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Why empires fall: from ancient Rome to Putin's Russia

Moscow, to western eyes, does not look much like Rome. But if there is any country in the world where the tug of the Roman ideal can be felt, it is Russia.

Great pretender? Barack Obama seems a modern incarnation of a line of ambitious imperatores whose powers are all too mortal.

When did the Roman empire end? It is still possible to find history books that give a very precise answer to this question. The curtain came down on the Roman empire, so it is usually claimed, on 4 September 476, when a young man by the name of Romulus Augustulus was formally stripped of the imperial purple by a Gothic chieftain and packed off to retirement near Naples. The accident of his name, in this particular version of Rome’s fall, provides the perfect bookend to a thousand years and more of the Roman story. Romulus, after all, had been the founder of the Eternal City, Augustus her first emperor. Now, with the deposition of Augustulus – “the little Augustus” – the line of emperors had come to an end. The light-switch had been turned off. Antiquity was over; the Dark Ages had begun.

In fact, in almost every way that it can be, dating the fall of the Roman empire to a particular day in 476 is wrong. On the most pedantic level, the title “last Roman emperor of the west” should properly belong not to Romulus Augustulus at all, but to a Balkan warlord, named Julius Nepos, who was murdered in 480. Meanwhile, in Rome itself, life carried on pretty much as normal. Consuls continued to be elected, the senate to sit, chariot races to be held in the Circus Maximus. Most saliently of all, in the eastern half of the Mediterranean, the Roman empire was still strong. Ruled from a city pointedly christened the Second Rome, it remained the greatest power of its day. Constantinople had many centuries of life in it yet as a Roman capital.

It turns out, in short, that the fall of Rome is to human history what the end of the dinosaurs is to natural history: the prime example of an extinction that nevertheless, when one looks at it more closely, turns out to be more complicated than one might have thought. If it is true, after all, that birds are, in a sense, dinosaurs, then it destabilises our notion of the asteroid strike at the end of the Cretaceous era as a guillotine dropping on the neck of the Mesozoic. Likewise, the notion of a Romanitas, a “Roman-ness”, surviving into the Middle Ages, and perhaps beyond, upsets the categorisation of the Roman empire that most of us have as a phenomenon purely of the ancient world.

It is important, of course, not to take revisionism too far. Just as a wren is no tyrannosaur, so was, say, the England of Bede incalculably different from the Roman province of Britannia. “Transformation”, the word favoured by many historians to describe the decline of Roman power, hardly does the process justice. The brute facts of societal collapse are written both in the history of the period and in the material remains. An imperial system that had endured for centuries imploded utterly; barbarian kingdoms were planted amid the rubble of what had once been Roman provinces; paved roads, central heating and decent drains vanished for a millennium and more. So, it is not unreasonable to characterise the fall of the Roman empire in the west as the nearest thing to an asteroid strike that history has to offer.

One striking measure of this – the degree to which it was indeed, in the words of the historian Aldo Schiavone, “the greatest catastrophe ever experienced in the history of civilisation, a rupture of incalculable proportions” – is that even today it determines how everyone in the west instinctively understands the notion of empire. What rises must fall. This seems to most of us almost as much a law in the field of geopolitics as it is in physics. Every western country that has ever won an empire or a superpower status for itself has lived with a consciousness of its own mortality.

In Britain, which only a century ago ruled the largest agglomeration of territory the world has ever seen, we have particular cause. Back in 1897, at the seeming pinnacle of the empire on which the sun never set, subject peoples from the across the world gathered in London to mark the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria. Rudyard Kipling, the supposed laureate of imperialism, wrote a poem, “Recessional”, to mark the occasion – but it was the very opposite of jingoistic. Instead, it looked to the future in sombre and (as it turned out) prophetic terms:

Far-called our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Today, in Washington, DC, precisely the same anxieties are being aired – and the example of Rome is often explicitly cited. In 2007, the then comptroller general of the US, David Walker, gave a bleak assessment of the nation’s prospects. America, he claimed, was afflicted by precisely the problems that he saw as responsible for the collapse of Rome: “declining moral values and political civility at home, an overconfident and overextended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government”.

American self-confidence seems to have clawed back at least some lost ground since then. Nevertheless, pessimism remains the default setting at the moment in both the US and the west as a whole. When a country’s capital city boasts a Senate and a Capitol Hill, the example of Rome’s decline and fall is always going to be lurking somewhere at the back of the mind.

Yet those who assume it to be an inevitable fact of nature that all empires, sooner or later, will come to share the fate of Rome need only look at America’s chief rival for the title of 21st-century hegemon to see that it ain’t necessarily so.

The People’s Republic of China, unlike the states of the modern west, stands recognisably in a line of descent from an ancient empire. Three years ago, a professor at the National Defence University in Beijing – a colonel by the name of Liu Mingfu – published a book about China’s future called The China Dream.

The title was an obvious riff on the ideal of the American dream; but the Chinese equivalent, it turns out, is as much about drawing sustenance from the past as about looking to the future. Unity at home, projection of strength abroad, the organic fusion of soft and hard power: these, according to the colonel, are in the DNA of Chinese greatness. How does he know this? Why, by looking to ancient history – and specifically to the example of Qin Shi Huangdi, the so-called First Emperor, who back in the 3rd century BC united China, embarked on the Great Wall, and established a template of leadership that even Mao admired.

Wild warrior of Leningrad: Vladmir Putin is undisputed king of Moscow, the "Third Rome". Image: Reuters/Ria Novosti.

It is as though US commentators, trying to plot a course ahead for their country, were to look to Caesar Augustus as an exemplar. The reason they would never do that is obvious. The US, for all that it has a Senate and a Capitol, is self-consciously a young country, planted in a new world. But China is old, and knows that it is old. Dynasties may have come and gone, waves of barbarians may have washed over it again and again, the emperor himself may have been replaced by a general secretary – but no rupture such as separates Barack Obama from ancient Rome divides Xi Jinping from the First Emperor. The “China dream”, in its essence, is simply the dream that the “Middle Kingdom” will regain what many Chinese see as her ancient birthright: a global primacy, at the heart of world affairs.

There is a taste here, perhaps – just the faintest, most tantalising taste – of a counterfactual: one in which Rome did not fall. That China was able to survive conquest by the Mongols and the Manchus demonstrates just how deep the roots of a civilisation can reach. What about the Romans in the heyday of their empire: did they have the same kind of confidence in the permanence of their empire the Chinese have always had? And if they did – what happened to that confidence?

People in antiquity were certainly aware that civilisations could rise and fall. It is, in a sense, the great geopolitical theme of the Bible. In the Book of Daniel, the prophet dreams that he sees four beasts emerge in succession from a raging sea; and an angel explains to him that each beast represents a kingdom. The fourth beast, so Daniel is told, symbolises the mightiest empire of all; and yet, for all that, it will end up destroyed “and given to the burning flame”. Gold and purple, in the Bible, are cast as merely the winding-sheets of worldly greatness.

The Greeks, too, with the example of the sack of Troy before them, were morbidly aware how impermanent greatness might be. Herodotus, the first man to attempt a narrative of how and why empires succeed one another that did not look primarily to a god for its explanations, bookends his great history with telling passages on the precariousness of civilisations. “Human foundations both great and insignificant will need to be discussed,” he declares at the start of his first book. “Most of those that were great once have since slumped into decline, and those that used to be insignificant have risen, within my own lifetime, to rank as mighty powers. I will pay equal attention to both, for human beings and prosperity never endure side by side for long.”

Then, in the very last paragraph of his history, he provides what is, in essence, the first materialist theory as to why civilisations should succeed and fail. The Persians, having conquered a great empire, want to move from their harsh mountains to a richer land – but Cyrus, their king, forbids it. “Soft lands breed soft men.” It is a perspective that Herodotus has been tracing throughout his account of civilisational vicissitude, using it to explain why the Persians were able to conquer the Lydians, the Babylonians and the Egyptians, only to come to grief against the poverty-stricken but hardy Greeks. Implicit in his narrative, written at a time when Athens was at her peak of glory, is a warning: where other great powers have gone, the Athenians will surely follow.

The Romans signalled their arrival on the international stage by fighting three terrible wars with a rival west Mediterranean people: the Carthaginians. At the end of the third war, in 146BC, they succeeded in capturing Carthage, and levelling it to the ground. This was the great fulfilment of Rome’s military aims. In 216BC Rome had almost been brought to defeat by Hannibal, Carthage’s most formidable general – a brush with civilisational death that her people would never forget.

In these circumstances, the destruction of Rome’s deadliest enemy was an exultant moment. Nevertheless, it is said of the Roman general who torched Carthage that he wept as he watched her burn and quoted lines from Homer on the fall of Troy. Then he turned to a Greek companion. “I have a terrible foreboding,” so he confessed, “that some day the same doom will be pronounced on my country.”

There were many, as the Romans continued to expand their rule across the Mediterranean, who found themselves hoping that the presentiment was an accurate one. Rome was a brutal and domineering mistress, and the increasing number of much older civilisations under her sway unsurprisingly felt much resentment of her autocratic ways. Greek traditions of prophecy began to blend with Jewish ones to foretell the empire’s inevitable doom. “Civil tumults will engulf her people,” so it was foretold, “and everything will collapse.”

A century on from the burning of Car­thage, in the mid-1st century BC, it seemed that these oracles had been speaking the truth. Rome and her empire were engulfed by civil war. In one particular bloody campaign, it has been estimated, a quarter of all citizens of military age were fighting on one side or the other. No wonder that, amid such slaughter, even the Romans dared to contemplate the end of their empire. “The Roman state, just like all states, is doomed to die.” So wrote the poet Virgil amid the horrors of the age.

But the Roman state did not die. In the event, the decades of civil war were brought to an end, and a new and universal era of peace was proclaimed. Rome, and the known world with it, were brought under the rule of a single man, Imperator Caesar Augustus: the first man in what was to be a long line of imperatores, “victorious generals” – “emperors”.

Virgil, perhaps because he had gazed into the abyss of civil war and understood what anarchy meant, proved a worthy laureate of the new age. He reminded the Roman people of their god-given destiny: “To impose the works and ways of peace, to spare the vanquished and to overthrow the haughty by means of war.”

By the time that Rome celebrated its millennium in AD248, the presumption that the city’s rule was eternal had come to be taken for granted by the vast majority of her subjects – most of whom, by this point, regarded themselves as Romans. “Everywhere,” as one provincial put it, addressing the Eternal City, “you have made citizens of those who rank as the noblest, most accomplished and powerful of peoples. All the world has been adorned by you as a pleasure garden.”

In the event, the garden would turn to brambles and weeds. Intruders would smash down the fences. New tenants would carve up much of it between themselves.

Yet the dream of Rome did not fade. Its potency was too strong for that. “A Goth on the make wishes to be like a Roman – but only a poor Roman would wish to be like a Goth.” So spoke Theodoric, successor to the king who had deposed Romulus Augustulus: a man who combined a most German-looking moustache with the robes and regalia of a caesar. He was not the first barbarian to find in the memory of Rome – the splendour of its monuments, the vastness of its sway, the sheer conceit of its pretensions – the only conceivable model for an upwardly mobile king to ape.

Indeed, one could say that the whole history of the early-medieval west is understood best as a series of attempts by various warlords to square the grandeur of their Roman ambitions with the paucity of their resources. There was Charlemagne, who not only had himself crowned as emperor in Rome on Christmas Day AD800, but plundered the city of pillars for his own capital back in Aachen. Then there was Otto I, the great warrior king of the Saxons, a hairy-chested lion of a man, who in 962 was also crowned in Rome. The line of emperors that he founded did not expire until 1806, when the Holy Roman empire, as it had first become known in the 13th century, was terminated by Napoleon.

“Neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire,” Voltaire quipped. Yet the joke was not quite fair. There had been a time when it was all three. Otto III, grandson and namesake of the old Saxon king, crowned in 996 and charged with the rule of Christendom during the millennial anniversary of Christ’s birth, was nothing if not a Roman emperor.

He lived on the Palatine Hill, just as Augustus had done a thousand years before him; he revived the titles of “consul” and “senator”. He had himself betrothed to a princess from the Second Rome, Constantinople. His death in 1002, before his marriage could serve to join the eastern and western empires, left hanging one of history great “what-ifs”. Otto III’s ambition of reviving the Roman empire had been the great theme of his reign. Tantalising, then, to ponder what might have happened if he had succeeded in joining it to the eastern Roman empire – the empire that, unlike his own, could trace a direct line of descent from ancient Rome.

***

Today, when we use the adjective “Byzantine” to describe this empire, we risk obscuring the degree to which the people we call “Byzantines” saw themselves as Romaioi – Romans. It was not, however, to the Rome of Julius Caesar and Cicero they looked back, but to that of the great Christian emperors: Constantine, the founder of their capital, and Theodosius the Great, who at the end of the 4th century had been the last man to rule both east and west. In that sense, it was indeed the capital of a Roman empire that fell to Mehmet II, the Turkish sultan, when in 1453 he stormed the great walls built by Theodosius’s grandson a thousand years earlier to gird Constantinople, the “Queen of Cities”. It was indeed the last territorial fragment of the Roman empire that was conquered when, in 1461, the tiny Byzantine statelet of Trebizond was absorbed into the Ottoman empire. At last, a story that had begun more than 2,000 years earlier on a hill beside the Tiber was brought to a definitive end by Turkish guns on the shore of the Black Sea.

Or was it? The Turks were not the first to have laid siege to Constantinople. Back in 941, adventurers known as Rus’, Vikings who had travelled the long river-route down from the Baltic to the Bosphorus, had similarly attacked the city. Their assault had failed; but Miklagard, Caesar’s golden capital, continued to haunt their imaginings. In 986, one of their princes sent a fact-finding mission. Volodymyr was the lord of a rough-hewn frontier town named Kyiv – and he had decided that the time had come for him to join the community of nations.

But which community? He had invited Jews to his court; but after questioning them said their loss of Jerusalem was a sign they had been abandoned by God. He had invited Muslims; but was appalled to learn that their religion would not permit him to eat pork or to drink (as he frankly told them, “drinking is the joy of the Rus’ ”). He had sent envoys to the churches of the west; but there, so they reported back, “we saw no beauty”. Only in Constantinople, in the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia, had Volodymyr’s ambassadors discovered a spectacle worthy of their master’s ambitions.

“We knew not whether we were on heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty. We only know that God dwells there among men . . . we cannot forget that beauty.”

So began a commitment on the part of the Rus’ to the Orthodox faith of the Second Rome that was to have enduring consequences into the present. Volodymyr had recently captured from the Byzantines the city of Chersonesus in the Crimea, originally founded as a Greek colony way back in the 6th century BC. He restored it to the emperor; and in exchange, it is said, received baptism in the city, together with the hand of Caesar’s sister. A momentous step. Never before had a Byzantine princess been given in marriage to a barbarian. The precedent it set was one that the Rus’ would never forget. In 1472, almost two decades after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, the niece of the last emperor of the Second Rome was married to Ivan III of Muscovy. “Two Romes have fallen.” So a Russian monk, in 1510, would gravely tell their son. “The Third Rome, though, stands – nor will there ever be a Fourth.”

***

Moscow, to western eyes, does not look very much like Rome. There is no Senate there, no Capitol Hill. No buildings, as they do in Paris or Washington, seek to ape the look of Augustan Rome. Even so, if there is any country in the world where the tug of the Roman ideal can still be felt as a palpable influence on its leader’s policy, it is Russia. In 1783, when Catherine the Great annexed Crimea, it was in pursuit of a decidedly Roman dream: that of restoring the Byzantine empire under the two-headed eagle on her own banner. “You have attached the territories,” Potemkin wrote to her, “which Alexander and Pompey just glanced at, to the baton of Russia, and Chersonesus – the source of our Christianity, and thus of our humanity – is now in the hands of its daughter.” No one, as yet, has written in quite these terms to Putin; but if someone did, it would not be entirely a surprise.

Today, here in the west, dreams of restoring a Roman empire are gone for good. The shadows they cast are too grim. The most recent political philosophy to be inspired by them, and which even took its name from the bundle of rods with an axe carried by the bodyguards of Roman magistrates, was developed only in the 20th century: fascism. With Mussolini and Hitler, the millennia-old tradition in the west of looking to the Roman empire for a model reached a hideous climax – and then expired.

Yet if the First Rome is long gone, and the Second Rome, too, the Third, it turns out, retains an unexpected capacity to lurch up out of its grave. Even in the 21st century, the Roman empire clings to a certain ghoulish afterlife yet.

Tom Holland’s translation of Herodotus’s “Histories” is published by Penguin Classics (£25)

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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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