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Will Ukraine be the start of a push back against Putin?

The Russian president is testing the resolve of the West, but in doing so he reveals his weakness rather than his strength.

A Ukrainian serviceman patrols on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near the city of Marinka, Donetsk region. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Vladimir Putin is steeped in Lenin’s old maxim, “you probe with bayonets. If you find mush, you proceed. If you find steel, you withdraw”.

This approach certainly seems to inform the thinking behind Russia’s sudden, substantial and threatening build-up of troops on Ukraine’s border. Whether the president decides to proceed to a further, full-scale invasion of his country’s neighbour may well depend on the strength of the response from Ukraine’s friends in Europe and the United States.

Far too often in recent times, the response from the West to Putin’s provocations and aggression has been too feeble.

The most notorious of Russia’s attacks on other sovereign nations have included interference in US presidential and European elections, recklessly deploying lethal radioactive poisons to murder opponents and innocent bystanders on European soil, killing 298 civilians by shooting down Malaysian airlines flight MH-17 and the 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

Since then, Russia has continued to stoke the conflict it instigated in Ukraine’s Donbass region at the cost of more than 13,000 lives (according to UN figures).

The Western reaction on each of these earlier occasions has been to expel a few Russian diplomats and impose limited sanctions.

These measures have had some impact on weakening the Russian economy and mildly inconvenienced those of Putin’s cronies who have been personally targeted. But the measures are nowhere near strong enough. Not least because they are constantly undermined by the craven behaviour towards the Kremlin of too many members of the Western business and political elites.

This conduct, of course, includes former US president Donald Trump’s cringeworthy and still to be fully explained grovelling to Putin. It also includes the willingness of some (mostly) right-wing European political parties to accept Kremlin-tainted funding.

Meanwhile, a whole ecosystem of Western legal and financial service personnel continue to profit handsomely from the Russian oligarch wealth that is corroding our economies and societies.

Collusion with the Kremlin reaches its apex in those such as the former German chancellor, Gerhard Schroder. He is now the well-remunerated chairman of Russia’s biggest state-owned oil company, Rosneft, where he works alongside Putin’s closest former KGB comrade, the CEO Igor Sechin.

All this questionable behaviour serves to convince Putin that the West is not serious about resisting his aggression and that enough influential figures there can always be bought off.

Even when there is no hint of impropriety, assertions by leaders such as president Emmanuel Macron of France that relations with Russia should be reset and a partnership built with it are received in Moscow as further signs of weakness to be exploited.

Interestingly, Russia’s troop build-up on the Ukrainian border may partly result from a recognition in Moscow that this era of Western weakness is coming to an end.

The arrival of the experienced, capable Biden administration presents Putin with an entirely different proposition to having the vain and foolish Trump in his pocket. Russia’s threats against Ukraine appear to be an attempt to test Biden’s resolve to resist its aggression against the US’s democratic allies.

Conversely, Russia’s military challenge to Ukraine and the West is also a somewhat desperate bid for global attention by Putin, who craves being seen as the leader of a great power the equal of the US and China.

In some ways, this is an odd objective for the president of a country with an economy smaller than Italy’s. But it is crucial to Putin’s political pitch to the Russian people.

In the absence of any real ideas or ideology for governing, beyond clinging to power in order to continue looting the country, ‘make Russia great again’ is his only real rallying cry.

Over recent years, his popularity peaked amongst the jingoism sparked by Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Since then, his ratings have sunk to their lowest levels of his 21 years in power.

In the absence of any better ideas, Putin appears to be calculating that asserting military power will again boost his popularity ahead of the parliamentary elections in September.

These elections will not, of course, be free and fair. Any serious opposition will be excluded. But turnout and the extent to which ballot rigging is required to produce the desired results still matter to Putin’s legitimacy and self-esteem.

A further attack on Ukraine would also distract domestic attention from Russia’s stagnant economy and his regime’s poor handling of the Covid pandemic (it recently emerged that there were over 300,000 excess deaths in Russia in 2020 beyond those reported in its official coronavirus statistics).

Averting another Russian attack on Ukraine now depends significantly on the West changing Putin’s calculations by making the cost of such an outrage clear.

Rather than waiting until after the event, it should spell out now that harsh, punitive sanctions would result – including extensive asset freezes on high-level Kremlin connected individuals.

Construction of the almost completed Nord Stream2 pipeline to transport Russian gas directly to Germany (and deliberately by-passing Ukraine) should be suspended until Russian troops withdraw far from the Ukrainian border.

And an immediate, substantial extension of Nato military assistance to Ukraine in the form of more training, intelligence and the offensive weapons required to deter further Russian aggression should be made.

In this regard, the warning made by Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, after an emergency meeting with Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba earlier this week, that “Russia must end this military build-up in and around Ukraine immediately” was encouraging. As was the news that US secretary of state Antony Blinken and defence secretary Lloyd Austin will be in Brussels this week for Nato crisis talks.

Over the past decade, Russia has repeatedly made clear by its words and actions that it has no interest in peace and partnership. Rather, it has proven itself to be a hostile power. Now, more than ever, the West must show steel to deter Russia from catastrophically escalating its assault on democratic Ukraine.

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