Vladimir Putin recently decreed that the Russian assault on the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in the city of Mariupol – the enormous Azovstal iron and steel works – should be blockaded, rather than have Russian soldiers put in danger by having to fight through the warren of tunnels and basements that underlie the works. He told his Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to “Block off this industrial area so that a fly cannot not pass through”.
Ultimately, that’s how the West will have to treat Russia. It will need to be as tightly sealed as possible at its western flank so that only absolutely essential visits from, and trade with, the West can take place. The current sanctions regime is a first step in the building of a new Iron Curtain.
This unstable, militaristic state which can suddenly turn on its immediate neighbours, commit the most barbaric, genocidal atrocities, human rights abuses and war crimes against many thousands of defenceless civilians – and threaten the use of nuclear weapons – is one that will have to be kept quarantined from the civilised world, treated like a lethal virus.
The land that produced Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Chagal and Kandinsky, has a proud history, which includes eras when it boasted an empire covering even more territory than the USSR. It sent the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, into space on 12th April, 1961. And it lost some 25,000,000 people in World War II, compared to 8.8 million in Germany and 3.1 million in Japan. Its history has been turbulent, politically and economically … and wars and invasions have been an ongoing aspect of Russia’s development.
Let’s be clear: all wars are the result of a breakdown in the rule of law. As Ernest Hemingway said: “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”1 I’m old enough to well remember the dreadful scenes which were reported nightly on TV during the Vietnam War. It’s uncomfortable to admit it, but the twenty-year conflict in Vietnam sometimes seemed far away and disconnected from our own cosy world. But weapons and media technology have both moved on massively since those days. Grainy film of B52 bombing runs and flame throwers, whilst just as horrific in reality, had nowhere near the immediacy and impact of what we now witness nightly in our living rooms via real time satellite broadcasts which deliver images of death and destruction – in a European country – in crystal clear digital definition. Whilst Putin may sit in his luxurious command centre doling out dispassionate orders with no concern for the human misery he creates, no-one watching news reports can fail to be deeply moved, often to the point of tears. This media coverage is unprecedented, bringing home to us the plight of hundreds of individual civilians, children, women, men, the old and the young, caught up in this savage, unprovoked assault by a nuclear power, with its rockets, rapes, bombs, tanks, cowardly shootings, sieges, looting and so-called ‘humanitarian corridors’ which turn out to be death traps.
So whenever the end-point of the current invasion is reached, be it short-, medium- or long-term, Russia’s relationship with the West will have undergone a fundamental mutation. The idea that any meaningful reconciliation can take place in the foreseeable future, with political, trade, cultural and social links re-established in a return to normality, is absurd. The geo-political and geo-cultural landscapes will have been utterly changed. Having transformed itself into a market economy in the 1990, albeit rife with corruption, Russia will find itself increasingly isolated, perhaps returning to the days of centralised planning. For reconciliation to happen, Western states would need to see proof that Russia had not only rid itself of the Putin regime but cleansed the social brainwashing inflicted on the Russian people for over a century – and that it had established a system of governance that rests on the predictable and verifiable application of internationally-agreed rules of law. And that isn’t going to happen. More to the point, the watching publics of the outside world will not look kindly on governments or commercial organisations which contemplate resuming ‘business as usual’ with Russia.
It’s certainly the case that Putin soft-sells his autocratic governmental style to the Russian public so that it reflects their long-held and deep-seated distrust of western countries, as neatly personified by NATO. But for all his manic war-mongering and heartless brutality, he is in power primarily because of a Russian culture which has a deeply ingrained paranoia about perceived threats from the West which stretch back hundreds of years, coupled with a well-spring of anger about the break-up of the USSR. Many Russians hanker for a return to the days of Joseph Stalin, who held eastern Europe in an iron grip, defeated Hitler and placed the USSR firmly in position as a leading nuclear superpower.
One of the safety valves for this paranoia in the Russian populace is their cavalier attitude to the use of nuclear weapons – amply exemplified by current TV discussions …
“The goal is for the sake of the peace of future generations of Ukrainians themselves, and the opportunity to finally build an open Eurasia – from Lisbon to Vladivostok”, said Dimitry Medvedev, the former Russian president, recently. This ambiguous statement is quite typical of the veiled threats in rhetoric coming out of Moscow.
Putin justified the Russian attacks in his address to the people of Russia on the day the invasion of Ukraine was launched, 24th February, 2022, using selective facts and paying little or no attention to context. He began by citing what he called NATO’s eastward expansion, commenting first on NATO’s bombing campaign (“bloody military operation”) in Yugoslavia in 1999. “First a bloody military operation was waged against Belgrade, without the UN Security Council’s sanction but with combat aircraft and missiles used in the heart of Europe”. What he omitted to mention was that, although Russia and China vetoed it at the UN, the campaign in the Kosovo War was undertaken on humanitarian grounds, to stop the wholesale deportations of Albanians, described by Tim Judah in his 1999 book, The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia: ” … the Serbian police began clearing … people [who] were marched down to the station and deported … the UNCHR registered 848,000 people who had either been forcibly expelled or had fled”2 The break-up of Yugoslavia was a complex process and the bombing of Yugoslavia had numerous ramifications. But the fact of the matter was that NATO’s actions were undertaken with a primary goal of saving lives, not empire-building.
” … the leading NATO countries are supporting the far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine”, Putin continued, in his 24th February address, “those who will never forgive the people of Crimea and Sevastopol for freely making a choice to reunite with Russia”. This “freely-made choice” of the people of the Crimean peninsula involved an invasion of Russian troops without insignia, the capturing of the Crimean parliament, the putting in position of a network of checkpoints, the securing of airports, cyber attacks and the closing down of websites and the besieging of Ukrainian military bases.
Clearly the practicalities of excising Russia from the financial and trading structures of the west and its allies will pose immense challenges. It will be a series of processes, not sudden events, involving maximising resources devoted to replacing dependence on their hydrocarbons, growing more corn and wheat and replacing other inputs such as minerals and microprocessors. Russia is a major market for western goods and services and again this will need to be factored in. This may all sound wildly impractical. But wait … what’s the alternative? Continue to feed a war machine which seems intent on rebuilding an empire which is long gone by using utterly inhumane military strikes? Await the day when either Putin or another unhinged populist leader decides to risk launching a “Mutually Assured Destruction” (M.A.D.) strike against European and US targets, ignoring the inevitable deadly response?
In his relationship with the outside world, Putin thrives on appearing unpredictable and slightly unhinged. The Putin brand is such that world leaders are often on the back foot when it comes to negotiation. Take the situation with Sweden and Finland, who are currently considering joining NATO.
If they don’t joint NATO, there’s no guarantee that Russia won’t attempt invasion anyway, under the guise of removing the potential for them to do so. Putin aide Medvedev has already said that Russia will strengthen all its forces in the Baltic if Sweden and Finland join NATO. He stated that Russia would deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles in nearby Kaliningrad, an “exclave” between Poland and Lithuania. If ever my next door neighbour buys a machine gun and starts threatening me over the garden fence – which seems pretty unlikely – I’d not only contact the police; I’d also move house. Countries are not in a position to do that. That’s why Sweden and Finland – two peaceful sovereign states which have the bad luck to be living next to a neighbour from hell – are rushing to join NATO, having maintained a position of neutrality for many years.
Mass deaths in war, genocides and other atrocities – all terms subject to varying interpretations – took place throughout the twentieth century, in places such as Vietnam, Afghanistan and, of course, Germany, and in Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were many others. But in most cases these events were part of conflicts which eventually resolved themselves – and were not initiated by a nuclear state whose actions were sudden and unpredictable. There is no knowing how far Russia is prepared to go in pursuit of Putin’s stated desire to … do what?
The only way to deal with Russia’s unpredictable behaviour is to erect a notional but impenetrable barrier along its western edge. This new Iron Curtain will need to be far more than a simple matter of customs posts and sanctions; by which I mean that it will mean working towards the goal of excluding Russia from any international commercial, financial and cultural activity which may feed its militaristic appetites, including stronger defences against cyber attacks and even terminating its participation in the Olympic Games, which it routinely weaponises via a state-sponsored drugs program.
And yet, having said that, some commentators suggest that in looking forward to a post-Putin era, we should be careful what we wish for. The ensuing power vacuum could provoke a struggle for dominance amongst regional leaders which could catapult the country – and its nuclear arsenal – into an even more unstable state …
Map of the Iron Curtain: © Sémhur/Wikimedia Commons; licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Kaliningrad: Location Map of Kaliningrad and the surrounding area; source – modified version of original in CIA Factbook, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.
1 Hemingway, Ernest, Introduction to Treasury for the Free World, 1946
2 Judah, Tim (1997). The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (2009, 3rd ed.). New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. p. 150.