Snarling rat backed into a corner who may yet try a desperate last throw of the dice

Published by The Daily Mail (18th February, 2022)

Outside my flat’s window, the scene could not be calmer. Five children are digging in a sandy courtyard, swaddled in thick clothes, scarves and bobble hats protecting them from the cold while their mothers chat over coffee.

Shoppers bustle past with bags of groceries. Smokers puff away on door steps. Dog-walkers and joggers enter the nearby botanical gardens, with its frozen paths and red squirrels scurrying up trees.

Welcome to Kyiv, capital of a country encircled on three sides by a terrifying array of arms, missiles, troops and tanks.

Yet while the West warns of looming war, the Russian dictator threatening this nation insists he has no plans to invade.

Claims and counter-claims swirl around Ukraine. Moscow says it is pulling back troops from Crimea. Its stooges in Donetsk and Luhansk, regions of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists, claim to be under attack.

Washington reveals 7,000 more Russian troops have arrived by the border. British intelligence sees armoured vehicles, helicopters and a field hospital moved closer.

A kindergarten, school and station are damaged by shelling from the separatists.

Yet amid these rising tensions only one man really knows what might happen: Vladimir Putin, the president behind this menacing military build-up that has taken Europe to the edge of war.

Ministers are right to warn against falling for misinformation. Putin is the master at spinning a web of deception that ensnares not just his own people through a well-oiled propaganda machine but also many in the West.

Now he is making ridiculous claims genocide is occurring in eastern Ukraine, provoking fears he will use allegations of atrocities against Russian-speakers to justify unleashing his armed forces.

Yet we should ask a critical question: why is Russia’s president – with all his bulging bank accounts, yachts and palaces after 22 years in power – rolling the dice now in this potentially cataclysmic gamble?

The answer is simple. He is desperate. Putin knows he is failing both at home and abroad – and this is what makes him so dangerous, like a snarling rat backed into a corner as he searches for signs of weakness in his enemies.

For Putin is losing his long war – to wreck the Nato alliance, undermine European democracy, drive wedges among Western nations, take back control over the Soviet empire’s lost lands and restore Russia’s position as a superpower.

And even as he terrorises his neighbour and spreads fear across Europe, he knows within his shrivelled soul that his recent actions have served only to diminish his imperial dreams.

Do not be fooled by suggestions the Russian president is winning this struggle by forcing foreign leaders to visit him and debate the future of Europe on his terms.

As armed forces minister James Heappey said yesterday, this might all be a hoax to leverage a seat at the negotiating table – but that could have been achieved at far less cost with many fewer forces on the border.

Yes, Putin may have sensed weakness in the West after the Afghanistan debacle. But he’s made these moves because he can see Ukraine slipping away from his sphere of influence towards democracy – and fears this might influence his own citizens.

He blames the West for meddling – yet his own interventions eight years ago hastened a seismic shift in Ukrainian attitudes following the illegal annexation of Crimea and inflaming of separatist revolts in Donetsk and Luhansk.

These events were sparked by Ukrainian efforts to sign a co-operation deal with the European Union, which were followed by the slaughter of pro-democracy protesters in Kiev and the ousting of Putin’s crooked ally from the Ukrainian presidency.

Look at the data. Little more than a decade ago, just one in five Ukrainians wished to join Nato. Now almost two-thirds back joining, a survey found this week. 

Meanwhile, Putin’s hostility has driven a sharp decline in positive attitudes towards Russia among Ukrainians, despite their deep cultural, historical and personal ties. In early 2014, nearly nine in ten Ukrainians had positive views of their neighbour. A poll this month found this figure had plunged to just 34 per cent – with a sharp fall seen even in the Russian-speaking eastern parts Putin claims to be ‘protecting’.

As older generations die out, some with nostalgic memories of the Soviet Union, younger people are far more likely to support joining the EU and Nato – and noticeably more hostile to Russia.

One Ukrainian friend in her thirties told me how her generation used to see Moscow as the place to study, start their careers and splash their money – but now they look to London, Berlin or Warsaw, partly due to Putin’s aggression.

This shift in attitudes is also being fostered by the government after suffering pro-Russian insurgencies, with state-led moves to strengthen Ukrainian language and culture. Even in the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, polls indicate fewer than one in ten want the independent statehood being pushed this week in Putin’s latest destabilisation efforts.

Life for ordinary people on both sides of the border is a struggle – yet Putin, after seeing his economy crippled by sanctions in 2014, focused on building up reserves for another conflict while spending heavily on his military and crushing rivals.

The economist Igor Nikolaev labelled Russian growth over the past 20 years ‘weak’, despite all the oil and gas reserves. No wonder polls indicate strong disenchantment among younger citizens.

Putin has also inadvertently strengthened Nato after both years of debate over its post-Soviet relevance and funding rows provoked by former US President Donald Trump.

Despite being an alliance of 30 very different democracies, Nato displayed solidity in recent weeks. It held firm that neither Ukraine’s aspiration to join the club, nor membership of other frontline nations, should be determined by Moscow.

Thousands of extra troops have been sent into former Soviet bloc nations such as Poland and the Baltic States – while any freelancing by France and Germany on the territorial integrity of Ukraine over Donetsk and Luhansk was rebuffed by Kiev.

The United States, ably assisted by Britain, led efforts to counter Putin’s strategy of sowing division through disinformation by boldly sharing intelligence on his plans in the most public manner possible.

This was high-risk and raised hackles in Ukraine that the West was over-hyping the crisis – although many analysts believe this may have helped avert Putin’s original plans for attack.

‘The invasion scheduled for today did not take place only because the West was unprecedentedly united,’ commented one Kiev government adviser on Wednesday.

This strategy was aided by detailed satellite footage and people sharing videos of military movements in Russia, Belarus and occupied Ukraine on social media.

The West also helped Ukraine build its armed forces, with more arms rushed into the country in recent weeks to counter Putin’s sabre-rattling – along with financial aid to offset the Kremlin’s long-running efforts to cripple the economy.

There are even belated signs the West is waking up to the need to stop laundering money pilfered by Putin’s pals, with British ministers announcing plans to ditch the disgraceful ‘golden visa’ scheme that helped his cronies funnel their dirty cash into our country.

And there is debate, at least, over the urgent need to stop relying on Russian energy – although Germany remains Europe’s Achilles heel after Angela Merkel foolishly abandoned nuclear energy and accepted the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

Yet this all increases Putin’s desperation. His dream to restore Russian hegemony is being dashed by the shift towards alternative energy, his looting of state coffers, the lure of democracy on his borders – and now his own actions have revived Nato.

For all his fury over the dissolution of the Soviet empire that once engulfed so much of Europe, this ex-KGB agent’s endless machinations have merely detached a bit of Georgia, seized a slice of Ukraine and ushered a broken Belarus into his arms.

Putin’s failures and mistakes explain why Europe stands on the brink of war – and why those innocent children playing so happily outside my window remain at risk of seeing their lives wrecked by this monstrous man fixated only on his own survival.

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