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  • Daniel Sillett

Putin pulls the trigger on Ukraine – prepare for the World War trilogy


Vladimir Putin’s aggressive stance in Ukraine and the responding anger of the West has rekindled global tension not seen since the Cold War. Everyone is asking the same question: is this the prelude to World War 3? That’s a big – and very scary – question to be flying off the press.

Despite the apparent abruptness of it all, relations between the East and West have been deteriorating on a slow-burner. The backstory to the Ukraine fiasco is the Crimean annexation in 2014, when a popular uprising in Ukraine against Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych saw a Russian military intervention. Whilst this ruffled Western feathers, Russia has also been busy interfering on the inside. Of note are the Salisbury poisonings in 2018, cyberattacks such as the 2014 WannaCry virus which broke the NHS, and accusations of social media meddling and electoral manipulation. In short, it seems we have had an impostor among us.

The deployment of over 150,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, however, sent shockwaves through Europe. The battleground remained soft – it was a question of sovereignty and rights rather than bullets and nuclear warheads. Ukraine desires membership of NATO, which the organisation has recognised as legitimate. But the Kremlin still views it as ‘the Ukraine’, therefore not a sovereign independent state but a mere region of Russian territory.

This is unsurprising. An expansionist like Putin would inevitably reject American tentacles entering Russia’s backyard, especially given the fractious history between the two. Yet, understandably, the view of the West is that sovereign territories should be free to self-determine their futures. It all reeks of ideology, of liberalism versus authoritarian illiberalism, of the Cold War.

Perhaps the most notable development, however, has been a seemingly positive one. Earlier this week, Putin declared the Russian-backed separatist areas of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent. This sounds like respecting sovereignty, like what NATO wants, right? Wrong. By recognising these areas as independent, Putin has legitimised the entry of troops into the regions to ‘maintain peace’. This is exactly what NATO does not want. For once, Donald Trump was on the money when he called this a ‘genius’ move by the Russian oligarch. Indeed, Putin appears to be playing 4D chess.

The obvious question is, ironically in the words of former Soviet prince Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, what is to be done?

The Western answer, as expected, is sanctions. The UK has imposed travel bans on leading Russian oligarchs within Putin’s inner circle, and has frozen assets of Russian banks bankrolling operations. A high-profile sanction entered the fray from Germany, which has frozen the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

In sum, Western sanctions are economic. Again, the Cold War stench lingers; it smacks of the economic drainage President Reagan inflicted on the Soviets, not least by causing them to burn money on impossible Star Wars defence projects. However, European governments appear to be missing a crucial fact. Economic sanctions on Russia are economic backlashes on European citizens. As a significant supplier of natural gas and diesel, for example, Russia has leverage over European economies, particularly when in the wake of a post-pandemic cost of living crisis. Inflation in the UK has topped 5%, squeezing family budgets. Sanctions will only push prices up further, with diesel prices breaking the 150p per litre barrier.

Naturally, politics constrains us. Sanctions appear to be the first stepping stone along a pathway that becomes nastily nuclear by the end. They represent a tug on Putin’s shirt – a passive warning against going any further out of line. The unpredictability of his actions, however, threaten to deem sanctions futile and drastically insufficient measures.

This is a conflict that is depriving journalists of sleep: it is impossible to keep up. Such is the case that this article had to be overhauled in response to the morning news on Thursday 24 February, which delivered the headline everyone has dreaded. Vladimir Putin has ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The UK government has already responded, claiming it will impose ‘unprecedented’ sanctions following Putin’s ‘appalling’ decision to invade. This seems inadequate. Clearly, Russia was unphased by the first bucket-load of sanctions, so what good will further sanctions do? It is time to turn up the ante. Putin seemingly understands only one method of communication, and that is by gun and by bullet. Diplomacy has failed to stop a Tsarist dictator from crossing the lines in the sand, so greater force must be deployed to prevent further expansion. Only then will it become a decision that he will regret.

This is not necessarily a call for a full-scale war, not yet. Threats of military intervention must be seriously proclaimed by NATO and, should Putin choose to ignore them, he must pay. Of course, the ideal solution is to shake hands over a table and an olive branch, but this – more than anything since the Cold War – appears to vindicate the idea of a realist power struggle in the global order.

So, Putin has pulled the trigger. Surely NATO can have no alternative but to strengthen their hand and match Russia. It seems the prelude is drawing to a close and the main event is just beginning. Will we avoid World War 3? Chance would be a fine thing.

Image - Flickr (Palácio do Planalto)



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