Dictators and despots usually overreach themselves and Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, which began yesterday morning even as the UN security council in New York was discussing the deteriorating situating in Donbass, may soon prove to be a step too far.
Putin invades Ukraine
The full scale invasion got underway as the massed Russian forces almost encircling Ukraine rolled over the border from Belarus in the north, Crimea in the south, and Russia in the east, accompanied by a barrage of targeted missile attacks on military communications and installations. It can hardly have come as a surprise but was still somehow shocking. A dangerous war is now underway on European soil for the first time since 1945.
It is has all the ingredients for the kind of conflict that has the potential to spiral rapidly out of control. Neither side can afford to lose and big principles are at stake.
Against what should be the enduring and immovable resolve of western nations, is the irresistible force of Russian military might and the delusions of one man. His actions threaten to destabilise European security and plunge us into a new cold war or worse. At the very least, hundreds if not thousands of lives will be added to those already lost in the Donbass since 2014. Putin, in a pre-recorded address, threatened the West with the “greatest consequences in history” if it interferes in Ukraine. Make of that what you will.
Do democratic nations have the right to self determination? Are we returning to an era where great powers have ‘spheres of influence’ free to coerce smaller and weaker neighbours? China and Taiwan will be watching how the West reacts with interest. The next few months will tell.
Russian ‘security’ fears
Those apologists who argue that Putin’s actions have been forced on him by the eastward expansion of NATO are wrong. No one believes for a second that the average Russian in Moscow, Yekaterinburg or Novosibirsk is concerned about their country’s ‘security’. They may worry about their own safety under the ever-vengeful eye of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), but nobody loses sleep thinking about Estonia launching a pre-emptive strike.
In any case, the subjugation and occupation of Ukraine will only bring about the very situation that Putin and Russia are said to fear the most, having a threatening alliance immediately on its western border.
Russia is not normal
Russia is not a regular country. It has 11 time zones, 35 official languages, 100 minority languages, 144 million people and occupies one eighth of the world’s inhabitable land area, yet has a GDP less than Italy and even below the US state of Texas (pop: 29 million). It has no opposition to speak of (Putin has ensured that), and no independent judiciary or media free from harassment and intimidation by the Kremlin .
It has the world’s fifth largest army (behind China, India, the USA and North Korea) yet, if Putin is to be believed, it trembles constantly in fear of being attacked by small European nations or by NATO, a purely defensive alliance which has only ever intervened in Europe to stop a war.
Let us be honest, these fears are not remotely believable. What really concerns Putin and the kleptocratic regime of which he is the head, is not NATO but the eastward expansion of democracy. That would inevitably reveal the crimes in which he and they have been complicit for more than 20 years.
And we are not talking here of minor offences. Putin has murdered his critics and opponents at home and abroad, launched offensives against his own people, closed down opposition groups and stolen billions of dollars to enrich himself and his cronies. He is said to be worth upward of $40 billion.
The very idea that the ‘security concerns’ of a few dozen people in the Kremlin who are guilty of serious corruption, outweigh the near constant dread of the millions living in the former Soviet Republics is a sick joke. The overwhelming majority of people in eastern Europe do not want to return to the horrors of Soviet rule.
Russian is not a normal democratic country, although the leadership arranges things so it looks like one. Elections are rigged. It has no means of removing a leader who simply rewrites the constitution when his term looks like expiring and forces changes through a parliament (The Duma), packed with supporters and ‘opposition’ deputies who are also loyal to him.
Following his rambling televised address on Monday, he summoned his ‘security council’ who assembled like schoolboys, sitting 20 metres from him in the great Hall of the Order of St Catherine, as he forced them to publicly rubber-stamp the annexation of the oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk. They all looked terrified. He looked more like the crazed leader of a Tsarist autocracy.
However, the age-old problem for autocratic leaders and despots who exercise supreme and unchallenged power is
- How to cling on to it for as long as possible and
- How to get out alive with the money and with a successor trusted not to denounce you later.
I read several years ago that those close to him say this is his big concern.
Men like Putin do not tolerate rivals
Potential rivals are either forced out, imprisoned or murdered. However, when you keep having to eliminate or intimidate rivals the idea eventually takes root that rivals, real and imagined, are everywhere and you become slightly paranoid. Putin knows how he rose to power and probably wakes up every morning with the fear that someone is plotting to replace him, using the methods that he used.
Joseph Stalin regularly eliminated political opponents and led the ‘Great Terror’, a brutal campaign to purge the Communist Party of dissent that cost the lives of at least 750,000 people, summarily executed between 1936 and 1938 alone. More than a million other people were sent to the Gulag, forced labour camps, for years. His so-called ‘excesses’ – otherwise known as genocide – were denounced by Nikita Khrushchev on this day (25 February) in 1956, at the 20th party congress in a four-hour-long ‘secret speech’, three years after Stalin’s death. It wasn’t officially published in Russia until 1988.
Putin does not have quite as many bodies buried as Stalin, but more than enough to worry about their discovery.
How will Ukraine play out for Putin?
Ukraine is the largest European country by land area with a population of 44 million. It is not Chechnya, nor South Ossetia, nor Crimea. Taking it will be easy, quelling it will not. Certainly not with a mere 150,000 troops against a resentful, well-armed population who have tasted democracy and want to become a democratic European state.
Neither is it 1956 and Hungary, or Prague in 1968. The world is a different place. Communications are far better and Russians and Ukrainians have travelled, have lived and worked in each others’ country. They have friends, family and colleagues on both sides.
Putin will need to find a brutal puppet administration to control Ukraine but it will come as a huge drain on Russia, economically, diplomatically and culturally. The sanctions announced yesterday with more coming in the future, will now affect Ukraine as well as Russia.
There were spontaneous protests across Russia within hours of the invasion, and posted on Twitter. Protesters in Moscow were quickly bundled into police vans but other demonstrations in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg seem to go off without incident. Other protests occurred in London and Paris.
Protesters in London and Paris take to the streets in solidarity with Ukraine
Yekaterinburg: Protesters chant “No to war!”
St. Petersburg: Putin’s home town
Moscow: Hundreds protesting against the Ukraine invasion. Arrests.
Moscow: Protesters are heard chanting “Facists”
According to The Daily Mail, 150 municipal Russian officials have signed an open letter condemning Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as “an unprecedented atrocity” and warning of “catastrophic consequences”.
The officials apparently said they were “convinced” Russian citizens do not back the war and blamed Putin “personally” for ordering troops into Ukraine in an attack “for which there is no and cannot be justification”.
In a further open letter, 300 Russian scientists and scientific journalists say:
Czech President Milos Zeman, said to be very close to Russia, has called for tougher EU sanctions and has reportedly said, “It’s important to isolate the insane” in an apparent reference to Putin. A politics professor at the University of Toronto, Seva Gunitsky, claimed on Twitter that protests had spread to 53 cities across Russia:
Can Russia prevail? Probably not in the long term. Facing serious opposition at home and abroad will test Putin like never before. The West’s sanctions are targeting the oligarchs who surround him for one reason: they are the only people who can remove him and if their own wealth and power is threatened, it’s possible they will force Putin out.
Layla Moran, Lib-Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, has named 35 of them under parliamentary privilege because they sue at the drop of a hat. As far as I can see no mainstream media has published the list so far. Yorkshire Bylines doesn’t intend to be the first, but if you want to see the names of the men who hold Europe’s destiny in their hands you can see them in Hansard HERE column 279.