On 24th May 2003 Paul McCartney played a concert in Red Square, Moscow. Feted by the Kremlin and adored by the attending Russian crowds, McCartney sang a selection of crowd pleasers, cheered and hugged by the president, Vladimir Putin.
One song went down so well, it had a reprise as an encore, “Back in the USSR”. How portentous that tune seems today.
Seven years later, Putin appeared at a charity event in Moscow attended by Hollywood stars. He got up on stage and for the sake of the children with cancer he sang ‘Blueberry Hill’ in English, to the delight of the international crowd.
We desperately wanted to like Putin. After the chaotic years of the drunken oaf Boris Yeltsin, fumbling his lines and crashing the Russian economy with haphazardly applied market reforms, we wanted stability in Russia.
We wanted another man we could do business with. Someone strong enough to bring and hold Russia together, but sober enough to realise the benefits of freedom, democracy and all that.
We so wanted Putin to be that man. The KGB – now rebadged as the FSB – were invited to the CIA headquarters for talks. Britain’s MI6 cut funding to their Russian office and agents were no longer required to learn the language – we needed more resource for the Middle East.
However, the true nature of the man and his ambitions were in plain sight for all to see. In 2005, between the McCartney hugging and the charity crooning, Putin told the Russian people:
“It is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”
This was not ambiguous. Putin made clear with that statement, the humiliation he felt for himself and his nation about the tumultuous events of 89-91. And the subsequent expansion of the EU and NATO into the sphere of former Soviet influence. Anyone actually listening could hear the echoes of the Treaty of Versailles. German humiliation sowing the seeds of grievance for World War 2.
Sadly, few were listening. Or those that were dismissed this as residual sour grapes from a loser, flat on its back with dreams of reconquest that were mere fantasy.
The last decade has seen a fatal combination of events on each side of the former iron curtain. Putin has rebuilt the authority of the state and spread his tentacles of influence deep into the conservative west. He has no diverse economy to leverage, but he has the natural resources that Europe needs. And nobody speaks out of line in his power-centralised state.
On the other side, the west has been distracted, divided and particularly with Trump’s White House and Johnson’s Downing Street, quite ambivalent towards unity of purpose.
The adventure into Georgia by Russian forces was a trial run. Slapped wrists from NATO but no real threat. Shortfall in military might, but lessons were learnt. They did much better next time round in 2014 by invading Ukraine and taking Crimea. Cleverly installing a permanent battleground in the east of Ukraine. Again, the west did nothing.
So who could blame Putin for thinking that Ukraine was there for the taking? He’d been waiting 20 years to start putting right that collapse of the Soviet empire. OK, this wasn’t quite reclaiming the whole Warsaw Pact but it was still a significant win.
And so the fateful order was given. After going through the motions of entertaining western leaders and ministers, Putin brushed aside their words and his troops invaded.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing always, but the level of shock we’ve heard is quite something. Did the rest of the world really think that Putin wouldn’t fire shots in anger? This man has been a seething ball of anger his whole adult life. Only the KGB training buttoned him up into a suit to play the statesman.
So what is to be done? We must act now. NATO must strike hard, fast and with overwhelming force. Stay with me on this…
The only western leader that ever deployed an effective NATO-led defensive action was George H Bush. Gathering a global coalition, getting UN sanction, assembling that overwhelming force – he cleared Saddam out of Kuwait with clear and limited objectives. Boots did not go beyond the Iraqi border. Saddam was back in his box and sovereignty restored.
(What George H’s son did twelve years later, is another matter entirely).
The same action is required now. A limited NATO intervention with clear objectives to force Russian troops back behind their own lines.
Putin has nuclear weapons. If we join the battle, it could trigger World War 3 with nuclear war breaking out and destroying much of Europe.
This scenario is possible. But unlikely. The gravity of pressing the button in the sure knowledge that your own country will also be obliterated has historically worked as the deterrent it was always meant to be. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) remains.
The brinkmanship of Cuba took us to the edge before, but Washington and Moscow stepped back. Despite Putin apparently reigning supreme, surrounded by the terrified, the sycophantic and the equally bloodthirsty – the Kremlin is bigger than the man.
More persuasive for me is the price of inaction. Putin doesn’t care about sanctions. They won’t hurt him. Putin doesn’t care about world opinion. He doesn’t care much about domestic opinion either. He has been in power for 22 years and feels invulnerable. His people may starve, but that is a price he is willing for them to pay. Resistance from the Ukrainians? Hit them harder. Starve them, raze their cities to the ground. Kill them all. Agree humanitarian ceasefires then keep bombing them.
The price of inaction is that Putin will go much, much further. He will eventually crush Ukraine. And then on to Moldova. And then Georgia. Still no NATO intervention? How resistant will the Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and other former Soviet states feel, to demands from Moscow?
How long before Putin feels so empowered that he finally reaches towards the Latvian lands, to answers the calls from the Russian population? When he finally ticks the box that requires NATO to get involved. He will still have those scary nuclear weapons. But he will have much less fear, and be driven still further by his own sense of invincible destiny, as he has advanced so far.
A strategic strike by NATO now would remove the Russian troops in days. The generals would look at Putin with the blood of their troops on his hands. Like Hitler before him, Putin is no soldier or military strategist. He’s a bitter ex-spy who ended up on the losing side and is willing to spill any amount of anyone’s blood to avenge what he sees as an historic disgrace.
If he has any kind of philosophy or doctrine of belief, Putin reaches back to the giants and warriors of the Soviet past. Above all, he remembers the famous words of another Vladimir, comrade Lenin:
“You probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw”
It’s time for NATO to join the brave Ukrainians; and for Putin’s Russia to finally find steel.