Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
So much for the idea of Vladimir Putin is some sort of chess grandmaster. Two weeks ago, he had it all. Western leaders were dancing attendance on him in Moscow. China was a staunch ally. The West was divided. There were even hints that, though no one would quite say so in terms, Ukraine might shelve its Nato ambitions.
And now? Now his troops are taking higher casualties than anyone expected. There are anti-war demonstrations across Russia’s cities. Nato has been jolted into a degree of unity not seen since the end of the Cold War, with Germany sending military aid to Ukraine and Turkey, as I write, preparing to close the Bosphorus to Russian ships.
Putin knows that the only way dictators leave office is through palace coups – more often than not riddled with bullets. “Sola mors tyrannicida est”, as Thomas More put it – death is the only way to get rid of tyrants. There must be a corner of his mind now which is starting to fret about a Stauffenberg-style coup attempt; that is, an attempt by Russia’s military chiefs to replace him before things get worse.
I confess I did not see any of this coming. Two weeks ago, on this website, I predicted that Putin would draw back, content with a limited tactical victory. “It is possible that, if I were seeing the intelligence that Joe Biden and Boris Johnson are seeing, I would have a different view,” I wrote.
But it seemed to me that Putin had pushed things as far as he realistically could. “He doesn’t want a win in Ukraine. He could have had that years ago, pulling out of Donbas in exchange for recognition in Crimea. He wants a continuing crisis.”
Well, I was wrong. The boys from Langley and from Vauxhall Cross were right. However illogically, however self-woundingly, Putin has decided to stake his leadership on an attempt to hold down a population that has no intention of suffering Kremlin rule again.
Even if he succeeds in toppling Zelensky and imposing a puppet regime, the conflict will go on, with Ukrainian militiamen operating from bases in Poland and Romania; directed, perhaps, by a recognised government-in-exile in London. The flies, to quote John Steinbeck, will have conquered the flypaper.
What should the West do now? The focus has been on economic sanctions, some of which are extremely severe. But, while these may serve to impoverish Russia, they are unlikely to deter Putin.
Yes, sanctions hurt. The freezing of Russia’s central bank reserves, in particular, will render the rouble, as it was in Soviet times, an unconvertible currency, useful only for domestic account-keeping. Closing European airspace and cutting off trade will, without question, make Russia poorer.
(As an aside, I can’t help noticing that some of the politicians demanding economic embargoes against Russia also argue, in a domestic context, for tariffs, quotas and other trade restrictions. In other words, they favour a self-embargo. Whatever the impact of sanctions against Moscow, can we all at least agree that they are not designed to boost its agricultural or steel sectors, or to nurture its infant industries? As the nineteenth-century American economist Henry George put it, “What protection teaches us is to do to ourselves in time of peace what enemies seek to do to us in time of war.”)
But I digress. The point about sanctions is that, however much they hurt Russia, they won’t hurt Putin. Blockading Cuba did not bring down Castro, blockading Iraq did not bring down Saddam, and blockading Iran has not brought down the ayatollahs. Indeed, Putin uses sanctions to build a sense of siege mentality and thereby drive up support for his rotten regime. “You haven’t been sanctioned?” one Duma member asked another on air some months ago. “What kind of a patriot are you?”
Russia, like the USSR before it, puts guns before butter. The joke when the Sputnik satellite was launched was: “Now that we’re in space, maybe we’ll get shoes”. Russians know that their economy is small. But, like other peoples, they have their amour-propre. Maybe more than other peoples. Even Westernised Russians often, in my experience, feel the phantom pains of their amputated republics.
But what if they end up with poverty and ignominy? What if Putin delivers both isolation and defeat? Or, if not exactly defeat, at least something that falls well short of the victories that Russia could claim in Georgia and in Crimea? Even dictators depend on a measure of genuine popular support. A strongman needs to stand as the defender of his people against all foes. If he can’t win wars then, like Galtieri, he is purposeless.
What has driven Putin to this error? Perhaps he was never as clever as people thought. Perhaps, behind those motionless cheekbones, there is an apparatchik who happened to get lucky by being in position when Boris Yelstin unexpectedly resigned, and whose tactical gains have been those of the bully whom others put up with until he became a real nuisance.
Or perhaps power has turned his mind, as it tends to do to autocrats. We laugh at the satraps of the neighbouring ‘Stans, with their golden statues and eponymous cities. But Putin has been building just as much of a personality cult.
Is it not possible that, after more than two decades of never being gainsaid, he has come to see himself as a Davidic figure, raised to redeem his nation? Is it not likely that his underlings are reluctant to bring him bad news? Is it not conceivable that, having led him into error in Ukraine in the first place, this tendency is still prejudicing his decisions?
It is not sanctions that will stop Putin. It is other Russians who can see that he is losing his grasp, and who fret that he has his finger on the nuclear button. Regime change, almost unthinkable two weeks ago, is now a prospect.
Perhaps Britain should offer Putin asylum, rather as Bonaparte sought it after his defeat. After all, Russia wouldn’t assassinate a defector living under the Queen’s peace with polonium or novichok. Would it?