I suspect that Putin is all of these things. But none of that matters to the Ukrainians who find themselves living on Europe’s new Eastern Front because, more than anything, the Russian President is simply… “lucky”.
He’s lucky: lucky that the current leaders of the Western world are plagued by ineptitude, lucky that they can’t formulate a coherent response to his menacing of Ukraine, and lucky that none of this will change anytime soon. If ever there were a good time to carry out aggressive mischief like invading — or just destabilising — Ukraine, it is surely now.
Ultimately, this is a tale of division, one that starts with voters at home and concludes with the collapse of Nato. The Trump administration had already raised the alarm about the way key European countries — in particular Germany — do not contribute enough to their own defence. And in the years since, Western attempts to foster military unity have been marked by chaos. “Stab in the back!”, was the verdict of one national newspaper after Australia decided to renege on a submarine deal signed in 2016 with France, in favour of buying nuclear-power subs from the US.
An embittered EU responded with talk of creating a European army, hailing the “strategic autonomy” it would provide. But this is fantasy. Brussels is hardly the geopolitical powerhouse it thinks it is: the EU can scarcely maintain its own border force — let alone deploy a fully equipped fighting force. And looking at America and Britain’s shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan, it’s hard not to conclude the same about every Western country. Their people were left behind; their leaders left fumbling to explain the almighty mess.
Yet for Putin, perhaps the obvious division within the West — the one that really allows him to act with impunity — relates to energy and the environment. No doubt climate change is a real and pressing problem. The rational approach to coping with it is through long-term investments designed to improve existing technologies such as nuclear fission and to develop new ones such as nuclear fusion. In the meantime, there are encouraging ways to make our use of fossil fuels more efficient and less polluting.
However, this is not the approach favoured by today’s leaders in the West, who have all but embraced Greta Thunberg’s worldview. Fracking is pretty much impossible in Europe. Nuclear power has been shut down in Germany. And the European Commission has set out a variety of measures to raise the cost of carbon. What happened next was entirely predictable: a manufactured energy crisis, a cost-of-living emergency, and the threat of social unrest. And for Putin, there was a bonus: the increased reliance on Russian natural gas through projects such as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Yet there is another, less obvious source of division within the West that has fuelled the Ukrainian crisis: Covid-19. No Western democracy has managed to minimise excess mortality without significant restrictions on individual liberty. At least in some cases — such as Australia and New Zealand — the restrictions kept mortality down. But in Britain and North America, people have had to endure the worst of both worlds: high mortality and heavy restrictions.
Only now, just as these countries should be putting on a united front, are the longer-term repercussions coming into view. In the UK, voters remain incensed to learn that lockdown rules against parties were repeatedly broken. In Canada, a protest against a rule that requires cross-border truckers to be vaccinated against Covid has thrown the supposedly liberal government into a spasm of illiberalism.
Given the unrest springing up across the West, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the approval ratings of its political leaders have been sliding over the past year. Consider the leaders of the “Five Eyes” group of Anglophone countries that not only share classified intelligence but are also widely regarded as its core. Their most recent approval numbers are remarkable — not least because the hapless Joe Biden comes top: Joe Biden, 41%; Justin Trudeau, 40%; Scott Morrison, 39%; Jacinda Ardern, 35%; Boris Johnson, 25%.
Of course, today’s Western leaders are unpopular for a host of reasons. Plagued by weakness, they have alienated large sections of their electorate — both by yielding to progressive policies and flirting with increasingly draconian policies. And as we are now seeing, this weakness has been magnified onto the global stage.
Yes, the Anglosphere and eurozone may give the impression of a united front — not a day goes past without some politician warning that Putin will face the harshest sanctions ever seen if he invades Ukraine. But all these threats ring hollow. Nothing our leaders say will dispel the sense that we are being led by a group of King Lears: “I will have such revenges that all the world shall… I will do such things… What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be the terrors of the earth.” Their words are empty — and that is precisely why they seem destined to fail as a deterrent.
So we can still hope that Putin will relent and spare the people of Ukraine the scourge of war. We can also hope that the Chinese and Iranian governments will not follow Putin’s example in the coming months and years. But we should also hope, just as fervently, that the next time we get the opportunity, we elect more capable leaders than these weaklings.