Putin fans the flames of war
As well as continuing to silence dissent by throwing his critics into prison and closing down independent media and human rights organisations such as Memorial, Vladimir Putin has been fanning the flames of war by building up around 100,000 troops along with tanks, artillery and ballistic missiles close to the Ukrainian border and the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. These are administered by ultra-nationalist pro-Russian rebels, clandestinely supplied with Russian weapons and military personnel under the guise of ‘volunteers’.
Having annexed Crimea in 2014 to the horror of the international community, Putin appears to want to incorporate yet more territory into the Russian Federation. The questions that no one but Putin can at present answer are ‘how much?’ and ‘for what specific purposes?’
The incorporation of Crimea into the Russia has been costly, in that the peninsula has had to be supplied with utilities from Russia rather than Ukraine. It was precisely because it is logistically easier to supply the peninsula with water, power and food supplies from Ukraine rather than Russia that Khrushchev transferred the area to Ukraine in 1954.
Russia has had to invest heavily in new infrastructure, and not all problems have been successfully solved. For Crimea to have guaranteed water supplies, it would be necessary for Russia to control the Ukrainian territory that used to supply them. Thus, Putin’s principal aim is to take enough territory to secure these supplies.
A third potential aim would be to topple the Ukrainian government by means of a coup, then install a puppet administration which would pursue a ‘unitary state’ solution on the lines of the arrangement currently entered into with Belarus, whereby a quasi-independent leader follows Moscow in domestic security, defence and foreign policy areas. Essentially, this would mean the re-establishment of the Slavic part of the Soviet Union or rather the Russian Empire, since communism is no longer the ideology of the Russian government.
Conquering and occupying the whole of Ukraine by force would be impractical as the Ukrainians are patriotic, would resist and could embark on a guerrilla war, inflicting military and economic losses on the whole of the new state for years to come.
Putin needs a conflict
According to Worldometer, by 21 December, Russia lost 299,249 citizens to the virus and Ukraine 93,688. A potential or actual conflict with Ukraine or the west in general is useful to Putin to cover for his inept handling of the pandemic and the inadequate nature of the Russian health service, as well as for a faltering economy and the increasingly apparent negative effects of climate change.
Putin seems to be actively promoting a conflict with the west in general by pursuing the false narrative of encirclement by NATO. Last week in Moscow, Russia handed the US aset ofdemands that, it claims, will lower tensions in Europe, providing Russia with ‘security guarantees’. These include a ban on Ukrainian membership of NATO and a removal of troops and weapons deployed to countries which joined the alliance after 1997.
Solidarity in the west
Such demands are an attempt to reinvent the concept of major powers with spheres of influence and to deny such countries as Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland as well as Ukraine, the right to self-determination. As such, these are clearly unacceptable to the west and have already been ruled out. White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki informed reporters that, “There will be no talks on European security without our European allies and partners”.
NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, has also ruled out a ban on Ukraine entering the alliance. Given that Putin has already in effect blocked this happening by occupying Crimea and creating a frozen conflict, it is clear that Putin’s demands are a deliberate provocation and an attempt to raise rather than de-escalate tensions.
On 21 December, Putin reiterated his position in a belligerent speech to military commanders in which he blamed the west for rising tensions by turning Ukraine against Russia. He also raised these issues in a telephone conversation with the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz.
This is a battle the west cannot afford to lose
Putin may now be seeking to capitalise on perceived weakness on the part of western governments. He may see Biden as weak about defending human rights, given his abandoning of Afghanistan to the Taliban.
The new German government is as yet untested, though Scholz was Angela Merkel’s deputy from 2018 and is therefore not inexperienced on the world stage. It is he who can play one of the strongest hands in defending the status quo by cancelling the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, thus depriving Russia of a major source of revenue. The presence of the Greens in the German coalition will in any case hasten Germany’s transfer to environmentally friendly energy resources away from a dependence on Russian gas.
Putin, now 69 and in power since the start of the century, may feel he needs to take advantage of current world uncertainties if he wants to have any chance of re-establishing Russian hegemony in its former territories. It is important that the west shows a united front and stands up to Putin’s demands and bullying tactics. This is not an ideological conflict, but rather a moral one about human rights and national sovereignty, which the west cannot afford to lose.