Ukraine – The First Battle of World War III?

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Ukraine – The First Battle of World War III?

On February 24, 2022, Russia’s territorial army invaded neighbor Ukraine without cause, warning, or the slightest concealment. The world was shocked by this hostile act. Overnight, Russia shattered over three decades of peace in Europe after the collapse of the USSR’s “evil empire”. The Girl in Kherson The naked aggression in the backyard of three other nuclear powers suddenly made World War III seem like a genuine possibility and this was reflected in media headlines.

Kherson, Ukraine - War with Russia
Kherson, Ukraine – War with Russia

But the invasion came as no surprise to us. In the wake of Russia’s sly earlier attack on Crimea, I published an article arguing that Putin had just written a new chapter in an old conflict with colossal ramifications. Michael Stanchev – Head of the History Department at Kharkiv’s Karazin National University and an expert in Ukrainian diplomatic history – and I – a historian of Russia and its secret services – both felt that Europe had been pushed into a situation not seen since 1939, when Stalin and Hitler between them determined the fate of the world. To write this book we pooled our research and contacts – my known and anonymous intelligence sources in Russia and Ukraine, and discussions with key players such as oligarch Yulia Tymoshenko, and Stanchev’s detailed knowledge of Ukrainian history and impeccable grasp of its historical sources and contacts in Ukraine’s Foreign Office – to set out through which steps the Kremlin is becoming a threat to global stability and has been plotting the rebirth of the Russian empire over twenty years. Early on, we predicted – in print – the date of the invasion based on the six-year planning cycles of the Russian army (without anticipating the pandemic).

As we detail below, Russia’s first violent coup against Ukraine took place as early as 1999 when then-Russian Prime Minister Putin and his intimates in the KGB-FSB surreptitiously tried to take Russia and Ukraine at the same time. Ever since, like circling vultures, they have tried again and again to resurrect the Russian Empire as their power and, importantly, wealth grew. From 2008, Putin’s totalitarian leadership reached a level where he could comfortably use methods abroad that the rest of the world label as crimes against humanity (but the Duma carefully sanctions as legal through sweeping national laws). It is no coincidence that Russia attacks whenever gas and other mineral prices reach record highs. Oil and gas are the fuel on which Russia’s aggression runs; Putin’s first war crime (the unprovoked attack on neighbor Georgia in August 2008) followed five years of uninterrupted record gas prices.

Even Ukraine’s population is unfamiliar with its own history and place in the world – almost as much as most beyond its borders are. Recent national history was simply ignored by Ukraine’s often corrupt leaders – a case of censorship by omission and embarrassment – and there is also Putin’s relentless rhetoric in Russian – many Ukrainians are bilingual in that language – that there is no such nation as Ukraine and that therefore none should one exist. Ukraine’s jagged story of independence had not yet been told, let alone taught, in the way we set out here – creating a much needed antidote to Russian propaganda.

Whether Ukraine’s state officials and oligarchs always deserve our sympathy, we leave for the reader to decide – though as a nation Ukrainians have been beyond heroic. Even eastern Ukraine, its most Russian-friendly part, was not as easily cowed by Putin as Russia’s population is (and was) by the Kremlin. We take the reader through Ukraine from its origins as a people, its history of tension and conflict with Russia. Ukrainian politics remain shrouded in backroom mystery, but we unpick many key events. State-sponsored murders; electoral fraud; nepotism and corruption so intense and internecine that it makes even Putin’s cronyism seem like mundanely well-organized looting of Russia’s wealth. Against this stand its many popular revolutions – Maidans – supported by Ukrainian youths, students and small businesses resisting corruption and pro-Russian, self-serving oligarchs and state officials.

One could dismiss Ukraine’s extraordinary and complex evolution of democracy as ultimately irrelevant to the world at large. But this would be a mistake. We uncover the patterns of behavior with which Russia intends to treat the rest of the world if given the chance. In addition, we show how over two decades of mounting frustration, Putin has become obsessed with Ukraine – comparable to Stalin’s mania about Poland.

There is a school of thought that condemns Putin and his rhetoric or that of his Kremlin underlings as “the ravings of madmen” who talk, and so act, irrationally (or that thinks the Kremlin is merely acting out after “provocation” by the EU/NATO seeking closer ties). Vladimir Zhirinovsky, for example, the recently-deceased Duma leader of a party founded by the KGB in Russia’s puppet parliament, repeatedly and publicly threatened Poland with an atomic bomb; Dmitry Rogozin, Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the defense industry, constantly threatens eastern Europe and especially Moldova with a military attack. But this is really how Putin’s inner circle see the world and have done since at least 1999, as we aim to make clear with this book. Their methods may have become more extreme, but their plan has never changed. It pays to take what Putin officials say literally, as they mean it.

Even before the 2022 invasion, Ukraine’s victimhood of – and complicity in – Russian corruption is relevant to the world at large. Its occurrence might not be so obvious in the West, but the difference is one of degree, not kind. Roman Abramovich, Alexei Miller, Igor Sechin: powerful allies of Putin have chains of influence, which stretch back to the upper echelons of the Russian political establishment. As soon as one associated person is granted influence abroad, has their name chiseled on the side of a significant building, Putin’s agenda begins trickling in. In the US, the UK, Germany, France, and all the other countries favored by its oligarchs, we have seen it with those sucked into the Kremlin’s vortex of Russian billions, contracts and unfettered power.

Furthermore, Ukraine has become important on a whole new scale. Since Putin became Russia’s President we no longer have direct insight into the political process in Russia. Examining Russia’s decades of lethal meddling with Ukraine’s officials shows us how his regime really functions. One thing will become clear: Putin’s greed for power, land and spoils is as consistent as it ever was. Already he is threatening to switch off the gas supply to Europe as he has done and still does with Ukraine. Russia will extract payments that will fatten the Kremlin’s war chest. Yet even this pales in significance with the fact that, unlike Hitler, Vladimir Putin has nuclear arms. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, called the risk of nuclear war “serious” in April 2022.

Our story shows that Russia is not infallible. There have been moments of sheer luck, such as Ukraine’s Presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko surviving his poisoning in 2004. Putin also makes crude mistakes. There was the Russian Buk missile that shot down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 with almost 300 passengers, another FSB plot that failed to influence Ukrainian politics by a hair. Ukraine’s officials have made few mistakes in recent years – a welcome change from the past. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s (elected with close to 75 percent of votes, including all eastern regions near Russia) only error has been to ask the US for the lifting of sanctions against Roman Abramovich. It is the least of coincidences that he was Russia’s “peace” negotiator during talks with Ukraine in Istanbul, and it is significant that he was poisoned there and was treated in Turkey rather than Moscow. According to Boris Berezovsky’s 2012 court filings (in a case he lost), half of Abramovich’s wealth is held in trust for Putin and he is his presentable Western face. Regardless, given their closeness, any sanctions against him hurt Putin directly.

As I am writing this, Russian Federation’s Army Forces are firing missile and bomb strikes over the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, the home of my co-author Michael Stanchev and Ukraine’s most Russophile of cities. This destruction and sowing of death is the Kremlin’s punishment of the city’s Russian-speakers after they stood up to Russia’s advances to impose Kremlin rule in the town after the annexation of Crimea.

“The situation is terrible,” he writes. “We are bombed every single day. They clearly decided to starve the entire city until we capitulate. Last night, I slept on the floor because of the air missile or bomb strikes that hit close to our building. Thank God, my wife and I are alive. Our children are asking us to leave, but I do not have a car and it is extremely dangerous now to drive on the roads of Ukraine.” Not much later I received a message from our Ukrainian publisher saying that their printer in Kharkiv was bombed and this book won’t be available in Ukraine as planned. This couldn’t be more symbolic of Putin’s intentions. We are extremely glad, therefore, that this edition will be followed by editions in other languages.

The invasions of Georgia (2008) and of Crimea (2014) were two moments when the West could have halted Putin with little effort. Each further instance of prevarication will make it more difficult, however, to stop Russia’s aggression in its tracks. The capture of Crimea gave Putin two key strategic advantages in the 2022 invasion he was planning. First, it made the coast of Ukraine defenseless against relentless shelling from Russian warships. This gives Russia the upper hand in the war. Second, Crimean taxes flowed for eight years into Russia’s war chest instead of Ukraine’s. As Ukraine has a standing army but no navy to speak of, unless there is an allied peace-keeping fleet that prevents the shelling of coastal cities such as Mariupol and restores the balance of military power between Russia and Ukraine, the latter will not be able to hold on to its Black Sea and Sea of Azov territories from Russia to Moldova, or indeed seaport Odessa. Regardless of the “victories” Ukraine’s army may win with the help of Western weapons in its interior, this loss of coastline is what Putin is really after. It will complete another stage in his “Operation Novorossiya”, discussed in the final part of this book, that is itself part of a longstanding poker game aimed at slowly boring holes through the NATO alliance. A united military response by allies in the Black Sea will shock Russia as it is used to being able to bully its neigbors as it wishes.

More likely than not, the next step in the Kremlin’s script is that tactical nuclear weapons will be deployed “by” the “independent” Donbas republics in Luhansk and Donetzk. Sealed off by Russian troops, as they now are, they will miraculously be able to design, test and produce their “own” nuclear warheads, which are of course merely a fig leaf for Russian nuclear arms stationed just across its own territorial border. What is to stop these “independent” republics from launching a nuclear war head at Kyiv or a nuclear missile straying “because of the wind direction” on or near the Polish border? Evidently Luhansk and Donetzk are merely be “protecting” themselves against Ukrainian aggression when they fire such a missile, Putin would claim. Finding out the forensic truth of such a strike will take years, as it did with the Russian Buk missile mentioned earlier that brought down flight MH17 from “insurgent” Donetsk four months after Crimea’s annexation. To untangle a response to an actual nuclear bomb will be a lot more difficult than helping the Ukrainian population win its war of emancipation from Russia – rather than merely fighting Russia’s land grabs – a window that is closing with each month of war that passes.

 

One look at Belarus clarifies that the nuclear stage of Operation Novorossiya has started. Unlike Ukraine, the Kremlin has successfully turned Belarus into a vazal state. Its President Alexander Lukashenko, neighbor to Ukraine and NATO members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, rescinded his country’s non-nuclear status on 27 February 2022, three days after Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and recognition of the two “people’s” republics in Donbas as “independent” states. Both Belarus and Ukraine signed the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons after the USSR fell apart, and handed over their Soviet nuclear warheads to the Russian Federation. Belarus never dismantled its nuclear infrastructure and can now re-arm “itself” with long-range nuclear weapons as a “sovereign” nation.

These three proxy locations from which to launch nuclear weapons are the perfect basis for a lethal global blackmail: give Putin what he wants, or there will be nuclear war. Russia’s breathless announcement that the conveniently renamed “Satan II” intercontinental ballistic missiles will be operable from the Autumn 2022 is part of the blackmail. It is bluff at this stage, but it is no coincidence that this very public intimidation coincides with the very public war on Ukraine. With Putin’s words, it is only a matter of time before they are much more than that. In Ukraine he is creating the momentum from which he can say, “we are reluctant to do this but we are forced to use them unless you surrender”. Belarusians or people in Donbas may be killed in retaliation – as Russian soldiers are in the current attacks on Ukraine soil, not to mention Ukrainians since 2014 – but once that nuclear precedent is established, the clock cannot be dialled back.

If southern Ukraine falls, Putin will have a corridor to Transnistria, Moldova’s western border with Ukraine. This is the next stage in Operation Novorossiya where Russia plans to use Ukraine’s strength against itself. From there Putin can take minute Moldova and attack Ukraine from the west while picking away at NATO countries, waiting patiently like a spider in its web for a moment of weakness to swoop. The hard lesson from this book is that Putin needs to be resisted decisively when one can; yet that this is never easy for democracies, highly-imperfect ones like Ukraine included. Putin will simply come back stronger at one’s own expense. At the moment tactical nuclear weapons are still not an operational part of Russia’s equation. When they are it will be too late.

 

 

Yuri Felshtinsky, April 2022

 

 

Introduction

 

 

I previously wrote two books that turned out to be ahead of their time. The first one, Blowing Up Russia, I wrote with Alexander Litvinenko, former lieutenant-colonel of the KGB/FSB. At the time, it drew attention in the still free Russian-speaking media and an extract was published in Novaya Gazeta in Moscow. The book’s publication, however, was banned by the Russian government – the first known case of such censorship since Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in 1973.

In Blowing Up Russia, Litvinenko and I wrote how the Federal Security Service (FSB) successfully sabotaged democratic reforms in the country, and how the First Chechen War (1994-1996) was skillfully instigated through terrorist acts organized by Russia’s special services. We chronicled the terrorist apartment bombings which took place in several Russian cities in September of 1999 and revealed in our book that the Russian security services were also behind these attacks, which brought about the Second Chechen War (1999-2009). The goal of security services at that time was to bring their own man, Vladimir Putin, to power. The West had great difficulty believing that this was an accurate description of what had happened in the “democratic” country of Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s President from 1991 to 1999.

Five years passed, and in November 2006, Alexander Litvinenko died by poisoning in London. The reasons for this murder and its history are a separate story. But it was after Litvinenko was killed with a rare, deadly, almost untraceable radioactive substance (Polonium 210) produced only in Russian State laboratories, that Western public opinion, not only in Britain and the US, but all over the world, shifted to considering the historical truth of Blowing up Russia. In 2007, the book was published in translation in twenty countries from Europe to the US, Brazil to Japan.

The other book that turned out to be ahead of its time was The Age of Assassins which I wrote with Vladimir Pribylovsky, a Russian historian, journalist and 1990s Duma candidate.1 Vladimir was 59 when he unexpectedly died alone in his Moscow flat on 13 January, 2016, shortly after the announcement that the verdict of the year-long independent, forensic Litvinenko Public Inquiry by a British judge would be published on 21 January, 2016 – the judge damningly concluded that Litvinenko’s assassination was “probably approved” by Putin; MI6 concluded that Blowing up Russia had been a red line.

The Age of Assassins showed how for 10 years, from the collapse of the USSR in 1991 to 2000, the KGB (renamed “FSB”), kept trying to seize power over Russia, including control over the country’s vast natural resources, financial system and economy, and how the first two attempts – in August of 1991 (the so-called “August Putsch”) and in March of 1996 (the plot by General Alexander Korzhakov, head of Yeltsin’s Security Service) – failed. As a result of these two failures, the KGB/FSB radically changed its tactics. Rather than seizing power through a coup, putsch or conspiracy, it now aimed for political power through ostensibly legal means, that is through nationwide democratic elections. There was really only one office that needed to be won: the Presidency of the Russian Federation held by Boris Yeltsin. It was a simple but effective plan. In exchange for full immunity from any prosecution upon relinquishing power, President Yeltsin was offered three potential candidates he could name as his successor: Yevgeny Primakov, a former KGB agent and former director of Russia’s foreign intelligence; Sergei Stepashin, former director of counter intelligence and one of the masterminds behind the First Chechen War; and Vladimir Putin, Director of the FSB.

In effect, whomever Yeltsin chose, power would end up in the hands of the secret service. Putin got lucky. Yeltsin turned down Primakov, who was in a hurry to oust Yeltsin before his term expired by colluding with the anti-Yeltsin-faction in Parliament. Yeltsin also turned down Stepashin, who conspired (or so it appeared to the Yeltsin’s Chief of Staff and confidante, Alexander Voloshin) with Yuri Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow, who was himself hoping to become Prime Minister or President of Russia one day. Putin, a relative nobody and not a member of the nomenklatura (the USSR elite), was the last on the list. It was he whom Yeltsin picked by default.

In August of 1999, Putin was promoted by Yeltsin from the post of Director of the FSB to the post of the Prime Minister of Russia. And in September, the terrorist apartment bombings took place, which killed more than 300 people and launched the Second Chechen War. On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin resigned as agreed, making Putin “Acting President” of Russia even before the national elections that were due to take place on March 26, 2000. On 6 February, the Russian army occupied the Chechen capital Grozny, which cast Putin as the victorious leader, and a month later, he won the election, receiving just over 50 percent of the vote (if the official figures are to be believed).

Upon taking office, Putin radically changed Russia’s system of government. He reformed the upper house of Parliament, the Federation Council, eliminated the autonomy and elections of regional governors. He proclaimed the so-called “vertical of power” and returned to the Soviet system of strict central control via the Kremlin, took control of the mainstream media and gradually eliminated freedom of speech, controlled elections at all levels and reshaped Parliament so that it became no more than a rubber stamp for Kremlin power.

Putin was also lucky in another way. The beginning of his rise to power coincided with a rise in raw material and mineral prices to historically unprecedented levels. This led to the rise in the level of prosperity in the country as he allowed the market economy to develop and flourish. Behind the scenes, Putin formulated a code or the rules of engagement that the elite had to accept under his rule. This code was very straightforward. Those who planned to compete for power with the Kremlin were to be finished off (economically and, where necessary, even physically). Those who only wanted to get rich were eventually allowed to become members of the “Corporation”. This parallel organization to the state was headed by Vladimir Putin as the chairman of its board of directors. The composition of this “Corporation” and the number of shares owned by each of its members remained a strict state secret, which could only be guessed by those on the outside of this small group of 200 to 300 shareholders.

From the moment Putin came to power in 2000, he began to appoint to the highest government positions former and current employees of the security services, or people who were known (or there were good reasons to believe) to be agents of the special services. Technically speaking, Putin did not violate any laws by doing so. But the net result was that, within a few years, Russia found itself literally in the hands of the FSB. Former KGB officers held not only top government jobs but were also on the boards of directors of major companies or even led some of Russia’s largest economic conglomerates, primarily in the natural resources and financial sectors.

Outside of Russia, it was believed that Putin’s evident desire to usurp total state power stemmed from greed to enrich himself and those around him. But, as long as Russia’s leading kleptocrat cleaved to the rule of law internationally and did not cast his dictatorial net beyond the borders of the Russian Federation, the US and Europe were not prepared to see him as a threat in the way that the Western world viewed with deep fear some of his predecessors – Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, or Brezhnev. In fact, Putin seemed to be the most progressive, the most predictable and even the most pro-American Russian leader that foreign governments had ever had to deal with. Together with Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, Putin seemed like a leader with whom one could have sensible, if not friendly, business ties. Western media also treated Putin with the benefit of doubt, treating him, and those around him, as if they were decent men instead of people in the habit of ordering the death of opponents.

As we explained in The Age of Assassins, this was a naïve point of view. One of the goals in writing the book was to reveal to the public the insidious, gradual and intentional poisoning of democracy in Russia – with assassinations to “manage” elections where necessary. But Putin’s reliability still seemed defensible at the time to many experts, even when their point of view was dealt a death blow when Russian troops began military action against Georgia, Russia’s neighbor in the Caucasus, in August 2008.

The background of the Russian-Georgian conflict is convoluted and complex, and the Russian media, engaged in a disinformation war, did much to outfox the worldwide public media. Apart from being the birthplace of Joseph Stalin and his security chief Lavrenti Beria, Georgia as a country was one of those states that few people outside of its borders understood, never mind the historical complexity of the Georgian mini-territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Western public was unable to make sense of the fine-grained sectarian antagonism in the south Caucasus, with people sometimes peacefully coexisting and sometimes warring with each other.

When in the same month of the attack it became clear that the Russian army had no plans to enter Georgia’s capital Tbilisi and seize the whole of Georgia, Western powers breathed a sigh of relief and shelved their geographical maps and expert briefings. The world moved on. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Russian troops remained, held referendums and declared “independence”, “recognized” only by occupier Russia. Georgia broke off diplomatic relations with Russia in protest, but no one else did. The Russian-Georgian conflict gradually faded and was forgotten.

This was the context in which The Age of Assassins was published, a collective biography of Russia under Putin and the KGB, where Putin worked all his life. Though it warned against complacency where others saw a well-behaved kleptocracy, in 2008, one could still not compare Putin to Hitler or Stalin. Not because he was born in a different country, but because everyone thought – or rather hoped – it was important to Putin that he remained an influential member of the club of Western countries: despite the gangsterism of the September 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow, despite the second Chechnyan war, despite the suppression of freedom in Russia since 2000, despite the 2008 war against tiny neighbor Georgia.

In March 2014 with the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, however, Putin crossed the Rubicon. He removed himself from the European and global community and made clear that the country’s corporate financial interests took second place to Russia’s national, or rather nationalist and geopolitical interests as he sees them. And Putin sees his Russia as a new empire, rising from the ruins of the past. Why? Because it used to be there.

Unfortunately, Putin knows very little of history, and it is no accident that German Chancellor Angela Merkel (who knows her history well) said that the Russian President lives in a different world. She did not mean that Putin has lost his mind. She meant that Putin operates with concepts from the nineteenth century and from the first half of the twentieth century when everyone thought in terms of territorial conquest and the unification of nations – in other words, in terms of the ideas long-outdated elsewhere in the Western world.

Russia fought a war in the Crimea in 1853-1856, and lost. In 2014, resuming the same war, Putin acted from a position of strength, just as Hitler did in his time when he started invading neighbors. But Hitler relied on a coalition with Italy and Japan, and from August 1939 – on an alliance with Stalin; yet, he still lost. Putin Russia’s capture of the Crimea was in absolute isolation. It was not supported by any country (except a couple of African countries). Even China confined itself to polite neutrality.

The analogy between March of 1938, when Hitler first seized Austria and then, in September of that year, the Sudetenland, and Putin, who occupied Crimea in March of 2014, will be discussed at the end of the book. But the question is not whether Putin is another “Hitler” or “Stalin’ or whether he is following in their blood-soaked footsteps. The question is what to do and what to expect for all of us who know the history of Hitlerism. If Hitler had stopped in March or September of 1938, or even in March of 1939, after occupying Czechoslovakia, he would have gone down in German history as a towering political figure and would have remained in the memory of the German people as the Führer who united ethnic Germans within the borders of the new German empire. But he did not stop, because Germans had to be “saved” and “united” throughout Europe. On 1 September 1939, he began military action against Poland, not realizing that he was starting a war that would go down in history as World War II. When he embarked on his Polish campaign he really did not want, or plan to, fight a major war.

Putin won’t stop either. Like Hitler, Putin cannot stop. Russians are not “oppressed”, as he calls it, in Ukraine, nor is it run by “Nazis”. There are other countries like Ukraine with Russians. Ukraine will not be the end of the nationalist and imperialist aspirations of the Russian President for life. “Lifelong” because under the new Russian Constitution, Putin is entitled to remain President: first it was until 2018; then until the next Presidential Election; and then also to be reelected for another six years, until 2024 (by the end of which time he would have reached Stalin’s age).

Seeing the haunting analogy, knowing the history of World War II, looking back at 1938, what could and should Western democracies have done then differently in order to put a stop to Hitler’s thirst for expansion for the sake of expansion? Start a war with Germany in 1938? Make global anti-German agreements and isolate Germany by imposing all sorts of sanctions? Or, wait, do nothing and hope that the storm would blow over?

In 1938, Europe chose the latter option: to wait and do nothing. A year and a half later, having given up the remnants of Czechoslovakia, it was still caught up in the war that Hitler had started, and Hitler didn’t even give anyone the option of surrendering. We know how Hitler, Germany and the Germans ended up – in defeat, in a ruined country, and with the Nuremberg Trials.

“Nuremberg Trials” of Putin lie ahead and they should be held in Sevastopol, Crimea’s largest city with a population of 350,000 people. We should call out the names of its future defendants (at least some of them) now: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, serving since 2004 under Putin as his Von Ribbentrop (who was hanged by the verdict of the Nuremberg Tribunal); Russian Defense Minister since 2012, Sergey Shoigu; the political and ideological author of the “Capture Ukraine” project, Vyacheslav Surkov; former FSB director and Security Council Secretary since 2008, Nikolai Patrushev, who is responsible for force and punitive operations in the war with Ukraine; the Russian fascist Dmitry Rogozin; the medieval obscurantist-nationalist, Alexander Prokhanov; Russian television CEO and freedom suppressor, Konstantin Ernst; and those who remain behind the scenes: KGB/FSB generals Sergei and Viktor Ivanov and Igor Sechin. These are all the members of the Russian parliament and the Federation Council who first sanctioned the introduction of Russian troops into Ukraine, then the annexation of Crimea.

We will also remember at that moment: the silence of Anatoly Chubais, an obsequious minister who never objected to anything to his superiors; the embarrassing half-true statements of Alexander Voloshin, one of the creators of Putin’s totalitarian “vertical of power”; Vladimir Pozner, who was allowed to comment on Western television networks – just as he was in the early 1980s when the Soviet army marched into Afghanistan – explaining in his perfect English and without blushing that the Crimea was but a “limited exercise” and a “liberation.”

 

In March 2022, Western democracies faced a hard choice. They were exactly in the same position as in 1938: start a war with Putin? Make global anti-Russian agreements and isolate Russia by imposing all sorts of sanctions? Or wait and do nothing?

One thing is clear. Russia is unable to wage it on its own against the rest of the world. The likely result of this war will be the collapse of the Russian Federation, against which the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 would seem like a modest rehearsal. I am far from thinking that Russia today has enough internal strength to stop the impending catastrophe. Putin is the aggressor and warmonger. This war will bring shame, ruin, and death to Russia. The Ukrainians proved during the EuroMaidan that they are willing to die for their freedom. It is not obvious that Russians are willing to do the same for Putin’s imperial ambitions.

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