Putin’s big bluff

26 January 2022

3:18 AM

26 January 2022

3:18 AM

My first visit to Ukraine was in 1994. We drove to a village about three hours south of Kiev. The landscape was flat, fields of wheat stretching out in all directions. You could see why Ukraine had been called ‘the breadbasket of the Soviet Union’. An old man in a flat cap waved us over at the entrance to the village. He knelt down to scoop up a handful of the rich soil. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘the black earth of Ukraine’. He spoke about the artificial famine that Stalin had created in Ukraine in the 1930s, the Holodomor. He remembered armed men coming to the village to seize all the grain. The black earth had been a curse as much as a blessing.

At dinner that night, there were many rounds of vodka and a main dish of roast potatoes layered with pork fat. It was so dense that I struggled to finish it. After managing to clear my plate – I didn’t want to appear rude – I staggered outside for some fresh air. I sat down again to find another great pile of fat and potatoes in front of me, my hosts laughing:

‘Ukrainian peasant saying: It’s better that your stomach explodes than to leave even a single scrap of food on your plate.’ 

I woke the next morning to find that breakfast was exactly the same meal, except with stronger vodka, a homemade liquid that clung to the side of the glass. After that, I went outside to puke copiously and passed out. The old man who had greeted us dunked my head in freezing well water.

I’d come to the village with Bob Seely, now a Conservative MP, then a correspondent in Kiev for the Times and the Washington Post. He spoke good Russian and translated as the old man told us how – despite watching 17 members of his family starve to death — he’d grown up to become a political commissar in the Soviet Army. He’d joined the invasion of the Baltic States after the end of the Second World War – an incredible life. As a politician, Bob now believes Vladimir Putin is finally putting into action a long-held plan to bring Ukraine back under Moscow’s heel: ‘Putin wants to dismember and reabsorb Ukraine, destroy Nato and the EU, and build Russia up as a very anti-Western state,’ he says. Bob fears Putin will make his move in late February, once he has built up more forces.

That’s the widely held view in London and Washington, with many warnings that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is certain and imminent. We should, though, consider for a moment the possibility that Vladimir Putin is bluffing, at least about a full-scale invasion. There are already said to be more than 125,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border, which is a quite a bluff — but sending columns of tanks rolling in would make it impossible for Western governments to do nothing in response. And the Russian president is cleverer than that.

‘Yes, this show is for bluffing,’ said my friend Yuri, when I asked for his analysis. Yuri knows Ukraine well and, like Putin, he’s a former KGB officer. He thought Putin was acting to build domestic support in Russia before presidential elections there in 2024. ‘If he gets something from Biden, he will be the Russian hero who won Cold War 2.0. If he gets only increased tension, that’s fine too. Kremlin will say you do not change horses. In both cases this is Putin forever story for Russians.’

The danger is that, after all this posturing, the Russian leader will feel he has to act, or he’ll look foolish. That’s what president Biden thinks. He told a White House press conference:

‘My guess is he will move in. He has to do something.’ 

The New York Times said this statement went ‘well beyond’ current intelligence assessments given to them by White House officials. Biden seemed to realise that as he spoke. It might only be a ‘minor incursion’, he went on, but one that would leave America and its allies fighting among themselves about how to respond.

If history is any guide, it won’t be a frontal assault. Russian actions will be designed to confuse, as in 2014. That was the year the Russian Federation annexed Crimea. It started with unidentified armed men seizing public buildings and raising the Russian flag. They were from the GRU, Russian military intelligence, and they were followed by Russian troops. But there was no declaration of war and president Putin acknowledged that his forces were in Crimea only long after the operation was over.

Then Moscow fomented protests among the pro-Russian population in the eastern part of Ukraine. Troops arrived here, too, but in uniforms without insignia – the so-called, mysterious ‘green men’. Moscow’s line was that these were local militia. I was in eastern Ukraine at the time. A Ukrainian military commander told me that his men had been forced to abandon their base by one of these ‘local militias’, who – he said pointedly — had somehow acquired tanks and helicopters. In reality, he had been facing Russian special forces.

At the time, the Kremlin made a series of absurd propaganda claims. They said the tanks and helicopters seen everywhere had been left behind in Ukraine when the Soviet Union broke up. And when Russian paratroopers were actually filmed in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin said they had got lost, crossing the border by accident. Expect similar misdirection if there is trouble now. Perhaps, with tensions along the border so high, the Kremlin will manufacture an incident and claim it’s the Ukrainians who shot first.

Now, though, the Ukrainians are better able to resist Russian aggression than they were in 2014. Their army is much bigger and better prepared than before. Heavy casualties would be inflicted on any Russian troops that did cross the border. That is another reason to think president Putin might be bluffing: despite the bluster, there is no appetite among ordinary Russians for another ‘small, victorious war’ that sends a steady stream of coffins back home. Marching on Kiev might end up toppling Russia’s government, not Ukraine’s.

In the event of war, Western economic sanctions, properly directed, could hurt Russia’s kleptocratic elite, who have stashed their money in New York and London. The US, Britain and others are also arming Ukraine with ‘defensive weapons’, mainly shoulder launched anti-tank missiles. British troops are in Ukraine, training the armed forces in how to use them. But do we owe Ukraine more than that, say full membership of Nato?

It’s easy to feel sympathy for Ukraine and to support their fight not to be ruled, once again, from Moscow. That’s especially true given Ukraine’s brutal history; millions died in the forced famine. But Ukraine does not represent a vital national interest for the US and Britain. For Russia, it does. President Putin has written – in a notorious essay – that Russians and Ukrainians ‘are one people’. Russia shares a long border with Ukraine: it is not just Kremlin propaganda to say that Russia’s actions stem partly from fears that Ukraine could eventually join Nato. Then, Nato would have to fight to defend it – that is a reason not to place a tripwire for war in a country with millions of Russian speakers. In the meantime, the policy is to threaten sanctions, arm Ukraine – and hope that Vladimir Putin really is bluffing.

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