Observations of an expat: Putin’s disastrous time machine

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown the world back in time to a world order based on the dangerous dictum: might is right.

We have been pushed through the looking glass into a new world where laws and treaties are irrelevant and life and death decisions are made on the basis of blatant lies and where the morally bankrupt prevail.

Overshadowing this frightening reality is that Vladimir Putin has his finger on the button that controls the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

Facing this disaster scenario is an unprepared West. For years it has over-focused on the economic challenge of China while downplaying the more immediate threat of an increasingly bitter, autocratic, militaristic, nationalistic, messianic and possibly unhinged Vladimir Putin.

War with Russia was unthinkable. It defied common sense as the rest of the world understood it. Surely the threat of massive sanctions would force Russian business to control Putin. No, the Russian president sits at the apex of an unprincipled kleptocracy and has skilfully tied Russian business interests to his own extreme views.

Successive US administrations have not helped. George W. Bush unilaterally scrapped the ABM Treaty and turned a blind eye when Putin attacked Georgia. Obama over-pivoted towards Asia while his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed reset buttons with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

But worst of all was Donald Trump a self-confessed admirer of strongmen in general and Putin in particular. He pushed recognition of the Russian annexation of Crimea. As Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border this week Trump and his ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised Putin as a “genius.”

Joe Biden appears well-intentioned but ill-equipped. Like his predecessors, his blinkered focus was directed towards Asia. His pacifist nature coupled with the American public’s frustration with decades of foreign wars led to a weak response to Putin’s sabre rattling. In Putin’s political lexicon, weakness spells opportunity.

The rest of the Western Alliance is not much better. British remainers argued back in 2016 that withdrawal from the EU would weaken European security and expose Europe to the threat of the Russian bear.  “Fear factor,” screamed Brexiteers. Well, now it is time to be afraid.

Democracies require a strong moral base for success, especially when facing a war situation. Their publics need to know they are making sacrifices for a noble cause. Britain’s Conservative Party, and in particular Prime Minister, Boris Johnson is seen as morally corrupt. He has treated parliament with contempt and lied to it and the British public .

Continental Europe – and in particular Germany – are dependent on Russian oil and gas for up to half of their energy requirements. As far back as the Reagan Administration, the Americans have been trying to persuade the Germans to diversify their energy sources. The new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz only reluctantly agreed to suspend the opening of the Nordstream2 gas pipeline and he and the rest of the world are now faced with, at best, spiralling energy prices and, at worst, Putin turning off the taps in response to any EU sanctions. Scholz himself has so far appeared weak and vacillating.

The French have long believed that they have a special relationship with Russia. This was one of the main reasons President Emmanuel Macron publicly inserted himself into negotiations. He spent hours talking with Putin in Moscow and via cyber link. At various times the French leader led the world to believe that he was on the cusp of a diplomatic breakthrough. But Putin lied to him as he did to everyone else. Macron was humiliated and his dream of replacing Angela Merkel as leader of Europe have been dealt a serious blow. His re-election hopes have also suffered.

The West has consistently failed to keep its voters aware of the Russian threat. They have ignored the political dictum that the price of peace is constant vigilance. Most NATO countries have fallen well short of the target of two percent of GDP defence spending. Voters have allowed themselves to be led astray by morally dubious political leaders. These issues cannot be swept under the carpet. They must be dealt with if the West is to provide a united and successful front against Putin.

So what now? Putin will effectively annex Ukraine. But if he believes that Ukrainians will welcome his rule he is suffering a dangerous delusion which in turn threatens the world. They will almost certainly fight back with an insurgency type warfare, possibly from refugee camps which are already springing up in Poland. The problem is that the Russian president has inextricably tied himself to the cause of Russia in Ukraine and possibly elsewhere in the Slavic world. Failure is not an option. Failure means the end of Putin and his kleptocracy. The high cost of failure means that the Russian president has no choice but to continue to advance through uncharted political waters.

His main vehicles for this dangerous journey are guns, gas, oil and cyber warfare. Russia is an economic mess and is about to become more so. Whatever political power Putin has is now derived almost entirely from the barrel of gun and the nozzle of petrol pump. The use of either or both threatens to inflict severe damage on the rest of the world.

The Russian president has said that any resistance will be met with a response the “likes of which the world has never seen.” The danger is that this is Kremlin shorthand for nuclear weapons. American intelligence has reported that the Russians are testing battlefield nuclear weapons.

America, Britain and the EU have promised “massive sanctions.” They are shying away from committing NATO troops. As Biden, said American troops facing Russian troops is a dangerous situation. To prevent such an occurrence the alliance has a convenient get-out clause: Ukraine is not a NATO member and therefore not protected by the Three Musketeer Article Five clause of the North Atlantic Treaty. But that does not stop any NATO country from providing weaponry to Ukrainian insurgents.

This raises the spectre of a Russian retaliation against NATO members for sanctions and/or military support for Ukrainians. The most likely reprisal would be cyber-attacks. Another possibility is blocking gas and oil deliveries, and a third terrifying prospect is that a frustrated Putin could use battlefield nuclear weapons which would create radioactive dust which could easily drift westward into NATO territory. Any of these scenarios could be construed as an attack on a NATO country and Biden’s nightmare becomes a reality.

Many in America would argue that it is a faraway country if no strategic value to the United States. They are wrong. It is a 15 minute trip for a nuclear-tipped missile. About the same as a ride to their local McDonalds.

There is also the fact that if Putin succeeds he will re-write the post war rule book which has favoured economic growth and prosperity in democratic countries. The political values of the West underwrite its prosperity and are indivisible from them. To keep them, Putin must fail and must be seen to do so.

The problem is that failure is an unacceptable option for Putin. He has warned that he is prepared to go to any lengths to avoid it. So the challenge for the West – and the rest of the world – is how to bring about Putin’s downfall in a way that contains any attempts to retaliate and escalate.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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25 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 26th Feb '22 - 10:26am

    Sadly, the best that can be hoped for is that stubborn Ukrainian resistance prevents a decisive military victory and leads to large numbers of body bags heading back to Russia to start turning public opinion against the war and the person who ordered it. The worst outcome is where Ukraine is forced, at some point, to agree major concessions to end the war, as this will provide a victory for Putin even if won at huge cost.

  • Russia has the largest land mass of any state, acquired by conquest over centuries. It will not stop until it has conquered Ireland. Putin is in the long line of Russian autocrats obsessed with extending Russian territory and supported by the governing class. We will have to spend billions on defence to stop them. The French will have to be weaned off their dreams of the special relationship with Russia

  • I have no great insight into how the world stops Putin from destabilising the relative!!! peace that has existed since the second world war, but what I do know is that it better get it act together pretty quickly before this madman condemns us to an unimaginable hell. The UK could start by recognising the importance of our relationship with our European allies and with us all challenging the credentials of our present government.

  • Russia is a European nation that became a member of the Council of Europe in 1996. It has no viable future within the European family of nations under Putin. Ultimately, it will be for the Russian people to rid themselves of Putin and his cronies either through internal revolt or through Russia’s defeat in war and disarmament.
    The US ambassador is to move a resolution in the UN General Assembly. While not binding it will not be subject to a Russian veto. In addition to diplomatic moves and economic sanctions, military assistance needs to be stepped-up with perhaps even with support for the creation of a Spanish civil war style international brigrade that would allow citizens to freely travel to Ukraine and fight alongside Ukrainian forces.

  • Leaving the EU must be the worst thing ever since Munich as it showed Putin the Western Democracies were not united in safeguarding their freedom and way of life. Restoring western unity is extremely urgent if liberal democracy is to survive and prosper. We are now facing a life and death struggle with the cruel autocracies which we must not lose. People seem to sense that we have been betrayed by Conservatives happy to accept money from Russian criminals.

  • nvelope2003 26th Feb ’22 – 10:41am….

    It’s not long ago when much of the world was ‘coloured red’; we didn’t achieve that without conquest..
    Ukrainian military resistance now and, by the overall population in the long term, will give him more than enough trouble; the longer it goes on the less support he’ll have at home. This war is already unpopular with grassroot Russians and when sanctions really bite his position may well become untenable..He’ll spend more time looking over his shoulder than toward the Emerald Isle..

  • Expats refers to the British empire. A historical note of interest that President Putin has not mentioned in his recent monologues on Imperial Russia is the Alaska purchase. Russian America was offered to both Britain and the US by Alexander II in the aftermath of the Crimean War. Lord Salisbury declined the offer and the territory was subsequently acquired by the United States with the purchase being completed a couple of years after the American Civil War in 1867. Henceforth, the USA would be a near neighbour of Russia separated only by the Bering Strait. At the strait’s narrowest point, Asia (Russia) and North America (the US) are just 53 miles apart.

  • nvelope2003 26th Feb '22 - 1:58pm

    expats: two wrongs don’t make a right but we gave up most of our empire almost 60 years ago except for Northern Ireland – is that our Ukraine The Russian people have never ruled their own country. Maybe they will now but it is unlikely. If Putin goes someone else will take his place. The Tsar is dead, long live the Tsar and he will follow the policy of his predecessors because the elite will demand it. The Russian Empire has over 80 nationalities. Just because many speak Russian does not mean they want to be ruled by Russia anymore than English speaking Irish people want to be ruled by the English.
    Nuclear weapons means that Western style Democracies will now be at the lack of mercy of autocrats who despise our way of life and care nothing for peace and human lives.

  • nvelope2003 26th Feb ’22 – 1:58pm…expats: two wrongs don’t make a right ….

    I agree.
    However, Tom Arms writes, “Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown the world back in time to a world order based on the dangerous dictum: might is right.
    We have been pushed through the looking glass into a new world where laws and treaties are irrelevant and life and death decisions are made on the basis of blatant lies and where the morally bankrupt prevail.”

    I’d argue that nothing has changed except the ‘players’..Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria (and Vietnam before them) were all based on blatant lies and the premise that ‘might is right’.. We have no moral high ground; Western cruise missile and tanks were no more welcome in the streets of Bagdad that are the Russians in Kyiv…

    I was opposed to all our incursions and am equally opposed to Russia’s..However, what does concern me is our ‘staying power’..When Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, were off the front page our concern for their peoples rapidly diminsihed..Will the same happen here?

  • Christopher Haigh 26th Feb '22 - 3:25pm

    Russians conquered the steppes of central Asia by force because they were frightened of being attacked by China !! It acquired uninhabited Siberia because of its own people hunting for fur there. Siberia with its oil and gas reserves is now the source of its wealth. Before 1700 Russia was a fairly smallish country. They are still obviously paranoid about being attacked by neighbouring countries unfortunately.

  • Tristan Ward 26th Feb '22 - 3:50pm

    To add – another weapon Putin has is food: Russia is the world’s largest exporter of wheat and Ukraine w ports a great deal as well for example.

    There may be a sver lining to the cloud in that the west picks away from. gas as a fuel more quickly to renewable, but only provided the fracking lobby don’t get their way.

  • @expats

    Who has or can claim the “moral high ground” is utterly irrelevant. The relevant fact is rather that V. V. Putin has an unassailable claim to the moral low ground. There are of course no saintly nation-states, but some can be diabolical. To say that the only state that can oppose an evil is one that is above reproach is to put turning one’s back to evil at the top of your list of virtues.

    This country tried that from 1933 to 1939, with disastrous results. It has been trying the same thing since 1999, under the last five Prime Ministers, equally disastrously. It is high time to stop pursuing policies that have failed.

  • John Bicknell 26th Feb '22 - 6:01pm

    The Prime Minister said this week (and is echoed here by Tom Arms), that ‘Putin must fail, and he must be seen to fail.’ However, the harsh truth is that, in the short term, he will succeed. In Napoleon’s words, ‘God is on the side of the big battalions.’ In the medium term we might hope that a Ukrainian resistance movement may prove so disruptive that the Russians are forced to withdraw, as they did from Afghanistan. However, as Tom points out, control of the Ukraine is so psychologically important to Putin that he is unlikely to do that. However unpleasant it may be to us, the hope of a free and democratic Ukraine may be lost, and its fate may be solely to serve as a terrible warning to us to avoid the complacency that allowed this to happen.

  • Thanks all for your comments. I must confess to a feeling of frustration that I am not encased in a flak jacket and tin hat reporting from the frontline. Unfortunately, I am too old and decrepit for the young man’s war. I will, however, do my best to provide analyses which I hope you find interesting and useful, although I will never make any claim to infallibility. In fact, from reading your comments over the years I feel that many of you are more qualified to be LDV foreign editor than I am. I have also been researching ways in which Lib Dems as individuals and as an organisation can contribute to the cause of Ukraine. I will be writing an article about that shortly. Finally, I have been giving considerable thought and talking with people about how our government– in alliance with others– can best respond. That will be another article.

  • Chris Moore 26th Feb '22 - 7:16pm

    The main reason Macron was heavily involved in negotiations is that France currently holds the Presidency of the EU Council.

    Macron’s efforts will not have damaged him with the French electorate: Macron will have recognised that his chances of success were not that good. But that is not a reason to abandon diplomatic efforts. The overwhelming majority of French voters have been behind such efforts.

    The French have also meanwhile been supplying the Ukrainians with arms; scarcely the act of a nation naive and deceived.

  • John Oundle 27th Feb '22 - 1:19am

    Tom Arms

    ‘ British remainers argued back in 2016 that withdrawal from the EU would weaken European security and expose Europe to the threat of the Russian bear. “Fear factor,” screamed Brexiteers. Well, now it is time to be afraid.’

    Wow,so if the UK hadn’t left the EU Russia would not have invaded Ukraine, that really is some claim.
    Although when we were part of the EU in Russia still invaded part of the Ukraine.

  • It seems there is already an International brigade of sorts in Ukraine https://coffeeordie.com/foreign-fighters-ukraine-russian-invasion/ with 17,000 fighters from 27 nations enlisted.

  • @John Oundle: If V. V. Putin had not been successful in prying the UK out of the EU, and had similar successes in undermining or destabilizing Western alliances, he would likely not have taken the steps that led to the invasion of Ukraine. You may find that absurd, but failure, and especially repeated failure, has a chastising and therefore calming effect. Gamblers who lose often tend to go home. Gamblers who win a number of high-stakes rolls are more apt to make higher and more dangerous bets, because their estimate of the risk involved is distorted.

    So yes, if Leave had failed, we might very well not be in this crisis now.

  • I’ve read all the above comments with interest; there is one factor which, if my ageing memory serves me right, may have been relevant in Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
    I seem to remember that in the recent past, between 2016 and 2020, when Donald Trump was President of the USA, he met with Putin on several occasions. I also seem to remember that, after one of these meetings, Trump said that Putin had raised the question of the USA’s and NATO’s attitude if he (Putin) went into Ukraine. If, and I say “if”, I remember correctly, Trump’s reply was to the effect that nobody would take any notice. Can it be that it was after that reaction that Putin started planning to invade Ukraine? If so, then Trump must bear some of the responsibility for the current and future bloodshed in this conflict.

  • Christopher Haigh 27th Feb '22 - 11:15am

    @DavidGoble, you make a good observation .Putin’s love of the Russian Orthodox church and Trump’s support from American Evangelical churches each with their disdain for modern liberal attitudes seem to go hand in hand.

  • David

    ‘So yes, if Leave had failed, we might very well not be in this crisis now.’

    So how come when the UK was a member of the EU in 2014 it did not stop Putin invading & seizing Crimea & other parts of Ukraine?

    You seem to think that belonging to the EU has some magical military deterrence,it has none,that’s why we have NATO.

  • Nonconformistradical 27th Feb '22 - 12:38pm

    @David Goble
    Re Trump – my thinking also

  • @john oundle
    Straw man. It’s not that there is a magic power to being in the EU; it’s that Putin’s success in his operation to start breaking up the EU emboldened him. His success in Crimea also emboldened him, as did the general failure of western alliances to respond to his aggressions. The whole list of these failures, including Brexit, brings us to the present day. If Putin had been less successful in these operations (e.g., failing at pushing the UK out of the EU, or failing to take Crimea), he might not have thought he would be successful in Ukraine, and would have pursued other objectives using different means.

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