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Putin’s failure of historic proportions to rewrite history

Putin’s failure of historic proportions to rewrite history
Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery in St. Petersburg to mark the 78th anniversary on 27 January 2022 since the Leningrad siege was lifted during World War 2. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aleksey Nikolskyi / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool)

Vladimir Putin’s resort to war to pulverise Ukraine and decapitate its leadership must be seen as one of the largest admissions of failure in history.

The invasion Russia launched on 24 February came after a 20-year campaign of manipulation that ramped up in 2014 into the annexation of Crimea and a separatist war in eastern Ukraine, followed by an attempt to subvert democracy in the US, Europe and elsewhere.

Having failed to rebuild greater Russia by subjugating Ukraine through every trick in the book, Putin fell back on overwhelming military force to terrorise a civilian population into capitulation. 

Once again, he is losing.

Most of the road that was travelled to reach this point is publicly known, but my first-hand encounter with it was in early 2017, when I travelled to Kyiv to interview Ukrainians as part of a team researching a television miniseries on the role that the Russian security services had played in the election of Donald Trump.

Ukraine had become Russia’s battleground in its competition with the US and the West and it was no coincidence that both the deposed president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, and Trump had shared the same campaign adviser — Paul Manafort.

Unlike Trump, who was born into wealth, Yanukovych grew up poor in the largely Russian speaking city of Yenakiieve in Donbas. As a teenager, he was jailed for allegedly stealing a watch and an ushanka (winter fur hat) off an inebriate in a public toilet.

The economy of Donbas, the country’s industrial heartland, collapsed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Ukraine’s GDP fell by 60% in the first decade of independence, and, by the early 2000s, Donbas was ruled by Mafia bosses and oligarchs (as well as serving as the last redoubt of the Communist Party in Ukraine).

A US cable leaked by WikiLeaks described Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions as “a haven for mobsters and oligarchs”. Putin backed Yanukovych, then the governor of Donetsk Oblast, in the 2004 presidential election and the Kremlin actively worked to get him elected.

This did not go well. The opposing candidate, the reformist-minded Victor Yushchenko, who was leading in the polls, was poisoned and his face horribly disfigured. The election results that were announced proclaiming victory for Yanukovych were shown to be falsified and half a million protesters launched the Orange Revolution on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv.

The Constitutional Court annulled the results; Yushchenko easily won the rematch.

This was hailed as a massive victory for democracy, but through the lens of Putin, the so-called Colour Revolutions of 2004 were just a continuation of the US’s Cold War playbook of stoking popular revolutions to bring about regime change.

At the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Putin delivered a speech that has been described by Foreign Policy magazine as the moment where he told the world who he really was. He condemned the US’s unipolar dominance of world affairs and its unconstrained use of force so that “no one feels safe”.

Though it soured the mood in Munich there were many, in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, who agreed with him.

But it soon became clear that Putin was not advocating for a better global security architecture — rather for the right of Russia to dominate in its own historical space. In short, a return to the Cold War spheres of influence.

What happened next in Ukraine could only be described as a stroke of genius: Russian intelligence agencies came up with the idea of reaching the most ambitious of the Kremlin’s strategic objectives “by American hands”.

Paul Manafort was one of a generation of Republican operatives like Roger Stone and Lee Atwater who had pioneered a distinctly cynical and dishonest mode of achieving power at all costs by pushing people’s racial, tribal, cultural or religious buttons.

Manafort had spent decades in the service of tyrants like Ferdinand Marcos, Mobutu Sese Seko and Jonas Savimbi. One of his former employees described him as “strategic, canny and lacking a moral compass”.

Funded by the oligarchs Oleg Deripaska, one of the closest to Putin, and Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine and Yanukovych’s business partner in the Donbas, he was parachuted in to revive the political fortunes of Yanukovych.

Manafort raked in tens of millions of dollars, but he was good value. He helped recast Yanukovych and his Party of the Regions as a viable movement with what in retrospect bore an uncanny resemblance to the Trump campaign in 2016.

He united the forgotten working class of the Donbas rustbelt, the Russian speakers who felt persecuted as a minority, the conservative gay-hating religious zealots and the less well-educated rural class into a coalition of the resentful against the intelligentsia and the urban elites of Ukraine’s metropolitan centres.

Yanukovych even ran against a Hillary Clinton prototype — Yulia Tymoshenko, who had to overcome misogyny and insinuations of corruption. And after Yanukovych narrowly won the 2010 election, he locked her up.

Tymoshenko was sentenced to jail for 11 years and the opposition was being dismantled under Yanukovych’s authoritarian rule as he gradually moved Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit.

But Putin did not have Ukraine sewn up for long. Some of the credit must go to an arch-troublemaker, the investigative journalist Tetiana Chornovol, who had figured out that an effective way to expose corrupt leaders was by documenting their private residences and lifestyles.

In August 2012, Chornovol climbed over the wall of Yanukovych’s palace on the outskirts of Kyiv and spent three hours filming and photographing the monstrosity before she was arrested.

The estate, known as the Mezhyhirya, had a zoo, a golf course, a galleon on the Dnieper River and a collection of 70 vintage cars — including a ZiL, the ultimate expression of Soviet-era status and luxury. The mansion was stacked with expensive art and kitsch, massage rooms, fake ruins, an entertainment hall with a bowling alley and a tennis court where Manafort would play with the president, but always let him win.

There was a separate outhouse for a collection of expensive large dogs, including gigantic shepherd dogs from the Caucasus and an enormous red-haired Tibetan mastiff, one of the rarest breeds on the planet. Only a tiny chihuahua was allowed inside the mansion, though.

The pictures that Chornovol managed to get out were like a visual version of the #Guptaleaks. They contributed to the rising fury against the corruption of the Yanukovych clan. It was eventually estimated that Yanukovych and family members transferred up to $70-billion into foreign accounts in a brief period.

Chornovol was never forgiven for her impertinence. A year later, during the Euromaidan demonstrations, she was targeted, her car was rammed and she was beaten to a pulp.

The anti-corruption, anti-oligarch sentiment that she had helped heat up reached boiling point when Yanukovych, under pressure from Putin, stiffed a summit at Vilnius in Lithuania where he was slated to sign an association agreement with the European Union.

This precipitated an even more massive protest on Maidan Square that began on 21 November 2013, lasted through the winter, and became known as the Revolution of Dignity or the Euromaidan. When snipers opened fire on protesters, massacring 50 people on 20 February 2014, the dam broke.

Parliament voted to oust Yanukovych, who fled to Moscow with some of his paintings, his guns and his chihuahua.

This is the “coup” that is at the core of Putin’s justifications for the war with Ukraine.

Within a week of Yanukovych’s flight, Putin’s forces moved in to annex Crimea and then to foment a civil war in Donbas. The Obama administration responded with its first wave of sanctions.

What happened next was a move by Putin so audacious that it had never been attempted even during the glory years of strength in the Soviet Union.

The Harvard political scientist Daniel Ziblatt has written about how authoritarians use the very institutions of democracy to subvert democracy. Putin had shown what he was capable of in Ukraine; now Russia launched a broad covert operation to interfere in the 2016 US election on behalf of Trump.

The story has been extensively documented in the Mueller report, the findings of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, and multiple journalistic accounts, but it is still worth recounting the role of Manafort.

In early 2016, as Trump was being converted from an uncouth joke with bad hair to being the Republican Party frontrunner for president, Manafort stepped in and offered his services free, along with a programme of how Trump could win based on a shrewd understanding of the changing demographics of the US, especially the Midwestern rustbelt.

The problem was that, like Yanukovych, Trump’s appetites were so unruly, his tendency to walk off the plantation so unpredictable, that, for all his clear affinity for Putin, Trump needed a handler to keep him in check.

Trump’s first foreign policy speech, calling for warm relations with Moscow, the stripping out of a resolution supporting Ukraine at the Republican National Convention, the endless campaign meetings with Russian-linked individuals, all indicated a hidden hand.

But Manafort’s reign was cut short once again by Tetyana Chornovol’s handiwork. During the Maidan protests, she incited a crowd to throw Molotov cocktails and burn down Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions offices. 

(She still faces murder charges for this.) 

Rescued from that blaze was what became known as the “black ledger” — secret off-the-books cash payments by Yanukovych’s party that included $12.7-million to Manafort. When this information found its way to the front page of The New York Times, Manafort had to step down as campaign manager, though he remained an adviser until the end.

The Republican-run Senate intelligence committee later found that Manafort’s presence on Trump’s campaign represented a “grave counter-intelligence threat” and he ended up as one of the biggest fish hooked by the Mueller inquiry, which was focused on prosecutable offences.

When he went to trial, not only was Manafort’s love of money exposed, so was his poor taste, exemplified by a $15,000 ostrich leather jacket. He was convicted of tax and bank fraud and sentenced to an effective six years in jail in 2018 before being pardoned by Trump two years later.

The Ukraine influence operation continued into the new administration, but an attempt by Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, to sneak in a deal on Ukraine went nowhere when Flynn was blown out of office for lying about a phone call with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

While Trump fawned over Putin in public and was able to slow down sanctions, he was boxed in by the investigations, the press scrutiny into his links to Russia and the seriousness of the career professionals.

He was never able to steer Russia policy in a more friendly direction — and when he attempted to extort the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, by holding up military aid unless he investigated Joe Biden, he was impeached.

Another influence operation was launched during the 2020 election consisting of Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani amplifying the claims of pro-Russian lawmakers in Ukraine — history repeating itself as farce and being largely ignored by the mainstream media.

Through all this time, Putin’s meddling with democracies grew ever more pervasive as his authoritarianism grew at home. He supported extreme right-wing parties in France (the National Front), Germany (Alternative for Germany), Greece (Golden Dawn), Austria (the Austrian Freedom Party), Hungary (Jobbik) and might even have had a hand in Brexit.

A front for the GRU (Russian military intelligence) posted fake news on social media and meddled in African elections, as well as sending mercenaries into African conflict zones (Wagner Group).

But these were disruptive actions rather than substantive victories and in 2019 Zelensky, an outsider untainted by corruption or links to the Kremlin, was elected president with 73% of the vote. Moscow’s preferred candidate, Yuriy Boyko, finished fourth and did not make the run-off.

Zelensky sought a dignified peace, but his stubborn refusal to be bullied, whether by Russians or Americans, meant that no deal that could satisfy Putin was ever on the table. Russia had lost all influence in Ukraine.

No one knows exactly why Putin chose 24 February to attack Ukraine, but Ukrainians have long known that Putin’s long-term goal was to wipe their country off the map.

Ukrainians of an older generation have long understood Putin. They were once part of the Soviet Union. They have listened more attentively than those in the West to his utterances over the years. As early as April 2008 he expressed his belief that Ukraine is not even a state — a view echoed in his rambling history lesson before he launched the invasion.

Even if his vastly superior if stuttering military machine prevails, Putin can already be deemed to have failed in his goals. His economy is shattered. Ukrainians are more defiant than ever and now hate Russia. The US and the West are united as never before. Nato has found a new relevance and might even get new members. Much of global public opinion has been shocked by what the Swedish economist Anders Aslund has called the “stupidity, lawlessness and cruelty” of Putin.

What a pitiable return on investment for all that energy expended on electoral subversion, disinformation, troll farms, fake news and active measures!

And yet, Putin still has to learn that no matter how much he revises history or blames the West or Nato, he is stuck with one unchangeable reality: Ukraine would rather be European than Russian.

Yanukovych’s Mezhirya has been renamed the Museum of Corruption.

After the decrepit Ukrainian army failed to resist when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, a new generation joined up, drawn largely from the young and idealistic Euromaidan protesters. In the past eight years, 14,000 people have been killed, but the Ukrainians have also learnt how to fight.

There is a wall at the museum that memorialises the fallen in this war — their pictures, their stories, their personal effects.

Perhaps some of the young Russian soldiers passing through on their way to Maidan Square in the centre of Kyiv might stop and study the museum and learn something from the wall.

At the very least, it could help them understand why ordinary Ukrainians are blocking their tanks and not inviting them into their homes, and why Putin was warned before setting out on his misadventure: “Don’t send your poor boys to our meat-grinder!” DM


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