Just under 10 years ago I sat face to face with Vladimir Putin. For four hours late into the night at his dacha outside Moscow (we were drinking tea, all traces of Boris Yeltsin and alcohol having been expunged), he let me enter into his world of grievance. For half an hour, without wavering in his steely stare and without repetition, deviation or hesitation, the Russian president explained to our small group how he had been betrayed by the West. When Al Qaida destroyed the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11 in 2001, Russia rallied behind the US. When Tony Blair and George Bush went to war in Iraq in 2003, Russia did not stand in their way, even though it disagreed with the invasion. When the Baltic republics were invited to join not just the European Union, but the western military alliance of Nato too, he didn’t cause trouble, because that is where historically these three small states have always been inclined. And what did he get in return for his “generosity”?
The United States and its allies repaid their debt by making a grab for Georgia and Ukraine, trying to bring these two countries - which were at the heart of the Soviet Union — into the western orbit. And on and on he fumed. To understand the present crisis, and Russia’s anger, it is important to delve into the past. Ancient history recalls that Russia derives its identity from the 9th century empire of Kievan Rus. More recent history shows the neighbours in constant tension, culminating in Stalin’s forced starvation of millions for having the temerity to seek their own path. Then in 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union led the 15 constituent republics to separate. Yet for many, Russia and Ukraine are inseparable. That is why Putin will not let go easily. Indeed, for all the personal menace that he exudes, it is hard to imagine that even a less aggressive Russian leader would see Ukraine as anything but part of Russia’s bailiwick. It is hard to think of two countries more entangled, historically, culturally, financially and demographically - for better or worse.
This is the reality confronting the West. The best that can be achieved in this extraordinarily febrile atmosphere is for Ukraine’s new leaders to display caution. Putin was flexing his muscles yesterday (Friday) as he deployed Russian armour within Crimea, purportedly in defence of his Black Sea Fleet’s positions. He may eventually go further and launch a military strike of some sort - but that is a high-risk gambit, particularly with so much Russian money stranded in Ukraine. For the moment, he is more likely to play a waiting game, safe in the knowledge that pro-Moscow militia in Crimea and elsewhere will continue to foment trouble. The best, and possibly only, hope for Ukraine to emerge relatively unscathed (with or without control of the Crimean peninsula) is for the establishment of a solid and uncorrupt administration in Kiev. That was supposed to happen after the Orange Revolution in 2005, but didn’t, as rival factions bickered and lined their pockets. The omens this time around seem little better.
— The Telegraph Group, Ltd, London, 2014.
John Kampfner is a former Moscow bureau chief for The Daily Telegraph and author of Freedom for Sale