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Putin seems to be reading from the disturbing script we once thought was buried forever

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Loammi Wolf is a constitutional law specialist who runs the initiative Democracy for Peace.

In Europe, we wake up in a different world on a daily basis. So much change has not taken place within such a short span of time since the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989.

On Friday morning we woke up to the news that the Russian army had targeted the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. If one of the Russian missiles had deflected, we would have had the biggest nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl in 1986. Zaporizhzhia, with a radioactive capacity six times that of Chernobyl, is the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe. It is 30 years old and probably not that resistant against attacks by ballistic missiles. 

The US and the EU condemned the attack in the strongest terms.

During the course of the morning, we heard that, fortunately, only an administrative building had been hit, but Russian soldiers who had captured the plant were obstructing Ukraine firefighters from putting out the blaze. 

By nighttime we saw a most disconcerting video clip on practically all European TV stations that had been previously broadcast on Russian state TV. In it, a Russian commander maintained that the Russian army had captured the plant days before and it was actually the Ukrainians who attacked the plant. He contended that the Russians were “protecting Russians” from a nuclear catastrophe created by the “Nazi regime of Zelensky”.  

The account was diametrically opposed to Ukraine’s version of events. Earlier, a video from the plant verified by Reuters showed a building aflame, and a volley of incoming shells, before a large incandescent ball lit up the sky, exploding beside a car park and sending smoke billowing across the compound 

All over Kyiv there are signs painted with fluorescent paint by Russian spies to mark targets for nighttime attacks by Russian fighter bombers. On German TV, we saw these paint marks on civilian buildings, with President Volodymyr Zelensky asking people to be vigilant and to erase any such marks. Apparently, supermarkets, as well as water and gas supply lines that are vital for the survival of the civilian population, are targeted in this way.  

On Friday morning, Reuters further confirmed that the flow of gas in the westbound Yamal-Europe pipeline had stopped. The pipeline between Poland and Germany accounts for about 15% of Russia’s westbound supply of gas to Europe and Turkey.  

This shows that the war of aggression has become very dirty. The fronts to negotiate an end to the war have become increasingly hardened. Whereas Zelensky sets conditions of safety corridors for humanitarian aid and food supplies for the civilian population and an armistice, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has informed France’s President Emmanuel Macron that he is only willing to negotiate when Zelensky agrees to an unconditional surrender.  

Previously, Putin was still willing to consider neutrality for Ukraine provided the country is “demilitarised and denazified” and that Crimea and the pro-Russian Donbas “peoples’ republics” are recognised as Russian territories. 

He has now considerably upped the stakes and wants the whole of Ukraine. After Ukraine gave up its aspirations to become a member state of Nato and to rather opt for EU membership, Moldova and Georgia immediately followed suit. On Friday afternoon, Putin then tried to lure them into a “Russian Union”. It appears that the “Russian Union” he has in mind should include the Russian Federation, Belarus and Ukraine, and possibly also Georgia and Moldova. 

There has been a subtext as the crisis evolved. Demands for the “demilitarisation and denazification” of Ukraine sound very much like Stalin in 1945 when the fate of Nazi Germany was considered.  

To understand this, one must go back to the Yalta conference in which the post-World War 2 order was negotiated between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. This conference was a follow-up of previous ones by the “Big Three” in Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam. Each of these leaders had their own agenda about what should happen to liberated Europe. Roosevelt wanted Russian support for the creation of the United Nations and to end the war in Japan. Churchill wanted a guarantee of free and democratic elections for central and Eastern Europe. Stalin claimed a Soviet “sphere of influence” in central and Eastern Europe. 

The Soviet “sphere of influence” was subsequently transformed into the Soviet subjugation of Eastern Europe, although none of the countries there had been an aggressor in World War 2. All uprisings for freedom were brutally crushed: on 17 June 1953 in Eastern Germany, in 1956 in Hungary, and 1968 in Prague. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was truly a miracle. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991 it was also the end of the Eastern Bloc. 

In 1999 a pan-European post-Cold War order for safety and security was created by the 57 member states of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Nato Review — The OSCE Istanbul Charter for European Security) was agreed upon. The political scientist Victor-Yves Ghebali said of the charter: 

“There is no specific mention of the security rights of states that are not part of a military alliance. The issue of the possible deployment of nuclear weapons in states that are at present non-nuclear is not addressed either. In this respect, the Charter has fallen short of Moscow’s expectations. It also unambiguously reaffirms the inherent right of each OSCE state to choose its own security arrangements, including treaties of alliance. At Russia’s request, the Charter does stress that within the OSCE no State, or group of States or organisation can have any pre-eminent responsibility for maintaining peace and stability in the OSCE area. But the same provision adds or can consider any part of the OSCE area as its sphere of influence, clearly an allusion to the Russian concept of the ‘near abroad’.”

This charter basically struck down the agreements of Yalta, which were perverted by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Most of the former Eastern Bloc countries immediately fell into the safety of Nato. 

The reaction of the Russian Federation to this was a mixed bag. At first, Putin raised the issue of Russia also joining Nato. He did so in the same year that the Istanbul Charter was adopted. He insisted that this could only happen on “invitation” and that Nato could not expect Russia to follow ordinary procedures for membership, like other insignificant countries. 

Thereafter, he many times tried to preclude former Eastern Bloc  countries from joining Nato, inter alia at the Munich Security Conference of 2007. In 2008, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor at the time, cautioned against a further eastbound extension of Nato and also vetoed membership of Ukraine and Georgia in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea and several other territories in these countries by Russia.  

According to the historian Karl Schlögel, who studied Putin closely for many years, his aim really is to recreate a Russian Empire. For him, there is continuity from Peter and Catherine the Great until today. Like many Ukrainians and Russians, Schlögel also did not believe that Putin would actually attack Ukraine from three sides. Everybody was expecting that at most Putin would try to claim Donbas and Crimea. 

Schlögel sums up Putin’s drive for power and control in one sentence: outwards aggression and inland terror. He compares Putin’s autocratic state with Hitler’s Gleichschaltung in 1933, ie, the equalising and subjugation of all state power to the “Führer”, the prohibition of trade unions and all political opposition, and the dissolution of Parliament. But, and this is the worrying part, Schlögel says that Putin is willing to go even further. His aim is the Ausschaltung or complete embargo of all freedom of the Russian people. Schlögel rightly asks what must still happen before Russians would be willing to stand up against Putin 

Yet, we have seen a definitive tightening of repression inside Russia during the past two weeks. Here are just a few examples:

  • Tass journalists took down their website, telling the people that they were not willing to be part of Putin’s lies, that it is his war and that they should not send their sons and husbands in the war with Ukraine. Putin reacted by increasing the fines for journalists using the word “war” and publishing “any disinformation” to five million roubles. In Putin-speak the war of aggression in Ukraine is just a “special operation”.
  • Ivan Velikanov, a young and talented conductor at the opera house of Nizhny Novgorod, who was staging a concert on the second day of the war, lost his job for just saying “war is bad and peace is good” before the concert.
  • More than 7,000 people in Russia have been arrested for having dared to demonstrate against the war. On Friday, a new law was adopted to punish any protester with imprisonment of up to six years.
  • Almost 7,000 Russian scientists and science journalists nevertheless published an open letter on their website, distancing themselves from Putin’s war of aggression.
  • Since last Friday any free reporting by journalists in Russia will now be punished with up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Social media platforms have been closed down. Putin argues that these measures are necessary because of “fake news” and “disinformation” about the “special operation”. Most big foreign news offices, including BBC, CNN and Bloomberg, have decided to leave Russia.
  • Many Russians have been fleeing their country because they fear even more repressions or being called up to go to war.

The only information now available in Russia is censored information on the state media outlets. Whether Russians believe what they see is another matter.

Just before the attack, Levada, a Moscow polling institute, reported that although most Russians held the West responsible for the escalation of the conflict, 80% were of the opinion that the dispute should be settled by negotiations, not war. As for the diplomatic recognition of the pro-Russian “people’s republics” in Donbas, Putin carried favour with only 45% of Russians (mostly elderly, less educated people in rural areas) whereas 40% of the population, mostly younger and well educated younger people, was strictly against it. Levada also noted that the anti-West rhetoric of Putin’s propaganda over the years had led to much scepticism over the truth of it. 

Apparently, the commanders of the Russian army warned Putin against an invasion of Ukraine because there were too many risks. On the Monday night before the attack was launched, he called up every general in the National Security Council to state on live TV that the recognition of the Donbas “people’s republics” was the right thing to do. They were visibly caught on the wrong foot and were shaken by the order to do so in front of live television.

According to the Russian journalist Farida Rustamova, who used to report for the BBC and is well known for her good network of connections in the Russian state apparatus, all the politicians and high-ranking officials she spoke to were utterly astonished and deeply shocked by Putin’s announcement to attack Ukraine. They could not understand why Putin wanted to make war against their relatives and friends in Ukraine. They thought he was just bluffing to put pressure on the West.

The German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that Putin is apparently very frustrated that the attack on Ukraine has not been a Blitzkrieg and that he is increasingly isolated. He seldom goes to the Kremlin and loses his temper about the smallest things, it has been said.

Late on Friday afternoon, rumours circulated that Russian elites are working on an exit strategy for Putin to end the war. On Saturday morning Berlin newspapers repeated the rumours. 

Apparently, the more liberal wing of the Russian elite, among them several Russian oligarchs who are extremely worried about the isolation of Russia and the destruction of the economy, is proposing to buy Crimea and Donbas from Ukraine for $150-billion.  

At this stage, it is simply not possible to say what will happen next. We can only hope for peace and that this war will soon end. DM

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  • The invasion of Ukraine can be ended only by the elimination of Putin, whether by lynching by the Russian people, by the oligarchs using their ill-gotten wealth to pay an assassin, or by an external hit squad. There are worrying signs regarding Putin’s mental state which could lead to a global nuclear holocaust.

    • Partly agree. Everyone is dancing around the need for Putin to go, which is absolute. There are probably more civilised ways of getting rid of him, such as putting him in jail and handing him over to the ICJ for prosecution for war crimes. There will be a lot of peripheral issues, such as massive compensation for Ukraine, and what to do with the military leaders. If they are clever enough to jail Putin, it may help their case for getting off lightly themselves.

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