The past ten days has seen an intensification of the war in Ukraine, with over 1½ million Ukrainians having fled their homes and crossed the border to sanctuary in neighbouring countries of Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin says it is not a war or invasion, but just a cleansing of a corrupt, neo-Nazi government of drug addicts, and if any Russian dissent they are liable to be punished and some of those caught are being jailed with unwarranted stiff sentences. Several thousand Russian citizens have joined with those of other countries to protest and risked their being arrested. Who is Putin kidding? He is a rat in a tight corner and just as or more dangerous. Who is going to stop his nonsense? The western countries? His own people?
Until he took up office, first as prime minister in 1999 - 2000, the Russian system of governance had a Politburo, a group of senior people in a sort of parliamentary assembly, which discussed major issues and a collectively then made a decision albeit some voting on issues was a case of self-preservation. Communism at work. From year 2000, a president had one term of 4 years which could be doubled after re-election for another term of 4 years, similar to some other countries. Dmitry Medvedev was working closely with Putin and swapped positions for 4 years in 2008, but one didn’t see much change in policy. Come 2012, Putin had increased his power within the Politburo, and it was arranged that Putin could stand again and he remains in place confounding the ‘rule’ that two terms were the maximum.
In the first decade of the century, Russia concentrated on the economy, so much so that some economists gave it plaudits. It was also noted that other large countries were also improving and doing quite well, giving rise to the well-known BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Since 2009, they have met formally with India as the host. Significantly, none have too much to lose in Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. The South Asian sub-continent and to a lesser extent Brazil are reliant on Russia for goods but China does some business with Ukraine. Recently PM Imran Khan of Pakistan and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil have paid diplomatic visits to Putin, and have not had to put up with the indignity of sitting remotely from him with the extraordinary long table in between, instead they have been greeted warmly seated in the normal way side by side manner with national flags.
Gradually, Putin has increased his power in the system to become the supremo, the first among equals, the President, and beware if you cross him! As time went by, he trusted a smaller and smaller group of people, so now he appears in isolation, with nobody to argue with him, reminding one of the latter days of Hitler or Stalin. It Is communism descending into dictatorship. Do as I say or else! And not necessarily as I do.
He became alarmed in 2013/14 when he saw Ukraine and Belarus peoples courting the European Union seeing how former countries of the old Soviet empire were now doing. They wanted to be part of the strong economic bloc that the EU offered. Come the next elections both Belarus and Ukraine voted for pro-EU, look west, candidates and not the pro-Russia, look east, candidates. Alarm signals went up in Putin’s mind.
In Belarus’ case the sitting President, Alexander Lukashenko, a pro-Russian, was well defeated in the vote count but declared the result as fraudulent, and stayed in office, much to Moscow’s relief and probable support. There was more protest around the Ukraine election in 2013 and the obvious pro- European stance that was growing in the country much to Putin’s distaste. This was shown by his grabbing Crimea (not for the first time that this area caused a dispute) and gradually the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine, next to the border with Russia. Here there was a significant section of the population that was pro-Russian, and there was much skirmishing from 2015 onwards with the pro-Ukrainian element of the population. Obviously, Putin saw that the western countries might have been concerned but were not going to do anything about it. He was encouraged.
The next election in Ukraine was due in 2019 and the result of this gave a clear mandate to an unlikely but fresh candidate, Volodymyr Zelensky, who had more liking for the free-market economy, dare I say democratic, approach of the European Union. Ukraine was increasingly taking a westward looking stance, with NATO later probably being asked to take the country into the fold. Russia would then have NATO up to its border as it had in the previous days of the USSR. In fact, the recent invasion by the Russians has triggered the Ukraine government to formally seek EU membership.
Putin did not agree with, resented, the western powers having a direct access to the Russian border if Ukraine in time joined the EU and later NATO, despite the latter being solely a defence alliance. He insisted that there should be formal agreement that Ukraine would not join, which was rejected. He unfortunately lives in the past, while the world is moving on at an accelerating pace. He is a dinosaur and just as dangerous.
However, all this is posturing, keeping the western alliance off guard, while he works on the detail of his plans, because make no mistake he expects to grab most, if not all, of Ukraine territory and have it under his control. If he gets away with it, he’ll just plan more, if he is still alive! We know now that he tells what you want to know, he lies and uses fake news. His word cannot be trusted.
So far, he has got away with literally murder. The west has put on huge financial sanctions, which are not enough to stop him, certainly in the short term. It is devastating the Russian economy and in the medium-long term will harm him. Can the Ukrainians hold out until the Russian people see that he has to go? It would seem that they need more help from the western allies to keep Putin occupied in the short term. In the meantime, we see the indiscriminate destruction of several fine cities that signal the country that is Ukraine.
On the other side of the world, meanwhile, the Chinese hierarchy are watching to see how Putin fares and the responses by the west. If these responses are less than robust, then this will encourage China to pursue their own expansionist plans. They might go ahead with them anyway!
Dr J Scott Younger. International Chancellor of the President University, Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the Glasgow University and member of IFIMES Advisory Board
IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018.