Putin’s clique would readily isolate Russia to protect their power, writes Owen Matthews in Overreach, a brilliant study of the Ukraine war
By Colin Freeman 8 November 2022 •
After 27 years as a Moscow correspondent, Spectator journalist Owen Matthews found his contacts book shrinking within days of Russia’s Ukraine invasion. Some of his confidantes were scared to speak, others fled abroad or reverted to Cold War style meetings in public parks. The few still willing to talk often did so while drowning their sorrows in bars – contemplating a future in a pariah nation, and envying even Ukrainian refugees.
“The world is on their side,” one old friend tells Matthews while doom-scrolling the news at her barstool. “But Russians? Everyone hates Russians. Even most Russians hate people like us, who are against the regime.”
Amid the despair, there is also defiance. While Moscow’s liberal middle-class buy expensive one-way tickets into exile, oligarchs who prospered from government contracts have no choice but to stay behind, toasting farewell to the “good times” with their best claret. A few of Matthews’s acquaintances become defensive, accusing Ukrainian friends of believing “fake” pictures of the massacres at Bucha.
By mid-March, even Matthews himself has to leave for a while, fearing that his 19-year-old son, a Russian passport holder, may get drafted. Yet amidst this chaos and personal upheaval, he has produced a book that is not merely the first full account of the war, but may set the standard for some time to come.
Written at what must have been hypersonic speed, Overreach is a remarkable achievement, with Matthews’s expert eye like an all-seeing drone buzzing from one side of the conflict to the other. We drop in everywhere from Putin’s long white table to Zelensky’s bunker, via the siege of Kyiv and the trenches of Mariupol.
The title refers to Putin’s hubris in launching the Ukraine invasion, yet this book is much more, charting how the dream of reclaiming Moscow’s old empire went from “the marginal fringes of Russian politics to become official Kremlin policy”.
True, this is not a classic war reporter’s tale of frontline action. Some of Matthews’s accounts of key battles, for example, are not first-hand but recreated through interviews and cuttings. In recounting how Kremlin troops were woefully ill-prepared, for example, he draws on testimony to a Ukrainian war crimes court by a young Russian squaddie who pleaded guilty to shooting a civilian after his armoured convoy was ambushed.
The use of second-hand sources, though, is the only way to provide a proper overview: in a war this big, no reporter can be everywhere. And besides, much of this book’s value is in exploring the war’s deeper roots.
According to Matthews, Putin’s grudge against Ukraine goes back not just to its 2004 Orange Revolution, but to 1991, when its people followed the Baltic States in voting overwhelmingly for independence. To Ukrainians, this was pay-back for the Chernobyl disaster and decades of Kremlin repression. To Putin, it was the single betrayal that brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union, depriving the old empire of one of its most industrialised zones. Matthews casts the Russian leader as a humiliated bully, seeking redress. As one government minister tells the author: “Russia’s might and empire could indeed be restored through military aggression… and Russian voters were sick of weakness and admired strength.”
Thus did Putin fall in with the Orthodox Church-influenced Far Right, who see Mother Russia as the last bastion of traditional Christian values. We meet zealots like Alexander Dugin, a white-bearded Soviet-era intellectual who is a kind of anti-Vaclav Havel, quoting Heidegger as he rails against godless Western liberalism. And we tune into religious broadcasting like Tsargrad TV – Orthodoxy’s answer to Fox News – where moral rot is blamed on gays and human rights busybodies funded by George Soros. The invasion, says Matthews, was “the final triumph of an elderly Russia over a young one, of paranoid Soviet-minded conspiracy theorists over… post-Soviet practical capitalists.”
Even the timing of the invasion was influenced by geriatric concerns. While it was partly just an unholy alignment of planets – a West weakened by Covid and last year’s disastrous Afghan pull-out – it was also now-or-never. At 68, Putin was already two years past the life expectancy of the average Russian male, and would be a “lame duck” in five years.
His inner clique, it seems, knew the war would isolate Moscow internationally, but figured it was still worth it. By turning Russia into somewhere that no liberal wanted to live, they could ensure power passed to their own children, many of whom already hold top government jobs. A country where millions died in socialism’s name now resembles the hereditary Tsarist aristocracy before it.
Matthews’s analysis of why the invasion has foundered also offers insights. He challenges, for example, the notion of Kyiv’s armed forces as outnumbered amateurs, pointing out that during the last eight years of the simmering Donbas conflict, some 900,000 Ukrainians have served, “making a vast reserve force with recent combat experience”.
Yet in a war already extensively reported from the Ukrainian side, it is Matthews’s take from Russia that may jolt readers the most. Russians, he points out, are long used to hardship, so despite the misery caused by sanctions and mobilisation, things would have to get “far, far worse” for any anti-Putin uprising.
Nor, in a country that still suffers an “addiction to imperial fantasies”, is it likely that Putin’s replacement will be Gorbachev 2.0. Nationalism, Matthews says, is a far more powerful current in Russia than pro-Western liberalism. He adds: “A military defeat at the hands of NATO weaponry would likely strengthen, not weaken, that tendency.”
This is a grim conclusion – and very different from the cheerleading optimism that has informed much of the conflict’s coverage so far. Indeed, parts of this book left me wanting a stiff drink, like Matthews’s old Moscow pals. But as a historical rough draft of this century’s first major conflict, it’s compelling – if uncomfortable – reading.
Overreach is published by Mudlark at £25. To order your copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books