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2 March 2022updated 03 Mar 2022 10:07am

The Western mind no longer understands Putin

The belief that liberalism will inevitably prevail is an illusion that Europe must abandon if it is to win a war of his creation.

By John Gray

Vladimir Putin’s second invasion of Ukraine in eight years is seen by many in the West as an act of madness, the last throw of an ageing and increasingly irrational dictator. Raining down destruction on Ukraine’s cities can only end in downfall for him and disaster for Russia. The effect has been to unite the West in a way unseen for decades. Putin’s aggression will backfire, leaving Russia a pariah state on the wrong side of history.

The West does seem to be acting in a much more coordinated fashion. Western countries are supplying ammunition and arms, anti-tank and anti-air weapons and medical aid to Ukraine. Leaders once sympathetic to Putin, such as Victor Orbán in Hungary, have aligned themselves against him. But on their side there is no clear strategy or realistic endgame in view. The assumption is that Putin will be toppled, but escalating sanctions could prove ineffective or self-defeating. The most coherent objective that can be detected in the West’s response – a reversion to the status quo before the invasion – is impossible. History has moved on.

However this war develops, it marks a breakdown in the international system comparable with the end of the first era of globalisation in 1914. It is telling that the abstention of China, a far more powerful autocracy, in the UN vote condemning the invasion has been hailed as a victory for the West. India and the United Arab Emirates also abstained. The liberal order is dead and buried.

[See also: The world is at financial war]

The adage that Russia is “Upper Volta with nukes”, which Joe Biden repeated in June 2021 when arriving in Geneva for talks with Putin, underestimated Russia’s capacity to sow chaos. As Putin has reminded us, it remains a fully operational nuclear state. But he has many other, less apocalyptic weapons at his disposal. As well as its grip on European energy supplies, Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter and a key supplier of strategic metals. This gives it a formidable power to retaliate against sanctions. If Putin was to stop the flow of gas into Europe, the continent and the world would be plunged into recession and inflation would spiral out of control.

Isolating Russia means accelerating the break-up of world markets. Last weekend the EU, the US, the UK and other countries agreed to expel some Russian banks from Swift, the messaging system that enables cross-border transfers. The full details are not yet known, but it may be significant that the scheme imposed a selective cut-off. A complete financial embargo, if it could be enforced, would push Russia into using other regional systems, such as that guided by China. The West would be actively promoting a process of deglobalisation.

If Putin’s initial objective was to bring Ukraine back into a Russian sphere of influence, he must have expected to do so relatively quickly. A shock-and-awe blitzkrieg deploying air power and missile attacks on cities, with special forces targeting key facilities and people, would disable Volodymyr Zelensky’s government and allow regime change to be imposed in short order. But Putin’s timetable has not been met. Through its army, popular militias and civil society, Ukraine is resisting valiantly. If Kyiv continues to fight on, Putin may resort to bombing the city into submission, effectively destroying it, as Russian forces did the Chechen capital during the Battle of Grozny from late 1999 to early 2000. Even after such a disaster, Ukrainian partisans could wage a fierce guerrilla war for many years.

A protracted conflict would obviously be risky for Putin, but threatening it could give him a winning hand in his game of force and fear. The West’s worst nightmare – an unending Syrian-style bloodbath in the middle of Europe, with millions of refugees spilling out across the continent – may be his most potent weapon. We have already seen a similar tactic tried in Belarus earlier this year. Looming behind negotiations is the threat of a scorched earth strategy.

There are many who could not have imagined Putin launching a campaign of such brazen barbarity. They must have forgotten the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London, the attempted murders and the death of a British civilian in Salisbury, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny and the methodical repression that has made Belarus into a Russian colony. They cannot have noticed the parallels between the Russian assault on Ukraine and the invasion of Georgia in 2008, which Putin presented as a peacekeeping operation designed to prevent ethnic cleansing in his proxy state of South Ossetia. They did not grasp that interspersing terror with deceptive diplomacy is Putin’s way of waging war.

[See also: Zelensky is a hero – but bravery alone won’t defeat the Russians]

A prolonged struggle in Ukraine would not necessarily work to the West’s advantage. Biden has handled the crisis reasonably well. Yet there can be no certainty regarding American policy after the presidential election in November 2024.

The Republicans are divided on whether – or more precisely, how – to continue Donald Trump’s style of politics. When he defends Putin, the influential Fox News host Tucker Carlson speaks for a large and growing section of the American right, who regard the Russian autocrat as an ally in the American culture wars. On 22 February Trump praised Putin’s recognition of the two Donbas pseudo-states as “genius” and described his invading troops as “the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen”. Many in both the main US parties regard Ukraine as a distraction from the challenge posed by China. The US is bound to Europe by Nato, which remains the cornerstone of Western defence. The alliance is strengthening its forces in Poland, the Baltics and elsewhere. But can future presidents be relied on to honour the US’s commitments? If not, Europe could be left to fend for itself.

Many will say this would be no bad thing: Europe has freeloaded on America’s security guarantee for too long. But building an autonomous European defence capacity will take time. France is a serious military power but lacks anything like the logistical, intelligence and high-tech warfare capabilities of the US and its allies. Emmanuel Macron’s project of a European army remains a chimera. Lulled into torpor by the belief that major wars between states belong in the history books, Europe has run down its capacity to engage in conventional warfare. (So, too, has the UK.) While Putin was systematically upgrading Russia’s military forces, Europe was disarming itself.

The fundamental question is whether European states have the will to defend themselves. Aside from Poland, the Baltic states, Scandinavia and the Netherlands, there is room for doubt. Some in the French political classes may have a personal interest in good relations with Russia. François Fillon, the former prime minister and one-time frontrunner in the 2017 presidential election, joined the board of the Russian petrochemical company Sibur in December 2021. In Germany Nord Stream 2 has been paused, not decommissioned. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has announced a raft of measures, including increased defence spending and building up energy reserves, that have rightly been described as a turning point in German foreign policy. Yet Germany is still reliant on Russian gas as a result of Angela Merkel’s policies. The ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder heads the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream AG. He is also chairman of the board of the Russian state oil company Rosneft, and in early February was nominated to serve on the board of Gazprom. He has issued statements deploring military conflict in Ukraine, but there is so far no sign of him renouncing these posts.

If Putin’s larger plan is to overturn the post-Cold War settlement in Europe, sections of its elites might not be too discomfited if he succeeds. Against this background, his ruthless gamble does not look so irrational. But could this war nevertheless be his undoing, as so many in the West want to believe?

Certainly, there are risks. Contrary to the stupefying cliché, he does not rule Russia with the authority of a tsar. His power is transactional and precarious. If the invasion stalls, a coup mounted by oligarchs fearful of a costly conflict must be a real possibility. (Ironically, isolating Russia from the world’s financial system could strengthen Putin’s hold over the oligarchs, since it would force them to keep their wealth in the country.) The scale of popular dissent is hard to judge. There have been demonstrations against the war in cities throughout Russia and thousands of protesters have been arrested. Many Russians, on the other hand, consider the West the enemy – a view that could become more widely held if sanctions impoverish the majority.

Putin’s war has torn up the view of history that guided the West for the past 30 years. When Tony Blair told Labour’s party conference in September 2005, “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer,” he encapsulated the ruling myth of the age. Across the world thousands of economists nodded sagely. Fervent internationalists cheered the dawn of a universal regime of human rights. But the millennial transformation Blair announced did not come to pass.

[See also: The Klitschko brothers face the fight of their lives]

In order to see the world clearly, we need to understand the fall of communism. The West misread the forces that overthrew the Soviet state: it was brought down not by intellectual dissent or economic inefficiency, which dogged the system from the start, but by nationalism, religion and working-class revolt. In Russia the trigger for the communist collapse was the failure of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Westernising reform programme. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the 19th century, “the most dangerous time for a bad government is when it starts to reform itself”. Positioned ambivalently between Europe and Asia, Russia was never going to become a facsimile of the West.

The triumph of liberalism was a mirage. There were wars in the Gulf, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East. Many were wars of resources or religion – types of violent conflict that were supposed to be fading away. The war in Ukraine continues this pattern. The role of resources will become apparent as sanctions fail or rebound. The influence of religion will remain obscure or incredible for most in the West. Some have noted Putin citing Ivan Ilyin, a 19th-century émigré Orthodox theologian and supporter of the White armies in the Russian Civil War, as one of his favourite writers. Not many noticed when last August Tass reported that Putin’s Mephistophelian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, had denounced the West for backing Ukraine’s church, which in October 2018 split from its Russian counterpart after three centuries of accepting Moscow’s authority. While calling for peace, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia has come out in support of Putin. Ukraine is being invaded, it seems, in order to reclaim Kyiv for Holy Russia. Western observers are baffled by the way Putin has invoked Russian spiritual values to justify the bloody conquest on which he seems bent. Some dismiss his profession of faith as a cynical ploy, others diagnose insanity. A few – of whom I am one – suspect his Orthodoxy could be genuine. But while he may hold the fate of Europe in his hands, it is a mistake to focus on him as the sum of all our fears.

Putin is the face of a world the contemporary Western mind does not comprehend. In this world, war remains a permanent part of human experience; lethal struggles over territory and resources can erupt at any time; human beings kill and die for the sake of mystical visions; and saving the victims of tyranny and aggression is often impossible. These are hard truths, to be sure. But the time for pretence and illusion has passed. The enervating dream of a global liberal order must be abandoned, and the reckless disarmament of the past decades reversed. Only then will we be prepared for whatever Putin’s war brings.

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This article appears in the 02 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Hero of our Times