Kathy Sheridan: Only the Russians themselves can bring about regime change

That agonising generational task cannot be undertaken by Nato or Ukrainians

If there was a smidgen of competition for the slapped Oscars’ host as Monday’s story of the day, it had to be Radio 4’s interview with former Russian parliamentarian and Putin superfan, Sergey Markov.

Joe Biden’s “gaffe” apparently suggesting regime change – “for God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power” – had shot indignation levels to the stratosphere. Even as half the world nodded vigorously in agreement, there was no denying it was a gift that played straight into the Kremlin narrative. See – we told you the West is out to get us; we are under existential threat, now check out the terms under which we permit ourselves to engage nuclear weapons.

“It is not up to the president of the United States to decide who will remain in power in Russia. Only Russians can decide that. . . ,” said the Kremlin’s spokesman, aware no doubt that regime change is precisely Putin’s mission in Ukraine.

We are constantly told that Putin is driven by disrespect from the outside world, in which case he has nothing to lose now

Confusing. So, Markov, do you think it is wrong for countries to pursue regime change in sovereign, independent countries?

After a blast of the usual blather from Markov about the US imposing Nazi juntas on Ukraine, Nick Robinson repeated the question.

“I would say it is normal for the big countries to sometimes change the regime in a neighbouring country, if this regime is regarded by them as dangerous,” said Markov, a man whose leader assassinates, poisons and imprisons political opponents.

“. . . [But] if this regime is democratic I think it’s wrong to change this regime and impose a repressive regime – it is not normal, I think it’s wrong. But if a regime is oppressive, it [would] be a humanitarian obligation [to remove it],” he added.

The playbook is Alice in Wonderland. “‘When I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’.”

Also competing for space with the slapped Oscars’ host on Monday, was new evidence that Boris Nemtsov, a fierce Putin adversary shot dead within yards of the Kremlin in 2015, had been tracked by a Russian government agent linked to an assassination squad for a year before he died.

We are constantly told that Putin is driven by disrespect from the outside world, in which case he has nothing to lose now. The stupid lies and posturing assume that listeners will be too preoccupied by the price of fuel to notice that some three in four Ukrainians told opinion pollsters in December that they considered Russia a “hostile state”. Or that they will be too busy consulting their useful idiots’ glossary – “yeah but the US/Nato military-industrial complex. . .” – to notice the rubble heaps and mass graves that used to be Mariupol.

The “yeah but the US/Nato” default is wonderfully versatile. It can as easily be trotted out to attack Biden’s “gaffe” – which he is defending to the death – as to fulminate about Nato’s illegal assistance for Kosovo in 1999. That kind of shorthand overrides the fact, say, that all diplomatic avenues with Serbia had been exhausted by 1999 and that the intervention was deemed illegal only because a single UN Security Council member had rigidly exercised its veto on that occasion. Guess which member?

Who would want to be a Ukrainian negotiator tasked with reaching a binding agreement with Putin? Ukraine must have peace. Nuclear war must be avoided at all costs. Any talks are a gamble with a psychopath who also must not be rewarded for his war crimes. What have the “yeah but the US/Nato” merchants to offer in that scenario?

After Russia, it is fashionable to sneer at the EU’s naive, bourgeois attempts to lay down the sword and trade with ancient enemies. Memories are short. Stella Ghervas’ Conquering Peace: From the Enlightenment to the European Union traces two centuries of the search for lasting peace by European thinkers and leaders (conspicuously Russians in the 19th century), showing how one generation after another has confronted the hard and tedious struggle of how to reconcile the defeated to their losses and manage the triumphalism of the victors.

The question now is the existential problem of Russia. Thanks to last year’s amendment handily signed into law by President Putin himself, his presidency potentially extends to 2036.

A new democratic start would be impossible without paying a price and acknowledging national guilt

We are slow to believe that this is what ordinary Russians want or voted for. The Russian novelist Mikhail Shishkin is a realist. He believes that Russians for the most part support the war because “the overwhelming majority still bow before power and accept this patrimonial way of life. . .”.

Unlike Germans, forced to look at concentration camps in 1945 and to endure the painful process of coming to terms with guilt, Russia has had no Nuremberg trials for the Communist party, no de-Stalinisation.

Just as Germany’s long, painful rebirth was predicated on total, crushing military defeat, Russia needs this zero hour, too, he writes in the Guardian. A new democratic start would be impossible without paying a price and acknowledging national guilt. He and Biden agree that Russia’s fate depends on what the novelist calls de-Putinisation. But that mammoth, agonising generational task cannot be undertaken by either Nato or the Ukrainians. “We Russians must clean up our country ourselves.”