Vladimir Putin’s lengthy speech justifying the dismemberment of Ukraine said much about him but also contains chilling warnings for the rest of Europe. And European states must heed those warnings if they do not wish to be the next victims of the Russian president’s imperial ambition.
It’s long been known that Putin hankers for a lost age of Russian dominance over its neighbours. Calling the collapse of the USSR the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” is one of his most-quoted (and most misunderstood) historical judgments.
In his speech, Putin reached back far further than the cold war to find his grievances. He stated clearly that the processes that led to Russia losing territory a century ago must be reversed. He pointed out what he said were catastrophic mistakes by the Bolsheviks in recognising Ukraine as a republic, and ceding land to end the war with Germany in 1918. He lamented the loss not of the Soviet Union, but of the “territory of the former Russian empire”.
The speech highlighted how unconstrained power, and perhaps the absence of anybody brave enough to disagree with him, has led Putin further into his own version of reality – and he has drawn Russia’s decision-making apparatus with him. The bizarre circus of his security council meeting broadcast earlier the same day, where Russia’s foreign intelligence chief seemed to freeze in fear while Putin openly mocked him, was a terrifying demonstration of how Moscow’s actions are driven by ideas and processes that have nothing in common with the west – and put it on an inevitable collision course with Europe.
Putin’s warped description of the way countries achieved their independence from Russian rule is aimed at Ukraine, but there is little in it that could not also be applied to Poland, Finland and the Baltic states.
Putin’s interpretation of history may be unrecognisable to the west, but it forms the framework for Russia’s current decisions and so cannot be ignored. This isn’t, of course, the first time Putin has said these things. But he has now removed all doubt that he is also intent on acting on them.
There is also little doubt that the west has failed utterly in deterring Russia. Moscow’s newfound confidence has been clearly on display recently in instances such as the open blackmail of Europe over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, or testing its capability to destroy western satellites. It is barely going through the motions of justifying its latest act of aggression. A less self-assured Russia would make some attempt to make the pretext for military action convincing.
This disregard for reputation, credibility and the reactions of the international community is another chilling indication that Russia will not be constrained by the norms and standards of behaviour that the rest of Europe takes for granted. All in all, there are few grounds to assume that Putin will stop at Ukraine. It’s easy to forget that Russia’s “draft treaties” from December demand rolling back western protection not only from the territories of the former Soviet Union, but all the countries of the former Warsaw Pact too.
This does not mean Russia cannot be stopped. In countless studies analysing its ambition and how it planned to set about realising it, I and other Russia-watchers have pointed out that real and credible military force – and the demonstrated will to use it – is the western countermeasure that genuinely causes Russia to think twice and step back from aggression. That countermeasure was not offered to Ukraine, and now Russia is moving in.
Threats that the west will help Ukrainian resistance in the event of occupation may ring hollow in Moscow, given Russia’s 100% success rate in suppressing resistance movements of this kind. Promising to extend Ukraine’s agony after it has been invaded is no substitute for real and tangible support to prevent it happening in the first place. And promises that Russia will face “another Chechnya” are particularly unhelpful if used unwisely. After all, in Chechnya, Russia won – and won so convincingly that the approach it eventually took was used as a template for operations in Syria.
Russia prosecutes counterinsurgency campaigns and suppresses resistance with medieval viciousness because it knows this is effective. There is no reason to think the terrorising of civilian populations seen in Chechnya and Syria would not also be visited on the people of Ukraine. In his speech, Putin said that he had the names of supposed anti-Russian elements in Odessa, who would be found and punished. Which was chillingly close to a recent US disclosure that Russia had drawn up a list of individuals in Ukraine to be rounded up or eliminated. This too is precisely in line with Moscow’s past practice in Poland, the Baltic states and all the other European territories it occupied in the last century. It also means western countries are right to urge their citizens to leave Ukraine, as tragic as it may be for those with deep roots there. By staying, they make themselves targets.
It may be too late to save Ukraine. But it is not too late to bolster the next line of defence against Putin’s imperial ambitions. Other frontline states urgently need help from their western allies, partners and friends. This help should come not only in the form of closing specific military vulnerabilities and capability gaps, but also in the simple presence of allied forces – building on the successful example of Nato’s multinational battalions in the Baltic states and Poland.
This means the UK too must urgently review its approach to defence. The move to partnering with and enabling other armies must not come at the expense of the long overdue reconstruction of the UK’s own land power. The sad fact is that whatever the UK’s vision of future conflict may be, the enemy also gets a vote – and a force that cannot be deployed, and is built on the assumption it will not suffer losses or attrition, presents no deterrent to Russia.
Keir Giles works with the Russia and Eurasia programme of Chatham House. He is the author of Moscow Rules: What Drives Russia to Confront the West