‘Never interrupt your enemy,’ said Napoleon, ‘when he is making a mistake.’ A Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine would prove (perhaps, by the time this Spectator is published, ‘will’ prove) a terrible mistake. Were it not for the death and despoliation such a mistake would bring — an outcome one could never welcome — the response to Vladimir Putin’s implicit threats should surely be: bring it on! When we told Russia they’d only be hurting themselves, did we not mean it?
For the free world, an invasion would be a dark cloud; but, though I hate to speak of silver linings, the ultimate downfall of Putin, the severing of prospective Russian gas supplies to Germany and the kicking of Westminster into finally squaring up to the City’s dirty trade in money-laundering would be a silver lining. This column would not welcome the cloud, but reminds you of the silver lining for the rest of the world, if not for the poor Ukrainians.
I’m very far from being the first to remark that a Russian invasion would be against Moscow’s own interests: leading political, military and media voices in Nato’s member countries, including our own, have been shouting this from the outset. But I’ve yet to hear the cold logic taken forward: if invasion is so obviously against Putin’s interests, might it not be in our own? On the West’s part, huge diplomatic effort has been put into saving Putin from himself. Why? Why should Nato pay — through the offering of any concessions, of ‘ladders for Putin to climb down’ — to save Putin’s face?
We often overestimate our rivals’ and enemies’ intelligence. We assume they are behaving rationally. Until the 1980s, all through my life in politics I watched, at first approving then increasingly puzzled, as we bigged up the potency and prospects of a doomed ideological experiment: Soviet communism. It was right that we kept upping the bidding in the arms race, not least because (as we now know) this was bankrupting their failing economy, and a desperate strike by a sinking party secretary could never be ruled out. But in the end President Harry Truman’s doctrine of containment rather than front-foot aggression proved wise.
The rhetoric, however, was usually otherwise. We who were supposed to have faith in the superiority of capitalism and the inevitable failure of Marxist economics simultaneously persuaded ourselves that we were in danger of being outpaced by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Though we sniggered at their useless automobiles and the empty shelves on their glittering flagship GUM department store in Moscow, smiled when their Tupolev supersonic passenger airliner crashed and joked about their confected figures for tractor production, we saw their every move as evidence of a fiendishly calculating, formidable and confident superpower.
Then, when I was a new, young MP, they invaded Afghanistan. Many readers will remember the panic in the West. In media analysis, overheated theorising abounded. We heard about Soviet hunger for a ‘gateway’ to a warm-water port on the Indian Ocean; about the ‘domino effect’ as they advanced across the East; and about their strengthening ties with India. And — who knows? — such ambitions may have been real, but they reckoned without Moscow’s incapacity to sustain an occupation. I’ve been to Afghanistan, seen for myself the abandoned and rusting Soviet tanks, the failed fortifications, the debris left behind by a defeated army. Failure in Afghanistan helped mightily to speed the downfall of Soviet communism.
I’ve been to Eritrea too — up a blind valley where Eritrean revolutionary forces ambushed the Russian-backed government of Ethiopia. Millions of dollars’ worth of Russian-made military equipment, tanks and armoured troop-carriers whose passengers were roasted alive lie scattered around. Moscow’s support for its bloody Ethiopian puppet, Mengistu, whom Russia finally had to abandon, like their Afghan puppet Najibullah, cost them dear.
When I travelled in Ukraine, one of our guides, Stas, told me he’d once spent time in Afghanistan. ‘Fantastic!’ I said. ‘Not fantastic,’ was his bitter reply. He’d been a sniper in the Soviet army. There will be plenty of Stases in Ukraine now.
I’ve referenced a few of the monumental blunders Moscow has made, ruinous to an always tottering economy. But there’s an international dimension too. China, ever-conscious of the soft-power dimension to diplomacy in Africa and South America, will think twice about getting tangled in bloody Russian neo-imperialism. It’s hard to prise German policymakers from their commitment to the Nord Stream 2 gas supply pipeline from Russia, but this would surely do it.
As for our own country, we’re at risk of becoming, to world banking and finance, what Panama is to dodgy world shipping. The City has huge interests in the shelter of dirty money from the Kremlin’s kleptocrat oligarchy: smooth-talking City gents will be on the line to Downing Street even as I write, cooing that Russian money has to go somewhere, and surely it’s best lodged where we can keep an eye on it, and we should use the lever rather than throw the switch, etc. They’ll be simpering about the superiority of a more ‘graduated’ response. Tories in particular listen to these gents. A naked invasion of Ukraine could be what finally persuades a Conservative government to put down the phone on them.
I’ve advanced in this column a train of argument that may seem to lead to ‘what’s not to like if the Russians do invade?’ But what’s not to like is what it would mean for the lives and liberties of millions of Ukrainians. We should of course look at the consequences for them. But we should also look beyond them. Putinism has been losing its domestic shine. What would allowing Putin to claim a negotiating victory in a game of bluff mean for his grip at home, for the Baltic states, and for as yet uncontemplated hooliganism in other places with part-Russian populations, and other countries, like Georgia, with alleged ‘buffer-state’ status? Is it wise to have negotiations that end with his claiming that Nato has made important concessions?
I do not make the case for goading Moscow into a crazy intervention. I do, however, advance the case for a steely refusal to give ground.