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Boston Political Review

Vladimir Putin: authoritarian dictator or just misunderstood?

Roar writer Guillaume Antignac on Vladimir Putin’s plans for Ukraine and if the country is headed to war

Mud and snow dress the bleak countryside of the Donbass region, as soldiers pile up along the border between Russia and Ukraine. Tension is rising in eastern Europe. When Russian troops emerged along the region, western leaders arguably downplayed the risk of invasion. After all, following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the Russia-backed militia uprising, parts of the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk (Donbass) have been disputed territory for some time so news of military activity in the area isn’t abnormal. Nevertheless, as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops accumulated on the Byelorussian border of Ukraine, diplomats began fearing the worst, now threatening to impose trade embargo’s and other sanctions should Russia decide to continue its actions.

Putin’s reputation precedes him. Most western leaders deeply distrust him. He has presided over Russia’s backsliding into authoritarianism with elections mired in allegations of voter intimidation and ballot stuffing and the quashing of political opposition. US President Joe Biden announced that there would be “swift and severe” consequences should Putin continue to advance troops towards Ukraine, a stance that was followed by French President Emmanuel Macron, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other European leaders. Of course, they all hope to maintain peace in Europe and avoid any conflict that would likely damage a global economy already weakened by the Covid-19 pandemic. The consequences would be similar for Russia’s already dismal economic situation. Surely, Putin would not risk making it worse and losing the support of the Russian people.

Or would he? The military mass along the border is said to be the largest mobilisation since the Cold War. Overall, some experts have speculated a concentration of as high as 130,000 encircling Ukraine. There have also been reports of Naval fleets and landing crafts in the Black Sea, suggesting a potential amphibious assault. The Kremlin still denies planning an invasion; Russian officials have instead justified the accumulation of soldiers with military drills and training but that seems like a laughable excuse. This leaves many wondering if Putin may be planning a full scale invasion.

Throughout history, Russia has always had an issue with the security of its western border as there is no geographical barrier between Moscow and Europe. Multiple times, Poland and Ukraine have been pathways for European powers to advance into and invade the east. It is no coincidence that in the early stages of the Cold War, the Soviet Union established the well-known Iron Curtain. Everyone knows that Russia is impossible to invade, yet lest she want perilous leaders such as Napoleon or Hitler to try, she had better not find herself naked to the eyes of the west. This is not strictly meant in a militaristic way. In the modern world, Russia’s primary threat is not a military occupation, but an economic and ideological one. Over the past decades, NATO, the organisation established during the early Cold War to recruit US allies and undermine communist influence, has expanded across eastern Europe. Many ex-USSR countries are now member states, and although Russia declared itself a partner nation in 1991, it’s always had a frosty relationship with the group. However, this is not the only concern.

More important is the political crisis that has been occurring in Ukraine since the start of the century. Both the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Maidan Revolution, upon closer, unbiased examination, bring to light US foreign policy tactics that remind one of the immemorial days of ideological warfare. In late 2013, when peaceful protests in favour of the EU turned into violent riots, the US seemed very keen on voicing their support for the revolution. Former US Senator John McCain gave a speech in Independence Square, Kyiv in December of 2013 in which he proclaimed that America stood by the protesters and supported the uprising.

Then there is the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an organisation funded by the US Government and founded during Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1983. The NED promotes democracy internationally by funding and supporting political groups, activists and media distributors, similar to the operations the CIA undertook during the Cold War in countries such as Guatemala and Cuba. During the unrest in Ukraine in the winter of 2013, the NED supported President Yanukovych’s opposition (those behind the revolution). Anti-Russian media companies appeared out of thin air and would propagate the protests, turning them violent. There was also a phone call between newly appointed Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt that was leaked. During the call, the two extensively discussed the structuring of a government led by Yanukovych’s opposition, evidence to Moscow that the US has been plotting a coup all along.

Russia has used these examples, amongst many, to show itself not as an offender but a defender in Ukraine. In Putin’s eyes, the military build-up along Ukraine’s border isn’t a sign of invasion and imperialism, it’s a liberation of the Ukrainian people from American and western influence. It is the strong belief of many Ukrainians and Russians, that the US has systematically taken control of Ukraine to advance its foreign policy and undermine Russia. Putin has many times openly expressed his desire for Ukraine to be an independent and sovereign nation that has good relations with Russia. This is of course to a large extent propaganda designed to mask not only the corrupt relations many pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians have with Russia, but also to maintain the paternal role Russia likes to have over surrounding Slavic nations.

Nevertheless, to understand the conflict in Ukraine, it is of vital importance that the West (especially, but not exclusively the US) isn’t portrayed in the way they pose. It is simple and easy, to make Mr Biden seem like “John Wayne” and Mr Putin seem like the “native”, however as everyone knows, those stories have completely inverted values of the good, the bad and the ugly. America too has responsibility in causing the nation to be torn and on the brink of invasion and needs to acknowledge it in order to prevent the conflict. For example, Ukraine is already a partner country to NATO. Considering the consequences, is it really Ukraine’s ambition to become a member of NATO, or the US’s?

This is the unfortunate truth. Ukraine, a territory home to many different cultures, is a divided nation, at the heart of which are not questions of geography, but questions of identity. Eastern Ukraine considers itself part of the Russian people and supports anti-western Ukrainian politics. Western Ukraine opposes and sees itself as separate from Russia. This has caused the politics to shift back and forth, ultimately resulting in the conflict and risk of invasion present today.

However, in the fog of war, it is perhaps unclear for the west to see a different meaning. Based on the assumption that Putin’s motives don’t serve a plan of domination or control, and that war would provide significant damage to Russia’s economy, it is plausible that the Kremlin never intended to start a war. Taking on from former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, he could simply be flexing his power to send a warning message to NATO and the US, for if there is anything we have learnt from the Cold War history, it is that heavy militarisation and impending threat of war is not necessarily a sign of aggression. For Ukraine’s sake, hopefully this is true.

Further articles written in collaboration with the Boston Political Review can be found on our website. 

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