With his incursion into Donetsk and Luhansk and subsquent attacks on Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has broken international law and destroyed the best negotiating track, the Minsk agreement. That is clear. What is also clear is why he did it.
An increasing number of politicians and media analysts claim Putin may be mentally unstable, or that he is isolated in a bubble of yes-men who don’t warn him of dangers ahead. Many commentators say he is trying to restore the Soviet Union or recreate a Russian sphere of influence on his country’s borders, and that this his current objective is to topple the Ukraine’s government and even move against the Baltic states. None of these assertions is necessarily true.
The Russian president is a rational man with his own analysis of recent European history. Coming from a former communist, his blaming of Lenin for giving excessive scope to local nationalism in drawing up the Soviet constitution is remarkable. Similarly, his criticism of the way national elites destroyed the Soviet Union in its final years is sharp.
Does he want to turn the clock back? People often quote his statement “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. But it bears pointing out that he enlarged on it later, saying: “Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.”
It is crucially important for those who might seek to end or ameliorate this crisis to first understand his mindset. What happened this week is that Putin lost his patience, and his temper. He is furious with the Ukraine government. He feels it repeatedly rejected the Minsk agreement, which would give the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk substantial autonomy. He is angry with France and Germany, the co-signatories, and the US, for not pressing Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to implement them. He is equally angry with the Americans for not taking on board Russia’s security concerns about Nato’s expansion and the deployment of offensive missiles close to Russia’s borders.
To those who say Nato is entitled to invite any state to join, Putin argues that the “open door” policy is conditioned by a second principle, which Nato states have accepted: namely that the enhancement of a state’s security should not be to the detriment of the security of other states (such as Russia). As recently as 2010 Barack Obama put his signature to the principle at a summit of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The summit’s declaration includes a wonderfully idealistic ambition: “We recommit ourselves to the vision of a free, democratic, common and indivisible Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian security community stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok”. This echoes Mikhail Gorbachev’s plea, when the cold war division of Europe ended, for Russia and other European states to live together in a “common European home”. We now suffer in the shadow of the thwarting of that dream.
For Putin, Obama’s signing of the OSCE statement is proof of the hypocrisy that goes back to earlier US presidents, who showed the dishonesty of Nato’s “open door” policy by rejecting Russia’s repeated feelers about joining the alliance. In his speech this week, the Russian leader said he had asked Bill Clinton about the possibility of membership but was fobbed off with the argument that Russia was too big. In 2000, during his first weeks as president, Putin was asked by David Frost on the BBC if it was possible Russia could join Nato. He replied: “I would not rule such a possibility out, if and when Russia’s views are taken into account as those of an equal partner.”
George Robertson, a former Nato secretary general, recently recalled meeting Putin during his time at Nato: “Putin said, ‘When are you going to invite us to join Nato?’ And [Robertson] said: ‘Well, we don’t invite people to join Nato, they apply to join Nato.’”
From outside the alliance, Putin has seen it expand continually. He says he does not seek a revived Soviet Union but a buffer zone that would be, as he put it in a long essay last year, “not anti-Russia”. John Kennedy wanted a similar cordon sanitaire when Khrushchev tried to put nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962. Putin suggested on Tuesday that Ukraine should return to the strategy of neutrality that was in the Ukrainian constitution until the “coup” that toppled the Yanukovych government in 2014, and brought pro-US nationalists to power. After all, a majority of Ukrainian MPs then believed that the country’s fragile unity would be more secure if it was not pulled and pushed by rival pressures from Moscow and the west.
Nato’s stance over membership for Ukraine was what sparked Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014. Putin feared the port of Sevastopol, home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, would soon belong to the Americans. The western narrative sees Crimea as the first use of force to change territorial borders in Europe since the second World War. Putin sees this as selective amnesia, forgetting that Nato bombed Serbia in 1999 to detach Kosovo and make it an independent state.
Convinced that Nato will never reject Ukraine’s membership, Putin has now taken his own steps to block it. By invading Donetsk and Luhansk, he has created a “frozen conflict”, knowing the alliance cannot admit countries that don’t control all their borders. Frozen conflicts already cripple Georgia and Moldova, which are also split by pro-Russian statelets. Now Ukraine joins the list. There is speculation about what will happen next but from his standpoint, it is not actually necessary to send troops further into the country. He has already taken what he needs. – Guardian
Jonathan Steele is a former Moscow correspondent for the Guardian