A few weeks ago I wrote in this column that not even a megalomaniac would start a full-scale war in Europe.
It looks, however, as if a certain megalomaniac would. And particularly so if his name could be a shortened version of Rasputin, translated as “mad monk.” Not that Putin and Rasputin have much in common except for their delusions of grandeur: the older mad monk cosied up so close to Czarina Alexandra that he was widely regarded as her trusted adviser, and he came to a very sticky end, something which, although certain, is yet to befall the younger delusionist.
The other big difference between them is that Rasputin accurately foretold the calamitous end to WWI and also the violent end that awaited Czar Nicholas II and the Russian royal family. The present mad monk, however, is blind to the disastrous fallout that will follow his sick escapade in Ukraine. He also did not live in Imperial Russia, while Rasputin was in its bosom, but it seems that Putin is pining to put the beloved empire back together.
Putin’s mental state is being questioned and the moniker “mad monk” might be perfectly apt. There is speculation that Putin spent the last two years in such solitude, avoiding covid, that he has compromised his ability to think rationally. It is possible; his rantings about Ukraine not being a proper country and occurring by accident borders on the insane. But it only partly explains the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and his other dirty gambit, the Russo-Georgian war.
Parts of Georgia have been under Russian command since 2008, when Putin accused it of "aggression against South Ossetia” and launched a full-scale land, air and sea invasion which he described as a “peace enforcement” operation. It is not too dissimilar from the justification (one of them) he gives for invading Ukraine in 2022. Putin has been fomenting and arming dissident ethnic groups and strong-arm autocrats in some key surrounding countries that were once Soviet republics, with the intention of destabilising them and bringing them back into the Russian fold.
Everything that is playing out in Ukraine has taken place before, but the West is paying more attention this time. Putin did not catch a vaps and decide to bring Ukraine to heel; the writing was on the wall for quite a while and the trajectory was clear to see for anyone caring to read Putin’s actions.
In 2021, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia maintained “direct control” over the separatist regions of Georgia and was responsible for grave human-rights violations taking place there – including ethnic cleansing that led to a massive displacement of people.
Things have only got worse for Russia. Now, the International Criminal Court is launching an investigation into possible war crimes in Ukraine, but I bet that more is still to come after the Kremlin subjugates its mineral-rich neighbour of 40 million citizens. Of course, Putin’s unhingedness might lead to the use of nuclear weapons, which we cannot rule out, and no draft script exists yet for such an eventuality.
It would be interesting to know how much support Putin really enjoys among Russians. I would take another bet that although they pretend to have a liberal democracy, most Russians favour an autocratic leader, which they are used to, rather than the uncertainties of a system that produces a succession of vastly differently-oriented leaders. Unless the sycophants around Putin behave completely out of character and upend him, he is good to go for a little while yet.
In 1992, I made a series of current-affairs programmes for the BBC that went to countries in and around western Europe that aspired to be part of the club. In Kyiv, the optimism was very strong, but with the coming of Putin as president in 2000, the possibility receded. It’s a similar story for Turkey, but I’ll save that for another column.
There were no illusions in Ukraine about how easy any form of integration would be or how being independent of the USSR would play out. Ukraine was sucked into the Russian Empire around the same time that Haiti was striving to become free of the French Empire. Then, during the communist revolution, Ukraine failed in its bid for independence and was cruelly punished by Stalin, finally shaking free after over 60 years, when the USSR collapsed.
WWIII may or may not happen this week, but it is well on its way. WWII was a result of the compromises made to end WWI, and the endless current upheavals in Europe originate in WWII. Putin should know that trying to make the greater part of the European continent Russian – geographically, culturally, politically and economically – by force only stores up resentment that will erupt violently in the future.
The bloody remaking of borders and the forced shifting of national identity is the history of Europe. Originating world wars is also, sadly, part of its legacy.