Putin’s power play in Ukraine

Published by The i paper (24th January, 2022)

Why is Vladimir Putin threatening Ukraine? Outside the Kremlin and presumably Russia’s military top brass, no one really knows – although as I write these words in Kharkiv, 30 miles from armed forces massing on the border, I know of the nerves among citizens who might soon see tanks and troops in their streets.

Life continues as normal in this snow-covered former capital, with festive decorations still on display and children skating in the central square – but there are also fearful discussions over how to protect families in an invasion, whether to fight or flee.

We do not know Putin’s plan. Is he is preparing to launch the biggest invasion in Europe since the Second World War, planning some kind of disruptive provocation to steal another chunk of Ukrainian terrain – or sabre-rattling to frighten the West into accepting his imperious demands to dominate neighbouring nations? Time will tell.

It feels increasingly unlikely, however, those armed forces will simply pack up their guns and return to bases. Not least when Britain has fingered a failed politician, Yevheniy Murayev, as figurehead for Putin’s plot to install a patsy government. Note, incidentally, how this man’s party failed to make a five per cent voting threshold for parliament after parroting Kremlin propaganda.

There is, however, much that we do know – starting with knowledge that everything Putin does is, first and foremost, to protect his own skin and retain control. He is a dictator who has silenced critics, smashed democracy and overseen the theft of Russia’s wealth. He took charge of a struggling post-Communist nation and, for more than two decades, has run rings around rivals at home and abroad. And he has used nationalism and violence as a means to hold power from the start of his reign, using the suspicious bombing of residential blocks to demonise Muslims and wage war in Chechnya backed by lies and propaganda to spread disarray among foes.

We know this egotistical despot views himself as heroic leader of a revived Russian empire, a former KGB operative who sees himself as successor to Peter the Great and claims the collapse of the Soviet empire was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the last century. This is a very different perspective from many people I have met in Ukraine who recall instead the deprivation and deceit of the Communist era.

Some spoke passionately about joining the 2014 pro-democracy protests out of desire to shift as far as possible from those dark days under Moscow’s thumb. One woman said memories of Soviet cruelty “still bring tears to my eyes”; another told of her grandfather being executed as a village leader under Stalin.

We know Putin fears freedom since it undermines his regime. He will do anything to thwart it: spreading disinformation to weaken democracies, shoring up fellow dictators with his armed forces; crippling former Soviet nations that aim to abandon his corrupt and repressive government model. Ukrainians pointed out to me that while his forces muscled in on their land, invaded Georgia and flew this month to Kazakhstan, the Baltic and East European nations that moved under Nato’s protective shield have not been attacked.

Many here see Europe as a democratic ideal – and the defensive bulwark of Nato as a means to reach their goal. We know that Putin promulgates a twisted take on history to justify claims over next-door nations such as Belarus – now firmly in his grasp after the crushing of protests by its own thuggish dictator – and Ukraine. This was underlined by his rambling essay written last year to support his argument that Russia and Ukraine are “a single whole”. It was shredded by historian Andrew Wilson, who also pointed out that seven in 10 Ukrainians disagreed with the Russian president’s conclusion that they are one people with his citizens.

Yet this cruel dictator had the gall to end his weird article by saying it was “up to its citizens to decide” the future of Ukraine.

We know this malevolent man has many useful idiots in the West helping his cause. On the left there are people whose loathing of capitalism or the United States drives them into aiding an ultra-conservative dictator, while on the right lurk folks who lust after a strongman or seek to retreat behind their own walls. Then there are populists who corrode democracy, bosses who stop at nothing to make a fast buck, bankers and lawyers who wash looted cash of Kremlin allies.

Meanwhile the West is weak and divided – not least over how best to confront a toxic autocrat spreading poison.

We know many more things. We know issues of identity go far deeper than simply the language spoken, as I have heard repeatedly here – sometimes from people born in far-off places such as Siberia, living in Russian-speaking regions but fiercely loyal to the yellow and blue flag of Ukraine. Yet we know also that the use of the Ukrainian language has been growing, especially among younger generations. We know that Russia’s economy stagnated for much of the past decade, that Ukraine’s army has been growing stronger, that opposition to Moscow’s meddling is growing across the country.

And sadly, that the debate over Ukraine often ignores the voice of its own people, seen only in terms of geopolitical struggle.

We know also that in 2014 Britain and the US failed to honour a pledge to protect Ukraine’s “independence and sovereignty” in return for it ditching nuclear weapons. So Putin stole the Crimea, staged rebellions in self-declared republics and started a war that drags on to this day. In Kharkiv the insurgency was defeated after his stooges stormed the opera house, mistaking it for the town hall.

Having encircled the country with his troops, he spins fairy tales again about the threat to Russia. There is one other thing we know: what happens when an aggressive nationalist dictator is not stopped from invading other lands. What a chilling start to the year.

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