His toxic strategy has united his enemies
Last month there was a three-hour debate in parliament entitled “Putin’s Grand Strategy.” It began with a passionate speech by Tory backbencher Sir Bernard Jenkin, who spoke about the “admirably precise” focus of the Russian president, while lamenting the lack of similarly clear-sighted goals among many democratic states. He laid out in detail the Kremlin’s strategy: to end the United States’s global hegemony, drive a wedge between Washington and Europe, become the pre-eminent power on our continent and “re-establish Russia’s de facto control over as much of the former Soviet Union and its sphere of influence as possible.”
Jenkin’s analysis was supported by an impressive line-up of Westminster figures, including the chairmen of both the defence and foreign affairs committees. David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, thundered that Putin sought to “re-establish Russia’s status and influence, including dominance over the sovereign countries in its near abroad.” He took issue with those echoing the Kremlin’s line that the West is provoking it into action by enlarging the European Union and Nato, leading his comrade Chris Bryant to express delight that Labour had “returned to common sense on these issues.” When the Corbynistas were in charge, the party’s stance on Russia was more ambivalent.
It was good to see such unity on this central issue of European security. Yet behind this debate — and much of the narrative about Russia — lies the pernicious idea that Putin is humiliating the West and its enfeebled democracies. This is, of course, the perspective of Russia’s well-oiled propaganda machine. Politicians, columnists and think tanks in the West also frequently praise his malign genius; I have done so myself in the past. Typical was a recent article by retired US general Keith Kellogg, a former adviser to President Donald Trump, who argued that Putin was on the brink of dealing “the final blow to diminish Nato” before adding: “history is on his side … it is a question of when — and not if — he stages his European checkmate.”
Admirers and appeasers of Putin — who can be found across the political spectrum — often repeat a well-worn cliché that he plays chess while his foes play chequers. He captured Crimea, crushed Chechen rebels, weakened Ukraine and grabbed effective control of Belarus, while detaching a chunk of Georgia and breakaway republics in the Donbas. He intervened in Syria to shore up his fellow dictator Bashar Assad. He supposedly interfered in the US election and has since made sinister moves in African states. “Putin has run rings around whoever was in the Oval Office, getting away with invasions, hacking, human rights abuses, assassinations, shooting down passenger airliners,” complained one US columnist last month.
But is Putin really such a grandmaster on the geo-political chessboard? Certainly he seems to have a clear strategy to restore Russian pride after the collapse of the Soviet empire — an event he has called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Early in his presidency, he flirted with joining his now mortal enemy, Nato. Now his armed forces build up menacingly on the border of Ukraine. Yet one thing has been made abundantly clear to me after a fortnight back reporting in the country — and that is the failure of this supposed Machiavellian mastermind, whose goal of rebuilding Russia’s empire and shattering Nato lies in tatters, even as he terrorises his neighbour and keeps everyone guessing over the next move in his game plan.
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. Ukraine is ready for war. Credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Image