There’s a fantasy going round on parts of the right that Vladimir Putin is a man more sinned against than sinning – that he’s just a strong guy, who loves his country and wants to be left alone to get on with life as a champion of Christian values, but keeps being provoked by the wicked old west.
It’s an odd line that comes from various places. In the UK, shamefully, we hear it from some parts of the Eurosceptic movement – particularly elements of UKIP which have allowed their dislike of Brussels to bring them into an uncomfortable alliance with the Kremlin over Ukraine. Supposedly the only reason Ukrainians decided they didn’t want to live under Moscow’s orders any more was that the EU “poke[d] the Russian bear with a stick” (to quote Nigel Farage) by not telling them they really ought to continue to do so. Putin was therefore left with no choice but to invade yet another neighbour and seize its territory – an unusual route of self-defence which seems to be his only option surprisingly often.
In the US, we hear a similar argument about Russia’s actions in Syria from a mix of Trump fans and some self-declared opponents of Islamism. Assad, the claim goes, is the only true friend of the West in Syria, and Russia’s levelling of Aleppo and logistical support for the mass murder carried out by Damascus is just an example of Putin’s selfless dedication to the fight against Islamist terrorism. Nothing to do with the desperate campaign to maintain a Russian naval base on the Mediterranean, or a wish to supplant the US as the Middle East’s dominant power, or another example of Russia’s ongoing willingness to defend the continued right of any given tyrant to continue to slaughter his people, of course.
Raise any concern about Russia’s behaviour in recent years and you’ll get the same response. The fact its agents murdered a British citizen on British soil, or that militants it supports and supplies blasted a civilian airliner carrying British tourists out of the sky, doesn’t dent the willingness of supposed patriots to argue that Putin is simply hard-done-by and the innocent victim of a Western alliance that is trying to refight old battles when it should be embracing Moscow as a natural ally. The litany of examples demonstrating that modern Russia stands opposed to all the values of freedom and democracy that we prize are dismissed as “Russophobia”, and the idea that we should be somewhat concerned at the unfortunate habit of Putin’s critics to accidentally ingest poisons, radioactive isotopes and/or bullets is denounced as a smear on a good man.
To those readers who remember the Cold War, these lines will be familiar. Back then, they weren’t spouted by people wrapping themselves in the flag or identifying as on the right, though. They were the tired old defences deployed by the hard left – people like Jeremy Corbyn, who so wanted NATO and the West to be in the wrong that they were willing to twist reality to excuse the evils of Communism. The Kremlin’s decision to shed that ideology hasn’t dulled the apologism, rather it has broadened its appeal to fellow travellers across our political spectrum.
There is an inconvenient fact, however, that even the most ardent Putin fans struggle to explain. If, as is claimed, he is just a muscular leader dreaming of a quiet life within his own borders, ripe to be wooed as an ally and harbouring no malice towards Britain and her allies, why does he prosecute a growing cyber-war against our companies and institutions? Today the head of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre warns that “over the last two years there has been a step change in Russian aggression in cyberspace”, with a particular growth in attempts to steal confidential data from the British state. Even if you believe that Ukraine’s wish for self-government somehow justifies troops and tanks crossing its eastern border, it’s rather harder to explain what local councils, hospitals and quangos in the UK have done to provoke incursions by Russian hackers.
We must reject fantasies about Putin’s intensions towards us. At every turn, he has acted against our interests and our values. We may not like the idea of being in conflict – cold, lukewarm or whatever temperature you care to call it – with him, but conflict does not wait on both sides to agree to participate before it begins. One participant is all that is required. To paraphrase Trotsky’s line about the dialectic, “you may not be interested in Putin, but Putin is interested in you”. Boris Johnson’s decision to deploy some of the aid budget as a tool to shore up the institutions and defences of our allies in the East is a good start and a welcome shift to using aid explicitly in the national interest, but the Kremlin has a head start and big wallet.