What is Putin up to?
Thursday, February 24, 2022
I practised law in Central and Eastern Europe. My old firm had offices in both Moscow and Kyiv. I lived in Warsaw (11 years) and Moscow (7 years). The region is where most of my friends are, including both Russians and Ukrainians.
I am pleased to see some of the former putting dove of peace emblems on their social media profiles. It says much about Russia that I worry it may have adverse consequences for them. One of my Ukrainian friends was interviewed on BBC radio recently. It was chilling to hear his usual calm, reasonable tone as he talked of joining a citizens militia and preparing to resist invasion. He and I were law partners. I fear for his safety and that of his family. He was born to a Ukrainian family in Canada and had the option to leave. I respect and admire his decision to stay and fight. I hope, in his position, I would have his courage. As his friend, I wish he was in Canada.
I hoped against hope that Putin was sabre-rattling. Part of the secret of his success has always been that, one way or another, he keeps Russia in the western news, which soothes his electorate. Why? Because it was a shock to their collective psyche to descend from being one of two super-powers to just a regular nation with an economy the size of Belgium's. Britain struggled psychologically in descending from being the greatest empire in history to just another G7 nation, but we had decades to adjust. We had time to build such institutions as the Commonwealth to soothe the jangled psyches of citizens used to red world maps in their classrooms. Russia had only days.
I am not excusing Putin's aggression by saying the West has made terrible mistakes in handling the demise of the USSR. They flowed not from malice but from a naive, innocent and as it turns out optimistic belief that Russia would rapidly become just like us. Fukuyama's book The End of History and the Last Man (published as I moved to Warsaw) pretty much summed up our leaders' attitude in that respect. The West simply did not feel the need to take the Russian elite's paranoid views on NATO seriously. It saw Russia just as a new, economically-insignificant, member of the Free World.
NATO was an anti-Soviet defensive alliance. Its weaponry was trained on Russia and the Warsaw Pact. When the USSR ended, it should probably have been disbanded precisely because Russia's military and intelligence communities (who, unlike in other Warsaw Pact countries, were not purged after the fall of the USSR) had grown up thinking of it as "the enemy." They felt threatened by it. That feeling was unjustified. NATO was a defensive alliance with a "no first strike" doctrine. It poses no threat to Russia now and, in fact, never did. The feeling is real though. More accomplished diplomats than ours would have understood its significance.
If post-Soviet Russia's economy had been bigger, it might have been listened to. Ignoring the fears of its generals and spies because it was now a country that didn't matter very much seems in retrospect to have been an error. It won't help a paranoiac to laugh and say he doesn't matter enough for anyone to be out to get him.
This became a worse (but still unrecognised) problem when Putin and his chekisti (ex-KGB men) came to power. The military, intelligence and political communities were in practice just different arms of the Communist Party in Soviet times. Real democratic politics was in its infancy when Putin came to power. Once he was in the Kremlin, Russia's political elite was once more completely aligned with the attitudes of old KGB guys like him.
I suppose we in the West thought we could just rewrite NATO doctrine and retarget its weaponry to handle other threats. NATO worked, so why not repurpose it? The other Warsaw Pact countries, after all, cheerfully applied to join. I was in Poland when that happened and can assure you my friends there still saw it (having had the same education as their Russian contemporaries) as an anti-Russian alliance. That's exactly why (knowing Mother Russia rather better than we did) they wanted to join! I mentioned to a person I met from the Foreign Office at the time that I thought it was a mistake because Polish attitudes were (a) entirely contrary to NATO doctrine and (b) likely to fuel Russian paranoia. She said (I quote from memory, but I am confident it's pretty accurate);
The Foreign Secretary privately agrees with you but the Cabinet doesn't. Anyway the Americans wouldn't hear of excluding Poland.
So while we in the West sincerely saw NATO expansion as harmless (and would probably have accepted Russia as a member, with some conditions) the Russians didn't. Neither did some of their former allies who were joining it – and the Russians knew that. We are not responsible for their paranoia, but we did feed it.
That said, Putin is lying comprehensively in his depiction of NATO. There's a useful (and very mild) web page of refutations from NATO itself, which is well worth a read. He is just spinning a yarn to justify doing what he wants to do. He's pretty clearly expressed his view that the Ukraine has no right to exist as an independent nation. My hopes have failed. He's about to fix that "error" and, in so doing, write himself into Russian history as (he thinks) a hero.
The Putin of my days in Moscow was cleverer than this. He knew that rattling his sabre was enough. I fear that his isolated life for so long among people too scared of him to tell him he's wrong has caused him to lose his mind. I don't fear for the West, which could defeat his armies as readily as we could defeat those of Belgium, I do fear for my friends in the region.
I explained to a Ukrainian lady I met yesterday that – while I could understand if she had no time for that at the moment – I feel sorry for the Russian people. They are a wonderful, cultured people who have almost always been badly led because of endemic corruption. The end of the USSR didn't end that, as anyone who'd read Gogol could have predicted. Russia didn't stop being a problem to the West when the USSR fell. It may prove to become a worse problem now because the old Communist leaders always responded rationally to circumstances. I fear this madman won't.
The West's leaders must perform better now than they have so far because how they respond could expose the world to much more than the loss of Ukraine's independence.
Thanks James. I am trying to spend a peaceful day, but I am in no mood to celebrate. Time will heal, if I am granted enough of it.
Posted by: Tom | Friday, March 18, 2022 at 10:46 AM
Thinking of you this day, Tom. Let the personal trauma abate.
Posted by: James Higham | Friday, March 18, 2022 at 08:04 AM
"Atrocities" of Western Agencies? Really? You've swallowed the мистификация hook line and sinker, James. I love Russia but even the most patriotic Russian I know, who will rail at "the West" with the best of them, tells me privately that he cannot support what Putin has done.
"The West" is very largely a Russian conspiracy theory anyway. There is no command and control of a unified entity in the sense that Russia has. There never was. The West was at its least disunified with the threat of a Soviet attack and a strong America to lead it. We have neither now. Even then, the continentals were free-loading.
The fascistic mentality underlying the expression "brother nation" (aren't all men brothers?) is the problem here, not any of the West's stupid errors, which are just used for cover. Putin is an old-fashioned Slavic nationalist. His ire is more for Slavs who don't crave Slavic brotherhood, than for dirty foreigners like us with Ukrainian flags on our profile pics.
There's a good article in the Sunday Telegraph today about how disunited the West really is. Britain and the US have closed sterling and dollar clearing to Russia, but the EU still permits Euro clearing. The value of Russian bank assets sanctioned in the UK is £258.8 billion; in the whole of the EU it is £38.8 billion and the Continentals are anyway busy carving out their own key exports from sanctions altogether - e.g. Italian luxury goods.
Continentals are virtue-signalling like crazy with doves and flags on their Facebook pages but their governments are – as always – leaving the defence of Europe to the anglophones they so comprehensively despise. Putin must be laughing.
Posted by: Tom | Sunday, March 06, 2022 at 10:41 AM
One can turn a blind eye to the atrocities of western agencies in the Ukraine for only so long, to child trafficking and money laundering, to wodge-bunging between politicians of both nations, to carrying out highly dangerous Wuhan level research on a brother nation's doorstep, to shelling of two of its own provinces by this nation on the advice of militias within the country, 2015 to 2022 ... yes ... only for so long ... then that brother will react.
Posted by: James Higham | Saturday, March 05, 2022 at 10:01 PM
When this Ukraine business started Legiron of Underdogsbiteupwards blog mentioned the biolabs in that country, and on Feb 28 The Slog (https://therealslog.com/2022/02/28/ukraine-no-smoke-without-fire/) goes into more detail on that subject. In the comments on that post Arfur Mo gave us this video by a US businessman in Kiev https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vdiEABLFoo
It does seem as though the invasion is more than just a 21st century Tsar wanting his empire back.
Posted by: Tcheuchter | Thursday, March 03, 2022 at 11:02 AM
It will be fascinating to speculate on Putin’s mental health when this is over. As long as the Russian armed forces obey his orders, it will be too soon to allow such speculation to influence action. We can’t be like the namby-pamby judges of our soft and decadent nation in excusing the actions of a criminal because of his difficult upbringing or poor mental health. He’s the Commander in Chief of a powerful army he’s sent on a wicked mission. I feel sorry for the Russian soldiers facing danger because of him, some of whom were told they were on exercises in Russia and didn’t know they were at war until fired upon. I feel sorry for them but they *are* at war and no one can blame the Ukrainians for defending their country as best they can.
Posted by: Tom | Tuesday, March 01, 2022 at 04:59 AM
Vlad you are my friend, not just my colleague, and I thank you for contributing to the discussion. I know you as a calm, thoughtful person and a Russian patriot. There’s much to be patriotic about and I respect that.
Another of our partners who was present at one of the conversations you mentioned verified the gist of what you say. Our former partner from Ukraine is indeed a Ukrainian patriot with strongly hostile views about Russia. Views I don’t share, as I hope you know.
But, with respect, so what? In Ireland and France (to give but two of many examples) there are people who hate England and wish us harm. Their views on us and our contribution to world history are every bit as strong as our former partner’s views of Russia. The world would condemn us — quite rightly — as war criminals if we invaded them on that pretext.
Everything you say is true but none of it justifies Putin’s invasion. I respect you enough to believe that, while you’ve illuminated the history of tension between the nations at war, you don’t think so either.
Posted by: Tom | Tuesday, March 01, 2022 at 04:48 AM
The West’s politicians have been naive and stupid in dealing with Russia. There’s no doubt about that. Anyone who spent time there knew the score, so their diplomats must have told them. The Russian establishment’s paranoia about NATO was no less significant for being irrational.
You lived there when I did James and share my affection for Russia, its people and culture. Putin is not entirely to blame for the tensions, but his decision to invade a neighbour that posed no threat to Russia is a war crime. He’s responsible for that.
Posted by: Tom | Tuesday, March 01, 2022 at 04:29 AM
A couple of articles talking about Putin's invasion of Ukraine gave me pause for thought...
+ His immediate advisors didn't know that he planned to invade.
+ He was diligent on isolating himself due to Covid and during that time of being isolated from others his personality changed. He was more moderate and measured in his thinking before his period of chosen Self Isolation.
Posted by: CherryPie | Saturday, February 26, 2022 at 03:26 AM
I am Vlad S, I am Russian, currently residing in Moscow, I am an ex-partner of Tom’s old law firm and an ex-colleague of Tom.
Tom, I will not respond to all the points that you raised (although I disagree with most))) Will allow myself, however, an important remark. You mentioned that you respect and admire one of your Ukrainian-Canadian friends... We both know the man as we did work in the same firm at the time. So that you know - he was the guy who banned the use of Russian language in the Kiev office back in 2005-2010 (long before the hostilities) calling my language "the language of dogs" ("собачий язык")... I had a few conversations with this guy myself at the time. I strongly believe that he is one of those who did contribute quite a chunk to what is happening these days. So please, do not admire him - blame him.
To be fair, that guy was not the only one who started the hostilities back then. There were plenty of people in the Ukraine like him, some of them made it to the government. A lot of them never lived un the USSR, by the way, they were immigrants. These guys were sowing seeds of hatred between Ukrainians and Russians. And activities like this resulted in Maidan, a banal coup d'etat which resulted in the overturn of corrupt bult legally elected president, the Odessa killing, the Donbass war and the current events. To me this is a very logical chain of events.
Russia made hundreds of mistakes itself when dealing with Ukraine. But, Tom, the fire was not started two days ago - it was started long before. And that fire was not lit by the Russians.
Posted by: vlad s | Friday, February 25, 2022 at 11:38 AM
A Russian-friendly regime in Kiev was overthrown in a coup supported by the West. The Ukrainians have been shelling civilians in the Donbass with weapons supplied by the West. I don't think Putin is solely or even primarily at fault for the current situation.
Posted by: James | Thursday, February 24, 2022 at 09:13 PM