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5 March 2022

Putin through the looking-glass

The Russian president has created a phantom enemy in “fascist” Ukraine and bet everything on defeating it. How does this end?

By Gabriel Gatehouse

Every year, just before Christmas, a bunch of BBC journalists get together in a studio in New Broadcasting House for what is known as the Annual Correspondents’ Look Ahead. As the title suggests, the idea is to try to predict the big events that will define the year ahead. This past December the presenter Lyse Doucet asked me: “Will Russia invade Ukraine.”

It was a reasonable question. Russia had, at that point, positioned around 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders. But I told Lyse I didn’t think it was going to happen. For the next two months I maintained that Vladimir Putin would not mount a full-scale invasion. I may even have promised to eat my rabbit-fur ushanka hat if he did. (Thankfully there is no record of this on air.)

My reasoning was solid: it made no strategic sense. Moscow has been stoking conflict in Ukraine for eight years. In that time the Russian president’s tactic has been to keep the threat of escalation alive while avoiding all-out war. That way he keeps Ukraine out of Nato and gets himself a seat at the negotiating table with the Americans. I’ve been following Russia for the past quarter of a century. I thought I knew what I was talking about.

I seems I didn’t. As I write these words, Lyse Doucet is in a bomb shelter in Kyiv as an armoured Russian column 40 miles long inches its way towards the city and I am getting messages of shock and horror from friends in Kyiv and Moscow alike.

Over the past ten earth-shattering days, in between trying to figure out what is going on, whether my friends are safe and doom-scrolling on Twitter wondering if we’re barrelling towards global nuclear conflict, it has slowly dawned on me where I (and, to be fair, most analysts who know Russia reasonably well) went wrong.

[See also: Dispatch from Kyiv: the madness of Putin’s war]

When a popular revolution overthrew Ukraine’s Russian-backed president in 2014, Moscow called it a fascist coup. It is true that there were some neo-Nazis on Maidan, Kyiv’s central square, in 2014 — I reported on that at the time. But they were not the driving force behind the revolt. There are still neo-Nazis in Ukraine, including among its fighting forces, notably a group known as the Azov Battalion, which uses a Nazi symbol as its emblem. But they are a fringe. Indeed, the electoral influence of the far right in Ukraine has been steadily dwindling since the pro-Russian government was ousted: in parliamentary elections in 2014, the nationalist Svoboda Party got only 4.71 per cent; by 2019 their support had shrunk to 2.15 per cent.

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I keep an eye on Russian state-controlled TV. Over the past eight years I’ve watched the Kremlin propaganda machine spewing out increasingly deranged fantasies about how Ukraine’s pro-Western government is in fact a regime led by fascists and neo-Nazis bent on the genocide of the Russian speaking people. You don’t have to know the intricacies of Ukraine’s parliamentary electoral maths to know that this is nonsense. It’s probably sufficient to note that Ukraine’s current president is Jewish, and was voted in by an electorate including millions of Russian speakers. That, and the fact that there has been no genocide.   

I always assumed this whole narrative about Nazis was just a cover for Putin’s less emotive but more realistic aims in Ukraine: keeping himself in power and his neighbour in Moscow’s orbit. So those were the issues I focused on: the tangible, the geopolitical. In the early hours of 24 February the Russian president went on TV to announce the start of the invasion. He was sending in the troops, he said, to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.

Again, I dismissed that as just propaganda, wracking my brain instead to try to figure out the real reason. What could he possibly hope to achieve, other than international isolation and, eventually, defeat? But like a mantra in the mouths of members of a deranged cult, “de-Nazification” is being repeated with increasing frequency and conviction by members of Russia’s ruling elite, some of them people I am convinced know that what they’re saying is total nonsense. Nato barely gets a mention.

[See also: The Western mind no longer understands Putin]

It is beginning to dawn on me that Vladimir Putin has gone through the looking-glass, and is dragging the saner members of his entourage with him. He has ordered an invasion but forbidden anyone to call it that. He has identified an enemy that doesn’t exist and bet everything on defeating it. He has come to believe his own propaganda. A man I once thought to be a clear-eyed tactician, a realist who would employ whatever means necessary — however brutal — to achieve his aims, turns out to be, what? A madman? No, maybe not that, but someone who lives in an alternate universe, where black is white, war is peace, ignorance is strength… you get the picture.

Over the past few years we’ve seen parallel realities take hold in different contexts: Covid doesn’t exist; a cabal of Satanic paedophiles is running the world; the 2020 US presidential election was stolen. People who inhabit the “reality-based world” have ignored these fantasies or underplayed their significance, often until it was too late. In America the Republican Party is now in the grip of a lie that threatens to break its democracy. And in Europe the leader of a nuclear-armed state is pursuing not a tangible security gain but the destruction of a phantom.

Where does that end? At what point might Putin think he’s won? The answer is, he won’t, because he’s fighting something that isn’t real. He will continue until he’s stopped. At least that’s the way it looks to me right now. That’s what I’ll say at the next Correspondents’ Look Ahead. If they’ll have me. And if we’re all still here.

[See also: Putin is running out of options]

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