Can anyone in Russia stop Putin now? | Angus Roxburgh

With opposition outlawed and a parliament full of placemen, all the flickering lights of reason in the Kremlin have gone

Western leaders have spent the past 20 years trying to guess what Vladimir Putin “really wants”. Very often, it’s enough just to read his words, very carefully. Because usually he means exactly what he says. And in the case of his early morning television address announcing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, his words and hints about his intentions were truly terrifying.

It would be good to start with his warning to the west not to interfere, because just as people like David Davis call for the west to provide air support to Ukraine, Putin had this to say: “Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history. All the necessary decisions in this regard have been taken.”

There can be little doubt that what he means is that he is prepared to deploy nuclear weapons against any country that takes military action to help Ukraine. He added, with great emphasis: “I hope that my words will be heard.” Apparently not by Davis.

As for Putin’s intentions in Ukraine itself, there was a strong indication that he plans to incorporate the Donbas (including the entire Donetsk and Luhansk regions, most of which are still in Ukrainian hands) into the Russian Federation, just as he did with Crimea in 2014. He said that the peoples living in Ukraine (by which he meant the Russians) have the right to make a “free choice”, and added that in 2014 Russia “was obliged to protect the people of Crimea” and that those people then chose to “be with their historic homeland, Russia”. There is no other way to interpret those words than as a threat to annex the eastern regions of Ukraine.

As for his declared intention to “demilitarise and denazify” Ukraine, it is hard to see how this could be achieved without a wholesale occupation of the country and change of government.

True, Putin denied that his purpose was to occupy Ukraine. But there was a big “but”: there were, he said, “statements” coming from the west to the effect that there was no need any more to “abide by the documents setting forth the outcomes of world war two”. So it’s goodbye Yalta, it seems, as Putin sets about redrawing the map of Europe.

So what hope is there that Putin can be deterred from going this far? Inside Russia, opposition voices have been utterly squashed. Politicians who might have led public protests, such as Alexei Navalny, are in prison, and his entire network of activists has been outlawed. Would-be protesters in Moscow were detained as soon as they left their flats.

The editor of Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, who won last year’s Nobel peace prize, put out a desperately sad statement: “President Putin has ordered our country to start a war with Ukraine. And there is nobody to stop this war. For that reason, as well as grief, I feel shame.”

Anyone who watched Monday’s meeting of Putin with his security council will understand Muratov’s despair. This was a gathering of those who in theory advise the president, whose job is to assess options and their outcomes. Not one of them dared step out of line. They knew what Putin wanted them to say and they said it. When the foreign intelligence chief, Sergei Naryshkin, fluffed his lines, he got a tongue-lashing (shown on TV) from the president. A couple of officials did suggest giving diplomacy a few days longer, but they were ignored. Dmitry Medvedev was seen as a flickering light of reason when he swapped the presidency with Putin in 2008-12, but on Monday he too fell into line.

There is, literally, nobody in Russia who can stop this war, because Putin has total control. The ostensibly elected parliament – the Duma and the Federation Council – is full of his placemen. The presidential administration and the foreign ministry almost certainly contain doubters, people who might want to point out that invasion is hardly compatible with the president’s statements about Ukrainians and Russians being “one people”. But I would be astonished if any of them offered to resign.

Can the west stop him? The history of sanctions, ever tougher and more far-reaching, is ignominious. Putin sneers at them, because he will always put his version of what Russia needs for its security above economic considerations. He also has a huge reserve fund to soften the blow.

All wars end in either victory for one side or in a negotiated settlement. Today, the prospect of the latter appears bleak. I find it hard to comprehend why it would have been so wrong to agree to the negotiations Putin wanted last year, to seriously review Europe’s security system, if that had a chance of avoiding the war that has now begun. Surely a neutral Ukraine, safe between its neighbours, would be preferable to war. But the time for that is gone. Putin is now hell-bent on revenge for what he perceives as years of western slights. He alone will decide his neighbour’s fate.

  • Angus Roxburgh is a former BBC Moscow correspondent and consultant to the Kremlin. He is the author of The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia and Moscow Calling: Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent

  • Guardian Newsroom: the Russian invasion of Ukraine
    Join a panel of journalists, hosted by Michael Safi, for a livestreamed event on the Russia-Ukraine crisis. On Thursday 3 March, 8pm GMT | 9pm CET | 12pm PST | 3pm EST. Book tickets here


Angus Roxburgh

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sanctions don’t work – serious diplomacy is the only way to stop Putin | Simon Jenkins
When the fighting stops, Britain must help Russia and Ukraine live as neighbours again, asks Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins

Simon Jenkins

28, Feb, 2022 @3:55 PM

Article image
We need to plan for Russia after Putin | Natalie Nougayrède
The president says he’ll stand again. But as the fall of the Soviet Union showed, the unexpected can happen, says Guardian columnist Natalie Nougayrède

Natalie Nougayrède

09, Dec, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
The EU should start planning now for Russia after Putin | Alexander Clarkson and Kirill Shamiev
Political destabilisation could lead to armed conflict within Russia itself, say Alexander Clarkson and Kirill Shamiev

Alexander Clarkson and Kirill Shamiev

16, May, 2023 @9:00 AM

Article image
As Russia struggles in Ukraine, will Putin break the nuclear taboo? | Kristin Ven Bruusgaard
Russia knows how dangerous nuclear escalation is, but the president’s statements give cause for concern, says political science professor Kristin Ven Bruusgaard

Kristin Ven Bruusgaard

02, Mar, 2022 @12:27 PM

Article image
All-out economic warfare is the best way to stop Putin | Orysia Lutsevych
The west’s half-measures are no deterrent to Russia’s aggression. These are the steps governments must take urgently, says Orysia Lutsevych, of Chatham House’s Ukraine Forum

Orysia Lutsevych

08, Mar, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
How annexing Crimea allowed Putin to claim he had made Russia great again | Sophie Pinkham
The show of force in Ukraine was played as Russia’s greatest moment since the second world war. But it’s a risky strategy

Sophie Pinkham

22, Mar, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Theresa May should beware Putin: he doesn’t do ‘cooperation’ | Luke Harding
The Russian leader is vindictive and ruthless – Britain’s prime minister will have to be tough to deal with him

Luke Harding

10, Aug, 2016 @6:45 PM

Article image
As the US and EU square off over Russia sanctions, only Putin can win | Natalie Nougayrède
Instead of applauding Washington’s moves against Putin, the EU is furious, writes the Guardian columnist Natalie Nougayrède

Natalie Nougayrède

31, Jul, 2017 @4:29 PM

Article image
Russia is winning the economic war - and Putin is no closer to withdrawing troops | Larry Elliott
The perverse effects of sanctions means rising fuel and food costs for the rest of the world – and fears are growing of a humanitarian catastrophe, says Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s economics editor

Larry Elliott

02, Jun, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
If Putin has eliminated Prigozhin, the result could be more – not less – instability for Russia | Samantha de Bendern
The Russian president has seemingly upped the stakes: anyone who challenges his regime will have to see it through to the end, says Samantha de Bendern, associate fellow at Chatham House

Samantha de Bendern

24, Aug, 2023 @11:22 AM