Sunday 23 January 2022

In Return

If Vladimir Putin is stark, staring mad, then he will invade Ukraine. But I have seen little evidence he is. He is nasty, cruel, sinister, intolerant and many other things. But you do not remain in power in Moscow for so long if you are a lunatic.

If there is one single action which would be bound to destroy his regime and wreck Russia’s long-term hopes of recovering its position in Eastern Europe, it is an invasion of Ukraine.

So why are so many yelling that such an invasion is about to take place? In many cases it is because they know nothing of the issue, could not find Odessa on a map and are joining the crowd because they feel safe doing so. For these days, if you don’t join such crowds you will be accused of being a ‘Putin apologist’ and worse.

In other cases it is because of the tragic spread of ‘Munich Syndrome’. Sufferers from this incurable complaint believe every foreign crisis is an exact repeat of September 1938: a certain chosen foreign despot is Hitler; last time this was Saddam, now it is Putin.

Anyone who proposes a peaceful way out is a modern version of the doddering weakling, Neville Chamberlain. And the politicians who want war are modern versions of Winston Churchill. Such simple-minded piffle.

Ukraine is not Czechoslovakia. Putin is not Hitler or Stalin. He has no ideology, racial or social. He has been complaining for years, using every peaceful means, against the expansion of Nato into Eastern Europe. He has asked, quite reasonably, who it is aimed at.

Nato was set up to deter aggression by the USSR, an empire which ceased to exist 31 years ago. Russia is not the USSR. Keeping Nato in existence is like maintaining an alliance against the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires, which vanished a century ago – a job-creation project.

He rightly points out that Moscow (mostly without violence) let go of vast tracts of Asia and Europe, and unwillingly permitted the reunification of Germany – something Margaret Thatcher was pretty reluctant about as well.

In return, the then leaders of the West said they would not expand Nato to the east. A huge archive of documents at George Washington University in the US confirms this.

The greatest anti-Soviet diplomat of the era, George Kennan, warned against doing any such thing. He said: ‘The expansion of Nato right up to the Russian borders is the greatest mistake of the post-Cold War period.’ 

So did Russian liberals of the sort we claim to support. Yegor Gaidar, admired in the West for his economic reforms, contacted Canada’s ambassador, Chris Westdal, in Moscow in 2004, to say he had come ‘to beg, to plead’ to advise Ottawa against further Nato expansion which would, he warned, ‘bring out the worst of Russian instincts’. And so it has.

If you poke a bear enough with a sharp stick, he will attack you. When he does, you should perhaps not blame the bear.