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Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
Vladimir Putin has won. He has placed himself at the centre of world affairs, strengthened his alliance with China, cowed his neighbours and solidified his domestic support. He has divided his rivals, sundering Europe from the Anglopshere – or, more precisely, separating Germany from the other democratic powers.
Best of all, he has shown the West to be dithering, divided and drippy – a lesson that will not be lost on autocratic regimes across Asia, Africa and Latin America. All this without sending a single T-72 into Ukrainian-held territory.
I suppose I should add that it is still theoretically possible that the apparent withdrawal of troops from the border is what the Russians call a “maskirovka”, a military deception. It’s conceivable that, even as you read these words, armoured columns are beginning to grind across the cold steppes. But I have been struck, throughout, by the discrepancy between what British and American leaders have predicted – both spoke this week of an invasion being “imminent” – and what everyone else has predicted.
When I say “everyone else”, I don’t mean Putin, whose statements we can safely discount. Obviously he denied throughout that there was any invasion plan. He also denied that Russian state actors were behind the Salisbury murders. He denied that there were Russian forces in Crimea, claiming that anyone could go into a shop and buy Russian uniforms, before switching tack and officially congratulating those same Russian forces (and going on to deny his earlier denials).
More telling was the sanguine attitude of most Ukrainians. It’s not that they saw no threat; they have been in a state of constant readiness since 2017, aware that successive ceasefires have been violated. But they never suggested that an invasion was immediate. They reckoned that, although Putin might have enough men and matériel to overpower their army, he had not concentrated nearly enough force to hold down what would immediately become a population in revolt.
They noticed that Russian state media were not softening people up for war – a prospect that remains unpopular in Russia. Putin has not issued any territorial claims against Ukraine, nor complained about the status of ethnic Russians there (the pretext for the 2014 conflict).
For what it is worth, most European governments also tended to the view that war was a remote prospect. So did the retired spooks and semi-spooks I spoke to in this country.
Why, then, the discrepancy? What did the CIA and MI6 know that no one else did? How could they be so specific in their talk of false flag operations and even of which Ukrainian politicians would front a puppet regime?
Obviously, I can’t answer that question. It is possible that, if I were seeing the intelligence that Joe Biden and Boris Johnson are seeing, I would have a different view. But Johnson, of all people, knows that information does not become reliable simply because it is privileged. I remember a brilliant Telegraph column in which he presciently excoriated what he called our “intelligence charlies” over what turned out to be duff analysis about Iraq.
Endless articles have analysed Putin’s motives. But it is worth also considering the motives of the Anglosphere states. Putin’s aim is clear enough. He wants to keep the Russian people in a state of anxious patriotism, thereby shoring up support for his regime. Nations which feel under siege are, as a rule, keener on strongman rule than those enjoying peace and plenty.
It is therefore Putin’s strategy (to quote our national poet) “to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels”. He doesn’t want a win in Ukraine. He could have had that years ago, pulling out of Donbas in exchange for recognition in Crimea. He wants a continuing crisis.
To point out that his policy deters investment, diverts resources and triggers sanctions is irrelevant. We should not make the mistake of conflating Russia’s interests with Putin’s. He is pursuing his personal incentives, not his country’s. Call it the Freakonomics view of human behaviour or, if you are of a more pretentious bent, the Namierite interpretation.
If Putin pulls his troops back, he will come away with significant gains. State media have shown Western leaders dancing to his tune: Macron being lectured across a cartoonishly long table, Liz Truss being insulted and patronised by her opposite number, NATO members squabbling with Germany over whether they could route aid to Ukraine across its territory.
For Russians to criticise any aspect of Putin’s regime during such a crisis – the palaces and Western hidey-holes owned by officials on modest state salaries, the murder of journalists, the imprisonment of human rights activists – feels almost like treachery.
All that, in its grisly way, makes sense. So why the war talk in Washington, London and Ottawa? Could it be that our leaders, too, have Freakonomics motives? Just as Putin can walk away claiming victory simply because Ukraine has not joined NATO, so they can claim victory simply because war was averted. “We and our allies have managed to prevent Russia from any further escalation,” crowed Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba yesterday.
I don’t blame Western leaders for any of this. It was not they who massed over a hundred thousand troops against the Ukrainian border. It is simply that their incentives skew overwhelmingly one way. Preparing for war and being wrong is no big deal; failing to prepare and being wrong is disastrous.
And so, as soldiers manoeuvre in the snow, two sets of politicians come away with a win. Russia’s leaders declare that they prevented NATO from reaching their borders; the West’s that, by displaying resolve, they checked an invasion. It beats shooting at each other, I suppose. But what an odd way to conduct international relations.