At the close of last year, Russia marked the 30th anniversary of what Vladimir Putin once called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”: the collapse of the Soviet Union. A direct line can be drawn from this imperial humbling to the presence of 127,000 Russian troops on the Ukraine border. Mr Putin’s aspiration is not to restore the USSR but to regain great-power status for Russia.
To speak of the threat of war between Russia and Ukraine, as many commentators do, is a misnomer – the countries have been at war for much of the past decade. It was in 2014 that Mr Putin annexed Crimea – the first such action in Europe since the Second World War – and occupied much of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region (at the cost of 14,000 lives to date).
“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in a 19th-century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext,” complained John Kerry, the then US secretary of state. But what has it cost Mr Putin? From Syria to Salisbury, perhaps no leader has exerted a more malign influence on world affairs – and yet he endures. Progressives should have no illusions about a man who presides over a ruthless autocracy and delights in stoking homophobia and chauvinism. The West’s post-Cold War triumphalism may have proved hubristic – but Mr Putin is not a leader who has earned any right to sympathy.
The threat is not that the Russian president will start a war with Ukraine, but that he will attempt to end one – on his terms. Mr Putin has long used external aggression as the pretext for internal repression. His autocratic rule depends on crushing the threat of an alternative – whether at home or in Russia’s “near-abroad”. Faced with a divided West, and emboldened by a burgeoning alliance with China, the president scents opportunity.
But the response of the international community has been disturbingly erratic. In Donald Trump, Mr Putin enjoyed the spectacle of a US president who appeared complicit. In Joe Biden, he enjoys one who appears woefully complacent. On 19 January the latter implied that he would be prepared to tolerate “a minor incursion” that leads to “a fight about what to do and what not to do”. Though Mr Biden subsequently clarified that any action would be met with a “severe and coordinated economic response”, the damage was done.
The new German government, meanwhile, is internally divided between the Greens, who hold the foreign ministry and oppose the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, and the more Russophile Social Democrats (the former chancellor Gerhard Schröder chairs the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream). The head of the German navy, Kay-Achim Schönbach, may have been forced to resign when he recently remarked that Mr Putin “deserves respect”, but his crime was perhaps only to have been too honest about his country’s position. As for the French president Emmanuel Macron, his lofty ambition of European “strategic autonomy” has collided with the reality of a largely impotent and quarrelsome EU.
Only the UK has emerged with credit in recent weeks. As Jeremy Cliffe, our international editor, writes in his report from Kyiv on page 28: “My interlocutors are effusive in their praise for Britain’s swift deliveries of anti-tank weapons. ‘God save the Queen!’ enthuses one when I raise the subject, a line that has also trended on Twitter in Ukraine in recent days.”
For all the UK government’s talk of an “Indo-Pacific tilt”, its best hope of playing a meaningful role in the post-Brexit era is to remain engaged in European affairs – and Mr Putin’s expansionist ambitions may leave it with little choice. But Boris Johnson, mired in self-inflicted scandals, carries no moral authority on the world stage – if he ever did.
Mr Putin’s strong rhetoric masks a weaker hand. Russia’s already enfeebled economy would be devastated by new US sanctions, and the cost of a full-scale invasion – in blood and treasure – could accelerate the decline in his popularity.
But the Ukraine crisis remains a defining moral and strategic test for the West. Should it falter, China and others will be left to conclude that might makes right and Mr Putin’s dream of an illiberal world order will advance once more.
This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed