What is Putin’s case for invading Ukraine?
He has never recognised Ukraine as an independent state, always seeing it as a natural part of Russia. He thinks the West’s refusal to rule out allowing it to become a member of Nato is, according to one former intelligence chief, “fundamentally unjust”. Putin “seeks to cover his invasion in the fig leaf of insistence that the country was for centuries part of the Russian empire”, says Max Hastings in The Times today. “The wishes of Ukraine’s own people have no place in his thinking, but then seldom has popular consent counted in the entire history of the Kremlin’s rulers.”
Why is the Kremlin so fearful of Nato?
While the West spent the Cold War haunted by the idea that the Soviets would invade Europe, Soviet leaders were equally tormented by the belief that they were encircled by vastly superior, nuclear-armed American forces. When holidaying on the Black Sea, Nikita Khrushchev would sometimes offer guests binoculars and ask: “What do you see?” If they replied that they saw blue waters, or the sea, Khrushchev would snatch the glasses back and exclaim: “I see US missiles in Turkey, aimed at my dacha.”
What lies behind the paranoia?
The Russian experience in World War Two, following their invasion by the Germans in 1941. It was the Russians who paid, by a huge margin, the heaviest price for defeating Nazism – 27 million war dead, compared to around 400,000 apiece for the US and Britain. Ray Garthoff, a State Department official and Cold War analyst, says that deteriorating relations between Russia and the West in recent years can be explained by a characteristically American “inability to empathise with the other side and visualise its interests in other than adversarial terms”.
What happened when the Soviet Union collapsed?
When the USSR finally broke up in 1991, Russia’s outlying republics, including Ukraine, followed eastern Europe in becoming independent states. Afterwards, the West behaved with what some strategists regard as unforgivable arrogance. President George HW Bush used his January 1992 State of the Union message to boast: “By the grace of God, America won the Cold War. A world once divided into two armed camps now recognises one sole and preeminent power, the United States. And they regard this with no dread. For the world trusts us with power, and the world is right.”
Was America equally belligerent under Bill Clinton and George Bush Jr?
Yes. In the year Putin came to power, 1999, three former Soviet satellites in eastern Europe – the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland – were brought into Nato. In 2004, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania and Bulgaria were also admitted. The prevailing view, says the former US ambassador to Nato, Robert Hunter, was that “since the Soviet Union had lost the Cold War, the US and Nato could do what they pleased”.
Wasn’t this always likely to provoke Russia?
Veteran US diplomat George F Kennan, the original architect of America’s policy of containment towards the Soviet Union, came out of retirement to “deplore” Bill Clinton’s policy of pushing Nato east, calling it a “tragic mistake” which could mark “the beginning of a new Cold War”. The US, Kennan said, had “signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way”. “Don’t people understand?” asked Kennan. “Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime.” Kennan felt that by pushing Russia into a corner, the West was in effect betraying the Russian people who had suffered so much under communism, and who had, in “the greatest bloodless revolution in history”, finally got rid of it.
Do Russians really see the West as a threat?
Many Russians take a less benign view of the West than we like to imagine, pointing, for example, to Vietnam or the invasion of Iraq, and asking how many deaths the West has caused in pursuit of its own purposes. I can never forget my own sense of shock, says Max Hastings, when researching a book in Russia in 2002, when my researcher, “a sophisticated Muscovite”, said of 9/11: “most people here think the Americans got exactly what they had coming to them”. Here was a taste of the profound sense of Russian grievance “which Putin has exploited”.
Why is Russia picking a fight with Nato now?
Putin has failed to turn the Russian economy into one that might attract its neighbours, not repulse them, or inspire its most talented people to stay in the country. So, perhaps with an eye on his legacy, says Leon Aron, a Russia expert at the American Enterprise Institute, Putin has shifted from being “the distributor of Russia’s newfound wealth”, to the “defender of the motherland”. When he decided to become a “nationalist avenger”, his most emotive threat to rally the Russian people behind him was creating the spectre of Nato expanding east and engulfing Ukraine. These days, says Hastings, Russia’s only significant exports are “oil, gas and fear”. That might not sound like much, but they enable President Putin to wield astonishing clout, “at dreadful cost to those in his path”.
“The Wild West of eastern Europe”
In south-eastern Ukraine there are places once known as the “wild fields” say Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook in the podcast The Rest Is History. Exiled nobles, runaway serfs and bandits took refuge in these great open grasslands where the authorities couldn’t catch up with them. It was the “Wild West of eastern Europe”, and these outlaws came to be known as the Cossacks. In 1654 they signed a treaty with the Dukes of Muscovy asking for help throwing off their Polish overlords.
This, says Putin, is proof that Muscovite Russia is the true ruler of Ukraine. “This is his casus belli.” ‘Ukraine’ is a Slavic word for “the land on the edge, the borderland”, and throughout history the country’s borders have slipped constantly, perhaps because the landscape has a “fundamentally featureless quality”. Roaming this terrain, it is impossible to know where you are, let alone where the border should be.
Listen to the full podcast here.