As tensions over Ukraine rose last week, the voice of a Russian who has observed President Putin more closely than most rang out from the bleakness of a penal colony in the Vladimir region, a few hours’ drive east of Moscow.
“Time and again the West falls into Putin’s traps,” wrote Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin’s most formidable critic, in letters smuggled out to Time magazine. “He issues some insane, laughable demands, like these latest ones, about how he and Biden need to sit down in a smoke-filled room and decide the fate of Europe like we’re back in 1944. And if the US doesn’t agree, he’ll ‘pull something’.
“Instead of ignoring this nonsense, the US accepts Putin’s agenda. Just like a frightened schoolboy who’s been bullied by an upper class man.”
The intervention by Navalny, 45, jailed a year ago for his defiance of Putin’s regime, came as America and its allies were again wrestling with how to understand the Russian leader’s intentions.
The stakes have never been higher. Putin continues to amass military forces around Ukraine’s northern and eastern border. Another round of diplomacy last week failed to deliver a breakthrough.
President Biden was ensconced with advisers at Camp David this weekend to plan his next moves: these are expected to include a response to demands drawn up by Putin last month that featured a ban on Ukraine joining Nato and an insistence that the alliance withdraw its forces from the former communist states that have become members since 1997.
A Russian attack could take many possible forms, but defence analysts believe a full-scale invasion of Ukraine followed by occupation would be hugely costly in money and lives — although the West has made clear its retaliation would be economic rather than military.
In what would open another potential front, the parliament in Moscow is due to discuss a proposal to grant formal recognition to two self-proclaimed pro-Russian separatist republics in Ukraine’s war-torn eastern Donbas region. There are also fears of a reprise of recent cyberattacks against 70 government websites.
At the same time the military build-up continues: Russia has now deployed more than 127,000 troops in the region, according to latest estimates by the defence ministry in Kiev.
Of particular concern are forces that began entering Belarus last week, before joint military drills between the two allies planned for next month. A video report on a local television station showed them arriving in the Belarusian town of Yelsk, just over ten miles from the border, which at its nearest point lies just 56 miles from Kiev.
The roots of the crisis go back to the break-up of the Soviet Union in December 1991, which came as a blow to many Russians, among them Putin, who had returned to his native St Petersburg after witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall two years earlier from the East German city of Dresden, where he was a spy for the KGB.
It was the “loss” of Ukraine that was the hardest to take. It was not just the most populous and economically developed after Russia of the 15 Soviet republics. The Ukrainians were fellow Slavs and their capital was once the heart of Kievan Rus’, the ancient state seen by Russians as the forerunner of their own.
As Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s late security adviser, put it: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.”
Fast forward to 2004, and Putin, by then president after a meteoric ascent through government ranks, watched with alarm as Ukraine’s “orange revolution” forced a rerun of a rigged presidential election and led to victory for Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-western candidate.
The Kremlin’s man, Viktor Yanukovych, whom he defeated, bounced back to win the presidency six years later, but in 2014 was ousted by another burst of people power. This time, however, Putin acted, seizing the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and fuelling a pro-Russian uprising in the Donbas that has killed more than 14,000 people, many of them civilians.
The Kremlin leader is said by some observers to be obsessed by a fear that Ukraine, or other former Soviet states, could become potential role models for opposition within Russia itself, which in recent years has been spearheaded by Navalny, who suffered an apparent poisoning attack with novichok while campaigning in Siberia in August 2020.
After treatment in Germany, he returned to Russia and was arrested, but from his cell has continued his campaign against Putin: last week associates released new images of a $1 billion luxury palace on the Black Sea said to have been built for the Kremlin leader.
“Putin worries that if any of these states becomes a prosperous democracy, let alone fully integrates with the West, the Russian people will demand the same,” wrote Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to Nato, in a commentary last week for the Financial Times.
“To forestall that, Putin has tried to ensure the neighbouring states are run by strongmen dependent on Russia to stay in power” — a stance demonstrated by the Kremlin’s support for Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian leader, and by the speed with which it sent troops to prop up the Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, after riots this month threatened to topple him.
Yet Samuel Charap, author of a study by America’s Rand Corporation on Russian aggression, disputed this view, given the Moscow elites’ “low opinion of their Ukrainian counterparts” and doubt they “can survive without western assistance, let alone become a thriving democracy”.
More important, Charap argued in a Twitter thread this week, is the Kremlin’s view of popular uprisings in the region as a “tool of US foreign policy” to undermine Russia’s influence in what it sees as its traditional sphere of influence.
Since 2014, opinion in Ukraine, which has close cultural and historical ties with Russia, has shifted markedly towards the West. So, too, has the country’s military alignment: although Nato has failed to make good on a controversial offer made in 2008 for Ukrainian membership — and looks unlikely to do so — links have been growing. British, America and other allied countries have sent military trainers to Ukraine, while Nato has stepped up naval patrols in the Black Sea.
The crisis has led to a sharp rise in such supplies: Britain flew some 2,000 short-range anti-tank missiles to Kiev this week and is providing 30 specialist troops to train Ukrainian forces how to use them. The three former Soviet Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, are sending anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, while the Czech Republic is ready to supply ammunition.
Conspicuous by its absence from the list is Germany. Although one of the world’s largest arms producers and exporters, it has angered allies by refusing to supply weapons to Ukraine. Germany is instead sending Ukraine a field hospital.
Russia’s military superiority over Ukraine is so great that any arms shipments would do little to deter an invasion. Yet Germany’s reluctance to participate may be seized on by the Kremlin as a sign of western division, again on show last week when President Macron of France unnerved allies by calling for the European Union to negotiate its own security and stability pact with Putin.
Berlin’s stance may be influenced by its extensive commercial links with Russia and dependence on its energy.
Annalena Baerbock, the foreign minister, has also admitted Berlin’s reluctance to supply weapons is “rooted in history”, an apparent reference to Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. “The idea that Germany delivers weapons that could be used to kill Russians is difficult to stomach for many Germans,” Marcel Dirsus, an academic at Kiel University’s Institute for Security Policy told Deutsche Welle, the German broadcaster.