Talk of “off-ramps” and “golden bridges” no longer apply to a leader who sees only ever-greater violence as the way forward.
Charles Moore covers politics with the wisdom and insight that come from having edited The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator
Hitler took 35 days to conquer Poland. It has already taken Vladimir Putin more than twice as long not to conquer Ukraine. Actually, he has done worse: he started trying eight years ago when he annexed Crimea, and still hasn’t managed it. Even Putin’s Belarus puppet, Alexander Lukashenko, publicly noticed this week that the war has “dragged on”. Monday’s annual Victory Parade in Red Square will be a strange occasion. The 1945 victory commemorated contrasts uncomfortably with semi-defeat in 2022.
Putin has some achievements to his name, however. He broke the UN Charter by starting a war without the justification of self-defence. Then he violated the three key principles of “customary” international law – “distinction” (meaning between combatants and civilians, only the former being targetable), “necessity” and “proportion”.
When Western powers fight wars, they try hard to abide by “distinction” in their choice of targets. Not only should you not bomb a hospital, for example, but you should not drop bombs too near a hospital, unless it has been taken for the purposes of war. The treatment of wounded soldiers is not a purpose of war: they are “hors de combat”. Putin has bombed hospitals and other medical facilities without compunction.
If his bombing has not actively targeted civilians (it is hard to prove), it might as well have done. It has hit houses, schools, restaurants, playgrounds and non-military infrastructure again and again. It is against the Law of Armed Conflict to attack civilian transport, but Russian forces have done so. They have killed civilians in summary executions. They are accused of forcibly deporting a million Ukrainians to Russia. This echoes Stalin’s behaviour in the 1930s, as does the impounding of grain stores and what the Rome Statute calls “the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare”.
These acts break the laws of war and all moral norms. So does the parading of prisoners on television. So do torture, rape and murder, all of which are now well attested in places like Bucha. Ukraine NOW, the Kyiv government feed on Telegram, posted on Thursday an alleged telephone intercept of a named Russian soldier boasting to his mother how he had tortured “khokhols” (the Russian slang for Ukrainians, like saying “turnip-heads” in England). He describes in detail what the prisoners have suffered. Both he and she laugh. It is horrifying to hear mother and son speaking about acts we would describe as “unspeakable”. Of course, the recording might be fake, but there is good reason to think that Russian torture is real, widespread and officially sanctioned.
In contrast to this bestial chit-chat, one can watch the video of a woman, illuminated only by a torch, leading Ukrainian comrades in song as, underground in the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, they confront what is almost certainly the final assault by the surrounding Russian forces.
Mariupol, indeed, is the chief exemplar of Putin’s method of indiscriminate annihilation. Many thousands have died there, some say 20,000. Evidence emerging from the city suggests Putin wanted to make it the scene of a formal triumph for Victory Day. This plan is now denied by the Kremlin, but certainly victory in Mariupol, however Pyrrhic, will be held up for Russians to admire.
Why is it worth setting out these horrors, most of them well known?
The most obvious reason is to remind people of what the rush of the modern news cycle tends to anaesthetise – just how vastly revolting Putin’s actions are. Only someone well over 80 can remember such massive, organised barbarism in the European continent. To drive home that point, I now leave a line blank – the columnar equivalent of a moment’s silence.
But there are also more analytical questions to raise. What does Putin think he is doing? What might he do next? On the answers, the right Western response will depend.
Some people simply say Putin is mad. Isn’t it more likely that he is a horrible man who has made a terrible mistake, can’t admit it, and sees only ever-greater violence as the way through? As Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, puts it, “Putin is like a mafia don, not a president”. His KGB training shows.
His terrible mistake (one of several, in fact) was to believe his own propaganda that he was liberating Ukraine. Having persuaded himself that the place was run by drug-crazed Nazis, he may genuinely have expected the repressed, pro-Russian citizens of the nation he thinks does not exist to welcome his tanks. This did not happen. Instead they fought for an independent, European existence. So he turned his rage on the entire population.
Russian propaganda which, in February, targeted only the Ukrainian leadership, now vilifies the whole people, calling for their punishment, “re-education” and forced labour. If they do not want to be liberated, seems to be the thinking, they must be utterly crushed. If they will not yield up their ports, cities and famous cornfields to their Russian cousins, then the place must be turned into a desert.
If that is Putin’s attitude, there might be a certain logic in his policy of unrestrained violence. After all, it is extremely frightening to be confronted by someone with no moral scruples and a great many bombs. Terror is a powerful weapon. It has not worked, however, partly because the Russian armed forces are so demoralised and incompetently deployed, chiefly because Ukrainian resistance has been so brave and well-organised.
The Ukrainians have broken through the barrier of fear a bully always tries to create. They have realised that a person who says, “If you do not do X, I shall kill you”, is not someone with whom you can deal or coexist, so they must fight. The men and women in Azovstal would appear to be making a valiant and correct calculation that, by their deaths, their country’s people have a better chance of living.
This, in turn, has made it much harder for Western faint-hearts. All those arguments about how we have got to understand why Putin feels that Ukraine is Russian, and about the Minsk Accords or the Normandy Format, have gone rather quiet, not because they are completely unmeritorious (they are not), but because his stunning disproportionality puts him so far beyond the pale. All that talk of “off-ramps” or “golden bridges” sounds silly as the man in question is metaphorically stripped to the waist (remember those photographs?) and – not so metaphorically – trying to kill everything that moves.
What might such a man do now? His weapon to hand is nuclear attack – perhaps the tactical “sub-kiloton” kind which could flatten, say, a Ukrainian airfield rather than a large city. Here is a matter in which Ukraine – not a nuclear power and not formally allied with one – has little power. Unlike in the conventional battle, we in the West cannot hide behind it.
Putin and his consiglieri are already trying to inspire nuclear terror in their brutal, semi-jocular way. Being connoisseurs of Western weakness, they may imagine that if they go nuclear, we will do no more than call a very serious meeting in protest. To prevent such an attack, we need to let them know now (though probably not by direct public announcement) that if Russia employs nuclear weapons in Ukraine then, as James Sherr, of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, puts it, “we will directly intervene in the Ukrainian conflict”.
If Putin can break the nuclear taboo with impunity, there will be no peace in the world.