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Timidity, greed and sloth: why the west always loses to Putin


In confrontations with Vladimir Putin, the west fights with one hand tied behind its back. It does so by choice, out of timidity, greed and sloth. This has been the case for more than two decades. This is now the case in Ukraine.

And this is why we lose.

When Russia’s mafioso-president murdered Alexander Litvinenko, invaded Georgia, abetted Syrian war crimes, annexed Crimea, sent mercenary killers to Libya and the Sahel, subverted America’s elections, waged cyber warfare, weaponised the internet and poisoned the Skripals, ensuing punishments were short-lived, ineffective or non-existent.

Western politicians and businesses have known for years what kind of man Putin is. They knew what his rogue regime was capable of. Yet many pretended otherwise, or looked away, or took his money, as have far-right parties in France and Italy. They pretended he was normal.

This pattern was repeated prior to the Ukraine invasion. Even as they deplored what they called the biggest security threat to Europe since 1945, western leaders failed to act with urgency on their own warnings. They pulled their punches. Now it’s too late.

And this is why we lose.

Ever since the Ukraine crisis blew up, the west has been on the defensive. It’s time to switch to “offense”, as American footballers say. If, for example, Putin has indeed grown “paranoid” and “irrational” – terms used last week by US and European officials to suggest he’s off his trolley – then, logically, there’s only one course of action.

Having failed to prevent the invasion, the allies must seek regime change in Moscow. Putin must be toppled from his throne. Only decapitation can save Ukraine, the global order – and Russia itself. The west should publicly assist all those Russians who want new leadership in their country. Feed Putin’s paranoia. Erode his base. Make him fear his friends.

Why are Joe Biden and Boris Johnson not demanding the release of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most able opposition activist – the man Putin tried to kill with a nerve agent in 2020 and then imprisoned? Why not call for new, free elections?

An anti-war protest in Saint Petersburg on Thursday after Vladimir Putin authorised military operations in Ukraine.
An anti-war protest in Saint Petersburg on Thursday after Vladimir Putin authorised military operations in Ukraine. Photograph: Anton Vaganov/Reuters

Western leaders should tell patriotic Russians everywhere: take a leaf out of Ukraine’s 2014 revolutionary playbook, defy Putin’s police state (as during Moscow’s 2011 pro-democracy protests), and purge this Soviet era throwback.

Will they do so? Unlikely. The same leaders who warn of unprecedented threats from an unhinged tsar appear fearful of provoking him. They worry about losing control, about unpredictable outcomes. The one thing that might prevent a prolonged war and avoid future collisions – helping Russians dump Putin – is the very thing they dare not do.

And this is why we lose.

Why was a pre-invasion offer of full Nato membership for Kyiv – if Putin failed to pull back – never discussed, let alone made? Ukraine joining Nato is supposedly what Ivan the Terrible #2 fears most. It might have created some leverage.

Which genius in Washington decided to assure Putin that Nato forces would not fight for Ukraine if he attacked? It must have seemed like a green light. A little ambiguity about the allied response would not have hurt.

Tobias Ellwood, Tory MP and former soldier, argued weeks ago that a limited number of Nato troops should be sent to Ukraine, to act as a tripwire for a Russian advance. Now calls for Nato air cover over Ukraine are similarly dismissed.

Johnson, aping Churchill, spoke bullishly when visiting Kyiv about solidarity and deterring aggression. But actually doing something brave like deploying British troops there, and taking a risk, was a bridge too far for him.

Poland and Lithuania, keenly aware of Putin’s inability to respect other people’s boundaries, proposed last week that Ukraine be fast-tracked into the EU.

This offer should still be made. Meanwhile, recall Europe’s (and UK and US) ambassadors from Moscow, break off diplomatic relations, and declare a full-spectrum trade and banking embargo, including Russia’s vital oil and gas exports. Why has this not been done already? Putin is far beyond the pale.

It is unlikely to happen. Because of all that dirty Russian money. Because Europe’s energy prices would rocket. Because investors and exporters would raise a stink. Because western politicians still pretend he’s “rational”.

And this is why we lose.

Could more have been done, sooner, to stop Putin? Certainly. Yet it also now appears he decided to invade days or weeks ago, no matter what anyone might say. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, says he was personally “deceived”. Maybe there was just no stopping him.

How to turn this around, even now? As in the Michael Caine film Get Carter, the order of the day must be: “Get Putin.” Forget the oligarchs. Aim punitive sanctions directly at him personally, at his money, and at elite politicians, officials and propagandists who sustain him.

Arraign him for war crimes at the International Criminal Court. Issue national arrest warrants, using universal jurisdiction. Tell his fellow dictator, China’s Xi Jinping, to steer clear or risk collateral damage.

Make a wanted poster of Putin’s mug. Cast him as a pariah, an international outlaw. Help the Ukrainian military fight him off by supplying weapons and aid. And then help Russian democrats bring him down as his military offensive falters and bodybags start to come home.

There is no earthly reason why this twisted little coward should be allowed to go on causing global mayhem and misery. His fall would be a boon to the world. And yet, on past form, it probably won’t happen soon. He will survive, even as uncounted thousands perish. Why? Because we let him. The west is complicit in Putin’s tyranny. It always has been.

And this is why we lose.



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