One of the little known facts about Vladimir Putin is that he had an older brother, whom he never knew, who died during the siege of Leningrad. A man raised by parents who had lost a child in the horror of this siege would never be moved by discussions of a rules-based international order, the territorial sovereignty of Europe or even by the deaths of thousands of Innocent Ukrainians.
Who knows what Putin thought while in isolation for the past two years of COVID? I guess after more than twenty years in power, he reflects on his legacy as the longest Russian leader since Stalin. Or how he grew up in one state: the Soviet Union, where Minsk and Kiev (before Kiev) were as familiar as Moscow and Leningrad, and all existed in a unified state. I also assume that he doesn’t care what the Russian people, the oligarchs, his own technocrats and the international community think. He wants to be remembered as a great leader of Russia and he has decided that to achieve this he will bring Ukraine back into the Russian sphere, permanently.
I’m sure he sat in the Kremlin, he also reflected on the fact that when he came to power he sought to cooperate with the West. When the United States was attacked on September 11and he supported their efforts to invade Afghanistan – and how did the United States react? In 2002, George W Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, so he could pursue a missile defense system. For the Russians, it was a slap in the face, because the system was going to be directed against them. Then, in early 2008, Bush pledged full support for Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO. The Russian-Georgian conflict of August 2008 has fallen into oblivion in the West, but Russia used it to prevent Georgia from joining NATO, with the reinforcement of pro-Russian enclaves in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In the case of Ukraine, a country that holds a special place in Russian history, the West offered the worst of both worlds. He dangled NATO membership, which provoked and enraged the Russians, but he did not follow through and therefore failed to provide the protection enjoyed by the Baltic states. The question of Ukraine for Putin was taken to another level with the Maidan revolution in 2014. Putin must have seen the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych and thought: does the West want to do this to me? ? Its response by annexing Crimea and establishing the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk followed Georgia’s pattern. He would have noted that if the West imposed sanctions and issued high condemnations, international relations continued as before, with Russian gas, oil and money still welcome.
What has happened since 2014 will only have strengthened its strategic position. While in 2014 Belarus tried to be an independent mediator – encouraged by the West – it is now firmly in the Russian camp. The West rightly condemned its President Lukashenko for rigging his re-election in 2020 and oppressing his people, but that rejection also meant that he had become a client of Russia in his own right and a firm ally of the invasion.
Hopefully, the world’s united response to the Russian invasion surprised Putin, as did the bravery of the Ukrainian resistance. Yet for Putin and many Russians, there has always been fear that the West is out to get them. The withdrawal of Western companies from Russia will only confirm their suspicions. The lack of luxury goods in Moscow‘s high-end stores probably won’t bother many, but the ruble’s collapse will. Yet Russia is not a reactive democracy, so discontent is unlikely to impact politics, certainly in the short to medium term. If large numbers of liberal Russians flee, fearing Marshal’s Law and conscription, it will weed out those most vocal against his regime.
Putin’s attempt to conquer Ukraine and the separation of Russia’s economy from the world economy will mean that whatever happens there now, we are all in a new world. A period of Russian-Western hostility is likely, perhaps for the next twenty or thirty years. Even if Putin were to drop dead tomorrow, the world would not return to 23rd February 2022. The Russians will seek alternative international trade and financial agreements that will protect them from future Western sanctions – and they will likely find allies in China, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela for this. War crimes investigations in Ukraine will likely mean continued hostility between the Russian military and security state and the West. Constant anti-Western propaganda will be a feature of Russian media. The era of the Russian oligarch is over, but a new cold war has begun.
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