John Humphrys: Is Putin mad or just bad?

February 25, 2022, 5:13 PM GMT+0

Most of my contributions on this page over the years have been aimed at getting your views on issues where there are clear differences of opinion. Not this time. It is impossible to see how those of us who value our own freedom and democracy can defend the actions of a powerful country that launches a massive, unprovoked attack against a neighbour without a shred of legal or even moral justification. So I do not propose to ask you where you stand on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I suspect I know how the vast majority of you would answer.

Where serious differences do arise is how we in the west should react - not just in these dangerous early days but in the longer term - to what France’s President Emmanuel Macron has called a ‘turning point in European history.’ The German foreign minister spoke of us ‘waking up in a different world’. Do you agree with them? How do you think historians of the future will judge our actions? And can you envisage the circumstances in which the events of the past few days might lead to an even greater crisis? Putin has warned ‘outsiders’ that if they take any steps to interfere there will be “consequences you have never encountered in your history”. That has, inevitably, been interpreted as a threat of nuclear confrontation. The stakes could hardly be higher.

It is, of course, much easier to analyse the past than predict the future and one obvious question is: does the west bear any responsibility for Putin’s outrageous behaviour? The Stop the War movement, supported by some on both the far left and the far right, have no doubts on that score. They say it was the relentless expansion of Nato right up to the borders of Russia that pushed Putin into a corner and the policies of the British government had ‘poured oil on the conflict in Ukraine’. If Nato had made it clear that Ukraine would never be allowed to join Nato Putin would have had no justification for his actions.

Marine Le Pen in France put it even more bluntly: ‘Like it or not, Ukraine belongs to the Russian sphere of influence’, she said, and the EU and Nato should butt out. Putin himself used history to justify his actions in that bizarre performance on television surrounded by his ‘security advisers’. He said history proved that Ukraine was an ‘inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.’ It was Lenin and Stalin who had created an autonomous Ukrainian entity. So all he wanted to do was reclaim land that already belonged to Russia.

To all of that, the west replied with remarkable unity: Ukraine is a sovereign, independent, democratic country recognised as such across the globe and your invasion is a criminal act that will not go unpunished. Within hours of the invasion, the form of that punishment was becoming clear. Boris Johnson had spoken for many when he said in his television broadcast the world could not allow Ukraine's freedom to ‘just be snuffed out’ and the invasion ‘must end in failure’. What’s less clear is how to interpret ‘failure’. Or, perhaps, how to interpret success.

Only the most reckless armchair general would predict at this stage the extent to which the brave Ukrainians will be able to resist the invaders, but Putin’s strategy is pretty obvious. As I write, Russian forces are attacking Ukraine’s air force and military bases as well as some civilian targets. The experts seem to agree that it’s only a matter of time – days if not hours - before their tanks roll into the capital Kyiv and the other major towns and cities and the government is forced to surrender. Boris Johnson has already told the president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, that if he manages to flee in time he will be offered a base in London to form what would, in effect, be a Ukrainian government in exile. By then a puppet regime will have been installed in Kyiv by Moscow.

But what if the experts are wrong? What if the resistance proves much tougher than Putin and his generals have bargained for? In that case, for how long will we in the west be prepared to watch as vast numbers of young men and women are butchered trying desperately to defend their homes? And how will we react when the inevitable horror happens and there is some terrible atrocity? God forbid, a school or hospital might be obliterated with terrible casualties of children or the sick.

Yet the west is adamant that Nato forces will not be used to help the resistance. If Ukraine were a member of Nato it would, of course, be different. Article 5 means an attack on one member is an attack on all. But the outrage on the part of countries like our own and the demand to help a fellow European country in such suffering may prove politically irresistible. And whatever we may or may not do, Ukraine’s neighbouring countries may well send help.

Putin, undeterred by such risks, has shown his contempt for the resolve of western leaders time and again over these past weeks. He seems to be operating on the assumption that a quick victory will see his puppet regime in place within days and the west will come swiftly to accept the reality simply because they have no choice. After all, isn’t that pretty much what happened in Crimea in 2014?

But the west, of course, has another weapon. Economic sanctions. The invasion evoked a swift and impressive response from some of the most powerful economies in the world, including the United States and the UK. Even Germany, which had gone to great lengths to stay on good terms with Russia because it desperately needs Russian gas, is now among those urging the toughest measures. The other sanctions outlined on Thursday by the western allies targeted Russia's two biggest banks, along with dozens of other lenders, freezing them out of the global financial system. The Russian government and state-owned companies will be shut out of western capital markets too. Technology exports will be banned and more oligarchs will be subject to travel bans.

As for those oligarchs who have become stupendously rich (as has Putin) by effectively stealing state assets, they will find it more difficult to lay their hands on their ill-gotten gains. Boris Johnson has brought forward an economics crime bill which is aimed at flushing out those who use British banks and property purchases to hide their illicit wealth. The object of the exercise is to turn Russia into an international economic pariah.

The problem is that if this succeeds it will come at a huge price to the west. Germany has halted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia which would have supplied most of its gas. The cost of finding that gas from other sources will be enormous. Most European countries would pay a very steep price for boycotting Russian energy supplies. The West has been buying $700 million worth of it every day. In this country, it’s already costing much more to fill up our cars and heat our homes and this is just the start. The price of a barrel of oil has already passed $100 a barrel and is still climbing. So is the price of gas and electricity. Food will be more expensive. Even bread could be in short supply around the world. Russia and Ukraine account for 30 per cent of wheat exports.

Russia not only has vast reserves of energy. It also has a lot of money in the bank. Whatever else he may be, Putin is not a fool. He obviously anticipated how the west would react to the invasion of Ukraine and Russia now has what are estimated to be the fourth-largest currency reserves in the world. So the imposition of economic sanctions might not scare him as much as we might hope.

What may worry him more is the support of the Russian people – or the lack of it. As James Forsyth has written in The Times, Russia is a ‘cowed society in which more and more forms of opposition to the official view are suppressed. Protests against the invasion have been few and relatively restrained, but these are early days. The body bags of young soldiers have not yet started arriving as they did during the Afghan war.’

That war, which ended in ignominious retreat, is not forgotten by Russian military leaders. They may start to have doubts if they have to impose occupation on Ukraine and are faced with a long guerrilla war. General Sir Richard Shirreff, a former Nato commander, told the BBC that the prospect of Britain being at war with Russia is not likely to calm public nerves.

The long history of Russia is scarred with fears of being encircled by enemies but it seems unlikely that invading a country that posed it no threat will make it more friends. The Baltic states, now members of Nato, have already suffered from being bullied by Russia. But even the government of Turkey, which had been moving closer to Moscow, has denounced the invasion in pretty strong language.

All of which takes us back to my introduction and the chilling threat made by Putin once his tanks had crossed the border. He warned that anyone ‘who tries to stand in our way’ would face ‘consequences you have never encountered in your history’. There is only one realistic way of interpreting that. Putin commands a vast, well trained and well-equipped military. But he also has 6,000 nuclear weapons. He was threatening the West with nuclear war.

We might shrug off that threat by reciting the hideous acronym ‘MAD’. It stands, of course for Mutually Assured Destruction and many believe it’s what has prevented a third world war. By pressing the button you destroy yourself as well as your enemy. You would have to be mad to do it.

So my question for you is an obvious one. Do you believe Putin is indeed mad enough? Or do you believe it is a massive bluff? In which case, how far should the west go in helping Ukraine free itself from this monstrous invasion?

Let us know.

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