Photo by Bettmann

Winner take all

Putin learned post-Cold War warfare from the West

Artillery Row

In my days as a Moscow correspondent, during the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s, there was no more haunting sight than the memorials to the dead of another age outside Leningrad, as St Petersburg was then called.

It’s hard to digest the numbers. As many people died in Hitler’s siege of Leningrad, between September 1941 and January 1944, as the combined losses of Britain and the United States in all of World War Two. It’s harder still to take in the mass graves, one month in that siege covering a huge field, discreetly covered as a mausoleum with the simple dedication: April 1942, June 1943 and so on. Something always sticks in the memory: one day in 1942, more than 10,000 dead, many of starvation. Cannibalism, too, so you heard.

He is setting the stage for a world where authoritarians write the agenda

On one trip to Leningrad in late 1990, making a film about the new KGB (fighting drug mafias so they said, not political dissidents), I encountered Vladimir Putin, then a 30-something KGB officer, very much the anonymous subordinate of the city’s KGB boss we spent time with. Today I look back, and think Putin was forged in the DNA of Leningrad, and those shocking mausoleums. He knows all too well how to make such a past the cue for the present.

Putin has launched a new Cold War over Ukraine. Of that there can be no doubt. He has seized on the weakness of the West to challenge the idea of who leads now. He is setting the stage for a world where authoritarians write the agenda, and the democrats are forced to react, never knowing for sure what his next move will be. Putin can drive this process to a tragic, unimaginably costly end in terms of lives lost, and pain for his own people, while the West talks up economic sanctions, and such like, as punishment.

We can be under no illusions, about his goals, his merciless mindset or his understanding of how even such punishment has unintended consequences for all. As his disciples have pointed out, natural gas prices in Western Europe and beyond will double as a result. From Washington, to London and Brussels, the claim will be that sanctions hit Putin in his pocket. What comes to mind is the double-edged sword: blowback, hitting the consumer in our world where it hurts most.

Putin’s new Cold War, lest we lose sight of this as politicians talk sanctions strategy, is based on the widely-held belief in Russia that an enemy on the border, such as a Ukraine in the NATO alliance, can herald yet another battle for Russia’s survival. He can summon not just the lackeys we saw at his council of war the other day, but the majority of his people, to the memory of Leningrad and Stalingrad and the winter war with the Finns.

We can pillory Putin as the old KGB boss turned evil despot, but we surely need to understand whence he comes — know your enemy if you seek to confront him, right? — and why he feels such impunity about declaring “independent states” in Eastern Ukraine, then dispatching his own forces for whatever comes next in what he calls the “fake state” of Ukraine. Upsetting as the thought might be to some, the West has given Putin fuel for this new Cold War of his.

I look back to arriving in Washington DC, as a White House correspondent, fresh from Moscow in the early 1990s. The sense of triumphalism in the American body politic, at the end of the Cold War, was writ large. Their conversation with Moscow was based on the winners taking advantage, not how best to help the losers move towards the democracy that the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin had espoused.

Putin smelled opportunity, to rebuild the Empire in the image of the Good Tsar

All the while, NATO was planting flags on the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The West saw little or no problem in bringing Poland and Hungary and the Baltics on board, despite loud opposition from Moscow: “good for them, and good for us,” a NATO Secretary-General told me at the time. I was inclined to trust Mikhail Gorbachev more; after all he was the leader who diagnosed the imperative to let the Soviets decide their future. Gorbachev, on a visit to Washington in the mid-1990s, told us the expansion of NATO was a “big mistake….a violation of what we were told to expect”. And this from the man who gave Prague, Warsaw and Budapest the green light to exit the Soviet alliance if their people so wished.

When Putin came to power, as Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor, he watched the West choose to go to war, first in Afghanistan, then Iraq. Might is right, or so it seemed to Dubya Bush and Tony Blair. The disasters that followed, so crystalised by the humiliating retreat from Kabul last year (and remember, in my Moscow days, the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, so humbled by defeat). Well, Putin might have chuckled at the dramatic irony of the images from Kabul airport last July, but he smelled opportunity, too, to rebuild the Empire in the image of the Good Tsar, the ruthless strongman he so clearly seeks to be.

“Just because you can, doesn’t you mean you should.” In White House days, I remember hearing that a senior adviser to George W. Bush had reminded him of that maxim as he pondered the invasion of Iraq. He wasn’t listening. My fear now is that, given Putin’s brutal record, silencing all those who question him, no one will dare to ask that in the first place.

He has already launched the new Cold War. The only issue is how far he goes in re-shaping Europe, whatever the price to Ukraine and his own people. He is paving the way for others to follow his lead, because the mighty player to his East, China, surely looks on and wonders what the West can, and would do, in the event of a move on Taiwan.

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