The White House told us with absolute certainty that there would be an invasion of Ukraine this week — instead Vladimir Putin bit off a chunk of Ukraine without firing a shot. Perhaps it seemed to him that recognising the two breakaway territories of Luhansk and Donetsk was a clever move: he had not, after all, ignored the warning that — in Boris Johnson’s phrase — one Russian soldier putting a toe-cap over the border would make sanctions inevitable. But sanctions will come anyway — the issue is only about how severe they will be — imposed because, as Johnson says, there has been a clear breach of international law.
More than that, the Kremlin has announced that there will be ‘peacekeeping operations’ in Donetsk and Luhansk — that is, at some moment very soon, Russian troops will officially and undeniably enter Ukraine. Perhaps these were the plans the White House had received intelligence of. The question now is whether the Russian leader will declare victory and leave things at that, or if this speech is the justification to send the tanks all the way to Kiev. Either way, the window for diplomacy has all but closed. We wait now for Western punishment and Russian reaction.
It was a dark, bitter, and at times paranoid speech. Putin seemed almost to snarl at the camera as he went through a litany of historic injustices perpetrated by the West against Mother Russia. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians were ungrateful — Russia had taken $250 billion (£180 billion) of Soviet debt off their hands — and had put themselves under the control of Russia’s enemies abroad. They even wanted to get tactical nuclear weapons. Russia couldn’t allow that. Anyway, he said, Ukraine didn’t even exist, it was a fictional country, an invention of Lenin and the Bolsheviks — Russia was simply undoing that fiction as part of ‘decommunisation’. ‘Ukraine was completely built and created by Lenin. He was its architect, it was his orders to include Donbass [the area that includes Luhansk and Donetsk] in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic by force.’
The fear that Putin is preparing the way for a full-scale invasion stems from the fact that the two breakaway territories he recognised with a stroke of the pen — the People's Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, to give them their full titles — both claim more of Ukraine than they currently control. If Ukraine doesn’t really exist, as Putin claims, why not redraw the borders further? Most worrying of all as a guide to Putin’s future intentions was his assertion that Ukrainian forces are guilty of genocide against four million Russian speakers, aided and abetted by the Western intelligence services. ‘How long can this continue? How long can we tolerate this?’ This has been a Kremlin talking point for some weeks, with the Russian Federation’s Investigative Committee opened an inquiry into ‘mass graves’ in eastern Ukraine. To the current Russian leadership, Nato used claims of genocide in Kosovo to permanently redraw the map of Serbia. Now they are using those same arguments in Ukraine.
In earlier articles about this crisis, I wrote that sending 130,000 troops to Ukraine’s border could most likely be a convincing bluff by President Putin. It is harder to maintain that position now, but it may still be possible that the Russian leader thinks he has stopped just short of provoking a really severe Western reaction — one that might include eventual membership of Nato and the EU for Ukraine. Russia has a lot of cash in its foreign reserves — more than $600 billion (£450 billion) — and it really might not ‘give a s***’ about Western sanctions, as one Russian ambassador put it. I thought that Putin was — is — bluffing because actually invading Ukraine would be a crazy act of self-destruction. There would be a stream of coffins returning home that would turn the Russian public against him. A senior Ukrainian political insider messages to say that he thinks Putin has indeed gone stark, staring mad, that we are seeing the start of a war that will destroy both the Russian leader and the Russian federation.
Luhansk and Donetsk were under Russian control, in effect they had been annexed since 2014. Did Vladimir Putin really move all those troops to the border simply to take two bits of territory he already had? The next move belongs to Ukraine — as I write, the Ukrainian president is due to give a televised address. If the Ukrainians fight back — with American support — then we should not expect Russian forces to withdraw quietly. In Vladimir Putin’s terms, this is a battle for survival, against genocide. In such a battle, Russia would use its air superiority — again, modelling its response on Nato’s air war against Serbia. The people of Kiev should start to listen for air raid sirens.