For Years Vladimir Putin’s malevolent advances were met with minimum resistance. Under his leadership Russia invaded Georgia, annexed Crimea, committed horrendous war crimes in Syria and poisoned political opponents abroad. Yet each time Russia encountered only token opposition from Western Europe.
West’s lack of courage
It was the West’s lack of courage, and the dream of a Greater Russia by an erratic over-edged controversial leader and his crave of reviving another Soviet Union that prompted Mr Putin to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But to Mr Putin’s dismay this time the response has been different. Faced with the gravest threat since Second World War, and the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people, Europe has at last awoken from its long slumber. Rather than token reprisals, it has imposed audacious bold and unprecedented economic sanctions with the hope to disable his might.
Several Russian banks have been expelled from Swift, the global financial messaging system, and the countries own central bank has been sanctioned. Big retail companies from Chanel to Zara, MacDonald’s to Kentucky Fried Chicken all closed their business in Russia. The assets of all his oligarchs have been seized all over Europe. Even the traditionally neutral Switzerland has implemented the EU’s sanctions – targeting the 11 bn held by Russian companies and oligarchs in Switzerland. The sanction of Russia’s central bank prevented Putin from using most of the 640 bn “war chest” of foreign currency reserves that he accumulated.
Vladimir Putin – the kid from the street to the Kremlin
Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad, what is now St Petersburg. He grew up in the rough areas of Leningrad in the aftermath of the second world war. He was a school yard thug, a fierce fighter and became a member of a street gang until he was rescued from his street activities by his Judo coach who was impressed by his sport abilities. By the end 1975 Putin obtained a Law Degree from the Leningrad State University. Due to his excellence in sports, he was recruited by the KGB rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. At the time the influence of the Soviet Union reached across communist nations of Eastern Europe.
In the 80s he was posted to Dresden in East Germany where to his greatest disappointment and dismay, he witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of Communism. During the demise negotiations he was heading back home to find a suitable position for him in new Russia. This was a visceral example to Putin of the power of people through the demise of the Soviet Union which to him was “the greatest geographical catastrophe of the century” which left him with a sore spot in his heart.
He resigned from KGB in 1991 to forge a political career in St Petersburg and then moved to Moscow to join the administration of Boris Yeltsin. He briefly served as director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and secretary of the Security Council. This enabled him to disable the Chechen rebels and eliminate Yeltsin’s political opponents which impressed Yeltsin before appointing him as Prime Minister in 1999. He soon got the position of acting president upon Yeltsin’s resignation.
President Boris Yeltsin wanted to leave Mother Russia in capable hands, and nobody would fit the bill other than Vladimir Putin, and four months later with Yeltsin’s coaching Putin was elected outright as president.
Since he was constitutionally limited to two consecutive terms as president, he paved the way to Dimitry Medvedev to become president in 2008 and he served as his Prime Minister, and it was obvious who was in charge. Only to return to the presidency in 2012 in an election fraught by allegations of corruption, fraud, and protests. He was re-elected again in 2018 and in April 2021, following a referendum he signed into law constitutional amendments including one that would allow him to run for re-election twice more, potentially extending his presidency till 2036. We then have to put up with the tyrant for a long haul.
Under his leadership, the country has swiftly shifted from democracy to authoritarianism. Putin’s rule has been characterised by endemic corruption. His way of operating was clear from the start of his presidency i.e., tightening the grip over media was one of the first things that he did with intimidation and suppression. Free elections are not allowed, and opposition parties are non-existent as they get stifled from the start. His critics are either in exile or get killed or facing prosecution.
His indifference to democracy is matched by his view of sovereignty; in 2008 Russia invaded Georgia because they deported suspected Russian spies. This was followed by the persecution of ethnic Georgians in Russia. In 2006 Aleksandr Valterovich Litvinenko a British-naturalised Russian defector was killed by radiation poisoning in a London hotel. In 2014 he annexed Crimea from Ukraine and in 2018 a former Russian service operative was again poisoned in Salisbury England. Putin spoke of his childhood telling the world “50 years ago the streets of Leningrad taught me a rule. If a fight is inevitable, you must throw the first punch” and this is what is happening in Ukraine now – they are feeling the first punch!
The conflict started back in 1922 with the creation of the Soviet Union which was a union of 15 republican states including Ukraine which was the second most powerful of the USSR. Then in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed due to political and economic dissatisfaction of the people. On August 1991 Ukraine declared its independence and has since distanced itself from its Russian imperial legacy to ultimately gain closer ties with the west and pursue freedom and democracy. Since their independence there have been two revolutions one in 2005 and 2014 both times protesters rejected Russian supremacy and autocratic rules and sought to join the free world of European Union and NATO.
Today around 13% are ethnically Russian who identify themselves as Ukrainians, and nearly a third speak Russian as their first language. This goes back to the era of Catherine the Great in late 1700 when she exercised her influence to expand her Russian empire by brutal military means absorbing neighbouring countries including Crimea and Ukraine and populated the regions of Donbass and Luhansk basin in Eastern Ukraine by ethnic Russians. In addition, centuries later, Joseph Stalin made it illegal to speak or teach Ukrainian in Ukraine.
The Crimean Oblast was transferred to Ukraine by the “Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union” in 1954 which included the transfer of the government of the Crimean Peninsula. Only for Putin to claim it back decades later.
Vladimir Putin disputes whether there should be a border between Russia and Ukraine. He says Russians and Ukrainians are “one People” and claims that Ukraine is not a state it’s just another extension of Russia and an ancient Russian soil. Russia and Ukraine do have a shared history of ancestry and quite often it’s hard to say who’s Ukrainian and who is Russian whether in Ukraine or Russia. Moscow considers Kyiv the cradle of its civilisation and its faith over the centuries since, the two countries have been intimately connected.
Ukraine was a cornerstone of the Soviet Union until the bloc collapsed in 1991. At the time Ukrainian independence went in accordance with a new democratic Russia. Ukraine became proud of its newly found freedom and independence and in many ways set an example for Russian’s own independence from the Soviet Union. Despite all the ties that bind them together recent events made the majority of Ukrainians turn against Russia. But over the years Putin came to view Ukraine’s independence as a strategic blow. Ukraine now has a new generation born in the 1990s who now see their future in the EU rather than the confinement and oppression of Russia. But a democratic Ukraine is totally unacceptable to Putin mainly due to its strategic significance.
Vladimir Putin is determined to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit and keep it out of alliances with the west. He doesn’t accept Ukraine’s wish to join NATO because he sees it as antagonistic towards Russia. To him a Slavic country, as he says, “the same people as us, as a member of NATO, as part of the West is an affront”. After 1991 the Warsaw Pact dissolved much to Putin’s horror and NATO expanded to include the former Soviet-bloc and the NATO alliance in central Europe now runs right up to the Russian border.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and as it splintered several new nations emerged and Ukraine was one of the largest, its population was 52 million and was 1200 kilometres from east to west, and with that came a huge farming and agricultural sector worth over 200 billion dollars. As democracy moved east this was a moment of optimism in 1991 and Ukrainians celebrated their first election. The US called it “momentous” and one voter described it as a “flowering of the soul”, but for all the enthusiasm and the excitement democracy couldn’t change Ukraine’s geography or its history. To the east was Russia and to the west was Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary. All three with long communist past and all three joined the European Union by 2004. Being pro-Russia or pro-Europe became a fundamental dividing line in Ukrainian politics.
In 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections showed Ukrainians began to look westward and Russia’s influence had its limits. Viktor Yushchenco, who is pro-Europe, lost the elections to Viktor Yanukovych who is pro-Russia. Yanukovych’s election was marred by allegations of electoral rigging, fraud, and voter intimidation. Ukrainians felt they were sold out and there were weeks of massive protests and crackdowns that resulted in fatal casualties – many people died which led to what became known as the Orange Revolution. It then became evident that Russia was losing control over Ukraine. In the end, the Ukrainian Supreme Court nullified Yanukovych runoff election and ordered a new vote which led to Yushchenco’s victory. The Orange Revolution was a very important event as it showed people revolted against a president who had the backing of Putin and elected the president of their choice. This proved people had power and had agency and could make their own choice. Another slap in the face of Putin!
While the outcome of that election was settled, relations with Russia were not as Putin would never give up, and there was further twist as Ynukovych was re-elected with huge ramifications in 2010. By 2013 we began to see series of events that led to his ousting. There were reports of corruption and cronyism – “regional cronyism” for his staffing of police, military, and judiciary. His family was dubbed as “robber capitalists” who were fleecing the country. Furthermore, he rejected a pending EU association agreement in favour of a loan bailout with closer ties with Russia. There were violent clashes between protesters and special polices forces which led to another revolution – the “Revolution of Dignity” and Yanukovych was then ousted and subsequently impeached. He had to flee the country and take exile in Russia.
In retaliation, Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula and backed Rebels to seize two regions in the east of Ukraine. Russia has already divided Ukrainian politics and now Putin was dividing the country itself but the turn towards the West that frustrated him most then remains now. One recent poll shows 70% of Ukrainians are in favour of joining the EU. This perception may explain this invasion today but there’s something else too, the 90s brought freedom form repression and a surge of democratic optimism to Ukraine’s current president. For the Ukrainians, Putin “waged a war against Ukraine and the whole democratic world. He wants to destroy our country, everything we have been building, everything we live for”. The effort to build a free democratic nation began when Ukraine emerged from the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. Today as Russia invades Ukraine, we see the extent of Putin’s resentment of all Ukrainian aspirations.
Putin echoes Hitler
The Russian president is twisting and rewriting history to feed his fantasy view of Ukraine in an attempt to justify an unjustifiable illegal war. He is fighting an enemy that doesn’t exist. He has invaded Ukraine and has taken his country to a savage war on an entirely fictional premise. In an address to Russian citizens from the Kremlin on February 24, 2022, he claimed the government in kyiv had been seized by “extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis” and that he had sent in the Russian army on a “military operation” to save innocent civilians from “genocide” and force the “denazification” of Ukraine.’’ To state the obvious this is just propaganda misinformation to win the narrative. There are no neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian government and there is no genocide. In fact, genocide is caused by Russian ballistic missiles, warplanes, tanks, and heavy artillery that are murdering Ukrainian civilians indiscriminately. “How can I be a Nazi?” asked the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who is partly Jewish and whose grandfather fought for the Red Army against Hitler during the Second World War. In a direct appeal to Russian citizens on February 23, 2022, the eve of the conflict he said “The Ukraine in your news and the Ukraine of real life are two entirely different places. The difference is that the latter is real.”
Vladimir Putin has crafted his grotesque fantasy over decades. Since he first came to power in 1999, he has elevated the memory of the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call the Second World War, to the status of a national religion. He has cast himself as the great leader of a besieged nation, defending Russian citizens against foreign threats and a phantom resurgence of fascism, which he insists is rising in Europe once again. “When Putin used the term “denazification” in his declaration of war, he was not speaking to foreign audiences, he was speaking first and foremost to his own public” said Isabella Tabarovsky, a historian at the Kennan Institute, Washington DC. “It was an attempt to demonise, to create a false equivalence between Ukraine today and Nazi German. The subtext of his message was: Look we are the good guys here! It’s a war of self-defence! There is a genocide against our people! We are fighting a just war, just as we did in 1941-45!” she went on to say.
There’s a long history in Russia and in the Soviet Union of those in power exploiting the idea of a fascist threat to serve their political objectives. Rather than acknowledging the horrors of the holocaust that were revealed in 1945, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin stoked a new campaign of anti-Semitism and co-opted the term “fascism” that Hitler had attacked the USSR and the Soviet people, rather than anyone group in particular. So much of what’s Putin is reverberating in his rallies echoes Nazism in Germany in the 1930s. He describes his political opponents as “National traitors”. This is a term directly borrowed from Hitler in Germany. This stylised narrative that is used in the Kremlin propaganda as a symbol of support for aggression towards Ukraine really does denote Swatsika.
However positively Vladimir Putin spins it, the truth is his unprovoked attack and illegal invasion of Ukraine has lurched from calamity to crisis. His anticipation to take over Kyiv in 24 hours has backfired on himself and Russian troops expected as liberators by cheering crowds found they were sorely mistaken. The Ukrainians are fighting back with ferocity, precision, and coordination and this is something Putin didn’t expect. In his initial announcement of a “special military operation”, Putin asked Ukrainians soldiers to lay down their arms, not out of concern for their lives but, because he truly believed they would be happy to do so. But they were not and did not. Russian soldiers have instead been faced with ferocious resistance and sustained heavy losses. The Ukrainians have inflicted punitive casualties on Putin’s invading soldiers and inspired the whole world with their courage. Putin is well aware that he miscalculated, and the war is not going his way and therefore he is intensifying and escalating his war machine. He misjudged Ukraine’s status as country, the effectiveness of his military and the assertion that West had become weak. In Fact, the West has never been more united.
Another variable is the disillusionment of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, distressed and disoriented, discovering that the story they were told – of captive people eager for liberation – was a cruel lie. Their falling morale and the anger of their parents back home didn’t feature in Mr Putin’s calculations. One of the captured Lieutenants said, “Putin lied to us don’t judge us too harshly” and described the invasion as genocide. He said Russian people had been duped by the Kremlin to believe in Putin’s lies and false claims that Ukraine was being led by Neo-Nazis. Many Russians soldiers have Ukrainian relatives and are reluctant to fight and Putin is recruiting Syrian and Chechen soldiers.
But while the Ukrainians are fighting with colossal courage and skill the war is entering an even bloodier, more destructive gruesome phase. Putin has turned Russia into a terrorist state as his war machine is going on rampage causing the massacre of innocent civilians, mass murder including women and children has become more abhorrent. Distressing images of kindergartens, primary schools and maternity hospitals being bombarded with ballistic missiles and destroyed. Thousands are starving to death in a medieval style siege. This invasion has triggered a mass exodus of the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since the second World War.
The atrocities in Kharkiv and Mariupol show the horrifying price of defending democracy. Few weeks ago, Kharkiv was a flourishing metropolis and home to 1.5 million people. It was as resident Galina Padalko put it “a beautiful place”, with parks, a new zoo, thriving restaurants, cafes, and a monumental square. The city had several universities with international students, old cathedrals that withstood the time and the past darkest moments. With several ballistic missile attacks, it has turned into a living hell. We see women and children scramble to escape heavy shelling and bombing. Both cities have been showered with bombs daily, no water, no electricity, and no food. They are both cut off from the outside world and even humanitarian convoys have been bombarded.
Mariupole is experiencing the worst of the siege. “What does it take to defend democracy?” ask the people of Mariupol, a city whose name is already synonymous with the extraordinary price they are paying to stand up to an overwhelming force. A month after the first artillery assaults on a place that was a bustling port city, it is now reduced to a shell of destroyed and burnt buildings; it has been burned down to the ground. The city is Besieged and chocked and besieged residents risk their lives to scavenge for food for their children and whose last defence against a pitiless aggressor is their refusal to capitulate.
This is the same tactic Russia used when they besieged the city of Alepo and let its people starve till, they had to surrender. This tactic was first used by Hitler when he encircled Putin’s city of birth Leningrad in 1941.
Whether the West is to blame for Ukraine’s invasion remains arguable as Putin has been indirectly in war with Ukraine since 2014. However, it could be said Western Europe could have found a strategy by which to provide a no-fly zone since they signed a memorandum on security assurances of Ukraine for their freedom, independence and sovereignty and respect of their borders in 1994 when they agreed to give up their nuclear arsenal.
The West cannot be held responsible for the deranged thinking of a man who has become more embittered, angry, and unhinged over the years. His fervour for ultranationalist historiography and quasi-religious ideas of Slavic identity was known to the West. But the extent to which those doctrines influenced his policies was underestimated before the televised address last month in which he wrongly claimed that modern Ukraine was an invention of the Bolsheviks and denied its right to statehood. He is going on a crusade to conquer and recreate another Soviet Union by inflicting murder and genocide on a large scale as means to install puppet governments under the control of Russia over ex-soviet states. His mission was successful in Belarus, Chechnya, Kazakhstan, and he is threatening Finland and Georgia and there is more to come. In the case of Ukraine, he will not rest until he has the country carved up and takes over the Donbass and Luhansk regions. He sees borders as injuries to the motherland that must be avenged. It is the language of authoritarian menace and tyrannical derangement.
The Putin regime, for all its rhetoric of national revival, does not in any way represent interests beyond the circle that is enriched and empowered by its vicious methods. In targeting Ukraine Vladimir Putin wages a war also against the better Russia that is supressed and cannot express itself as long as he is in power.