Good result for Vladimir the Terrible

Published by The Independent (16th February, 2015)

On a dank day last March I was chatting to tense Ukrainian officers besieged in their Crimean base by Russian armed forces when the colonel took a call on his phone. He told me it was from troops under attack on another nearby military post, so I rushed there and almost stood on the first splashes of military blood spilled in a conflict that has now lasted nearly a year.

That same Tuesday in Moscow, Vladimir Putin gave an hour-long speech in which he denied again that there was any Russian aggression on the peninsula – even as he confirmed its annexation. ‘Don’t believe those who try to frighten you with Russia and who scream that other regions will follow after Crimea,’ he said. ‘We do not want partition of Ukraine.’

How hollow those words sound now. The following month Putin ended his pretence that Russian forces were not involved in the capture of Crimea. Three months later, and I was in Donetsk witnessing the first skirmishes over an airport that had only recently stood as a symbol of Ukrainian pride for the European football championships. Today, the airport is destroyed like so many other places in the Donbass region, amid a brutal war that has left 5,300 people dead and more than one million refugees.

Only one person should be blamed for this needless tragedy that has torn apart a country and plunged our continent into possibly its most perilous moment since the end of the Second World War. And that is the scheming Russian president, who has run his country like a mafia boss since coming to power at the start of the century – then lied and lied again over sparking war in a neighbouring nation to protect his own power base after his patsy president in Kiev was ousted.

Saturday night saw the start of another ceasefire no-one expects to last. Both sides spent the previous days reinforcing positions. On Sunday, minutes after the latest Minsk agreement came into force, Kiev claimed it was being broken. Hours later shells fell as pro-Russian rebels protested the deal did not apply in Debaltseve, where they have thousands of Ukrainian troops encircled.

It will be a miracle if this armistice sticks a month, let alone until late next year when Ukraine is due to be handed back control of its border. We must hope it does, of course – for if it breaks down, the United States seems set to start arming the decrepit Ukrainian forces, inflaming a potentially-explosive proxy war in Europe between the two previous Cold War superpowers.

But if the deal does stick Putin, having provoked the war, emerges undoubted winner. He will have annexed Crimea comfortably and turned the supposed “people’s republics” on his European flank into Russian-backed buffer regions – similar to Moscow’s other splinter states carved from Georgia and Moldova. Yet a study by Oxford University researchers last December found only five per cent of people supported full separatism in eastern Ukraine, even in rebel heartlands of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The West has adopted a supine stance based upon moderate sanctions. This demonstrated again that appeasement of an expansionist despot does not work – and now, the bear is both wounded and emboldened. So let no-one retain any illusions over the ruthless nature of Putin’s Russia. This fine nation is controlled by a corrupt elite of ex-KGB cronies who have harnessed religion and nationalism to their self-serving cause – and they have shown with utmost clarity they will stop at nothing to keep the Kremlin in their possession.

Whatever happens in Ukraine, this should alarm us. Instead a chorus of useful idiots fell for this seedy cabal’s revisionist take on history, the right encouraged by hatred of Europe and the left driven by dislike of the US. There were no broken treaties on Nato expansion, no broken pledges, no ‘humiliation’ of Moscow. The only major breach has been Russia’s  dismissal of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed to protect Kiev’s sovereignty when it gave up nuclear weapons.

People living in former Soviet satellites have sought to embrace the European ideal, pushing democratic reforms and desirous of greater prosperity – and this is what so scares Putin. Most Ukrainians only want the same. We should encourage whatever remains of this battered nation along a similar road as it struggles to emerge from its Soviet past and shattering war, burdened with a devastated economy, plummeting population and kleptocratic elite.

One legacy of this corrosive conflict is that it is no longer inconceivable that Putin could stir up similar trouble in a Nato state such as Latvia or Estonia. Given the tense situation, the West’s display of pusillanimity and growing divisions in Nato – to say nothing of events across the Middle East and Sahel – it is hard not to wonder at the wisdom of cutting defence budgets so far that the British army has shrunk to its smallest size since our own Crimean War. This policy must surely be reversed, regardless of austerity and the nation’s desire not to get dragged back into conflict.

For who knows if those splashes of blood I saw in Simferopol were the start of 10 months of fighting in Ukraine or something far worse. Whether the Minsk ceasefire holds or not, this crisis caused by Vladimir the Terrible’s aggression feels far from over.

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