Inside Putin’s mind: the lessons of Chechnya

As far as Vladimir Putin is concerned, ‘we are nobody, while he who chance has enabled to clamber to the top of the pile is today Tsar and God’. So said Anna Politkovskaya, the eminent Russian journalist, in her book Putin’s Russia. She continued: ‘In Russia we have had leaders with this outlook before. It led to tragedy, to bloodshed on a huge scale, to civil wars. I want no more of that.’ She wrote those prophetic words almost two decades ago. A reporter for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya came to prominence during the second Chechen war. Her accounts of that conflict, which officially lasted from 1999 to

Turkey’s dilemma: whose side is Erdogan on?

Istanbul Vladimir Putin’s ill-conceived blitzkrieg in Ukraine has failed thanks, first and foremost, to the guts of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. British and US-supplied anti-tank weapons have played a crucial role, too. But it’s Ukraine’s Turkish–made TB2 Bayraktar drones that have been the war’s most unexpectedly effective weapon. Unexpected not just because of their battlefield killing power but because the father-in-law of the TB2’s inventor and manufacturer is Recep Tayyip Erdogan – the only European leader to have once described himself as a friend of Vladimir Putin. Erdogan, with a foot in the East and West, has emerged as the war’s key power-broker – and his loyalty is being actively

Why I drove a lorry to Poland

‘Why the hell did you hire a lorry without a spare tyre?’ asked Rizvana. Fair question. Luckily we had just pulled into a service station near Leipzig when the front tyre blew. The bang was so loud that the cashier rushed outside fearing an explosion. We waited for five hours in the biting wind. German technical prowess came to our rescue. The mechanic arrived with hydraulic lifts, the correct replacement tyre and near-perfect English. Some onlookers gathered as three of us jumped on his torque wrench to loosen the nuts. Our mission was not going to plan. Rizvana Poole is a Labour councillor in my town of Chipping Norton and

How much is Europe (still) paying Putin for oil?

When sanctions were imposed on Russia there was a big exception: Europe was still buying and paying for oil – leading to a bizarre situation. The West was doing everything it could to help Ukraine while still sending Putin hundreds of millions of dollars a day. But how much was that revenue worth to the Kremlin? As sanctions began to hit Russia, the price of Brent crude (the oil benchmark) soared to $130 a barrel, the highest since the 2008 financial crisis: an increase of over 90 per cent. It’s fallen since then but today it’s still sitting between $107 and $115 dollars a barrel – well above where it had been weeks

Francis Fukuyama on Ukraine, liberalism and identity politics

This week, Sam Leith spoke to Francis Fukuyama – the author of ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ and the newly released ‘Liberalism and its Discontents’ on the latest episode of The Book Club. You can watch their conversation below, listen to it here or read this transcript. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.   Sam Leith: Liberal is a word that means something very different in Tennessee than it does in Muswell Hill. What exactly are the parameters of what you call classical liberalism? Francis Fukuyama: It does have a very different meaning in the United States than it does in Europe. My definition of it is closer

It doesn’t matter if Putin is mad

Mike Tyson put it simply: ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’. And Vladimir Putin has just experienced a blistering one-two: fierce resistance on the battlefield, trashing his plans for blitzkrieg, followed by the rabbit punch of international sanctions that will soon rock the whole of Russian society. ‘Putinism’ is not an ideology that can command intellectual or spiritual loyalty if it doesn’t deliver. It is not an ‘ism’ like Marxism. It is simply a Mephistophelean deal with the Russian people: if I can have double-glazing and a half-decent smartphone, you can have yachts and palaces. That deal is now off the table. People may not

Russia has never been a part of the West

In 1697 Tsar Peter the Great set out on a great journey across western Europe, seeking the support of European monarchs in his confrontation with the Ottoman Empire. Unsuccessful in securing alliances, he returned instead laden with ideas acquired in his travels through Britain and Holland, which he promptly put into action in modernising Russia. The most visible symbol of this new nation was Saint Petersburg, the intended new capital of his empire. By 1858, an English visitor to the city described it as ‘one of the handsomest cities in Europe’, with a street of residences ‘so large that 50 extend over an English mile.’ And so it was that

Why do Russian tennis stars need to condemn Putin?

Nigel Huddleston is Under-Secretary of State for Sport, Tourism, Heritage and Civil Society, hardly the biggest job in government. Yet he seems a little inebriated on what little authority he has – at least if his latest remarks to the Department for the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee are anything to go by. Huddleston has taken on board the mood of the moment. He appreciates that sport must make a stand against Vlad the Invader and the invasion of Ukraine, and which sensible person would disagree? But boycotting Russia from major competitions and clamping down on dodgy oligarch football owners isn’t sufficient, apparently. Huddleston wants more. He suggested to the

The fatal miscalculation that led to war in Ukraine

The war against Ukraine – or the ‘special military operation’ as it is compulsorily known in Moscow – has lasted over a fortnight. For weeks Putin maintained a bristling encampment of forces in western Russia, southern Belarus and Crimea. He hoped this would provoke the collapse of the ‘neo-Nazi’ Ukrainian government and its comedian-president. When this failed to occur, he invaded. Photographs show Putin sitting at the end of a long table keeping his distance from his leading associates, such as the booming-voiced foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and khaki-clad defence minister Sergei Shoigu. Gone are the days of Kremlin camaraderie: Putin now expects and gets the maximum display of deference

What if Putin hasn’t miscalculated – but the West has?

Conventional wisdom dictates that Vladimir Putin has ‘miscalculated’ in his invasion of Ukraine. His blitzkrieg has been poorly executed. He has reinvigorated the Nato alliance and the EU and triggered heavy sanctions. And he has lost the ‘information war’ to Volodymyr Zelensky, the TV comedian turned global hero. But what if the West has ‘miscalculated’ in reading Putin’s intentions? What if the West’s sanctions, along with intensified military aid to Ukraine and a courageous local resistance, encourage Putin to double down? What if he decides to use a weapon of last resort, a nuclear, chemical or biological weapon, even at the risk of World War 3? At Emmanuel Macron’s latest

Why does everything ‘embolden’ Putin?

The most emboldened man on earth must be Vladimir Putin. Everything seems to embolden him. Treating Russia as a pariah state could embolden him, wrote someone in the Telegraph, but Barack Obama’s previous attempts to engage with him had just emboldened him, wrote someone else. Liz Truss on a visit to Kiev last month, insisted the West should strengthen relations with Ukraine. ‘If we hang back, that would only embolden the bullies,’ she said. Nato’s humiliation in Afghanistan helped embolden Putin, wrote Colonel Richard Kemp; sanctions hitting the population can embolden him too, wrote Tobias Ellwood. As Julian or Sandy, on the BBC Light Programme in the early 1960s, might

Mary Wakefield

The myth that Russia and Ukraine are fighting over

It seems strange now that any of us ever imagined that Putin might not invade. He thinks of Ukraine as rightfully Russia’s, heart, mind and soul. It’s there in that essay he wrote last year: Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one people’, he said, meaning not that they’re brothers so much as that Ukrainians have no right to a separate identity. And I wonder whether, in attempting to take Kiev, he isn’t also trying to lay final claim to the founding myth that Russia and Ukraine fight over and both think of as their own. Kiev is the setting for the epic tale of Kievan Rus, the first great Slavic state

What Tacitus knew about tyrants

Last week Aristotle offered a lesson in tyrant theory. This week Tacitus (ad 56-c.120) offers one in tyrant practice. Tacitus was a Roman historian who enjoyed a successful political career, rising to consul and provincial governor. He admitted that he laid its foundations under the tyrannical emperor Domitian (d. ad 96) – he memorably contrasted Domitian’s red face with the pallor his gaze induced in his victims – and thought his duty as a historian was to ensure that those responsible for murderous deeds or heroic actions should never be forgotten. His judgment of Domitian’s reign was worthy of Orwell: ‘Rome of old [i.e. the republic, 508-27 bc] explored the

The courage on Ukraine’s front line

Central to the question of whether or not Ukraine can survive as an independent state is that of re-supply, not just of drones and anti-tank weaponry but also of food, especially if the conflict lasts for months or even years. The vast agricultural centre of the country is not being seeded, with potentially catastrophic consequences. Nato governments are providing lethal weapons and other aid, of course, but from what I have just seen in Berehove in western Ukraine there is another very heartening sign. For there is a large underground network of private, non-governmental groups – largely based on Christian groups with long-established family connections – that is transporting huge

Putin is bored

At the beginning of this year, Vladimir Putin was sitting comfortably in the Kremlin: his legacy so far a steady leader who had saved his people from the helter-skelter of robber capitalism in the 1990s and given them a modicum of stability and pride. He must have known that if he waged war on a country of 45 million brother Slavs, he risked losing it all. Liberty and life are now less certain. So why did he do it? Having spent four years in Moscow and more than two decades of Russia-watching, I have never believed that Putin was a chess grandmaster. While his apologists in the West lauded his

The nuclear bunker market is booming

As the spectre of nuclear war returns so does another very modern phenomenon: a spike in interest amongst the paranoid rich seeking to procure their own nuclear bunker. Over in Texas – already home to a vibrant culture of ‘preppers’ who spend their time planning for every shade of apocalypse – one creator of custom shelters, Rising S Bunkers, says it’s had a 700pc increase in interest in the last month. Made from long-lasting plate steel, their bunkers are designed to be buried under the average American yard. Of the five units sold last month, the largest fetched $240,000. If you don’t have space for your own bunker – or

Is Russia Today finished?

As the British authorities debate whether to ban the propaganda channel of a savage imperialist power, Russia Today is making a decent first of banning itself. Workers have been walking out for a week. The invasion was too much even for staffers who had spent years demeaning themselves by licking the boots of a dictatorship. Even if Sky and YouTube had not effectively closed the channel by pulling it from their platforms, RT would have faced extreme difficulty in continuing to broadcast from London, one ex-staffer told me. About half his former colleagues had quit, including large numbers of production staff the Russians needed to keep the channel on air. One had

What does it mean to go ‘full tonto’?

The wild one Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said that Vladimir Putin had gone ‘full tonto’. The word tonto is used in Spanish for ‘stupid’ or ‘foolish’, but one of its suggested origins has a meaning which would perhaps go down better with Putin himself. Tonto was used by Apache Indians as a term for the Western Apaches – mean ‘wild ones’. It went on to become the name of a native-American character in the 1930s radio show The Lone Ranger – later a TV series. The colour of money What will sanctions on the Russian economy mean? Potential losses in US dollars: Largest Russian exports in 2019: Crude petroleum $123bn

James Forsyth

The free world’s new reality

We are about to see brutality in Europe on a scale that will be almost beyond our comprehension. Russia is turning to increasingly indiscriminate bombardment of Ukraine to try to achieve its aims after the failure of its initial military strategy. Vladimir Putin’s invasion has shattered the old belief that the era of wars between European nation states was over because the consequences were simply too grim. The policy of sanctions as a deterrent failed. The assumptions that have driven European geopolitics for a generation are changing before our eyes. Nowhere is this shift more dramatic than in Germany. After reunification, the country’s defence spending plummeted and for decades subsequent