STATES OF CHAOS
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UNITED STATES The consequences of US decline BORIS JOHNSON IN MEMORIAM The last trump of King Boris
RUSSIA/UKRAINE VOGUE meets the First Lady in Kiev RUSSIA/UKRAINE Zelensky behind the mask
RUSSIA/UKRAINE Bearing witness to atrocity RUSSIA/UKRAINE The psychodrama of Putin
RUSSIA/UKRAINE BBC Radio podcasts on Putin's progress, and increasing isolation RUSSIA/UKRAINE Has Putin really gone mad?
RUSSIA/UKRAINE Putin: A psychiatrist's perspective RUSSIA/UKRAINE History in conflict with fantasy
AFGHANISTAN Facing universal poverty in 2022
AFGHANISTAN Frozen assets in a bitter winter. AFGHANISTAN In the face of famine.
AFGHANISTAN The end of an American dream AFGHANISTAN How close is the Taliban to God?
AFGHANISTAN The Taliban war on women LEBANON Plunging deeper into darkness
What America’s great unwinding would mean
for the world
The conundrum facing the USA's allies is how to cope with a great imperial power
in decline that is still a great imperial power.
August 8, 2022
A peculiar cognitive dissonance seems to have taken hold in the world. The Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—led and propped up by the United States—has reminded the world that the international order is, if anything, more dependent on American military, economic, and financial might now than only a few years ago. Yet everywhere you turn, there is a sense that the U.S. is in some form of terminal decline; too divided, incoherent, violent, and dysfunctional to sustain its Pax Americana. Moscow and Beijing seem to think that the great American unwinding has already begun, while in Europe, officials worry about a sudden American collapse. “Do we talk about it?” Michel Duclos, a former French ambassador to Syria who remains well connected within Europe’s diplomatic network, told me, somewhat indignantly, after I asked whether an American implosion was ever discussed at the highest levels of government. “We never stop talking about it.”
Again and again, when I spoke with officials, diplomats, politicians, and aides in Britain and Europe over the past few weeks, the same message came back. “It’s weighing on people’s minds, big time,” one senior European Union official told me, speaking, like most of those I interviewed, on condition of anonymity to freely discuss their concerns. From outside the U.S., many now see in America only relentless mass shootings, political dysfunction, social division, and the looming presence of Donald Trump. All of this seems to add up in the collective imagination to an impression of a country on the brink, meeting all the conditions for a descent into civil unrest.
Many Europeans have long considered American decline an inevitability and have looked to prepare themselves for such an eventuality. Pushed by Germany and France, the EU has sought out trade and energy deals with rival global powers, including Russia and China. The idea was that as the U.S. disengaged from Europe, the EU would step up.
But then Russia invaded Ukraine, and everything changed. Suddenly, Europe’s grand strategy was in tatters, and American strength seemed to reassert itself. Europe discovered it had not become more independent from the U.S. but more dependent on it. In fact, Europe was dependent on everyone: Russia for its energy, China for its trade, America for its security. In pursuing a slow, cautious disengagement from the U.S., Europe found itself in the worst of all worlds. And in a desperate bid to reverse out of the mess, it was forced to rush back into the arms of the very leviathan it fears might be not only slowly losing its power but in danger of suddenly imploding.
This, then, is the difficult situation of America’s protectorates today. Worried about the decline of the U.S., much of the American-led world has clung even more tightly to Washington than before. In Asia, the U.S. remains the only power capable of balancing against China’s bid for regional hegemony. In Europe, something similar is true with regard to Russia. To the continent’s eternal shame, as one senior British official told me, the apparently divided, dysfunctional, and declining power of the U.S. has still managed to send drastically more lethal aid to save a European democracy than any other NATO power.
Such is America’s continuing dominance, in fact, that the world’s fixation on the idea of its impending demise seems both a dramatic overreaction and a dramatic underreaction. The depth of America’s military-industrial complex and the scale of its imperial bureaucracy mean that they are simply too heavy for a single president or Congress to remove in one go. To an extraordinary degree, American power has been vaccinated against its own political dysfunction, as Trump’s time in office showed.
And yet the very weight of this Pax Americana means that if the vaccine ever stopped working, the consequences would be globally historic. In Poland and Japan, Taiwan and Ukraine, the very basis of the world order today rests on American supremacy. But besides talking about the fragility of these foundations, no one is actually doing anything to secure them.
Russia’s invasion has revealed the extent of Europe’s weakness, but this very weakness means that for most countries on the continent, the only rational thing to do is to avoid anything that might undermine American commitment. This, in turn, further increases Europe’s dependence on the U.S., and further entrenches the continent’s weakness, resulting in a vicious circle. “Ukraine has made it easier to read the writing on the wall,” as one senior EU official put it to me. “But it has also made it harder to do anything about it.”
In the five months since Vladimir Putin’s attempted colonization of Ukraine, two more European countries, Sweden and Finland, have joined NATO, the American-led military alliance that guarantees European security. NATO has also moved to make sure that it remains relevant in Washington by listing China for the first time as a security threat. What’s more, since February, the U.S. has increased its military presence on the continent, and Europe has started importing American gas. Meanwhile, the EU’s proposed trade pact with China shows no sign of waking from its political coma, Britain has distanced itself from Beijing, and the G7 group of advanced economies has reemerged as the primary international forum for the Western world to coordinate its efforts. The euro has fallen so far in its value that it has reached parity with the dollar, French President Emmanuel Macron has lost his majority to govern, Mario Draghi’s government in Rome collapsed, Boris Johnson is on his way out, and Germany faces a winter of discontent with energy shortages.
Yet Europe is divided on the question of how it gets itself out of this mess, split between those who think the American order is the best and only hope, and those who see themselves as continental Cassandras, warning of the catastrophe but unable to persuade anyone to do anything about it.
Quietly, the EU is working on building European resilience in case of a sudden—or not so sudden—American unwinding. The bloc’s officials are developing a variety of measures, including creating a “European cloud,” a European semiconductor industry, European energy networks, and European military-industrial capacity. Officials I spoke with even talked about European moves into the Indo-Pacific region to help protect the current order should American efforts begin to falter.
Some of this seems sensible, some fantastical—and some dangerous. Attempts to produce a specifically European military-industrial capacity, for example, often just mean protectionism and making things harder for American defense firms trying to supply European militaries. Trump need not be president for one to foresee a political problem emerging if Europe were to continue to ask for billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to protect its borders while erecting barriers to American companies. Notions about the EU—unable even to protect its neighbors—stepping into even the mildest vacuum created by an American lack of interest in the Indo-Pacific are utterly ludicrous.
Despite this, there is an understanding within the EU about its own weakness. One official I spoke with, for example, said that building European autonomy was made harder not just by countries such as Hungary, with close ties to Moscow, but by “German irrationality,” which many now see as Europe’s real Achilles’ heel. Berlin doesn’t seem to want anything other than a world of open markets to sell its products. If this means dependence on other countries for security, energy, or other things, then so be it. Today, it is hard to see the unity of political will across the continent required to fundamentally change things.
For some in Britain, European panic about a U.S. withdrawal or collapse is little more than an avoidance technique, allowing officials to point to America while masking their own domestic shortcomings. “American decline is Europe’s comforting fantasy,” one senior U.K. official told me. “It’s a convenient way to avoid making any decisions of their own.”
Perhaps this is the source of Europe’s real panic: that it is becoming irrelevant. As Macron has warned, Europe’s real future may well be less that of a great power in a multipolar world than a geopolitical backwater, unable to develop its own autonomy, but also more and more inconsequential to the great battle for supremacy between the U.S. and China, in which it must play only a supporting role, forever America’s junior partner. No matter how civilized Europe remains, no matter how peaceful and liberal, it will be a place of secondary importance.
In 1897, Queen Victoria celebrated 60 years on the throne with a diamond jubilee that represented the high-water mark of Britain’s imperial power. The tribune of empire, Rudyard Kipling, composed two poems for the occasion. Instead of “The White Man’s Burden,” which he ultimately dedicated to America’s colonization of the Philippines two years later, Kipling published “Recessional,” which hit on a different note entirely—about the pride that comes before a fall.
Written in the style of a prayer, “Recessional” pleads with the Almighty—the “God of our fathers, known of old”—not to abandon Britain. “Be with us yet,” Kipling urges the “Lord of our far-flung battle-line, beneath whose awful Hand we hold dominion over palm and pine.” Kipling then adds his famous line: “Lest we forget—lest we forget!” The prayer is a warning to those celebrating Britain’s imperial supremacy that it could be taken away at any moment: Lest we forget! “Far-called; our navies melt away,” Kipling cautions. “On dune and headland sinks the fire: / Lo, all our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre!”
At the height of Britain’s global power, he warned that such things are fleeting and precarious. The poem caused a sensation, cementing Kipling’s place as the poet of empire, but also the prophet of its decline. Some 125 years later, the world is obsessing about the collapse of the new imperium.
The sense of foreboding now seems diffuse, everywhere and nowhere at the same time, not encapsulated in a single poem but out there nonetheless, in hushed diplomatic conversations happening all over Europe (as well as the regular Macron sermons), books, and even in the background of Hollywood movies.With Russia being held at bay in the Donbas, China being cautioned against invading Taiwan, and the dollar supreme, the American order today looks dominant. And yet, lest we forget.
The danger is surely that everything can be true at the same time. The U.S. remains extraordinarily powerful, but that does not mean its domestic dysfunction and violent social upheavals are irrelevant, incapable of distracting it from ordering the world.
America today is both mightier than it was a decade ago and more vulnerable; the guarantor of the world order and the greatest potential source of its disorder. And as long as that is the case, diplomats, officials, politicians, and the general public outside America are going to both obsess about its collapse—whether out of genuine fear or hallucinatory projection—and be unable to do anything about it.
VOGUE reports from the front line
My attention was drawn to these extraordinary pictures, and their accompanying text, by a cry of outrage on Instagram. I'll quote from the post of Adam Broomberg, who describes himself elsewhere as a photographer, educator and activist:
The idea of a conflict zone as a backdrop for an Annie Liebotwitz shoot for VOGUE magazine is vile. Posing the "First Lady" against a destroyed airplane, in which people presumably died. Depicting as an iconic hero without any nuanced understanding of their function and complicity in this 155-day-old brutal war, A superficial glossy depiction of a hero in Hollywood mould. The whole way this conflict has been covered - from the hierarchy of empathy we witnessed in the way white refugees were embraced, to the "cowboy and Indian" genre analysis of the actual conflict. Somehow, deep down, I think these pictures confirm our need for a binary understanding of the world as good and evil, for an outdated model of male heroes and their female enablers. All the while, the faceless and, for now, nameless youth die daily. Don't get me wrong, I'm not supporting Putin, but this shoot feeds into all the toxic, heteronormative, patriarchal ideas that make war inevitable."
Adam Broomberg's post has generated much support but also a bombardment of hostility, not least in is reference to the presumed deaths associated with the destroyed aircraft (below). It transpires that this aircraft was on the ground and empty when it was bombed in the first sorties of the Russian invasion. In my own supportive comment to this post on Instagram I referred to the long tradition of propaganda imagery, and its often ludicrous qualities. But, when I visited Vogue to see the Liebovitz images, in all their glossy splendour, and read Rachel Donadio's text, I realised just how deeply committed this feature, in the glossiest of all glossy magazines, is to the glamourisation of war, a trope that is no doubt as ancient as war itself. I happen to believe that this conflict is an inevitable and necessary response to the imperialist fantasies of a modern-day Tsar or, if you prefer, to a modern-day Fascist. But, either way, it is a bloody and nasty and shockingly destructive episode in an increasingly dangerous century. It is bringing humanity as close to nuclear annihilation as we have ever been, and it is pulling us yet further away from addressing properly the worst crisis in human history.
It is not - in any way - glamorous. GD
Portrait of Bravery: Ukraine’s
First Lady, Olena Zelenska
By Rachel Donadio
Photography by Annie Liebovitz
July 26, 2022
There is no script for first ladies in wartime, and so Olena Zelenska is writing her own. The wife of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a longtime comedy writer, always preferred to stay behind the scenes, while her husband, a comedian turned politician whose presidency may yet determine the fate of the free world, glowed in the limelight. But ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Zelenska has suddenly found herself center stage in a tragedy. When I met her on a recent rainy afternoon in Kyiv, where cafés were busy even amid frequent air-raid sirens, her luminous face and green-brown eyes seemed to capture the range of emotions coursing through Ukraine today: deep sadness, flashes of dark humor, recollections of a safer, happier past, and a steely core of national pride.
“These have been the most horrible months of my life, and the lives of every Ukrainian,” she said, speaking her country’s language through a translator. “Frankly I don’t think anyone is aware of how we have managed emotionally.” What inspires her, she told me, is her fellow Ukrainians. “We’re looking forward to victory. We have no doubt we will prevail. And this is what keeps us going.”
I met Zelenska—surnames are gendered in Slavic languages—deep inside the presidential office compound, a heavily guarded place I had traveled long hours to reach. With Ukraine’s airspace closed to civilian flights, I took an overnight train from Poland, through landscapes that have seen some of the 20th century’s worst horrors. Once inside the compound, I passed multiple security checkpoints and a labyrinth of blacked-out corridors lined with sandbags and soldiers. Life in wartime.
From the start, this war has been fought both on the ground and in the information space, where Zelenskyy—savvy, telegenic, down-to-earth in his famous olive-drab T-shirts—has excelled. Now, in a crucial new phase, with Ukraine battling for international support and fresh military aid, the first lady’s role is no longer minor or ornamental. After spending the first months of the war in hiding, Zelenska, who, like her husband, is 44, has emerged into public view to become a face of her nation—a woman’s face, a mother’s face, an empathetic human face. If Zelenskyy leads a nation of civilians who overnight turned into combatants, she has visibly carried their emotional toll...
... Being first lady is not a role Zelenska ever wanted to play. “I like being backstage—it suited me,” she told me. “Moving into the limelight was quite difficult for me.” She and Zelenskyy met in high school, started dating at university, and had a full life in the entertainment world before he won the presidency in 2019 in a landslide on an anti-corruption platform. Protective of their family life, she hadn’t wanted him to run. But like so many of her fellow Ukrainians in this war, Zelenska has risen to the occasion with grace and grit. “I’m trying to do my best,” she said. She has always been a diligent student.
In our two conversations in Kyiv, Zelenska was forthright, dignified, elegant, a subtle promoter of Ukrainian designers. On one day she wore an ecru silk blouse with a black velvet bow tied around the neck and a black
mid-calf skirt, her ash-blond hair swept up in a loose bun. The next day, it was wide-leg jeans, chunky white sneakers with yellow and blue detailing, a nod to the Ukrainian flag and a fundraising project by the brand The Coat, her hair loose on her shoulders, and a rust-colored button-down shirt.
I couldn’t help but think the shirt had the same rusty hue as the burned-out Russian tanks that I saw lining roads in Irpin and Bucha, suburbs of Kyiv where Ukraine pushed back the Russians. In Bucha, the site of a now infamous mass grave, investigations are underway to determine if Russia committed war crimes. I asked Zelenska how news of Russian atrocities in Bucha had changed the game. “The first weeks after the war broke out we were just shocked,” she said. “After Bucha we understood it was a war intended to exterminate us all. A war of extermination.”
To read the whole piece click on this logo
Volodymyr Zelensky behind the mask
Serhii Rudenko’s biography is a portrait of a wartime hero whose
troubled past may return to haunt him.
By Lyse Doucet
Illustration by Lincoln Agnew
“Good evening friends,” began Volodymyr Zelensky. It was five minutes to midnight. Ukraine’s wartime president, hailed the world over for his masterclass in leadership, now speaks every night to the people of Ukraine, and many beyond. But this address on New Year’s Eve 2018, on the independent TV channel 1+1, came as a surprise to everyone, including the then-president, Petro Poroshenko.
“Dear Ukrainians, I’m promising you I will run for president. And I’m doing it right away.”
Ukrainian social media exploded. Poroshenko supporters who’d been settling in, Champagne glasses at the ready, for the traditional interruption of regular programming for a presidential New Year’s greeting, were incensed. “Who? This clown?” they asked. “Who is he to run for president?”
That was the night Ukraine’s star comedian and actor – famed for his cheeky, at times crude, comedic routines – entered the political stage. Was it just a publicity stunt, people wondered – another Zelensky antic to promote his popular TV series Servant of the People produced by his media company Kvartal 95 Studio, in which his character, the history teacher Vasiliy Holoborodko, is catapulted into the presidency?
It was no joke. Poroshenko was soon crushed by a whopping 73 per cent of the vote by a fresh-faced, clean-shaven 41-year-old – the same guy who’d spent years making jokes about him. Now Zelensky was promising to end cronyism and stop a shooting war in eastern Ukraine where Russian boots first crossed the border in 2014.
[See also: The Zelensky myth: why we should resist hero-worshipping Ukraine’s president]
Now the world knows this Zelensky, his face bearded and lined, the supreme commander-in-chief uniting his compatriots, inspiring people the world over as he stands up to the shadowy figure of Vladimir Putin, bent on bombing and besieging Ukraine into submission. In those first breathtaking weeks after Russian tanks rumbled across the borders, the internet sparkled with every Zelensky gem. “Did you know he was the Ukrainian voice of Paddington Bear?” “He won Ukraine’s Dancing with the Stars in 2006!”
But today this conflict drags on with no end in sight; it’s everyone’s war now. The cost of the food on our tables and the power keeping the lights on in our homes connects to this barbaric conflagration in Europe’s far corner.
Zelensky now disrupts the world’s media landscape, addressing parliaments from Germany to Japan via video, popping up everywhere from the Grammys to Glastonbury. A consummate communicator, he hits all the right notes: in Britain, he channels his inner Churchill; in Germany, he invokes Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall” Berlin speech; in America, Pearl Harbour and 9/ll. One of the few rebukes came from Israel when Ukraine’s Jewish leader tried to draw history lessons from the Holocaust. A team of former top journalists and old TV buddies helps shape this stream. But the first and last word is said to come from Zelensky – a president who films his own video selfies, urging his nation to hold its nerve and berating Western allies to send ever more weapons in a war he’s fighting to secure their future too.
It was only a matter of time before a publisher rushed something into print about this man of the moment. The first, by the Ukrainian writer and commentator Serhii Rudenko, known for his political biographies, was initially published in Ukrainian in 2021, with a title that translates as “Zelensky without Make-Up”. Comprising 38 small chapters, some just a few pages long, the text has been updated with a preface,
“Zelensky’s Political Oscar”, and an epilogue, “The President of War” – bookends of an extraordinary life story, which is still being written. Reading this biography now, in the wake of a war that upended our understanding of both Zelensky and Ukraine, presents his personal history in a new light.
It’s not a tidy chronology: Rudenko takes us back and forth in time, offering us Zelensky’s story as if it were a chocolate box, a morsel at a time. But this is no fairy tale. Some chapters tell of endearing childhood dreams. Of course, there’s a section on his entanglement with Donald Trump, who famously telephoned the unsuspecting Zelensky in 2019 looking for a little help to bring down his rival Joe Biden by asking for Biden’s son Hunter to be investigated. And there are the anecdotes of corruption, betrayals and break-ups – the unfinished business of Ukraine’s day-to-day politics that was pushed to the bottom of the pile once the task of fighting an existential war took over.
Every once in a while, the old stories creep in. This month, the European Commission’s beaming president, Ursula von der Leyen, dressed in the brilliant yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag, announced Ukraine’s candidacy to join this European club. But behind the effusive statements, there are the whispered warnings. Although Zelensky pushed for the fast track for EU membership, Ukraine will be on a very slow road to rein in its oligarchs, crack down on corruption and build far more effective institutions of state. Cynics say it will never get to the end of that road.
“Ukraine’s packaging is great,” an international adviser in Kyiv recently told me. “But there’s not much beneath the president and all his advisers.”
Zelensky was born to Jewish parents in 1978, in Kryvyi Rih in southern central Ukraine, a “city of miners and metallurgists” and at the time one of the most polluted places in the USSR. Zelensky’s father wanted him to excel in sciences: a “B” grade in maths for Zelensky was “a day of mourning” in their home. But, in Rudenko’s telling, all his school teachers “without exception mention Zelensky as a diligent and intelligent child whose ambition was to be on the stage”. He studied law but dazzled in the KVK championships, a popular contest of comedy and song on Russian television.
But this book about the making of a charismatic communicator is also about his unmaking – at least until a war got in the way. Like the schoolteacher-turned-president he once played on the screen, Zelensky came to power promising “no to nepotism and friends in power”. But kumy– cronies or close buddies – soon turned up everywhere. They included staff from Zelensky’s production company. As Rudenko describes it, “a year after [Zelensky’s] election, the Poroshenko family was replaced by the Zelensky family – or, more precisely, by Kvartal 95 Studio”.
And it wasn’t just talented TV types. That 1+1 TV channel which broadcast Zelensky’s first election campaign speech on New Year’s eve was controlled by Ihor Kolomoisky, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarchs. He had funded a private army to fight in the region bordering the Donbas in eastern Ukraine when Russian-backed separatists grabbed territory in 2014. Rudenko asks, but doesn’t answer, whether Kolomoisky (who happened to be Poroshenko’s nemesis) and Zelensky launched the TV series Servant of the People as a rehearsal for the real political party that eventually emerged and took the same name.
But Kolomoisky’s relationship with “his” president soon started unravelling, fuelled by his unsuccessful attempts to regain control, and compensation, for his nationalised PrivatBank. And now he is being investigated in the US for money laundering.
[See also: Putin and Zelensky offer contrasting visions of the future]
In the book’s last pages we read how, the day before Russia’s invasion, Zelensky gathered 50 of Ukraine’s most prosperous citizens to urge them to play their part in the coming conflict. They’d been fighting another battle since last September, when Ukraine’s parliament passed a law directed at them. Zelensky had described the register, meant to be put in place this spring, as a way of resolving, once and for all, the relationship between the state and the oligarchs. “Or… more accurately,” as Rudenko puts it, “Zelensky’s own relationship with them.” Rudenko details how Zelensky’s team repeatedly tried to send Poroshenko to jail but concludes that “there are considerable doubts about whether Zelensky actually wants to put Poroshenko behind bars”.
The comedian who did everything possible to make Ukrainians smile had promised, “I will do everything possible so Ukrainians at least do not cry.” But now he is the nation’s consoler-in-chief as entire cities are wiped off the map, countless lives shredded, soldiers slaughtered. He keeps repeating his election pledge to do everything he can to end this conflict – including attempting talks with the man in Moscow.
Rudenko reveals that, in 2019, “Zelensky sincerely believed that, if he looked into the eyes of the Russian president he would at least see some sign of sadness about the 14,000 dead in the Donbas.” Even more, he “seemed convinced that his actor’s charisma and unique charm would work wonders”. No more.
Zelensky’s first, and so far only, opportunity to look into Putin’s eyes came in the December 2019 Normandy Format talks in Paris, which grouped together Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany. But when the fateful moment came, Ukraine’s novice “was noticeably nervous”.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, who is given a rough ride by Ukrainians for daring to hint at the need for territorial compromise, had struck up a relationship with Zelensky long before others did. In April 2019, between the first and second rounds of Ukraine’s presidential election, he invited both Poroshenko and Zelensky to the Elysée Palace. Again, Zelensky was “visibly nervous”. But Rudenko also notes that “Zelensky and Macron understood each other almost instantaneously”.
Fast-forward to June 2022 when Zelensky, in trademark T-shirt, confidently stands outside his office in the Kyiv sunshine to welcome the finely suited Macron, along with German, Italian and Lithuanian leaders. He extends his visibly muscled arms for firm handshakes and fraternal hugs. His visitors’ admiration is palpable. So many, including Putin, had misjudged Zelensky. They expected – even urged – him to flee on the first flight out of Kyiv in those early jaw-dropping days as Russian forces closed in. Ukraine’s military prowess was underestimated; Russia’s overestimated. War is the stuff of metal – and mettle.
It’s much the same on the home front. Critics, among them Zelensky’s close friends and senior officials who had turned against him within months of his electoral triumph, made snide remarks off camera about the president’s inexperience and understanding when I interviewed them in the run-up to Russia’s invasion. Now even the ex-president Poroshenko, who, like Zelensky, has taken to wearing military garb, has rallied behind his former opponent. He recently told me, “Our unity is our most effective weapon against Putin because he’s trying to undermine us from within.” “We’re all soldiers now,” he insisted as he stood in his sandbagged position.
And Rudenko, who watched Zelensky’s early political acrobatics close-up, also can’t resist the swell of patriotic feeling. In his updated biography, he hails a leader who came to power when “few if any believed in the fighting abilities of the president… who didn’t have a clue what the Ukrainian army was”.
He doesn’t take us inside Zelensky’s head; he just gives us the stories behind his presidency. “These tribulations showed us the real Zelensky,” is his conclusion after the invasion.
But now this performer turned president turned wartime leader speaks, visibly pained, of a new stage in a grinding war which is “spiritually difficult, emotionally difficult… We don’t have a sense of how long it will last, how many more blows, losses and efforts will be needed before we see victory is on the horizon.” This phase of the conflict may be Zelensky’s toughest test yet. He’s already shown himself to be less sure-footed as he veers from vague talk of compromises to save lives to vowing to take back every inch of Ukrainian land. As a leader who can read the room, he knows Ukrainian views are hardening in this miasma of Russian war crimes. But he also senses – and warns against – the “war fatigue” in some capitals; one day it will overwhelm his own. It’s the hardest of high-wire acts, even for Zelensky.
Zelensky: A Biography
Polity Press, 200pp, £20
The last trump of King Boris
It may seem odd to feature the rise and demise of a British Prime Minister on a page dedicated to STATES OF CHAOS. Surely, the spectacular wealth and global influence of Britain render this location to be inappropriate. After all, Britain is a member of the G7, the talking shop and megaphone of what are claimed to be the world's seven richest and most powerful nations. Yet, after only three years in office, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has ensured that the government of this increasingly Disunited Kingdom has collapsed - under the weight of
the dishonesty, disorder and episodic disaster that has characterised his regime. The spectacle of Johnsonian chaos
has provoked, both at home and abroad, widespread feelings of despair and disgust ... and not a little
Boris Johnson's Britain may not have reached the crisis levels of Afghanistan or Ukraine, or the levels of disfunction of Russia or the United States, but it has certainly reached a low point. With considerable thanks to Boris Johnson, and his government of the morally bankrupt and spineless, this decline can appear to be structural and longterm.
I recently found myself urging a young man, born some 20 years ago in Sweden, of Bengali parents, not to
sacrifice his continuing right to be a European citizen, simply because he was now happily living in England, as a British citizen.
"Keep your European passport, and continue to be a dual national," I suggested. "Don't give this option up if you don't have to. You may well come to regret committing yourself solely to Britain. I fear this country is sliding downwards. And I think Boris Johnson is a symptom of a systemic decline in national values, as well as in wealth, power and influence. I have a son who feels this so strongly that he is now creating a new life in Canada. And his younger brother regrets having to giveup a promising life in the Netherlands because of personal circumstances beyond his control."
Boris Johnson responds to truth being spoken unto power, in his finals days in
the House of Commons.
This series of postings is intended as an online Mausoleum to the Reputation of the Rt Hon Boris de Pfeffel etc...
It is (and will continue to be) a gathering together of some of the more acute and informative of the millions of words that are being provoked by his end of days ... in the hope that they will not be ignored or forgotten too soon. Johnson has always looked dangerous to me, and to many others - even including my local Member of Parliament, who went on to serve in his government. And he has he always looked like a fool. Dangerous Fools in power can be lethal. And, when caught and ejected, they don't always slink off to die in a ditch. To save the day.
Donald Trump has so corrupted American politics that his return to the White House is still a dread possibility. With a Tory Party almost as degenerate and clueless as the the Republican Party, with a catalogue of global crises growing exponentially, with Britain collapsing under the strain of it all, an ageing Boris could one day return from the wilderness, just like his ageing hero, Winston Churchill. To save the day.
It is not by chance that Boris Johnson wrote The Churchill Factor, a self-advertising memorial to the great leader. His hagiographic book is a vain attempt to place them beside each other on the page, to point out their evident similarities, in personality and stature, however delusional that might seem to the rest of the world. In his book Boris praises Great British bulldog thus:
"Churchill matters today because he saved our civilisation. And the important point is that only he could have done it. He is the resounding human rebuttal to all Marxist historians who think that history is the story of vast and impersonal economic forces. The point of The Churchill Factor is that one man can make all the difference. Time and again in his seven decades in public life we can see the impact of his personality on the world, and on events - far more than are now widely remembered."
It is intriguing to discover, on dipping into The Churchill Factor (reading all of it is too great a demand) that Boris Johnson seems pleased to discover that Churchill could be mendacious, incompetent, ruthless and self-seeking, as well as self-advertising. A model then not merely to emulate, but to replicate.
Inspired by Donald Trump, whom he openly admires and somewhat resembles, Prime Minister Johnson has used disruption as a key political tool. To achieve his short-term political goals, he has ignored the fragile integrity of the British constitution and challenged the long-established primacy of Parliament. He has trashed the niceties of legality and has torn up international treaties on a whim. He has made new enemies out of old friends, whether individuals or nations. Having lied his country into the disaster of Brexit, he has failed to secure most of its notional advantages. Ideas, like beliefs, are for sissies. You can hire, or even buy, people to do that! People like the egregiously weird Dominic Cummings, Johnson's Anglicised version of Donald Trump's chief most disruptive strategist and puppet-master, Steve Bannon.
UK commerce with Europe has declined dramatically while no significant trade deals with the rest of the world have been achieved. Post-Brexit policies have starved the economy of vital foreign workers, even as the overall rate of immigration has continued to grow. In his clumsy attempts to reduce immigration (in the company of Pritti Patel, the Cabinet's inhouse Cruella DeVille) Johnson has adopted the barbaric policy of dumping refugees and asylum seekers into Rwanda, a poor and politically suspect Central African state. Thus, Britain has blessed itself with a policy that treats some of the most desperate and vulnerable people on Earth as if they were so much plastic refuse, sent off to be incinerated in a foreign field. This act of casual cruelty, performed for misguided political convenience, echos the worst excesses of the British Empire - an institution that Johnson and many of his fellow Brexiteers are still romantically attached to. Theirs is an attachment based on falsehoods and fantasies - which are the defining feature of the entire
Boris Johnson project.
Most of what this, the worst Prime Minister of modern times has "achieved" has been through slovenly misrule rather than coherent policy. Boris Johnson has never been a systematic politician, brimming with ideas. His principal ambitions have been to ensure his own advance, with the side-benefits of a luxurious (if tasteless) lifestyle, paid for by someone else. Perhaps James Graham will one day writer for our pleasure and insight the Netflix
mini-series, Boris at Chequers. Meanwhile, we can take pleasure in his humiliation and banishment, so appropriate for a classical scholar such as he.
In short, Boris Johnson does not give a damn. Never has. Never will. Good riddance. GD
A doomed prime minister and a stricken country
July 7, 2022
Boris Johnson’s government has collapsed at last. For months Britain’s prime minister wriggled out of one scandal after another. Now, irretrievably rejected by his own MPs, he has accepted that his premiership is over. He has asked to stay until the autumn, but he should go immediately.
Mr Johnson was brought down by his own dishonesty, so some may conclude that a simple change of leadership will be enough to get Britain back on course. If only. Although Mr Johnson’s fingerprints are all over today’s mess, the problems run deeper than one man. Unless the ruling Conservative Party musters the fortitude to face that fact, Britain’s many social and economic difficulties will only worsen.
Right up until the end, Mr Johnson clung desperately to power, arguing that he had a direct mandate from the people. That was always nonsense: his legitimacy derived from Parliament. Like America’s former president, Donald Trump, the more he hung on the more he disqualified himself from office. In his departure, as in government, Mr Johnson demonstrated a wanton disregard for the interests of his party and the nation.
Although the denouement took almost two excruciating days, his fate was sealed on July 5th when two cabinet ministers resigned. The catalyst was the behaviour of his party’s deputy chief whip, accused by two men of a drunken sexual assault. Downing Street lied about what the prime minister had known of the whip’s record of abuse, and sent out ministers to repeat its falsehoods—just as it had months earlier over illegal parties in the pandemic.
Despairing of yet another scandal, over 50 ministers, aides and envoys joined an executive exodus so overwhelming that the BBC featured a ticker with a running total to keep up. In the end the government had so many vacancies that it could no longer function—one reason Mr Johnson should not stay on as caretaker.
The party will hope that its agony is now drawing to a close. But that depends on it taking the right lessons from
Mr Johnson’s failure. One is about character in politics. Mr Johnson rejected the notion that to govern is to choose. He lacked the moral fibre to take hard decisions for the national good if that threatened his own popularity. He also lacked the constancy and the grasp of detail to see policies through. And he revelled in trampling rules and conventions. At the root of his style was an unshakable faith in his ability to get out of scrapes by spinning words. In a corner, Mr Johnson would charm, temporise, prevaricate and lie outright. Occasionally, he even apologised.
As a result, the bright spots in his record, such as the procurement of vaccines against Covid-19 and support for Ukraine, were overwhelmed by scandal elsewhere. Behind the unfolding drama was a void where there should have been a vision. Crises were not a distraction from the business of government: they became the business of government. As the scandals mounted, so did the lies. Eventually, nothing much else was left.
Conservatives have been quick to blame everything on Mr Johnson’s character. But his going will be cathartic only if they also acknowledge a second, less comfortable truth. He was an answer to the contradictions in his party. Many of today’s Tory MPs belong to the low-tax, more libertarian and free-market tradition, but others, many from northern constituencies, cleave to a new big-spending, interventionist and protectionist wing. They won Mr Johnson an 87-seat majority in the last election and are vital to Conservative fortunes in the next.
The charismatic Mr Johnson was able to lash these factions together because he never felt the need to resolve their contradictions. Instead he was for both protectionism and free-trade agreements; he wanted a bonfire of red tape even as he punished energy firms for high prices; he planned huge government spending but promised sweeping
This is the politics of fantasy, and you can trace it back to Brexit. In the campaign to leave the European Union Mr Johnson promised voters that they could have everything they wanted—greater wealth, less Europe; more freedom, less regulation; more dynamism, less immigration—and that the EU would be knocking on Britain’s door desperate for a deal. It worked so well that fantasy became the Tories’ organising principle.
Nowhere more than in the economy, the third lesson the next government must learn. Mr Johnson often boasted that Britain’s economic record was the envy of the world, but he was spinning words again. The truth is that the Britain he will leave behind faces grave social and economic problems. It has the highest inflation in the G7, which lavish government spending using borrowed money could well entrench. As we wrote recently, average annual GDP growth in the decade leading up to the global financial crisis of 2007 - 09 was 2.7pc; today the average is closer to 1.7pc. Britain is stuck in a 15-year low-productivity rut. The country is forecast to have the slowest growth in the G7 in 2023.
What is more, this spluttering engine faces extraordinary demands. Industrial action is spreading from the rail unions to lawyers and doctors. As the cost of living rises, a coherent and determined government is needed to hold the line on spending. Britain is ageing. From 1987 to 2010, when the Tories took office, the share of the British population aged over 65 was steady, at 16pc. It is now 19pc and by 2035 will be close to 25pc, adding to the benefits bill and the burden on the National Health Service, already buckling under the weight of untreated patients.
Britain also needs to speed its transition to a net-zero-emissions economy, requiring a vast programme of investment. It has ambitions to count in a world where Russia and China throw their weight around, but its armed forces are small and under-equipped. Scotland and Northern Ireland are restless in the Union and Westminster has no plan to make them content.
Britain is in a dangerous state. The country is poorer than it imagines. Its current-account deficit has ballooned, sterling has tumbled and debt-interest costs are rising. If the next government insists on raising spending and cutting taxes at the same time, it could stumble into a crisis. The time when everything was possible is over. With Mr Johnson’s departure, politics must once more become anchored to reality.
Parting is such sweet sorrow
After 36 hours of threatening to barricade himself into 10 Downing Street (another echo of Trump), Boris Johnson finally made a churlish and unapologetic speech of resignation on July 7, 2022, outside the residence he had considered his birthright since childhood. These pictures - the work of Andrew Parsons - show the departing PM, clutching his resignation speech and his son Wilf, as he embraces his wife, Carrie. Their infant daughter Romy is squeezed between them. Below, a final readthrough; the game is up; the No 10 staff applaud their lost leader.
Boris Johnson is leaving office with the same dignity he brought to it: none. I’ve seen more elegant prolapses. Having spent 36 hours on the run from what other people know as consequences, Downing Street’s Raoul Moat was finally smoked out of his storm drain on Thursday, having awoken that morning with what one aide described portentously as a “moment of clarity”. I mean, he’d lost 57 ministers? And been booed everywhere from the steps of St Paul’s to the cricket? Hard to know how much more clarity could have been offered to this big-brain, short of a plane flying over Downing Street trailing a banner reading
U WANT PICKING UP IN THE MORNING PAL? This is the version of Jaws where the shark eats the mayor, and the entire beach is rooting for the shark.
They got Al Capone on tax evasion; they got Al Johnson on evasion. Character is fate, and the prime minister was undone by his lifelong pathological inability to tell the truth. Johnson’s ridiculously graceless “resignation” speech ran the gamut from pettiness to miscast victimhood – a sort of Bozzymandias, where the vainglory stood in painfully unfortunate contrast to the fact it was all lying in ruins around him. As the boos threatened to overwhelm his delivery, it was clear that what would satisfy the crowds was him being made to do a walk of shame, like some Blobby Cersei Lannister. (Same hairdo.) Failing that, he should have been wheeled out of Downing Street in the booze suitcase.
I saw that preposterous old tit David Mellor running towards a TV camera to claim Johnson’s downfall was a tragedy “worthy of Shakespeare”, which makes you realise the writer Shakespeare could have been if only he’d realised making Falstaff king would have been the banter option, and the best way not to Get Agincourt Done. Watching Johnson fail to play Henry V for the past three years has been like watching the lift-music version of Laurence Olivier have a crack at the role. The sort of prime minister that makes people leave reviews like “Amazon, why is it not possible to give zero stars?”
Still, Johnson always said he didn’t want to be a one-term prime minister. He will now not be a one-term prime minister ...
His farewell speech demanded a single facetious question: “Will you be having a leaving do, mate?” The answer, amazingly, is: yes. Apparently one of the reasons Johnson wants to cling on as caretaker, taking no big decisions, is because he and his wife are having a huge belated wedding party at Chequers later this month. Liggers to the last.
The outcry has forced them to seek a new venue – but only because they were found out. It’s like some especially grotesque version of the butterfly effect. How many Britons’ lives will be affected, probably for the worse, by some dead duck’s determination to hang around for his wedding party? In the worst economic crisis for generations, how might some struggling people’s existences be made worse by this guy’s attempt to sneak past Theresa May’s number of days in office? What care, precisely, is being taken by this caretaker? Wedding parties, days-in-office here or there – what desperately small and pathetic ambitions these are. And how accurately they reflect the psychopathic political character of a man who never had a single belief in anything other than his own advancement ...
If you want a mildly consoling glimpse of Johnson’s long prime ministerial afterlife, once his memoirs have sold (and sold well), then picture him being slapped awake by his handlers in some six-star Malaysian spa hotel, then trundled down to the conference anteroom to sit with other speakers, like Al Gore and some sex case from the World Bank, before going on stage to do his 500th rendition of The Speech. £120,000 a pop; Raging Bull-style weight gain and gnawing despair come as standard.
Ultimately, though, the disappointments and desolation are all ours. It was Johnson’s world; we now have to live in it. It’s quite sweet that people still talk of a “realignment”. I don’t mean to cavil, but what the hell is “aligned” here? The UK will now have had four prime ministers in just over six years. It’s a rolling mess, a joke to much of the world. The only thing you can really align yourself with is the view that it can always get even worse and even more chaotic. Send in the clowns. Ah, don’t bother. They’re here.
A tragedy worthy of Shakespeare
July 8, 2022
"In the Name of God, Go"
January 19, 2022
If you wanted to choose a quotation to wound Boris Johnson—a man who wrote a biography of Winston Churchill as a coded advertisement for his own virtues—then this would be it. When Johnson’s fellow Conservative David Davis stood up in Parliament today and said these words, he must have intended them to be a fatal blow. Davis was not comparing the prime minister to his hero Churchill. He was comparing him to Neville Chamberlain, Churchill’s weak, appeasing predecessor.
The quotation comes from a 1940 debate on Britain’s conduct in the dispiriting first months of the Second World War, as Britain failed to defend Norway from a German invasion. The Conservative Leo Amery compared Chamberlain’s attitude toward Adolf Hitler to that of a lion hunter caught sleeping by the lion. “That is, in brief, the story of our initiative over Norway,” Amery said. Then he built to a conclusion that quoted Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew and executed King Charles I. “This is what Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: ‘You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you.
In the name of God, go.’”
When Davis repeated these words, it was an extraordinary moment. After the rowdy heckling of Prime Minister’s Questions—at which Johnson bullishly defended his record in the face of questions about lockdown-breaking parties—the House of Commons fell silent. Davis is not only a fellow Tory, but a Brexiteer and a former cabinet colleague of Johnson’s; he is also a known maverick with a taste for drama. Everyone knew that he was capable of throwing a grenade. And he did.
Johnson’s response was to claim that he didn’t recognize the quotation. Either he was lying or someone else must have written his Churchill book. The day after the Norway debate, Germany invaded France and Chamberlain resigned from office—to be replaced by Churchill. How could a Churchill biographer not know the most famous quote from that pivotal debate?
Then again, Johnson’s entire defense throughout the scandal inevitably known as “Partygate” has been that he was too badly briefed, or simply too inattentive, to realize what was happening under his nose. During Britain’s first strict lockdown, in the spring of 2020, when most businesses were closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and regular people were forbidden to mix with those outside their household, Johnson walked out of his office into a group of 40 advisers who had been invited
by email to BYOB and mingled with them for nearly half an hour. He did this without, he claims, noticing that he was attending a party.
On his watch, bureaucrats and political advisers also held a lockdown-breaking trivia game in December 2020 and multiple farewell parties for departing officials. One was expected to be so raucous that a staffer was sent to a local grocery store beforehand with a suitcase to fill up with alcohol. Drinking sessions at 10 Downing Street were so regular that staff calendars blocked off “wine time Fridays” and someone reportedly bought a mini-fridge for the office.
Johnson maintains that he was unaware of most of this, and when he was aware of parties, he thought that they were
“work events,” even though these were not permitted under Johnson’s own COVID-19 restrictions either. He wants critics to wait for an internal inquiry to establish whether he did anything wrong, and so far his apologies have been brief and unconvincing. Public anger has spiraled, particularly because Britain’s three lockdowns were so strict; those who lost loved ones, gave birth alone, or were prohibited from visiting their relatives in nursing homes feel particularly aggrieved over the revelry in Downing Street.
Step back for a second, and it’s amazing that Johnson has survived this long. Here is a sample of his political record after delivering Brexit: He “lost” text messages that could have proved that he asked a Tory donor to pay for new wallpaper in his Downing Street apartment; he rejected his own ethics adviser’s findings that one of his ministers was a workplace bully; he “crashed the car” by defending a Conservative politician who was found to have broken lobbying rules.
He appears to think that ethics rules apply only to the little people. The police have consistently refused to investigate the Downing Street parties, providing an unflattering contrast with the stories of the Britons punished for committing more forgivable lockdown breaches, such as the 66-year-old man with a heart condition who met his friends at his
community-garden plot in South London. Already in debt, the pensioner was fined £100 for this.
“I did not wish to break the law,” the man wrote in his plea for mitigation. “If you check, I have no criminal record since school over 50 years ago.”
The same is technically true of Johnson, although even the most well-paid lawyer would struggle to describe him as having an unblemished record of integrity until now. Before becoming prime minister, he was sacked twice for lying—once by a newspaper, once by his party leader—and at one point he suggested to an old friend that he would supply the address of a journalist so the man could be given “a couple of black eyes.” As Johnson’s former editor Max Hastings wrote in 2012, “Most politicians are ambitious and ruthless, but Boris is a gold medal egomaniac. I would not trust him with my wife nor—from painful experience—my wallet.”
This is where the “Churchill factor”—to borrow a phrase from Johnson’s biography of Britain’s great wartime leader—comes into play. Defenders of Johnson believe that he shares Churchill’s ability to shrug off scandals and vices that would hamstring lesser politicians. In the country’s darkest hour, Churchill’s mistake-strewn career before the Second World War did not matter, and neither did his drinking or his bouts of depression. The same is surely true for Johnson’s philandering, lying, and disloyalty. None of that was supposed to matter in comparison with the great project of Brexit and the related task of
“leveling up” the poorer areas of Britain.
But Brexit is done, underwhelmingly done, and the adrenaline rush of Britain’s split with Brussels has been replaced not with the rejuvenation of outlying regions but with never-ending battles over borders, import tariffs, and food standards. Elsewhere in the government, a series of half-baked policy announcements this week only briefly troubled the news cycle. The wider economic picture is chilling: Big tax hikes are coming in April, along with a sharp increase in energy bills. Inflation just
hit a 30-year high. How can Johnson rise to these challenges if he is busy explaining that he doesn’t recognize a party when he sees one?
Feeling sorry for Boris Johnson is very hard, but let’s try for a minute. This is a man who has broken the rules throughout his life, and he is now facing a crowd that can’t be wheedled, sweet-talked, threatened, or bribed. To stage a political comeback now would be the most unexpected resurrection since Lazarus’s. The charm that saved Johnson so often has lost its magic, and like many natural bullies, he is oddly cowardly when cornered. Last week, he appeared to hide in the back of his car when leaving Downing Street. He later announced that he was canceling public events because of a family member with COVID, even though the self-isolation rules no longer demand this. One alternative explanation is that he didn’t want to be seen in public during a moment of weakness.
The polls look terrible for him. If Johnson survives this week—which is not certain—then he faces more danger after the local elections in May, which are expected to be bloody for the Conservatives. Some in his party are quietly asking members of Parliament to refrain from calling for a no-confidence vote right away—purely so they can call one after the Tories
are drubbed at the polls. Why should a new leader suffer such a loss so soon after taking office? Why not make Johnson take all the blame for it?
A simple explanation for why Johnson’s Churchill factor evaporated is that he used to smell like a winner, and now he doesn’t. His fate has a certain poetry. Boris Johnson has finally had the experience that he has inflicted on so many others: being used up and discarded. Unlike his idol—whose successors have aspired to “Churchillian” greatness—Johnson’s name will not become an adjective. The class clown has become a punch line. Johnson surely hopes that Brexit, and Britain’s successful vaccine program, will outweigh his flaws when the historical record is written. But he must be worried that, instead, he will be remembered like Neville Chamberlain: as a man who, for the good of his country, simply had to go.
Bearing witness to atrocity
The war in Ukraine is being described as a war of attrition. All of Russia's wars in the Putin period of rule have been wars of attrition. His wars - in Chechnya, Syria and Ukraine, to name the most egregious - have been characterised by an almost total absence of ethical consideration and no counting the cost in human suffering, or cultural and societal consequence. Win at any price, is the call to arms, even the price paid by his conscript army.
[I have witnessed, at first hand, a war of attrition, the civil war in Lebanon. That was waged by almost countless different factions over fifteen bitter years. Battles in its memory, arising from its unresolved conclusion, flare up even today, a generation later. That war smashed a small and once beautiful country, and its many different communities, into fragments. Some things are beyond repair. As a filmmaker - mostly working within international television - I saw my purpose in Lebanon (and in other conflict zones of the Middle East) as one of bearing witness, not only to atrocity, tragedy and loss but to the courage, dignity and open-heartedness of its peoples as well. It's a cliche to say that extremes can bring out the best in us, if there is a best to be found, but cliche's can ring true (sic).] GD
The first in this sequence of video items bearing witness to atrocities in Ukraine is covered by a warning sign placed on
it by It invites you to click directly into their site. When you want leave you will have to navigate out yourself, or click to return to amaze
Zelensky describes trail of atrocities - and challenges
the UN's claims as a peacemaker
As the Russian forces redirect their attention to the east and south of Ukraine, they left behind them, in the towns and villages close to the capital Kyiv, evidence of atrocities on a scale unprecedented in Europe since World War II. That is the claim of Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a live video address to the United Nations Security Council. He backed his claims by presenting a video compilation of images of such savagery that they are almost impossible to watch - a catalogue of atrocity that seems almost casual in its execution.
President Zelensky also gave the Security Council representatives a gruesome eyewitness account of what he had just seen and heard in Bucha, a commuter town near the capital, Kyiv:
“They cut off limbs, slashed their throats. Women were raped and killed in front of their children. Their tongues were pulled out only because the aggressor did not hear what they wanted to hear.”
Russia's representative to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, looked on glumly. He had started the day's proceedings by accusing Ukraine of faking the rapes, murders and burning of bodies. Now he sat through Zelensky addressing the contradiction at the heart of the security council:
“This is no different from other terrorists, such as Daesh [Islamic State], who occupied territories - and here it is done by a member of the United Nations security council.”
The comedian-turned-world-statesman then called for the establishment Nuremberg-style trials. But this begs the question of what hope for justice when Russia can veto any effort by the security council to prosecute Wladimir Putin for war crimes? And what hope when Russia, Ukraine and, for that matter, the United States are not signatories to the international criminal court?
President Zelensky added an uncomfortable truth that the UN did not want to hear:
“Where is the security that the UN Security Council needs to guarantee? It’s not there, although there is a security council. So where is the peace? Where are those guarantees that the United Nations needs to guarantee? It is obvious that the key institution of the world - which must ensure the coercion of any aggressor to peace - simply cannot work effectively.”
The implication was clear: a broken security council can only lead to a broken world. Zelensky proposed hosting a global conference in Kyiv to discuss fundamental reform of the UN.
“It is now clear that the goals set in San Francisco in 1945, for the creation of a global security international organisation, have not been achieved. And it is impossible to achieve them without reforms.”
He then showed a series of still images of that turn the blood cold and numb the brain. The version below is a slightly re-edited version of the original, as posted on Twitter.
WARNING OF GRAPHIC EVIDENCE OF EXTREME VIOLENCE
The anonymity of the images above adds to their horror - the sense that everyone shown has been simply discarded, with their dignity, their humanity, their personhood ripped from them. The coldness of a photomontage increases this feeling of alienation. Journalists writing in print or using sound and video can reinvest emotion, caring into their accounts. Some international journalists can bring a closeness of attention, a level of empathy that we demand from literature or any other kind of art. We are encouraged to feel as well as think. Below are reports from two BBC veterans of many conflicts over many years, Jeremy Bowen and Orla Guerin. They - like many others - bring measured authority and compassion to their reports from the frontline. And we give them in return what they deserve, our respect and gratitude.
Jeremy Bowen was a witness at the war crimes trials arising from the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, which lasted three years or 10 years, depending how you count. Back in the 1990s few people believed men such as Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić woiuld be brought to justice. But they were, although Milošević died in prison before his hearing was completed. Now the evidence in Ukraine is mounting, after just six weeks But what prospect is there that President Vladimir Putin and all those below him in the chain of command - down to the killers themselves - will be forced to stand trial. The question is wide open. In the address below President Zelensky speaks directly to Russians, including the mothers of soldiers who have committed crimes against humanity. The chances of this message actually getting through to Russian mothers are slim, because of the blanket of censorship that is intended to block all mention of the war in Russia. But potential investigators and justices will hear it, along with politicians and citizens all over the rest of the world.
What is a war crime, and could Putin
be prosecuted over Ukraine?
By Dominic Casciani
Legal correspondent, BBC News
Images of the bodies of civilians in the streets of Bucha have led to international condemnation of Russia and further accusations that its forces are committing war crimes. The International Criminal Court has already begun investigating whether war crimes are taking place and Ukraine has also set up a team to gather evidence.
It may not seem like it, but "even war has rules", as the International Committee of the Red Cross puts it.
These are contained in treaties called the Geneva Conventions and a string of other international laws and agreements.
Civilians cannot be deliberately attacked - nor can the infrastructure that is vital to their survival. Some weapons are banned because of the indiscriminate or appalling suffering they cause - such as anti-personnel landmines and chemical or biological weapons. The sick and wounded must be cared for - including injured soldiers, who have rights as prisoners of war.
Serious offences such as murder, rape or mass persecution of a group are known as "crimes against humanity".
What is genocide?
Genocide is defined in international law as the deliberate killing of people from a particular national, ethnic, racial or religious group, with the intention of destroying the group - whether entirely or in part. As such, genocide is a specific war crime that is bigger than the illegal killing of civilians. The law requires proof of the intent to destroy the group. President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian's invasion of Ukraine constituted ''genocide''. The 1994 slaughter in Rwanda of about 800,000 people later led to prosecutions for genocide.
What allegations of war crimes have there been in Ukraine?
Investigators and journalists have found what appears to be evidence of the deliberate killing of civilians in Bucha, a town on the outskirts of Kyiv, and other nearby areas. Ukrainian forces say they have found mass graves and there's evidence of civilians having been shot dead after their feet and hands were bound.
The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the attacks are "yet more evidence" of war crimes. The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said Russia had "destroyed apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, critical infrastructure, civilian vehicles, shopping centres, and ambulances" - actions that the US said amounted to war crimes.
In March, a Russian strike on a theatre in Mariupol, appeared to be the first confirmed location of a mass killing. The word "CHILDREN" was written in giant letters outside the building. Ukraine previously called Russia's air strike on Mariupol's hospital a war crime.
There's also mounting evidence that cluster bombs - munitions that separate into lots of bomblets - have hit civilian areas of Kharkiv.
The UK says Russia has used thermobaric explosives, which create a massive vacuum by sucking up oxygen. These are not banned, but their deliberate use near civilians would almost certainly break the rules of war.
Many experts argue the invasion itself is a crime under the concept of "aggressive warfare".
How can suspected war criminals be prosecuted?
There have been a series of one-off courts since World War II - including the tribunal investigating war crimes during the
break-up of Yugoslavia. A body was also set up to prosecute those responsible for the 1994 Rwanda genocide.Today, the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) have roles upholding the rules
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) rules on disputes between states, but cannot prosecute individuals. Ukraine has begun a case against Russia. If the ICJ ruled against Russia, the UN Security Council (UNSC) would be responsible for enforcing that. But Russia - one of council's five permanent members - could veto any proposal to sanction it.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) investigates and prosecutes individual war criminals who are not before the courts
of individual states. It's the permanent modern successor to the Nuremberg trials, on which key Nazi leaders were
prosecuted in 1945.
The ICC's chief prosecutor, British lawyer Karim Khan QC, says there is a reasonable basis to believe war crimes have been carried out in Ukraine. Investigators will look at past and present allegations - going back as far as 2013, before Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. If there's evidence, the prosecutor will ask ICC judges to issue arrest warrants to bring individuals to trial in The Hague. But there are practical limitations to its power. The court doesn't have its own police force so relies on individual states to arrest suspects. Russia is not a member of the court - it pulled out in 2016. President Putin won't extradite any suspects. If a suspect went to another country, they could be arrested - but that's a very big if.
Could President Putin, generals or other leaders
It's far easier to pin a war crime on the soldier who commits it, than the leader who ordered it. Hugh Williamson, of Human Rights Watch, an ex in gathering evidence of war crimes in conflicts - says there is evidence of summary executions and other grave abuses by Russian forces. He says establishing the "chain of command" is very important for any future trials - including either where a leader has authorised an atrocity - or turned a blind eye to it.
"There's one interesting episode in our Ukraine report where a commander instructs the soldiers to take out two civilians and shoot them dead," he told BBC News. "Two of the soldiers object to this and that command is not carried out. So, there's clear evidence of some incidents in the Russian army, but also a command and control element to it."
The ICC can also prosecute the offence of "waging aggressive war". This is the crime of an unjustified invasion or conflict, beyond justifiable military action in self-defence. It originated at Nuremberg, after the judge sent by Moscow convinced the Allies that Nazi leaders should face justice for "crimes against peace".
However, Professor Philippe Sands QC, an expert on international law at University College London, says the ICC couldn't prosecute Russia's leaders for this because the country isn't a signatory to the court. In theory, the UN Security Council could ask the ICC to investigate this offence. But again, Russia could veto this.
So is there any other way to prosecute individuals?
The effectiveness of the ICC - and the way international law plays out in practice - depend not just on treaties, but politics
and diplomacy. Professor Sands and many other experts argue that, like Nuremberg, the solution lies once more in diplomacy and international agreement. He's calling for world leaders to set up a one-off tribunal to prosecute the crime of
aggression in Ukraine.
The use of Russian military force in Ukraine is not unfamiliar. Russian solders march into Lemberg, now Lviv, in1914. /© Bridgeman Images
Putin's use of military force is
a crime of aggression
By Philippe Sands QC
Professor of Law at University College London and author of
East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity
President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch attacks on Ukraine poses the gravest challenge to the post-1945 international order, one premised on the idea of a rule of law and principles of self-determination for all peoples and the prohibition of the use of force. It is not the first time that Russia has taken a military interest in the territories it now seeks to occupy: in September 1914, Russia occupied the city of Lviv, causing tens of thousands to flee westward, including my ten-year-old grandfather. The Soviet Union returned in September 1939 for a second bite, and then again in the summer of 1944, remaining in control until Ukraine achieved independence in 1991.
The use of Russian military force in these areas is therefore not unfamiliar, although for Europeans who have lived for three generations without experiencing it on such a scale, last week’s events have been a shock. History does not just go away, and memories are easily reignited. One of the differences today is that rules exist to protect us from such actions, reflected in the Charter of the United Nations, the closest thing we have to an international constitution. It is the Charter’s most significant commitments that Putin has shredded. His televised speech offered a set of fanciful reasons for the invasion: a Greater Russia, a fake Ukraine, a Nazi Ukraine, a genocide being committed against ethnic Russians etc. The claims are familiar, of the kind that motivated the 1938 Nazi playbook on Munich and Slobodan Milosevic’s hopes for a Greater Serbia.
Putin has gambled, hoping that the west will blink. Following its own failures, including an illegal, failed war in Iraq, and the recent collapse of political will in Afghanistan, along with the embrace of oligarchical money and dependence on Russian gas, he hopes that the west doesn’t have the stomach to stand up to his actions. He may be right, but his bet poses a grave challenge, and one that sanctions and financial measures alone cannot address.
Much more is needed, and it is needed fast. In the face of so flagrant a violation of the rules, it is lawful to act jointly to protect Ukraine and the fundamental rights of its people, by offering military hardware, taking steps to prevent Russia from using air power and, ultimately, putting boots on the grounds to enforce safe areas and draw lines that Russia must not be
allowed to cross.
There is, too, the matter of criminality, even if I am not starry eyed about such labels. Putin’s use of military force is a crime of aggression, the waging of illegal war, an idea that originated at Nuremberg as “crimes against peace”. Horrific images appear to show the targeting of civilians, which is a war crime, and may well also be a crime against humanity (a legal concept with origins which, like the term genocide, may be traced to the city of Lviv). The International Criminal Court — a child of the Nuremberg Tribunal — has jurisdiction over some of these crimes (war crimes and crimes against humanity, but not the crime of aggression) committed on the territory of Ukraine. Russians are subject to its jurisdiction, and being president does not confer immunity. The ICC prosecutor, Karim Khan, has the power to open a formal investigation and, if the evidence supports and the judges authorise, to proceed to an indictment and prosecution.
The ICC has a gap, however, as its jurisdiction does not yet extend to the crime of aggression perpetrated on the territory of Ukraine. Why not create a dedicated international criminal tribunal to investigate Putin and his acolytes for this crime? After
all, it was a Soviet jurist, Aron Trainin, who did much of the legwork to bring “crimes against peace” into international law. As Francine Hirsch has noted in her book Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg, it was largely Trainin’s ideas that persuaded the Americans and the British to put “crimes against peace” into the Nuremberg Statute and the indictments against the
Putin knows all about Nuremberg: his older brother died in the Leningrad siege at the age of two, and he seems to be something of a defender of the famous 1946 judgment. Three years ago he castigated the European Parliament for challenging the Tribunal’s conclusions, to the effect that it was the 1938 “Munich Betrayal” that brought so much horror, allowing Czech territories to be annexed in the forlorn hope of appeasing Hitler.
There can be no appeasing of Putin. Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea and now all of Ukraine. On it goes. Let him reap what he has sowed, including the legacy of Nuremberg. Investigate him personally for this most terrible of crimes.
The psychodrama of Putin - the cold logic of tyranny
or the tyranny of cold logic?
Recently the question was asked on this page, "Has Putin really gone mad?" A variety of informed answers to the question can be found by clicking on the relevant link in the menu at the top of the page. If I come across any further especially revealing contributions I'll add them but, for now, I wish to move on. Vladimir Putin's state of mind and the psychology behind his decisions remain significant factors to consider, but we can do so without reference to insanity, or use of the word crazy. (Although I shall hold the word monster in reserve.)
I have observed that most commentators and analysts of what is currently happening in Ukraine and Russia appear to ignore the question of Putin's madness, preferring to use political, military and even moral criteria instead. This is well illustrated in an excellent drawing together of the options of five specialists in The Observer, which I am reproducing here.
How do we solve a problem like Putin?
Five leading writers on Russia have their say
A young Vladimir Putin in his KGB uniform, circa 1980.
/Russian Archives/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock
Tom Burgis: ‘To confront his kleptocracy, we must
first cease our complicity in it’
Tom Burgis is investigations correspondent at the Financial Times
and author of Kleptopia (William Collins)
There lived a man whose land was rich with oil and gas but who grew up surrounded by poverty and knew every day that things could, and periodically did, fall apart. He joined the security forces then entered public service. That is the wrong term: he began to participate in the looting that is the incessant occupation of those who hold public office in his country. This became his life’s work, to remain an insider, not to tumble from the enclave of wealth and safety into the turbulent world outside.
He grew rich. He rose. He grew richer. So did those on whom he bestowed his favour, those he licensed to loot. They fawned over him, told of his greatness. As for the rest, those in whose name he ruled, there was no need to seek their consent. Instead, to maintain control, he fed them fear while promising the antidote. They are coming, the others, those who wish us harm, wish to take what we have, but I will keep you safe. It was a double life: he was at once the thief and
The man I have in mind was the governor of a Nigerian state. As he guzzled petro-dollars, villages burned in his name. But this sketch applies, with only minor variations, to many of the world’s rulers. From the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to Kazakhstan, most countries’ principal way of making money in the global economy is by selling its basic ingredients: fuel, metals precious and industrial, certain stones. The proceeds are at the disposal of whoever holds power. They take what they want, then hire bankers and lawyers to remove their fingerprints from the loot and stash it in rich countries. They have no need to raise taxes from their own people, so their own people have no way to call them to account. Corruption is the opposite of consent.
Vladimir Putin’s eligibility for this club of kleptocrats comes across in First Person, a book written by three Russian journalists shortly after Putin became president in 2000, based on interviews with him, his wife and some of his friends. Growing up with rats and abysmal toilets, Putin dreamed of a place in the Soviet empire’s boss class as an officer in the organisation that protected its power, the KGB. One Easter, Putin, then a young recruit, was policing a religious procession outside a church.
“He asked me,” a cellist friend recalls, “whether I wanted to go up to the altar and take a look. Of course I agreed. There was such boyishness in his gesture – ‘nobody can go there, but we can.’” Later, a drunk student asked to bum a cigarette. Putin, a judo champion, said no, then flung the student to the ground. Power is for getting things others cannot have; if others ask for something you do not wish to give, respond with violence.
Posted to Dresden, Putin lived with his young family in a serviced apartment. There was a driver, good beer, hotdogs in the countryside at weekends. Then the Berlin Wall fell. Angry crowds massed outside the KGB station. He contacted his commanders and was told: “Moscow is silent.” The old order had fallen; he needed to join the new one. He went home to St Petersburg and secured a position in the local government with powers to decide who was allowed to make money by dealing with western capitalists. Naturally, he decided that this should be him and his cronies. He rose. Within a decade, he was president. He took his gang of kleptocrats with him to the Kremlin. (Some of them, such as Igor Sechin, are now on sanctions lists.)
The rulers of the west applied the same logic to Putin as they applied to the rulers of DRC or Kazakhstan. They wanted to buy these countries’ commodities so they pretended the kleptocrats were legitimate leaders with whom they could do business. They kept this up when he murdered exiled dissidents abroad, when he stole South Ossetia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014, all the while developing a tribal imperialist spiel to stir fealty at home. After 22 years of this, Putin evidently believes his own propaganda that he is a statesman, rather than a character from The Godfather. As his forces devastate Ukraine, I asked a Russian former intelligence officer what Putin wants. “Respect,” he said. “It’s all about respect.”
As well as accepting that we have so emboldened him that we may well have to meet him on the battlefield, to confront Putin’s kleptocracy, we must first cease our complicity in it. What do we think happens to the money we pay for Russian gas? How do we imagine western multinationals secure oil-drilling rights dispensed by a regime we know to be corrupt? Who do we think is behind the companies of anonymous ownership, registered in places like Guernsey, Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands, that we continue to allow to participate in our economies? The Panama Papers revealed that one of the human beings behind the corporate camouflage was the cellist Putin took to see a forbidden altar. Somehow he amassed a secret fortune that ran to millions.
We have known the answers to these questions for a long time but it was just too lucrative to tell ourselves we didn’t. Twin pipelines of money sustain Putin and his fellow kleptocrats. One carries western money into kleptocracies to pay for natural resources; the other carries money back out again, after it’s been stolen, for safekeeping in the west’s property markets and universities and political parties. If we wish to weaken him and his system of corrupt power, we must disrupt both pipelines. That means increasing and sustaining the reduction in our consumption of Russian oil and gas. If we do not wish merely to switch our support for one kleptocracy to others, we must replace this energy supply with something other than the fossil fuels that are the lifeblood of kleptocrats everywhere. As for the second pipeline, our noisy declarations that we are turning it off – that, as Boris Johnson put it, “there is no place for dirty money in the UK” – are laughable. A few names on sanctions lists and some loophole-ridden reforms to economic crime laws not backed by budgets to enforce them are close to meaningless while we still permit financial secrecy.
Nonetheless, the danger is that by throwing more and more people out of the global economy, we hasten the creation of a shadow one. Sanctions-busting deals between Iran, Venezuela and Russia – respectively kleptocracies with Islamist, socialist and imperialist masks – reveal that this alternative is already taking shape. The leaders of the Chinese kleptocracy will use this opportunity to bolster their position at the head of this new order.
We are watching the rise of what I’ve called Kleptopia. An undeclared, unconventional war between kleptocracy and democracy has been under way since long before Putin’s troops marched into Ukraine. The two sides are not arranged merely by geography. The kleptocrats have plenty of allies in the west, from the lawyers shielding their plunder to the politicians advancing their influence within democratic governments. Their victims include both Ukrainian civilians and Russian conscripts. With whom do we stand?
Police officers detain a woman during an anti-war protest in St Petersburg on 13 March. /AFP/Getty Images
Catriona Kelly: ‘We must try to understand the complex
history of Russian imperialism’
Catriona Kelly is honorary professor of Russian and Soviet culture and senior research fellow at
Trinity College, Cambridge, and the author of St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past (Yale)
I left St Petersburg on 22 February 2022, reaching London just 27 hours before Russian troops crossed the borders into Ukraine. For days, I’d been sure the invasion would happen. The question was, on what scale. I’d read speculation in the Russian press about intent to occupy the whole country. Surely that wasn’t possible? All the same, with Petersburg friends I drank the old Soviet toast “To Peace!” – speaking in lowered voices.
What has happened since has destroyed hope and confirmed fear. This unprovoked, brutal and bungled attack on a near neighbour has been Russia’s worst foreign policy disaster in decades. For those of us who know and love Ukraine, but also love Russia, it’s a personal as well as a human tragedy. Large numbers of Russians don’t support the war. It’s an attack on Russia’s independence too. Many are fleeing from their increasingly hostile homeland – wherever flights still operate and borders are open.
Much as I share Tolstoy’s scepticism about the individual’s impact on history, to a significant extent this is Vladimir Putin’s war. Determined to reverse the entropy for which he blames Gorbachev, Putin believes in the transhistorical unity of Great Russia, Little Russia and White Russia. Ukraine as such does not exist.
At best, “Little Russia” is a province that is entitled to its own picturesque traditions. But autonomy equals disloyalty. Those who seek it are “Nazis”. The term assimilates campaigners for Ukrainian independence to the invaders routed by the Soviet Union (for which read, Russia) in the great patriotic war between 1941 and 1945. At the same time, it erases from the record the crucial contribution to victory in that war of Ukrainians themselves. Only such wilful forgetting could allow Putin, a Leningrader, to inflict on Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kyiv and Mykolaiv the siege warfare that devastated his birthplace
After 1991, Russian politicians rapidly learned from the west how to govern by spin. The 2012 campaign to restore “spiritual ties”, much mocked by big-city sophisticates, was as focus-group-oriented as anything dreamed up by Dominic Cummings. It spoke to those who felt that globalisation had left them behind, when even goods made in Russia often came from factories owned by international corporations: Danone, Ford, Ikea, Heineken.
When Putin first started talking about the historic unity of Russia and Ukraine, in the spring of 2014, this too seemed expedient, an attempt to justify post factum the impromptu annexation of Crimea. The first anniversary of the annexation once past, the rhetoric died down. But in the summer of 2021, Putin’s “historical unity” talk surfaced in deadly earnest. A precipitating factor seems to have been the 2020 election protests in Belarus. If that could happen in a country whose loyalty to Russia seemed absolute, where would “external powers” (Putin doesn’t believe in dissent without them) get to work next?
The first difficulty in solving “the Putin problem” is thus that Putin is determined to defeat and purge independent Ukraine. Peace talks have been an iteration of certainties by Russian delegates set on a no-compromise position. Typical is Vladimir Medinsky, the former culture minister, an ideologue of Russian supremacism supported by bad history.
It is tempting to think that if Putin and his allies were to disappear, a rational solution would emerge. Yet substantial sections of the population still support Putin: those who share his prejudices about Ukraine; those convinced the west is out to destroy Russia; those for whom things have got better since 1991; those terrified things may get worse.
Putin, unlike Maria in The Sound of Music, isn’t a problem with an easy solution. But let’s concentrate on what may be achievable. Here’s a brief and imperfect list:
Push for proper peace talks, accompanied by a full ceasefire, and with participation in the talks of observers trusted by both sides. As the war drags on and casualties mount, and the economic costs begin to bite, there could be a change of heart on the Russian side. There are some signs of disunity at the top even now.
Listen to voices from the region. A good place to start is Ukrainian activist and historian Taras Bilous’s essay,
A Letter to the Western Left from Kyiv (published recently on openDemocracy), which corrects many of the British media cliches about insuperable linguistic, cultural, historical and geographical divides and the influence of the far right.
Recognise the efforts, at great personal cost, of the Russians who oppose the war: the demonstrators exposed to police beatings; the artists and administrators who resign from their jobs; the priests who speak up in their sermons when the hierarchy is silent; a few members of the business elite. Don’t organise blanket boycotts by citizenship.
Don’t organise boycotts by place of origin either. Rather than ostracising works of art, try to understand the complex history of Russian imperialism. Pushkin’s To the Slanderers of Russia (1831) told western critics that Russia’s repression of Poland was a family affair. But Evdokiya Rostopchina’s The Forced Marriage (1845) presented Russia and Poland as an abusive husband and defiant wife – provoking outrage in Nicholas I.
Keep up the remarkable outpouring of support for Ukraine. Make sure the media caravans and flashmobs don’t just gallop on to the next sensation. After the campaign for peace with honour, there must be generous aid from the west to help Ukrainians rebuild their devastated cities and the democracy that they are fighting so hard to preserve.
In an address to the nation, the Russian Union of Rectors described Putin’s decision to embark on the “military operation” as “born of suffering”. When I think of suffering, I don’t see a small man sitting alone at the end of a long table. I see people sheltered in basements and metro stations, separated from their loved ones and their friends, or fleeing from their homes under gunfire.
A Ukrainian friend, a gifted literary critic, snatched a book as she and her husband left Kyiv. She later found it was
The Sound and the Fury. It couldn’t better have suited the mood among those opposed to the war, who are eloquent in their outrage. Maybe Tolstoy was right after all: it is the apparently powerful who lack full humanity, and not those whom they try to harm.
Residents use supermarket trollies to carry their belongings, as they attempt to leave the bombed and besieged
city of Mariupol, in eastern Ukraine. /Alexander Ermochenko, Reuters
Oliver Bullough: ‘We can deprive him and his cronies of access to their wealth’
Oliver Bullough is the author of Moneyland: Why Thieves and Crooks Now Rule the World and How to Take It Back.
His new book is Butler to the World (Profile).
All the horror that Putin is unleashing – the death, the lies, the violence, the refugees trudging through landscapes bleached of their colour by snow and artillery – echoes the 1940s. Putin himself calls the Ukrainians Nazis, as if this unprovoked aggression is somehow a rerun of the Soviet people’s self-defence in the second world war. That accusation is disgusting, but it’s harder to dismiss the parallels between Putin’s own behaviour and those of the dictators of the mid-20th century.
He is driven by a perverse misreading of history to deny his neighbours’ humanity. Russian officials and politicians are aggressive in their patriotism. The orange-and-black striped medal ribbon became the nationalist symbol when Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014, and the air-recognition-mark “Z” has rapidly morphed into an equivalent for this new war. Putin is a bully who invades his neighbours and kills his critics, and whose government lies compulsively, even about facts that are so self-evidently true that denying them seems self-defeating. He is even driving his tanks through Ukraine, the second world war’s main battleground.
In the circumstances, how could our understanding of Putin not be filtered through 20th-century history? And of course there are lessons for us from that time – about the futility of appeasement, and the heroism of ordinary humans caught up in inhumanity. But Putin is not Hitler or Benito Mussolini, he is not even Joseph Stalin, he is a modern problem, and solving a problem like him requires new skills, new sacrifices, and new laws.
In the first place, the Russian elite’s patriotism and anti-western posturing is performative. The anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny has made a cottage industry of revealing how top-ranking officials or regime propagandists have property in countries that are the supposed enemy. After a hard week campaigning against the evil west, which is undermining Christian civilisation by allowing gay people to get married, they would fly to their villas in Italy or their townhouses in London. They may think they believe what they say, but their actions belie them: the ideology is just cant to confuse foreigners and keep Russians in line.
Russia is an astonishingly unequal country, with the elite owning a share of wealth as great as, if not greater than, that owned by pre-revolutionary aristocrats. These kleptocrats exploited connections in government to gain lucrative contracts or state property, but they don’t trust the legal system, which waved through this monstrous spate of theft, any more than any other Russian does. That is why they have moved at least half of their wealth out of Russia, and spent it on houses, yachts, football clubs, fine art and more. Their investment managers have been in London, Luxembourg and New York, and complement the harder skills that the oligarchs learned in Russia’s business climate.
What would Russia be without these offshore services? It would be a fading power with a declining population run by an ageing political class loyal to a dead empire. Its sole world-class assets are its resources of oil, gas and minerals, many of which will become irrelevant in the decarbonised world we are moving towards. The USSR’s soft power was once enormous, with its communist ideology, sublime ballet companies, film directors and musicians. But what does the Kremlin have now? A misinformation machine and an unequal alliance with a Chinese elite that must be looking at Russia’s riches and licking their lips.
Putin claims to be defending the rights of Russian-speakers everywhere, yet during the pandemic, Russia had the worst rate of excess deaths of any country, a rate twice as bad as that of the United States and three times as bad as Britain’s. If he truly cared about the nation he serves, he would be focusing on Russia’s healthcare catastrophe instead of sending its sons to die in Ukraine.
We cannot solve the problem of Putin; only the Russians can do that. But we can stop helping him be a bigger problem than he has to be. The first step is to deprive him and his cronies of their access to our financial system. Being able to bury their wealth deep in our economies has allowed Russia’s rulers to avoid the consequences of their own greed: their children have studied in English schools; their wealth has been invested in western funds; their German-built yachts fly under the flags of British tax havens.
The way to do this is to strip them of the shield they can gain from opaque shell companies. Britain’s tax havens have sold secrecy to anyone able to afford it, while the UK’s Companies House has provided the cover for hundreds of billions of pounds of stolen wealth to flow out of Russia. When the shield over assets is lifted, we must give our law enforcement agencies the resources they need to investigate the assets’ provenance, and confiscate anything of criminal origin.
Stripped of their access to the international financial system and of their stolen riches, Putin’s oligarchs will be not plutocrats but thugs. Deprived of their boltholes, they will be forced either to improve Russia for everyone that lives in it, or they will be swept from power.
Jailed Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny inside a glass cell at a court hearing in Moscow last month.
Russian prosecutors called for him to serve 13 more years in prison on new fraud charges.
/Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images
Ruth Deyermond: ‘Closing contact will confirm Putin’s narrative
that the west wants to destroy Russia’
Ruth Deyermond is programme director for the MA in international relations at King’s College London
and author of The US and Russia after the Cold War
Although Russia’s war against Ukraine is less than a month old, the debate about what will come after it is already starting to emerge. So far, the war appears to be going very badly for Russia. Its assumptions about the country it chose to invade have been exposed as fatally flawed; years of expensive military reform have failed to produce an army capable of effectively fighting a war of choice; and it has had to deny asking the Chinese government to feed and arm its troops.
Despite this litany of humiliations, the relative strength of the Russian armed forces mean that a military victory can’t be ruled out. There would probably be continued resistance, forcing Russia to choose between draining its catastrophically damaged economy and military capabilities in an open-ended occupation, and a withdrawal. Unless sanctions are lifted, its most important trading and diplomatic relationships – above all, with China – will be firmly tilted in favour of its partners, who will be able to deal with Russia on much more favourable terms than in the past.
Whatever happens in Ukraine, it seems likely that Putin will remain in power for the foreseeable future. Nothing about his behaviour in the past decade has indicated that he would be willing to give up power voluntarily, and it seems unlikely
that those in the best position to remove him will do so, not least because they are themselves closely tied to Putin
and his crimes.
This raises the question of how western states respond to a Putin-led Russia and how they organise their relationships with one another. First, European states and the US need to recognise that there is no going back to the world before February 2022. On issues of strategic stability, cooperation, energy security, and indulgence towards the oligarch money that has corrupted their politics, there has to be a commitment to permanent change.
Some of this is already happening, but there will be pressure from other governments, lobbyists of various kinds, and from public opinion in an era of rising living costs, to undo many of the recent changes as quickly as possible, particularly in relation to sanctions. This would be a mistake, not least because Putin would be likely to see it as further confirmation of western weakness and disunity – a longstanding assumption in his foreign policy, and one of the factors that seems to have led to his huge miscalculation in Ukraine.
Western states also need to acknowledge how badly they miscalculated both their relationship with Russia and the international significance of Russia’s relations with its post-Soviet neighbours. Too often in the 30 years since the collapse of the USSR, the US, the UK and others have treated Russia as little more than an irritating obstacle to getting on with the more serious business of world politics in the Middle East or east Asia. At the same time, some European states clearly prioritised energy relations with Russia over questions about where Russian foreign policy was heading.
As a result, and because of a shameful view that what was happening in Ukraine or Belarus or the South Caucasus was not really a significant concern for Europe and the US, they failed both to properly respond to the first wave of Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014, or to think seriously enough about the implications for wider European security.
Those implications can hardly be overstated. The reaction to the war in Ukraine has shown that despite the repeated claims of the past two decades, it is only now that a line has been drawn under the post-cold war period. For the first time since the late 1980s, western states are being forced to confront the fact that a wider European war is possible (though still unlikely), and that it would involve conflict between states with nuclear weapons.
The gravity of the risks means that there needs to be an urgent recommitment to Nato as a defensive military alliance, including a commitment by all members to meet their obligations on defence spending. Those European states that have not joined, particularly those close to Russia, need to decide whether or not they want to remain outside the bloc in an era without the relatively stable rules of the cold war and where the ambiguity of the past 30 years is a vanished luxury. Neutrality is largely in the eye of the beholder, and if the Kremlin regards states as de facto allies of the US, lack of Nato membership is unlikely to protect them from whatever forms of aggression it will be capable of after Ukraine.
The issue of relations with the other European states of the former Soviet Union also needs to be treated as a priority. One of the triggers for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine seems to have been the mixed signalling over Ukraine’s Nato membership, which was neither ruled out nor firmly ruled in. Nato and the EU both need to decide, and to communicate clearly, whether they plan to admit the remaining post-Soviet states that want to become members, and what the relationship with them will look like if they don’t. At the same time, even if it is unpalatable to talk about it now, there will also need to be engagement with the Russian government in some areas, as there was between the west and the USSR even in dark periods of the cold war such as the early 1980s.
The most important area will probably be nuclear arms control. The western debate about a no-fly zone and the Russian government’s inflammatory, if vague, threats about nuclear weapons are a sharp reminder of the threat of escalation between nuclear superpowers – a threat that, worryingly, many seemed to have forgotten or dismissed. However hostile the relationship between Russia and the west becomes, dialogue on nuclear matters needs to be maintained.
Similarly, some level of continuing military-to-military diplomatic contact on other issues will remain important – more important, in fact, than it has been in periods of better relations. Channels of communication between militaries are important for reducing the risk of miscalculation, even where they are unlikely to build much trust.
Finally, the west will need to think about how it tries to engage with Russian society. Closing off all contact will simply confirm Putin’s narrative that the west wants to destroy Russia. States need to keep their doors open to Russians who want to study or visit, as well as those who are escaping repression. None of this is going to be easy, and much of it may fall foul of domestic pressures, wishful thinking, and splits within the EU and Nato. But Europe and the US’s future security depends on recognising that we are in a moment of acute danger, and that we are all in it together.
A Russian nuclear missile at a military parade in Moscow's Red Square - to commemorate victory in the Second World War.
Peter Pomerantsev: ‘Solving the problem means confronting
the psychological grip he has on people’
Peter Pomerantsev is the author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia
and This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (Faber)
On May 14, 2022 a senior producer at the primetime Russian state news programme ran on to the set as it was being broadcast live and waved a placard protesting against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and encouraging the audience to disbelieve her own channel’s propaganda. She was soon hauled off set and disappeared for two days into police custody.
She described her act as a desperate attempt to cleanse her conscience for having “zombified” the Russian people.
Some have called her a hero, others say it is too little too late. But whatever your take, ultimately solving the Putin problem and creating change in Russia means confronting the psychological grip he has on his own people. The mental model of Putinism, the worldview it constructs with propaganda of word and deed to keep Russians under control, is built on several foundations: it appeals to nostalgia; it projects a conspiratorial perspective and it insists that Putin can get away with anything, that there is no alternative to Putin.
As oppositionally minded Russians, pro-democracy media, civil society activists and public diplomats from the west seek to engage the Russian people, they need to take into account the strengths and weaknesses of these foundations. Even if Putin manages to cut off the Russian internet even further (he has already shut down Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the last independent radio and online television stations), there will always be ways to reach the Russian people, from virtual private networks to satellite TV. The question is what to talk to them about.
Currently, most Russians back the war and Putin’s reasons for it. It’s hard to trust polls in a dictatorship where you get
12 years in jail for mentioning the word “war”. Moreover, it’s always nice to hide behind propaganda: pretending you don’t know what’s going on allows you to avoid responsibility and make any tough or dangerous decisions. But even if these cognitive biases, fears and motivations to dodge reality don’t shift immediately there are already vulnerabilities in Putin’s main propaganda strategies.
Let’s start with Putin’s uses of nostalgia. His mission has always been to “bring Russia off its knees”, the Kremlin version of “make America great again”. This has now reached a climax: in his rambling historical speech validating the invasion of Ukraine he invoked his mission to restore the Russian empire, and framed his war in terms of a second world war redux to battle (utterly mythical) Nazis.
Apart from the pleasures of wallowing in (often fictional) past glories, this nostalgia propaganda is effective psychologically in other ways too. It posits that the great Russian people have been humiliated by malign outside powers, and now Putin is restoring pride. The most important humiliation Russians experience, both historically and currently, is of course internal. But the nostalgia narrative allows the Kremlin to transfer its own brutality on to a shadowy outside “enemy”, and then help people relieve their pent-up anger through aggression. The abusive, sadistic tone of Putin’s speeches, and the ones of his leading TV propagandists such as Vladimir Solovyov, give people an emotional path to articulate and validate their darkest and most violent feelings. It’s OK to be vicious and mean, this propaganda implies, it’s all history’s fault.
But this nostalgia propaganda also exists to cover up Putin’s great achilles heel: his lack of a vision for the future. The future has long disappeared from Russian political discourse. Thinking about the future means concentrating on political reforms, cleaning up the courts, abolishing corruption – all things Putin cannot achieve, as they will put his own system in danger. With the new economic reality post-invasion, any hope for the future has been eradicated completely. But people will still think about it. What do the sanctions, which are yet to properly kick in, mean for their children’s futures?
Media and communication with the Russian people needs to focus on these questions about the future. Both on the personal level, but also in terms of the future of the country. What, ultimately, should the future role of Russia be in the world? One of the most resonant phrases on Russia media runs: “What’s the point of the world if there’s no place for Russia in it?” The “Russia” this invokes is imperial, its identity tied to crushing others. Is there another way?
To further open up such questions, a group of Russian academics led by historian Alexander Etkind propose to create a university in the Baltics that will bring students from Russia and its neighbours to work on common challenges such as the environment. Projects like these are of course long-term aims, but without the language and ideas with which to talk about the future we can’t even start to chart the way towards it.
This idea of a future Russia has to be developed in partnership with Russia’s neighbours, so that it balances the needs of all of them, and escapes the conspiratorial, zero-sum vision of the world Putin’s propaganda promotes. Conspiracy thinking is another foundation of Putin’s playbook. It serves many uses. Conspiratorial thinking helps solidify community, promoting a sense of “us” under attack from “them”. It helps explain a confusing world. It also removes any sense of responsibility. Big new posters around Moscow claim that Russia “wasn’t given any choice” but to start the war, implying it’s all the fault of enemy powers. Ultimately, conspiracy thinking also spreads a sense that people are powerless to change anything in the world, which in turn seeds passivity. This can often be beneficial to the Kremlin: it wants a docile country.
But this sort of thinking can also work against the government. It feeds a culture of suspicion and distrust. Thus, during Covid Russians refused to take the Kremlin’s vaccine, suspecting the government itself was somehow plotting something malign against them.
As the sanctions take effect, and if people become painfully aware that their experience is far more arduous than that of the elites, a crisis in motivation could kick in. Putin’s system has always motivated people by giving them a piece in the overall cake of everyday corruption: from the traffic cop up to the minister. As long as you showed your loyalty occasionally, you were free to pursue your own financial aims. Now that motivation is gone, and you’re meant to make great sacrifices for a conspiratorial pseudo-ideology. People could simply give up on keeping the system going. This is what happened at the end of the USSR, when many people basically stopped fulfilling their professional responsibilities. Not so much a strike as just lack of motivation and despondence.
Revealing this disparity between the elites and normal people will require independent, investigative Russian journalism. Since the war, however, much of this is largely based abroad. They will have to rely on tracing documents and open-source investigations. We will need a whole new iteration of what the Russian journalist and editor Roman Badanin, founder of the investigative online media outlet Agentstvo, calls “offshore journalism”: exile media that uses modern tools to stay as close to the home country as possible.
As the economic situation worsens, and the propaganda weakens, Putin will turn to the power ministries to use oppression rather than ideas. This has always been his final argument: that he can carry out any crimes at home, any invasion abroad, any war crime from Grozny to Aleppo, and get away with it. In Ukraine, Putin is purposefully targeting humanitarian corridors, bombing refugees and hospitals in order to break the will of the people. It’s a message to the world that all statements about humanitarian values, the UN’s “responsibility to protect”, “safe zones” is guff. His argument is that might is right, and in the futureless new world the ones who are most ruthless, from Beijing to Riyadh and Moscow, will flourish.
One small, first, but hopefully important step has been taken by the human rights lawyer and author Philippe Sands, who is trying to create a Nuremberg-style tribunal for those who began this war, not merely for war crimes but for having started a completely unprovoked invasion in the first place. In the meantime, however, there’s a joke going round pro-Putin circles inside Russia:
Two Russian soldiers are drinking champagne in Russian-occupied Paris, the whole of Europe conquered. “Did you hear?” one smiles to the other. “We lost the information war.” Such humour is its own form of propaganda: helping push Russians away from the thought that the “special operation” isn’t going quite as planned. But it highlights a deeper truth: in wartime, propaganda of the deed outweighs propaganda of the word.
From rat killer and street gangster to
Tsar Vladimir theTerrible
A BBC Radio 4 podcast tells the story Vladimir Putin from a deprived childhood in Soviet Leningrad to a President of Russia who places himself in the long tradition of ruthless and despotic rulers with imperial ambitions. In each of five episodes Jonny Dymond and three specialists present an epic story of global significance.
Episode 1 THE MOTH Even as a child Vladimir Putin volunteered to become a KGB agent
Contributors: Nina Khrushcheva, Professor of International Affairs at The New School, New York; Tim Whewell, BBC Moscow correspondent in the 1990s; Dr Mark Galeotti, Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and author of We need to talk about Putin.
Episode 2 OUT OF THE SHADOWS From bag carrier to the most powerful man in Russia
Contributors: Misha Glenny, former BBC correspondent and author of ‘McMafia’;
Natalia Gevorkyan, co-writer of first authorised biography of Vladimir Putin; Oliver Bullough, former Moscow correspondent for Reuters and author of Butler to the world.
Episode 3 UNLEASHING POWER Turning on former supporters and media - plus 911
Contributors: Misha Glenny, former BBC correspondent and author of ‘McMafia’;Sir Roderic John Lyne, British Ambassador to Russia from 2000 to 2004; Irina Borogan, Russian investigative journalis, author, The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State
Episode 4 SHALLOW ROOTS OF DEMOCRACY Revolution in Ukraine, challenge in US
Contributors: Steven Lee Myers, former Moscow bureau chief, New York Times, author The New Tsar; Natalia Antelava, former BBC correspondent, co-founder Coda Story; Arkady Ostrovsky, Russia /Eastern Europe editor, The Economist, author of The Invention of Russia.
Episode 5 AN INDISPENSABLE TSAR Bare-chested photo ops, the invasion of Georgia
Contributors: Catherine Belton, author Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and took on the West; Andrei Soldatov, Russian investigative journalist and author; Mark Galeotti, University College London lecturer, director of Mayak Intelligence.
Episode 6 THE BELIEVER Playing cat and mouse with the world, annexing part of Ukraine
Contributors: Lucy Ash, BBC reporter, author of forthcoming The Baton and the Cross; Steven Lee Myers, New York Times correspondent and former Moscow bureau chief; Dr Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, Professor Russian politics, Kings College London and author.
Episode 7 THE ULTIMATE INSULT False flags, brutal military tactics, war in Syria
Contributors: Professor Angela Stent, Brookings Institution and former officer for Russia & Eurasia at US National Intelligence Council; Anatol Lieven, the Quincy Institute; Kevin Connolly, former BBC Moscow and Middle East correspondent.
Episode 8 THE SPLINTER Master strategist or opportunistic gambler?
Contributors: Henry Foy, European diplomatic correspondent Financial Times, former Moscow bureau chief; Nina Khrushcheva, Professor International Affairs, New School New York;
Misha Glenny, author McMafia, rector Institute for Human Sciences Vienna
Click on Jon Berkeley's photomontage, or the headline, to access another piece of impeccable broadcasting from
BBC Radio 4. This time from its well-established series that delivers what it says on the can, Analysis.
In the wake of the greatest crisis to hit Europe since the Second World War, former Moscow correspondent Tim Whewell examines the President, people and processes that led to that momentous decision, and others like it. Radical advisers, tame oligarchs, intelligence agencies scared to tell Putin the truth and the domestic repercussions of NATO’s political moves - Tim brings together the variety of causes that have led to deep dysfunction and the concentration of power in a single man who risks becoming synonymous with the state itself.
Interviewees include investigative journalists Catherine Belton and Andrei Soldatov, and former NATO Secretary General George Robertson.
Producer: Nathan Gower Sound: Nigel Appleton Production Coordinators: Siobhan Reed and Sophie Hill Editor: Hugh Levinson
Has Vladimir Putin really gone mad?
Like Shakespeare's King Lear, lost in a storm of insanity. Like the Roman Caesar, Caligula, a bloody and sadistic tyrant, eventually assassinated by the Praetorian Guard. Like Ivan the Terrible, who proclaimed himself Tsar of all the Russias, and is remembered still as a cruel and paranoid lunatic. Like Stalin, who was inspired by Tsar Ivan, and established a reign of terror that killed up to 20 million of his fellow Russians. Has President Vladimir Putin fallen victim to the curse of madness that infects so many great dictators? Is he too locked in the solitary confinement of absolute power?
If you look at his decision to bombard, with missiles and shells, the largest nuclear power station in Europe, then the answer has to be yes. Yet the need to read the fine detail of his psychology does not vanish. In all his irrationality, Putin has surely to be dealt with as he is. On this page you can find a range of arguments for and against the claims that he is mentally unsound. I am gathering together these discussions, in part, because I am concerned with the ease with which we throw out the accusation of insanity at rulers who frighten us. Is this itself a dangerous delusion? Calling someone mad is a way of not taking them seriously as moral agents, a way of softening what should be our outrage at their criminality - reducing our capacity to act decisively, and rationally, ourselves. The decades during which Putin has been allowed to expand his malign influence, virtually unchecked, are evidence that the democratic powers of Europe and North America have chosen to look the other way, again and again. Whether Putin is a madman or not, the democratic powers have been responding to his actions like like fools.
Crazy or coldly calculating ?
by Jack Holmes
From 2002 to 2016, Dr. Kenneth Dekleva served as a Regional Medical Officer/Psychiatrist with the Department of State, including at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. On either side of that, he’s worked extensively to research the psychology of world leaders, including in his current post at the George H.W. Bush Foundation for US-China Relations. In an interview, edited here for length and clarity, he describes how he’s come to the conclusion that Putin was more poorly informed than anything, and how that should animate the West’s response to his aggression in the days and months ahead.
Esquire: You seem to chalk this up to mostly an intelligence failure, versus some change in Putin’s mental state. Can you explain that?
Dr. Kenneth Dekleva: I respectfully beg to differ with my senior colleagues, such as Speaker Pelosi and former Secretary Gates, former Secretary Rice and General Clapper, as well as some foreign leaders who have commented, like President Macron of France and the Finnish President. I think Putin is the same person. I think he's always been ruthless. I think he's been calculating. He's shown himself to be a disruptor and a risk-taker. I think what happened here is he and his national security team believed intelligence that turned out to be
From 2002 to 2016, Dr. Kenneth Dekleva served as a Regional Medical Officer/Psychiatrist with the Department of State, including at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. On either side of that, he’s worked extensively to research the psychology of world leaders, including in his current post at the George H.W. Bush Foundation for US-China Relations. In an interview, edited here for length and clarity, he describes how he’s come to the conclusion that Putin was more poorly informed than anything, and how that should animate the West’s response to his aggression in the days and months ahead.
Esquire: You seem to chalk this up to mostly an intelligence failure, versus some change in Putin’s mental state. Can you explain that?
Dr. Kenneth Dekleva: I respectfully beg to differ with my senior colleagues, such as Speaker Pelosi and former Secretary Gates, former Secretary Rice and General Clapper, as well as some foreign leaders who have commented, like President Macron of France and the Finnish President. I think Putin is the same person. I think he's always been ruthless. I think he's been calculating. He's shown himself to be a disruptor and a risk-taker. I think what happened here is he and his national security team believed intelligence that turned out to be
So he has retained the ability to separate lies that he's telling from the truth?
Correct. He was a KGB intelligence officer. That's one thing to remember there.
What do you make of his escalating rhetoric on the use of nuclear weapons?
I think we should pay attention to it. We have to be careful not to overreact to it, but we should pay attention. He's basically letting America and the West know, hey, I'm a nuclear power, which he is. In this sense, the war is a combination of a war and a hostage situation where Putin is the hostage taker. He's using brutal tactics of fear
by talking about nuclear weapons and the attack on the reactor. That's frightening because my guess is
I know people are always reluctant to make diagnoses from afar, but it does seem like he fits the bill for some personality disorders. Is there any usefulness to that in this context?
I think one has to be careful using psychiatric labels and terms. I tend to shy away from it because it's not as helpful as you think. As my mentor said, if all we talked about was the narcissism of politicians, we'd be talking about an awful lot of politicians. What we want to do is try to understand his psyche, his mindstate, and how that affects things. Really, it's more about negotiation psychology than individual psychology. It's more about Sun Tzu than Freud.
Even if Putin is a puppetmaster, there are other strings pulling on him, even as an authoritarian leader. That's one of the questions we don't know a lot about: Who influences him? Was this decision solely his own after being presented the data, or were powerful people in his national security council whispering in his ear? The psychology is more interesting than the talk that something is off with him mentally, which I disagree with actually, based on what I've seen. That's why these leaders are considered “hard targets,” and not only because of their thinking, but who's in their inner circle and who has more relative weight? Who can influence a leader? An oligarch or two that he knows? Nikolai Partuschev? Sergei Shoigu, who he goes hunting and fishing with? [Alexander] Bortnikov, the head of the FSB? Who can talk to Putin man-to-man, if you will, and subtly, even in a nuanced way, try to shape or influence his thinking?
Is there any use in looking into the puffiness in his face that we've seen, any of the physical changes that we've seen? There’s been some chatter about steroids.
It's something you have to consider. Let me put it to you this way: as a practicing clinician, I've seen hundreds, if not more, patients who are on steroids for various medical conditions. A steroid psychosis or steroid mania, I've only seen twice in 30 years. It's very rare. You would see more behavioral evidence if there was something like that. Now, could there be side effects like puffiness or irritability or testiness? Yes, perhaps, but we don't have the hard data. It's possible that his face is a little more puffy from being in solitude during COVID and not working out as much, not playing hockey, not swimming as much. Many people have gained 15 or 20 pounds during the pandemic. Or Botox injections. There could be other reasons. It could just be he's less fit, exercising less. He's still very fit, but exercising less and more sedentary in his home office in Novo-Ogaryvo, where he lives. He actually doesn't come to the Kremlin that much, is what media reports have said. It's possible that it's just a combination of aging and isolation and being more sedentary.
The isolation is scary from a psychological standpoint. Is that a change?
Media reports have indicated that he's more isolated in the sense that because of the pandemic, he has conducted most of his meetings via Zoom and fewer meetings in person, but that's not different from any other leaders. The isolation is not new. It's something that has been talked about. The German journalist and filmmaker Hubert Seipel made a wonderful documentary, I Putin, where he had access to Putin in his inner circle for about six, nine months in 2013. It shows even then he was a very isolated leader without many deep, close friendships. That's probably a change just over time while he's been a leader. Not just recent years, but over a 20-year span.
If we operate on the basis that this was an intelligence failure, he’s been placed in a very different situation than he expected to be in. Is there anything we can know about how he might behave from here? How do we respond?
The short answer is very carefully and patiently. When Putin has a setback like this, there have been media reports that he's angry and enraged at his advisors for not bringing him good news. But he's also a very resilient person. He's a very tough, resilient person who has bounced back from adversity throughout his life. He has the resilience that many Russians have. I think we can expect him to bounce back. He won't fold easily. He'll only back off when he has a face-saving way to back off where he can, both to himself internally, but also to his inner circle and to his people, even if it's propaganda, declare that he's achieved his objectives.
Is that part of it—the U.S. and Europe will need to give him something so he can tell a story he likes about
Yes. This is very difficult, creative diplomacy, but it's not something that our excellent diplomats are incapable of doing. I have good faith that in the long term some kind of a solution will be reached. My fear is that in the very short term, it will get worse before it gets better. I think it's very important to understand that talk of exit ramps or off ramps and face saving—this isn’t just diplomacy. It’s used in hostage negotiations. This is how FBI negotiators negotiate in difficult settings. You have to use tactical empathy, is what Chris Voss calls it, where you empathize and try to understand your adversary. That doesn't mean you agree with them or give assent. You have to step back from your own emotions and analyze them in a rational way.
You can say it’s not right, the Ukrainians should be able to determine their own future. But the fact of the matter is he ain’t leaving until he gets his pound of flesh. Or worse.That's the frightening part. The other risk is that he's politically, internally weakened by this, and that the Oligarchs and other members of the elite, if you will, the siloviki who surround him, could turn against him and offer him an early retirement. That's not out of the range of possibility, and he knows that.
Early on, Oleg Deripaska made a public statement sort of questioning the war. I was shocked to see that. Does that tell us anything?
Yes, it does. They're taking care of their own interests. The Director of the Russian International Affairs Council, Andrey Kortunov, had an interview in English where he basically says the same thing, that this is a tragedy for Russia. This is a full former diplomat and military and intelligence officer who now runs one of the leading think tanks in Russia. You don’t only see the protests in the street from ordinary Russians. There are fractures among the elites. The elites are tricky, because many of them in Europe have two passports. They're E.U. citizens. The other risk for Russia and Putin is if this drags on and on and on, not only is Putin a pariah, but Russia becomes a pariah state. You could see a brain drain like you saw in the 90s, where a million highly educated, gifted Russians left Russia for the West permanently. That's a tragedy for Russia. Russia's a great country, with a great sense of history and culture.
Does he need a different story to tell the public than the oligarchs? Do their interests diverge a bit?
I think the longer this goes on, if Russia becomes more of a pariah and the sanctions are even more biting, then it weaves into the same story. I think Putin has gone way too far. The narrative that Russia was humiliated at the end of the Cold War and afterwards by the United States and the West is a popular narrative that resonates not only with Putin and his inner circle, but with ordinary Russians and with the elites. I know many people that hear it and get it, friends of mine when I lived there for five years. It's also generational, because there's a whole new generation of young people. They were born after 1991. They may not buy into that narrative in the same way. That's a risk for Putin, an aging leader who's out of touch with a certain sector of the population.
What are the dynamics like from here?
The next few weeks will be very challenging for the people of Ukraine, for the West, for the United States, for NATO and for Russia. I'm trying to be a guarded optimist that they can find a ceasefire and somehow get back to negotiations. One of the things that may work in this case, when you have negotiating parties with positions that are so far apart, is to bring in an international mediator like they did in Kosovo in 1999, where they brought in the very experienced former Finnish Foreign minister Martti Ahtisaari, who also won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was key in helping resolve that 87-day war in Kosovo. An international mediator that all parties trust would probably be a step.
It seems like even people who know a lot about all this did not expect the invasion to actually happen.
I was wrong. I thought, Gosh, he's achieved his strategic goals. He could've just taken the Donbas. He could've used his hybrid war—cyber attacks, weaken Ukraine economically and politically, weaken Zelensky. They could have put in their own people in the parliament, corrupt Ukrainian politicians that are beholden to Russia. They could have done a lot of those things. Actually, he was succeeding, but I think once he crossed the line from hybrid war to total war, then everything shifted against him. He's united Ukraine, he's united the West. Even the Chinese are not pleased. They won't publicly condemn him, but they abstained in the vote in the UN and other symbolic gestures. Cultural and sporting events being canceled—this is devastating for Russia. He definitely crossed the line and didn't expect what he has received as a result.
Click on either image to the
left to hear Dr Kenneth Dekleva
discuss the psychology of
world leaders with a former CIA director, Michael Morell
- on the CBS News show
On February 21, 2022, President Putin called the most senior of his besuited courtiers, those charged with national security,
to form a circle around him and, one-by-one, to praise the wisdom of his dealings with Ukraine - that is to say, to confirm his fantastical reasons to invade and take over Russia's independently-minded neighbour. During this parade of sycophancy, President Putin showed his displeasure with the stumbling (or was it terrified?) performance of his Head of Foreign Intelligence. Putin playfully skewered the spy-in-chief as if he were a Siberian tiger playing with a mouse. The sadistic pleasure on his face, and the threatening drumming of his fingers, was there for the world to see. A James Bond villain come to life.
It is interesting recall a rather similar event in Trump's White House, and to note that the former President of the United States showed his own tendencies towards power mania, not least by concocting an attack on Washington's temple to democracy with a madcap army of assassins and clowns. Trump has called his friend Putin's rambling justifications for war against Ukraine an act of "genius". Some argue that these outpourings are actually further evidence that Putin has become unhinged from reality, yet others see them as the cold, cynical handling of truth and deception employed by a master tactician, one untroubled by conscience or compassion.
Donald Trump's shocking efforts to challenge democracy were both confused and incompetent, like the rest of his presidency. Trump was breathtakingly stupid in power, and utterly immoral, but was he insane? The case is still open. Vladimir Putin makes mistakes, but he is not an incompetent. He has made his grip on power ever tighter for more than two decades, thereby encouraging the installation of dictators across the world in what now looks like a global epidemic of tyranny. Is this because he is crazy or because he actually is a genius?
An evil genius, with a plan?
Emperor Putin needs to grow up
by Peter Pomerantsev
All infants are conspiracy theorists. They think that the whole world revolves around them, and that if they are denied something it’s because bad forces in the world have it in for them. This is, essentially, the theory of Melanie Klein, the pioneering child psychoanalyst. According to Klein, in the early stages of infancy we can only think about the world in terms of objects, and can only think about those objects in relation to themselves. The complex, nuanced lives of others are reduced to primitive binaries: the mother, for instance, is reduced to a “good breast” that feeds the mewling child and a “bad breast” that denies the child its satisfaction. The infant cannot perceive that its mother is a subject in her own right.
I kept thinking about this idea last week, as I was trying to make sense of Vladimir Putin’s paranoid new essay, On the Historical Unity of the Russian and Ukrainian Peoples, which the Russian President published on the Kremlin’s website (so, essentially, self-published). Putin fancies himself as something of a historian, and the gist of the
5000-word ramble — so poorly-composed it’s unlikely to be entirely ghost-written — is that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people”, cruelly separated by scheming foreign powers who want to turn Ukraine into the
“anti-Russia”. Kiev, known as “the mother of Russian cities”, has been split from Moscow over the centuries by dark forces: the Tatar Mongols, the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, Austro-Hungary, the Nazis, and now “the West”, who turn the “mother” into a weapon against Moscow.
It’s rare for Putin to publish something so long, and historians, Kremlinologists and cultural critics have all been working out what it can tell us about the Russian President’s ideology and geopolitical intent. The BBC Russian service pulled together comments from eminent Russian and Ukrainian scholars, who accused the President of “school boy errors”. Putin claims, for example, that Russians and Ukrainians are all descendants of a single medieval kingdom from Finland to Kiev that was unified by one language, one Orthodox Christian faith and one royal family. The early Kiev Kings supposedly adopted Christianity and then moved to Moscow. In Putin’s simplistic vision, the identity is stable, the lineage unbroken. In fact, Medieval Rus was multilingual, has always been multi-confessional, and the descendants of Kiev kings ruled over areas outside of Moscow.
The Russian President also dismisses Ukrainian efforts (and huge sacrifices) for statehood over the centuries. The mother could not possibly be an autonomous subject. Putin claims the first Ukrainian republic of 1917 was just a German “construct.” Stalin’s enforced famine of Ukrainian peasants and slaughter of Ukrainian intelligentsia, he says, had nothing to do with the Generalissimo’s fears about Ukrainian nationalism undermining the Soviet project. Indeed, independent Ukraine, “is entirely the brainchild of the Soviet era, and was to a large extent created at the expense of historical Russian lands.” Putin’s take utterly ignores the Soviet rationale for formalising a Ukrainian Soviet republic completely controlled from Moscow. It was a way to control nationalist energies.
Sergey Radchenko, Professor of Cold War History and International Relations at Johns Hopkins University dismissed the essay as “deranged” — but frightening all the same. Rather than a serious scholarly account, its aim is to give a rationale for continued aggression. After all, if Ukraine and Russia are “one”, then invasion and other forms of colonial subjugation are just an internal matter. Putin often invokes “history” when he needs propaganda cover to send in the tanks. To justify his annexation of Crimea and invasion of East Ukraine, Putin argued in 2014 that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people. Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other.” Since then, there’s been something disturbed about the way Kremlin propaganda has conceptualised Ukraine: either deifying it as “the mother” or castigating it as a whore who has sold itself to the West. There’s the good breast and the bad breast, and nothing in between. This latest essay, too, circles around metaphors of family relations, identity and possession; that’s why it’s so tempting to read it through the framework of psychoanalysis.
Because Ukraine isn’t just another political issue for Putin: it cuts to the quick of how he, and many of his compatriots, make sense of Russia’s sense of self. One of the tragedies of post-Soviet Russia is that its rulers have never surrendered their vision of the nation as an Empire, intrinsically destined to be a Great Power, a force around which the world revolves. And historically this identity has always been formulated via Ukraine. In the 16th century the tsars of Muscovy grandly declared their kingdom to be the “third Rome”: the inheritor of the divine mission of Rome and then Constantinople; the next city destined to unite politics and Christianity and establish God’s Empire on earth. But this claim was always based on Muscovy’s connections to Kyiv: it was the Kings of Kyiv who brought Christianity to the region, and married into the Byzantine royal family. As descendants of the Kyivan kings, Moscow’s rulers now claimed to be the epiphany of that lineage. Russia can’t quite live up to serious Empire billing if it doesn’t control cities like Odessa, Kharkov and Kyiv, the jewels of the old Russian Empire.
Internalising the idea that the “mother of Russian cities” is autonomous would mean Russia having to grow out of its self-perception as an Empire. That’s something that Putin and his clique refuse to do. Part of the protest movement against the President that swelled dramatically in 2011-12, demanded that Russia become a “normal”, modern European nation state. It called for economic and political reforms, and relations with neighbouring countries that recognised their rights as independent actors. Such a mature Russian nation would not need a
tsar-like figure to rule it. Putin’s response was to stoke Imperial nostalgia and a grandiose sense of identity by annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine — and to elevate himself to de facto monarch. He just can’t let go.
“Growing up is realising that not everything, good and bad, revolves around you,” says the literature professor and psychoanalyst Josh Cohen, who introduced me to Klein’s theories. Infants who receive enough care and love should start to recognise the mother as an actual person, and so enter what Klein calls the “depressive position”: “the belated perception of the mother as whole object,” to quote Cohen; “the realisation that the good and the bad breast are actually the same breast.” Ukraine is neither Madonna nor whore. “Ultimately that’s how you get to complexity and nuance and beyond facile splitting between the idealised and demonised object.”
Unable to come to terms with the complexity of the real world — unable to separate from the mother — some infants become increasingly disturbed. Putin is stuck in what Klein would call the “paranoid-schizoid” position, in which the infant becomes resentful, full of suspicion about the world, and can compensate with over-weaning ambition and sadism. The feelings towards the mother, both the obsession with and the hate towards her, can be displaced onto all sorts of things. Many people have some sort of residual resentment of such nature. The skilful propagandist will use it. Conspiratorial propaganda feeds the screaming infant inside all of us, allowing us to retreat back to before we had to grow up.
The irony is, no one has done more to alienate Ukrainians from Russia than Putin. There is a self-destructive, irrational streak in his politics. His invasion re-orientated Ukraine towards the West to a previously unimaginable extent. His need for the mother country could be the death of her. When, in his latest essay, he likens post-Soviet Ukraine to a weapon of mass destruction aimed at subverting Russia, he is laying the groundwork for a violent response. Lashing out, like holding on too tight, can’t ultimate succeed in keeping another close.
Peter Pomerantsev is the author of the highly-praised book on truth and lies in Putin's Russia,
This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.
In 2016 it won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize
He is a Senior Fellow at the Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University and at the LSE
The 102 metre and 560 tonne Motherland monument that towers over the Ukraine capital Kyiv. Opened in 1981, under the gaze of the Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, it is a controversial object. It escapes the 2015 parliamentary ban on all symbols of and monuments to Communism and the Soviet state. Some people argue that it should be demolished and its stainless be put to useful purpose. /Gerry Lynch, Flickr
President Macron of France meets his Russian counterpart in France in 2017 and in Russia in 2021.
Some observers see this juxtaposition as evidence of the increasing paranoia in Putin, as his grip on reality diminishes.
Putin's War looks increasingly insane
by Eric Levitz
The worst is yet to come. That was French president Emmanuel Macron’s takeaway from his recent [3.3.22]
90-minute call with Vladimir Putin.
“There was nothing in what President Putin told us that should reassure us. He showed great determination to continue the operation,” a senior aide to Macron told the Agence France-Presse, noting that the Russian leader was adamant about his intention “to seize control of the whole of Ukraine.”
The Russian government quickly confirmed this assessment. In an official statement, the Kremlin said that its “special operation” in Ukraine will not end until the full “demilitarization” of the country is achieved, “so that a threat to the Russian Federation will never emanate from its territory.”
Putin then gave a public address to his national-security council. The Russian president mendaciously blamed his invasion’s rising civilian death toll on Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” (who had supposedly been using innocents as human shields), before declaring that Russia’s military campaign was nevertheless “going according to plan and in full compliance with the timetable. All tasks set during the special operation in Ukraine are being accomplished successfully.”
This was a lie. The first week of Russia’s invasion has badly disappointed the Kremlin’s expectations. And the fact that Putin is refusing to moderate his objectives, even after several fundamental premises of his war plan have proven false, invites questions about the Russian leader’s rationality, if not about his sanity.
Research conducted by Russian intelligence officials in the run-up to the invasion, and subsequently leaked to British analysts, indicated that Ukrainians were dissatisfied with their leadership and gloomy about their nation’s future prospects. The picture of the Ukrainian government that emerges from these documents — of an unpopular, hollow state with more support from Western capitals than its own people — is of a piece with Putin’s apparentideological convictions about Ukraine, which he routinely describes as a fictional nation wrested from its true motherland and dominated by foreign (if not “Nazi”) forces. It is not hard to imagine how the combination of Putin’s priors and the FSB’s research might have led the autocrat to wildly underestimate the degree of resistance that his invading army would encounter.
That Putin misjudged the strength of Ukrainian nationalism is reflected in both his war’s opening tactics and its ultimate strategic objectives. Instead of descending on Ukraine’s major cities with a combination of heavy arms, such as infantry supported by tanks and airpower, Russia initially sent small, isolated groups of paratroopers. This is a sound approach if one expects to be greeted as a liberator and wishes to avoid sparking a future insurgency through needless civilian casualties. But it was utterly inadequate to the challenge that the Ukrainian military actually presented. Meanwhile, Russia neglected to locate and destroy enemy radar and air-defense infrastructure at the onset of hostilities, enabling Ukraine to contest Russia’s air superiority and inflict large and unsustainable losses on Putin’s air fleet.
If Putin underestimated the Ukrainians, he likely overestimated his own forces. Wars have generally worked out well for the Russian president. Victory in the Second Chechen War helped him to establish a reputation for strength among the Russian public. His war in Georgia beat back that nation’s ambitions for NATO membership. He seized Crimea with little hardship in 2014 and successfully propped up Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship amid the Syrian civil war.
Yet Putin’s present mission demands far more of the Russian military than the limited operations it has pulled off in recent years. Russia was able to take Crimea on the strength of special-operations forces and separatist militias. A large-scale ground invasion aimed at imposing regime change on a nation of 44 million people is a categorically different task. And a great many of Russia’s nonprofessional, conscripted soldiers do not appear up to it. Interviews with Russian prisoners of war indicate that these conscripts “were completely unprepared” for the operation they now find themselves in. In some instances, Russian soldiers have surrendered en masse or sabotaged their vehicles to avoid combat. The Russian operation has also been plagued by logistical failures. The army’s allegedly poor tire management, combined with the onset of Ukraine’s spring thaw and its attendant mud, has bound Russia’s military convoys to roads and highways, funneling its forces into choke points where they lie vulnerable to Ukrainian drones and hunter-killer squads.
Such errors are unlikely to cost Russia military victory in a nominal sense. The Russian forces still boast overwhelming manpower and equipment advantages over their Ukrainian counterparts. But as great powers have learned so frequently in recent history, military victory is the easy part of a regime-change war. Ukraine’s resistance over the past week has not been sufficient to beat back the Russian invaders. But it has demonstrated what most analysts had assumed even before Putin’s invasion — that Russia cannot impose a puppet government on the Ukrainian people without embroiling itself in a ruinous occupation.
Beyond underestimating the Ukrainians’ will to fight, Putin has patently misjudged the West’s capacity to punish his aggression. The U.S. and E.U.’s sanctions amount to financial war on the Russian state, one that has wiped out ordinary Russians’ savings overnight. Not only has the West’s response devastated Russia economically, it has set back the very strategic objectives that Putin’s invasion was meant to advance. The NATO alliance has been reinvigorated, with Finland and Sweden both now contemplating applications for admission. Germany has committed $100 billion to its own rearmament. And nations throughout Europe are recalibrating their energy strategies so as to reduce their dependence on Russian fossil-fuel resources.
To look at these results and conclude that it would be wise and achievable to conquer every inch of Ukrainian territory, dissolve the nation’s military, and impose a puppet government is madness. There is no way forward that will leave Putin’s regime better off than it was before it blundered into war. The best way to cut his losses would be to seek some sort of negotiated settlement, perhaps a deal in which Russia annexes Ukraine’s separatist territories and then withdraws from the rest of the country, in exchange for the Zelenskyy government’s forswearing NATO and E.U. membership and the West’s lifting all sanctions.
Instead, Putin has opted to press his bad luck. And there is some reason to think that this intransigence is a by-product of literal mental illness. American commentators and politicians have a lamentable habit of portraying all of their empire’s adversaries as lunatics who can be neither reasoned with nor understood. And Putin has no small number of rational (if not always legitimate) grievances against the West. But just because it is convenient for Western hawks to declare Putin a madman does not mean that he isn’t one. It is possible for a socially isolated 69-year-old autocrat to lose his mind.
Putin’s mental health has been a topic of speculation for months now. Throughout the pandemic, Putin has held most meetings via teleconference, tightly delimited his in-person contacts, and addressed subordinates from the opposite end of a 20-foot table. Western officials who interacted with Putin before and after COVID’s onset have almost invariably reported a change in his demeanor. After conducting five hours of talks with the Russian leader last month, Macron suggested that Putin was not the same man he had met at Elysée palace in December 2019.
Bernard Guetta, a member of the European Parliament who accompanied Macron in Moscow, said on French radio afterward, “I think this man is losing his sense of reality, to say it politely.”
“All our Russia-watchers, watching his press conferences, think that he’s descending even more into a despotic mindset,” a European diplomat told the Guardian in late February. Around the same time, Florida Senator Marco Rubio suggested that he has privileged access to information establishing that “something is off” with Putin.
“I’ve watched and listened to Putin for over thirty years,” former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul recently tweeted. “He has changed. He sounds completely disconnected from reality.”
Long-distance psychiatry is not the proudest field of medicine. From a geopolitical perspective, though, whether Putin is suffering from some clinical ailment is less important than whether his actions have come untethered from any rational calculation of his own best interest. Putin’s remarks [about the progress of his invasion and the conduct of the Ukrainians] suggest that the Russian leader is a madman in the way that counts.
What’s going on inside his head?
by Peter Pomerantsev
You’ve all seen it now. The small, mean, vicious yet weirdly blank eyes. The stubby stabbing fingers that jab as he humiliates his underlings, making them shake with fear. The joy he takes in sadism. It’s almost comedy villain stuff. But cliches exist for a reason. And we need to stop kidding ourselves about Putin – and start taking steps to deal with him.
For decades we’ve wanted to avoid the challenge. Not so much appease as just hope he goes away. It’s a headache having to face up to the blunt fact that Putin is trying to utterly change the world. His aims are impossible to ignore now. The Kremlin’s foreign policy thinktanks are already churning out articles about how his invasion of Ukraine means the start of a “multipolar world”. Ignore the geopolitical PR. All multipolar means here is emboldened fascism. Before the political scientists among you get all carried away debating endlessly what “fascism” means let me explain my terms.
I mean Orwell’s boot stamping endlessly on people’s faces. I mean the underlying psychology that shines through in the violence that suffuses all of Putin’s language. Just last week, to give one small example, as Putin spoke with Macron, the Russian president casually invoked a Russian rape joke about Sleeping Beauty to explain what he would soon do to Ukraine. Conflating Ukraine and Sleeping Beauty, he gleefully put himself in the role of the rapist: “Whether you like it or not my beauty, you will need to put up with all I do to you.” (It rhymes in Russian.)
I mean the way he uses grievance narratives, always complaining how the world has put him down. There are many people – minorities, the economically disadvantaged – who bear righteous grievance. But when the world’s richest man, a blatant bully, does it, it means something else.
The Russian TOS-1 heavy flame thrower system was first deployed in Afghanistan. /Russian Defence Ministry Press Service/EPA
The German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, in his great study of the Nazi mind, described how for the Nazis claiming they were victims was really a way to excuse how they would victimise others. It’s the same for Putin. His regime is, on the surface, nothing like the Nazis. Russia has its own totalitarian traditions to tap into. But the underlying mindset is the same.
Even his claims to Russia’s “spheres of influence” are more about his state of mind than international relations. The issue here is not about rational security demands which can be defined in negotiations and balanced with the security concerns of others – not least Ukraine.
Putin’s sphere of influence waxes and wanes. It can mean the Russosphere, the 100 million or so Russian speakers who live beyond Russia’s borders, many in the EU. It can mean the mystical idea of a “single people” that encompasses Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. It can denote much of central Europe, the countries which, according to Russia’s foreign affairs ministry, were “orphaned” by the end of the USSR and now, it’s implied, need to return to the suffocating embrace of Moscow.
Henry Dicks, the psychoanalyst who studied Nazi soldiers during the second world war, came to the conclusion that Hitler’s idea of Lebensraum, the land (much of it in Ukraine) Germans claimed belonged to them, was not just a geopolitical idea but a sign of a psychology that was so steeped in humiliation it grabbed things outside itself to sate its sense of endless inadequacy. Like an angry infant that doesn’t understand its own borders, grabbing things beyond it and screaming “mine!” This is the endless cycle in these regimes: a culture of humiliation; a sense of inadequacy; aggression.
But let’s not over-focus on the Nazis – that always makes us feel good because we fought them. Putin reminds us of the worst about ourselves as well. The day the invasion launched, at the UN, it was the representatives from Kenya and Ghana who grasped the meaning of what was going on the quickest, comparing Ukraine to their own colonial legacy. “We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression,” said Kenya’s permanent representative.
It might be comforting to think of Putin as merely a throwback to the past – but his ambition is for his worldview to dominate the future, and his mindset to be normalised. He does not think parochially. He is already threatening Finland and Sweden. His theory is to attack his great adversaries – the EU, Britain and America – in any way he can to keep us weak and clear his
way. He has been doing it for years by making Europe addicted to his energy, Britain to his corruption, everyone intimidated by his assassinations.
For decades we tried to tell ourselves this was just an inconvenience, that ultimately he just wanted a stake in a world, or at least a transatlantic space, where wars were over. He didn’t see it that way. His political and economic warfare will now increase – to pave the way for more kinetic wars.
Today this is all focused on one place: Ukraine. Which Putin is invading, bombing, murdering with impunity. He claims Ukrainians don’t exist as an independent people – so it’s OK to murder them. His plan is to install a puppet government and then execute any dissidents. But Ukrainians aren’t puppets. Ukrainians very much exist. This is the great achilles heel in Putin’s worldview. He is the arch conspiracy theorist: and for conspiracy theorists people are all puppets, moved around great chess boards. He doesn’t understand that people have volition.
Ukrainians are giving them meaning again. They are fighting and dying for a new democracy to make people in rich, old democracies remember what democracy is all about. Many of these Ukrainians are my friends, relatives, colleagues, loved ones.
I was born in Kyiv – though from childhood I grew up in London – and much of my work is there. They’ve all chosen to remain and take up arms. Over the last years we’ve all been researching Ukrainian identity together. We’ve found that what unites Ukrainians is the resilience and resourcefulness to survive endless hardships: a people who have got through the oppressions of Russian tsars; Stalin’s enforced famine; the second world war (where most of the fighting was in Ukraine); Nazi occupation; Chernobyl; the revolution of dignity … and now this.
My friends are taking up arms, and when I message them are miles more calm, resolute and focused than I am, typing away in a Nato country and praying for the best. Watching Putin’s invasion on television can make one feel quite powerless. Putin wants the whole world to witness his aggression, to grind in the point there’s nothing that can stop him. What can we, sitting in Bri