Putin’s paranoid view of history

There is little cheer to be found in Britain today, other than in the determined generosity of our people who contributed £150m to the Disaster Emergency Committee’s appeal over Ukraine in its first week and then, in their thousands, proceeded to offer their own homes to refugees from Putin’s barbarism, Geraint Talfan Davies writes. 

While the UK government struggled shamefully to find the same generous impulse, people who have endured economic austerity, Brexit and Covid, and now face a prolonged cost-of-living crisis, have dug into their habitual reserves of empathy to offer money, clothes and food, as well as their homes, to alleviate the greatest European refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Large though the task will be, and painful though it will be for the displaced thousands, Britain and Europe undoubtedly have the resources to deal with this refugee crisis. The more intractable problem will be dealing with Putin – containing and defeating the military aggression he has unleashed.

That is not going to be easy or quick, even if you believe that in the long run Putin has already sealed his own fate. In the short term, reliance on internal revolt within the Kremlin and on the streets of Russian cities will likely be misplaced.  Aggression without and repression within will probably remain the order of the day.  

Despite the savage attack on such freedom of expression as managed to survive in Russia until recent weeks, every single channel of information cannot be suppressed in this information age. Dictators can try to put the genie of protest back in the bottle, and will succeed for a time. But the recent history of Ukraine itself is testimony to the fact that the democratic impulse has a way of reasserting itself – the Ukrainian people having twice seen off attempts to suppress democracy in the last decade.

Changing borders – and history

Vladimir Putin himself gave the game away in July last year in a lengthy treatise entitled ‘On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians’. In retrospect, the article was clearly the longest declaration of war in history. In it he was clearly anticipating his coming aggression, crudely weaving a cloak of tendentious historical justification, arguing that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people…a single whole…the same historical and spiritual place.”

The historical truth is that central Europe has seen centuries of shape-shifting that have affected the boundaries of every country.  What is now Ukraine was once part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth. Its western parts – often referred to as Galicia or Ruthenia and for a time centred on what is now Lviv – have been ruled at different times by Austria, Poland and Russia, all of whom were hostile to Ukrainian national aspirations.  Boundaries were shifted again by the victorious powers in 1918 and 1945.

In the mid-19th century Ukrainian national movements had reflected European-wide trends. In 1848, the year that saw a spate of national revolutions across Europe, petitions were made to the Austrian Emperor that the Ukrainian language should be taught in schools.

No-one denies the Russian influence in Ukraine – a country that has encompassed both Catholic and Orthodox religious traditions – but the reality is that almost every central European country has a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual dimension. A bilingual Wales should be better equipped than most in this country to understand the dynamics.

The one concept that gets no space in Putin’s long and specious discourse is the concept of consent, except what is implied in the false argument that the Ukraine government “have today given up the full control of Ukraine to external forces.” His actual words are: “Russia was robbed,” – not words usually seen in articles that aspire to some academic standard. It is, he says, all the fault of the West.

In truth it is the Ukrainians that are being robbed and ravaged and killed, despite having voted overwhelmingly in December 1991 for their own independence – 91 per cent voting in favour, including a majority of the Russian minority. It is this democratic foundation of Ukraine’s independence and not only the frustration of Russia’s self-asserted imperial prerogatives that Putin cannot handle.

The historian Norman Davies’s description of the pathology of Russia’s Romanov dynasty echoes loudly today. In his magisterial account of European history, Davies says this:

“Russia and its rulers were addicted to territorial conquest. Their land hunger was the symptom of a pathological condition born of gross inefficiency and traditional militarism. It is highly ironic that the world’s largest country needed an ever-growing supply of land and people to offset its sense of insecurity, to execute operations which others achieved with far smaller resources, and to reward the overblown machine that guarded the Romanov’s throne.

“Here, if ever, was an extreme case of bulimia politica, of the so-called canine hunger, of gross territorial obesity in an organism that could survive only by consuming more and more of its neighbours’ flesh and blood.”

The West’s poor hand

Now it is true that in 1991, when there was just a chance that, for the first time, Russia might break with its traditional embrace of autocracy – whether under the Tsars or Stalin – the West did not play its cards well.

American encouragement of doctrinaire free market approaches and a lack of patient attention to the fostering of democratic institutions ended up fostering an oligarchic system – both economic and political – that has been the enemy of democracy within, and no brake on imperialist recidivism without.  

But to point out the West’s own missteps is not to excuse Putin’s regime in any way, for the roll call of illegality is long indeed. It includes:

the embezzlement of his own state’s assets; collusion with organised crime and money-laundering; the manipulation of the Russian constitution to extend his own autocratic reign; the attempted subversion of democracy in western states through cyber-warfare; the murder of Russian exiles in Britain; the assassination of journalists in Russia; the illegal seizing of the Crimean Peninsula; the indiscriminate use of military force in Chechnya and Syria; not to mention the crude suppression of the freedoms of the Russian people themselves.

In our heart of hearts we always knew the nature of the beast, but in confronting it our shorter-term interests have often prevailed. Pragmatism is a powerful force and not always to be dismissed. Tougher judgments are harder, not least when the effects of any action may have harsh consequences for oneself. Red lines can seem like shades of pink. But not the one that Putin has now crossed.

The most urgent priority must be to bring this war to an end, to shape a peace that defends the right of self-determination of the Ukrainian people, even if they may need to prioritise economic links with Europe over military ones, and then to rebuild Ukraine.

The West will have no choice but to sup with Russia with a very long spoon for as long Vladimir Putin is its president. And while we wait, here in Britain we, too, will need to reassess much more realistically our own priorities in the world and on our own continent after the brazen follies of recent years.

Geraint Talfan Davies is a former chair of Wales for Europe and ex-Controller BBC Wales inter alia