February 4, 2022

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.

Ukraine is sliding away fast from Moscow’s sphere of influence, into the orbit of the West. The ageing president must know this, as he contemplates detonating another explosive conflict. Polls show a drastic change in attitudes: support for joining Nato, for instance, was backed by just one in five citizens in July 2009, but now 58% wish to sign up to the alliance, and even more want to join the European Union. “I know what life is like in Europe and I know also what life is in Russia,” said Marina Polyakova, a housewife in her fifties whose son was badly beaten in pro-democracy protests in Kharkiv. “I want Ukraine to be a just, democratic country.”

Putin’s brutal response to those nationwide protests in 2014 has heavily tilted the mood against him. The slaughter of 104 demonstrators in Kyiv led to the ousting of his ally Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency. A poll taken just before that massacre found 88% of Ukrainians held a positive view of Russia — these are, after all, two nations with deep cultural, commercial, historic and family ties. Then came the theft of Crimea, separatist revolts in two border provinces and the start of a war that drags on to this day, with 14,000 dead and two million displaced. By 2020, barely half of Ukrainians still held a positive view of their neighbour; this figure has fallen to less than 40% in the most recent survey, carried out as Moscow’s troops encircle their country.

So despite Putin’s efforts to blame the West for meddling in Ukraine, the reality is that his belligerence and toxic intervention hastened its move towards Europe. “Russia’s influence in Ukraine has failed spectacularly since the aggression began in 2014,” said Maria Avdeeva, a security and disinformation expert in Kharkiv.

“The Ukrainian population is much more united and anti-Russian. This anti-Russian sentiment is boosted by the hostile rhetoric of Kremlin officials and media along with their refusal to recognise Ukraine’s geopolitical choice. Ukrainians don’t see their future in union with Russia or any form of Russian control over our country.” 

In eastern Ukraine it was clear that a significant minority still look to Moscow. My first taxi driver in Kharkiv praised Putin for telling the truth unlike the politicians he railed against in Kyiv. Other people talked positively about their “brother” nation — although it is illegal to “glorify” dictatorial regimes, so people can be cautious about displaying open admiration to a journalist. Polls indicate about one in six voters would still back pro-Russian parties, although support has slipped in the past three months.

Still, it is simplistic to assume Russian-speakers — and even Russian natives — are not patriotic Ukrainians. I met one man born in Siberia who had already obtained an automatic weapon, ready to fight for Kyiv. A young Russian woman, forced to flee Donetsk after the separatist insurgency, told me she wanted desperately to see Putin dead.

Pro-European sentiment is especially obvious in younger generations. One journalist in her mid-thirties told me that before 2014, friends wanting the best university education or work internships would go to Moscow — partly due to shared language, but also because “it was the cool place, the prestigious place, we all looked up to it.” Now they see Russia as an aggressor, she said, so are more likely to go to Poland or some other EU nation. Besides, there are no longer any direct flights between Kyiv and Moscow. Once, these best and brightest students would stay in Russia to work; now they are more likely to be found in Berlin, London or Warsaw.

The government is also fostering a cultural shift. In recent years, new laws have been passed to enforce wider use of Ukrainian language in schools and public spaces, so future generations will make increased use of their own language. Hollywood films used to be dubbed into Russian; now they are in Ukrainian. There are laws restricting foreign content on radio and in bookstores. Schools offer pupils patriotic activities after classes finish. Russian television channels have been banned. Bilateral trade has also collapsed; Ukraine is no longer economically dependent on Russia, as it turns towards Europe and China.

Putin’s real problem is not that Ukraine might join the defensive alliance but that the country is rejecting his repressive regime as it crystallises a sense of national identity, looks to Europe for its future and struggles towards democracy. Bear in mind the 2014 conflict was nothing to do with Nato; it was sparked by talk of a deal with the EU. Another democratic state is the last thing Putin wants next-door given his own dire leadership, development failures and grotesque theft of national resources.

Yet his hostile response backfired badly, by serving to reinforce Nato, deflecting the nagging post-Soviet questions over its relevance and funding tensions inflamed by Trump. 8,000 troops have been deployed to shore up fearful frontline states, with the US adding another 3,000 soldiers this week and keeping 8,500 more on standby. Non-members Finland and Sweden are so alarmed by Russia they have started whispering again about joining up while deepening their military ties, and driving up defence spending.

Putin is pushing for roll-back of Nato’s enlargement in his negotiations over Ukraine — but he is achieving precisely the opposite. He is strengthening bonds — especially among newer members on its eastern flank who rushed to join Nato to protect them from the claws of the Russian bear after the Soviet empire crumbled. Anti-Russian views surged in places such as Poland after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine and have stayed high. And such is the concern on frontline states that Lithuania led Baltic moves to end reliance on the Kremlin’s gas by opening up major offshore storage facilities. “The Russian Federation was abusing its dominant position by charging higher prices and threatening to cut our supplies,” said former energy minister Romas Svedas. If only the rest of Europe had followed their lead.

Now consider Russia’s touted successes, which are supposedly leading to such decisive blows against Nato, dominance of Europe and restoration of the Muscovite empire. He blew apart Chechnya; glued the Crimea, with its two and a half million people back onto Russia; gained control of Donetsk and Luhansk; and detached the South Ossetia and Abkhazia enclaves from Georgia, which are together home to fewer residents than Coventry. Belarus is sliding into his arms. But even his most devoted disciple might struggle to argue that this motley cluster of places puts him on par with his hero Peter the Great’s opening up the nation’s window on the west in the Baltic.

Yet the cost to his own country has been immense. At the peak of the Second Chechen War it is believed more than 200 Russian soldiers were dying a month. It cost more than $1bn to rebuild the blitzed capital Grozny. Sanctions imposed after the capture of Crimea cost Russian firms almost $100bn, according to one study — 4.2% of the country’s gross domestic product — while Putin’s efforts to shield them almost doubled this impact on the economy. There is the drip-drip of depopulation from Donetsk to Minsk, with many of the brightest young people and middle classes leaving Putin’s depressed satellite statelets. The exodus highlights the lure of a less debased society, while persistent eruption of protests under Putin and his pals shows how seeds of democracy can sprout even in the most challenging terrain.

Meanwhile these places need expensive military support and subsidies. Moscow is spending an estimated $5bn a year on Donbas, for instance, including $771m a year on electricity and gas for six million residents in the two self-declared republics. Once these areas, rich in coal and highly cosmopolitan, boasted the nation’s highest economic output. Since the war, they have seen exports crash, airports close, firms and seven universities move, factories shut, mines abandoned and unemployment soar. Five months ago, Ukrainian intelligence obtained documents revealing that Putin plans to spend another $12bn on development over the next three years. This is “not small money,” commented Oleksiy Reznik, former deputy prime minister, even “for the country that is basically the world’s gas station.”

These are Pyrrhic victories for Russia — but of course, Putin cares only about his own survival behind all his nationalist rhetoric. We should not dismiss the threat he poses. He invested huge sums building up and modernising his armed forces from the moment he took power — six of the first 11 decrees he passed after becoming president in 2000 concerned the military — and many of these troops are tested in battle. He has shown that he is a smart tactician and skilled spinner of lies, adroit at exploiting situations to his own advantage for short-term gain while dividing enemies.

But far from demolishing Nato and checkmating Europe, his grand strategy, pursued over more than two decades has been a dismal failure — and this is what makes him so dangerous now, capable of lashing out at Ukraine in callous disregard for the terrible damage his actions might cause.

Sign up to UnHerd's new weekly email, in which Will Lloyd selects the best (and occasionally worst) writing from around the web.

Free, every Friday morning.