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Negotiated neutrality may be best option

At the turn of the century, when Putin popped up in the Kremlin and soon afterwards replaced Boris Yeltsin, he was widely seen as potentially a vast improvement — someone who would bring a measure of order to Russia and recharge its economy without throttling its democracy. But those keeping an eye on his brutal repression in Chechnya harboured few such illusions.

MAHIR ALI | New Delhi |

In the run-up to Moscow’s military assault on Ukraine, US intelligence agencies seemed to be keeping up with the Russian leader’s intentions. If they had an inside source, though, it appears to have gone missing. No one seems to know what Vladimir Putin might do next. That might even include the president himself.

Did he seriously expect his forces would encounter little resistance, or that his ‘special military operation’ would resemble the five-day incursion into Georgia in 2008? And did the intensity of the Western sanctions come as a complete surprise? If either of these propositions is true, it would suggest that the president is exceedingly ill-informed, possibly because his aides and advisers are too frightened to furnish him with the facts.

There is a perverse echo here of June 1941, when Joseph Stalin dismissed reliable reports from Soviet spies of an imminent Nazi invasion, and his colleagues were too scared to alert him to his folly. The huge difference, of course, is that this time Russia is the aggressor. And, somewhat like the Wehrmacht eight decades ago, it appears to have bitten off more than it can chew.

Reports suggest Russian invasion forces have been experiencing rather more substantial losses than they bargained for, including the deaths of more than half a dozen generals. Amid the information/disinformation overload, it’s difficult to sift facts from blatant falsehoods or half-truths. Putin keeps saying everything is going to plan — but then, he could hardly admit otherwise. There appears to be some re-strategising in progress, even as casualties mount.

US President Joe Biden did no one any favours when he concluded a speech in Warsaw on Saturday with unscripted remarks that seemed like a call for regime change in Moscow. Aides and allies have since tried to detoxify the provocation, and the US president himself told reporters on Monday that he was “expressing moral outrage” rather than “articulating a policy change”.

Given Washington’s centuries-long experience in toppling the governments of weaker states, it’s particularly ill-advised for US presidents to adopt this tone — not least when the potential target’s nuclear weapons stockpiles rival America’s arsenal. Beyond that, however, Biden’s tone fits a recent pattern whereby no effort has been spared to heap inflammatory invective and threats on Putin. The Russian leader has, no doubt, lived up to the worst expectations.

One can only wonder, though, whether a rather more diplomatic approach on the part of the US over the past few months just might have persuaded Putin to desist from launching his extraordinarily unwise invasion. It would have been worth a try, although it’s necessary to acknowledge that it might have made little or no difference, given the nonsense Putin has been spouting over an extended period about his vision of Russian history — harking back not so much to the Soviet Union but to the tsarist era.

He apparently takes his ideological cues from the likes of nationalist philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954) and the fascist ideologue Alexander Dugin, whose treatises have also charmed the far right in Europe and the US. It takes monumental cognitive dissonance to pursue ‘denazification’ in Ukraine — which certainly has a problem with nationalist extremism, albeit hardly on the alleged scale — while wallowing in the same muddy stream.

At the turn of the century, when Putin popped up in the Kremlin and soon afterwards replaced Boris Yeltsin, he was widely seen as potentially a vast improvement — someone who would bring a measure of order to Russia and recharge its economy without throttling its democracy. But those keeping an eye on his brutal repression in Chechnya harboured few such illusions. His scathing attitude towards the eastwards expansion of Nato was unremarkable — any Russian leader would have felt the same way, and suspected that Washington was going out of its way to humiliate Moscow.

Not many, though, would have chosen the path Putin did to make Russia great again. Tens of thousands of Russians have left the country in recent weeks, unable to absorb the shock of gratuitous aggression against a neighbour that posed no immediate threat. Antiwar activists who have stayed behind find themselves in a minority and faced with not only the wrath of the state and its seemingly delusional ruler, but also the abuse and intimidation of brainwashed fellow citizens.

A post-Putin Russia remains hard to envisage for the moment. The best one can hope for in the short run is a negotiated ceasefire, based on the neutrality that Ukraine has already more or less conceded, and perhaps the formalisation of some form of autonomy for the contested eastern regions. That won’t be the end of the drama, but it would at least stop the killing. The breathing space might enable more Russians to realise that their great leader is sacrificing their future at the altar of an absurdly anachronistic chimera.

(Dawn/ANN)