Why President Putin will do everything he can to prevent a ‘normal’ Ukraine

 

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His state was halved in size by the collapse of the Soviet Union barely two decades ago. The economy he presides over ranks a mere eighth or ninth in the world – and that is thanks almost exclusively to the oil, gas and mineral wealth below its soil. The average life expectancy of his country’s males is only 60 years and its population is in long-term decline.

In short, these are hardly the attributes of a vibrant, resurgent nation.

Yet, according to the American magazine Forbes at least, Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, is the most powerful person on the planet. And whatever else, his occupation and de facto annexation of Crimea, which is legally part of Russia’s neighbour, Ukraine, will do nothing to change that.

Maybe Forbes is right. Power is a matter of perception – above all, of a perceived readiness to use it. By that yardstick he has rarely disappointed: look no further than Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, or his obdurate support for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. His career in the intelligence services of the Soviet Union and then Russia is moreover assumed to have given him a mastery of the darkest arts of statecraft. One thing, however, is uncontestable. Mr Putin is a man with a mission: to restore Russia’s pride and its place as a Great Power.

To understand him, he must be placed in the context of what went before. In some respects the Soviet Union, and previously imperial Russia, represented a trade-off: its people would tolerate inefficiency, hardship and the evils of an autocratic and ruthless state, as long as the country was respected and feared abroad. I was Moscow correspondent for this newspaper for four years as the Soviet Union fell apart, and watched as Mikhail Gorbachev made the fatal error of violating this tacit compact.

Mr Gorbachev presided over Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, the unravelling of the empire in Eastern Europe and finally of the internal empire, the Soviet Union itself. Had that retreat been compensated by an improvement in living standards at home, the humiliation might have been tolerable. Instead the opposite happened. The command economy seized up, with nothing to replace it. The remedy was supposed to be the “shock therapy” of swift transition to a market economy.

But that solution proved to be virtually all shock, with precious little therapy. Then came the financial crash of 1998, when the rouble plummeted, banks collapsed and millions of Russians lost their life savings. It was a second Time of Troubles almost to match the famine, foreign occupation and general chaos that gripped Tsarist Russia at the start of the 17th century. In comparison, the gains in personal freedom during the Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin era counted for little.

Today, the Gorbachev/Yeltsin years feel like a short-lived inter-regnum, an aberration in the great sweep of Russian history. At home, personal freedom is again being circumscribed: serious political opposition is not tolerated, the media has been brought under near-total state control. For foreign audiences, there is no more feel-good Gorbachev-era talk, as the Cold War ended, of Russia as part of “our common European home”. For Mr Putin, famously, the demise of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical disaster” of the 20th century. His goal, however, is not a resumption of the Cold War that the Soviet Union lost, still less the reconstitution of that vanished state. The KGB hand who had a ringside seat at Communism’s collapse knows the system’s failings. He knows it cannot be rebuilt. His is not an ideological crusade, but an exercise in realpolitik and raw power. Indeed, insofar as it exists, “Putinism” is the very opposite of socialism.

If he has a preferred model it is of a “law-and-order” state founded upon old-fashioned values of nation and religion, and upon a conformism that cannot tolerate perceived deviations from the norm, such as homosexuality. As such it is an antidote to what Mr Putin sees as the liberal, decadent West – the same West that only three generations ago produced fascism and Nazism, from which Europe was saved only by colossal Russian sacrifice. Mr Putin’s overriding aim is to re-establish his country as a prime actor on the world stage and he has gone about the task with ever-increasing zeal. Thus Sochi, the $50bn (£30bn) winter Olympics in the one place in Russia where it never snows. Thus, more fatefully, the Kremlin’s support for the Assad regime in Syria, a sign of Russia’s determination never again to be bypassed in the Middle East as it felt it was over Libya, and proof that no major crisis in the region can be resolved without Russia. Thus, too, the rebuilding of Russia’s armed forces.

And thus, Putin’s approach to Ukraine - as the most populous and important former Soviet republic after Russia itself - tilts towards the West. Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia showed how Moscow would act keep members of the one-time flock within the fold. But Georgia is small beer.

Ukraine and Russia have been entwined for more than 1,000 years: until the Soviet break-up in 1991, Ukraine had not been a separate state since the Middle Ages (with the exception of a brief, chaotic period in 1917-18). Allowing its neighbour to slip into the Western orbit, via closer ties with the European Union and – ultimate nightmare – eventual membership of Nato, would give the lie to everything Mr Putin is trying to achieve. The “loss” of Ukraine would signify not merely the definitive evaporation of Russia’s supposed sphere of influence. Given the ethnic, religious and historical ties, for Mr Putin the loss of Ukraine would be felt almost as the loss of a piece of Russia itself.

Not least importantly, he reckons he will get away with it. A few months after condemning Moscow’s incursion into Georgia, the Americans embarked on a “reset” aimed to improve relations with Russia. As for military action, forget it. The US and the West didn’t even intervene in Hungary in 1956, in the very heart of Europe.

What has deterred the Kremlin in the past has been the fear not of outside hostility, but of indigenous resistance. It has emerged, for instance, that the Politburo had decided not to intervene in Poland in 1981; Wojciech Jaruzelski did the job for them, by imposing martial law to crush the Solidarity movement. By the same token, Mr Putin has not hesitated to seize Crimea, 60 per cent of whose inhabitants are ethnic Russians, and perhaps even swathes of Russophone eastern Ukraine. But he will surely stop short of using force directly against the western half of the country, where Ukrainian nationalism runs strongest.

His sense of his adversaries will do nothing to change this approach. It would be an exaggeration to compare this moment to the Vienna superpower summit of 1961 when Nikita Khrushchev decided the young and untested John F Kennedy could be rolled and went ahead with the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from Florida, bringing the world to the nuclear brink.

Clearly though, he perceives Barack Obama as a weak, somewhat donnish figure, with an academic’s trusting belief that reason and common sense will prevail in international affairs. He looks at the US and sees a country tired of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with no appetite for a new confrontation. The same, even more so, goes for Europe.

But even icy realpolitik, Putin-style, is subject to human irrationality and breeds its own miscalculations. The ouster of his protégée, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, was an embarrassing and inexcusable distraction from the Sochi extravaganza that was meant to project Russian grandeur. But the Ukrainians who rose up against Mr Yanukovych and his inept, corrupt ways weren’t having it. Left to its own devices, nationalist Ukraine – and, who knows, maybe some elements of the supposedly pro-Russian east – prefer the Western path. And as Mr Putin knows, some of the same applies in Russia itself.

The real problem would be if a new, decently governed and “normal” Ukraine, even no more than a western rump Ukraine, emerged from the present tumult. Mr Putin will do everything he can to prevent that. For many Russians would surely say: “Why not us too; why should we still be saddled with incompetence, corruption and lawlessness?” At that point, even the most powerful man in the world might feel the earth start to move under his feet.

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