The events of recent weeks have led to the overdue shattering of illusions about Vladimir Putin and his Russian regime. Many close observers have long understood Putin to be a dangerous hybrid of Mafia Don and KGB man. This picture is now being graphically illustrated to a wider audience by his destruction of Ukraine and the revelations at the Litvinenko public inquiry of Russia’s nuclear terrorism. Putin is not Hitler, in that he is motivated by a desire to protect his own power and stolen billions, rather than a genocidal ideology. But he does pose the biggest threat by a single individual to the rest of Europe since the rise of the Führer in the 1930s.
The long-standing tactic of containing the threat that Putin poses has now outlived its usefulness. That is not to say that the well-intentioned attempt in Minsk last week by German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande to find a peaceful solution to the war in Ukraine was not worth a try. But it carries a whiff of the 1938 “Peace for Our Time” Munich Agreement that sacrificed Czechoslovakia to the Nazis in a failed attempt to prevent a wider war. Europe is similarly unready to fight now and rightly dreading the prospect. Sadly, though, dangerous dictators such as Putin are rarely inclined to say “ok, they’ve given me one country, so I’ll just settle for that, thank you very much”. Rather, they read appeasement as a sign of weakness and an open invitation to push on elsewhere.
Putin’s initial aim in invading Ukraine is to destroy a neighbouring nation whose people are seeking to escape their servitude as a vassal of Russia in search of a better life. This is an anathema to Putin because he rejects the concept of mutual benefit. Rather than seeing a peaceful and prosperous neighbour as a desirable prospect, he views the world only in terms of rivals: for Russia to be strong, others must be weak and subservient. This is exacerbated in the case of Ukraine because Putin fears the potential demonstration effect in Russia of a similar country becoming corruption-free and democratic.
But Ukraine is not a unique case and cynically sacrificing it to Putin’s terror would not solve the matter for the rest of Europe. His wider aim is to enfeeble the EU and NATO. These systems of cooperation have underpinned Europe’s peace and prosperity since the end of the Second World War. Putin perceives their principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law as a threat to his regime. The Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are at the greatest risk of being Putin’s next victims in his quest to break Europe. Much to Moscow’s annoyance, they have prospered since freeing themselves from Russia’s dominance when the Soviet Union collapsed. Despite their being NATO members, Russia has already subjected them to cyber warfare, the kidnapping of a government official and repeated incursions by military planes.
Fortunately, the West still has tools available to deter the dictator without needing to resort to all out military action. For all that Putin has the apparent strength of being willing to use any methods in support of his aims, his underlying position is weak. The West is well-placed to undermine Putin’s power by targeting Russia’s economic dependence on oil and gas exports and its elite’s predilection for acquiring assets in Europe.
Having brokered a second Minsk agreement for a ceasefire in Ukraine, Europe has obliged itself to wait a few weeks for it to unravel like the first one, as Putin doubtless intends. It should use the time to prepare additional sanctions to inflict further damage on the Russian economy. These ought to include suspending Russia from the SWIFT banking network, which would effectively exclude it from the international financial system. Visa bans and asset freezes should also be imposed on all Russian government, security service and military officials, members of parliament and a wider selection of oligarchs. These are the people on whom Putin’s power depends and they need to feel enough pain to question whether his actions are worthy of their support.
Less subtly, NATO has to meet head on the most direct threat it has ever faced to its fundamental purpose – that an attack on any member is regarded as an attack on all. Troops must be posted now to the Baltic States and Poland to make crystal clear to the Russians that further attempts at destabilising those countries will be resisted. Like all bullies, Russia fears strength and will only be deterred by a credible demonstration of it.
The time of containing Putin is over. The West has the tools available to prevent a wider war but it needs to use them now. If it fails to do so, the outcome could be a tragedy for a continent that desperately wants to avoid the type of horrific conflict it thought it had left behind after World War II.
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