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Fintan O’Toole: Greater Russia ends up as Lesser China. Good luck with that

In digging up Europe’s bloody past, Putin has plunged Russia back into the nightmare of history

Wars are never over. Their consequences do not end when the fighting stops. Vladimir Putin’s stupidity is that his invasion of Ukraine both proves and ignores this truth.

On the one hand, Russia has chosen to drag Europe back into its brutally murderous 20th century. Putin is acting out William Faulkner’s adage: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

On the other hand, Putin seems oblivious to the obvious corollary: that the aftershocks of his Ukraine adventure will not cease within his own lifetime or perhaps for a long time beyond it. His war will be another episode of the undead past that will haunt Russia for decades to come.

In the short-term, Putin has done a shockingly effective job as a grave-robber, digging up the bodies of Europe’s breathtakingly violent modern history. What is “not even past”, he has shown us all, is the cold war division of Europe into mutually hostile western and eastern blocs.


Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said last week that his compatriots were fighting to stop “a new Iron Curtain” from descending on the Continent. But the reality is that it already has.

Whatever course Putin’s war now takes, it has dissolved for the foreseeable future the lovely mirage, conjured in 1989 by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev: a “common European home” stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals.

The return of the cold war, though, is also a revisiting of the cataclysmic events that shaped it. We are again living with the consequences of the two World Wars that historians increasingly think of as one Thirty Years War.

This is of course what Putin wants. In his bizarre speech justifying the invasion, he essentially called for a reversion to the geopolitical condition of Europe in 1945: “The outcomes of World War II and the sacrifices our people had to make to defeat Nazism are sacred.”

Even he does not believe that this is a literal possibility – Russian hegemony over the countries of central Europe is not coming back. But he does think he can force most of Russia’s immediate western neighbours back into Moscow’s sphere of influence.

While he conceded in that speech that “we cannot change past events”, his bloody fantasy is indeed a desire to do just that. Moving even further into the past, he blamed Vladimir Lenin, no less, for sundering Ukraine from its Russian motherland. He sees himself as the man of destiny who can now make whole again what the Bolsheviks divided.

In Putin’s mind, however, this reversal of time goes further still. He evokes that period beloved of chauvinists everywhere, “time immemorial”, a still unfolding eternity in which Ukraine was and is part of “the historical destiny of Russia and its peoples”.

As the Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin put it in the Observer, in Putin’s megalomanic reordering of history, “Like a huge iceberg, the country was floating through the past – first its Soviet past, then only its medieval past.”

The West, arguably, has indulged in the opposite fantasy – that all of this history really was securely locked away. All of this strange Russian mixture of grandiosity and paranoia was done with.

In the decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union, it was all too easy for Americans and western Europeans to imagine that Russia’s deeply rooted sense of its sacred right to be the so-called “protector” of all Slavic peoples would have nothing whatsoever to do with the shaping of a shiny new Europe.

The world – or at least the eastern European world – began again in 1989. A common devotion to consumer capitalism would teach us all to sing in perfect harmony.

In 1996, Thomas Friedman suggested (in fairness, with some degree of knowing irony) that no two nations with a McDonald's franchise had ever gone to war with each other: "countries with middle classes large enough to sustain a McDonald's have reached a level of prosperity and global integration that makes warmongering risky and unpalatable to its people".

But that fairy tale is now finished too, and it did not end happily ever after. Tyrants such as Putin don’t particularly care what their people think about “risky and unpalatable” adventures. The gory mess of 20th-century history has not been tidied away under the Golden Arches.

So Putin can congratulate himself that he has become Europe’s greatest necromancer, raising the dead of the Continent’s not-even-past. But this is a hollow achievement, not only for the innocent victims of his aggression, but for himself.

If you summon the undead, you should be aware that they may consume you. Putin seems to have forgotten that. He has broken the cardinal rule of statecraft: stick with what you’re good at. Putin has been extremely good at creating and inhabiting a grey zone between war and peace.

Especially in the last decade, he has been astonishingly successful in prosecuting hostilities without declaring war. He has deployed, with ruthless cunning, a combination of weapons: the creation of “frozen conflicts” in former Soviet countries; interference in elections in the West; the seductive prospect of endless supplies of Russian gas and oil; state terrorism up to and including the murders of opponents and nerve gas attacks; the encouragement of useful idiots in the West to amplify his disinformation.

But, in one move, he has now obliterated his grey zone. He lost patience with his own methods of ambiguity, deception and subversion. He has turned the grey into black and white, forcing the western democracies to choose between capitulation and confrontation.

This polarisation is really bad for Russia. In the immediate term, by reviving the cold war, he has revived Nato.

Just three years ago, Putin had in the White House a compliant stooge who was, in 2018, on the verge of pulling the US out of Nato. Perhaps beyond even Putin’s wildest fantasies, the military bloc he so fears and despises was close to extinction.

Now the moribund alliance is fully back in business. Even member states sympathetic to Putin-style autocracy – Hungary and Turkey – have been forced to pick sides against Russia. Neutral countries such as Finland and Sweden may well now join Nato. Instead of slowly bleeding it, Putin has given it a massive transfusion.

And in the longer term, Putin has speeded up, perhaps by as much as a decade, the EU’s transition away from fossil fuels. He has forced Germany in particular to reckon with the impossibility of relying on Russian gas.

Where will that eventually leave Russia? Most probably – unless Putin is toppled and his policies reversed – as a client state of China. If you build a wall between yourself and the West, you are placing yourself in orbit around the other big economic planet, as a supplier of primary commodities to a much richer superpower.

Greater Russia ends up as Lesser China. Good luck with that.

Is this what Putin thinks he is doing? Of course not. He imagines that he is setting history to rights, putting it back on the course it was diverted from a century ago.

But by bringing the past back into the present, he is also altering the future. It will soon become apparent that if they do not stop him now, his compatriots are creating a nightmare of history from which it may take them decades to awaken.