Putin’s reckless and brutal invasion of Ukraine is looking increasingly like it has failed. It has certainly failed in the sense that a quick and relatively bloodless takeover of the country has not happened. Putin has made a massive error. The situation could result in military failure in Ukraine, possibly the break-up of the Russian Federation and for Putin personally, either death or the International Criminal Court in The Hague. On the other hand there could be some kind of eventual Russian victory and if so Putin could remain in power for years to come. Of course these are dangerous and uncertain times. We could end up having a nuclear war, or a random missile could shatter a nuclear reactor. The current situation is resulting in terrible suffering on a daily basis for the people of Ukraine. This week we have on show the best and worst that humanity has to offer.
The EU has found a renewed sense of unity, a spirit and an ability to cooperate and lead on sanctions and practical support. Ordinary citizens in Poland, Germany, Moldova and many other member states are opening their homes to Ukrainian refugees. The spirit of the Ukrainian people has been galvanized and in Volodymyr Zelenskyy they have found a leader who is inspirational, heroic and humane. In June 1940 Churchill stood up to Hitler’s overwhelming military superiority. Now Zelenskyy is standing up to Putin’s massive military onslaught, and he might yet succeed.
Putin embodies so much that is evil, bad and outdated. Putin’s background in the KGB trained him in the ruthless pursuit of the power of the state and preparedness to eliminate any opposition. As he rose to power he used a wide network of mafia style groups to exert power and create a class of wealthy oligarchs who bore him personal loyalty. The ordinary citizens of Russia remain remarkably poor, given that Russia is nominally a superpower. It is a hollowed out economy, massively dependent on oil and gas exports. It has a big military, yet Russia’s total economy is only about the same size as Italy’s.
Putin represents a real danger to peace and democracy everywhere. His influence is extraordinary. He has played a long game, destabilising and weakening western democracies for decades. He funded and backed the whole Brexit process from start to finish and he was instrumental in getting Trump elected. Many in the Conservative party have been financed by him and his network of fellow Russians, who have laundered vast quantities of money in London, and now own much of London’s prime real estate. (Do watch this video)
Putin has a long history of brutally suppressing any opposition. Climate and pro-democracy activists are frequently arrested and imprisoned. A few days ago a group of small children and their mothers were putting flowers outside the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow and they were arrested and imprisoned, with children as young as seven locked up and separated from their mothers. He has intervened militarily, for example in Chechnya in the 1990’s, Georgia in 2008, in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014 and in Syria from 2015 to the present. In recent months he has been propping up unpopular tyrants in Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Sergej Sumlenny, a former director of the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Kyiv, sees a Russian collapse as potentially imminent, and if this were to be the case breakaway movements in many regions of Russia would likely rebel against domination from Moscow. Much of the Russian military equipment is in poor repair, the invasion force lacks food and fuel, and the soldiers are unprepared, confused and poorly motivated. Morale on the Ukrainian side is strong and determined, and their equipment just about adequate to hold back the larger Russian forces.
On Twitter I now follow dozens of Ukrainian journalists, politicians and ordinary citizens giving excellent on the ground commentary. I also follow a number of academics well versed in the region and thoughtful in their analysis. Many on the left of politics in the USA and UK seem to attribute blame for Putin’s actions to Nato for what they see as it’s expansionist agenda. Janne M Korhonen is a Finnish writer and researcher at Aalto University in Finland, and his Twitter thread posted two days before the invasion I find a compelling rebuttal of this view. Putin’s motivation is primarily a fear and hatred of free open democratic government, and the striving for it in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Georgia and further afield, in Syria and globally. Tied-in with this is his dependence on oil and gas exports. He has been one of the key blocks against strong climate action.
Putin’s action has made all of Europe, but especially his neighbours, keen to strengthen their defences. The EU offers a very different model of governance. It does not have a single person or country leading it. It is a complex collegiate system with many countries, political parties and networks of empowered local and regional governments, linked together in collaborative structures. Traditionally the EU did not focus much on defence. In part this was because Nato existed to resist external threats, and partly because of a strongly held belief that negotiations and cooperation were the modern way forward.
Putin’s actions of the last ten days have changed all this. The EU is acting decisively and taking a leadership role. Biden is playing a role of background support, but it is the various institutions of the EU that are leading. The EU looks stronger and more united than ever. This week Ukraine and Georgia have both applied to join. Switzerland and Sweden have abandoned their traditional neutrality and moved more in-line with EU common action. Many people in Belarus and Russia would love a more democratic system, and to join the EU and to join in with action on the climate. All of that becomes possible for Russia and Belarus, but only in a post Putin era. That era may be sooner than many commentators think.
Putin is becoming ever more paranoid and delusional, as people who hold too much power for too long often do. Ben Judah argues that personalized dictatorships are more erratic and dangerous than collegiate autocracies. There are now very few if any checks and balances on Putin, allowing him the freedom to act on a whim, but increasing the number of people, possibly including some among the oligarchs, who would like to see him gone. The longer the war drags on, the more casualties and the more economic collapse occurs the greater the desire to end the Putin era is likely to become.