukraine. This is because that is how Putin defines Ukraine; an illegitimate non-existent country that has to be returned to the Russian fold, it is the Ukraine, an area, not a country.
That’s what is in Putin’s mind. And sadly, that is why all the diplomatic efforts made no impact on Putin whatsoever. Btw, I do not see this as coming from the Russian people as astonishingly there have been protests against the war in many parts of Russia, and I say astonishingly as opposition and protests are usually savagely put down. And we do see, via the BBC, protestors being hauled off into prison vans – hope they are safe. So this is not coming from the Russian population. This is one man’s vision, and we know that as, apparently, there was a strange press conference (I didn’t watch this but have read about it) where he grilled his own advisers as to whether they supported the invasion of Ukraine, and they kind of did, but it was a bizarre sight. So, one man’s vision and such a dangerous one. By the way, I stand by my view that the expansion of NATO, which ostensibly is to keep us safe has pushed Putin’s view towards protecting Russia with a more pro-Russian country on its border and one that will never (while he rules) join NATO. The way NATO expanded seems to have been done without any thought of how it might look to Russia.
So now we are have an all-out assault on Ukraine with troops and tanks entering Kyiv as I write. But if it goes Russia’s way and it probably will – can you hold a country? And the answer to that is always, no. You only have to look at Russia’s incursion into Afghanistan for that. Or what about the West and Iraq? Vietnam anyone? You probably could install a puppet government in the Ukraine but at what cost? Russian troops would have to be a feature of Ukraine for ever, and there will be a long drawn out guerrilla war that might last many years.
It’s shocking, it’s a tragedy. So what can we do. Not a lot. But there are to be sanctions and I hear our government trumpeting the news that we are putting in “the largest set of sanctions ever” on Russia. Well that’s good, and yet, London is awash with Russian money because of the so-called golden visa scheme, which since 2008 allowed a fast track to residence status if they were worth more than 2 million. Consequently, we have many wealthy Russians buying property in London, sending their children to our public (these are private) schools, buying various newspapers and football clubs and giving donations to the Tory party for heaven’s sake! OK, that scheme is now scrapped, but for nearly 25 years we have allowed Russian money to pour into our country, and the City of London in particular – shame on the Labour government for allowing that in the first place! And of course, that doesn’t mean the visas are rescinded it just prevents new applications.
To be honest I can’t see Putin worrying too much about these sanctions to begin with, Russia has financial reserves aplenty. Just maybe as time passes the sanctions coming from around the world will begin to bite and the public become restless, maybe. But like one pundit I read I rather think of sanctions as pretend toughness.
I’m actually not keen on this belligerent shouting at Putin (in the Houses of Parliament for example). Yes Putin has to be totally condemned for his actions but in the end most disputes, incursions, invasions end with diplomacy and negotiation. Macron tried and failed but there will have to be negotiation at some point. But at the moment Putin won’t be stopped by the West.
But what else can be done because the one thing that everyone seems to be agreed on, is that there will be no boots on the ground from NATO and/or America. That is not on the cards and never can be. But will we be sending arms to the Ukraine? If we do I hope it’s absolutely clear to governments who supply this lethal aid that we would then be fighting a proxy war with Russia. And Russia would know that and retaliate, not with weapons and troops but Putin is very adept at using other means, including poison, don’t forget.
I ask again, what does Putin want – less of NATO? Well he’ll probably get more of NATO what with the concerted efforts that will go to protect the smaller Baltic countries. Does he want another Iron Curtain? Well, he seems to be angling for that. But he definitely wants Ukraine to become the Ukraine. This is so dangerous. But there is very little we can do.
However, there is one person that Putin might listen to and that’s China’s President Xi Jinping. Don’t forget Putin has taken troops away from Russia’s border with China to fight in Ukraine. Jingping is the one person who might stop Putin. We have failed, let us hope that China might prevail.
Penny Kocher, 25th February 2022
Vladimir Putin, On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukraine. Kremlin.ru. 12 July 2021 (essential reading but I can’t get it to load to give you a link – probably a lot of people are trying to read it.)
James Meek, Real Men from Real Places. James Meek on Russia’s Neighbours. Volume 13 London Review of Books. 6 January 2022 (A little out of date as events have moved on but very good on Belarus as well as Ukraine)
And numerous articles published in The Guardian