Russia, Ukraine and the World
Last February, like everyone else, I was transfixed by the situation developing on the borders of Ukraine, where the Russian army had amassed around 135,000 troops, together with vast quantities of military hardware. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, repeatedly stated that he had no intention of invading Ukraine. The very suggestion was a typical Western fabrication, he said, designed to undermine the Russian state. Putin has told many blatant lies, but would he dare to say he wasn’t going to invade a country when he was intending to do just that? He couldn’t be going to do so, surely? His regime had form in aggression, but nothing on this scale. If his army invaded Ukraine, the west would certainly do more than impose a few limited sanctions, as it had following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Plus, Russia would become a pariah in the world, diminished both economically and politically. And yet, if invasion wasn’t Mr Putin’s intention, then why mobilise an army on that scale? And why, if there was no plan to invade, was US intelligence so sure that there was one?
These questions were answered on February 24th. The answers raised a host of further questions. Why did Russia feel it worth taking the risk of invading Ukraine? Is Ukraine a true sovereign country, or merely a part of Russia as Mr Putin insists? Why does Russia feel the need to cling onto its former empire, while France and Britain have accepted the loss of theirs? Why have the Ukrainians stood up so courageously against the fearsome might of Russia and why has the west continued to support them? Could Ukraine actually win the war and what would winning look like? How might the war end and how might it change the world?
Our late Queen used to quote her first Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, as saying that the more you study the past, the further you can see into the future. Back in February I knew almost nothing of Ukraine’s history, and very little of Russia’s before 1800. I have spent the last few months trying to catch up, in the process discovering that two of my favourite Russian writers, Bulgakov and Gogol, as well as one of my favourite English ones, Joseph Conrad, were all Ukrainians. The history of the two countries is like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. I had seen many of the pieces without realising how they fitted together.
This article will attempt to answer some of the above questions. It comes in two parts. The long first part looks at the history of Russia and the rise of Vladimir Putin as well as the gradual emergence of the Ukrainian state before and after independence. It also focusses on the relationship between the two countries under Putin trying to understand what impelled Mr Putin to launch the biggest ground war in Europe since 1945 and why Ukraine resisted so fiercely. The shorter second section looks ahead, aiming to build on the insights provided by history to speculate on how the war might end, what a peace settlement might look like, and how different the world might look afterwards.
I have listed my main sources at the end, and for anyone who finds Russian and Ukrainian names as hard to remember as I do, I’ve added a brief Dramatis Personae.
I should warn my readers that this is easily the biggest subject I have ever attempted, and easily the longest article I have ever written, roughly the length of forty pages of a standard paperback. Russia/Ukraine is what Sherlock Homes might have described as a ‘three-pipe problem’. To do it justice, I suggest you switch off your phone, take off your shoes and settle into your favourite chair with a nice hot latte or a smooth glass of red. Bon voyage!
Russia and the World
Russia today, though bereft of nearly all its former empire, is still easily the world’s largest country. With a land mass of 6.6m square miles, it covers more than 10% of the world’s land area, being almost twice the size of Canada, the second largest, and five times the size of India, the seventh largest. Russia is almost unimaginably vast. The point in Russia where Europe meets Asia is fifteen hundred miles east of St. Petersburg, and four thousand five hundred miles west of the Bering Strait, where Russia meets the sea to the east. Putting it another way, you could start out from St Petersburg, travel six thousand miles east, and still be in Russia. Much of this land is empty and barren. Roughly three-quarters of Russia’s land mass is in Asia, while roughly three-quarters of its people live in Europe.
Russia’s size is not reflected in its population which, at 145 million, makes it only the eleventh most populous country on earth. Russia has just a tenth of the population of India or China, and only just over twice that of the UK. One notable fact is Russia’s low life expectancy for men, owing chiefly to a combination of poverty and alcoholism. In Russia, male life expectancy is just 67.6 years, compared to 80.2 years in the UK and 79.2 in Germany. The population of the Russian Federation is in a slow decline.
Despite Russia’s huge oil and gas reserves, its national output or GDP is relatively modest. Russian GDP is well below one-tenth that of the US, around a third that of Japan, and only just over half that of the UK.
Russia’s oil and gas are both a blessing and a curse. The world has become aware of the urgent need to wean itself off the fossil fuels with which Russia is so richly endowed. The events of this year have only added to that sense of urgency. Now more than ever one would expect Russia to be applying its fossil fuel revenues to invest in alternative sources of energy, diversifying its economy and deepening friendships with its trading partners. Instead, it has thrown its resources into invading Ukraine.
A Brief History of Russia up to the Accession of Vladimir Putin (January 2000)
My generation grew up in the cold war. I remember the Cuban missile crisis of 1963, the grim faces of my parents as they sat listening over the supper table to news of imminent nuclear war. We were used to thinking of Russia as a threat to our security, as we still do today – so it’s worth remembering that Russia sees itself as threatened rather than threatening, and with good reason. Russia was invaded by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, by the Poles in 1605, the Swedes in 1708, the French in 1812 and by the Germans in both 1914 and 1941. This latter invasion, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, fought mainly on Russian and Ukrainian soil, was the bloodiest campaign in history, resulting in around fifteen million deaths.
Russia emerged as a state in the ninth century AD, as part of an entity called the Kievan Rus. The origins of the Rus are barely visible through the mists of time but may be associated with the arrival of the Norsemen, or Vikings, who set up trading links down the Dnieper River to Constantinople, today’s Istanbul. The Rus covered an area approximating to parts of modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The Rus was Orthodox Christian (the Santa Sofia cathedral in Kyiv was built in 1018) and highly civilised. Bishop Gautier Savaraux, an emissary of the King of France, wrote around 1040, ‘This land is more unified, happier, stronger and more civilised than France herself’. The Rus is a useful historical tool used by different parties at different times to prove whatever point they wish to make – for Mr Putin, it demonstrates that Russians and Ukrainians have always been brothers and consequently that Ukraine has no serious claim to be an independent state.
The Rus became fragmented in the mid eleventh century but survived until 1240, when a Mongol army under Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis, captured Kyiv. The conquering Mongolians, who became known as the Golden Horde occupied the whole area of the Rus. This Khanate became separated from the Mongolian empire as it began to decline in the early fifteenth century. Finally, the Horde was defeated by Ivan III (Ivan the Great) at the Great Stand on the Ugra River in 1480.
From this time Russia’s expansion began. The Russian Empire officially commenced in 1721, when Peter the Great declared himself emperor. The empire at its zenith under Catherine the Great (reigned 1862-96) was the third largest in history (after the British and Mongolian) extending deep into Europe and Asia, and even including colonies in America (1799-1867).
Russia acquired the Crimean Peninsula in 1783, during the reign of Catherine the Great. Catherine sent her minister Potemkin to build towns and villages and begin the process of russification. Catherine’s army overthrew the Crimean Khanate, the last relic of the Golden Horde. Up to this time, the Crimean Peninsula had been settled and ruled by Tatars for five hundred years. Over the last two and a half centuries the Tatars have emigrated and been driven from Crimea but remain to this day around ten percent of the Crimea’s population, a marginalised, dissatisfied and unruly minority.
Despite its extensive territories, Russia in the nineteenth century was essentially a backward, feudal, agrarian society, ruled over by an absolute monarch with direct authority from Almighty God. Even the emancipation of the serfs (1861) made little difference. Tolstoy’s Levin in Anna Karenina decides to modernise his estates, but his efforts are frustrated by peasants who deliberately break the new machinery, determined to carry on the old ways, saying things like ‘Tis the will of God, Master’. German soldiers on the Eastern Front in 1914 found themselves confronted with an army of peasants armed with pitchforks and duly slaughtered them.
Russia’s surrender led to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1917. Freed from the distraction of war, the Bolsheviks were able to consolidate their revolution. Following the bloody civil war (1922-3), the by now powerful Communist regime was able to retain most of the former empire, whose boundaries remained roughly the same throughout the brutally repressive dictatorship of Stalin and the Cold War years that followed.
Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Overnight it became fifteen separate countries. In the USSR, industry was centrally managed and monumentally inefficient. The country was exhausted after four decades of the Cold War, and by ten years of fruitless involvement in Afghanistan (1979-89). Some of the satellite republics had little in common with the centre, which they felt did nothing for them, and were becoming harder to govern.
In the 1990s Russia had the opportunity to reinvent itself, to embrace capitalism, to become more liberal, more democratic and to forge closer ties to the West. Under Boris Yeltsin, that’s exactly what the Kremlin tried to do. But the opportunity came and went. Russia had no experience of anything other than authoritarian government and no knowledge of alternatives to a centrally planned economy. Sixty years old when he became President, Yeltsin was an alcoholic and drug addict and lacked the energy or knowledge to effect the necessary reforms.
Things went badly from the start. Russia announced that it would take on the debts of its former colonies in exchange for state properties in their territories – and then promptly declared itself bankrupt. The early years of the 1990s were a time of dislocation, hyper-inflation and great hardship. Inflation wiped out the people’s savings. A plan to transfer the nation’s industries into private ownership badly misfired. Coupons were issued, but many people didn’t understand what they were and exchanged them for cash or even sometimes for bread.
The beneficiaries were a small group of young entrepreneurs, of whom the most successful was Mikhail Khodorkovsky. This group, who became known as the oligarchs, made easy profits as opportunities opened up under the perestroika reforms effected a few years before the collapse of the USSR. Some had set up their own banks. Their opportunity for extreme wealth came along with the loans-for shares scheme, under which their banks would lend money to the cash-strapped government, taking stakes in some of the state’s biggest enterprises for collateral. The young bankers would run the state enterprises and keep the collateral shares should the government be unable to repay the loans. Through these means the oligarchs managed to acquire controlling stakes in Russia’s strategic oil, gas and aluminium assets. Khodorkovsky acquired 80% of Yukos, a Siberian oil producer with some of Russia’s largest oil reserves, for just $310m. His friend Boris Berezovsky gained control of another oil major, Sibneft, for just $100m. Mr Berezovsky boasted at the time that just seven people (including himself) controlled half of Russia’s economy.
While the oligarchs prospered the state’s finances continued to deteriorate. In 1998, Russia defaulted on $40bn of its foreign debt. This episode is remembered in the west mainly because it led to the collapse of a large US hedge fund called Long-Term Capital Management, which had invested heavily in Russian government debt. The premise being that the debt it was cheap and sovereign governments don’t default. As before, the rouble collapsed, leading to a deep recession, yet again wiping out the savings of any Russians lucky enough to have any left.
By now, the Yeltsin government’s days were numbered. The 1990s had been years of chaos and financial mismanagement. Whatever else had changed since Soviet days, corruption was flourishing as much as ever. Extreme wealth (and tax avoidance) co-existed with extreme poverty. Mr Yeltsin and his family were under observation for misappropriating state finance through a company called Mabetex. The amounts involved were small by Russian standards, but it was understood that things could become very difficult for the President. He decided to step down. What was needed was a compromise candidate, someone who could steady the ship, consolidate such gains as had been made towards freedom and democracy, while making the embezzlement charges go away – someone who could be controlled and relied on not to take Russia back to the bad old days of communism. That person was Vladimir Putin.
Mr Yeltsin knew how badly he’d failed and on leaving office (December 1999) made a speech of abject apology to the Russian people ‘I want to ask your forgiveness – for the dreams that have not come true, and for the things that seemed easy but turned out to be so excruciatingly difficult. I am asking your forgiveness for failing to justify the hopes of those who believed me when I said that we would leap from the grey, stagnating totalitarian past into a bright, prosperous and civilised future’. At least Mr Yeltsin had tried. The reaction to his failure was a newly authoritarian, backward-looking, aggressive Russia, with increasingly calamitous results.
In the early 90’s, Mr Yeltsin made overtures to the West, hoping among other things that Russia could join NATO. His predecessor, Mr Gorbachev, had been involved in delicate negotiations over the reunification of Germany. East Germany was then a satellite of the Soviet Union and for unification to take place the USSR had to give up its sovereign rights over the territory. East Germany would become part of NATO through West Germany’s existing membership. As a result, NATO would move a step closer to Russia’s border. Mr Gorbachev made it clear that beyond that, any further encroachment would be unacceptable. Desperate to ensure a successful unification, Western leaders queued up to assure Mr Gorbachev, and the more hawkish anti-western elements back in Russia, that there would be no further encroachment by NATO.
In what became known as the Tutzing Formula, West Germany’s foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher proclaimed that the forthcoming unification must not lead to ‘an impairment of Soviet security interests’. US Secretary of State James Baker stated that ‘if the US keeps its presence in Germany within the framework of NATO, not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction.’ Chancellor Kohl assured Mr Gorbachev too, saying ‘we believe that NATO should not expand the sphere of its activity’. In March 1991, Soviet Defence Minister Marshall Yazov asked UK Prime Minister John Major about the interest eastern European leaders were showing in joining NATO. Mr Major replied, ‘nothing of the sort will happen’.
And yet something of the sort was exactly what did happen. In 1995, following the collapse of the USSR, its system of defensive alliances, the Warsaw Pact, disintegrated, and former members started applying for membership of NATO. On the basis of the Helsinki Formula, which rules that states can choose their own allegiances, these applications were assessed on their merits, and the following states joined NATO.
1999 – Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic.
2004 – Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia.
2009 – Albania, Croatia.
Russia’s worst nightmare had become reality.
No commitment to freeze NATO’s expansion was enshrined in the unification treaty, at President Bush’s request. However, it’s quite clear that an undeniable commitment to respect Russia’s strategic interests was made and not kept.
All this was not lost on Vladimir Putin, who had been working as a KGB agent in Dresden, East Germany, at the time the reunification discussions took place. Mr Putin has never forgotten, nor has he forgiven.
Vladimir Putin – Beliefs
Mr Putin rose from humble beginnings to become deputy Mayor of St Petersburg. Then following a spectacular rise through senior positions at the Kremlin, succeeded Mr Yeltsin as President in January 2000. He has held this position ever since.
Before taking a brief look at his career, it is worth examining Mr Putin’s political ideas which have shaped Russia’s policy for the last two decades. Mr Putin comes over as relaxed and charming in interviews, knowing how to be all things to all men. For any statement of belief he has made, you can find another one somewhere else that contradicts it. Mr Putin is both for democracy and against it, a supporter of capitalism as well as its fiercest critic. In the first decade of his presidency, he was able to convince large numbers of investors in the West that Russia was ready to open up its economy under internationally accepted rules, while all the time establishing a kleptocracy in which despite appearances all assets belonged to the state and ultimately to himself. He has said ‘I believe that the Presidential term should be limited’, but after almost twenty-three years in office, shows no sign of stepping down.
Mr Putin’s ultimate aim is a dominant Russian state, a great power which controls as much as possible of its former empire. He describes the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy of the Twentieth Century. He sees the West, and particularly the United States, as the main obstacle to the achievement of that aim, as well as the greatest threat to Russia’s security. In his speech to the Munich Security Conference in 2007, you can hear the frustration and anger in his voice as he says ‘The United States has overstepped its borders in all spheres. It is imposing its will on other states in the economy, in politics and in the humanitarian sphere. And who likes this? Who likes it?’ In his triumphant speech in the Kremlin following the annexation of the Crimea (2014) he said that the West seemed to believe that it was ‘entrusted by God to decide the fates of other peoples’ but Russia has ‘her national interests…and if you press the spring too hard, it will recoil’. Putin refers to the West as ‘the empire of lies’. He sees it as hypocritical for NATO to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, another sovereign state, while itself invading Iraq and Afghanistan and dropping bombs on Kosovo and Libya. He appears to have developed the paranoid belief that any event which appears to him to challenge Russia’s interests – the Beslan siege in 2004, the Arab Spring, democratic movements in Georgia and Ukraine, Ukraine’s desire to become closer to Europe and eventually to join the EU and NATO, and even the fall of the Soviet Union – as plots conceived in and financed by the US. In the words of Professor Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia
‘He assigns agency to the US that in my view we don’t have. So, Tunisia (the first Arab Spring uprising), that was us. Cairo, that was us. Syria, that was us….as he told me personally, he believes it all happened because of us, not because people want to live in a democratic society…but because they came to McFaul’s house and got money. And in Ukraine, he believes the same thing’
Like Hitler, who he has come to increasingly resemble, Putin believes that his war is going badly not because the people whose country he has invaded will do everything in their power to repel a brutal aggressor, but because of the machinations of powerful enemies behind the scenes.
Vladimir Putin does not believe in democracy. ‘For Russians’ he says ‘a strong state is not an anomaly which should be got rid of. Quite the contrary, they see it as a source and guarantor of order and the initiator and main driving force of any change’. He loves to reinforce his image as strong leader with photos of himself in action, often on horseback, stripped to the waist, muscles rippling.
Nor does Mr Putin have any time for communism, which he believes led to the disaster of Soviet collapse. In his early days as deputy Mayor of St Petersburg (1992), shortly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Mr Putin said ‘There was a period of my life when I studied the theories of Marxism and Leninism, and I found them interesting and, like many of us, logical. But as I grew up the truth became ever clearer to me – these theories are no more than harmful fairy tales.’ In the same speech, Mr Putin added that Lenin was responsible ‘for the tragedy we are experiencing today -the tragedy of the collapse of our state’. Lenin had ‘cut the country up into republics that did not exist before, and then destroyed what unites the people of civilised countries: they destroyed market relations’. Several years later, on the eve of becoming President, Putin’s views were unchanged. ‘Communism doomed our country to steadily lag behind economically advanced countries.’ he said. ‘It was a road to a blind alley, far away from the mainstream of civilisation.’
Considering his views on democracy, it isn’t surprising that Putin sees elections as no more than a charade to be managed by the state to achieve its desired result. Putin was elected President of Russia but owing to circumstances the election was such a foregone conclusion that he didn’t have to campaign, and didn’t bother to do so. ‘It seems to me an absolutely shameless business’ he said. ‘You always need to promise more than your opponent to seem successful. I could never imagine that I would have to make promises knowing beforehand that such things could not be done’. Elections exist to legitimise state policy, and (though he doesn’t publicly say so) must be tampered with should the public not vote as directed.
Mr Putin’s political philosophy can be summed up as an overwhelming desire to see the former Russian empire restored. He believes that the best means to achieve this goal is through a powerful centralised government in Russia, in other words a form of autocracy. This mission goes hand-in-hand with a kind of fanatical paranoia, the sense that an implacable Satanic force is working tirelessly against the Russian state. In recent statements on the ‘existential threat to Russia’s future’ this is what he is talking about, and this, above all, is what makes Mr Putin so dangerous.
Economically, he believes in capitalism, but it is an unusual form of capitalism, where the unspoken understanding is that ultimately there is only one owner of property – the state. Anyone who comes to be viewed as a threat to the state is liable to be prosecuted, usually for tax avoidance. On losing the case, these perceived enemies of the state will have their property confiscated, and they are likely to lose their liberty, and possibly their lives. This type of regime has become known as a ‘kleptocracy’ or government by theft, an approach which has remained a constant in Mr Putin’s career since the early 1990s but has never to my knowledge been acknowledged in his public utterances.
Another unacknowledged constant in Mr Putin’s career, another attribute he shares with Adolf Hitler, is a conviction that the end always justifies the means. The state is above the law, both at home and abroad. Critics and opponents disappear mysteriously. War is pursued with maximum brutality. International principles of justice and of conduct in wartime, such as the Geneva Convention, are ignored.
Illegalities have a tendency to catch up with their perpetrators. Mr Putin and his officials have become adept at working remotely, making their activities difficult to trace, and they have developed a sophisticated form of lying which involves blaming the crime on the victim. There are many examples of this form of inversion. Two will suffice. The fund manager Bill Browder whose firm Heritage Capital invested in early-stage companies in Russia became persona non grata with the Kremlin when he exposed the gas scam (of which more presently). Mr Browder was pursued through the courts on the standard charge of tax evasion, and his three companies, worth several hundred million dollars, were effectively stolen by the state. A Russian lawyer called Sergei Magnitsky, who was working for Mr Browder, resisted this process, and was put in prison where he died at the age of 37. These days Mr Browder spends his time campaigning against such abuses, and through his effective lobbying, the bipartisan Magnitsky Act became law in the US (2012). A more comprehensive Global Magnitsky Act (2016) authorises the US government to sanction foreign officials who are deemed to be human rights offenders, freeze their assets and ban them from entering the US. But Russia denies any wrongdoing in its dealings with Messrs Browder and Magnitsky, maintaining that if there was any theft, it was by Mr Browder himself, and that it was Browder who poisoned Mr Magnitsky while he was in prison. By way of a more recent example, in April of this year, photographs emerged of the corpses of around fifty civilians in the town of Bucha, near Kyiv, with hands tied behind their backs. They had been shot in the head from close range. This atrocity had clearly been committed by Russian soldiers, but this was denied by the Russian authorities, who claimed that either the pictures had been faked or that the Ukrainian soldiers had committed the murders themselves as a ‘false flag’ exercise.
Of course, Russia was never going to invade Ukraine at all. The concentration of troops on the border was merely a training exercise. The idea of an invasion was angrily denied, as another example of pernicious western propaganda. And then, when the invasion took place, it wasn’t an invasion but a ‘special military exercise’, and anyone who says otherwise could spend up to fifteen years in a Russian gaol.
The Russian state, then, is not only a kleptocracy, but also a mendocracy, built on a foundation of lies. Mendocracy is ultimately a weakness, because it’s hard to trust people who are always lying to you and the truth eventually comes out. An intercepted text message from a Russian soldier early in the campaign speaks volumes, ‘They said we were going for training. These bastards didn’t tell us anything’ and does much to explain the weakness of the Russian army’s morale at the present time.
Mr Putin’s career
Vladimir Putin was born in Leningrad in October 1952, less than nine years after the end of the siege of Leningrad, which must have cast long shadows over his childhood. The more famous Stalingrad battle marked a turning point in the Second World War, but the Leningrad siege lasted much longer and was far more deadly. Following the invasion of Russia, Army Group North swung through the Baltic States and soon arrived at Leningrad (formerly St Petersburg, and once again renamed St Petersburg after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991), a city of three million people. Unable to enter the city, which was defended by 200,000 Red Army troops, the Wehrmacht surrounded it, while the Luftwaffe dropped wave after wave of bombs on the city. Hitler, with typical inhumanity, decreed that the city should be erased from the map. The only route by which food could enter Leningrad was across Lake Lagoda. During the first winter, around half a million people starved. First animals from the zoo were eaten, then domestic pets. People ate grass and weeds. As many as two thousand people were convicted of cannibalism by a special division formed to combat this offence. The worst was over after January 1943, when the Red Army forged a land bridge into Leningrad, and built a railway which allowed five million tons of food into the city that year. The siege was eventually relieved in January 1944, but not before an estimated one million people had perished, of which around eight hundred thousand were civilians. Survivors felt immense patriotic pride in their ability to survive the might of the German military machine for almost two-and-a-half years. One such patriot was Vladimir Putin’s father, another Vladimir, who had served in the Russian secret police during the war.
The young Vladimir showed an early interest in learning German and becoming a member of the KGB. In the early 80s he won a place at the elite Red Banner school for foreign intelligence officers. He was subsequently sent to Dresden, where he managed ‘illegals’ whose role was to infiltrate western high-tech companies and steal their intellectual property.
Putin returned to St Petersburg, the city of his birth, where he was appointed deputy mayor. The mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, was a professor of law at the university and both a smart dresser and brilliant orator. His problem was that he was unable to get to grips with the chaos arising from the collapse of the Soviet Union and relied heavily on his uncompromising deputy to do the heavy lifting for him. The methods employed became a template for what followed when Putin became President of Russia, working closely with his former colleagues in the KGB and with organised crime, mainly in St Petersburg through a ‘family’ called the Tambov group.
In 1991, President Yeltsin abolished the KGB, and split its operations into four parts, of which the domestic arm was renamed the FSB. The foreign service section remained very much as before. Its members were passionately opposed to the dissolution of the empire and were prepared to do whatever they could to resurrect it.
In the time of hyper-inflation, when the country had declared itself bankrupt following its adoption of its’ former satellites’ foreign debts, the ‘oil for food’ scheme was conceived as a means to acquire foreign currency by selling oil overseas, and then using it to import food to feed the population. One such scheme was established in St Petersburg under the control of the deputy mayor. The oil was duly sold, but almost no food arrived, at any stage. The money simply vanished. It appears to have gone abroad, largely to fund the operations of the former KGB.
Next came the operation to bring the Baltic Sea Fleet, the port and the oil terminal under the control of the mayor’s department and its allies. In February 1993, the head of the Baltic Fleet, Viktor Karchenko, was arrested on a charge of embezzlement as he returned by train from a meeting with the President, imprisoned and subsequently removed from office. His replacement had KGB connections. The assets disappeared into a web of KGB-connected companies. The port and oil terminal came under the control of a cartel of companies controlled by former KGB agents and organised crime, with the full support of City Hall. The sea port became a major hub for smuggling drugs from Columbia into western Europe, a lucrative trade for those who controlled the port.
In 1996, Sobchak narrowly failed to be re-elected as mayor, despite Putin’s management of his campaign. Putin moved to Moscow, and his dizzying rise through the Kremlin ranks began – head of the Kremlin’s foreign property department (1997), in charge of implementing Presidential policy in the regions (1997), Chief of Staff in charge of the regions (1998), and head of the FSB (1998).
Shortly before Boris Yeltsin stepped down, Sobchak wrote an article criticising the St Petersburg FSB and other law enforcement agencies for the aggressive way they had taken over the Baltic Sea Fleet. He wrote ‘the prosecutors, the FSB and the policemen who took part in this should be charged with abusing their position and for causing the country enormous loss’. Three months later Mr Sobchak died of a heart attack in somewhat mysterious circumstances. Galina Starovoitova, St Petersburg’s leading democrat, who was conducting an investigation into corruption in the city, was shot dead outside her flat in 1998, during the time when Mr Putin was head of the FSB. Yury Shutov, another St Petersburg deputy, who had been collecting evidence on the oil-for-food scheme and the privatisation of the city’s assets, was arrested at gunpoint around the same time, charged with ordering contract killings and sent to a penal colony in Siberia from which he never emerged.
Russia Under President Putin
Like Hitler before him, Putin was ushered into power by an elite which believed they could control him and as with Hitler, they realised their mistake only when it was too late. Yeltsin and his family assumed that Putin was a democrat and a liberal, like his mentor, Sobchak. By nature and training, Putin was adept at reflecting people’s ideas back to them, like a mirror. As Franz Sedelmayer, a West German security consultant who worked with Mr Putin in St Petersburg put it ‘He would change his colours so fast you could never tell who he really was.’ Quiet, softly spoken, seemingly inconspicuous, Mr Putin appeared to be the ideal fixer, a good person to have on your side. It quickly became clear that the real Putin was a ruthlessly determined individual whose true goal was to concentrate all the power of the state into his own hands and then use it to rebuild Russia’s lost empire.
Putin had two slices of good fortune early on. He was seen as an antidote to the chaos of the Yeltsin era with its hated oligarchs. Coincidentally, the world price of oil, depressed throughout the late 1990s, began to rise from a trough around $15 in 1998, to peak just below $150 in 2007. This delivered a huge windfall to the indebted Russian state. It wasn’t long before Russia’s strategic reserves of cash stood in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Life became easier for Russian citizens, a middle class emerged with cash to spend, and western companies like MacDonalds queued up to open in the emerging shopping malls. Russians entered an unspoken pact with the state, just as the Chinese had done following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 – we’ll improve your material conditions, and you stay out of politics.
By 2003, Putin felt strong enough to take on the oligarchs. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s richest man, majority owner of oil and gas giant Yukos was arrested with his deputy, Platon Lebedev on the familiar charge of tax evasion. The amount claimed eventually peaked at $24 billion. Khodorkovsky was found guilty and sentenced to nine years’ penal servitude in Siberia. The divisions of his company were sold off at fire-sale prices to Putin associates. This came as a shock to investors, at a time when the Russian financial markets appeared to be opening up and large Russian companies sought listings in London. At that time no investment conference was complete without a presentation from one of the new Eastern European (for which read Russian) funds, which were performing so strongly and attracting so much money. Russia funds offered a combination of rapid economic growth, a new-found commitment to corporate governance, sound government finances and rising consumer demand, all adding up to profits growing at a pace not seen anywhere else in the world.
But look what had happened to Yukos – the state had quite simply dismantled it. Couldn’t that happen to others too? No – expert opinion in the west saw Yukos as a one-off. Khodorkovsky had meddled in politics, financing the communist party and campaigning against a government initiative to increase tax on sales of oil. Other oligarchs minded to stray into the political arena would take the hint and stay clear and all would be well. The juggernaut of Russian listings in London continued to Roll and the money continued to flow.
Other oligarchs understood the Kremlin’s meaning all too well. Putin had let cameras into the courtroom at the Yukos trial. A chilling image of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev in a cage behind thick bars was widely circulated. If this could happen to them, it could happen to anyone. After the Yukos trial, oligarchs began moving their money offshore, much of it ending up in what became known as Londongrad, held in most instances through structures as multi-layered as a nest of Russian dolls.
Then came the London listing of Rosneft (2006). Rosneft included a division of Yukos which had been confiscated and sold to Rosneft for a knock-down price. Investors in the listing would be participating in state-sponsored theft. The billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros warned potential investors against getting involved, writing ‘Rosneft is an instrument of state that will always serve the political objectives of Russia in preference to the interests of share holders’. Robert Amsterdam, who had represented Khodorkovsky at his trial said that the listing should be cancelled ‘if not, those presently in power in Russia will take western double standards as a licence for impunity. To deny, dismiss or discount the gravity of the consequences is to turn a blind eye to the lessons of history.’ The words of Soros and Amsterdam were both accurate and prophetic, but their warnings were ignored, and the share issue went ahead anyway.
I wasn’t a big fan of the Eastern Europe funds, on the basis that the best time to invest in anything isn’t when everyone else is very excited about it. The moment that persuaded me that Russia as a country was uninvestable came in July 2008 during the dispute between BP and the AAR consortium over their jointly owned company TNK-BP. At the height of the dispute Robert Dudley, Chief Executive of the venture, was forced to leave the country complaining of ‘sustained harassment’ and all 148 expatriate specialists assigned to BP had been withdrawn due to visa restrictions. BP Chairman Peter Sutherland said, ‘It saddens me to say that nowhere in our recent history have we been treated as we are currently being treated in Russia…there has even been manipulation of elements of the Russian state as part of this campaign’. Though the dispute was eventually resolved, it had become clear that Russia was a place where your assets belonged to you until they didn’t and where you would have no protection from the law.
As Putin’s state machine gained in confidence, the media, the judiciary and business came under ever-tighter control. Putin used the terrorist attacks in his first presidency to his advantage. The siege at the Dubravka Theatre in Moscow in 2002, which was occupied for three days by Chechen terrorists dovetailed perfectly with the global ‘war on terror’ and increased support for an escalation of the conflict in Chechnya. Although bizarrely, the terrorists’ weapons were all blanks, and equally bizarrely, the security services, after regaining the building, shot them all rather than taking them in for questioning. Following the Beslan school siege in 2004, in which over three hundred hostages died, Mr Putin blamed ‘international terrorism’ and called for an increase in security. Ten days later he announced that regional governors would henceforward be appointed by the Kremlin, rather than elected.
In January 2020, a number of amendments to the constitution were announced, the most significant of which was the abolition of the maximum permissible number of terms to be served by the President and Prime Minister. The measures passed through the Duma with ease. Previously, Mr Putin would have had to step down by 2024. Now he can serve at least another two terms.
A Brief History of Ukraine to the Year 2000
In looking at Ukraine’s history from the perspective of the current war, the important questions to ask are why Russians might dismiss Ukraine’s claims to statehood, why Ukrainians for the most part passionately disagree, and how Russian behaviour towards its neighbour might have caused Ukrainians to hate Russians and long for independence.
Ukraine is one of the most serially invaded and oppressed countries in the world. Geographically it sits at the centre of a continental landmass, with no mountains for protection. It has been invaded at various times by Swedes, Mongols, Lithuanians, Poles, Russians and Germans.
Ukraine’s history ran in parallel with Russia’s up to the middle of the fourteenth century (around 1360). The two countries shared the experience of the Kievan Rus, as well as a common religion. Saint Volodymyr (Russian Vladimir), who was also king of the Rus (980 AD), became the patron saint of both Russia and Ukraine. He was perhaps a rather unusual saint. According to an early history of the region, The Chronicle of Bygone Years, Volodymyr was ‘overcome with lust for women…he had three hundred concubines at Vyshorod, three hundred at Belhorod, and two hundred at Berestrovo. He was insatiable in vice. He even seduced married women and violated young girls for he was a libertine like Solomon.’ Yet these activities left him time to adopt the Orthodox religion. Later, when Ukraine was ruled by Poland the west of the country, known as Galicia, came under a strong Catholic influence and a new Uniate Church was founded in an attempt to combine the two. In this way Ukraine was different from Russia which remains Orthodox to this day.
Both countries were overrun by the Mongols, but while Russia remained under the power of the Horde, Ukraine was conquered by the Lithuanians, who defeated the Mongols at the Battle of Blue Waters (1362) and then by their allies, the Poles, who remained in control for three hundred years.
In the early sixteenth century bands of Cossacks or ‘free adventurers’ began to make their presence felt in central and eastern Ukraine. The Cossacks were bands of militias, each led by a chief or ‘hetman’. Cossacks maintained a central meeting place at the Zaporozhian Sich, a wooden barracks town on a remote island in the Dnieper. Cossacks mounted raids deep into Poland to the west and as far as Constantinople to the East. They are seen in some quarters, with scant evidence, as early Ukrainian freedom fighters. Their most famous leader, Hetman Khmelnytsky, began a bloody rebellion in the 1640s against the ruling Poles, the Jews, and more or less anyone else who got in his way. For a time Khmelnytsky’s Cossacks controlled the whole of today’s western and central Ukraine. However, after suffering a crushing defeat in 1651, Khmelnytsky was forced to attempt an alliance with Russia, already on its way to achieving its first empire. The Russians refused an alliance, and Khmelnytsky was forced to accept a humiliating ‘oath of obedience’ instead. This capitulation, at Pereyaslav in 1654, marks the beginning of the subservience of ‘Little Russia’ to its powerful neighbour. In 1686, following another thirty years of bloodshed, the Poles and Russians signed an ‘eternal peace’ under which Galicia would be part of Poland, and the rest of the country would be ruled by Russia, an arrangement which continued until independence in 1991. Partition has left a deep legacy. To this day, western and central Ukraine are more European and western leaning with the east more Russian.
In 1708 the Swedes, under King Charles XII, invaded Russia. Disastrously, Hetman Ivan Mazeppa allied with the Swedes against the Russians. The pair were decisively defeated at the battle of Poltava. After this, the hetmanate went into a rapid decline and was finally abolished by Catherine the Great in 1781.
During the nineteenth century, Ukraine remained under the rule of Poland in the west and Russia everywhere else, but it was at this time that nationalism began. The first book in Ukrainian was published in 1798, the first grammar in 1818, and the first dictionary in 1923. Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko, turned Ukrainian into a literary language. Born in serfdom, Shevchenko rose to fame, reading his poetry alongside Dostoyevsky and Turgenev. He wrote of the beauty of the Ukrainian landscape, of the lost Cossack greatness, of subservience to Russia and dreamed of a Ukrainian state.
The new national feeling ran in parallel with a campaign of Russification. In 1840, the Ukrainian legal code was replaced by Russian law. The Edict of Ems in 1876 banned the publication of books or newspapers in Ukrainian, together with performances of stage plays, concerts and lectures. All school teaching was to be in Russian. These repressive measures went skin-deep. People increasingly spoke of themselves as Ukrainian and resented their Russian overlords.
Galicia in the late nineteenth century was an impoverished peasant society. The land was owned by Poles and the shops and inns by Jews. Ukrainians, just 40% of the population, laboured in the fields. Every year around fifty thousand people died of malnutrition and only one in two children lived to the age of five. Around two million Galicians emigrated in the years between 1880 and the First World War, mainly to the US and Canada.
The Calamitous Twentieth Century
In the twentieth century, Ukraine endured a series of calamities. National feeling, though suppressed, continued to grow. Ukraine became a battlefield once again in the First World War. Around two million Ukrainians were conscripted mainly into the Russian army, while civilians were accused of collaboration by both sides. Following Russia’s surrender, Ukraine declared independence under a Central Council or Rada. This movement was disorganised and was quickly suppressed by the Russian Bolshevik army. The ensuing Russian civil war (once again fought largely on Ukrainian soil) was chaotic as five armies – white, red, Ukrainian, Polish and Allied – rampaged through the countryside. Altogether around 1.5m Ukrainians died in the two wars fought on their land between 1914 and 1921.
Galicians argued for independence at the Treaty of Versailles, but in the end were not listened to. Ukraine was divided into four – Russia kept its territory in the centre and east of the country, Galicia went to Poland under the military government of Marshall Pilsudski, while Czechoslovakia and Romania took what was left. Polish rule was harsh and galvanised opposition. Ukrainian schools were closed or forced to speak only in Polish and Ukrainian newspapers were censored. Candidates and voters were struck off electoral rolls. Ukrainians were debarred from even the lowliest government posts. Hundreds of churches were reduced to rubble or forced to convert to Catholicism and national costumes were destroyed.
In Russian Ukraine something altogether more sinister was about to take place. In college history we learned about the collectivisations under Stalin, of how the peasants were so reluctant to join the collective farms that they preferred to kill and eat their livestock, after which many starved to death. We were told the sanitised version. What really happened was a genocidal attack on rural Ukraine. Stalin’s murderous regime targeted anyone who Stalin felt he couldn’t trust to be wholly loyal. Stalin was concerned about the populations in parts of the empire outside Russia and about the peasant class, especially the wealthier ones (kulaks) who tended to be more independent-minded and resistant to the doctrines of Bolshevism. Ukraine’s peasants were the perfect target. They were outside Russia, they tended to be wealthier than Russian peasants as Ukraine’s soil is extremely fertile with a mild climate and they owned their own land. The choice they were offered was to become serfs again as their grandparents had been. This meant working for a pittance on collective farms under brutal party bosses, or being visited by officials who took everything edible, and either beat up, deported or murdered anyone who resisted. The process began with requisitioning (1928) and progressed to dekulakisation (1930-2) and mass starvation (1932-3). Historian Robert Conquest, using Soviet census data, estimated that seven million people died in the Great Hunger (the Holodomor), of whom five million were in Ukraine, on top of six million in the ‘dekulakisation’. Towards the end of the Great Hunger, large numbers of peasants began arriving in Moscow and other Russian cities, where they died in the streets and railway stations.
The Soviet regime went to extreme lengths to conceal what was happening. Foreign visitors were shown carefully staged scenes with well-fed cheerful peasants and reported home accordingly. The sheer extent of this crime against humanity made it hard for outsiders to believe. The Holodomor seems to have disappeared from Russia’s recorded history, and yet, this act of genocide took place in Ukraine less than a century ago and must be a major, if rarely discussed, factor in the national aversion to Russians.
Could things get any worse for Ukraine? Unfortunately, they could – and did. In the Second World War Ukraine, together with Poland, formed the epicentre of the conflict and its attendant atrocities. It’s estimated that during the war 5.3 million Ukrainians died, around one sixth of the entire population (proportionately twenty times as many as died in Britain).
Early in the war Russia occupied Galicia in the west of Ukraine for the first time and proceeded to deport as many as 1.5m of the population to Russia. 2.5m Ukrainians were conscripted into the Russian army. Some Ukrainians, believing that the Germans could not possibly be as bad as the Russians, enlisted on the German side. Some became auxiliary SS men working in the death camps of Sobibor and Treblinka. As many as 200,000 joined the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (the UPA), fighting both Russians and Germans concurrently. Meanwhile the Holocaust obliterated the majority of Ukraine’s large Jewish population. The infamous Babiy Yar ravine, where 34,000 Jews were murdered in September 1941, is just outside Kyiv. As if all this wasn’t enough, around two million Ukrainians, mainly women, were deported to work as slave labour in German factories. Many of those who returned were ostracised as traitors to the Soviet cause.
By the end of the war, the whole of Ukraine was part of the USSR, and for the next eight years, Ukraine suffered under the tyranny of Stalinism. Western Ukraine experienced ‘sovietisation’, including the same collectivisation that the rest of the country had suffered twenty years earlier. A drought in 1946-7 led to a famine which caused a million deaths. Anyone suspected of disloyalty – real or alleged Nazi collaborators, former German POWs and the returned slave labourers – were sent to Siberia totalling around a million people altogether. Writers, artists and scholars were persecuted.
The UPA continued its resistance to Soviet occupation until the death of its leader in 1950, after which it went into a terminal decline.
The accession of Nikita Khrushchev in 1953 ushered in a milder period in the relations between the two countries, a time of increased decentralisation and cultural freedom. It was Khrushchev who ceded Crimea to be part of Ukraine in 1954 to mark the three-hundredth anniversary of the treaty of Pereyaslav when hetman Khmelnytsky handed Ukraine to Russia.
The period of greater tolerance under Khrushchev didn’t last long. His successor Leonid Brezhnev was a hard-line centralist who believed in keeping the satellite republics under strict control. He appointed Volodymyr Shcherbytsky to the role of First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party, effectively, under Russia, the political leader of Ukraine. Unfailingly loyal to Brezhnev, Shcherbytsky conducted policy as if Ukraine was a province of Russia He began by purging thirty-seven thousand officials who were felt to be ‘soft’ on nationalism. For seventeen years, until his fall in 1989, Shcherbytsky pursued policies of recentralisation and an intensified policy of Russification. There was a suppression of the Ukrainian language together with a broad assault on Ukrainian culture. Leading intellectuals were arrested and sent for hard labour in the camps and time-served political prisoners were re-arrested and returned for more hard labour.
During this period, Ukraine’s economy steadily declined.
In 1979, Russia began its invasion of Afghanistan in support of its satellite, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, against insurgent groups collectively known as the Mujahideen. During the ten-year conflict around fifteen thousand Soviet soldiers were killed, and another thirty-five thousand wounded. As on previous occasions, Ukrainians were conscripted in large numbers into the Russian army. Many didn’t return. The war caused resentment among the people of Ukraine.
On April 26th, 1986, the world’s worst ever nuclear explosion took place at Chernobyl in Ukraine, just sixty miles north-west of Kyiv. This disaster epitomised the shortcomings of the Soviet Union – unbelievable inefficiency, irresponsibility, cynicism, mendacity and sheer contempt for human life. The explosion took place on a Friday night. No public announcement was made until the evening news on Monday, when a short statement was made to the effect that everything was under control. It was only made then because the blast had been observed at a nuclear power station in Sweden, where scientists had put pressure on the Soviet authorities through their government to explain what had happened. Less than a week later in Kyiv, the May Day celebrations went ahead as normal on orders from the Kremlin to confirm the official line that Chernobyl posed no risk to public health. Mr Shcherbytsky appeared hatless, despite the fact that it was raining. By now the wind was blowing from the north, bringing lethal particles directly from Chernobyl to Kyiv. Five days later, Kievans were ordered to stop eating green vegetables and drinking milk, to stay indoors, wash thoroughly, and sweep out their flats. This was a classic case of shutting the stable door after the horse has escaped. No one will ever know the full human cost of Chernobyl as the relevant documents mysteriously vanished. If Ukrainians needed any further evidence that their country was a mere colony, where human life was cheap, Chernobyl provided that evidence.
Throughout this period, despite the repression, Ukrainian nationalism continued in its various forms. It gathered pace in the perestroika years of the late 1980s. The nationalist party, the Rukh, won the first ever free elections in 1990, declaring its goal of full independence for Ukraine. They didn’t have long to wait. Ukraine become an independent state on the 24th August 1991, the day the Soviet Union collapsed.
Ukraine had never up to this point been an independent state, but to conclude as Mr Putin does that it has no legitimacy as a state is without merit. Ukraine has its own language and culture and a strong national identity which denies Russia’s sense of entitlement.
The history of the twentieth century is one of collapsing empires – the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian at the end of the First World War, the British, French and Belgian after the second. Empires involve a sacrifice of freedom in exchange for wealth and security. Very often the imperial state fails to fulfil its share of the bargain and finds itself having to substitute consent with repression. This was as true of the Russian empire as any of the others. Repression works best in impoverished regions. When prosperity rises, as it did in post-war Europe, even in Ukraine, repression can be at best no more than a delaying tactic. There is no place for empire-building in the modern world, and apart from in the remotest and most impoverished regions, is likely to be violently rejected.
Did the Ukrainians have reason to hate Russians? Absolutely. Travellers to Ukraine spoke of anti-Russian feeling as early as the 1830s. In the twentieth century, Ukraine suffered in the First World War, followed by the nightmare of the Holodomor, repression under Stalin and his successors, and finally Chernobyl. Over the years its citizens have been repeatedly recruited as cannon-fodder in Russia’s wars.
In the referendum following the event, Ukrainians voted by an overwhelming 92% to become an independent state.
Observers in 1991 saw Ukraine, positioned relatively close to Western Europe, as one of the former Soviet republics most likely to develop into a successful independent state as Poland has done given its excellent soil and climate along with its coal mining and range of heavy industry. Poland’s long history of occupation in Galicia caused great resentment, but with the passage of time, the two states have come to accept one another, and Poland has been outstanding in its support for Ukraine in 2022.
Relations with Russia have not gone as well. Russian continues to see Ukraine and Belarus as integral parts of the Russian state. Of the two, Belarus is less threatening to Russia. Belarus (formerly Byelorussia) is roughly the area of the UK, but with a population of just nine million, of whom 70% speak Russian as their first language. Almost half of the country, the poorest in Europe, is wooded. Belarus gained its independence in 1991 and has been governed for almost the whole of that time by pro-Russian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Lukashenko has been returned in every election since 1994, although independent observers have declared every result apart from the first one invalid. Mr Lukashenko is not recognised by the EU, the US or the UK. The most recent election in August 2020, resulting in another comfortable victory for Mr Lukashenko, led to widespread demonstrations which were brutally put down with Russian military support. Belarus has been the most docile of the former republics, but should Ukraine break free from Russia and become a successful free-standing state like Poland, then Belarus could be tempted to follow suit. No doubt Belarus was a consideration in Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
Following independence, Ukraine joined the Commonwealth of Independent States, together with Russia and Belarus, but realising that the organisation was seen primarily by Russia as a means of retaining control of its ‘near abroad’ remained as an associate member only.
Two issues were problematic from the start. Russia had deposited a large nuclear arsenal in Ukraine, making the country the world’s third largest nuclear power. In the spirit of detente, Russia, Ukraine and the US signed a Trilateral Statement (1994) under which Ukraine would transfer all of its nuclear weapons to Russia to be dismantled. Ukraine would then join the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state and Russia, the US and the UK would provide security guarantees to Ukraine.
Crimea was an even thornier problem. Part of Ukraine only since 1954, Crimea was populated by a Russian majority and a marginalised Tatar minority. Crimeans voted for independence by a much narrower margin than the rest of Ukraine, a Brexit-style 52%. Russians believed that Crimea should never have become part of Ukraine. Crimea returned pro-Russian governments, which voted to align its time to Moscow time and to adopt the rouble in preference to the Ukrainian hryvnia. Crimea contained Ukraine’s main port, Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, claimed by both Russia and Ukraine. After several years of friction, the two countries signed a Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Partnership, under which Russia would retain its Black Sea Fleet, and lease the port of Sevastopol for twenty years. In return, Russia would recognise Ukraine’s borders including Crimea. In 2010 Russia’s lease was extended until 2042, in exchange for cheaper gas supplies to Ukraine. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, it reneged on the terms of the 1997 treaty as well as the lease extension and the Trilateral Statement.
Economically, the 1990s were difficult years. Ukraine suffered from the dislocation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its internal markets were lost and overnight it was paying world prices for energy which were around double the subsidised Soviet Union levels. Like Russia, Ukraine suffered from hyper-inflation in the early 1990s, peaking at 4,700% in 1993. Ukraine saw a similar asset-grab to Russia’s allied with high levels of corruption. Crime rose post-independence, particularly organised crime where drug trafficking, people smuggling led to a rise in drug addiction and HIV. These issues deterred inward investment, which hampered the expected economic recovery.
However, Ukraine’s prospects improved in the latter half of the decade. Inflation was under control by 1996, and though business continued to be both corrupt and over-regulated, there were encouraging signs of stability after the chaos of the early years. In 1995 Ukraine joined the Council of Europe, and a year later entered in a ‘special partnership’ with NATO, as a prelude to full membership.
Ukrainian Leaders in the Putin era
Following independence, the Presidents of Ukraine were
1991-4 Leonid Kravchuk
1994-2005 Leonid Kuchma
2005-10 Viktor Yushchenko
2010-14 Viktor Yanukovych
2014 – 19 Petro Poroshenko
2019 – Volodymyr Zelensky
The Orange Revolution
At independence, Ukraine’s GDP per capita was roughly the same as Poland’s. A decade later, it was roughly a third as much. Ukraine struggled to emerge from its Soviet past, not helped by a weak government failing to enact necessary reforms and wholesale corruption. Ukraine was still strategically important to Russia. 85% of Russia’s gas exports to Europe flowed through Ukraine’s pipelines and the port of Sevastopol in the Crimea was home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The last thing Vladimir Putin wanted was for Ukraine to become a European democratic state.
Mr Kuchma oversaw a number of corrupt looking ‘soft’ privatisations similar to those of Yeltsin’s early years, and he was implicated in a number of scandals, including the murder of an investigative journalist. It became clear that he wasn’t going to be re-elected.
Kuchma’s preferred candidate for the 2004 elections was Viktor Yanukovych, an ex-convict brought up in harsh poverty in the Russian east of Ukraine, who had somehow become the governor of Donetsk. British ambassador Roland Smith described meeting Yanukovych in ‘a roomful of burly men in dark glasses’. Yanukovych turned into one of the most corrupt politicians in history – he and associates are estimates to have siphoned $100bn out of Ukraine’s economy, and his palatial residence outside Kyiv set a standard in crass opulence. Yanukovych, in other words, was a man after Putin’s own heart, and was the Kremlin’s preferred candidate in 2004.
Standing against Yanukovych was Viktor Yuschenko, the first truly westernising politician in post-independence Ukraine. Yushchenko was intelligent and educated. His wife was a Ukrainian who had been brought up in Chicago and had worked for the State Department. Yushchenko campaigned for membership of the EU and NATO. All this was an anathema to Mr Putin. Travelling round the country, Mr Yushchenko often found his venues closed and was prevented from campaigning in the east. One day, after going for dinner with the head of the security services, he fell violently ill, poisoned by what turned out to be pure dioxin. However, despite hideous damage to his skin he returned to the campaign trail. Now, more popular than ever and supported by his deputy Julia Tymoshenko, a charismatic individual and passionate nationalist with distinctive blond pigtails wound tightly round her head. Their slick campaign, with orange banners and slogans based around the one word ‘yes’ put them well ahead in the opinion polls. This was despite no less than seven visits to Ukraine by President Putin.
Yet strangely, when the votes came to be counted, Mr Yanukovych was declared the winner, and stranger still, Mr Putin publicly congratulated Yanukovych on his victory, on the day before the results were announced. Soon crowds gathered in Independence Square, known as the Maidan, in Kyiv. After a couple of days their numbers had swelled to around a million people. Under intense pressure from the West, Kuchma and Yanukovych agreed to re-run the election, and this time Yushchenko won by a comfortable 8%.
This was the Orange Revolution, an important step in Ukraine developing self-consciousness as a nation and it could be seen as the first in a series of counter-productive attempts by Putin’s Russia to bind Ukraine closer to itself. President Kuchma later claimed that Putin had leaned on him to use force against the demonstrators, adding that he had resisted the pressure.
Finally, it appeared that Ukraine was on the road to good government, but the euphoria soon evaporated as Yushchenko and his Prime Minister Tymoshenko failed to make progress, unable to agree on policies or to engage with each other as people. Meanwhile, Yanukovych embarked on a major makeover to rid himself of his ‘gangster’ image. It is said he began by bribing members of the Rada to declare allegiance to his Party of the Regions at a rate of around $1.0 – 1.5m per person.
The Gas Scam (2005)
Shortly after the election, Russian officials announced that the time had come to renegotiate the price Ukraine paid for its gas. The price would have to rise substantially – but there was an alternative, to receive supplies not from Russia’s official supplier Gazprom, but through an intermediary of the Kremlin’s choice. This gas would be a mixture of Russian gas and much cheaper gas from Turkmenistan and would be routed through Russian pipelines. The intermediary initially proposed Eural Trans Gas that had four owners, three random Romanians (an actress, a nurse, and a computer programmer) and an Israeli lawyer with mafia connections. This almost comically inappropriate entity was investigated and exposed by the fund manager Bill Browder, and subsequently replaced by a company called Rosukrenergo, this time owned 50% by Gazprom. The ownership of the other 50% was obscure but appearances suggested that it was another Kremlin slush fund. Ukraine would still be able to receive cheap gas, though not quite as cheap as before. As a further inducement, each side would receive $2 billion a year –which could go to the Ukrainian government, or into the pockets of its officials. While Yushchenko and his team were deliberating as to how to respond, Russia cut off gas supplies to the whole country. A day later Mr Yushchenko capitulated and accepted the deal. Later, it emerged that Rosukrenergo would be granted a monopoly on all gas supplies to Ukraine.
This episode says much about Mr Putin’s approach. He likes to operate remotely through obscure entities which allow control without accountability. He likes to compromise officials in other countries as a means of controlling them and he is always prepared to weaponise the supply of oil and gas to further his aims. A further advantage of the scheme for Mr Putin was that the deal split the pro-Western government of Ukraine, with Mr Yushchenko in favour of the deal, and his Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, violently opposed to it (she was subsequently jailed for seven years for her involvement in the scheme, in a move seen in the West as politically motivated). Oleh Rybachuk, who had handled the negotiations on behalf of the Ukrainian government, was bitterly disappointed by its outcome. On his return to Kyiv, the US ambassador remarked ‘Welcome to the corruption club’
The Maidan (2014)
As Yushchenko and Tymoshenko continued their feuding, their popularity continued to decline, allowing the spectacularly corrupt Yanukovych to become President in 2010. To be a successful politician in Ukraine required a balanced approach, neither too pro-Russia nor too pro-West. Yanukovych attempted to keep this balance, allowing the Association Agreement, a prelude to EU membership, to go ahead. This was too much for Mr Putin, who was planning a Eurasian Economic Union headed by Russia, with Ukraine as a member. Putin immediately slapped restrictions on Ukrainian exports to Russia, leaving hundreds of trucks stranded at the border and threatened wider trade restrictions. At this point, Yanukovych caved in and announced that the Association Agreement would not go ahead ’for national security reasons’.
Once again, Ukraine was being dragged back into the clutches of the Russian bear and again, people began gathering the Maidan. Several days in, police appeared with batons and dragged peaceful demonstrators away in vans to be beaten up. This senseless, disproportionate violence turned the Maidan protest into a mass movement, with around a million people on the square, supported by innumerable volunteers with food and clothing. The feeling was of peace and great solidarity. As one participant put it ‘The atmosphere was very peaceful. People were extra polite towards each other…it was a wonderful feeling – almost like going to church, though I’m not a believer…it didn’t matter who you were, or what language you spoke, you knew that everyone there was a good person’.
The demonstration lasted through a bitterly cold December and into the New Year. In mid-December Yanukovych, encouraged by Putin, passed a Dictatorship Law, outlawing the Maidan protest in various ways. For example, it became illegal to erect tents without police permission. Three days later, police with water cannon failed to clear the demonstrators.
Attitudes hardened and the demonstrations ended in violence, culminating on February 18th, 2015, when protestors armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails overwhelmed professional snipers.
Four days later President Yanukovych fled to Russia. Yet again, Putin’s attempt to bind Ukraine closer to Russia appeared to backfire in stimulating an upsurge of national pride.
This was the point at which Ukraine became world news. As the country became more self-consciously independent, the Kremlin’s dream of reabsorbing its neighbour into itself risked being permanently derailed. Russia was threatened with losing Sevastopol, its only warm-water port with its access through the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, control of its main gas supply route to Europe and, worst or all, risked seeing NATO appear on its very doorstep in the Donbas basin.
Within days, thousands of unbadged ‘freedom fighters’ appeared in the Crimean Peninsula. These were clearly Russian soldiers, though the Kremlin denied it. The Ukrainian troops surrendered without a fight. Soon afterwards, a Russian-organised ‘referendum’ produced a 97% vote in favour of reunification with Russia. Putin spoke triumphantly of Khrushchev’s having given Crimea away ‘like a sack of potatoes’, and of a historic wrong being put right. He spoke too of the Maidan ‘coup’ in which ‘terror, violence, murders and pogroms’ had been perpetrated by ‘neo-Nazis, nationalists and anti-Semites’, all funded by the CIA. When the bloodless annexation of Crimea was complete, Putin admitted that the ‘freedom fighters’ had been Russian troops after all.
The patriotic pride engendered by the solidarity of the Maidan and the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych were not felt as strongly in the Russified east of the country. Putin exploited this more ambiguous sentiment to stir up anti-Maidan protests in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions with claims for autonomy from Kiev. Though rather slow off the mark, the Ukrainian army almost succeeded in suppressing these movements, which had much less popular support than the Maidan, but at that point, in the summer of 2014, Putin, doubled down by increasing support to the separatists while continuing to deny involvement.
Ukraine came to the world’s attention again on July 17th that year when a Malaysian Airways flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down in the Donetsk region, near the Ukraine/Russia border. One might wonder how a small group of insurgents had managed to acquire a weapon powerful enough to shoot down an aircraft cruising at around 35,000 feet (seven miles). Independent investigators concluded that the weapon used was a Russian Buk surface-to-air missile, transported from Russia on the day of the crash, the launcher being returned soon afterwards. It will come as no surprise that the Kremlin denied all knowledge of this crime.
In early August, the Ukrainian army attempted to recapture the city of Ilovaisk. Soldiers entered the city but were soon encircled by insurgents supported by a large force of Russian troops. Following negotiations, the Russian commanders agreed to let the Ukrainian troops withdraw, but then reneged on the agreement. Russian forces opened fire on the retreating soldiers, many of whom were killed as they attempted to escape. This incident became known as the Massacre of Ilovaisk and is an early example of the barbarism which has been so evident in the Russian conduct of this year’s invasion and yet another reason for Ukrainians to dislike and distrust Russians.
Poroshenko and Zelensky
In Presidential elections held after the hasty departure of Yanukovych, Petro Poroshenko won a landslide victory. Ukraine’s sixth wealthiest man, a confectionery magnate known as ‘The Chocolate King’, Poroshenko stood for what most Ukrainians wanted – promotion of the Ukrainian language, nationalism, inclusive capitalism and decentralisation. More immediate priorities were ending the conflict in the Donbas basin and getting to grips with corruption. Poroshenko was unable to make headway on either of these issues, and in 2019 lost heavily to his younger challenger, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Far from being one of Putin’s ‘anti-Semites’ Zelensky is himself Jewish and a native Russian-speaker. Now aged 44, Zelensky trained in law but on leaving college became an actor and comedian. He became a celebrity in Ukraine in 2015, starring in a hugely successful and somewhat prophetic film called ‘Servant of the People’. In the film, Zelensky plays a history teacher who becomes an internet phenomenon after delivering an impassioned and profanity-laden address against official corruption.
Zelensky subsequently decided to go into politics and registered the name Servant of the People as a political party. He beat the incumbent Poroshenko in 2019 with 73% of the vote. He followed his election as President with a general election to the Rada, where Servant of the People gained an absolute majority.
Zelensky had a political sponsor called Igor Kolomoisky, whose media empire had promoted the film Servant of the People and subsequently financed Zelensky’s presidential campaign. Kolomoisky had gone into exile after Ukraine’s largest lender PrivatBank, which he had co-founded, had to be nationalised during a funding crisis in which the state had to inject $6.5bn. Kolomoisky was said to have siphoned many billions of dollars out of the company. However, there is no evidence that Mr Zelensky was in any way involved in these activities.
Mr Zelensky came to the world’s attention on news that US President Donald Trump had threatened to make an aid payment to Ukraine conditional. The condition involved Zelensky providing revelations that Trump’s challenger, Joe Biden, had attempted to have a senior lawyer fired to prevent an investigation into Ukrainian gas company Burisma, by whom Biden’s son Hunter Biden had been employed. This allegation led to President Trump’s first impeachment. Senators voted along party lines and the President was acquitted.
Russia invades Ukraine
In the context of its long-held policy to prevent Ukraine from becoming a successful independent state, Russia’s actions from 2014 onwards had been a limited success. Russia had annexed Crimea without bloodshed and with no reprisals other than global condemnation and some relatively mild sanctions, which Russia knew how to circumvent. The ongoing conflict in the Donbas region had made Ukraine more fractious and harder to govern, increased the government’s costs, distracted attention from important issues such as the battle against corruption and discouraged inward investment into the country as a whole.
However, Putin and his officials must have concluded that progress towards the final collapse of Ukraine as an independent state was not proceeding quickly enough.
There have been numerous statements in the media in recent months to the effect that no one can be sure what Putin’s war aims are. On the contrary, he has made them perfectly clear throughout his thirty years in office. Putin believes that it was a grave mistake by Lenin to designate parts of the empire as separate republics and that the USSR’s collapse in 1991 was the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century. The reabsorption of Ukraine is a vital step in the rebuilding process. Ukraine was the third largest of the fifteen republics after Russia itself and Kazakhstan It shares a long border with Russia, is full of economically strategic assets and is capable of becoming a successful westernised state which must be prevented at all costs. Without Ukraine, the empire can’t be rebuilt. Putin denies that Ukraine ever had ‘real statehood’. It was ‘an integral part of Russia’s own history, culture and spiritual space’ (speech announcing support for the breakaway republics, 22nd of February 2022). For him, seemingly blind to the country’s natural revulsion after three hundred years of oppression, Ukraine is still ‘Little Russia’. After eight months of futile conflict, Russia’s war aims remain the same, as clearly stated by Dmitri Medvedev earlier this month. Medvedev has been a protégé and close associate of Putin’s since the early days in St Petersburg. We can be sure that anything Medvedev says has the approval of Mr Putin. Medvedev wrote ‘The Ukrainian state in its current configuration…will be a constant, direct and clear threat to Russia. I believe that the aim of our future actions should be the complete dismantling of Ukraine’s political regime’.
Considering Russia’s fearsome reputation as a military superpower, it is remarkable how badly its war has gone. The initial attack on Kiev, intended to overthrow the government, was repulsed. The abandoned convoy contained ceremonial uniforms for the victory parade after the Ukrainians had embraced their Russian brothers, thrown down their arms and abandoned their hated ‘neo-Nazi and anti-Semite’ masters. Putin then declared improbably that Russia’s ‘real’ war aims were the lesser ones of supporting the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. During the war, Russia has suffered around 80,000 casualties, 25,000 killed and the rest injured or taken prisoner. At least twelve Russian generals have been killed. Russia’s Moskva battleship was sunk in April, the largest ship to be lost in action since the General Belgrano in 1982. Russia has lost around 2,000 tanks and countless armoured vehicles. Meanwhile Russia has become the most heavily sanctioned country in the world, excluded from the world’s banking system with hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign assets frozen, and with the US, UK, EU and Canadian airspace closed to its traffic. Far from weakening NATO, Mr Putin’s war has led to the revitalisation of NATO and the addition of two new members, Sweden and Finland (though these are temporarily being blocked by Hungary).
Sir Jeremy Fleming, head of GCHQ, recently summarised the war as a ‘high-stakes strategy’ where ‘the costs to Russia in people and equipment are staggering’. The Russian people have started to understand this. ‘We know’, he continued, ‘and the Russian commanders on the ground know, that their supplies and munitions are running out. Russia’s forces are exhausted. The use of prisoners to reinforce and now the mobilisation of tens of thousands of inexperienced conscripts, speaks of a desperate situation’.
Everything that Mr Putin has done and threatened to do in the last few weeks has reflected the increasingly desperate situation in which he finds himself. The weaponization of gas hurts the countries which Russia supplies but, in the longer term, it hurts Russia more. Russia’s gas pipelines flow westwards. Without Western demand, these pipelines are useless, and gas can’t go anywhere else until new pipelines are built. But who would want to be supplied by Russia now? Russia is no longer a reliable counterparty. It is losing gas revenues with every day that goes by. Its actions have guaranteed ensuring that the trade can never return to the status quo ante.
Not content with shutting off the gas supply, it appears that Russia is engaged in vandalising the pipelines. On October 18th Danish officials confirmed ‘extensive damage’ to the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in the Baltic Sea off Denmark caused by ‘powerful explosions’. Danish Defence Minister, Morten Bodskov, said ‘It is very serious, and this is by no means a coincidence. It does not just seem planned, but very well planned’.
The conscription of three hundred thousand Russians is another desperate measure. The unspoken deal between the Putin and the Russian people has been an exchange of freedom for a comfortable life. Under sanctions, life is becoming far less comfortable. While political freedoms have disappeared, as the last independent media outlets have been closed, people can be imprisoned for fifteen years for calling the war a war with new repressive measures announced in the last few days. There could be no starker contrast than that between Ukraine, whose men are queueing up to fight for their country, and Russia, where men are queueing up to leave to avoid having to do so. Russians have heard of the HIMARS weapons and are in no hurry to be standing underneath when they land.
The recent referendums in the four regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia were designed to consolidate the invasion, making the regions ‘legitimately’ part of Russia so that the Kremlin can frame Ukraine’s attempts to recapture its own territory as an attack on Russia. One might ask exactly which audience these antics are designed to impress. Certainly not the Ukrainians, nor anyone in the US, UK, EU or anyone else in the civilised world.
Mr Putin is becoming ever more imaginative in his desperation. To deflect attention from the catalogue of his own war crimes, he is spreading rumours that Ukraine plans to use a ‘dirty bomb’ against Russia. He is forming an ‘international war crimes tribunal’ to punish Ukrainians presumably for the crime of being the victims of an unprovoked attack on their own country.
It seems that Mr Putin is deliberately positioning Russia as a pariah state. Throughout his career, Putin has spurned the norms of civilisation and legality, but in his onslaught against Ukraine, he seems determined to set new standards of depravity in brutal aggression. This makes a mockery of his assertion that Ukrainians and Russians are brothers while insulting the intelligence of the world in his endless insistence on blaming his crimes on their victims.
It seems improbable that the war has gone the way that Putin and his officials intended. What went wrong? Certainly Putin, the imperial dreamer, has failed to understand why the Ukrainian people are so determined to avoid their country becoming a Russian colony, or the way they would rally behind their charismatic leader. An even bigger mistake was to imagine that NATO would sit back and let Russia annex Ukraine in the same way as it had done with Crimea and how it had failed to oppose Russia’s intervention in Syria. This was the same mistake that Hitler made in the 1930s. After a series of effortless land grabs Hitler imagined he could get away with just about anything. Failing to notice that each new outrage stiffened the Western Allies’ resolve. The point was eventually reached at the invasion of Poland where their patience snapped. Ukraine was NATO’s Poland moment. Russia was unprepared for its response. Finally, Putin underestimated the weakness of his own army, itself weakened by corruption and the protection of personal fiefdoms.
It is hard to speak truth to power at the best of times. When the speaker is liable to lose his life or his liberty, the dictator will only hear what his adviser thinks he wants to hear. This happened to Boris Nemtsov who spoke up against the first Donbas insurgency and was found murdered under the Kremlin walls.
Putin has by now abandoned his role as saviour of the Ukrainian people and has cast off any last vestiges of compliance with internationally recognised standards of behaviour. Mr Putin is without question a war criminal. What he has done in Ukraine would make the country ungovernable should Russia manage to conquer it and has guaranteed that the loathing that most Ukrainians feel for Russians will persist for decades if not centuries to come.
Mr Putin’s tactics appear to be twofold. The first is terror. He attempts to scare the world with threats to use nuclear weapons and the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of new troops (he has said that the first three hundred thousand conscriptions represent just one percent of the total available – implying that thirty million new soldiers are available). The most recent targeting of energy infrastructure in Ukrainian cities is illegal, inhuman and entirely unjustified but reflects a view that terror may win the day. It worked in Chechnya, why not in Ukraine?
Putin is also playing for time. It’s extremely difficult to regain a lost initiative. Russia’s demoralised troops are being forced back across the whole thousand-kilometre front. If they can hold on until winter the fighting may become more spasmodic, allowing space to regroup. Over the winter fresh new troops can be trained up. Meanwhile, the public in the west may rebel against the high energy prices which their governments may become increasingly less able to subsidise. Hungary’s continued veto on Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO could turn into a more general standoff. Maybe the cost in weapons subsidising Ukraine’s defence will become too much to bear. The Republicans could regain Congress in the upcoming mid-term elections. The Republican Party is still the party of Donald Trump, with his mysterious fascination with dictators, particularly the more murderous ones. The longer Mr Putin can prolong the war, the better his chance that the opposing coalition will fall apart. With the world’s attention diverted elsewhere, he could consolidate his hold on the annexed regions, and continue undermining Ukraine’s government with all the means at his disposal.
In the last two centuries, the average length of wars has been three months. The Ukraine war has already lasted eight months, and most commentators can see no end to it. Only Turkey appears to be making any serious attempt to get the two sides talking. What is needed – and lacking – is an intermediary which both sides respect.
The deep hatred between the two sides makes negotiations more difficult. Their basic positions are radically opposed. Ukraine sees itself as a sovereign country which has been illegally invaded. Putin’s regime sees Ukraine as part of Russia in which an illegitimate government is being propped up by American money. Russia has conducted referendums in Crimea and the Donbas republics which appear to confirm their desire to be part of the Russian state. Ukraine, together with all the supranational organisations, do not recognise these mandates as having been arrived at under free and fair conditions. Ukraine wants Russia off its territory, including the Crimea. Russia wants to hold onto its gains.
Russia will want the sanctions to be removed and may demand an end to sanctions before it will enter negotiations. Ukraine and its allies regard Putin’s regime as criminal and are unlikely to agree to an end to sanctions while Putin remains in power. Mr Putin has just passed his seventieth birthday. He looks tired and not in the best of health. Conditions for Russians are deteriorating, and it must be clear to most Russians that the narrative of a short almost bloodless campaign like the Crimean annexation or Hitler’s Anschluss has blown disastrously off course. Putin is unlikely to step down – the habit of dictatorship is too deeply engrained and he himself is so steeped in blood that, shorn of all his protections, his life would be at daily risk. He will be removed either by a coup or by a popular uprising, Maidan-style. As things stand, the former of these is the more likely and becomes ever more likely as Putin’s position becomes ever more extreme. In the absence of functioning democratic structures, a post-coup regime would be another autocracy but one which, realising the damage being inflicted on Russia’s economy by an escalating war, would see the advantage of re-setting its relations with the west. The new regime would be able to blame the war crimes on Mr Putin, arguing that everyone else was acting on his orders. The new leaders could argue that the damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure was the responsibility of the Putin regime and might find it easier to limit demands for reparations.
A less likely but possible scenario is that public anger grows to a point where repression ceases to work, where police and soldiers refuse to act against their fellow citizens. Such an uprising might bring Alexei Navalny to power. Navalny is a popular opposition leader, who the regime poisoned with novichok a couple of years ago but failed to kill (and of course denied any involvement). On returning to Russia, Navalny was found guilty on charges of ‘fraud’ and is currently serving an extended prison sentence to 2031. Should Navalny come to power, he would face the monumental task of restoring freedoms in what has been a police state for the last twenty years, but he would do so with a huge amount of support from the West. A Navalny government couldn’t be held responsible for Mr Putin’s war crimes, which would make peace negotiations a lot easier.
In conclusion, I can’t see any circumstances in which Ukraine and its allies could possibly conduct meaningful peace talks with the bloodstained regime of Vladimir Putin.
When the talks take place, the most contentious issues are likely to include:
Vladimir Putin and his team have an acute sense of victimisation, based on NATO’s expansion despite undertakings made in the early 1990s that no such thing would happen. At the start of the war, Putin said that he would consider halting the invasion if NATO undertook to revoke the memberships of all countries admitted since 1997. Russia’s sense of vulnerability has become more acute following the accession of Finland and Sweden. The security of Europe depends on a mutually acceptable solution to this issue. Russian membership of NATO has been unthinkable under the Putin regime – now could be the moment to think the unthinkable.
The irony of the 2014 referendum was that if it had been free and fair, the result could have been the same – a vote in favour of rejoining Russia. Most Crimeans don’t see themselves as part of the Ukraininan state. The largest ethnic group is Russians. The Russian annexation was bloodless and looks like a fait accompli. It would seem easiest for Ukraine to accept the situation, in exchange for concessions in other areas. This solution is problematic because legitimising Russian rule in Crimea would have to entail granting Russia a land corridor to Crimea, exactly what the Russians have seized by force during the summer. Ukraine would then be surrounded by Russian territory to the north, east and south.
The Breakaway Republics
This will be an extremely difficult issue to resolve. It could easily turn into a running sore like Northern Ireland or Israel/Palestine. The region is part of Ukraine, and the recent referendums have no legitimacy. The high proportion of Russian speakers in the area doesn’t make the region part of Russia, any more than the fact that their overall allegiance to Kyiv can be less strong than that of the central and western areas. The brutalisation of the Donbas by eight years of conflict doesn’t help either. The solution could be a movement of people, as happened after the Second World War when most of the Poles in Galicia migrated to Poland. Those who wished to be Russian could be re-housed in Russia. Those who remained would be true Ukrainians. The settlement would take years to embed itself and could be supported by an international peace-keeping force.
Who Rebuilds Ukraine?
This is another issue on which agreement appears impossible while the Putin regime remains in power. His regime began the war and is responsible for all the damage caused, much of it wilful damage to civilian infrastructure. A compromise could be reached with a more amenable government – leaving Russians with the stark choice between continuing an increasingly expensive and unwinnable war or replacing Mr Putin.
Ukraine will emerge from this conflict either as an unwilling colony of the Russian Federation, or as an independent country. If the latter, it faces three huge challenges – to achieve a peace which guarantees it from further Russian aggression, to rebuild its cities and infrastructure, at a cost which might be $600bn, a sum of money Ukraine doesn’t have, thereby reviving its economy and eradicating the corruption which has continued to hold the country back since independence.
Russia is at a turning point. Despite its pariah status in the west, it has friends and sympathisers around the world, particularly in the southern hemisphere, where the West is seen as hypocritical. These are not wholly unreasonable beliefs. For example defending Ukraine’s sovereignty while invading Iraq and bombing Libya, accepting refugees from Ukraine while spurning refugees from Syria and receiving the lion’s share of the Covid vaccines. African countries remember how Russia trained and armed anti-colonial militias, which it still does in a number of sub-Saharan countries. Saudi Arabia and the UAE see Russia as a key partner in the oil market. Russia can sell its oil to Turkey, India and China. Will all this be enough? Are we looking at a new global divide in which the US, UK, EU and perhaps Australia and New Zealand line up against the rest of the world, including Russia? Is this part of a wider division between those countries that still believe in democracy, however bad they are at practising it, and those like Russia who believe autocracy to be innately superior?
Will post-Putin Russia continue to pursue its empire? Following the demise of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, British, French and Belgian empires, Russia’s imperial dreams look increasingly like a historical anachronism. Should Russia decide to abandon its ambitions in this regard, the country could become more prosperous and easier to govern, and the world could be a safer place to live in.
Please note, these views represent the opinions of Tony Yarrow and do not constitute investment advice. This document is not intended as a recommendation to invest in any particular asset class, security or strategy. The information provided is for educational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a recommendation to buy or sell securities. Wise Investment is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, number 230553.
Prisoners of Geography – Tim Marshall
Borderland – Anna Reid
Putin’s People – Catherine Belton
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible – Peter Pomerantsev
Red Notice – Bill Browder
Moneyland – Oliver Bullough
Midnight in Chernobyl – Adam Higginbotham
Numerous articles in the Economist, the Times, the New York Times, Wikipedia and elsewhere
Roman Abramovich – Yeltsin-era oligarch who has survived into the Putin era. Based in London, until recently owned Chelsea football club
Boris Berezovsky – Yeltsin-era oligarch. Fell out of favour in the Putin era and subsequently died in mysterious circumstances in his English mansion
Leonid Brezhnev – USSR President 1964-82 following Khrushchev. Reinstated repressive policy in Ukraine
Aleksandr Dvornikov – repressive Russian general appointed April 2022 to shore up Russia’s war effort in the Donbas region
Ramzan Kadyrov – hawkish leader of the Chechen Republic, currently urging Mr Putin to be more aggressive in his war against Ukraine.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky – former head of oil company Yukos. Russia’s wealthiest man in the late 1990s. Accused of tax evasion under Putin. Spent ten years in Siberian labour camp. Now in exile in London
Sergei Lavrov – current Russian foreign minister
Sergei Magnitsky – lawyer employed by Bill Browder’s Hermitage Capital. Imprisoned following the state-sponsored appropriation of the company. Died in prison.
Dmitry Medvedev – Deputy Chair of the Security Council of the Russian Federation. Putin protégé and right-hand man.
Alexei Navalny – current main Russian opposition leader. Serving prison sentence on charges of ‘fraud’
Boris Nemtsov – assassinated beside the Kremlin after expressing opposition to the insurgency in the Donbas region, 2014
Yevgeny Prigozhin – Russian oligarch and close confidant of Mr Putin
Anna Politkovskaya – journalist, reporter on the Chechnya war, human rights activist, murdered outside her Moscow flat, 2006
Sergei Pugachev – ‘the Kremlin’s banker’ under Boris Yeltsin, fell from grace under Putin, now living in London
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin President of Russia 2000-8, 2012 – date
Igor Sechin – Russian oligarch, close confidant of Vladimir Putin
Anatoly Sobchak – former mayor of St Petersburg, early sponsor of Vladimir Putin
Boris Yeltsin – first President of the Russian Federation 1991-9. Handed power to Mr Putin
Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky – rebel Cossack leader who surrender the territory that became Ukraine to Russia at Pereyaslav in 1654
Vitali Klitschko – former professional boxer, current mayor of Kyiv
Volodymyr Kolomoisky – Ukrainian oligarch, early sponsor of Mr Zelensky’s political career. Accused of siphoning large sums of money out of Ukraine’s largest bank, which he co-founded
Leonid Kravchuk – first President of Ukraine 1991-4
Petro Poroshenko – President of Ukraine, 2014-19
Volodymyr Scherbatsky – repressive leader of Ukraine under Brezhnev
Taras Shevchenko – national poet of Ukraine, mid nineteenth century
Yulia Tymoshenko – Prime Minister of Ukraine under Yushchenko, subsequently imprisoned for alleged involvement in the gas scam
Viktor Yanukovych – spectacularly corrupt President of Ukraine 2010-4.
Viktor Yushchenko – westernising Ukraine President 2005-10
Volodymyr Zelensky – current President of Ukraine
James Baker – US Secretary of State under George Bush. Famously promised President Gorbachev that following German unification NATO would move ‘not an inch’ further east
Bill Browder – fund manager turned anti-corruption activist following the appropriation of his Russian assets by the state, and the apparent murder of his colleague Sergei Magnitsky in prison
Sir Jeremy Fleming – head of GCHQ who believes that Russia has lost its war in Ukraine
Hans-Dietrich Genscher – German Foreign Minister who persuaded President Gorbachev that Russia’s interests must be respected by the West, as did Chancellor Helmut Kohl and UK Prime Minister John Major
George Soros – billionaire investor and philanthropist who warned investors against participating in the Rosneft IPO