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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

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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 central role in Lebanon as one of bearing witness, not only to atrocity, tragedy and loss but to the courage, dignity and open-heartedness of people 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 familiarity does not make that cliche less true. I also discovered that truth being endlessly repeated during the times I spent in conflict zones across the wider Middle East and South Asia, and in the danger zone of other parts of the world, including Russia. 


As this unendingly criminal and profoundly stupid war continues, I experience once again the urge to bear witness. I'll do so until the battles cease, mostly by relying on the skills and commitment of specialist commentators and journalists, some of them brave beyond words. And, in respect to them and to the victims of callousness and cruelty unbounded, I shall leave the accounts online for as long as there is an amaze website still functioning. Bearing witness is a vital resource for the future as much as it is for the present.  


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 


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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.



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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

of war. 


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

be prosecuted? 


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.

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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

German defendants. 

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.

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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. 

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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 guard.


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

in 1941-1944.

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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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The court of Tsar Vladimir


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

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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. 


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Crazy or coldly calculating ?

A psychiatrist's 



by Jack Holmes

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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 






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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 






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                                                                                 Sergey Bobok/AFP 

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

that’s deliberate. 


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

what happened?


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.

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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?

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Emperor Putin needs to grow up

by Peter Pomerantsev

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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

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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

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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.  

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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 tableWestern 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.

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What’s going on inside his head?

by Peter Pomerantsev

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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 Britain, do to join the fight? Plenty.


For starters, we can all help to support now by pressuring our governments, and raising funds ourselves, to do the following smattering of urgent causes. First: Ukraine has a right to zones safe from bombing and missile attack. According to the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine the international community has a duty to provide appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and if necessary military means to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Creating such safe zones would be a start, though what every Ukrainian is pleading for is to protect their skies with no fly zones, and help them against one of the largest air forces in the world.

Meanwhile, people need water, blankets, food, fuel and helmets. The army needs anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. Though sanctions are starting, we need to hit the money behind Putin’s war machine much harder. Sanction the central bank and state-owned banks, the wallets Putin uses to finance his imperial adventures. Freeze the western assets and visas of Putin’s oligarchs and their families who help finance his war.


But these tiny moves are just the start of what is needed. For the EU it will mean weaning itself quickly off Russian energy. For the UK it will mean reforming our rotten financial sector and stop being, in the journalist Oliver Bullough’s killer phrase, “butlers to the world”: that would be real sovereignty. And for Nato members beyond America it will mean getting ready to spend much more on arms.


Putin thinks we won’t go through with any changes because all our talk of “democracy” and “values” are just bunk. As he announced the invasion of Ukraine, his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, scoffed that the west would soon give up on sanctions because we are dependent upon Russia. We may have taken Putin for a comedy villain – he’s betting that we’re the joke.

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/ Shutterstock 

  Putin's no madman

  by Brian Stewart



If insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, then many in the West look stark raving mad for thinking that Putin would never dare to escalate his war against Ukraine. With Ukraine under full-scale assault, a slew of leaders, journalists, and intellectuals in the West have suggested that we are witnessing an act of delusional Russian folly. This chorus alleges that by ordering his military forces to expand the irregular war he has prosecuted against Ukraine since 2014, the Russian dictator has taken leave of his senses.


No less a figure than Prime Minister Boris Johnson has fanned the preposterous doubts about Vladimir Putin’s mental health, claiming that Putin is an “irrational actor” bereft of the ability to calculate risk. Carl Bildt, the prominent Swedish diplomat and former prime minister, likewise asserted that it would be “insane” for Putin, whose emotions have “overtaken rationality,” to escalate his war on Ukraine. Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, acknowledging that Putin’s war constitutes naked aggression, asserted that it is irrational because it could bring on a disaster in a replay of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For the sake of a newly imperiled world order, this notion of Putin’s insanity must be promptly discarded before it congeals into conventional wisdom.

What makes so many smart people in the West convinced that Putin is unhinged? For years he has forthrightly declared his imperial ambitions, and has pursued them with unswerving devotion. His aggressive designs against Russia’s neighbors and his regime’s enemies have not incurred meaningful reprisals from the West, so he

proceeds with justified confidence that he may never face concerted or forceful resistance. And here’s the thing: He has yet to be proven wrong.


For two decades and counting, Putin has intermittently been condemned in the councils of Western governments for various depredations, but he has been consistently rewarded for his bellicosity. As he laid the groundwork for authoritarian confrontation and conquest while cracking down on dissent at home, the industrial and military power at his disposal was permitted to swell with little resistance from the outside world. He was even feted at international summits and invited to enter into trade deals with the richest nations of Europe. Even as he directed his intelligence services to sow disorder in the political systems of the West, scarcely any price was exacted for his extraordinarily brazen campaign of information warfare. GDP growth and partisan pique were too important to sacrifice to abstract concepts like the defense of democracy.


In the Kremlin, the meaning of the West’s feeble indifference was understood to be that the world order was no longer much of an order. Its erstwhile guardians no longer seemed willing to risk very much to preserve it against hostile revisionist powers. Even when Moscow unleashed military force, as it did in 2008 against Georgia, it was clear that it could do so almost without consequence. But the acid test would come in Ukraine.

After the Maidan Revolution brought down Russia’s puppet government in Kyiv in 2014, Putin did not squander the opportunity. In short order, Russian forces annexed Crimea and incited a civil conflict in the Donbas. European countries refused to impose sanctions or to isolate Russia from the world economy. It was only after Russian separatists shot down a civilian airliner carrying EU citizens that piecemeal sanctions were imposed.

No strategic evolution came to pass, however, and Europe’s sordid reliance on Russian energy continued unbroken — grew, even.

On the available evidence, Putin bears every sign of being a supremely rational creature. His long tenure has been marked by cool calculation and acts of inching ever closer to his objective of overthrowing the post-Cold War settlement and restoring Russia’s historical sphere of influence. His record of aggression and provocation has seldom been countered, let alone decisively checked. And so, the question is not why he is now waging a

full-fledged war against Ukraine. The question, given the mingled complacency and greed of the free world, is: Why on earth wouldn’t he?

Brian Stewart is a political writer, based in New York

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Putin's reasons for making war on Ukraine


by Anne Applebaum



Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic, a fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and the author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. She has written extensively about the Russia's history and its contemporary politics. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her history of the Gulags, the Soviet concentration camp system, founded by Lenin and surviving into the 1950s, and also won prizes for her history of Stalin's assaults on Ukraine. She has studied the rise and rise of Vladimir Putin closely, and is an acute critic of his authoritarianism and the Western powers' avoidance of confronting it. She manages, throughout this exemplary description of Putin's motives for invading Ukraine, without once referring to his state of mind.

Why would Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, attack a neighboring country that has not provoked him? Why would he risk the blood of his own soldiers? Why would he risk sanctions, and perhaps an economic crisis, as a result? And if he is not really willing to risk these things, then why is he playing this elaborate game?

To explain why requires some history, but not the semi-mythological, faux-medieval history Putin has used in the past to declare that Ukraine is not a country, or that its existence is an accident, or that its sense of nationhood is not real. Nor do we need to know that much about the more recent history of Ukraine or its

70 years as a Soviet republic—though it is true that the Soviet ties of the Russian president, most notably his

years spent as a KGB officer, matter a great deal. Indeed, many of his tactics—the use of sham Russian-backed “separatists” to carry out his war in eastern Ukraine, the creation of a puppet government in Crimea—are old KGB tactics, familiar from the Soviet past. Fake political groupings played a role in the KGB’s

domination of Central Europe after World War II; sham separatists played a role in the Bolshevik conquest of Ukraine itself  in 1918.


Putin’s attachment to the old U.S.S.R. matters in another way as well. Although he is sometimes incorrectly described as a Russian nationalist, he is in fact an imperial nostalgist. The Soviet Union was a Russian-speaking empire, and he seems, at times, to dream of re-creating a smaller Russian-speaking empire within the old

Soviet Union’s borders. But the most significant influence on Putin’s worldview has nothing to do with either his KGB training or his desire to rebuild the U.S.S.R. Putin and the people around him have been far more profoundly shaped, rather, by their path to power. That story—which has been told several times, by the authors Fiona Hill, Karen Dawisha, and most recently Catherine Belton—begins in the 1980s. The later years of that decade were, for many Russians, a moment of optimism and excitement.


The policy of glasnost—openness—meant that people were speaking the truth for the first time in decades. Many felt the real possibility of change. Putin missed that moment of exhilaration. Instead, he was posted to the KGB office in Dresden, East Germany, where he endured the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as a personal tragedy. As the world’s television screens blared out the news of the Cold War’s end, Putin and his KGB comrades in the doomed Soviet satellite state were frantically burning all of their files, making calls to Moscow that were never returned, fearing for their lives and their careers. For KGB operatives, this was not a time of rejoicing, but rather a lesson about the nature of street movements and the power of rhetoric: democratic rhetoric, antiauthoritarian rhetoric, anti-totalitarian rhetoric. Putin, like his role model Yuri Andropov, who was the Soviet ambassador to Hungary during the 1956 revolution there, concluded from that period that spontaneity is dangerous. Protest is dangerous. Talk of democracy and political change is dangerous. To keep them from spreading, Russia’s rulers must maintain careful control over the life of the nation. Markets cannot be genuinely open; elections cannot be unpredictable; dissent must be carefully “managed” through legal pressure, public propaganda, and, if necessary, targeted violence.

But although Putin missed the euphoria of the ’80s, he certainly took full part in the orgy of greed that gripped Russia in the ’90s. Having weathered the trauma of the Berlin Wall, Putin returned to the Soviet Union and joined his former colleagues in a massive looting of the Soviet state. With the assistance of Russian organized crime as well as the amoral international offshore-money-laundering industry, some of the former Soviet nomenklatura stole assets, took the money out of the country, hid it abroad, and then brought the cash back and used it to buy more assets. Wealth accumulated; a power struggle followed. Some of the original oligarchs landed in prison or exile. Eventually Putin wound up as the top billionaire among all the other billionaires—or at least the one who controls the secret police.

This position makes Putin simultaneously very strong and very weak, a paradox that many Americans and Europeans find hard to understand. He is strong, of course, because he controls so many levers of Russia’s society and economy. Try to imagine an American president who controlled not only the executive branch—including the FBI, CIA, and NSA—but also Congress and the judiciary; The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, and all of the other newspapers; and all major businesses, including Exxon, Apple, Google, and General Motors.

Putin’s control comes without legal limits. He and the people around him operate without checks and balances, without ethics rules, without transparency of any kind. They determine who can be a candidate in elections, and who is allowed to speak in public. They can make decisions from one day to the next—sending troops to the Ukrainian border, for example—after consulting no one and taking no advice. When Putin contemplates an invasion, he does not have to consider the interest of Russian businesses or consumers who might suffer from economic sanctions. He doesn’t have to take into account the families of Russian soldiers who might die in a conflict that they don’t want. They have no choice, and no voice.

And yet at the same time, Putin’s position is extremely precarious. Despite all of that power and all of that money, despite total control over the information space and total domination of the political space, Putin must know, at some level, that he is an illegitimate leader. He has never won a fair election, and he has never campaigned in a contest that he could lose. He knows that the political system he helped create is profoundly unfair, that his regime not only runs the country but owns it, making economic and foreign-policy decisions that are designed to benefit the companies from which he and his inner circle personally profit. He knows that the institutions of the state exist not to serve the Russian people, but to steal from them. He knows that this system works very well for a few rich people, but very badly for everyone else. He knows, in other words, that one day, prodemocracy activists of the kind he saw in Dresden might come for him too.

Putin’s awareness that his legitimacy is dubious has been on public display since 2011, soon after his rigged “reelection” to a constitutionally dubious third term. At that time, large crowds appeared not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg but several dozen other cities as well, protesting electoral fraud and elite corruption. Protesters mocked the Kremlin as a regime of “crooks and thieves,” a slogan popularized by the democracy activist Alexei Navalny; later, Putin’s regime would poison Navalny, nearly killing him. The dissident is now in a Russian jail. But Putin wasn’t just angry at Navalny. He also blamed America, the West, foreigners trying to destroy Russia. The Obama administration had, he said, organized the demonstrators; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of all people, had “given the signal” to start the protests. He had won the election, he declared with great passion, tears seeming to well up in his eyes, despite the “political provocations that pursue the sole objective of undermining Russia's statehood and usurping power.”


In his mind, in other words, he wasn’t merely fighting Russian demonstrators; he was fighting the world’s democracies, in league with enemies of the state. Whether he really believed that crowds in Moscow were literally taking orders from Hillary Clinton is unimportant. He certainly understood the power of democratic language, of the ideas that made Russians want a fair political system, not a kleptocracy controlled by Putin and his gang, and he knew where they came from. Over the subsequent decade, he would take the fight against democracy to Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, where he would support extremist groups and movements in the hope of undermining European democracy. Russian state-controlled media would support the campaign for Brexit, on the grounds that it would weaken Western democratic solidarity, which it has. Russian oligarchs would invest in key industries across Europe and around the world with the aim of gaining political traction, especially in smaller countries like Hungary and Serbia. And, of course, Russian disinformation specialists would intervene in the 2016 American election.

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining the extraordinary significance, to Putin, of Ukraine. Of course Ukraine matters as a symbol of the lost Soviet empire. Ukraine was the second-most-populous and second-richest Soviet republic, and the one with the deepest cultural links to Russia. But modern, post-Soviet Ukraine also matters because it has tried—struggled, really—to join the world of prosperous Western democracies. Ukraine has staged not one but two prodemocracy, anti-oligarchy, anti-corruption revolutions in the past two decades. The most recent, in 2014, was particularly terrifying for the Kremlin. Young Ukrainians were chanting anti-corruption slogans, just like the Russian opposition does, and waving European Union flags. These protesters were inspired by the same ideals that Putin hates at home and seeks to overturn abroad. After Ukraine’s profoundly corrupt, pro-Russian president fled the country in February 2014, Ukrainian television began showing pictures of his palace, complete with gold taps, fountains, and statues in the yard—exactly the kind of palace Putin inhabits in Russia. Indeed, we know he inhabits such a palace because one of the

videos produced by Navalny has already shown us pictures of it, along with its private ice-hockey rink and its hookah bar.


Putin’s subsequent invasion of Crimea punished Ukrainians for trying to escape from the kleptocratic system that he wanted them to live in—and it showed Putin’s own subjects that they too would pay a high cost for democratic revolution. The invasion also violated both written and unwritten rules and treaties in Europe, demonstrating Putin’s scorn for the Western status quo. Following that “success,” Putin launched a much broader attack: a series of attempted coups d’état in Odessa, Kharkiv, and several other cities with a Russian-speaking majority. This time, the strategy failed, not least because Putin profoundly misunderstood Ukraine, imagining that Russian-speaking Ukrainians would share his Soviet imperial nostalgia. They did not.

Only in Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine where Putin was able to move in troops and heavy equipment from across the border, did a local coup succeed. But even there he did not create an attractive “alternative” Ukraine. Instead, the Donbas—the coal-mining region that surrounds Donetsk—remains a zone of chaos and lawlessness.


It’s a long way from the Donbas to France or the Netherlands, where far-right politicians hang around the European Parliament and take Russian money to go on “fact-finding missions” to Crimea. It’s a longer way still to the small American towns where, back in 2016, voters eagerly clicked on pro-Trump Facebook posts written in St. Petersburg. But they are all a part of the same story: They are the ideological answer to the trauma that Putin and his generation of KGB officers experienced in 1989. Instead of democracy, they promote autocracy; instead of unity, they try constantly to create division; instead of open societies, they promote xenophobia. Instead of letting people hope for something better, they promote nihilism and cynicism.






                                                                                                   /Emilio Morenatti, AP 


Putin ... wants to destabilize Ukraine, frighten Ukraine. He wants Ukrainian democracy to fail. He wants the Ukrainian economy to collapse. He wants foreign investors to flee. He wants his neighbors—in Belarus, Kazakhstan, even Poland and Hungary—to doubt whether democracy will ever be viable, in the longer term, in their countries too. Farther abroad, he wants to put so much strain on Western and democratic institutions, especially the European Union and NATO, that they break up. He wants to keep dictators in power wherever he can, in Syria, Venezuela, and Iran. He wants to undermine America, to shrink American influence, to remove the power of the democracy rhetoric that so many people in his part of the world still associate with America. He wants America itself to fail.

These are big goals, and they might not be achievable. But Putin’s beloved Soviet Union also had big, unachievable goals. Lenin, Stalin, and their successors wanted to create an international revolution, to subjugate the entire world to the Soviet dictatorship of the proletariat. Ultimately, they failed—but they did a lot of damage while trying. Putin will also fail, but he too can do a lot of damage while trying.

And not only in Ukraine.

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Putin’s invasion of Ukraine - history in conflict

with imperial fantasies

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THE CONVERSATION is an online publication of background features written by academics from a wide range of universities​. Olivia Durand is a postdoctoral associate in history, University of Oxford. She receives funding from Freie Universität Berlin, and is a research associate of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation. This article was written

with the assistance of Katria Tomko, a Research Associate at the Institute for

Historical Justice & Reconciliation.












A live broadcast of President Putin's imperialist statement of February 21, seen from a Moscow street. 


Vladimir Putin has long insisted Ukraine is part of the country he rules. This was painted more starkly than ever as he announced that Russian troops were undertaking a “special military operation” in its western neighbour. But to the rest of the world, what Russia is undertaking is simply an invasion.


Putin has been softening up the world for his latest foreign policy adventure for some years now. “Kiev is the mother of Russian cities,” he wrote in March 2014. “Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other.” A few days later Russia completed the annexation of Crimea. Eight years later, during which time more than 14,000 people have died in a Russian-instigated war of insurgency in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, he has returned to this theme – backed by the might of Russia’s armed forces.


The Russian president made this intention crystal clear in an hour-long and fairly wide-ranging speech on February 22, 2020. “Ukraine is not just a neighbouring country for us,” he told the Russian people in a national broadcast. “It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.” He repeatedly denied Ukraine’s right to independent existence – and, at times, that the country exists at all as an independent entity. Instead he appeared to accept the unity of the two countries as historical fact.

In doing so, he revealed the structures of an imperial ideology with a chronology and ambition that goes far beyond post-Soviet nostalgia to the mediaeval era. But to what extent is that ideology shared by Russians?

One of the striking elements of Putin’s latest speech about Ukraine, which accompanied the recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, was his insistence that Ukraine exists as a by-product of Russian history, insisting that “Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians.”

But he later undercut his insistence of these shared origins, stating that “Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia.” To him, the making of modern Ukraine only started “after the 1917 revolution”, and Ukrainians have “Lenin and his associates” to thank for their state. This was a reference to Lenin’s creation of a federation of Soviet states, the USSR, out of the ethnic diversity of the former Russian empire.


In reality, Ukrainian aspirations for statehood predated revolution by at least two centuries. From the Ukrainian Hetmanate’s 1710 Bendery Constitution to the 1917 establishment of the West andUkrainian People’s Republics and appeals at the Paris Peace Conference for status, Ukrainians have continuously asserted themselves as a distinct people. 


The formation of the USSR was, in part, conditioned by the previous creation of these two independent Ukrainian Republics in the aftermath of the revolution and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These republics stemmed directly from the 19th century Ukrainian romantic national movement that reassessed the impact of the Cossack past, fuelling the development of an identity centring on a distinct language, culture, and history. 

When the Bolsheviks, Lenin at their head, took control over the Ukrainian territories, the idea of Ukraine as an independent nation could not be ignored, and led to the independent status – on paper – of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1922. 

What Putin’s address reveals is the desire to plot Russian and Ukrainian history through the lens of imperialism. He is attempting to establish a direct line from shared ancient origins to a first and second Russian empire: one under the Romanov Tsars (1721-1917) and the second as part of the USSR.  Across those two imperial epochs, Ukraine is reduced to a tributary state and mentions of national aspirations are smothered. This is precisely the message that the Kremlin continues to disseminate in the 21st century.

But what does the Russian public believe? Three decades ago, when the USSR collapsed, only rare and often ultra-nationalist politicians resorted to imperial history in imagining Russia’s post-soviet future. As early as the 1990s, ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky advocated ceasing coal supplies to Ukraine as a tactic to bring back Russia’s lost territories, but he remained a fringe figure in Russian politics.


Still, in 2011 and 2012 Global Attitudes surveys conducted by Pew Research Centre, support for imperial ideology was not insignificant. When asked whether “it’s natural for Russia to have an empire”, only 31pc of Russian respondents disagreed. Whether nostalgia for empire translates to appetite for war to “regain territory” remains unclear.

It is impossible to paint all Russian perceptions of Ukrainians with the same brush. Russian feelings toward their neighbour have historically ranged from genuine feelings of brotherhood and warmth to virulent expressions of xenophobia manifesting in episodes of ethnic cleansing, such as the 1932 orchestrated famine known as the Holodomor

But when it comes to the question of how Russia should position itself with regards to claiming eastern Ukrainian provinces as long-lost parts of the “Russian empire”, opinion is more clearly divided. Only 26 pc of Russians wanted the Donbas to become part of Russia, while 54pc are in favour of varying forms of independence (within Ukraine or separate). War remains an unpopular choice, with only 18pc of Russians unreservedly supporting armed conflict in defence of the two breakaway republics in a poll from April 2021.

Ultimately, the use of “empire” as an ideology reveals Russia’s yearning for – or sense of entitlement to – a third imperial regime. The rhetorical and physical erasure of Ukrainian history and identity makes it much easier to assert claims of shared Russian heritage. This will be important

to bear in mind as we watch the development of this renewed conflict over Ukraine.


Parallels with other formerly colonised peoples abound. But, as Kenya’s envoy to the UN put it, no matter what conditions presided over the drawing of modern borders, "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."

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Afghanistan faces universal poverty in 2022

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Afghanistan has reached the tragic status of being at the top of the list of the top ten nations facing humanitarian catastrophe in 2022. The International Rescue Committee draws up what it calls its Emergency Watchlist every year. The other countries on the Watchlist are, in order, of deprivation, Ethiopia, Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Somalia and Sudan.

The IRC reports: "Most Watchlist countries – the top ten in particular – have experienced almost non-stop conflict over the past decade, hampering their ability to respond to global challenges such as COVID-19 and climate change. These 20 countries are home to 10pc of the global population but account for 89pc of those in need of humanitarian aid worldwide" 


According to David Miliband, the IRC president and CEO: "These are more than a series of unfortunate events. The story told by the Watchlist makes a bigger argument, not just that there are more poor and more people forcibly displaced, but that the scale and nature of humanitarian distress around the world constitutes a system failure.”

No systems have failed more dramatically than those that affect Afghanistan. When, in August 2021, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (The Taliban) filled the vacuum left by the departing American forces and their allies, the financial and  political systems collapsed almost entirely. To make matters even worse, international donors immediately suspended most non-humanitarian funding and froze billions of dollars in assets. Without this funding, the economy of Afghanistan is in freefall. Almost no-one is being paid, not even the Taliban fighters.


As a consequence, Afghanistan could see near universal poverty (97 percent) by mid 2022. Over 90 percent of the country’s health clinics are expected to shut down, depriving millions of basic care, threatening the COVID-19 response, and creating a major risk of disease outbreaks, malnutrition and preventable deaths. To add to this crisis, women and girls are at higher risk of gender-based violence, child marriage, exploitation and abuse, all magnified by gender-specific restrictions on work and education.


None of this was a surprise to people who know Afghanistan. Late last year the Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme, David Beasley, made these apocalyptic predictions: "The next six months are going to be catastrophic. It is going to be hell on Earth. Ninety-five percent of the people don't have enough food, and now we're looking at 23 million people marching towards starvation. It is as bad as you possibly can imagine. In fact, we're now looking at the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth.


"To the world leaders, to the billionaires: imagine that this was your little girl or your little boy, or your grandchild about to starve to death. You would do everything you possibly could, and when there's $400 trillion worth of wealth on the earth today, shame on us.


“Hunger is rising and children are dying. We can’t feed people on promises. Funding commitments must turn into hard cash, and the international community must come together to address this crisis, which is fast spinning out of control.” 

David Beasley's words seem to echo through the void, unheard. No-one with the means to turn this round seems to be listening. And what makes matters even worse is that the facts on the ground make the chances of avoiding this multiplying tragedy even less likely.


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Frozen assets in a bitter winter

by Weeda Mehran,  University of Exeter 


In October 2021 the Taliban foreign minister, Amir Khan Mottaqi, called on the US Congress to ease sanctions and release Afghanistan’s reserves. But would the US$9.5 billion (£7.16 billion) of frozen assets of Afghanistan Central Bank do anything to alleviate the deeply rooted poverty and food insecurity of the Afghan people – or will this only benefit the Taliban and its fighters?

Even in the near term, this amount of money will not go far to address poverty in Afghanistan. It has been estimated the reserves would cover the import costs of Afghanistan for only 15 months. The US-backed regime’s budget estimate for the fiscal year 2020 was $6.22 billion.


The situation has been made worse by several other factors: drought, dependency on international aid and high unemployment rates. These extend far deeper and beyond the reach anything $9.5 billion could achieve. International aid made up about 75pc of the US-backed regime’s budget. Afghanistan’s assets are only a fraction of the aid the country needs. It is naive to think that the Taliban’s caretaker cabinet and its civil service is able to administer these funds efficiently. The Taliban’s leadership lacks the knowledge, skill and experience needed to run state institutions and deliver services while managing an unfolding humanitarian crisis against the backdrop

of a pandemic.














The skills that helped the Taliban win on the battlefield are not easily transferable. And more than half of the Taliban’s caretaker cabinet is on at least one designated terrorist list, which makes diplomatic engagement  very difficult at the international level. At home, the Taliban leadership suffers from internal fragmentation that makes agreement on national-level public policy decisions difficult.


The Taliban has placed fighters in upper-level administration positions, while thousands of former government employees have either left their jobs or have been replaced with Taliban loyalists, according to my anonymous sources still living there. Women, who previously made up almost half of the civil service, have been almost entirely excluded. Taliban fighters placed at executive administrative levels lack the required managerial and leadership skills – some reportedly even lack basic literacy. The prospects of these people having the capacity to put the funds to productive use addressing the abject poverty in the country is very low. Additionally, fears of misappropriation of National Bank’s assets are well-grounded. The limited international aid that has reached Afghanistan has occasionally been misappropriated and distributed among the Taliban fighters.



























These concerns become all the more relevant given that the Taliban is not able to pay its fighters. The group has about 80,000 armed employees who were paid 10,000-25,000 Afghanis (the equivalent of US$200-US$400) per month before the group took over Kabul. The Taliban needs at least $16m a month for the salaries of its fighters alone. Some of them have reportedly defected to IS or al-Qaeda.

Finally, the release of Afghanistan’s foreign assets is tied to the question of the Taliban’s legitimacy. No government so far – including its staunch supporter Pakistan – has officially recognised the Taliban’s government. Freezing Afghanistan’s assets was a political decision by President Biden, to put pressure on the Taliban to form an inclusive government. Thus, releasing these assets to the Taliban is akin to formal recognition of the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Even if it was released for entirely humanitarian reasons, the Taliban would not hesitate to make this into a propaganda coup.


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Millions of Afghans face famine, includeing malnourished mothers, children and pregnant women.     /Oriane Zerah / ABACA Press / Reuters

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Afghans in the face of famine

- the view from the frontline


by Jane Ferguson

January 5, 2022




On a recent afternoon in a Kabul hospital, seventeen babies lay beside one another on small beds, their bony elbows touching. Some of them, pink and a little plumper, cried and wriggled as nurses rushed by. Others, their pallid skin shades of blue and gray, were still—save for their skeletal rib cages silently rising and falling. The infants often weigh less than four pounds when they arrive in the neonatal intensive-care unit. Pregnant women across Afghanistan are increasingly malnourished, and their bodies, unable to carry their babies to full term, give birth prematurely. Meagre diets then leave new mothers unable to breast-feed.


“A lot of babies are premature,” Abdul Jabad, a pediatrician in his late twenties, told me. “Some survive. Some not.”


Two or three infants occupied I.C.U. beds meant for a single child, owing to a surge in cases, Jabad, who stood in a white coat in the center of the ward, explained. As a result, most babies contract infections. On the day I visited, some of the sheets on the I.C.U. beds were stained with feces. Exhausted mothers stood next to the beds and stared wide-eyed at their babies. One leaned over, sang lullabies, and gently kissed her child’s cheek. Others paced in the hallway outside. About a third of the children who arrive at the unit do not survive.

A month after the Biden Administration pulled U.S forces out of Afghanistan, only seventeen per cent of the country’s more than twenty-three hundred health clinics were functional. Doctors in the hospital in Kabul told me that they hadn’t been paid since the Taliban seized power, in August, and that medicine is in short supply. The new government is struggling to feed the country’s thirty-nine million people, and the chance that an Afghan baby will go hungry and die is the highest in twenty years. Half of the country’s population needs humanitarian assistance to survive, double the number from 2020. More than twenty million people are on the brink of famine. The United Nations Development Programme projects that by the middle of this year Afghanistan could face “universal poverty,” with ninety-seven per cent of Afghans living below the World Bank-designated international poverty line of $1.90 a day.

Across the Afghan capital, Taliban leaders denied the humanitarian catastrophe threatening the country. “There are some rumors and propaganda that the country is going through a crisis, and it is not correct,” the main government spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, told me. “We have resources and ongoing works, revenue collection which is enough for our government.”


Outside the hospital in Kabul, a young Taliban fighter—an AK-47 resting on his knee—lounged in a chair next to a government administrator typing texts on his phone. They drank tea in the winter sunshine. The official, who appeared to be in his early thirties, told me that he was a doctor from Logar province, just south of Kabul, who had been sent to oversee the hospital. He denied the suffering that I had witnessed inside. “Now, we are not in an emergency situation in this hospital, because we have doctors and medical equipment,” he said. “At the moment, we don’t have a big problem.” A few minutes later, after I turned off my recording equipment, he admitted that supplies were so scarce that he had recently asked a German news crew to ship medicines to him after they returned home.


The refusal of Taliban officials to publicly acknowledge the country’s growing crisis is exacerbating a problem that they didn’t solely create. One of the largest blunders of the two-decade-long U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan was a failure to build a self-sustaining economy, which has now resulted in financial free fall—unpaid workers, starving families. The country’s government remains chronically aid-dependent and unable to generate significant tax revenue. As Afghanistan’s economy implodes, the achievements of the past two decades in areas such as health care and education are collapsing, as well.


“The international community, the last twenty or thirty years, has done a disastrous job here—seventy-five per cent of the economy is based on outside funding,” David Beasley, the head of the U.N.’s World Food Programme, told me, on a recent trip to Kabul. “Coupled with the corruption that was allowed from year to year to year.”


Beasley, a former Republican governor of South Carolina, called for the Biden Administration to immediately release more than nine billion dollars in Afghan-government assets that it froze after the Taliban seized control of the country. The measure was designed to prevent further strengthening of the Taliban, a group that the U.S. Treasury Department still lists as a terrorist organization. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank also stopped sending funds to the country after the group took power.


“If you unfreeze the money, then you can put liquidity back into the marketplace, and the economy will start to come back up,” Beasley, who stood inside a vast warehouse where workers unloaded sacks of W.F.P.-provided wheat flour from trucks, said. “If you don’t, we’re not going to need to feed twenty-two or twenty-three million people per month—we are going to need to be feeding thirty-five million people. . . . This country will absolutely collapse.”


With millions facing famine, humanitarian-aid workers are calling for the Biden Administration to take a radical step: release the billions in frozen Afghan government assets to humanitarian organizations. The White House so far has responded with incremental proposals. In December, the Treasury Department made it easier for the U.N., N.G.O.s, and individuals to send money and supplies to Afghanistan for humanitarian assistance. In October, the U.S. also provided an additional hundred and forty-four million dollars in aid. That is less than a small fraction of the multibillion-dollar fund that the U.N. is seeking to avert famine in Afghanistan in 2022: its biggest ever global appeal for a single country, larger even than for conflict-and hunger-stricken nations such as Yemen and Somalia.

According to aid workers, Taliban officials are allowing U.N. agencies to work unimpeded in every province of the country for the first time in twenty years. They appear to have decided that blocking humanitarian efforts could spark intense anger from Afghanistan’s population. At the same time, the Taliban have established a repressive, autocratic state that has carried out more than a hundred targeted killings and abductions of former Afghan officials, severely limited girls’ education, banned women from many workplaces, silenced local journalists, and beat female protesters in the street with whips. Ongoing evacuations of the more than sixty thousand Afghan interpreters and others who worked alongside U.S. forces, and who were left behind during the chaotic American withdrawal, has slowed to a crawl. At the current rate at which U.S officials are vetting and evacuating applicants, it will take months, perhaps years, for all those who are eligible for resettlement to be flown out.


The W.F.P. has opened multiple food-distribution centers across the country for Afghan civilians. In the Khushal Khan neighborhood of Kabul, Taliban guards held back dozens of men who waited in line at one of the sites, shuffling forward with U.N. registration cards and Afghan I.D.s in their hands. Women, who receive food first, had come and gone earlier that morning. Each family was given a ration designed to last for two months: two hundred and twenty pounds of wheat flour, ten quarts of cooking oil, and seventeen kilograms of soybeans.


The men in line—taxi-drivers, construction workers, laborers in laundries and bakeries—told me that they had lost their jobs in the economic crash. Navid Quraishi, tall and thin and in his late twenties, said that he was standing in line for food for the first time in his life. “There are a lot of economic issues and very little work,” he said. A rickshaw driver whose livelihood disappeared after the Taliban takeover, said his extended family of nine—including his parents, siblings, and children—was going hungry.


Khalid Payenda, who served as Afghanistan’s acting finance minister before the Taliban takeover, admitted that corruption in the Afghan government had helped foster the current economic crisis. “There was also a complacency,” he said from Washington, D.C., where he currently resides with his family. “Even until the end, people thought, The U.S. is not going to abandon Afghanistan, so, you know, we will not fix it now—we will fix it the next year, or maybe the year after.”


Aid officials from the U.S. and other countries have long argued that rank corruption in the Afghan government has derailed development efforts. In 2020, the anti-corruption group Transparency International ranked Afghanistan the fifteenth-most corrupt nation on earth, tied with the Republic of the Congo and Turkmenistan. But the forty-plus nations that acted as donors to the country created a piecemeal approach to development. Political considerations within Afghanistan often resulted in aid money being restricted for use in certain areas, such as education. Payenda said that the private sector moved its money out of the country for safekeeping, instead of investing it domestically. “Even when there was some profit made, it was not reinvested,” he said. “It was siphoned out to other places.”


In Kabul, the Biden Administration’s freezing of the Afghan government’s assets has handed the Taliban a public-relations victory. In the city’s money market, a warren of tiny foreign-exchange offices where men clutching handfuls of cash offer to buy and sell currencies, Afghans expressed anger at the American stance. “They talk about human rights, and they are violating human-rights laws themselves,” Abdul Jalal, a money changer, said, as other men nodded. “Why do they not unfreeze the Afghan money, which is Afghan people’s right?”

Mohammed Safi, a man in a pale Western suit who said he worked in the finance ministry during the country’s U.S.-backed government, noted that aid groups like the United Nations Children’s Fund already have systems in place to disburse funds directly to the most disadvantaged Afghan families. He argued that this was not the time for the international community to wait for the Taliban to embrace good governance.


“The challenge is increasing day by day,” he said.

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    Building bridges: a village elder and daughter at a jirga assembly with the US military on canal construction.                                                                                         /Larry Towell /Magnum Photos

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Afghanistan shows the American dream

of remaking the world is over

by John Gray

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The abrupt disappearance of a familiar world leaves a sense of unreality in those who witness it. When an unhinged rabble stormed the Capitol building in Washington, DC in January, it was hard to believe the scenes broadcast across the world were happening. A similar sense of disbelief is produced by images of American and allied forces struggling to extract their citizens and partners from the grip of a triumphant Taliban in Afghanistan. The two events are part of the same process of disintegration. The disorder that has been loosed on the world reflects the disorder that reigns in the United States itself.


There are many who think Joe Biden’s decision to accept the Afghanistan withdrawal plan negotiated by Donald Trump in Doha in February 2020 was simply a default in leadership. Biden should have disowned Trump’s deal, or delayed its implementation until conditions looked more propitious. The US’s retreat was needless, and the decline of American power can be reversed by an act of will. It is not only a shrunken army of neoconservatives, seething in their Washington bunkers, who think this way. So does Tony Blair when he fulminates against Biden’s “imbecilic” decision.


It is true that the Biden administration’s handling of America’s withdrawal has been deplorable. Leaving Bagram airbase in the dead of night on 1 July, without informing the local Afghan commander and programming electricity and water supplies to be shut off after the last plane had departed, prefigured the chaos that followed. The base housed a prison – widely feared and hated by Afghans as a centre where large-scale torture was practised – which contained thousands of inmates. Many of them fighters from the Taliban and Islamic State, they soon escaped or were released.


Arrant incompetence characterised the American exit from the start. But attributing the Afghan tragedy to Joe Biden’s poor judgement and allegedly waning mental powers is a cop-out. Instead, the retreat is the outcome of

20 years and more of liberal overreach in the US and its allies. If anyone is senile, it is the political class that mired the West in this conflict. Biden’s decision may yet be remembered as a long overdue shift to realism in American foreign policy.


It is worth asking what the US and Nato believed they were doing in Afghanistan. The official narrative propagated by the governments involved in the Afghan mission is that the original plan was to prevent the country from being used as a safe haven for terrorists, and that this was achieved. Exiting in present circumstances has left the West more vulnerable, they argue, and at the same time signals to its allies that they cannot count on its protection.

There is some truth in this story. It is not only Ukraine and Taiwan that suspect they too could be abandoned by the US. Japan, Israel, the Gulf states, the Baltic states and Georgia will be wondering how much American guarantees of their security are worth. Jihadism has been re-energised, a trend already manifesting itself in countries such as Somalia and Mali. A horrendous refugee crisis is brewing. Desperate Afghans fleeing terror and famine, who only weeks ago were being assured that human rights are universal, will face sealed borders across Europe. Within Afghanistan, the US pull-out has handed the initiative to terrorist forces even more extreme than the Taliban, such as Isis and various jihadist splinter groups.

The dangers are all too clear. Yet installing an army of occupation was never a sustainable strategy. More than the US switching its attention to another misbegotten war in Iraq, it was this fateful decision that made disaster unavoidable. Occupying Afghanistan meant waging a counter-insurgency campaign, which in turn meant a failed exercise in nation-building. An ignominious exit was preordained.


There were better ways of defending the West. The campaign of disabling terrorist sites by bombing, which drove Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda from the country, could have been turned into a permanent threat backed by that of concentrated ground operations. Pressure could have been exerted on Pakistan, whose military Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) nurtured and sheltered the Taliban throughout its history.


Launching a counter-insurgency campaign defied the lessons of history. The last major victory in a war of this kind was in the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s, where the British were able to deploy an existing state infrastructure against communist rebels. In Afghanistan a modern state had to be constructed from scratch – an impossible task, as Afghan history has repeatedly demonstrated. If a small Western garrison had been kept in place, as some have proposed, it would have only delayed the final reckoning. All the Taliban had to do was wait.

When a modern state has existed in Afghanistan it has been superimposed on a country of tribes and clans, and this is the case today. Around three-quarters of the population live in villages, where identities and loyalties are local and tribal. For these rural communities, which suffered the worst carnage of the war, the Afghan nation is a fiction.

This may explain the uncanny ease with which Kabul fell, which seemed to surprise even the Taliban. Knowing the weakness of the state, the real holders of power – local and regional governors, police chiefs and clan leaders – surrendered without hesitation. The Kabul government functioned principally as an instrument of kleptocratic elites. Aid funds were siphoned off on a stupendous scale. Ghost soldiers were invented and their salaries stolen while actual soldiers went unpaid. The legal system installed by the allies was slow and corrupt, forcing many Afghans to turn to Taliban justice instead.







The government did secure improvements in society, particularly for urban women. But these gains were dependent on keeping the Taliban at bay, which demanded a permanent, colonial-style military presence in the country. It was never a viable option. No democracy can sustain an indefinite loss of life for such an endlessly receding goal. The women and girls who are being denied a proper education and dragged off to sexual slavery are casualties of promises that could not be kept.


Some suggest Afghanistan’s new rulers are savvier now than when they were in power between 1996 and 2001. They may be, but that does not make them any less malevolent. The liberal West understands fanaticism as the result of ignorance and error; as human beings grow smarter, they will be less cruel and repressive. It is a dangerous delusion. Taliban forces are making house-to-house searches using handheld digital surveillance devices left behind in the allied retreat. Wherever they can, they deploy new technologies to enforce a virulent fundamentalist ideology. Nothing is more prototypically modern than fundamentalism – the attempt to recreate a crudely simplified version of an irretrievable past. Describing the Taliban as taking the country back to the Middle Ages does an injustice to the subtler cultures of medieval times.


The new self-declared Emirate threatens the West, its friends and its enemies alike. While delighting in America’s humiliation, China and Russia have jihadist threats of their own to contend with. India fears Afghanistan will become a base for terror groups like the one that carried out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Iran and Pakistan welcome American defeat, but worry about a further influx of refugees on top of the millions they already host. Unlike Vietnam, where American withdrawal failed to cause a domino effect for communism in south-east Asia, Afghanistan’s future is a crucial factor in regional and global power struggles.

Nation-building in Afghanistan demonstrated the limitations of a model of development that has mesmerised thinkers and governments from all parts of the political spectrum for generations. Modernisation means catching up with the West and adopting its institutions and values. Temporary deviations are permissible, given the imperfections of local cultures, but all societies are moving towards a single destination – an idealised replica of the kind of state and society that used  to exist in some Western countries.

This view of modernisation was promoted by Ashraf Ghani, Afghan president between September 2014 and August 2021, in the book Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World, co-authored with the British human rights lawyer Clare Lockhart (2008). The two founded a Washington-based consultancy, the Institute of State Effectiveness, in 2005. By the time of the American withdrawal, Ghani was a world-renowned expert on development. When the Taliban reached the outskirts of Kabul he fled the country, and now lives abroad.

Ghani’s model originates in 18th-century Europe, when economists such as Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-81) and Adam Smith (1723-90) presented human development as unfolding in a series of distinct phases terminating in commercial societies of the kind in which they lived. Progress consisted of transforming or eliminating any remnants of earlier and supposedly more primitive forms of life in their own societies, such as village communities, while others followed in the wake of this ongoing advance.


Later thinkers accepted the idea of all of humankind moving through the same phases of development, even if they changed the ultimate destination. Karl Marx, writing in the New York Herald Tribune in 1853, praised British imperialism for disrupting the “undignified, stagnant and vegetative life” of Indian villages. Though modified by Lenin, Marx’s view of pre-industrial life framed the Soviet effort to “catch up with and overtake” the capitalist West through forced-march industrialisation, which led to millions dying in the collectivisation of agriculture in the early 1930s. A generation later, a parallel concept known as “forced-draft urbanisation”, developed by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington, was applied as a strategy in the Vietnam War, resulting in the mass displacement of Vietnamese villagers.


The belief that modernising meant copying the West resurfaced during the short-lived Gorbachev era between 1985 and 1991, when jubilant liberals imagined post-communist Russia becoming a democracy like Canada or Sweden. This fantasy had an academic pedigree in the work of the Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell (1919-2011) who, in The End of Ideology(1960), envisioned Soviet communism and liberal capitalism converging in some variant of social democracy. Bell’s analysis was revisited by Francis Fukuyama in The Origins of Political Order (2011), where the world’s central political problem was defined as “getting to Denmark”.


There are radical defects in this neo-colonial vision, which many in the ruling elites of developing countries, for all their anti-Western stances, have embraced. Liberal democracy developed over centuries in conflicts that included revolutions, civil wars, dictatorships and two world wars. The idea that this fraught history could be compressed into a couple of decades was delusional. Conceivably, a modern state could have been fashioned in Afghanistan by building on traditional structures of authority in villages and tribes. But that would have meant admitting that there could be more than one path of political development for the country, a possibility that seems never to have been seriously considered.


Today, the liberal mode of government is decaying in the countries where it originated. The US in particular shows many of the signs of a state in disrepair. An American cultural revolution has transformed the country out of recognition. Police forces are being defunded, and some cities, such as Portland, are not far from becoming ungoverned spaces. A combination of ultra-progressive social policies and neoliberal capitalism is turning others, such as San Francisco, into drug-sodden shanty towns, but without the informal communities that preserve some semblance of order in developing countries. Superficially at odds, neoliberalism and the prevailing progressivism have a common root in the privileging of individual choice over other human values. Together, they erode the social bonds that individuals need in  order to make meaningful decisions. The result is an acute form of anomie.


The esoteric liberalism of language-purification and thought-cleansing that has seized control of many American universities and institutions can be understood as an attempt to impose a kind of solidarity on the resulting chaos. Universities in particular are theatres for Maoist-style struggle sessions, while much of the media is engaged in agitprop. Practically all of America’s institutions are sites of political warfare. In these conditions, any attempt to export American ideas of government will be seen as the globalisation of America’s disorders.

But there is little likelihood of any future project of that kind. A country that has dissolved into warring ideological tribes lacks the taste for foreign adventures. Many expect these divisions will pass, and someday they will. But the world will not wait on America to resolve its internecine warfare, and in the meantime US foreign policies will need to be less erratic if the country’s international standing is to be salvaged.


Perhaps Biden has begun this renewal. On 1 September he announced: “The decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”


This “Biden doctrine” has been denounced as a stratagem aimed at the midterm elections in November 2022. But Biden has voiced doubts about the Afghan mission for at least a decade, and it could be that his new doctrine marks a turn to a more restrained and realistic American foreign policy.

To claim that US withdrawal could have been averted is to fail to grasp the necessity of what is now unfolding. It may be true that Afghanistan’s fate was sealed with Trump’s exit plan, which told the Taliban the war was over. But Trump proposed the plan because he knew promising to end foreign wars was a key lever in coming to power, while Biden knew that if he declined to implement the plan he would boost Trump’s chances of re-election.

A tragedy that can be avoided by willpower is not a tragedy. A crumbling Pax Americana is the logic of events, and it is not a process America can unilaterally reverse. An argument can be made that the end of the Afghan War enables the US to focus on China, and renew its military pre-eminence through the use of ultra-advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics. However, the next phase in world order will be shaped not by what the US plans to do but more by what other states are already doing.

Nations throughout the world that have relied on American power for their security will hedge their bets. In late August this year Saudi Arabia, a long-standing strategic ally of the US, signed a “military cooperation agreement” with Russia. Poland, disappointed and anxious since the US tacitly endorsed Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany earlier this year, has been forging closer links with China – a trend evident in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary for years. European leaders such as Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen have talked of the need to develop European “strategic autonomy”. Yet after decades of declarations of intent, a European army remains a phantom. A creaking structure composed of 27 states cannot support a credible defence union. In practice, the pursuit of a chimerical independent defence capability will only strengthen Europe’s urge to seek an accommodation with Russia and China.


This strategic vacuum in Europe may be part of the rationale for the historic Aukus pact between the US, UK and Australia to build a new fleet of nuclear-propelled submarines and collaborate in the Indo-Pacific region. If China’s expansion must be contained, only the US can do it. But it should be clear that the upshot cannot be a renewal of American hegemony. The rise of China is part of an unalterable shift from Western dominance. We will continue to inhabit a world more like that before 1914, in which a number of great  powers compete with one another for status and resources.


There are many reasons for the Afghan debacle besides the fatal decision to install an army of occupation. Rigid Western military bureaucracies, profiteering Washington contractors, corrupt Afghan elites and the exigencies of American politics have all played a part. But the ultimate causes lie in the mindset which believes that humankind advances by becoming more

like the West.


There is no universal human agent advancing through history. Human beings have common needs, but they also want different futures. Do Afghan villagers truly yearn for the personal autonomy pursued by a Westernised middle class in Afghan cities? Could it not be that much of the Afghan population remains attached to the tribal identities that have thwarted attempts to remake the country in the past? When the West looks at Afghanistan, might it be seeing a blurred image of itself rather than the complex and discordant truth?


For liberals these questions are akin to blasphemy. The “rules-based liberal order” was always in part an illusion. Power was more important than rules, but the illusion maintained a kind of stability until power moved elsewhere with the rise of China, Russia’s  re-emergence as a major player and India’s increasing role as a counter-weight to China. Any reference to the international community today demands a suspension of disbelief. The West has ceased to be the deciding force in world events without noticing the fact.


This blindness is not surprising. For figures such as Tony Blair who imagined a new humanity was emerging, globalised and progressive, understanding the present would destroy their self-image. Dreading this trauma, they remain transfixed by the alternate reality they have constructed in their minds. As a consequence, the West suffers from a chronic cognitive disorder, which prevents it from framing workable strategies for its own survival.


For all its crusades and self-destructive impulses, what remains of a Western way of life is worth preserving. But defending it effectively means renouncing the attempt to project our values into societies we do not understand. There are many ways of being modern. Some of them, like the Taliban’s attempt to impose a fundamentalist ideology on Afghanistan and the ensuing resurgence of worldwide jihadism, are a threat to the West. In a different and more profound manner, so is the high-tech totalitarian experiment under way in China. Balancing these and other threats such as climate change and the risk of future pandemics will be extremely challenging. What is needed, above all, is a sense of reality.


But unless the West can shed the delusion that the rest of humankind is a backward version of itself, tragedies like that enacted in Afghanistan will be repeated, in new and possibly more grandiose forms. 

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John Gray is a political philosopher, a specialist in the history of ideas. He is lucid and erudite, and happy to provoke. I read his invariably fluent and well-expressed essays in search of illumination but also, as often as not, to disagree with him. In that struggle with a mind more muscular and better informed or, at least, better read than mine, I can better discover what I actually think myself. Sometimes, of course, Gray gets me to change my mind. But not on this occasion.


Throughout this essay, he condemns the American habit of attempting to remodel the world on its own limited terms, in its own partial interests. I certainly agree with Gray on this. What he refers to as liberal (surely neoliberal?) George W Bush's invasion of Afghanistan after 911, was the first step into a minefield that led inexorably to the madness of the invasion of Iraq. Yet, almost  inadvertently, the impact on Afghanistan of this invasion was not entirely negative. It rid the country of a brutal and incompetent regime of arms and brutal ideology, the Taliban.  In the subsequent years, no American soldier forced Afghans to educate their daughters again, or to sing songs or fly kites or write poems or publish books fact to start to rebuild elements of a fragile but pre-existing modern civil society, in the space made available by an initially large yet soon to be shrinking international force.


Gray scatters the word "liberal" around his essay like confetti, with apparently different -- sometimes conflicting - meanings implied. Often, in Gray's hands, it appears to be an insult. He uses the word "Western" as if it were a philosophical term rather than a geographical one. And he uses "modern" as a word that Afghans, with their powerful tribes and their many villages, must forfeit as being irrelevant to their condition. They are not, it seems, ready for such concepts. In my extensive travels I have visited many thousands of villages across the world (I even live in one) and I have encountered many societies that might be called tribal, although it is rather to loose a term to define very much. In none of those places were villages and tribes a directly limiting factor on the level there of political or economic development. They were contextual elements.


I have had only a short couple of weeks in Afghanistan, and those during the period of American and allied "occupation".  I was there to film material related to the education of children and young adults under the conditions of war, including the conditions that prevailed when the Russian and the Taliban forces were in control. Unfortunately, I was restricted mostly to Kabul and communities close by. An Afghan colleague tested the ground for me and declared that he would not allow me to risk visiting Taliban-held territory. At the time, it was far too dangerous, even for him, fluent in Pashto and quick of mind.  Yet my brief time in Kabul gave me evidence enough that there was no single Afghan reality to experience, and certainly no sense that the people I met in the schools and universities I visited were incapable of understanding or living out the implications of democracy - liberal, modern or otherwise. In fact, I saw much inspiring evidence of what people can achieve when they are given a break, even a short break, and are entrusted with a certain degree of agency.

Gray declares that Afghans are not ready for either democracy or modernity. He even suggests that extended feudalism might just work for a few generations more. But, surely, modernity is not a privilege you have to earn when you are ready, it comes crashing in on you whoever and wherever you are. Modernity is not an option it is an irresistible force. The American's supercharged update of modernity smashed its way into Afghanistan with maximum impact. Are then, when the Americans scuttled their way out (under a cloak of darkness, in the hope that the world would not witness their humiliation) they did not take modernity away with them. They simply left a vacuum - a vacuum that, inexorably, is being filled by the effects of anarchy, a collapsed economy and consequent starvation - regardless of cultural traditions, levels of development or political sophistication. GD

































































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Taliban portrait, Kandahar, Afghanistan.  

How close are the

Taliban to God?


What is happening in Afghanistan is so much more than a change of regime. It is the creation of a different order of state, an Islamic Emirate founded on Sharia law. The new Emirate of Afghanistan is not unprecedented. There were emirates in the country through the nineteenth century into the early twentieth, when Afghanistan was the playground of cynical and callous empires of the old school.


The Taliban insurgency from1996 to 2001 called itself an Emirate. There are Emirates in the small states of the Arabian Gulf, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an Emirate in all but name. Its legal system is based on Sharia. The Mutaween, or the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (informally called the religious police) prevent the worship of any religion apart from Islam - despite the fact that up to two million Christians live in Saudi Arabia. 


The Gulf states, of course, are top-down enterprises, almost family businesses. They are founded, and sustained, as much on the oil and gas that has made them so wealthy, and self-indulgent, as they are on Islam. The new Taliban state comes from below, in a poor and harsh country. It has revolutionary tendencies and revolutionary aspirations. Now - courtesy of catastrophic recent decisions in Washington - the Taliban have another opportunity to create dramatic and long term change. The regime of 1996 to 2001 looks now to have been a trial run. But the question of governmental competence must remain open - not to say the

cruelty and mania that, thus far, have been characteristic of Taliban rule.


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Guardians of God

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Mona Kanwal Sheikh

OUP India

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It might seem paradoxical to start a sequence on the Taliban in Afghanistan with extracts from a book about the Taliban in Pakistan. In fact, it is not so strange. Although the political context is quite different, the Taliban members on both sides of the border are Pashtuns in language, culture and faith. Mona Kanwal Sheikh's book is rare and highly valued because it contains close-focus interviews with Taliban activists, both men and women. The author was born in Denmark, of Pakistani origin. She is also a practising Muslim. This has given her the unusual opportunity to gain the confidence of her interviewees:

"My impression was that the Taliban adherents wanted to talk to me because they expected a sympathetic portrayal. Although they seemed eager to get their viewpoint across, many of them refused to speak to Western journalists or researchers, either on principle or as a result of bad experiences... 


"The people I spoke with were often bitter, not only about trivializations and humiliations of this kind but also about Western ignorance of Islam... From my own upbringing in the West and my encounter with public stereotypes of Muslims, I recognize the frustration of being portrayed in a certain light. I, therefore, hope that I can fulfil my ambition [of] providing a nuanced portrayal of who the Pakistani Taliban are and how they justify their embrace of violence."

Taliban Religious Ideology

and Discourse

Unlike other Islamist movements that appeared in the twentieth century, the Taliban has never had strong ideological or intellectual roots. While Islamic revivalism in Muslim countries has often been based on a tradition of scholarly debate and writing, the Taliban leaders and followers often were, and are, poorly educated in the corpus of Islamic studies. Indeed, although it employs an active religious vocabulary, the movement is often linked to outright criminal networks, smugglers, and gangs. Thus, ideologically and in practice, the Taliban remains a unique movement with no real precedent in Islamist ideas and movements. Nevertheless, some core aspects of the Taliban creed and ideology can be identified with and categorized among well-known positions within Islamic or Islamist thought. Most of the Taliban movements identify with the Sunni branch of Islam, which is the most common in both Pakistan and Afghanistan (accounting for approximately 75 per cent of the Pakistani population). Many of the groups that have joined the ‘caravan of the Taliban’ also have strong anti-Shiite sentiments. Thus these movements have a narrow definition of what it means to be a true Muslim...


Lacking a coherent ideological manifesto or intellectual foundation, the ideological inclinations of the Pakistani Taliban are best defined through their actions and communications.Since their inception in the 1990s, the ‘original’ Afghan Taliban have embraced a highly conservative interpretation of sharia propagating a view of true Muslim moral behaviour cleansed of what they regard as bad influences, especially from TV and music (which they see as corrupted by cultural influences from the West). Further, they have promoted a conservative view of the rights and conduct of women, enforcing the wearing of the burka in public and often (though not unanimously) opposing women’s education and their participation in public and political life. And finally, they have defended or actively created parallel justice systems to enforce the Taliban interpretation of sharia, with harsh summary punishments meted out to offenders. The use of stoning, whipping, and amputation of body parts has been one of the main means of establishing a Taliban social order. Still, their understanding of Islamic thought is blurry and incoherent, and it is unclear how their vision of an ideal punishment system connects to doctrinal interpretations in other areas ... 


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An Afghan judge whips a woman in front of a crowd in Ghor province, as a joint punishment with

a man for committing adultery. REUTERS/Pajhwok News Agency

The Taliban started out in the 1990s as an idealist reform movement, intended to stop the ex-mujahedeen and warlords from fighting each other rather than cooperating to establish a stable Afghan society. They introduced the idea of divine law as the guarantor of peace and order and thus promoted a highly legalist and formalist concept of sharia, which they placed at the very heart of Islam. This ideology offered a simple and relatively successful means of uniting a country divided by affiliations to particular tribes, ethnic or linguistic groups, and clans. The concept of sharia, literally meaning ‘path’ or ‘way’, carries a wide range of connotations and has been implemen