Opposition supporters protest against a bill to limit Ukrainian language in schools outside the parliament in Kiev on July 16, 2020. - A deputy in the party of President Volodymyr Zelensky has proposed legislation that would reduce the use of Ukrainian language in schools. A large proportion of the population speaks Russian, which was the dominant language in the Soviet Union and the Tsarist era. Critics of the bill say it paves the way for the "total Russification of education". (Photo by Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Putin's Ukraine dilemma, and the security threat to Europe


  • Opinion
  • 21 Dec 2021
  • 15 min read


Vladimir Putin – a master of the art – is once again playing brinkmanship over Ukraine. Russia has assembled potentially overwhelming force on Ukraine’s borders and will need to decide within a few weeks whether to use it or to return the troops to their barracks.

On 8 December Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the UK’s Chief of the Defence Staff, warned a full invasion of Ukraine would be ‘on a scale not seen in Europe since World War Two’ and he is right. Such a conflict would inevitably suck in other states in different ways and disrupt the continent’s security and stability.

Ukraine is not the only front. The Kremlin has stepped up pressure on the Baltic states and – with Lukashenko now dependent on Russia for survival – has encouraged Belarus in its recent confrontation with Poland.

The Putin regime is testing the West – especially the Biden administration – at a time of division and preoccupation with COVID-19 and domestic issues.  Moscow’s publication on 17 December of demands clearly unacceptable to the West has raised the stakes. This could be an opening bid to force the West into negotiation; or it could serve as an ultimatum, the certain rejection of which would then be used to justify a war.

Paranoia about NATO and the demand for a new Yalta

Russia claims to be threatened by NATO and by the risk – in the words of its foreign minister Sergei Lavrov – that NATO would turn Ukraine into a ‘bridgehead of confrontation’. Fostering paranoia about NATO and the West suits the book of the securocrats who dominate the Kremlin. Putin’s close associate General Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, is a man who in the past has accused the US of seeking ‘the final destruction of our system of government and the ultimate dismemberment of our country’.

This paranoia is used to justify the huge budgets and manpower of the Russian security organs and military, as well as the repression of critics labelled ‘foreign agents’. It infects a generation of leaders formed in the Cold War – Putin was 39 when the USSR collapsed, and the average age of his present Security Council is 65 – and through them has infected the body politic. Their perception of a Western threat may be viewed as nonsensical, but it would be wrong not to take account of it.

The central issue is not NATO because this confrontation would be happening even if NATO did not exist. Its origins date back to the collapse of the Soviet Union exactly 30 years ago, precipitated by a free referendum in which every region of Ukraine, including Crimea, voted for independence.

The Russians had wanted to get rid of Communism but not of the Soviet Union. Both Gorbachev and Yeltsin tried to hold it together through a voluntary association, but they failed above all because the Ukrainians – although happy to be closely connected friends of Russia – did not want to be ruled from Moscow.

Although Russia did officially recognize the sovereignty and territorial inviolability of the former Soviet republics, Russians of Putin’s generation still cannot swallow their loss of control. They seek a right of veto over these territories and take a zero-sum view of any Western engagement with them.

For years the Kremlin has been trying to inveigle the West into recognizing Russia’s ‘zone of influence’ through a recrudescence of the 1944 Yalta agreement. This was implicit in proposals for new European security arrangements made by Dmitriy Medvedev – then notionally the president of Russia – after the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia and seizure of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

At that time Lavrov asserted Russia’s right to ‘historically conditioned and mutually privileged relations’ with all ex-Soviet neighbouring states. But these were not countries with happy memories of their historical conditioning within the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, nor were they anxious to give Moscow the privilege of a veto over their sovereign rights.

In the list of demands given to a US envoy and published on 17 December, the Putin regime’s insistence on a new form of Yalta and an exclusive Russian zone of influence has now become explicit. It is a step change and an overt bid to redivide Europe.

The unavoidable problem is that the West’s belief in the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states under international law is irreconcilable with the Putin regime’s determination to dominate and limit the sovereignty of its neighbours.

Ukraine, the once-friendly now hostile neighbour

Since the 2005 Orange Revolution in Kyiv, Ukraine has been the focal point of this clash of values. The rejection of Putin’s candidate Viktor Yanukovych in the Orange Revolution humiliated the Russian president, precipitated his breach with former friends and partners in the West, and began the downward spiral in relations which has now become acute.

Putin proclaims Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one people’ and that ‘true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia’. He accuses the West of trying to ‘steal’ Ukraine – although some would say Ukraine is no prize, but an expensive and poorly-governed burden.

As Putin ponders his options, he faces a dilemma and risks forgetting his earlier pronouncement that: ‘Whoever does not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants it restored in its previous state has no brain’.

The Soviet Union was held together by force and by fear. Putin, too, has increasingly resorted to force and fear to maintain his regime’s grip as its popularity has waned, with rising discontent among Russians about corruption, poor living standards, and misgovernment. He would do well to remember that when force was no longer a tenable option under Gorbachev, it was the serial uprising of nationalist sentiment among the repressed minorities which blew the USSR apart.

Whether or not Putin invades Ukraine now, he will go down in Russian history as the leader who finally lost Ukraine. Since 2014 his annexation of Crimea and intrusion into eastern Ukraine have turned a friendly neighbour hostile, and cemented Ukraine’s nationhood. Every Ukrainian administration since 1991 – most notably presidents Kravchuk and Kuchma, but not excluding their successors – has sought to maintain a reasonable relationship with Russia while defending their country’s sovereignty.

To occupy all or part of Ukraine, where bitter memories of the 1930s are never far below the surface and the people have enjoyed freedom, independence, and a measure of democracy, would require the indefinite use of force.

How would Russia, already stretched domestically, cope with the resource-intensive headache of subjugating and managing the recalcitrant population of occupied areas? Would the benefits of squashing President Zelensky and gaining wider Black Sea access outweigh the long-term costs? If Putin stepped into this quagmire, eventual failure would be certain, whether in his time or that of a successor.

Retaking Crimea, although expensive, was hugely popular with the Russian public, but Putin’s second dilemma would be to garner public support for a full-scale war. Russian forces can defeat the Ukrainian army but at a considerable cost – some Russian mothers would be receiving their only sons home in bodybags.

Fighting Chechens was a popular cause. It would be much harder to justify a war with fellow Slavs. Having defined the Ukrainians as ‘one people’ with Russia, Putin would be fighting a civil war against his own people. That is why the regime must portray this as a conflict not against Ukrainians, but against NATO.

The West has been slow to appreciate that the clash of values has come to a head. It cannot afford now to wait for Putin to roll the dice. To manage this looming threat to European security, the West must come resolutely together and develop a coherent strategy.

The Biden administration has now engaged seriously, put together a package of possible sanctions, and opened direct contacts with Moscow, but it needs more help from its European allies. Sanctions could be a significant deterrent, but only if Russia perceived a credible risk of lasting isolation from Western trading partners which buy its commodities and provide access to the financial system. Those partners would have to be prepared to take substantial pain – a tall order.

British inaction is particularly concerning. When the Cold War was coming to an end, the UK worked closely with the US, Germany, and France to manage the transition peacefully. Margaret Thatcher was in dialogue with Gorbachev, and John Major was the first Western leader to support Yeltsin during the 1991 coup. When 9/11 struck, Tony Blair flew around the world to gather allies. On any issue of security in the past century, the UK habitually played a leading role.

But now the UK has disengaged. In 2014 David Cameron’s government inexplicably chose to stand aside from diplomatic efforts to deal with the Ukrainian problem through the so-called ‘Normandy Four’, and in this security crisis the current prime minister has been almost invisible bar a couple of phone calls. While the UK locks horns with former EU partners on a range of prickly questions, Ukraine has barely featured in the British political and media environment.  If foreign secretary Liz Truss is right in claiming Britain has ‘unrivalled influence in the world’, it is high time the UK as a leading member of NATO buries hatchets and re-engages with Europe and the US on this critical issue.

NATO is not going to fight Russia on the borders of Ukraine, but it has every reason to help the Ukrainians in their own defence. However it also needs to finesse the issue of NATO membership. In 2008 NATO blundered at its Bucharest Summit by rightly deciding not to place Ukraine and Georgia on the path to membership but sugaring the pill with generalized promises of possible membership at some point in the indefinite future.

NATO’s Bucharest communiqué was a gift to hardliners in Moscow and the war in Georgia swiftly followed. Russia cannot have a veto over the composition of NATO but there is no prospect of Ukraine joining for at least the next generation. Ukraine is nowhere near meeting the necessary criteria and the conditions in which Ukrainian accession would benefit NATO simply do not exist. The question should therefore be left to one side.

Should the West respond to Russia’s demands for talks?

During the Cold War, continuous engagement was maintained with Moscow. In the 1960s and 1970s we faced Soviet demands for a European security conference. After initially opposing this, it was agreed to go ahead but not on the terms laid out by the Soviet government. The end result was the Helsinki accords.

After the 2008 Georgian conflict, the West chose not to respond to Russia’s requests to discuss European security as the situation was not propitious and there was no appetite for an arduous multilateral negotiation. But perhaps an opportunity was missed. The situation now is even less propitious, but the need is greater.

The core issue of the clash of values over sovereignty and international law has now been avoided for 30 years while, for the past 16 years, the Putin administration has pursued a foreign policy of disruption at the expense of Russia’s own interests.

There are no longer any illusions about that regime’s character and core objectives, so let there be no more misconceived ‘resets’. But if Russia is willing to engage in a discussion without preconditions and – as President Biden rightly emphasizes – involving all the concerned parties, then the West should not be afraid to put its cards on the table. If, on the other hand, Russia is not prepared for a genuinely open discussion, there must be consequences.

This is not about threatening Russia, and it is not about the enlargement of NATO. It is about deterrence and the need for the West to show implacable and united resolve in standing by the sovereignty of independent states. Sending that clear message to the Kremlin would be the best chance of heading off potentially deeper trouble.