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Editor’s Note: Putin’s malign ambition, and how the Syrian civil war exposed the perils of Western inaction

To get a sense of what is happening today in Ukraine’s cities, consider the fate of Aleppo.

By Jason Cowley

In our cover story of 26 November 2021 Bruno Maçães provocatively asked: Is Putin preparing for war? Maçães had returned, with feelings of foreboding, from the Valdai Discussion Club, a Russian pseudo-Davos, in the Caucasus mountains. At the summit, in a wide-ranging speech addressing climate change, technological revolution, the Covid pandemic, the “inconstant constancy” of American power, the rise of wokeness, the return of the nation state and great power rivalry, Vladimir Putin said Russian society had developed “herd immunity to extremism” and was thus well-suited to the “upheavals and socio-economic cataclysms” to come.

In his address Putin rejected liberal universalism and the belief that there is one form of life suited to all human societies. “It is impossible to impose anything on anyone, be it the principles underlying the socio-political structure or values that someone, for their own reasons, has called universal,” he said. “When a real crisis strikes, there is only one universal value left and that is human life, which each state decides for itself how best to protect based on its abilities, culture and traditions.”

Maçães was denounced by Kremlin stooges on social media for his NS essay, but he was ahead of the game: Putin was preparing for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which in less than a fortnight has brought death and destruction, created as many as two million refugees (so far) and upended the world order. The German chancellor Olaf Scholz has accurately described this moment as a “Zeitenwende” – not merely a turning point in history but the start of a new era of international politics.

***

Putin thrives on weakness, indecision and division. He nurtures a kind of wounded contempt and loathes the West, being resentful of and feeling betrayed by the Americans. Three decades ago, he said in Valdai, recalling the end of the Cold War, humanity entered a new era when the main conditions “were created for ending military-political and ideological confrontation… A search for a new balance, sustainable relations in the social, political, economic, cultural and military areas and support for the world system was launched… We were looking for this support but must say that we did not find it, at least so far.” But those who “felt like the winners” then have since “discovered that the ground was falling away” beneath them. Referring to the lessons of Russia’s “difficult and sometimes tragic history”, Putin portrays international politics as an arena of endless striving and fierce competition. Only the strongest and most uncompromising can succeed.

***

When thinking about what more the West could have done to thwart Putin’s malign ambitions, one returns to August 2013 when, in violation of international law, the Assad regime launched a chemical weapons attack on rebel-held Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus, killing hundreds. Before this, and in the absence of a strategy on the Syrian civil war, the Obama administration had laid down its so-called red lines against the use of chemical weapons.

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After the attack, Obama seemed frozen. He wanted to act – to do something, anything! – but could not. Putin sensed his rival’s weakness and seized an opportunity. US equivocation opened the way for Putin’s Russia to become, over time, the dominant foreign power in Syria, where it controls a naval facility at the warm-water port of Tartus on the Mediterranean. The murderous Assad dictatorship, bolstered by the Russian military intervention, did not fall. Moscow was strengthened and Putin was emboldened. How did European states respond? They kept on buying Russian oil and gas.

Sometimes the absence of war – Obama opposed the Iraq debacle and as president aspired to “lead from behind” in the Middle East – can have nefarious consequences, as in Syria. During that long, tragic conflict, in which more than 500,000 people have been killed and at least 13 million displaced or forced to become refugees, Russian war planes operated with impunity, notably in the siege of eastern Aleppo, where schools, hospitals and residential apartment blocks were systematically bombed. If you want to get a sense of what is happening today in Mariupol, the strategic port besieged by Russian forces, or what might happen soon enough in Kyiv, consider the fate of Aleppo or indeed of Grozny during the second Chechen War, launched not long after Putin came to power in 2000.

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On 6 March, the BBC broadcast a harrowing report by Jeremy Bowen, a courageous reporter and NS contributor, from Irpin on the outskirts of Kyiv. Russian forces were shelling local people as they sheltered around a damaged bridge over the Irpin river. A shell exploded close to where a camera crew was filming. It killed four people including three members of the same family, two of them children, as they fled. You saw the dead children lying in the road; one of them was wearing glasses and a beanie hat, the other had a small rucksack. Portable suitcases were scattered nearby, beside their fallen mother and her male friend. The image was fleeting but I can see it even now. For Ukraine and its blighted people, beyond the apparent worst there is a worse suffering. Meanwhile, Putin, this agent of chaos, sits in the Kremlin, smirking, and marvelling at his power to remake the world.

[see also: Putin’s war is in disarray]

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror