Leader: Why we need to be honest about Vladimir Putin

Whatever the Kremlin apologists say – and regardless of the ancient historical and cultural affinities involved – there are few benefits for citizens of Crimea likely to result from their de facto annexation by Russia.

Vladimir Putin by André Carrilho for the New Statesman
Vladimir Putin by André Carrilho for the New Statesman

A fundamental imbalance in the international stand-off over Ukraine is that, in the short term at least, the outcome means more to Russia than it does to the west. Naturally, it is a source of alarm in Washington, London and Berlin that Vladimir Putin has violated the sovereignty of a neighbouring country. Rightly, this action has been denounced as aggression and a defiance of international law.

Yet feelings about the status of Ukraine run a lot higher in Russia than they do in the west and the country’s president acts with far fewer domestic constraints. He has calculated that neither the US nor the EU will torch diplomatic and economic relations with the Kremlin over Crimea. The ugly strategic reality is that his calculation looks accurate.

The chief argument that Moscow has brought in defence of its action – that Russian-speaking citizens are in danger from Ukrainian nationalism – is spurious. There is no evidence for it and whatever anxieties exist among Crimea’s russophone community could be addressed without armed intervention.

There is cynicism, too, in the Kremlin’s contention that the turmoil in Kyiv was somehow the expression of quasi-imperialist ambitions on the part of the EU and Nato – as if, by extension, Moscow were answering western expansionism with an act of self-defence.

It is true that the fall of Viktor Yanukovych’s administration was hastily recognised as a legitimate transition in western European capitals. There is a preference in Brussels and Washington that Ukraine pursue a transition to more functional democracy with greater respect for the rule of law – and an expectation that such an outcome is more likely if the government is not a client of the Kremlin. It is also true that the acceptance of other former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact countries into the EU and Nato since the collapse of the USSR has exacerbated anxiety in Moscow about declining strategic influence and national debilitation. However, it is naive to suppose that those feelings would have been avoided if Russia had been allowed to retain strategic mastery of eastern Europe. Cringing before the Kremlin’s wounded post-Soviet pride would have condemned countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and even Poland to the kind of dysfunctional satellite status that has been Ukraine’s misfortune. The citizens of those countries can now be profoundly grateful for the prosperity and security that EU and Nato membership brought them.

If Britain is now to start satisfying Mr Putin’s territorial appetite, let us at least be honest about the kind of man he is. Russia’s president is a former KGB agent who despises liberal democracy and excuses the crimes of Stalin. He has consolidated his power through a combination of corrupt accommodation with compliant financial oligarchs, old-fashioned po­lice state repression and the nurturing of a cult of ethnic nationalism that leads to official tolerance of racist and homophobic violence carried out by skinhead gangs who pledge loyalty to the president. No one who values freedom and civil rights should want to see citizens of another country fall under such a jurisdiction.

Whatever the Kremlin apologists say – and regardless of the ancient historical and cultural affinities involved – there are few benefits for citizens of Crimea likely to result from their de facto annexation by Russia.

The most probable outcome of the current crisis is that, after some bluster and ineffective economic reprimands, the west will acquiesce to Russia’s assertion of strategic primacy in Ukraine. There will be those who argue that no better outcome is available; that, since military intervention is unthinkable, the sovereignty of a weak state might as well be traded away to a strong one. It is indeed hard to see how Mr Putin’s ambitions can be thwarted. But no one should pretend that they will be satisfied by appeasement.