A statue of the victor of Bannockburn outside Stirling Castle. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton Hibbert
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The spirit of Bannockburn

Next year, a referendum on independence will determine Scotland’s future, but the country’s artists have already launched their own fight for freedom.

No one knows where exactly the Battle of Bannockburn was fought. Historians and archaeologists disagree. Some say the killing was done on the low flatland, or “carse”, where the Bannockburn flows into the River Forth; others say the higher ground, now covered in housing schemes, is more likely. We do know where Robert the Bruce planted his standard and set up his command post. It’s a few raised acres from where he would have been able to see everyone’s comings and goings. It was much more wooded 700 years ago, and Bruce and his men had spent months in the woods, training and preparing for the day the English appeared.

The site is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). It’s a national monument with a visitor centre and a clutter of memorials. I went there for the first time last September, at the invitation of the NTS. Finding the place was tricky; I had to cycle through housing schemes with speed bumps and corner shops. The site of the critical moment in Scotland’s history, when it secured its independence and confirmed its national identity, is hidden in plain view, sharing a driveway with a budget hotel. It’s not so much a place as an idea, of course. An attitude. I can’t recall how small I was when I first heard the name “Bannockburn”.

Seven or eight poets had been invited to this meeting, which was almost the last to be held at the visitor centre. It is now being demolished to make way for a new one. The new centre – we were shown the plans – will feature vernacular Scottish architecture, with snecked rubble walls, and will be constructed from local materials.

Inside, loud and interactive displays with moving figures will give visitors some small sense of the realities of medieval warfare. There will be plenty of “interpretation” and visitors will be reminded of Bannockburn’s crucial place in Scottish history. Public information will amplify the site’s resonances: freedom, resistance, triumph against the odds. Then, ears ringing and passions raised, visitors will go outside into the quiet, fresh air and make their way up the incline to the place where Robert the Bruce set his standard, and where stands a statue of him in battledress, mounted on a magnificent war - horse, staring defiantly south.

The area is laid out as parkland, with aven - ues of trees, and it is used as such by local people. Casual paths lead to the nearby housing estates; dogs are walked around the monuments. Aside from the statue, which stands a few yards off, there is another construction, which we learned to call “the rotunda”. It was this rotunda that concerned us poets.

It is a circle defined by a wall ten feet high, which encloses the very ground where the Bruce raised his flag. There are two wide gaps in the wall, orientated to frame vistas north and south. To frame vistas and concentrate the mind. North, the gap frames Stirling Castle on its rock, four miles away. This was Edward II’s objective. Had Stirling Castle been taken, Scotland would have fallen. That said, the road north was also Robert’s escape route. Apparently he didn’t know until the last moment whether he would engage or not and he had his getaway planned. The other gap looks south, over lower land, whence Edward’s army came with a wagon train 20 miles long.

Bannockburn was an unlikely triumph for the Scots. The English forces were vastly superior in number, but the Scots knew their own land. The Bruce had chosen well and trained hard; he made use of the forests, bogs and waterways around him. Driven into soft ground, the English horses floundered and so did the men. The Bannock - burn itself looks a small thing, but it’s a tributary of the Forth, and tidal. Across two days in June 1314, it filled with English dead. The historian Fiona Watson gave us a talk. “It was a disaster for the English,” she said. “Everyone in England would have known someone killed at Bannockburn.”

It was raining lightly as we made our way up to the rotunda. The land is not high – nothing compared to the splendid Ochil Hills a few miles north-east, but high enough to give a sense of landscape, of weather. From this point you can survey the same land as the Bruce did, if you can imagine away the traffic hum and houses. Surmounting the rotunda is an oak beam, which continues over the gaps to form an unbroken circle.

It was this beam that concerned us poets. The rotunda was built 50 years ago and the intention then was to carve an inscription on its inner face, but no inscription was ever made. However, with the anniversary and refurbishment of the monuments, the NTS was taking the opportunity.

Each poet was invited to submit an inscription; these would be made available on the NTS website so the public could voice an opinion. Then a panel of literary and NTS people would meet to choose one to be engraved on the monument.

We huddled in the rain, seeking shelter from the wind under the wall of the rotunda, and began to think about Bannockburn. It’s a potent site. The weight of history, the sobriety of the monuments, the weather and the light, the slaughter, resistance, the subsequent union, devolution, turns of fate, a refusal to submit, “freedom”, whatever that means – the whole Bannockburn thing was ours in a small way to redirect. What sort of gesture to make, what to say? In what language? In what tone? It needn’t mention the battle; it’s long over, and besides, the visitor centre will take care of all that. In my opinion, it needed something forgiven and forgiving, modern, aspirational, welcoming, mature, gracious – and Scottish, and all in a few short lines. The restored rotunda will be unveiled in 2014, which may or may not be another defining year in Scotland’s history.

It’s no surprise that 2014 is the year the SNP has chosen for the independence referendum. Perhaps they imagine that the anniversary of Bannockburn will arouse a claymore sentiment; that events of the 14th century will affect people’s brains. In some fantasy, they perhaps imagine the “independence” debate is akin to that gory feudal battle, which happened somewhere between a bog and a housing scheme, under the A91.

Neither is it a surprise that the NTS, in liaison with the Scottish Poetry Library, would recruit contemporary poets to the Bannockburn task; the association between poetry, song, national identity and historical and political moments is still acknowledged in Scotland. In fact, the writers and artists insist on it. It is a cherished half-truth that the success of the 1997 devolution bill was achieved partly by the work of writers and visual artists. In the years between the 1979 devolution referendum, which failed, and the one in 1997, Scotland invigorated itself, not in flag-waving but in self-interrogation and self examination. It was a vibrant time, culturally speaking. In 20 years a whole generation of Scottish novelists “wrote themselves out of despair”. It is often stated that this refreshed cultural autonomy played a part in securing political autonomy. The Scottish Parliament, suspended in 1707, reconvened in 1999. And now we are gearing up for an independence referendum to coincide with the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn.

It is a truth sometimes missed south of the border that many Scots distrust the Scottish National Party, including plenty who voted for it last time, and many of Scotland’s writers and artists. We know this because they say so openly. A few of the poets gathered at Bannockburn for that meeting are also represented in a new book called Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence.

The book was edited by Scott Hames of Stirling University. Hames conceived of his book because of the poverty he detected in the present “debate” about independence. He noted the politicians’ apparent lack of interest in the culture that brought them to Holyrood in the first place. In the introduction he writes: “Before the party machines and newspapers settle the parameters of a bogus debate, there must be room for more radical, more honest and more nuanced thinking about what ‘independence’ means in and for Scottish culture.”

To do that thinking, he turned to 27 poets, novelists and playwrights. All have stated their case, vented their spleen, imagined what kind of Scotland they want and don’t want, decried the Scotland we already have. Most are old enough to have been around during the devolution campaigns of the 1990s. Some are incomers to the country, from England or Australia or elsewhere. The editor himself is Canadian.

So it was an interesting time for some of us, to compose a bit of “culture” for this great national monument, and also to contribute to a book which claims that “the political significance of these writers’ work is also at stake in the deepening of the conflation that equates Scottish identity with nationalism”.

The thing is, many Scots, myself included, have no problem distinguishing independence from nationalism, and will probably vote Yes in a referendum, not because of a Bannockburn sentiment, but in the knowledge that any Holyrood government need not necessarily be “nationalist”. Or anything else. We can boot them out. In an independent Scotland we could boot out any government that failed us. Imagine! It is not a contradiction to write an inscription for a monument that valorises Scottish resistance and identity, then vote Yes for independence but still hold the SNP in suspicion, not least because it is seeking to appropriate that Bannockburn spirit of resistance.

Several of the writers in Unstated make the same point. They will vote for an independent Scotland because they cannot see any other way to preserve the vestiges of our collectivism, and our cherished public services. We want to vote for common decency and our own maturity. An awful lot of English and Welsh people feel that way, too. We used to be able to make common cause with them through the labour and even communist movements. But not now. So, more in sorrow than in anger, many Scots will vote Yes.

In certain ways, in certain quarters, the country is behaving as if it were already in - dependent. Some people are testing out the shape of the new state, and the people’s relationship with it, even before it exists.

Take this example. In 2010, a mere two years ago, a new arts funding body came into being. Creative Scotland took the place of the old Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen. It was a Holyrood invention, initiated by Labour and then embraced by the SNP when it won its majority in 2011. You’d think, with those impeccable credentials, that Scottish artists and writers, those truculent upholders of cultural autonomy, would like it – albeit grudgingly. Conversely, you’d think that the Scottish arts funding body would know that the country’s artists are a gallus crew, who had thought deeply about culture, nationhood and autonomy. But no.

While some of us were getting rained on at Bannockburn and beginning to think again about just those issues, our fellow poet Don Paterson published an essay in the Herald newspaper last September. It was his con - tribution to Unstated. He had chosen not to address “independence”, at least not directly. His essay concerned Creative Scotland, and it became the opening salvo, or rather, the first swing of the broadsword, against that corporate body.

The chief executive of Creative Scotland was Andrew Dixon, who came from the NewcastleGates head Initiative and, before that, the Arts Council of England. Its director of creative development was Venu Dhupa, late of the British Council. They answered to Fiona Hyslop, the minister for culture. Paterson called their organisation a “dysfunctional ant-heap”, among other things. Among artists, dismay and alarm had been shared anecdotally for about a year, but soon things started moving. Within three weeks of Paterson’s essay, an open letter had been drafted and sent to Sir Sandy Crombie, the chair of Creative Scotland. The letter was signed by 100 artists (which figure soon rose to 400 once it went online). The signatories included Booker and Turner prizewinners, theatre directors, the Master of the Queen’s Music, poets, novelists, sculptors. Creative Scotland got a fright, as did Hyslop.

The letter deplored the body’s “lack of empathy and regard for Scottish culture”. It took exception to its impenetrable marketingspeak and noted that funding decisions were seemingly being taken by people with no knowledge of the art form in question. What it did not say, overtly, was that Scottish artists resent being treated as a business proposition. We are not a “cultural industries sector” that requires “investment” in accordance with a quango’s corporate strategy.

Behind Creative Scotland lies the Scottish government, led by the people Scott Hames calls “the electoral beneficiaries of a cultural mobilisation”. That cultural mobilisation was conducted by many of the same artists and writers now weighing in against the new Creative Scotland. Mass meetings of artists were held and committees were convened to discuss writers and artists’ objections. The most recent part of the campaign was the publication of a beautiful postcard. Printed on it was a “constitution”. A constitution on a postcard! Though unsigned, it was written by Don Paterson and the first lines are these:

We, the Scottish people, undertake
To find within our culture the true measure
Of the mind’s vitality and spirit’s health;
To see that what is best in us is treasured . . .

Both Dixon and Dhupa resigned after the artists’ backlash.

This is where it gets curious. You don’t bring down a quango with a constitution. But one looks through the quango to the political attitudes behind it. In this case, the artists were reaching beyond their inchoate funding body to the Scottish government itself and saying to Holyrood: listen, we writers and artists did not maintain cultural autonomy for 30 or 300 years, and achieve a devolved government, only to have that government treat us as a “sector” in its tour - ism promotions and business ventures.

Hitherto, Creative Scotland has demanded endless “celebration” from artists. Its Panglos - sian “Year of Creative Scotland” is over now, but has only been replaced by another government initiative: the Year of Natural Scotland, which requires artists again to “promote and celebrate”. The SNP’s website declares it is “committed to putting culture at the heart of our plans to develop Scotland’s overall prosperity”. Scottish Labour notes the nation’s creative talent and wants to “capitalise on this potential to become world leaders in the creative industries”. Alas for them, the country’s artists are not so keen to be national cheerleaders, or to be treated as means to economic ends.

The idea with the postcard was that you signed the back, maybe appended a message, and sent it to Fiona Hyslop. Hyslop is an SNP minister. Whatever the outcome of the independence referendum, there still will be a Bannockburn spirit in Scotland – a truculent bloody-mindedness. Her party may regret invoking it, when it starts arriving by the sackload on its doormat.

When I was writing my poem-inscription, I went back to Bannockburn alone, just to get a feel for the place and its relationship to the surrounding landscape. It’s not a spectacular site, just a flattened knoll, but the land seems to wheel around it and Bruce and his men would have been able to see what was coming. I went early in the morning while no one else was there other than a woman talking on her mobile as her dogs gambolled under the statue.

At the foot of the slope, cranes and workmen had arrived to begin the demolition of the old visitor centre and the building of the new. It will be ready, and the monuments polished up, in time for a grand reopening in 2014. There will be a re-enactment, God help us, which I presume the Scots will win, but no one will be killed.

As for the Union, that may or may not survive the referendum later next year. I won’t be laying any bets, but even if the vote is No my hunch is that the issue will return. The Battle of Bannockburn was a colossal, defining event. The move towards independence, on the other hand, is a process long and slow.

Kathleen Jamie’s most recent poetry collection is “The Overhaul” (Picador, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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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