The most disturbing feature of the war in Ukraine is the currency of the action, the actual real-time evidence of the destruction, and the sheer number of civilian deaths.
If you have read history, especially the history of the Second World War, you will have seen pictures of dead bodies on streets, and concrete buildings reduced to rubble. Mostly in black and white, they are frozen in time. They are real, and the people are really dead.
The images speak of the unenlightened ‘then’, before mankind’s embrace of globalism, the European Union, the United Nations, trading blocs and global co-operation. Even Russia is a member of the United Nations, and until the February 2022 invasion Russia was seen as a global citizen, paying some of its share, and enjoying a limited post-Soviet rehabilitation.
It was a false dawn. Putin has been building his own version of the Gulag, and his experience as a member of the KGB has informed the structuring of an efficient police state. He has also continued in the bloody tradition of the czars, and the later communist leaders of the Soviet Union.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Chechnya was ready for post-Soviet life. So was Ukraine. But the new Russia was not. It would attempt to hold on to its past geopolitical primacy, and the battle for Ukraine is yet another episode in Russia’s attempt to recapture lost territory.
If we want to see the dress rehearsal for the war against Ukraine, we need only go back to Boris Yeltsin’s First Chechen War, where for the period 1994 – 1996 Russia ignored the will of the Chechens, and in the process destroyed Grozny and the surrounding countryside.
The reason the West was taken by surprise when Putin invaded Ukraine was that the international media treated the Chechen Wars as internal affairs, rather than attacks on a sovereign state, by another sovereign state, looking to retain territory they had lost, due to a treaty.
Chechen public opinion in 1991 was strongly for independence from Russia. With a turnout of 72%, 90.1% voted for the Chechen leader, Dudayev. Russia began a campaign of harassment and supplied Russian separatists with money, weapons and troops.
It was never anything but the pursuit of territory by force, although the Chechens had voted overwhelmingly for separation. By 1994 President Yeltsin issued an ultimatum to all warring factions in Chechnya, ordering them to disarm and surrender. When the government in Grozny refused, Yeltsin ordered the Russian army to “restore constitutional order” by force.
When the Russians besieged the Chechen capital, thousands of civilians died from a week-long series of air raids and artillery bombardments in the heaviest bombing campaign in Europe since the destruction of Dresden. Williams, Bryan Glyn (2001)
Fast forward to Ukraine. Similar tactics, similar disregard of humanitarian principles, similar spurious reasons given for the invasion.
There is one crucial difference, however. Putin’s rigid control of state media in Russia, and his rock solid use of a punitive police presence has kept the Russian public’s support for the war high.
The barrage of misinformation has seen a weakening in the West’s resolve. Hungary has made a virtue of not criticising Russia’s war, and the Republicans, led by Trump, have questioned the general moral outrage.
It is lucky that summer is coming to Europe, otherwise Russia’s gas supplies would have been a necessity for many European countries. The reality appears to be that Russia and Putin will not be shamed into a withdrawal, and we might be stuck with a highly dangerous situation for years to come.
It can safely be said that whenever a dictator is supplied with the means for war, and the requisite power, that the fate of the rest of us depends on our being prepared for the worst, because it can sometimes be as simple as a madman’s whim which causes the boat to capsize.
The Russians will not thank him for destroying their economy, the Russian troops’ parents and families will not thank him for killing their sons, and the Ukrainian people will never accept the reason for the invasion, or its apparent objective: The subjugation of its identity and status as a sovereign nation. The death and destruction means there will never be reconciliation between Russia and Ukraine.
Putin’s war is a grave mistake, and hundreds of thousands will pay the price. The greatest threat comes from Putin, and his absolute hold on power. He, if cornered, might pull out all the stops, and attempt to bluff the Unites States and Europe with the threat of nuclear war.
The possibility is there, and it looks to be Putin’s last card.