Putin is the heir to Soviet tyranny, and Ukrainians understand from bitter experience the nature of their enemy
2 June 2023
We think of the Second World War as a virtuous struggle. Unfortunately, we are not much more than half right. Yes, we defeated Nazism, but only with the vital aid of Soviet communism. This double-edged victory has dominated the world order ever since, its ill effects surviving long after the Cold War ended. It helps explain why Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine last year and why his defeat in the ensuing conflict is essential to world peace.
Hitler lost. His dream of a greater Reich collapsed. Some people may still harbour his dark thoughts, but his ideology remains disgraced. Stalin won. Victory in 1945 enabled him to extend the Russian empire well beyond its old Tsarist borders. His thoughts were as dark as Hitler’s, and victory left him free to continue to persecute the peoples he already controlled.
In the case of Ukraine, Stalin had, in the early 1930s, imposed the Holodomor (“death by hunger”), deliberately starving perhaps five million people. Throughout his empire, he constantly moved ethnic groups, forcibly and en masse, to distant regions where they could barely survive.
In Kyiv last month, I met Sevgil Musayeva, the editor-in-chief of Ukrainska Pravda, the country’s independent online newspaper. By chance, our meeting took place on the day that commemorates Stalin’s deportation of the Tatars from their native Crimea in 1944.
Sevgil’s own great-grandmother, aged 40, was one of those deported, travelling with her 13-year-old son. On the terrible, waterless train journey east, the boy thought his mother was asleep. When he tried to wake her, he found she was dead. In 1989, as the Soviet grip loosened, Sevgil’s surviving family returned to Crimea. Early this century, as Putin’s threats to the peninsula grew, her parents moved to Kyiv. When he invaded Ukraine last year, they fled to Germany – exiles once again, persecuted by the same mindset for 80 years.
Putin is probably not a communist. He certainly has no objection to the private appropriation of the fruits of mass labour by a privileged few. But he is Stalin’s heir. He sees Mikhail Gorbachev’s dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1991 as the great catastrophe for Russia. In his mind, it is what the defeat of Germany in 1918 was in Hitler’s – the humiliation which must be avenged.
Jailed in the 1920s, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, setting out his race theories and territorial ambitions with a frankness that most people, strangely, ignored. Locked down by his own Covid restrictions, Putin wrote his essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”,
claiming there is no such country as Ukraine. Hitler stuck to his twisted version of his country’s destiny. Putin shows every sign of doing the same.
Ukrainians understand this. They know that an invader who denies their national existence will also deny them their rights and their lives. Like a lesser Stalin, Putin already is deporting, torturing and murdering them. That is why they have fought so well, and are about to counter-attack once more.
They see it almost arithmetically. As one soldier put it to me: “The Russians have three times our population and they want to kill us. So I must kill at least three of them and preferably 15 or 20.” The knowledge that someone is trying to kill you concentrates the mind.
The wider world concentrates its mind less. Putin is not, currently, trying to kill us, although he likes muttering threats of nuclear obliteration. We therefore tend to evade reality and cast about for complicated diplomatic solutions. In the early days, France and Germany, in particular, sought potentially ignominious escape routes. Britain, led at the time by Boris Johnson, was clearer-sighted, and remains so under Rishi Sunak.
The 15 months since the failed invasion has given Ukraine’s allies a crash course in war studies, learning what might previously have taken an entire academic career. They have been forced to confront Putin’s black logic.
Take, for example, his famous phrase “special military operation” to describe his invasion. It has been mocked as a propaganda euphemism, but it is what he actually thinks. For Putin, this is not a war. A war is something you fight against another country. He constantly asserts that the country called Ukraine does not exist. So this is just a military operation to get rid of the “neo-Nazis and drug addicts” who, he claims, have somehow taken the place over.
Because he did not at first understand Putin’s full intent, President Joe Biden spoke, early last year, of possible “minor incursions” by Russia that might be tolerable. In Putin’s mind, none of his incursions is minor, because all share his major aim. Mr Biden eventually recognised this, and has backed Ukraine with impressive amounts of weaponry.
Putin’s paranoid view also states that “the West” wishes to crush the Russian world. In this context he does use the word “war”. War, he says, is what we want to inflict on him, not what he is waging in Ukraine.
At first, this made the Nato allies hold back, fearing the charge of “provocation”. Now they tend to think the bluff can be called. In Moldova this week, the leaders of the European Political Community Summit have competed with each other to sound welcoming about Ukraine joining Nato. Their presence in another threatened country is a warning to Russia not to try invasion there. Their nations have (expensively) weathered the energy storm which Putin unleashed on them last year. The lesson is that each time they show resolve, Putin is unsure what to do next.
When, in 2014, the allies first began to focus seriously on Ukraine’s problems, they misjudged his invasion of Crimea. They deplored it, of course, but they also felt that the place was, sort of – and despite previous agreements – Russia’s anyway. Concede that tacitly, they thought, and
perhaps things will calm down. Even today, they probably still regard Crimea as the one place Russia might be allowed to retain when peace comes.
With their superior grasp of Putin’s logic, the Ukrainians see it differently. They know he considers Crimea his greatest triumph so far and his best strategic Ukrainian possession, because it lets him control the Black Sea. He dispossessed existing home-owners to install Russian pensioners and build villas for the Russian rich in Crimea’s pleasant climate. He declared: “Sevastopol is a Russian city.” He reasserted imperial Russia.
So the Ukrainians want to take Crimea back even more, I sense, than they want the Donbas. They well know how much Putin has achieved through advancing bit by bit. Entrench his gains, and he will just try to grab more. Reverse his main one, and the rest might collapse.
Precisely because, contrary to Putin’s claims, the Nato allies have never sought to enlist Ukraine in any East-West struggle, it remains exposed. To become independent in the 1990s, it had to get rid of its nuclear weapons, without a Nato security guarantee in return. However much we help Ukraine, we dare not fight directly for its life. Yet if it wins, we win. If it loses, power shifts against the free world as has never happened since the 1930s.
In her famous Bruges speech of 1988, Margaret Thatcher tried to call for a wider Europe by saying boldly: “We shall always look on Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as great European cities.” With the end of the Cold War, the hope that lay behind her words was fulfilled. It is more than time to add Kyiv to her list.