Danny Dorling on the young: They are being taken for a ride. Photo: Getty
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Danny Dorling: If you are young in Britain today, you are being taken for a ride

The young are discriminated against in ways in which it would be illegal to differentiate between men and women, or between more and less disabled people, or on the basis of race or religion.

If you are young in Britain today you may well be being taken for a ride. Your parents also know this is happening to you but they don’t know what to do. In the media they learn of anonymous “Whitehall sources” claiming that the government already knows there is a strong risk that the next generation of adults will end up worse off than today’s older generation. They drip-feed this news out, managing down expectations.

The anonymous voices explain that many children and younger adults face the prospect of having lower living standards than those of their parents. These were the same sources that released the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission report of autumn 2013 explaining that now, for the first time ever, a grandmother in her eighties can expect to enjoy higher living standards than someone in their twenties who is in work. They said it was because housing costs for the young are now so high and wages, if you are young, are usually so poor. But that was not the only reason the young are worse off. Another factor is that the rich see them as an easy target.

Today a few older people are making ever more money out of a lot of younger people. Look at the steep and accelerating rise in private renting in Britain, especially the increase among families with young children. If you are a young couple today you may well find yourself bringing up your new family while moving from one privately rented home to another. Soon a quarter of all children in Britain will see this as normal. Most do not stay longer than a year or so in any rented home. They continually have to move schools and lose friends. And why is this all happening? It is so that a few mostly older and much richer people can become very rich by renting out homes that used to be bought by those same families. It began under New Labour around 2003 and it has accelerated with the coalition. It is as if the wealthier old have convinced the young to look away from their money and towards the poorest of their own younger generation to blame for their plight. The young are told to blame other young adults for taking the dole.

It is in London where the young are most gullible and to which the affluent young flock after graduating. New findings from the Office for National Statistics show that the average age of people in the capital has recently fallen to 34 and that the average London wage is now £613 a week. However, half of all Londoners, including almost all younger adults, don’t receive this much. And that much is just £15 a day more than the national average wage of £506 a week.

For the median worker, London weighting is a “bonus” of less than £15 a day. Even if you have a good job and are paid as much as people often older than you, is this extra £15 enough to pay for you to live in London as a young adult? House prices in London now average £425,000; the UK national average is £242,000.

At the current rates of change, London house prices, inflated by the forces of globalisation, will be twice the national average within just two years and rents will rise to an even higher ratio. Average prices in London are already more than six times two average people’s combined wages. House prices in London are rising by 8.1 per cent a year, prices in the UK overall by 3.1 per cent, wages by less. If these trends continue, the cost of housing in London will be three times higher than the UK average by 2025 and ten times higher by 2050.

We can tell that the current housing-price trends are unsustainable just by looking at what would happen if they were to continue. By 2050 an average three-bedroomed home in London would cost £7.5m and the same house elsewhere in the country would fetch £750,000 – ten times less! But this is only if prices continue to rise as they are doing. The rich know that never before have prices risen so high for so long. But they also know it does not matter to them, as long as they cash out in time, or so long as they are the ones lending the money rather than borrowing it. It is as if the rich are trying to get the young into ever greater debt because the young are such a good “investment”. The young have so many years ahead of them to pay the interest.

A few people are making a great deal of money out of young adults in Britain today. At the same time many of the crumbs that were given to the young to compensate for harder times to come have been taken away. Until recently many youngsters received the Education Maintenance Allowance to help with the costs of going to college and, on a much smaller scale, a child trust fund to build up money for entering adulthood. Now these are mostly gone and the basic child allowance has also been cut for families in which any parent earns twice the average wage (over £50,000 a year). But if you think high earners need to contribute more, why make savings only from families with children? Why did the government not decide to raise money from all people earning over twice the average wage, and not just those who are parents? It has to be because they see they can get away with discriminating against the young.

The young are discriminated against in ways in which it would be illegal to differentiate between men and women, or between more and less disabled people, or on the basis of race or religion. Young people can be paid a lower minimum wage if in work, and a much lower wage if they are an apprentice. If aged under 30 and on low pay or no pay, a young person receives fewer housing benefits than would someone in the identical position but aged 30 or over. However, the greatest recent take from the young has been based on exploiting their gullibility, hope and optimism: university fees.

Half of all young women in England go to university and just over a third of young men. The tuition fees increase will hit women harder than men, but crucially it will not affect people now aged over 20, although it might add to the incomes of a very small minority. For all the many losers to come, there are a few potential winners waiting in the wings. When student loans are privatised the company will be bought by rich investors who will expect to profit from the interest that current students will pay in future.

Some potential investors in the proposed privatisation of student loans may be private pension funds. Those funds mostly pay out to richer pensioners. Hardly any young adults have private pensions and the numbers who do are falling. Only 2.9 million (mostly quite affluent) people have a private pension, half the number in 2000 and the lowest number recorded at any time since 1953. However, although the numbers of better-off future pensioners are small and falling, what they expect to get in pensions is large and rising. The pension funds need new sources to “invest” in. Student loans are one such source.

As private money moves from the young and poor towards the older rich, so public money, too, is being diverted in that direction. The government’s £12bn “Help to Buy” scheme helps maintain the value of housing prices. It is especially important to London, to upholding the assets of the rich, as it encourages younger people to borrow and to try to buy a home of their own. It allows a young adult to borrow to buy property worth up to £600,000, money that almost always then goes to older adults. If that scheme and other such subsidies for the rich are to be funded from the public purse and taxes are not to rise, in future our government will need to make more cuts for the young. It has begun by proposing to cut their benefits entirely, but this will just make matters worse.

Cutting unemployment benefit for under- 25s is the wrong policy because it damages the power of the market: it makes the market dysfunctional. When there is a dole, young people do not have to take any work, no matter how bad it is. A floor is put on quality. It is a very low floor. A job worth less to you than receiving £8.11 a day (Jobseeker’s Allowance for those aged under 25) need not be taken; £8.11 is not much, but at least there is a limit below which you need not go.

At present, people aged under 25 are told they are asking for too much in seeking to claim the Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) of £56.80 a week. David Cameron proposes removing this altogether if a Conservative majority is returned at the next election. He always looks first to the children and to adults younger than himself for efficiency savings. There are 1.09 million people between the ages of 16 and 24 not in work, education or training in the UK. But if a young adult was unlucky enough to claim the dole for a whole year they would receive just £2,927 to live on.

Cutting benefits for young adults will have a hugely detrimental effect on education and training because of the way it will remove the element of market choice from provision. We know that when the compulsory Youth Training Scheme (YTS) for school leavers was introduced in the 1980s, its impact was detrimental to the long-term well-being of those who were forced to take part. Parasuicide rates among young men who were unemployed were between ten and 25 times higher than for employed young men.

The compulsion on employers to take a scheme also had a long-term damaging impact on the reputation of the word “training”. It was from the start of the 1980s that “training” began to be associated with failure, and it was also from then that the adjective “higher” began commonly to be put in front of other forms of education to make it clear that there was a continuum from “training” through “further” and up to the dizzy heights of “higher”. Education was no longer a general good. Some types of education had become much better than others. More and more, the message was that the people at the bottom were being trained to do jobs to serve those above them. And if they didn’t do those jobs there should be no other option –no dole.

A year ago analysts noticed that the longterm youth unemployment rate was rising and that the sharp rise in the charts matched perfectly the introduction of the Work Programme in June 2011. The chart on page 27 shows a tenfold rise since then among the very long-term young unemployed. By September 2013 over 25,000 young people in the UK had been claiming JSA for more than two years. Hardly any did so in May 2010.

I grew up in Oxford, where David Cameron was a student, in the years when he was a student there. But I am a few years younger than he is, and was educated on the other side of that city before I went to university, too. I left school, signed on and then took a job working on a children’s play scheme during the summer before I went to university. I did this for three summers in the late 1980s. The play scheme operated only when the children were off school for six weeks. I was at university in Newcastle, where the terms were shorter than school holidays. The dole filled the gap when I was not being paid.

I can see that if you’ve never been turned down, if you’ve never found it hard to get a job, if you’ve never needed some space and time, you might find it hard to understand that asking for £8 a day to live on is not asking for much. I can see that if you’ve never had a job on a below-average wage, or are so rich that you think mortgages are for the lower orders, you might find it hard to understand why housing costs are unfair.

The Prime Minister claims that his policy is not callous; I agree with him, because callous means unfeeling. It is not unfeeling. It is not the result of his indifference to the suffering of others. I believe he feels strongly that young people should not get the housing benefits and dole to which they are entitled at present. It is obvious that he believes they are not suffering enough when they are living on JSA. He thinks the young of today need to suffer more if they are to be persuaded to try hard enough. I think the proposal to cut state benefits for the under-25s is calculating and cruel. It is calculating because it is aimed to secure more votes than it might lose. Does he think that it is possible to tell the young to wait because one day they, too, will be able to exploit those younger than themselves?

People err towards being optimistic; many think that these benefit cuts will not hurt them, or that they will not harm their family and friends, but in future they will. If at first they cut the rights of those aged under 25, how long will it be before they cut rights for older people, and rights to other things we once took for granted? How long before there are student loans for education at ages 16 and 17? In the future, what else will they cut that in the past they suggested was safe?

The Conservative message relies on optimism and on people not thinking too deeply. It relies on a majority of Tory voters, or of putative Tory voters, believing that somehow they or their children could all become as affluent as the minority of Conservatives who run their party. They call that “aspiration”. The Conservative message relies on at least 10 per cent thinking they can get into the top 1 per cent – or, if not them, their offspring. In truth, the message relies on innumeracy.

Take the housing market, but look at it from afar. Michael Goldfarb wrote recently in the New York Times about terraced houses in the area of London where he lives that have tripled in value since 2000. This is where two-bed-and-a-boxroom homes cost over a million pounds and where people in their fifties begin to live more on the money they make from remortgaging or selling their property than on any income from work. “It’s as if the whole British economy is based on housing speculation in the capital,” wrote Goldfarb. And all that speculation relies on the young being naive and buying at inflated prices on enormous mortgages, or paying inflated rents and never being able to save.

The Help to Buy scheme has been introduced as a short-term measure to try to keep the housing market rolling forward to the next election. Right now you don’t need to save to buy a home in London, as long as a parent will give you 5 per cent of the asking price – say, £30,000. But most people do not have such rich parents. Most people who buy housing in Britain today, and especially in London, are not younger adults, but increasingly a small subset of older ones – the landlords. By some estimates, landlords make up as little as 2 per cent of the population, yet they are taking a rising share of our money.

The Conservative message can be conveyed convincingly only by someone who believes in it. However, that someone needs others not quite to understand how 10 per cent cannot fit into 1 per cent. They need to turn the majority, who once fought for and won the welfare state, against welfare. They need to convince most people that if someone wants to say no to doing a job, any job, it is because they are lazy.

Work gets better only when we have a choice to say no to some work. We need to be able to say that it is too demeaning, too poorly paid, too dangerous or too dirty. Then the employers need to offer us enough money in return if they want that work done. That is what a well-functioning labour market looks like. It is what you get in a good society –a truly free labour market in place of servitude.

For work to be good work, there needs to be choice, including the choice to say no to bad work. The same is true of education and training. Young adults need a choice. It can become good when there is a choice not to take it, when there is a selection of provision and when there is no provider of last resort that you have no option but to endure. No sin-bin unit for the losers.

The same is true of the housing market; it works best where people have a choice, and some housing is regarded as unfit. Markets work when we have a choice to say no. The housing market does not work when governments spend billions to inflate prices artificially so that you have to buy whatever tiny dilapidated property you can afford, and are then made to feel grateful for being able to borrow so much money from people so much better off than you. House prices should have been falling as wages fell but that would have reduced the wealth of the richest.

Good choice can be provided in a private market, or in a mixed market, or in a wholly state-owned market, as was the case with the National Health Service when you could still choose your doctor and there were enough NHS dentists between whom to choose. Good choice is supposed to be the hallmark of the private market but it does not exist if most of those who are supposed to be choosing have no proper options. Make the poor much poorer and push more of the average towards poverty, and you reduce the power and energy of the majority to wield influence in all sectors of society.

If the Conservatives win a majority at the next election, all under-25s will lose the right to housing benefit. Yet 45 per cent of young housing-benefit claimants are parents. Young parents are the very opposite of the fictional, indolent youths with nothing to do. Because young families also need a room for their children, it is those young parents, mostly single mums in their twenties, who claim the large majority of the housing benefit that Cameron is seeking to cut. Those mums claim it purely to hand over to their private landlords, who then let them live in what are invariably among the poorest flats and houses in town.

What will happen when all these benefits for the under-25s are cut, should the Conservatives win an outright majority in 2015 and implement their proposals? How much more overcrowding will there be in the poorest homes? How much more hunger? How poorly clothed will the poorest become? How easy will it be for any unscrupulous employer to find cheap labour to work any hour of the day and night at any job? The employers might still have to pay the minimum wage, although even that is lower for those aged under 25, but they do not have to provide a minimum-quality job. They know their employees cannot say no.

Already it is compulsory to take any job offered should you be claiming JSA; however, you have a little freedom for a little time over which jobs you might apply for, and then a little choice over your enthusiasm at the job interviews because you are not yet required to lie and say how much you’d like to do a job you’d hate.

At the sharp end, cutting benefits for young adults makes us all worse off. All those who will be working as teachers and trainers on the schemes that become mandatory should know that many of their pupils do not want to be there. All those employing people to do those jobs that both they and their employees know should not be done on such low wages should realise that their workers despise them and would not choose to work for them freely. And as for the cuts to housing benefit, how much more stress, violence and abuse will continue in households because a young adult cannot leave home until he or she turns 25?

It is the very poorest of the young who are suffering most, but the living standards of the average young person in Britain are also deteriorating and young people’s hopes are evaporating. Young people who do comparatively well are also being hit hard. The £9,000-a-year university tuition fee looks very similar to a 49 per cent marginal rate of tax for future graduates, a rate being held in reserve, ready for when they achieve a modest income in the future. However, unlike a general tax that can be used for the common good, their 9 per cent top-up tax rate will go to the rich who buy the loan book.

Finally, what of the most successful of university graduates, the ones who go on to get a starter job in the City, and look to buy that tiny flat close to work? What will happen when they take out their 95 per cent mortgage and start repaying one-twenty-fifth of the borrowed capital out of what they take home after tax? For a few years they might be able to do it, just – until interest rates rise.

The vast majority of our young people are being ripped off. Have we taught them so badly that they do not know it?

Danny Dorling is the Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford

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How Vladimir Putin lost Ukraine

Putin’s war cost Russia its centuries-long shared identity with its neighbour. Now, Kyiv risks betraying the spirit of the Maidan revolution.

When the Russian inquest finally comes, the answer will be clear. It was President Vladimir Putin who lost Ukraine – after a millennium of shared east Slav identity. When the Ukrainian inquest into who lost the ­Euromaidan’s “Revolution of Dignity” finally comes, the answer, on the present evidence, will also be clear. It was an elite core of politicians and oligarchs who first worked a miracle in fighting Russia’s military Goliath to a stalemate – only to revert to kleptocratic business as usual when the acute threat eased.

Ukrainians’ consolidation of a distinct national identity after centuries of being regarded as a fuzzy subset of the dominant Russians – and after a quarter-century of independence – began in February 2014. It sounds banal to say that when one nation attacks a neighbour, especially if the two have regarded each other as brothers for a thousand years, the victims feel aggrieved and pull together against the attacker. But this is what happened when Putin launched his undeclared war on Ukraine, sent hooded “little green men” to take over Crimea’s regional parliament by intimidation, and then annexed the peninsula. The mutation of this early tactical success into strategic failure is best traced by reviewing the players and the dynamics as Ukraine held off Russia and crystallised its singular new identity.

On the Russian side only one actor matters: Putin. When the old Soviet Union split apart in 1991, its kleptocracy was replicated in its two biggest east Slav successor states. By 2015 Russia ranked a joint 119th out of 167 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Ukraine was 130th. A Wild East capitalism prevailed, in which emergent oligarchs carved up the state’s wealth through murky privatisation deals. But there was one main political difference between the two countries. Putin quickly restored the primacy of politicians over Russian tycoons after he became president. In Ukraine, oligarchs were able to use their new wealth to dominate politics.

When Putin suddenly broke out from Europe’s seven-decade peace order in February 2014, Western policymakers asked the diminished number of Kremlinologists in their midst why he was acting this way. Some, such as Dmitry Gorenburg, an associate at Harvard’s Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies and a military analyst, pointed to fear as the Russian president’s root instinct. Putin has shown little interest in economics; he has not worried about looming inflation or capital flight, or Russia’s distorting reliance on oil and gas revenues. What he was afraid of, it seemed, was unchecked democratic contagion: as transmitted from Poles in the 1980s to restive East Germans and then Czechs in 1989, to Ukrainians in the mid-2000s, and even on to Muscovites in 2011/12 before Putin managed to stop their street protests.

This analysis is plausible. In 1989, as a young officer of the Soviet Committee for State Security, Putin was serving with the KGB’s Dresden outpost. He saw the Berlin Wall fall – overnight, under the press of East Berliners who mistakenly thought it had been officially opened. He later faulted the then Soviet Communist Party chief, Mikhail Gorbachev, for failing to intervene militarily when the wall crumbled, or when protesters stormed the Stasi headquarters across the street from his office to halt the incineration of incriminating files by East Germany’s adjunct of the KGB. He watched Moscow’s 20 top divisions, which encircled Berlin for half a century after the glorious Soviet victory over Hitler in 1945, retreat ingloriously a thousand miles to the east.

Putin further witnessed the swift break­away of Moscow’s external empire, in the stampede of the freed central Europeans, from Estonia to Romania, to join the European Union and Nato, and the 1991 break-up of Moscow’s internal Soviet empire. He called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. And as late as 2008 – 17 years after more than 92 per cent of Ukrainian citizens, including the 21 per cent ethnic Russian minority, had voted for independence – he told President George W Bush, “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country.”

***

Most agonising of all, in his first term as Russia’s president in the 21st century, Putin had to listen to American triumphalism about the series of pro-democracy “colour revolutions” in the streets of ex-communist Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. For him, as a career secret policeman, these revolutions represented no broad social yearning for “dignity”, as the Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa first phrased it. Rather, it was an inexplicable victory by American CIA manipulations – in what was Moscow’s own sphere of influence, by right – over the manipulations of Russia’s FSB, successor to the Soviet KGB.

The uprising that aroused the most angst in the Kremlin was the Orange Revolution on Kyiv’s main square, or maidan, where protesters demanded and won a repeat of the 2004 election after blatant vote-rigging in favour of the then prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian heir apparent to the Ukrainian presidency. It was bad enough for Moscow when the west Slavs in Poland and Czechoslovakia instantly ditched their Slavic identity for a European one in the 1990s: Poland uprooted systemic corruption, built robust democratic and judicial institutions, and went from having a poverty rate that matched Ukraine’s to a per capita GDP three times the size of its neighbour’s today. It was devastating when the Little Russians, too, began to do so, rejecting Yanukovych and Russia’s network of control in the rerun of the vote in 2004.

In the event, Putin need not have worried. The Orange Revolution self-destructed in the fratricide between its two top leaders, who forfeited leadership to Yanukovych in the reasonably fair 2010 election.

On the Ukrainian side of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, four figures stand out. The two chief rivals are the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko (worth $979m, and number six on Novoye Vremya magazine’s 2015 list of the richest Ukrainians), and the then governor of Dnipropet­rovsk in central Ukraine, Ihor Kolomoyskyi (number two on the list, at $1.9bn).

Poroshenko was a second-tier oligarch who had served briefly as foreign minister in the Orange Revolution government and as minister for trade and economic development under Yanukovych in 2012. He helped fund the pro-Europe, anti-corruption protest against Yanukovych’s authoritarian rule from the movement’s spontaneous inception in November 2013, and his TV news outlet Channel 5 gave full coverage to the three-month agora and its estimated one million participants.

After Yanukovych finally sent his special police to suppress the protest by killing dozens of the demonstrators in late February, the Ukrainian president’s own Party of Regions deserted him. He absconded to Russia overnight with an estimated personal fortune of $12bn, amassed in four years in office. Parliament, by a majority that suddenly included the Party of Regions, appointed an interim president and government and set presidential elections for May 2014. The “Chocolate King”, as Poroshenko was nicknamed for his confectionery empire, was duly elected president of the new Ukraine with a 54 per cent majority.

Kolomoyskyi, who also holds Israeli and Cypriot citizenship, was called back to Ukraine from his Swiss residence by the improvised government just as Russia was annexing Crimea. He was appointed governor of his own regional stronghold of Dnipropetrovsk with a mandate to mount a defence against the Russia-stoked secession brewing in neighbouring eastern Ukraine. Kolomoyskyi was famed for his hostile takeovers of rival banks as well as oil, media and other firms. He quickly raised and underwrote several militias among the 40 to 50 volunteer battalions that sprang up to fight against westward spread of the start-up separatist Donetsk (DPR) and Luhansk (LPR) People’s Republics. These battalions were instrumental in holding the line against separatist/Russian forces and giving the Ukrainian state time to rebuild the army that Yanukovych had bled of its budget.

Two oligarchs who did not cast their lot in with post-Euromaidan Ukraine were Rinat Akhmetov (at $4.5bn still the richest Ukrainian, even after losing more than half of his wealth over the past year) and Dmytro Firtash, whose net worth has fallen to $1bn. Both had been leading supporters of Yanukovych and his party, and since his departure they have hedged their bets between Kyiv and Moscow. Their recent losses have resulted partly from a redistribution of their wealth to other oligarchs.

Akhmetov, the son of a coal miner who rose to become the “godfather” of the Donetsk clan – and the owner of Shakhtar Donetsk football club – has his coal and iron base in the war-ravaged Don Basin (Donbas) and relies on Moscow’s goodwill there. Firtash, who under President Yanukovych controlled the lucrative distribution of Russian gas through Ukrainian pipelines to Europe, is also dependent on Russia. In spring 2014, he asked the Russian oligarch Vasily Anisimov to pay a record Austrian bail of €125m ($141m) in cash to get him out of jail. Under the bail terms, Firtash is barred from leaving Austria as he awaits the final legal decision on a US extradition request on charges of international bribery. Yet from Vienna he still wields his political clout, funds several Ukrainian parties across the political spectrum and, it is widely reported, brokered a division of power between Poroshenko and Vitaly Klitschko in the run-up to the May 2014 presidential election, in which Klitschko stood down as a candidate. (The former world heavyweight boxing champion is now mayor of Kyiv.)

***

Putin no doubt saw his annexation of Crimea – and his follow-on campaign to reconquer Catherine the Great’s “Novorossiya”, comprising the eastern 40 per cent of today’s Ukraine – as compensation for the abrupt downfall of his acolyte Yanukovych, and thus the end of Russia’s rightful suzerainty over all of Ukraine. Europeans, Americans and Ukrainians, on the contrary, saw the first formal takeover of a neighbour’s land in Europe since the Second World War as Putin’s return to a 19th-century concept of “might makes right”, as well as a violation of international law and treaties Moscow had signed to respect Ukrainian borders.

The West was cautious in reacting. It baulked at getting sucked into another intervention in a theatre of complicated logistics and little geopolitical interest. It knew as well as Putin did that Moscow enjoys escalation dominance in its home region by virtue of geography, its claim to a vital interest in Ukraine that the West lacks, and the Russian president’s willpower in a world of European peace and US exhaustion. It had no desire to put Putin’s repeated brandishing of his nuclear weapons to the test over a second-order confrontation. The West therefore responded by imposing financial rather than military sanctions, which Putin prematurely scorned as a pinprick.

In addition, Putin misread Ukraine’s military resilience. Easy success in Crimea – and strong domestic approval of his boasts that he was restoring Russia’s greatness in the world – emboldened him to probe further in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s ragtag army had put up no resistance in Crimea, for three reasons. First, years of embezzlement of defence budgets had left it with only 6,000 combat-ready soldiers and with two-decade-old weapons. Second, it was subverted by the many Ukrainian officers who were loyal to Moscow rather than Kyiv. Finally, there was Ukrainians’ sheer disbelief – despite Stalin’s mass starvation of Ukrainian peasants in the 1930s – that Russians would actually shoot at their proclaimed younger brothers.

Putin expected an equally cost-free operation in the Donbas. He seemed to believe his own propaganda that disgruntled Russian-speaking citizens of eastern Ukraine were Russians manqués and would rush to rebel against Kyiv, if only the charge were led by a few Russian commandos. Eastern Ukraine was, after all, the part of the country in which identity was most blurred; easterners paid little attention to differences between Ukrainians and Russians in everyday life, and most had cousins in both Russia and western Ukraine. In a way, the region was the ideal test of Putin’s construct of a unifying goal to fill the vacuum left after futurist communist ideology evaporated. The campaign was first presented as Putin’s dream of a Eurasian Union, but that was dropped once it became clear that Ukraine would not be a part of it. Thereafter it was repackaged as gathering in fellow ethnics left outside the “Russian world” by the Soviet collapse, and then as retaking the tsarist Novorossiya.

At first, the Russian-backed secessionists took quick control over roughly two-thirds of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, or provinces. Putin, however, overestimated the warrior zeal of the easterners and the usual gripes of any province about the meagre payouts it gets from central government. In the early days, the local people warmed to the promises of higher pensions made by the separatists. And grandmothers visibly enjoyed acting as civilian shields by surrounding local administration buildings that were occupied by separatists and preventing Ukrainian soldiers from reclaiming the offices. But as the novelty wore off and the hardship of war increased, Moscow and the secessionists it sponsored increasingly had to rely on a motley band of mercenaries and Donbas criminal gangs that did well in firefights only when they were assisted by Russian “volunteers” and armed with the heavy weapons the Russians were shuttling across the border.

In purely military terms, Putin probably could have escalated in the spring of 2014 from the kind of limited, disguised and therefore deniable warfare that the West calls “hybrid”, replacing the hooded “little green men” with regular Russian soldiers in marked uniforms in an all-out invasion of the Novorossiya oblasts. That was certainly the Russian president’s threat in massing 80,000 troops on the northern, eastern and southern borders of Ukraine and exercising them on high alert.

As late as September 2014 Putin boasted to President Poroshenko that if he so desired, “Russian troops could be in Kyiv within two days – and also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw, or Bucharest.” But he did not invade when Ukraine’s provisional government was still shaky – and still reeling under the Russian show of force.

Three reasons for Putin’s decision not to order an invasion in spring 2014 might be inferred. The first was a tactical reduction of his bellicosity at a time when the European Union was still debating financial sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea. The second was the weakness of the novice Ukrainian government, which could foreseeably have collapsed and left Kyiv with a political vacuum the Russians could fill without firing a shot. The third was perhaps a premonition in the Russian army that it was being overstretched and that an occupation of its neighbour, given Ukraine’s strong military tradition, might turn into a quagmire of messy guerrilla warfare.

Putin’s military threats to Ukraine were counterproductive and stoked Ukrainian anger. In May 2014 a Pew survey found that 77 per cent of Ukrainians, including 70 per cent of those living in eastern Ukraine outside the Donbas war zone, thought that their country should remain united instead of breaking up. And in early July, even before the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines MH17 civilian jet by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from insurgent territory, Pew reported that 60 per cent of Ukrainians had a general negative view of Russia. It was a sharp reversal from 2011, when 84 per cent of Ukrainians had viewed Russia positively.

The Euromaidan spirit drew in ever more Ukrainians who had been politically passive. Volunteers flocked to enlist in the army, in the revived National Guard and in the private militias raised and paid for by Kolomoyskyi and other oligarchs. Civilian volunteers cooked and delivered food to recruits. Techies designed and built their own surveillance drones from scratch to observe border areas that Ukraine no longer controlled.

Ukrainian veterans who had once formed the backbone of the Soviet army’s rough equivalent of Western non-commissioned officers, together with local Afgantsy – veterans of the Soviet army’s doomed expedition in Afghanistan in the 1980s – gave the rookies accelerated basic training. Weapons factories in Ukraine that had once supplied the Soviet army managed to repair 20-year-old tanks and build new ones even as the battles raged. And morale was vastly better on the side of Ukrainian defenders against a threat to their very existence than it was among opportunistic rebel mercenaries and criminal gangs. By mid-August 2014, Ukrainian troops had recaptured most of the rebel territory and reduced the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to two small pockets.

That was too much for Putin. At the end of August, he signalled his red line in the sand: he would not let his proxies be defeated. He sent elite airborne troops into the Donbas to mount a counteroffensive alongside separatist/Russian ground forces armed with Russian heavy weapons. Within days, they broke the Ukrainian siege and restored the secessionists’ control of about half of the territory that the DPR and LPR had ruled at their height.

President Poroshenko understood the message and immediately proposed a truce, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, brokered the Minsk ceasefire of 5 September. The shaky agreement at least reduced the scale of violence for five months, until the separatist/Russian forces made a fresh effort to break through strengthened Ukrainian lines in January and February of 2015 – and failed. A further shaky “Minsk-2” truce followed. But on 1 September 2015 the heavy guns abruptly fell silent and, for the most part, remained silent. For the first time in a year, overjoyed babushkas in the separatist Donbas enclave could walk across the front lines to reach Ukrainian-held towns seven kilometres away and buy salo (pork rind), butter and eggs at far cheaper prices. They returned to tell journalists that their greatest wish was simply for the fighting to stop.

***

At the end of September Putin opened a front in Syria, and reportedly redeployed some special forces from Ukraine to the new battlefield. Ukraine dropped off Russian TV bulletins. The war there had
caused 8,000 deaths and forced 2.4 million people from their homes. It was clear that Putin was belatedly acknowledging that the war also had strategic costs for Russia.

He had first lost all of Ukraine, with the exception of Crimea, to the Euromaidan that he despised. He had failed to salvage Novorossiya for Russia. He had failed, too, to maintain the shelled and charred Donbas region in any form he wanted to annex or subsidise – and keeping it as a zone of frozen conflict for future mischief-making wasn’t much of a consolation prize. He had provoked the West into resuscitating Nato and imposing sanctions that damaged the Russian economy. He had alarmed Belarus, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan into distancing themselves somewhat from Moscow.

Moreover, the Russian war in Ukraine raised the spectre of the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that killed 15,000 Soviet soldiers in the 1980s and gave birth to the Russian Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, which tries to ferret out facts about their dead sons. Last May, after many inquiries by the committee about Russian casualties in Ukraine, the Duma passed legislation banning the spread of information about Russian casualties across the border. In this context, it seemed unlikely that Putin would risk incurring a rise in Russian deaths by resuming heavy fighting in Ukraine.

This appraisal, however, takes the pressure off the Ukrainian oligarchs to grow beyond the robber-baron stage and become patriotic philanthropists. On the present evidence, they no longer sense much urgency with regard to implementing reform legislation, installing the rule of law, building democratic institutions and rooting out kleptocracy as opposed to exploiting it.

Putin has surely lost Ukraine. The Ukrainian oligarchs have not yet surely lost their own country. But how ironic it will be if he manages to melt their urgency into complacency by easing the pressure on Ukraine, thus paving the way for that final loss of the Revolution of Dignity. It would give the last laugh to Georgy Arbatov, the Kremlin’s leading Americanist who prophesied as the Cold War ended: “We are going to do to you the worst thing we possibly could – we are going to take your enemy away.”

Elizabeth Pond is based in Berlin and is the author of several books about Germany, Europe and the Balkans. They include “Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification” (Brookings Institution)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war