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After the coal rush

Not all of Kent is a tourist haven like Canterbury or as middle class as Tunbridge Wells. With the m

Betteshanger was the last of Kent's four main coalfields to close. On 26 August 1989, the pit drew its last coal - the same day of the same month, by chance, that Mick started to work there in 1952. "Thirty-seven years to the day," he says, leaning back in his chair at the Bettes­hanger Social Club. His friend Brian remembers his first day down the mine, too: it was his 15th birthday. But he was away on holiday when it closed. Brian's daughter picked him up from the airport. "Dad, I've got something to tell you," she said. He went straight to the pit, collected his tools and left. The two men have been friends for most of their lives and both went to work at the pit, after the customary 13 weeks' training, as soon as they left school aged 14. They have been coming to the social club for most of that time, too. The miners would gather here after work and have a cigarette, a cup of tea and a pie (the pies were famous, made to a secret recipe that recently lured ex-miners from all around the county to a reunion), before catching the bus back home to Deal, a lane-threaded seaside town nearby.

Now in their seventies, Mick and Brian come to the club every week for a coffee morning. They arrive together, sit at the same table and leave after an hour or so of conversation. Their memories, like their lives, are intertwined: they look to each other to remember names, dates and stories. Mining shaped their families. Their wives worked at the colliery - Brian's as a cleaner in the office and Mick's in the canteen - and their fathers, who had moved to Kent not long after Betteshanger opened in 1924, were both miners before them. Mick's family came from Wales and Brian's from Lancashire. It helped if mining was in the family - you knew what to expect when you went underground for the first time.

Coal was discovered in Kent in 1890 but many of the early collieries failed and were shut within a few years. Only four survived: Betteshanger, Chislet, Snowdown and Tilmanstone, of which Betteshanger was the largest, employing at its peak well over 1,000 people (the number had dropped to about 600 by the time the pit closed). The influx of miners apparently horrified the genteel residents of Deal, who put up "No miners" signs in their shops and cafés. The mines were under private ownership until nationalisation in 1947, and conditions at the pit were basic - there weren't even baths until 1934, so the miners would travel home each day blackened by coal dust.

Until the mines were mechanised in the early 1970s, the job was manual, men at the coalface with picks and shovels. As Mick puts it, "A lot of people would visit and say: 'I wouldn't work down here for a gold brick.'" Mick became a supervisor ("He went management," Brian says), mostly working nights. Brian, who had done a five-year mechanic's apprenticeship, moved to work on the machines above ground.

The community grew up around the mine. "We are close-knit. The work itself brings you together," Mick says. His friend agrees: "We worked together, lived together and, on a Saturday night, 80 per cent of us would come to have a drink here with our wives."

Looking back, both say they knew that the pit's closure was inevitable. Betteshanger had a long history of industrial action. In its early years, it attracted miners from all corners of Britain who had been blacklisted in their areas after the General Strike in 1926. Miners from the pit took part in the strikes of 1972 and 1974 and marched in London with the Betteshanger Brass Band. (The pit's red-and-blue banner, emblazoned with a picture of a miner gazing at the Houses of Parliament, hangs in a corner of the pool room at the club.)

But after Margaret Thatcher defeated the miners' strike in 1985, they knew that the end wasn't far off. Neither Mick nor Brian worked for the duration of the year-long protest. Brian says he was lucky - the bank let him off paying his mortgage - but others he knew lost their houses. In some cases, families broke up under the strain. "Brothers," Brian recalls. "One worked, one didn't. As soon as we started back to work, they were fighting."

After the pit closed, the miners were offered help to find work. A jobcentre was set up on the site but many went on the dole. Mick got a job on Deal pier. "I said I was the pier master," he says, "but I was just sweeping." Brian, grateful for his father's instruction to get a trade, found a job at a toolmaker's in Ramsgate. Both worked multiple jobs and were made redundant again at least once before they retired.

Not many other miners still live in Bettes­hanger. Mick and Brian live on Circular Road, a loop of 77 houses that were purpose-built for the pit's deputies and safety workers. Brian pulls a notebook from the breast pocket of his jacket. He is compiling a record of all the people who have lived in each house, from the day they were built. He dismisses the project as a "silly thing", but is taking it seriously. The book is filled with lists of door numbers and names; he says he knows many of the residents now.

Brian wants to memorialise a place transformed and the people long since departed. He seems to miss much of his former existence - his friends, the camaraderie, the miners' sports clubs and choirs, the trips to the beach they would organise every year, the way that no one bothered to lock their front door. "You used to walk into other people's houses and put the kettle on. They'd come in and say, 'Oh, have you made me one?'"

It took time to dismantle the pit, and even longer to replace it. For years, the land was left derelict. "[The place was] wrecked and ruined," Mick says. It was a similar picture around the country. After the last few pits were privatised or closed, the New Labour government, under the stewardship of the then deputy prime minister, John Prescott, eventually established a task force in October 1997 to examine the future
of the former coalfields. The Coalfields Regeneration Trust emerged from one of its recommendations and began making grants to former mining communities in 1999.

In 2000, the newly created South-East England Development Agency (Seeda) bought up land at Betteshanger and invested nearly £20m in regenerating the old pit site. But, according to Barry Roberts, chairman of the Betteshanger Social Club, most of the money didn't go on the village. Instead, it was used to create Fowlmead Country Park, on the other side of the main road, where the pit's dumping ground used to be. Now, there are carefully landscaped paths, saplings planted in neat rows and tarmacked routes for cyclists. Despite the transformation, Brian and Mick still call the park "the tip".

Fowlmead is considered to be a success, but attracting new industry to the area has been more problematic. A hopeful sign at the turn-off to Betteshanger points to a business park. "No one ever turned up," says Roberts. Much of the land, prepared into plots for industrial buildings, lies empty. There's a rumour that an agricultural college is moving in but no one knows for sure. It would be a welcome arrival - over 20 years after the pit closed, there is simply not enough work.

The main employers locally are large-scale commercial farmers, whose workers, townspeople say, are mostly immigrants - those willing to work for little in pitiful conditions. One woman, who asked not to be named, said that members of her family had worked for a salad-growing company; they had come home every day with their clothes covered in stains from washing vegetables in chemicals.

Another major employer in the area is Pfizer, which has its only British research and development facility nearby in Sandwich. In February this year, however, Pfizer announced that it would be closing the 2,400-worker facility - a decision that was described at the time as a "body blow" for east Kent by the local Tory MP, Laura Sandys.

Family business

Mick and Brian say that the government has been hyperactive since Pfizer's announcement, desperate to attract replacement industry to the region. They point out the contrast to the apathy they witnessed after the mines closed. Even after the Coalfields Regeneration Trust was set up, many residents in the area felt that its efforts were concentrated on the northern coalfields and that the mining communities in the south-east were neglected. Gary Ellis, the trust's chief executive, points out that Kent is "geographically isolated and, in percentage terms, a very small part of the former coalfield areas". But, he says, the trust has made grants to the county in every one of its funding rounds.

According to Brinley Hill, a local community development manager at Dover District Council, there is a more fundamental problem. People assume that Kent is a wealthy place, able to provide for itself. Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells are emblems of middle-class comfort, but not far from those prettified towns are areas of deep poverty, unusual in the south-east of England outside London. Since 2007, eight of the 12 districts in Kent have experienced an increase in deprivation, with Dover (which covers Deal and Betteshanger) leaping 15 places up the national scale (to 127th out of 326 local authorities in England). The neighbouring district of Thanet is the worst off in the county, ranking nationally at 49.

Hill's father was a miner and he laughs at the strange kind of family business they have concocted. "He did mining; I do regeneration," he says. In the years after the pits closed, efforts weren't helped by the "massive lack of trust" that was felt in the community. Miners and their families, he observes, can find it hard to move on. "Mining communities go back many years," he says. "In the east Kent area, families travelled from all around the country to work there. Memories go back - of grandparents walking from Wales or down from Durham or Scotland. There's such fondness about that."

Hill has worked closely with local people to try to rebuild relationships, improve the area's economic prospects and restore the sense of community that seemed to ebb away after the pits closed. Gradually, small local regeneration projects have got off the ground - he enthusiastically lists the cosmetic improvements at the Betteshanger Social Club, with its new kitchen, fresh paint and sprung floor for tap-dancing. "It's the best it's ever looked," he says.

The immediate future for the Coalfields Regeneration Trust looks promising, too: the government has just awarded £30m to the trust to invest over the next two years, ensuring its ability to make small grants to communities such as Betteshanger until 2013.

Beyond that point, however, the outlook is less certain. Ellis says that the trust, like many other government-funded public bodies, has been instructed to come up with an "exit strategy", so that by March 2015 (just before the next general election), the organisation will no longer be dependent on government money. The idea, a cornerstone of the Prime Minister's "big society" strategy, is that the trust will be able to function as a social enterprise, generating its own income streams through the various projects it supports, so that it becomes, in government-speak, "self-sustaining".

Ellis is aware that this will not be easy and he emphasises the need for continued direct intervention, not least because "some of the former colliery sites still need to be cleaned up". He points out, too, that many of the projects that the trust supports are already generating their own revenue. "We've got groups coming to us saying, 'We are sustainable; we have income streams coming from different places,'" Ellis tells me, "but, as a result of the public expenditure cuts, some of these income streams have now disappeared."

The public spending cuts have also affected the regional development agencies, including Seeda. By 31 March 2012, the agency will no longer exist and strategic and financial support for local industry and programmes will be either reassigned or terminated.

A fair Deal

In a large, converted church in Deal, three miles down the road from Betteshanger, Paula Moorhouse runs the Landmark Centre, a community association. The deconsecrated church was going to be turned into a supermarket until a local activist lay down in front of a bulldozer; the protest helped save the building.

Moorhouse says that she is not connected in particular to former miners in the community; her work focuses instead on the younger gen­eration and trying to tackle youth unemployment. She also runs gardening groups for those with mental health problems and dad-and-toddler groups for young parents. But she notes the miners' legacy. Deal, she says, has an unusually strong sense of community and people with little to give will empty their pockets for charity. She receives support from the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, which gave her funding to set up the centre's weekly job club to help young people into work.

Moorhouse needs all the financial support that she can get. Because of a long-standing, inherited debt problem, the Landmark Centre is in a precarious financial situation. Moorhouse is not able to apply for major donor funding and has to gather revenue however she can, mostly by hiring out rooms in the building. She has cut down staff members to three (herself, an assistant and a cleaner) and depends on volunteers to support the rest of the work. "We have a boot fair here, once a month, and I have a lady sitting on the door. She won't let people in unless they've put a few pennies in the box. That can raise me £25 in a morning."

Moorhouse looks, for a moment, a little desperate - her monthly fuel bills alone are more than £2,000. But she is evidently indefatigable. She does the job because she loves it and feels a duty and deep attachment to the area. She was born and grew up in Woodnesborough, a nearby village surrounded by apple orchards.

It seems the Landmark Centre is already a beacon of the big society. "That's what we say . . . We're a prime example." She has been working with mental health teams and Sure Start programmes for years, she says: a perfect example of local, interagency collaboration. The council had apparently been planning to open a new community centre in Dover modelled on hers - it was going to be called "Landmark II" - but the funding was cut.

The irony is not lost on Moorhouse. The day after we talk, she will be having a meeting with someone who runs a mental health group locally. Its property is being sold and now it has nowhere to go. "At the moment, the group meets three times a week and [for members] that's their lifeline. If someone with mental health issues suddenly loses their lifeline, there can be dire consequences."

Such financial insecurity seems to be common in this part of Kent. For Moorhouse, her set-up at the centre in Deal is, in essence, "hand to mouth". She has spoken to the council and it has offered its continued support, but she has yet to see what that means. For the moment, she will ignore the rhetoric and "get on with it" in her usual way.

You can understand why people in east Kent are sceptical of David Cameron's attempts to cut back the state and conjure up in its place
a big society. The overstretched, overworked managers of the Betteshanger Social Club and Deal's Landmark Centre already rely on the goodwill of countless volunteers - those who give up their time and money to make tea, run clubs and set up football academies.

These aren't overnight projects but established efforts, conceived long before the formation of this government and sustained by the support of a willing community. They don't need a directive to tell them to do what they are already doing - what any community with a sense of togetherness does. What they need is enough backing from the state to stay open so that they can continue to serve those who depend on them.

Mick finishes his tea at the Betteshanger Social Club. He says he was watching the ITV morning show Daybreak and it "latched on to Cameron's . . . What's he trying again?" He tries to remember the phrase. "Volunteering for everything." He goes on to recount the film that the programme had shown, about people going into schools to volunteer as teaching assistants. "But now, that's somebody else's job gone," Mick says. "The more people volunteer to do these things, the less people are going to have a chance to work. This is what upsets me."

Mick isn't especially political. He imagines that if he won the Lottery he might morph into a "raging Tory" - a notion that he finds amusing. But Brian shakes his head. "We're all in this together," he says and laughs.

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the New Statesman

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

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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