The only thing that is surprising about Putin’s move on Ukraine is that the West is surprised. For nearly 20 years, ever since Putin was certain that he had cemented his authority, Russia’s neighbours have been given the choice of enduring satellite status or attack.
As long as old Soviet warhorses were in power in central Asia and kleptocrats in Eastern Europe, that was a simple enough doctrine for Putin to be comfortable with and for them to understand. The moment those like-minded rulers began to be removed he had a choice too. Join a new age of imperfect but plausible democratic government in which leaders had to accept their power could not last for life, or bring post-Soviet states to heel.
He was too late to stop some of them defecting once they had been admitted to the European Union but the point could still be made.
At home, he has steadily throttled attempts at free expression and open dissent, learning from China how to do it in a century no longer dependent on print. Chechnya was crushed. Georgia was destabilised, split and cowed. Furthest West, Serbia has been manipulated to remain in his orbit. More recently Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan have been reminded where the real power lies.
That leaves Ukraine: too big to ignore, just small enough in military and population terms to intimidate. That intimidation has failed to have the desired effect, though, and Ukraine, a modern state that Putin feels should only exist if it is dependent on Russia, has gradually inched West and away from Muscovite interests.
It is wise not to forget Putin’s strong influence on and adherence to Russia’s Orthodox Church. For a long time he saw a form of pan-orthodoxy as a way to unite cultures from Kyiv to Greece but that was scuppered by the Ukrainian church’s renunciation of the Moscow patriarchy. The ousting of his puppet Trump from the US presidency and the fact that Ukraine’s new democratic president has turned out to be tougher than any TV comedian could be expected to be has enraged Putin.
His calculation is that if he does not enforce his authority now, he never will. His only domestic opponent is in a Siberian gulag. The American administration is seen as weak, especially since its abject capitulation in Afghanistan. The EU has no defence architecture to speak of. Covid has wrecked Western economies and their global influence.
Brexit and its incompetent cabinet has made the UK irrelevant, as have a dozen years of spending cuts (James Bond’s line, “I work for the British government,” would no longer inspire much reassurance). China is stronger than ever and hates Western citizen power as much as Putin does.
He has planned a reversal of Russia’s 1980s status decline ever since he left Dresden and moved to Leningrad – don’t be surprised if he reverses that name change too sometime. He may be becoming a psychopath but his actions have the logic of a video game.
It is all very well to understand chunks of that, but we need a policy. Of course Russian military attack has to be resisted and countered. If Putin’s strategy is to fail in the long term, though, we will need to offer carrots, not just sticks.
These can’t be a resumption of access to our banks and property markets for the kleptocrats. We need to do what we should have done in 1990 when, through timidity and a failure of imagination, the US and European Community (as it was then) went no further than German reunification and condemned the other Warsaw Pact countries to at least 20 years of poverty and criminal subjugation.
Let us have the courage now to put a new offer on the table and make sure it is heard throughout Russia and other autocratic states. Europe – the one that goes from the Azores to Vladivostok via Shetland and Crete – has been taking its ideology from imperialism for far too long. Reject authoritarian government by whatever means you can, encourage your armies to refuse to engage in the adventures of dictators.
If that happens, the West will reshape itself to include you properly; travel without visas but with care for the environment, study where you want without prohibitive fees, work and settle wherever there is work to be done, enjoy all your languages but communicate in something common, know that pensions, health and social care will be guaranteed, and most of all, know that you can get rid of any regime that gets too bossy.
Although you would never know it, the institutions are already in place and every country except Belarus is a member. Reimagine the scope and functions of the Council of Europe and OSCE so that they do some of the things the EU does without all the technical regulation stuff and NATO does through limiting the behaviour of armed forces. Look for equivalence in systems, not uniformity.
Get all levels of government to see them as guarantors of freedom, not just by official ratification of conventions but through the power to remove rulers who overstep the mark. Once we are through the current turmoil, we must seize the opportunity to come up with globally enforceable standards of governance throughout our polity.
If we don’t, in the middle years of this century we will probably wipe out most of ourselves as climate change bites.