Spy satellites​  used to be the hushest of the hush-hush, but now anyone can order up a picture taken from space. The images released in November by the US firm Maxar of hundreds of Russian army trucks and tanks parked in fields near the Russian town of Yelnya were intended to get attention, but they have the flavour of intelligence. Like screengrabs of CCTV footage showing a crime, or pap shots of celebrities looking sad, they seem to contain both a story and its proof. Sometimes they actually do: it’s hard to misconstrue the story told by a recent Maxar satellite photo of a target the shape of a US navy aircraft carrier, half full-size and mounted on rails, in the middle of a bombing range in north-west China. But the general treatment in the Euro-American media of Maxar’s pictures of Russian armour – Putin’s getting ready to invade Ukraine and here’s the proof – doesn’t stand up so well.

That’s not to say that the Russian president isn’t weighing up another invasion of Ukraine. He might be. He has form. He invaded Georgia in 2008. His forces have invaded Ukraine twice already, once in early 2014 to annexe Crimea, and again a few months later to shore up the faltering rebellion by Russia’s separatist dependants in Donbas. And it’s not to say that Russian battalions haven’t been shifted, to Yelnya and other places, and shifted for a reason. Moving armour and soldiers around is expensive and hard, and this is not claimed to be an exercise. The troops are standing by for something. Maybe attack; maybe defence; maybe just to be seen to be there. To stand by gives options in the face of uncertainty, and since Putin’s constant discourse is the language of threatening and being threatened, uncertainty is his lot.

What stands out on the map about Yelnya isn’t its nearness to Ukraine, but that it’s roughly equidistant between Ukraine to the south, Belarus to the west and the Baltic states – Nato members – to the north. To attack Ukraine, to intervene to defend Putin’s awkward client Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, to pivot to face Nato-member Latvia, to have soldiers sitting on their camp beds playing endless hands of durak: no doubt the Russian general staff has rehearsed all eventualities.

It’s striking how many times, in the past few months, Putin has been accused of being behind the transport of migrants from the Middle East to the borders of the EU through Belarus, and, separately, of being about to invade Ukraine, and, separately, of manipulating gas supplies to Europe; it’s also striking how few times the commentators consider what it would mean for all these accusations to be true. It’s quite possible they are, but this implies a greater degree of uncertainty and contradiction within the Kremlin than we’ve been comfortable imagining in the late Putin era.

Let’s suppose Putin did help enable, or green-lighted, the cruel wheeze by Lukashenko to lure migrants to Belarus with the promise of transit over the border to Poland. Perhaps the cash-strapped, sanctioned Lukashenko had hopes of getting leverage over Berlin, but what would have been in it for Russia? If Putin and Lukashenko meant to turn the peoples of the EU against their leaders, it was a weak as well as a vicious way to go about it. The current Polish government has little sympathy for migrants from Muslim countries, and may have relished the chance to portray the country as Europe’s eastern white Christian wall, a spirit amalgam of Sobieski and Piłsudski against the ghosts of Lenin and the Ottomans. Liberal EU opinion, meanwhile, was more unhappy with Lukashenko’s cynical manipulation of desperate refugees than with the behaviour of its own governments.

And let’s suppose – there is evidence for this – that Gazprom, the Russian state gas company, deliberately left its gas storage facilities in Germany half-full in the run-up to winter in order to send gas prices soaring, and to remind Europe how dependent it is on Russian gas for heat and power. One theory is that Putin did it to pressure Brussels and Berlin into allowing the switch-on of the newly built pipeline Nord Stream 2, which carries Russia’s gas west. But if you wanted to demonstrate Russia’s reliability as a source of energy, at a time when the haters are out to get fossil fuels, how much sense does it make to behave like an untrustworthy bully to your best customers? And how would that fit in with the migrant plan? How would it mesh with the idea that Putin is about to reinvade Ukraine? Without the new pipeline, Ukrainian transit is essential for Russian gas supplies to Europe at times of high demand, and the existence of Nord Stream 2 would certainly make it easier for Russia to launch an attack, in the crude sense that it could cut off the gas supply to Ukraine in the middle of winter and still keep the good folk of Bavaria and Milan warm while they watch the war on TV. But perhaps Europeans aren’t quite as happy to burn their ideals for heat as this scenario assumes. If a new invasion sped up Germany’s transition from gas, strengthened European resolve to step away from its dependence on Russian energy, and made Russia still more of a pariah in Europe than it already is, how would that be in Russia’s national interest, or Putin’s?

None of this is to prove or disprove any speculation about Putin’s future actions, only to challenge the idea that there is a coherent master plan behind them, founded on making Russia strong. Even fear, and sorrow for stolen patrimony, the consistent emotional keys of Putin’s public pronouncements about Russia’s ex-Soviet western neighbours, don’t harmonise. Putin and his loyalty group, the informal network of friends and like-minded associates who run Russia, have shown they see both Belarus and Ukraine as ambiguous spaces of promise and threat. They regard them both as territories that could contribute land and people to a larger version of Russia, and as countries that could harbour enemies fatal to Russia. To the citizens of Belarus and Ukraine, of course, military intervention would look the same whether motivated by revanchism or fear. Or, more realistically, both. It must be tempting for Putin to resolve ambiguous goals with apparently synthesising acts of violence. By sending troops into a neighbouring state to forestall what you genuinely fear to be its absorption into a hostile military alliance, you just happen to add territories to your country that you always thought should belonged there anyway. By forcibly incorporating into your polity populations that you see as sharing your language and culture, you also prevent them making friends with your enemies.

The Putin loyalty group expresses its sense that Belarus and Ukraine belong to a greater Russian space in different ways, according to their rulers’ degree of complaisance: high in the case of Lukashenko, near zero in the case of Putin’s Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky. Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager and one-time party nark who’s used increasingly brutal methods to stay in power for 27 years, has spent much of that time trying to play Europe and the Kremlin against each other. For many years it worked. He kept the largely state-owned industrial economy ticking along, importing Russian raw materials at mates’ rates and exporting finished goods at world market prices. In the early 2010s, however, a sense grew in the Kremlin that it wasn’t getting much in return for subsidising Belarus so heavily. Belarus didn’t, for instance, recognise Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Accordingly, Russia has been tightening the screws on Lukashenko to merge Belarus and Russia, economically, politically and militarily.

The threat of more expensive Russian raw materials, particularly energy, reduced Lukashenko’s room for manoeuvre. Still, if Putin’s leverage were only economic, Lukashenko might have been able to tough it out by turning to the West for support. What hems him in is that he also relies on Russia to defend him against defeat at the ballot box. When Lukashenko was threatened with losing the 2020 presidential elections, he reacted ruthlessly, arresting rival candidates, rigging the ballot, violently suppressing protests, arresting thousands and forcing others to flee the country. In 2021 he tricked a scheduled intra-EU Ryanair flight between Athens and Vilnius into landing in Minsk, where his goons kidnapped two of the passengers, an anti-Lukashenko activist and his girlfriend. During the Tokyo Olympics, his agents tried to force a Belarusian sprinter to board a flight home after she criticised the state sports regime; she preferred to take refuge in Poland.

The EU and the US responded with sanctions, and by withdrawing recognition of Lukashenko as president. More dependent than ever economically on Russia, Lukashenko felt he needed its muscle, too. He asked for, and Putin promised, Russian military intervention if the situation ‘got out of control’ – that is, if the opposition looked like overthrowing him. That moment never came. Lukashenko crushed the revolt with his own KGB (the Belarusian secret police still have the Soviet name), his own riot police and his own judges. Perhaps the promise of invasion was enough, not to cow the protesters, but to reassure the Belarusian security forces that they needn’t fear prosecution, however many bones they broke, however many rape threats they made to their prisoners: by making clear Russia would never allow Lukashenko’s opponents to win, Putin reassured the torturers that they were safe. At the end of November, Lukashenko agreed that Crimea did, after all, belong to Russia. At about the same time, dressed in full military uniform, he pledged Belarusian troops to Putin. If there was war on Russia’s borders, he said, ‘Belarus won’t stand aside. And it’s clear whose side Belarus will be on.’

It seemed to be a good time for Russia to demand full realisation of the nascent Union State, binding Russia and Belarus in a tight economic, financial, military and legal association that Moscow would dominate. It didn’t happen, perhaps because, as Maxim Samorukov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre argues, the Kremlin’s priority is not to run Belarus directly, but to keep its fealty, and to keep the West out. A planned change to the country’s constitution may reduce the absolute power Lukashenko presently holds, redistributing it to less tempestuous members of parliament who can still be relied on to hew to the Putin line. Small, fastidious and precise, Putin has never seemed at ease around Lukashenko, the ‘agrarian Rambo’, as one Belarussian comedian calls him, lumbering and melodramatic, with his chevron moustache, massive hands and seldom lowered voice. Televised meetings between the two have an awkward branch-manager-comes-up-to-head-office energy. Is Lukashenko – who has three sons – ready to step away from power and dynastic dreams? In an interview with the BBC in November, asked about the union of Russia and Belarus, he trolled Britain about a forthcoming ‘union’ with the United States. In such a union, he said, nobody would ask Britain to give up its queen.

When Lukashenko sought Russian protection, he had two precedents to think about. One was the case of Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, in 2015; the other that of Viktor Yanukovych, the legally elected president of Ukraine, in 2014. Each faced powerful domestic opposition: mobilised, determined, and controlling whole cities. Each had the political backing of Russia, but had lost all credit in the West. Putin intervened to rescue Assad against a heavily militarised opposition. He didn’t save Yanukovych. This may have been because Yanukovych – a more cowardly, venal figure than Lukashenko – ran away to Russia before Russia had a chance to help. Instead, Putin took advantage of the uncertainty following the Ukrainian rebellion to seize Crimea.

Although Ukrainian politicians have insisted ever since that Russia must give Crimea back, there was a sense in the country at the time that Crimea was the price Putin intended to extract from Ukraine for, as he saw it, pulling away from Russia. Crimea is the most Russia-oriented part of Ukraine; its population is overwhelmingly Russian-speaking; its transfer from Russia to Soviet Ukraine was an administrative whim of Nikita Khrushchev’s. Ukrainian forces didn’t put up a fight.

The rebellion that overthrew Yanukovych, the rebellion known as ‘Maidan’ after the Ukrainian word for a public square, left Ukraine highly polarised. The victors – liberals, Ukrainian nationalists of all shades – were both exultant and sombre after the casualties they suffered in Kyiv. A significant number of people, some in cities like Odessa and Kharkiv but concentrated in the Soviet nostalgist Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, felt outrage towards the rebels: their sympathies were with the security forces who were defending the legitimately elected president, a Donbas boy. Some indigenous resistance to the new regime began, and there was separatist talk, but it is likely that the Ukrainians could have settled matters among themselves with minimal violence, as they had after the Orange Revolution ten years earlier, which was also directed against Yanukovych.

This time​ , Putin didn’t give Ukraine the opportunity. The Kremlin used a combination of direct and indirect methods to turn discontent in Donbas into all-out war: an onslaught of TV and internet propaganda accusing the Maidan rebels of being fascists (some, including many of the most violent, were extreme nationalists; most weren’t) and, falsely, of committing atrocities against ethnic Russian civilians in the east; the dispatch of Russian volunteers, mercenaries and extreme nationalists to Donbas, where they led local volunteers in armed occupations of towns; the violent takeover of the border between Donbas and Russia. When the temporary Ukrainian government began to fight back, Russian troops supported the separatists with barrages of rockets and artillery from their side of the border. Finally, when the separatists and Russian irregulars began to falter against a better organised Ukrainian offensive in the summer of 2014, the Russians invaded with regular forces to stop the recapture of Donetsk and Luhansk. The front lines have remained more or less static ever since. At least 14,000 people have been killed, hundreds of thousands made refugees, and swathes of towns and cities turned to rubble.

Although Putin exerts a dominant fascination in the history of post-Soviet Russia, his actions in 2014 had precursors in the era of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in the 1990s. It was under Yeltsin that Russia carried out decisive military interventions in Moldova and Georgia, also independent states, to set up and defend the unrecognised Russia-friendly mini-states of Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They’re still there, with their Russian garrisons, decades later. Perhaps, some thought in 2014, the unrecognised republics of Donetsk and Luhansk would join these grey zones of Russian dependency, not quite part of Russia and not quite part of Ukraine, not killing Ukraine’s independence, just obliging it to live with an open wound.

And yet there’s something different about Putin and Ukraine. The wars in Moldova and Georgia (the 2008 Russian invasion was triggered by a flare-up in South Ossetia) were bloody, but not on the terrible scale of what has already happened in Ukraine. There was a tricky argument to be made that in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Yeltsin was standing up for minorities. But in Ukraine, Putin encouraged, stoked and sustained a war between peoples he insists are one nation – Ukrainians and Russians. His most devastating interventions in 2014 were verbal. By denying that Russia was involved in a war everyone knew it was fighting, and by declaring he didn’t believe Ukraine was a country, he made peace impossible: how can you negotiate with an invader who denies he’s invaded, and denies the existence of the invaded country? By giving no sense of where and when he would stop attacking, Putin gave the Ukrainians no choice but to fight for every inch of ground. ‘I remind you, this is Novorossiya,’ he said of southern and eastern Ukraine in April 2014, as the separatist rebellion in Donbas was beginning its armed phase. ‘And Kharkov, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev, Odessa – they weren’t part of Ukraine in tsarist times. This is all territory that was given to Ukraine by the Soviet government. What they did that for, God knows.’

Seven years later, in July 2021, Putin published a long article, almost a dissertation, setting out his position on Ukraine. It’s called ‘On the Historical Unity of the Russians and Ukrainians’. I’d often seen it referenced in the media in a jokey way: Putin writes a thesis, as if he’d actually spent days in the library working on something scholarly. I’d imagined something menacing but measured, thoughtful and subtle. I’ve read all five thousand words of it, and it is menacing, but none of the other things: it’s full of history, but it’s a work of polemic, zanily contradictory, alternating between extreme self-righteousness and hysterical paranoia. Putin steers a zig-zag course through Ukraine’s complex history, which is, indeed, one of ever changing borders and evolving identity, but claims throughout that the Ukrainians and Russians are one people. This oneness, he writes, can only be fulfilled under Russian supervision: ‘Genuine sovereignty for Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.’ He passes over the Stalin-era repressions and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and concludes, echoing Milošević’s complaint about the Serbs in Yugoslavia, that of all the republics in the Soviet Union, Russia suffered the most from communist rule. ‘Russia was, in fact, robbed.’

There are points in the essay where he sounds quite reasonable. At the end of the history section, he writes:

What can you say? Everything changes, including countries and societies. And of course, as it develops, one part of a people might, for various reasons and historical circumstances, feel and become conscious of itself as a separate nation. How should one respond to this? There can only be one answer: with respect! You want to create your own state? You’re welcome!

This isn’t what it seems, because here Putin plunges into arcane legalism. When the USSR was set up in 1922, its founding articles permitted any of its constituent republics to leave. By annulling the USSR before actually leaving it, Putin argues, Ukraine rejected its Soviet borders. ‘In other words,’ he writes, ‘leave with what you came in with.’ He’s already made it clear that he believes what Ukraine came in with boils down to nothing at all. Eastern Ukraine, Putin claims, is basically Russia. Southern Ukraine is basically Russia. Transcarpathia is basically Russia. Kyiv is essentially Russia. Even the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism in the west is basically Russia: ‘In 1939, the lands previously seized by Poland were returned to the USSR,’ he writes, in his only reference to Stalin’s deal with Hitler carving up Poland. That’s all there is. The whole country, as far as Putin is concerned, is up for grabs. ‘Ukrainians are very well aware that for the time being, their country does not really exist,’ Vladislav Surkov, the chief designer, scriptwriter, producer and director of the Kremlin’s Ukraine project told the Financial Times a few weeks before Putin’s thesis appeared. ‘I have said that it could exist in the future. The national core exists. I am just asking the question as to what the borders, the frontier should be.’

Towards the end of Putin’s essay, its startling cognitive dissonance becomes more pronounced, its evasions more brazen. Putin accuses the Ukrainian leadership of turning the country’s people against Russia, never examining the possibility that Ukrainians might have come to dislike Russia because Russian troops drove into and took over part of their country. At one stage the rhetoric is so detached from reality that I wondered whether, rather than just distorting the truth for political effect, he literally doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s a clever man who masters many briefs quickly and well, but there’s only one of him, and as far as we know he’s entirely dependent on secret information for his knowledge of what’s going on. He doesn’t trust the international media, isn’t a social media guy, and the Russian media, with a few small, brave exceptions, only reflect his preferred reality. Who outside his channels – his information-providing employees, who rely on his favour and have their own agendas – can challenge what he gets told? In his essay Putin compares an obscure new Ukrainian law on the rights of indigenous peoples to ‘the use against us of weapons of mass destruction’ because the law doesn’t list Russians as an ‘indigenous people’ in Ukraine. Somebody passed Putin this publicly available, easily checkable nugget; there must be those in his information apparatus who know he got the wrong end of the stick. But presumably there are no prizes for pointing out to him that actually, Vladimir Vladimirovich, the law you mention is about Crimean Tatars and two other minority peoples on the peninsula. It doesn’t say Russians are indigenous to Ukraine, but it doesn’t say Ukrainians are indigenous to Ukraine either. It’s just not about that.

The possibility that the upheavals in Belarus and Ukraine may have been about the people of Belarus and Ukraine trying to solve their own problems, and not about Russia, is one Putin struggles to process. The run-up to Maidan began with Yanukovych trying to perform a Lukashenko – to play the EU off against Russia in order to get the biggest possible pay-off. He pushed hard to get an association agreement with the EU, and then, at the last minute, did a deal with Putin that Putin insisted must mean rejecting partnership with Europe. This was the beginning of Maidan, but it was Yanukovych the protesters were against, and corruption, and brutality, and the dominance of oligarchs in the economy, and the sheer crapness of Ukrainian officialdom. There were extreme nationalists among the rebels, anti-Russians among them, but their influence in government soon faded after Yanukovych fell. The ugly side of Ukrainian nationalism is real – a minority still venerates the mid 20th-century race warrior and would-be Hitler ally Stepan Bandera – but it’s hard to sustain the accusation of fascism against a country that has, in Zelensky, a (non-observant) Jewish president. The chief cause of anti-Russian feeling in Ukraine today is Putin’s invasions. But even that is not anti-Russian so much as anti-Putin. You’re more likely to get hostility for speaking English instead of French in Montreal than from speaking Russian instead of Ukrainian in Ukraine, and there are plenty of ethnically Russian Ukrainians who abhor the Russian leader.

In his history of the country, The Gates of Europe (2015), the Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy contrasts the Kremlin’s project of a bigger Russian space with the inclusivity of Ukraine. ‘Nation-building as conceived in a future New Russia makes no provision for a separate Ukrainian ethnicity within a broader Russian nation,’ he writes. ‘Since the fall of the USSR, the Russian nation-building project has switched its focus to the idea of forming a single Russian nation not divided into branches and unifying the Eastern Slavs on the basis of the Russian language and culture. Ukraine has become the first testing ground for this model outside the Russian Federation.’ Ukraine’s tolerance for Russian language and culture within Ukraine, Plokhy writes, confounded the expectations of the Kremlin in 2014 that ethnic Russians across the country would view Putin’s aggression as a liberation.

Alongside​  the justification of invasion by cross-border kinship, an approach with which Europe is all too familiar, there is the justification on grounds of the threat Ukraine supposedly poses to Russia. The ambiguity between the Putin loyalty group’s perception of Ukraine as a zone of expansion and a zone of menace makes it impossible to know how seriously to take their remorseless characterisation of Nato, Europe and the West – the terms are pretty much interchangeable – as a threat. How much do they genuinely fear that Western forces are planning a military attack on Russia itself – Russia, one of only two or three countries with enough nuclear weapons to destroy much of the planet? And how much is Putin using a bogus fear of Nato/American attack to justify his own past and future aggression?

The official Russian take, often repeated by Putin over the years and echoed by his foreign ministry, the Russian media, his loyal parliament and his defenders overseas, is that Russia is the victim. When the Soviet Union fell, Russia wanted to live in peace with its neighbours, and accepted informal undertakings from the West that Nato wouldn’t expand to the east. But in 1999, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined the alliance; followed in 2004 by Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia; in 2009, Croatia and Albania; in 2017, Montenegro; in 2020, North Macedonia became the alliance’s thirtieth member. Nato is talking to Georgia and Ukraine about joining, which their governments say they want to do. It’s also installing missiles in Poland and Romania which are capable of shooting down Russian ballistic missiles, threatening the nuclear balance between Russia and the West. Nato forces are constantly training and exercising in Poland, the Baltic states and Ukraine, near Russia’s borders. Their spy planes fly close to Russia. Their fleets exercise in the Black Sea, near Russia. The West has given Ukraine billions of dollars in defence aid, including lethal weapons. Ukraine used a drone supplied by Turkey, a Nato member, to destroy a separatist howitzer in Donbas – exactly the same type of drone that recently enabled Azerbaijan to recapture a vast area of land from Russia’s ally Armenia. Join the dots, people! Far from calling out Ukraine for failing to implement the terms of the Minsk Agreement to end the Donbas conflict, the West is – in the words of a recent, highly undiplomatic Russian foreign ministry statement – ‘encouraging Russophobia, shielding the actions of the Kyiv regime in breaking the Minsk Agreement and getting ready for a violent scenario in Donbas. Instead of holding its Ukrainian protégés back, the Nato countries are pushing Kyiv towards aggressive measures.’

This rhetoric doesn’t stand up. Since the Minsk Agreement doesn’t address Russia’s role, it’s impossible for Ukraine to implement it. The missiles Nato is installing are designed to protect Europe from nuclear missiles fired from Iran; theoretically they might be able to intercept Russian nuclear missiles as well, but they’re too few and limited to have a significant impact on Russia’s vast nuclear fleet. Construction is going badly anyway: the Romanian base is supposedly ready, but the contractor hired to build the Polish end turned out to be incapable of doing the job. The huge increase since 2014 in US ‘security assistance’ to Ukraine, from less than $100 million to $360 million a year, didn’t precede Russia’s occupation of Crimea and Donbas, but was in reaction to it. Even so, when you scope out what the money has actually bought Ukraine, it’s thin stuff: a few hundred anti-tank missiles, some lightly armed patrol boats, some mini-drones which fell foul of Russia’s advanced jamming capabilities. They’re tokens, gestures of goodwill, and neither they, nor a handful of Turkish drones, is going to delude the current Ukrainian leadership into thinking its forces can retake Crimea and Donbas.

The difficulty for Putin is that it is hard to complain about Nato and the West without referring to the real cause of heightened military activity near Russia, and heightened Russophobia: Putin himself. In the confident, bullying, gaslighting style of the age, in line with the manner of his admirer Trump, Putin has committed a crime and is blaming the victims. He attacked Ukraine, and instead of facing the consequences, accuses Ukraine of preparing to attack him. Nato forces have been built up in Poland and the Baltic states because Putin invaded part of Ukraine, and the governments of the Baltic states and Poland, where a recent poll suggested 82 per cent of the public view Nato favourably, are nervous. As for the Black Sea, until Putin grabbed Crimea, Russia had much less than a fifth of its coastline. If you seize another chunk by force, you’re bound to bump into the navies of your new neighbours more often as they exercise their ships with their allies.

Putin’s Nato obsession reflects a reluctance to distinguish between a bureaucracy and the motives that sustain it. If you abolished Nato, the motives that sustained it would still exist. True, it would have been better if Nato had been abolished when the Soviet Union collapsed. It would have been a magnanimous gesture, and Nato’s early post-Cold War enlargement did smack of triumphalism, and conditionality, and of old militaries flailing around for new roles. But it wouldn’t have abolished America, or the other member states, or their interests, and some version of the basic idea of military alliances and common defence would have lingered in Eastern Europe after Nato had gone, strengthening and weakening according to the politics of those countries and the threat or promise of their neighbours.

A constant that undergirds Putin’s discourse on Nato is his mistaken idea that countries like Ukraine have no politics of their own, that the country wouldn’t have sought to join economic or military associations outside Russia’s purview without being bribed, bullied and tricked into it. In fact, Nato wasn’t particularly popular in Ukraine before 2014. Now more than half the country wants in, because Putin attacked them, and he doesn’t believe their country is real, and although Ukrainians understand Nato isn’t going to help much if he attacks again, the alliance does at least acknowledge that Ukraine exists. In his essay, Putin talks contemptuously about how badly Ukraine has been run since independence (contempt aside, it’s true) and complains about how much money, in the form of cheap gas, Russia gave Ukraine in the decades when the Kremlin still hoped to keep it on a short leash. It all seems rather personal, like the voice of the dominating partner in an abusive relationship.

What might a new invasion of Ukraine by Russia look like? An attempt to conquer the entire country would be so bloody, so destructive and so difficult – apart from Russia, Ukraine is the largest country in Europe, and has a population nearly one-third Russia’s size – that it’s almost inconceivable. It seems more likely that Russia would keep to the east of the Dnieper, which runs north-south, splitting the country in half, and try to solve two problems hanging over from its earlier invasions. One is the water shortage in occupied Crimea, caused by Ukraine cutting off the canal that used to carry water from the Dnieper to the peninsula. The other is that the area of the Donbas held by the separatists and their Russian allies is too small. Donetsk itself is within easy shelling range of Ukrainian forces, and the city’s now ruined international airport is on the front line. Russian forces could conceivably attack north from Crimea to take the canal, and from the east to push Donetsk out of artillery range – perhaps linking up to seize Mariupol, Melitopol and Berdyansk, gaining control over the whole of the Azov Sea.

It would be an enormous gamble. Thousands, almost certainly tens of thousands, would be killed on both sides. The destruction would be horrific. The Russian public liked the almost bloodless capture of Crimea, but a grinding tank and artillery battle across eastern Ukraine might not be so popular, and perhaps not so easy to propagandise as all the doings of Nato and Kyiv. Even without foreign troops, even with little in the way of foreign military supplies, Ukraine has a large, truculent and experienced army. Any fighting between the Dnieper canal head at Kakhovka and Donbas would also have to contend with the proximity of Ukraine’s large complex of nuclear reactors upriver in Enerhodar. All that before taking into account the backlash from the rest of the world.

These are the reasons it may not happen, not like that anyway. Putin’s critics on either side of the border have their doubts that a risky open war against a tricky opponent is his style. In Kyiv the analyst Viktor Bobyrenko suggests that Putin is simply enlarging the window of acceptability for the West: if Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine, Europe and the US will be so relieved that the loss to Kyiv of Crimea and Donbas will seem unimportant. Yulia Latynina, an émigrée Russian columnist and critic of Putin from the libertarian right, wrote in Novaya Gazeta that the Kremlin wasn’t used to real wars, only hybrid wars: ‘In a real war, force is directed towards maximising the enemy’s casualties. In a hybrid war, it’s often aimed at maximising the information about alleged losses to your own side.’ The wars of the Putin era, she argues, have always been based on the possibility of denying that there is a war, making it easy for Europe and America to be neutral. ‘The main and most fundamental problem of a war like [a new invasion of Ukraine],’ Latynina writes, ‘is that it is real, and therefore, it can be lost.’

Maybe. But then Russia’s invasion of Georgia and its rescue of the Assad regime in Syria looked both real and risky. At 69, Putin seems secure in power, but he is trusted by barely half of Russians, his lowest poll rating in nine years. The popularity bounce from the Crimea adventure is spent. An inept and harsh change to pension rules riled many; when the pandemic hit, Russia quickly developed its own vaccine, but launched a smear campaign against foreign vaccines which may have discouraged people from getting jabbed. Only 42 per cent of the population has been vaccinated. Official figures show that more than a thousand Russians are dying of Covid every day.

Perhaps Putin feels genuinely vulnerable. Nato invaded Iraq, and its leader got executed. Nato bombed and invaded Serbia and toppled its leader, who died in a Western European prison cell. Nato bombed Libya and its leader was summarily executed by rebels. Russia is too mighty for anything like this to happen to Putin, but the Russian president, the former spy, the arch-practitioner of hybrid warfare, seems to see a connection between autocrats being toppled by open warfare, and autocrats being toppled by (as he sees it) mobs organised and paid for by Nato countries. At one extreme, Saddam Hussein, brought down by US military; at the other, Viktor Yanukovych, brought down by the mob – in Putin’s view, the foreign-directed mob. In between, Milošević, his regime crippled by Nato bombing and sanctions, the coup de grâce delivered by protesters trained and financed, the Kremlin claims, from abroad.

According to this worldview, a Nato anti-ballistic missile base in Romania and the Russian human rights organisation Memorial, which Putin’s government is trying to ban, are part of a single, Western-directed, regime-threatening mosaic. Also part of it, those around Lukashenko would insist, is a Belarusian organisation called Lavbril, which used to run dog shows. The authorities shut it down as an alleged tool of foreign powers. Asked about this by the BBC correspondent Steve Rosenberg, Lukashenko said he wasn’t aware of the organisation, but had no doubt it was getting ready to overthrow him. ‘I’m sure that this was a cover, that they were protecting animals, and were getting money to live on and for a revolution here,’ he said. ‘Not for a revolution, for a mutiny.’

The United States, Britain and other Western governments have too strong a record of clandestine interference in other countries’ politics for Putin and Lukashenko’s neuroses to be waved away. But it’s false logic to assume that because the US and European governments wanted Maidan and the Belarusian opposition to succeed, they had propelled those movements into existence. No matter what bits of training or advice or grants the rebels may have had from abroad, no convincing evidence has shown that the energy behind them was anything other than overwhelmingly domestic. Indeed, one émigré Belarusian political scientist I talked to, Andrei Yeliseyeu, suggested that Putin had been wrong-footed by his own cynicism. He could have taken credit for forcing Lukashenko out, but he outsmarted himself. ‘Many people in Belarus have pro-Russian sentiments. Many people were actually hoping Putin would help them,’ Yeliseyeu said. ‘They hoped Putin would speak out strongly against Lukashenko and help to organise a new election. A lot of people were disappointed. Russia’s image started to erode in Belarus. People hoped Russia was an ally of the Belarusian people, not of the Belarusian regime.’ Yanukovych was humbled and fled; Lukashenko survives. But in the protest movements in both countries, Putin and Lukashenko have now seen something ominous: not simply the threat to an unpopular leader, but an unpopularity that transcends the social boundaries authoritarians rely on to keep power.

On 1 April 2020, four months before the presidential elections, the Belarusian music promoter and vide0-maker Sergei Tikhanovsky released a new clip on his hugely popular YouTube channel, a vehicle for folksy, wry takedowns of government incompetence, corruption and vanity. The clip is very simple. Two portly, middle-aged Belarusians in face masks, Tikhanovsky and a woman with intensely dyed blonde hair known only as Larisa, stand side by side in the cold spring sunshine in the little town of Glubokoye – it means ‘deep’. Pretty much the entire video consists of a tirade by Larisa about the state of the country. It’s not particularly eloquent – she rambles and sounds more weary than energised with rage – but something about what she said touched Belarusians. The video became Tikhanovsky’s most popular, with 1.6 million views.

Larisa begins by complaining about potholes. She moves on to complaining about immigrant businesses – the Uzbeks, she says, get favourable treatment from the authorities at the expense of Belarusian traders. Lukashenko wasn’t fairly elected the last time: ‘Everyone knows perfectly well that our government is not legitimate.’ Everything belonging to the state has been stolen, collective farms are ruined, the local cannery was embezzled, the restaurants have all closed. Pensions aren’t enough to cover the cost of living; workers can’t afford to feed and clothe their children; you have to pay for everything in the supposedly free healthcare system; Lukashenko’s claim that there’s no need to fight coronavirus will devastate the country; the president has spent our money on dozens of pointless ice hockey rinks. She repeats Tikhanovsky’s anti-Lukashenko campaign slogan ‘Stop the Cockroach’, which refers to a children’s fable by the Russian poet Kornei Chukovsky, The Great Big Cockroach, about a moustached, bullying cockroach with a loud voice that terrifies the other animals, until it gets gobbled up by a sparrow. A month after the video came out, Tikhanovsky announced that he planned to run for president.

Public enthusiasm for Larisa’s tirade was ominous for Lukashenko, but not as ominous as the informal alliance the video represents between localists like her – what a British or American populist would call a ‘real’ person, an ‘ordinary, decent, patriotic’ person from an ‘ordinary’ place with ‘ordinary’ Belarusian values – and liberals like Tikhanovsky, who comes from the more usual source of dissidence, the shifting cosmopolitan world of the intelligentsia, the arts and sciences, the bohemian bourgeoisie. The same coming together of localists and liberals took place during Maidan in Ukraine. It was required for the Eastern European revolutions of the 1990s, for the success of the Scottish National Party and, indeed, for the shutting down of the Soviet Union itself. It is what the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was working towards, with his anti-corruption message and his values that span liberal and nationalist poles. For the authoritarian leader, keeping the localists and liberals in a state of mutual dislike is Lesson One.

Lukashenko didn’t wait for the election to head off the threat. Two days after Tikhanovsky said he was running, he was arrested. He was barred from the contest and has been in prison for most of the time since. On 14 December this year he was sentenced to 18 years in prison on charges of, among other things, ‘organising mass unrest’ and ‘inciting hatred’. Another candidate who could have beaten Lukashenko, Viktor Babariko, the head of a Belarusian bank owned by Gazprom and a patron of the arts, was also denied registration as a candidate. He was arrested in June, and is now in prison too. Mikola Statkevich, a long-term opponent of Lukashenko who had been arrested and jailed for challenging the Belarusian leader before, was also barred from running and put in prison again. Valery Tsepkalo, a former ally of Lukashenko and the founder of what was supposed to be Belarus’s answer to Silicon Valley, was also told he couldn’t stand. He fled the country with his family and has not returned. In June, Lukashenko pointedly reminded Belarusians how Uzbekistan’s then president, Islam Karimov, had put down unrest in 2005: he shot thousands of people. ‘Everyone condemned him, but when he died, they went down on their knees, sobbing and weeping,’ Lukashenko mused.

The opposition rallied round Tikhanovsky’s wife, Svetlana, an English teacher, who was allowed to register as a candidate. She sent her children abroad for safety after the authorities threatened to put them in state orphanages. Come the election, both Tikhanovskaya and Lukashenko claimed victory, even though the figures posted outside polling stations and ballots photographed by voters indicated that the only victor was Tikhanovskaya. She was detained by the authorities for seven hours, then driven to the border with Lithuania, which she crossed into exile. Others made similar forced trips, though Babariko’s campaign manager, the flautist Maria Kolesnikova, tore up her passport on the Ukrainian border rather than leave. She remains in prison, as do a number of other opposition leaders.

Huge demonstrations broke out across the country when Lukashenko asserted victory. Protesters were beaten back by armoured police with batons, rubber bullets and live rounds. Thousands of people were arrested, journalists were beaten, and there were several deaths. Detainees were made to run the gauntlet of guards with truncheons, had their teeth and noses broken, their heads beaten against walls and were threatened with rape. Some were released after a few days; others were sentenced to years in penal colonies, or to work in semi-open prisons, a punishment known as ‘chemistry’: prisoners are forced to work to earn money to pay rent for the barracks in which they are forced to live.

The moment of greatest danger for Lukashenko came in August 2020, when liberals and localists seemed to be forming a wall against him. Thousands of people were defying the riot police to protest on the streets and factory workers were on strike. TV presenters were quitting; police officers were filming themselves burning their uniforms in shame. On 16 August, more than 100,000 anti-Lukashenko protesters paraded through Minsk. The next day, Lukashenko visited the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant. Workers booed him. Three days later, Navalny was poisoned with novichok; a week after that, Putin made his public promise that he had Lukashenko’s back.

Lukashenko first ran for office as a populist, and both he and Putin present themselves as anti-liberal localists: real men from real places. But are they really? Lukashenko is usually described as a former collective farm boss, which he is, but for much of his early career, including his army years, he did party work. Putin was a career secret policeman. And because they are neither localist nor liberal they don’t map onto the class lines of the Soviet Union, as either workers or intellectuals. They belong to another category, the power-keepers. They started out keeping power for others, and now they’re keeping it for themselves.

Zelensky, who was elected to lead Ukraine in 2019 when the electorate deemed the first post-Maidan president, Petro Poroshenko, to be operating too much in the old crony-capital way, is an entirely different figure. Much has been made of his being a comedian, but it’s served him well. Comedy was an important part of the effort by Tikhanovsky and Navalny to bridge the divide between localists and liberals, Tikhanovsky with his YouTube clips, Navalny with his Jon Stewart-style internet anti-corruption broadcasts. When Zelensky first entered Ukrainian politics he benefited from the co-operation that has grown up over decades between nationalists and a middle class aspiring to a Ukraine that is like Germany or Poland. The TV series he starred in before becoming president, Servant of the People, in which he plays an ordinary man who becomes president, isn’t really a sitcom so much as a decently written, earnest, rather didactic satire which seeks to show what’s wrong with Ukraine, and how to fix it. (It’s too bad, given the obvious conclusion that asocial oligarchic capitalism is at the root of Ukraine’s malaise, that the series was backed and broadcast by an oligarch.) The comments from Ukrainians under one of the clips I watched are jumbled up in time. One, from when the show was new, wishes the character could actually be president; another, from when the actor had become president, says the world is back to front. ‘As president, he’s only acting, but in the series, he tells the truth.’

Zelensky was always a comedian in Russian, rather than Ukrainian. Even Servant of the People, set in Ukraine, was mainly Russian-language. He made his name in the late 1990s as part of a troupe from the southern steppe city of Kryvyi Rih taking part in the competitive student sketch show KVN, which was broadcast across the former Soviet Union by the legacy broadcaster ORT. It was one of the cultural remnants that bound the old world together across the borders of the new countries. I lived in that part of the world then and wherever I was, KVN seemed to be on TV. As recently as 2011 Zelensky was seen as sufficiently bankable in the Russian-language cultural space to be cast as the male lead in a remake of one of the sacred treasures of Soviet popular cinema, Eldar Ryazanov’s Office Romance. The remake was awful. But Zelensky’s career suggests a different kind of Russian cultural borderlessness, an ease of exchange that may happily co-exist across the borders of politically separate countries. Why, Putin asks in his essay, can’t relations between Russia and Ukraine be like the United States and Canada, or Germany and Austria? One answer might be that the United States and Germany don’t question their neighbour’s existence.

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