Depending on how current events play out, this morning’s Russian invasion of Ukraine could become one of those ‘where were you when?’ moments, like the Moon landing, Kennedy’s assassination, Mandela’s walk to freedom, 9/11 … and given how events have played out so far – by which I mean the last two decades since Vladimir Putin came to power – I fear it will.
Like most Brits I imagine, I was in bed. But I wasn’t sleeping well, and made the mistake of checking the time. It was just after 4am. The host of breaking news alerts on my phone left little doubt what had happened even before I clicked on the first one. Putin had launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and served up a huge litany of lies to justify it. Calling his Ukrainian counterparts Neo-Nazis was about as gross a piece of gaslighting as you can get, and all of a piece with a career summed up by the title of Peter Pomerantsev’s brilliant book, Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible. Putin is in many ways the author of lying as strategy, and has been pleased to see leaders like Trump and Johnson follow suit. More of that anon.
Impossible to sleep thereafter, I hopped around between news channels home and abroad, and felt more and more gloomy about how this now plays out; and more and more angry about the role the West has played in allowing events to unfold as they have.
No, I am not going all ‘Stop The War’ on you, anti-NATO, it’s all our fault. No way. Putin is the bad actor in this, it is an act of war, an act of evil, an enormous breach of international law, no doubt whatever.
But when the BBC reporter said this morning that questions about how it came to this would have to wait until we were through this immediate crisis… no. Absolutely not.
Almost eight years ago, in a book called Winners And How They Succeed, I wrote the following about Putin. Eight years. He had already been in power for going on for a decade and a half. The world knew what it was dealing with.
“When Vladimir Putin has faced international attack, all his experience as a judo black belt comes into play. He turns the attacks to his benefit, by playing the victim, showing that Russia matters again, while also increasing fear of himself abroad. Garry Kasparov may loathe him, but the grandmaster in him surely has to recognise that Putin operates more like a chess player than most of his fellow world leaders.
“He has a long-term objective – to rebuild Russian power.
“His core strategy is the assertion of his and Russian power.
“His tactics vary from Olympic Games and World Cups to land-grabs, from muzzling the media to rewarding cronies and keeping oligarchs on board. His pawns include Dmitry Medvedev, the president who filled in for him while Putin had a spell as prime minister before returning to the top job. He is in numerous ways a bad man, as Kasparov will be the first to allege, but he is a very strategic leader, and has – so far – outwitted his many opponents at home and abroad. It is hard to like Putin – I speak as someone who did when we first met [late 90s] – and some of his actions have been repulsive, but from the Machiavellian perspective that to exercise power you must hold power, develop power, use it to your own advantage, he is something of a winner. Angela Merkel is convinced Putin lowers and deepens his voice when they speak, and if the intention is to remind her of his days as a KGB interrogator, he succeeds.
“So, like him? No. But looked at coldly, analytically, it is impossible to dismiss the skills he has shown in driving home his own strategic message and what he sees as his strategic advantage. He certainly doesn’t. Indeed I learned via a world leader who was at the G20 summit in Brisbane in 2014 of a remarkable outburst by the Russian president, who told other leaders he was the only one in the room with a strategy, and that they were all tactical, adding ‘you think your tactics will bring me to my knees but you will be on your knees first’. He had been subject to a succession of public attacks and had decided to boycott the dinner, adding ‘all you do is eat’. His risk may be over-reach – and the rouble crisis not long afterwards was an indication that sanctions as well as the falling oil price were hitting him hard.
“But at another summit, this time NATO, a Polish minister echoed Putin’s point, saying to the Americans and others that ‘nobody knows what your strategy is, everyone knows what his is. Yours seems to be weakness. His is strength’.”
Just look back at those words he uttered in Brisbane in 2014 – “I am the only one with a strategy, you think you will bring me to my knees, I will bring you to your knees” – he was not exactly keeping his character or intentions secret. Then look at the family photo of G20 leaders, then and see who is left now. Cameron gone. Obama gone. Merkel gone. Hollande gone. Zuma gone. Rousseff gone. Harper, Abe, Abbott, Renzi, Juncker… all gone. Look at the survivors. Putin. Xi. Modi… what was it I was saying to Rory Stewart when we were doing our podcast pilot recently? The geo-strategic dividing line is no longer East v West, left v right, but dictatorship v democracy, and the dictators think they are winning. China, its eye on Taiwan, is watching as closely as anyone as events in Ukraine unfold.
And here is the paragraph that followed that analysis of Putin in Winners. “Compare this with the muddle that too often governs Western strategic thinking. President Assad of Syria uses chemical weapons. President Obama, who has described this as a ‘red line’, says there has to be a strong response, and asks David Cameron for UK support in military action. The prime minister agrees. But this is a short-term tactical move for which there has been no long-term strategic planning. Cameron can’t follow through on his promise, Obama takes much the same tack, Assad remains in place, and the West’s strategic thinking is exposed for what it is, a vacuum. Politicians left and right congratulate themselves for stopping ‘the rush to war’, yet what has followed is in some ways even worse: as ISIS has grown in power and territorial presence, the West finds itself sharing an enemy with Syria, but is unable to share a strategy; and because Cameron was overturned on military action once, and because leaders see how George W. Bush and Tony Blair remain dogged by the Iraq war of 2003, he finds himself unable to take the action he probably thinks he should. So bombs are dropped on Iraq but not the main ISIS bases in Syria, and ground troops are ruled out in any event. There are no easy choices here, but if there is no clear strategy, the choices become harder. If the red lines are actually a watery pink, don’t be surprised if pressure is ignored. Putin, in particular, has a stock response to strategic weakness – strength. And, as the satirist Jon Stewart told me, the rhetoric of leaders is that ‘this is the gravest peril of our times’, but they want to pretend to the public that ‘it can be fixed without sacrifices such as a military draft, loss of Western life, or higher taxes’’.”
If Jon Stewart could see it so clearly, would that some of the leaders of our great democracies might. We talk a lot about learning lessons from the war in Iraq, and there are plenty that should be learned. But we also learned a lot of the wrong lessons, and the main lesson Putin took from the aftermath is that the West had lost its capacity to be strong, and he has exploited it ever since. He can see next to no circumstances in which the West would put together a strategy that would actually deter him. Syria, which he immediately exploited, was a major turning point in this. The recent withdrawal from Afghanistan was another. Both suggested weakness, and an unwillingness to stay focused on the long-term, no matter how long that may be.
But there have been so many others. His hit squads killed opponents on his own streets, sometimes in plain sight, and got away with it. That emboldened him to take the tactic to streets abroad, including ours, Salisbury, and he got away with that too. He sensed the joy of impunity. He actively interfered in US elections, and because it was to help the eventual winner, Trump turned a blind eye, and much of US politics and justice did the same. He had four years of Trump, and exploited the US president’s sycophantic love-in with a self-styled fellow nationalist strongman in spades. He actively interfered in our EU referendum, again backing the winner, wanting to do so because he knew the EU without the UK would weaken both, as it has. If you want to feel even sicker this morning, take a look at this exchange between then foreign secretary Boris Johnson and still Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov As the Intelligence and Security Committee made clear, the only reason the government found no evidence of successful interference was because of their instructions not to find any.
As David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson did the usual flag-waving, patriotic, pro-defence talk, their actions – a decade of austerity – saw our armed forces cut to the point where a former chief of defence staff told me he was unsure we could still call ourselves a major military power. Meanwhile, they were not just opening the doors, but rolling out the red carpet to Putin’s oligarchs, wives and mistresses, gaining London the label of money-laundering capital of the world, and turning a blind eye to that hideous reputation because some of the money found its way into the Tory Party’s campaign funds.
As Tom Tugendhat said this morning, just because someone is entitled to pay money to a party, having managed to get the red carpet treatment onto the electoral roll, doesn’t mean a party should take it. One oligarch funding over 100 local Tory parties? Tens of thousands to knock a tennis ball about with Johnson? You think the Russians do it for the good of their health? No, they do it to damage the health of our body politic, and our short-termist, short-sighted, we know best Etonian leaders can’t see beyond the benefit to their campaign coffers. If it was a Labour Party of government that was bought as this lot have been, the Tories and their media lackeys would probably call it treason. They have helped an enemy state weaken their own country, and now expect us to stand up and salute them and the flag as they roll out their pathetic first wave of sanctions which, again to quote Tudendhat, encouraged rather than deterred, and now scrabble around to look and sound tougher than yesterday.
Sitting writing this in North London, Hampstead Heath a stone’s throw away, I can hear a helicopter in the sky. It might be an air ambulance, which uses the Heath as a landing spot when ferrying people to the Royal Free. But the chances are it’s one of the oligarchs who have bought up so much of the property around these parts. As a young Ukrainian said on Five Live this morning, they have to live with seeing Putin’s pals swan around in their Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, and it doesn’t make them feel confident the government really means it when they say they will do all that is needed to support Ukraine. Johnson will be devising another barrage of words and slogans, while preparing another round of low blows such as those targeted at both Labour and the SNP yesterday. Fair to say the SNP dealt with Alex Salmond rather more decisively than he has dealt with his ennobled sons of KGB officers and his Tory+Brexit-funding tennis partners.
So no, Mr BBC, these are questions that have to be asked and analysed now. Putin has been strengthened by our weakness. Strengthened by the fact that for four years America had a president who lies as much as he does, and strengthened by having someone who similarly lies in Downing Street. Can you imagine the laughter at the Russian Embassy, too, when they reported back to Moscow Johnson’s “fury” at the breach of International law? Defend a breach of law when it suits you, as this mob did over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and you lose a lot of diplomatic and moral authority when a far bigger toe-cap is on a far bigger foot.
They are laughing too at knowing that even as this crisis grips the world, Johnson is as likely to be thinking as much about how it helps or hinders his survival through Partygate and Covid incompetence as about the security implications for Europe, or the suffering of the people of Ukraine. I guarantee you that just as he has hidden behind the costs of Covid to cover up the calamitous effects of Brexit, he will be preparing to exploit the impact on oil and gas prices from this to cover up the Made In 10 and 11 Downing Street cost of living crisis.
Other EU leaders, though they are more serious, are taken more seriously, and have taken tougher immediate action, also have to look at their own failures to heed the warnings of recent years – yes, including from Trump – that they needed to do more to contribute to European security.
At least though, for all their faults, and for Biden’s errors on Afghanistan, I can look at him, Macron, Scholz, President Zelensky in Ukraine, and I see serious people with serious governments trying to address a desperately serious situation. I look at Johnson and his team, and despair that these are the people in charge right now: foreign secretary Liz Truss who, as Rory Stewart told me last week, said on entering Parliament she found foreign policy boring, and just when you were thinking and hoping maybe Ben Wallace as defence secretary is a cut above, he goes all tonto. So who is wheeled out for the UK on our airwaves this morning? James Cleverly, perhaps the most misnamed government minister since Andrew Adonis.
We have the worst possible prime minister and the worst possible cabinet at the worst possible time. It’s not as if there are not people in the Tory Party who could command at least some trust and confidence at this time. This piece I wrote for The New European in September on an alternative Cabinet – Tugendhat, Tobias Elwood, Johnny Mercer, Andrew Mitchell, Theresa May, Julian Smith, Greg Clark… there are more. But Johnson would prefer to have yes-men and yes-women, people who echo rather than challenge his lies and gaslighting, people who prop him up when he breaks his own laws, people who pretend to take him seriously when the leaders of the world do not.
It is an awful situation, and Putin has to take the blame and responsibility for all that follows. But my God, we haven’t half helped him.