Lord Baillieu lived and worked in Russia for 23 years, also spending time in Ukraine. He retired from the House of Lords in 1999, and returned to the UK in 2018.
Russia invaded Ukraine on 24th February 2022. Invading a country of 40 million with an army of less than 200,000 only makes sense if initial objectives are limited. Here, it seems as if the objectives were expanded after the invasion but without any commensurate increase in troop numbers. After nine weeks of fighting, Russia is now concentrating in the East on the Donbas, and on the ‘Southern Corridor’ to Crimea.
The real, lasting, and ongoing tragedy of this war is the cost of 11 million displaced persons, of whom five million are refugees. The cost and the rebuilding of cities and infrastructure will go on for years.
This war is having an enormous negative impact on world food security. In terms of wheat alone, Ukraine produces 11.5% of the world’s wheat, and they expect to export less than half of what they exported last year.
Sanctions, military assistance to Ukraine, and to a limited extent diplomacy, are being used to control Russia. The policy assumes that there will be there will be no durable peace until the Russians are forcibly stopped. Nothing short of military and economic containment will work, and little will change in Russia under its current leadership.
Liz Truss, in her Mansion House speech, underlined the need to stop and contain the Russian threat to Ukraine to Europe and NATO. It was in line with American opinion. Her speech fanned the flames of war. But the Russians have not reacted.
Winston Churchill defined Russia as a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. An inscrutable and menacing land that plays by its own rules.
The question must be asked: Why are Russians so different to ourselves? The answer lies in three hundred years of Tartar domination during which they freely intermarried and had many cultural and linguistic exchanges. This Tartar influence has given Russians a decidedly Asian mind-set, more ‘collectivist’ rather than ‘individualist’. The whole population tends to move as one, as a group, rather than identifying with individual values.
This is far less noticeable in Moscow or St. Petersburg but is obvious in rural Russia. Putin has been elected ‘President for life’. His powerbase lies outside the main cities in rural Russia where little changes, and where sanctions have little effect. They all vote for him. External pressures which Europeans would react to, have little or no effect on Russians.
Russia is used to isolation, both climactic and political. Russia is in fact so used to exclusion and pariah status, that this has almost become its default setting. The Russian mindset will not react to Western threats.
Currently, there are three possible outcomes for this war:
1. Continued fighting to establishing a new Russian border incorporating the Donbas and the southern (Mariupol) corridor to Crimea. This contested stalemate could continue for many years.
2. Western retaliation, extreme escalation, with NATO troops engaged on the ground. Such a global conflict with results which are clearly unpredictable, will have long term consequences for a very changed world.
3. Some form of regime-change in Russia. Given Putin’s position and the steadfastness of his ‘electorate’, any such change would have to take place with his consent.
Whatever the West is contemplating in terms of Option 2, we should not believe that Putin will wait to make any form of announcement on May 9th (Russian Victory Day). If the Russians are going to attack they will do so without any form of announcement. Putin has warned that Russia’s nuclear forces are already on high alert, and their new ICBM has been successfully tested.
If Option 2 can be avoided, then the remaining option is for the two sides to talk. The politics and rhetoric of war and exclusion will not lead to peace. Talk from world leaders of getting rid of Putin is not the language of diplomacy and talk of war crimes tribunals will not get anyone to a negotiating table. Where these talks end up will depend on where the two sides are before the talks begin, whether other parties are involved (UK, EU, USA), and whether the talks are direct, or who is the broker (Turkey or China).
Talks between Erdogan and Putin on the 17th March called for talks in two stages: firstly, not to join NATO and what in effect called for an extension of the Minsk 2 treaty, to be followed by face-to-face talks between Zelensky and Putin to resolve the status of the Donbas and Crimea. Until recently, these terms have been reflected in comments made by both Zelensky and Putin.
The argument is for a negotiated solution rather than a nuclear holocaust.
But whatever the outcome, we will see a new ‘iron curtain’ drawn down either by Russia or put in place by the West. Trading relationships will change across the globe. This is not the end of the crisis, but the beginning.