So it’s war. For all Vladimir Putin may want to call it a ‘special military operation,’ as missiles rain down on targets all across Ukraine and tanks pour across its borders, this is nothing less than a full-scale act of unprovoked aggression, recognised as such everywhere except in one place: Putin’s head.
His pre-recorded announcement of the invasion was a case study in emotive button-pressing, claiming that Ukraine was a hotbed of Nazism, and that Russia was simply intervening ‘to protect people who have been subjected to bullying and genocide by the Kiev regime for eight years.’ In this, it was a logical progression from Monday’s address on the recognition of the pseudo-states of the Donbas, a rambling rant that was little more than a rehearsal of overblown grievances infused with a venomous dislike of the West and Kiev alike.
For all this may have originally been predicated on ‘protecting’ the ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers of the Donbas region – even though many joined the Ukrainian military to fight the insurrection – he clearly has much greater ambitions. His demand is for the ‘demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine, as well as bringing to justice those who committed numerous, bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation.’
Setting aside the repeated slander that Ukraine is in any way ‘Nazi’ – yes, there is a sizeable ultra-nationalist and even neo-fascist movement, but they are by no means dominant in what is an essentially tolerant and pluralistic state – these kinds of goals require either the occupation of the country or, as Western intelligence assessments have predicted, the imposition of a puppet regime.
Can he honestly believe that any quisling could rule in Kiev from anything other than a throne of Russian bayonets? The truth of the matter seems likely to be that he does. One of the main arguments raised against the idea that Putin really would go ahead with a full-scale invasion – and I’ll come clean, I was one of them – was that for all his threats and posture, he must ultimately realise that while his forces could break the Ukrainian army on the battlefield the task of taking the cities and suppressing the country as a whole was beyond his means. He would also have known that the economic, political and social costs at home would be disastrous.
The key issue was whether he was getting good advice and, perhaps more importantly, listening to it. Certainly my conviction that this was the case was shaken by Monday’s televised meeting of his Security Council, in which the leading officials in his regime were forced into a grotesque spectacle of ritual obeisance. Those who tried to express concerns or suggest giving diplomacy more time were cut off, berated and bullied. This did not look like a man willing to listen to his experts, let alone have his prejudices challenged and assumptions questioned.
Putin has never been anything but a determined and vicious champion of his vision of Russian national interests – just ask the Chechens, or the Georgians. However, beneath his macho veneer, he used to be a cautious operator, who clearly paid close attention to what his spies, diplomats, soldiers and technocrats told him. But like so many autocrats, over time he has convinced himself of his own spin and housetrained his entourage simply to flatter and obey. Logic would have made him extend his strategy of tension, and the old Putin likely would have done just that, but this is an old man in a hurry, convinced that things will go the way he wants.
He probably believes that Ukraine will quickly fold, and that it will be straightforward to remake it as he sees fit. He is wrong, but teaching him that lesson will be a bloody and vicious affair. The man who clearly feared going down in history as anything less than a great national leader, has ensured that Ukraine will conclusively break from Russia, that the West will be forced to respond, and that his own nation will pay the price. But no doubt this morning, everyone is assuring him that he has just delivered a masterstroke.