The timing of Putin’s more conciliatory pose – as NATO leaders gathered at a summit at which they considered what further measures to take against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine – was hardly a coincidence.
Putin’s pose is a brazen attempt to defer stronger sanctions against his regime and as yet his words bear little relation to his actions on the ground in Ukraine. Any lingering pretence that Russian forces were not directly invading Ukraine ended weeks ago when they entered the country in larger numbers to save their proxy “rebels” and covert forces from defeat. Despite the “ceasefire”, the Russian army’s destructive advance and bombardment of the city of Mariupol is continuing.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not quite a repeat of Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 because his motivations are power, greed and a mafia don-style vendetta, rather than an insanely murderous ideology. But just as appeasement of a brutal dictator then led to World War II, it will not work this time either. Those European leaders who have been wilfully fooling themselves that the invasion was not happening must now support the strong reaction against Russia that is essential for our long-term economic and security interests.
Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine to seize the Crimea region was prompted by the Ukrainian people’s struggle for the freedom that we fellow Europeans take for granted. Putin was infuriated by the popular protests that prompted his corrupt, thuggish and malleable kindred spirit, the ex-President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych, to run away. Having faced mass protests in Russia against his own rule in recent years, Putin is terrified of the demonstration effect. If Ukraine, a country with which Russia shares some history and culture, were to prove that honest, democratic governance is possible there, then it would crank up the pressure on him at home.
After seizing Crimea, Putin started a spurious “uprising” in South Eastern Ukraine using Russian soldiers, mercenaries and weapons. His aim is to show the Ukrainians that they cannot have genuine independence and must do what Russia tells them. He also seems set on seizing a land connection to Crimea, having belatedly realised that he has grabbed a territory that is entirely dependent on the rest of Ukraine for its power and water supplies.
The result of Russia’s invasion has been over 2600 deaths so far and atrocities such as the murder of 298 men, women and children on Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 and the subsequent desecration of their corpses.
However much some of Europe might prefer to ignore what is going on in Ukraine during an already difficult period for the continent, the option of turning away does not exist. Putin’s mindset is that of a playground bully. He thrives on weakness and will continue to exploit it wherever he senses it. There is no chance that he will stop at Ukraine if he is allowed to get away with it. His next targets will be Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Then, perhaps, Poland or Finland. The days of these being “far away countries of which we know little” are long gone. The turmoil Russia could create in those countries would cause immense human suffering and wreck the economies of the whole of Europe. The costs would be far greater than the short-term pain of standing up to Russia now would entail.
If unchecked in Ukraine, Putin will also increasingly attempt to use oil and gas supplies to hold its European customers, including the UK, to ransom.
Fortunately, as a playground bully, Putin is vulnerable to those who stand up to him.
NATO is the world’s most powerful military alliance. Thankfully, the conclusions of its summit in Wales suggest that it is finally starting to act like it. The decision to counter the threat Putin poses by reaffirming our unequivocal military backing to the NATO member states nearest to Russia, including posting forces in them, is an important first step. The alliance should also do what Putin dreads most of all: offer Ukraine a clear path to membership.
Europe and its allies also have plenty of options for exerting pressure on Putin to implement the ceasefire and withdraw from Ukraine. Putin’s rule depends on him being the arbiter between Russia’s oligarchs by settling their disputes and sharing out the spoils of the Russian economy amongst them. In exchange, they refrain from challenging his political power. The oligarchs should be squeezed until the pips squeak with asset freezes, visa revocations and travel bans. This step would cause them to question Putin’s usefulness as their protector and encourage them to turn on him. The UK, where many of the oligarchs have homes and substantial assets, bears the greatest responsibility for exerting this pressure.
Topedoing Putin’s biggest personal prestige project by promising to withdraw from the 2018 World Cup in Russia is an obvious and essential measure. In the present circumstances, there can be no prospect of the tournament taking place there anyway. This step would have the handy side-effect of striking a blow against the lesser tinpot dictatorship of FIFA too.
Europe should also be less fearful of Russia’s oil and gas supplies weapon. Certainly, some countries rely heavily on this energy source. But they are not as reliant as Russia (and the personal wealth of Putin and his closest cronies) is on selling it to them. Russia has no infrastructure to sell much of the oil and gas elsewhere and up to 90% of its economy is dependent on the revenues.
Putin is clearly worried about further sanctions against him. Hence his typically cynical attempt to divert the NATO summit’s attention by putting forward a bogus “peace plan” and signing up to a ceasefire, whilst continuing the violent assault by his forces on the ground. NATO and EU leaders must not fall for this ruse and should act in accordance with what Putin does, not what he says.
As Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has countered, the only peace plan that will work and that the world should pay attention to consists of a single point: "Russia withdraws its regular troops, mercenaries and terrorists from Ukrainian territory. Then peace will be reinstated in Ukraine."