Niall Ferguson Niall Ferguson

Vlad the Invader: Putin is looking to rebuild Russia’s empire

‘War’, in Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s most famous dictum, ‘is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.’ A generation of Democrats — the American variety, but also European Christian and Social Democrats — have sought to ignore that truth. Appalled by the violence of war, they have vainly searched for alternatives to waging it. When Vladimir Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Barack Obama responded with economic sanctions. When Putin intervened in the Syrian civil war, they tried indignant speeches.

When it became clear that Putin intended a further and larger military incursion into Ukraine, Joe Biden and his national security team opted for sanctions once again. If Putin invaded Ukraine, they said, Russia would face ‘crippling’ or ‘devastating’ economic and financial penalties. When these threats did not deter Putin, they tried a new tactic, publishing intelligence on the likely timing and nature of the Russian assault. Cheerleaders for the administration thought this brilliant and original. It was, in reality, a species of magical thinking, as if stating publicly when Putin was going to invade would make him less likely to do so.

Those who dread war approach diplomacy the wrong way, as if it is an alternative to war. This gives rise to the delusion that, so long as talks are continuing, war is being averted. But unless you are prepared ultimately to resort to force yourself, negotiations are merely a postponement of the other side’s aggression. They will avert war only if you concede peacefully what the aggressor is prepared to take by force.

Putin decided on war against Ukraine some time ago, probably in July when he published a lengthy essay, ‘On the Historical Unity of the Russians and Ukrainians’, in which he argued tendentiously that Ukrainian independence was an unsustainable historical anomaly.

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