For too long, the West believed that Vladimir Putin was a man with whom it could do business, as Margaret Thatcher said of Mikhail Gorbachev. George W Bush looked into the Russian president’s eyes and “found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy”. Barack Obama sought to “reset” US relations with Russia. Donald Trump openly admired Mr Putin as a fellow ethnic nationalist and strongman.
Any notion that Mr Putin can be treated as a normal leader has now been dispelled, however. It was eight years ago that Russia annexed Crimea and occupied much of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region (at the cost of some 14,000 lives to date). These were acts of aggression that should have made him a pariah.
In his rambling speech on 21 February, Mr Putin went further by recognising the self-proclaimed people’s republics in Donetsk and Luhansk – an unashamed violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. But more than this, the Russian president rejected the entire basis of Ukrainian independent statehood, declaring that the country had been invented by Lenin’s Bolsheviks, and chillingly remarked that it had been a “mistake” to allow the former Soviet republics to become independent. Mr Putin may have described the fall of the USSR as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, but his nostalgia is for Russian power, not Soviet ideology. His ambition is to forge a new empire with himself as tsar, surrounded by a web of protectorates. The task facing the democratic world is to thwart him.
At the start of the Ukraine crisis, the West appeared divided and weak. Joe Biden, the US president, blundered when he remarked that he would be prepared to tolerate “a minor incursion” that leads to “a fight about what to do and what not to do”. The new German government was split between the more cautious, sceptical Greens and the more Russophile Social Democrats. And Emmanuel Macron’s lofty ambition of European “strategic autonomy” collided with the reality of a largely impotent EU that has no coherent foreign policy.
But at this grave hour, there are finally signs that some states are adjusting to a changed world. In the immediate wake of Mr Putin’s speech, the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, announced the suspension of the approval process for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia. This unexpectedly bold move marked a welcome break with the Social Democrats’ recent past (the former chancellor Gerhard Schröder is close to Putin and chairs the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream). Mr Scholz also announced that Germany would review its energy supply in view of a “fundamentally changed” situation (Russia supplies 65 per cent of the country’s natural gas).
By contrast, the UK’s response was feeble. Boris Johnson announced sanctions against just five Russian banks and three billionaires, action that Mr Putin and his entourage will regard as comically soft. As Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, observed: “Sanctions matter only if they make the Kremlin think again. These are a repetition of US sanctions. We need to do more if they’re to count.”
Mr Johnson was a poor foreign secretary and his inertia now suggests that he remains fatally compromised by his party’s ties to Russian plutocrats in the UK. As the Sunday Times revealed, the Conservatives’ “advisory board” includes Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of Mr Putin’s former deputy finance minister. And in London, until the Conservative government cleanses the City’s Augean stables by banishing dirty money, it will have no right to lecture others on Russian influence.
The blame for this crisis lies with Mr Putin, but the West should not spare itself from criticism. At the end of the Cold War, amid a mood of liberal triumphalism, it did too little to reassure Russia as Nato expanded eastwards. No US president would accept the extension of a rival defence alliance to their country’s own border.
But that was then. Today Mr Putin is an agent of chaos. His autocratic rule depends on crushing the threat of a democratic alternative – whether at home or in Russia’s “near abroad”. As his popularity in a country of elite private affluence and public squalor wanes, Mr Putin’s greatest fear is not encirclement by Nato but by his own people. The West’s duty is to stand with democrats in Russia and Ukraine, and to stop appeasing Vladimir Putin and the stooges around him.
This article appears in the 23 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Darkness Falls