IT IS possible that Vladimir Putin is really planning to invade Ukraine, but I think the signals point in a different direction. And that may well mean that the British and American response to the crisis could make things not better, but worse.
The received wisdom is that President Putin has become increasingly alarmed about NATO’s expansion into Russia’s old sphere of interest since the end of the Cold War. The extravagant demands that he has made suggest that. He is demanding that Ukraine and Georgia should never be admitted to NATO. And he wants the US to forswear the use of tactical nuclear weapons to defend its other Eastern European allies.
The West has, not unreasonably, rebuffed these demands. But it has failed to take on board what underlies President Putin’s sabre-rattling in his massive troop movements along the Russo-Ukrainian border. It may simply be that he fears the example of a successful, Western-orientated, thriving democratic economy next door to his own autocratic state. It could give his own subjects dangerous ideas.
But I think that it goes deeper. To many Russians, Ukraine is not a separate country but a place at the heart of their very national identity. Its capital, Kiev, was the centre of the medieval confederation known as Kyivan Rus, stretching from the White Sea to the Black, which was the cradle of Russian culture and the font of Orthodox Christianity.
There, in 988, Prince Vladimir converted to Christianity, and, with him, the whole of the Rus peoples. A millennium later, Solzhenitsyn, the child of a Ukrainian mother and a Russian father, wrote in defence of the Great Rus. Russia never came to terms with its separation from Ukraine at the end of the Cold War.
This is not merely nostalgist sentiment. The Russian and Ukrainian economies were tightly integrated in the Soviet Union. In Donbas, the industrialised east of Ukraine, most of the population are ethnic Russians, as they are in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
When President Putin illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, more than 90 per cent of the locals backed the idea, recalling that the peninsula had been at the heart of Russia’s imperial project since the days of Catherine the Great. More recently, President Putin ordered a stone from the place of Vladimir’s baptism in Crimea to be built into the giant statue of the prince outside the Kremlin gates. Last year, he penned a tract, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, lamenting that hostile powers were bent on turning Ukraine from “not Russia” into “anti-Russia”.
Yet the President also knows that, although his armies could easily invade Ukraine, they would have a far tougher job occupying the land in the face of opposition from insurgent patriots from western Ukraine.
The West, then, should be talking compromise, not confrontation. It could clearly state that, although Ukraine can enjoy free trade and free movement with the European Union, there is no imminent prospect of its being admitted to NATO. And it could offer a regional agreement about the mutual deployment of missiles to make military exercises in Eastern Europe less threatening. Jaw-jaw is what we need, not war-war.
Leader comment: A cool war on the Ukraine border