Nothing in politics is as dangerous as a populist in trouble – unless it is two populists in trouble. Today we have Britain’s Boris Johnson and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, both with plunging popularity ratings and both desperately in need of a distraction. There is no distraction as enticing as war.
War across Ukraine’s conflict-ridden Donbas region is now said by western strategists to be just round the corner, imminent and possibly inevitable. President Biden clearly expects Russia to “move in” on Ukraine. The UK’s chief of defence staff, Tony Radakin, said that a Russian invasion could trigger conflict on a scale “not seen in Europe since world war two”.
The textbook triggers are in place: a toxic border, thousands of troops entrenched, alliances uncertain and everywhere reckless and confusing talk of “consequences”. There is bluff on all sides, and boys’ toys galore. But what on earth does it have to do with Britain?
I recall visiting Moscow in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union, when every Russian expert said the same thing: the west may have won the cold war, but above all don’t humiliate Russia. Don’t do what was done to Germany in 1919 and devastate morale. Moscow’s Boris Yeltsin begged the west not to push Nato to Russia’s borders. It would risk, he said, “the flames of war bursting out across the whole of Europe”.
The west blatantly derided the advice. Nato leaders feasted on victory, recruiting members eastwards through Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and the Baltic states. Pleas from Russian moderates were ignored, while London opened its doors to Russia’s stolen wealth. The result was predictable. In 1999, Vladimir Putin took power on a populist, patriotic ticket. To Britain’s former Moscow ambassador, Rodric Braithwaite, Putin was a master of articulating “the sense of humiliation Russians felt after the collapse of the Soviet Union”. He exploited Nato’s aggressive expansionism for all it was worth. When in 2008 America’s George W Bush backed extending Nato membership to Georgia and Ukraine (a move that was vetoed by Germany and France) Putin seized land in both.
Ukraine is an independent state but one that, like Belarus, Georgia and Kazakhstan, has usually maintained peaceful relations within Moscow’s sphere of interest. When Putin was in dispute with Ukraine and seized its province of Crimea in 2014, the west imposed economic sanctions on Russia that were pointless. Like most sanctions, they made the imposers feel briefly good, while harming the poor, rewarding crooks and entrenching the offending regime in power. Witness Iran, North Korea and now Afghanistan.
Putin has never indicated the slightest wish to invade, damage or interrupt trade with Britain or the US. He behaves outrageously towards his critics, at home and abroad, and offends western standards of decency and liberalism. The result is an ageing, emigrating and demoralised Russian population. But that is his country and his choice. We may choose to exert soft power over Moscow, through cultural, educational and economic forces but we cannot police Putin’s borders or stop him mistreating his neighbours. That is not our business.
Every European crisis becomes drenched in history. Lord Steel writes in a letter to the Times that the situation reminds him of Czechoslovakia in 1938 – or perhaps Poland. Or is this Serbia in 1914? Is Donbas another Cuba, or perhaps Kosovo or Bosnia? Does Putin want another iron curtain? Hitler makes an almost daily appearance. Yes, we can learn from history, but the greatest lesson is that history can be a trap.
In his 2021 essay on the “historical unity of Russia and Ukraine”, Putin left no room for doubt about his vision of a Russian domestic empire, a family of Slav nations – albeit without mentioning Stalin’s Ukrainian atrocities. With Belarus, Ukraine has for centuries formed Moscow’s outer bailey against the ever-turbulent politics of western Europe. But Putin also reiterated his commitment to the Minsk II settlement aimed at ending the fighting in Donbas, brokered with Kyiv in 2015 by France and Germany but never implemented.
Analysis of this deal by Anatol Lieven of Washington’s Quincy Institute frames it as a perfectly equitable way out of the Donbas conflict. It involves Kyiv granting extensive domestic autonomy to the Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine, the west backing down on Bush’s proposed eastwards expansion of Nato, and Russia pulling its troops back from a border restored to Ukraine.
In practice, the biggest hurdle to the Minsk II settlement was Kyiv’s reluctance to grant autonomy to Donbas. Across Europe, the biggest threat to national peace and stability lies in the inability of central governments, of any colour, to tolerate regional decentralisation and diversity. Ask them in Belgrade, Madrid, even London. A problem, too, was the west’s refusal to acknowledge any justice in Moscow’s sense of border insecurity. As is drearily familiar, Europe’s politicians take belligerent stances and then, as Lieven points out, “leaders who do not intend to go to war may stumble into a situation in which they are unable to stop or turn back”.
Putin emerges from a deluge of recent biographers as a primeval Russian nationalist, steeped in the politics of oligarchy, kleptomania and violence. But his strategic outlook is not complicated. It is rooted in traditional Russian pride and paranoia. He has no desire to conquer Europe, much as the west’s defence lobby, bruised by Iraq and Afghanistan, may long to believe otherwise.
Reports from the frontline indicate that many Ukrainians expect Britain (and the US) to come to their aid, including militarily, should Russia move further into Donbas. Britain’s foreign secretary Liz Truss absurdly sits on a tank and warns Putin not to make a “strategic mistake”. The defence secretary, Ben Wallace, taunts Putin with destroyers careering up and down the Crimean coast. Johnson sends Ukraine a few anti-tank missiles. The invitation to Moscow to call Britain’s bluff is glaring.
No one is going to stop Putin’s tanks from rumbling into Donbas if he is determined to do so. The west can raise the cost to him with economic sanctions, but they will make no difference, except to the price of gas. For Britain to seek brownie points for Nato by threatening war over this would be beyond madness. Yet in view of the equivocal language of Truss, Wallace, Radakin and others, this reality should be stated in the clearest terms – not least to the Ukrainians.
Russia’s border disputes with its neighbours have nothing whatsoever to do with Britain. And they certainly have nothing to do with saving Boris Johnson’s skin.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist