We’re still stunningly complacent about this tyrant’s grave threat

Published by The Daily Mail (18th March, 2024)

Thirteen years ago, Vladimir Putin went to watch a martial arts tournament and, as he congratulated the winner of one heavyweight bout, the unthinkable happened: a large section of the crowd began booing and jeering their shocked leader.

It was the start of a rocky period for the Russian president as his blatantly rigged elections sparked the country’s biggest protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union. ‘We’re not afraid any more,’ a man told me at one huge demonstration in Moscow.

I heard anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny warn Putin that ‘if the crooks and thieves continue trying to deceive us and lie to us, we’ll take power ourselves’. I met other key opposition leaders, such as former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov.

Today Navalny is dead, ‘murdered’ in an Arctic penal colony a month ago, and Nemtsov was gunned down on a Moscow bridge just yards from the Kremlin in 2015.

But Putin, after 24 years in power, will secure a fifth term in office following a rubber-stamp election at the weekend after crushing all dissent in his country.

The diminutive dictator will claim the result gives him a popular mandate for his war in Ukraine, a conflict he expected to end in a lightning victory within just five days but which has turned into a savage attritional fight against people determined to defend their freedoms.

Putin looks unassailable, having killed, exiled or jailed all rivals – including Vladimir Kara-Murza, the dual Russian-British citizen who was given a 25-year sentence for ‘treason’ after speaking out against the war – despite the disastrous start to his attempted full-scale invasion and the West’s unexpectedly unified response.

He has militarised schools and society as a whole, placed the economy on a war footing, and ramped up defence spending to its highest level since the Cold War. 

Having changed the constitution via a rigged referendum four years ago, he can remain in power until 2036 – when he will be 83.

Putin is also now backed by three of the world’s most repulsive autocracies – China, Iran and North Korea – an alliance that underlines how the war he launched in Ukraine a decade ago with the invasion of Crimea has become an epochal fight between democracy and dictatorship.

And yet the West remains stunningly complacent about the challenge this tyrant presents to our way of life and our democratic values.

It may finally have united in 2022 behind Ukraine’s fight for survival, but many Western leaders were so intimidated by Putin’s sabre-rattling that, despite their bold rhetoric, they delivered insufficient military support too slowly, an approach that had tragic consequences.

One of the worst offenders in the early days of the war was French president Emmanuel Macron, who attempted to win over Putin by arguing that Russia should not be humiliated and limiting France – a major military power – to truly pathetic levels of aid to Ukraine in terms of weapons and ordnance.

Now Macron seems to have woken up. He is driving up defence spending to its highest level for half a century while simultaneously doubling the number of reservists, reinforcing cyber-security and drastically boosting funding for intelligence.

The French president has even dared to suggest Western troops might be sent to support Ukraine’s struggle. ‘If Russia wins this war, Europe’s credibility will be reduced to zero,’ he said, correctly. ‘We would no longer have security in Europe. Who can seriously believe that Putin, who has respected no limits, would stop there?’

Macron’s new-found urgency is echoed by those frontline states that have suffered from Russian brutality in the past, and therefore never had any illusions about the menace posed by Putin. 

‘True solidarity with Ukraine. Less words, more ammunition,’ ran one online post from Donald Tusk, the prime minister of Poland, whose nation is re-arming at a breathtaking rate to create the strongest land army in Europe.

The French and Polish leaders were in Berlin last week, trying to persuade the ultra-cautious German leader Olaf Scholz to deploy long-range, low-flying and bunker-busting Taurus missiles to Ukraine. 

Germany is Europe’s biggest source of military aid for Ukraine – but Scholz fears the stealth missiles might be used to attack Moscow, despite Kyiv’s denials, and so is shamefully refusing to supply the Ukrainians with this potentially-pivotal weapon. 

Meanwhile, Washington’s support for the country is on hold as a result of political feuding ahead of elections this year.

Such myopia comes at a time when military officers at the highest levels of the British Armed Forces are becoming increasingly concerned that Nato could end up at war with Russia within the next few years. 

This is why top generals are suddenly talking about conscription and warning that preparation for such a conflict must be a ‘whole-of-nation undertaking’.

In such a context it is thoroughly dispiriting that our own government is failing to follow more clear-sighted European nations by urgently beefing up Britain’s depleted military capabilities, pouring far more cash into defence and fixing our woeful military procurement system.

We should also follow Finland’s lead by teaching children from an early age how to resist the flood of fake news and challenge the conspiracy theories that can be used by dictatorships to divide our countries and weaken our democracies, especially in this looming age of artificial intelligence.

As Putin said before his first election success 24 years ago, no one should believe in miracles to save their country. The relentless march of his aggression against the West has made that point terrifyingly clear.

Related Posts

Categorised in: , , ,