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The Will Smith Doctrine has no place in Ukraine

The Will Smith Doctrine has no place in Ukraine

Acts of aggression should not be rewarded – and President Biden was only speaking the unpalatable truth when he said that Putin has to go

Since Vladimir Putin is a notoriously late riser, it is unlikely that he was up and about just before 6am Moscow time to see Will Smith march on stage and slap Chris Rock at the Oscars. If he was indeed awake, the Russian tyrant would then have been able to watch Smith return only minutes later to the spotlight to make a lachrymose speech after accepting the Academy Award for Best Actor.

“I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people,” said the star of King Richard – who had reacted violently to a joke Rock had made about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. “Love will make you do crazy things.” This is the closest Hollywood gets to what Putin would call a “special military operation”: I know you all think I acted terribly by invading Ukraine, but, really, I had the best of intentions, and was only defending the vulnerable.

If you think that’s a trivial or crass comparison, bear in mind that, on Friday, Putin himself drew an explicit parallel between the alleged “cancellation” by the West of Russia and “a whole 1,000-year culture, our people” with the hounding of J.K. Rowling for her gender-critical views. No less than his friend Donald Trump, the Russian leader understands fully the deep entanglement in contemporary conflicts between the geopolitical and the cultural. He calculated that mentioning Rowling would set western social media ablaze – and he was right.

At the time of writing, Chris Rock has not filed a complaint with the Los Angeles Police Department. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has yet to propose stripping Smith of his award (which it could, on the easily available grounds that striking a presenter of one of the Oscars should pretty much disqualify you from being given one).

As things stand, the primary lesson of the 2022 Oscars was that you can engage in an act of violence live on global television and still walk away with one of the night’s big awards: in disgrace, but still a winner. In years to come, military strategists may well call this the Will Smith Doctrine.

As if by synchronicity, there was a sudden flurry of discussion over the weekend about the potential character of a negotiated settlement in Ukraine. In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, said that the economic sanctions imposed on Russia could indeed ​​“come off with a full ceasefire and withdrawal”, coupled with “commitments that there will be no further aggression”. This echoed the declaration of US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, that American sanctions are “not designed to be permanent” and could “go away” in the event of a Russian withdrawal that was “in effect, irreversible”.

On Friday, meanwhile, Colonel General Sergei Rudskoi, the chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian military’s General Staff, claimed that the capture of Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities was not, after all, a priority, and that Russian forces would now focus their campaign “on the main thing: the complete liberation of the Donbas”: which is to say, eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the scene of conflict since Putin’s first invasion in 2014. 

Most significantly, Volodymyr Zelensky made what appeared to be a very serious offer to the Russians. In a 90-minute video call with independent Russian journalists on Sunday, the Ukrainian president said that he was prepared to consider “security guarantees and neutrality, the non-nuclear status of our state – we’re ready to do that. That’s the most important point [ . . . ] they started the war because of it.”

Amid all the sudden speculation and position-taking, Zelensky’s remarks are all that really matter. As talks between Russia and Ukraine resume today in Turkey, the West must heed with the greatest care and attention to detail what it is that the Ukrainians are asking – and, notwithstanding the obstructions of Russia on the Security Council, put the full weight of the UN as well as Nato behind whatever diplomatic, humanitarian and peacekeeping assistance the invaded country now seeks. If Zelensky is persuaded that the time is right to cut a deal, he must be given all the help he needs.

But is he? In his emphasis upon meaningful “security guarantees”, the Ukrainian president is effectively asking for Article 5 Nato protection, in practice if not in theory. He is proposing to ditch Ukraine’s longstanding request for formal membership of the North Atlantic Alliance – but only in return for the practical benefits such membership would bring. 

The code to the West is quite clear: the US and UK betrayed Ukraine in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum whereby, in return for Kyiv giving up its nuclear weapons, Russia made an unambiguous pledge to “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine”. That pledge has never been fully respected, and, since 2014, has been flagrantly violated. Before he signs anything, Zelensky will want an ironclad assurance that, if Russia plays aggressor again, the international community will thwart its recidivism by all means necessary.

Whether or not the West would give such a commitment to a non-Nato country is a matter of conjecture. But we can be certain that Putin won’t have it. In this respect, Zelensky is yet again proving himself an adept master of the public stage: presenting himself as the soul of reason and the initiator of compromise, all the while making the Russian autocrat an offer he can only refuse. 

Zelensky also said yesterday that any peace deal would have to be approved by the Ukrainian people in a referendum. No wonder Roskomnadzor – the Russian mass media regulator and censor – warned news outlets not to broadcast his interview. It might well have forced a wedge between many Russians and the man who has held them in his thrall for two decades.

The Ukrainians know, in any case, that Putin has no intention whatsoever of withdrawing fully from a country whose right to exist he does not even recognise. As Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, said yesterday, the Russian president is clearly hoping, at a minimum, to split the country in two: “an attempt to create North and South Korea in Ukraine”. Anyone who thinks that the people of Ukraine are remotely ready to accept such vandalism to their sovereignty – a reward for flagrant aggression dressed up as a reasonable halfway house – has not been paying attention in the past 33 days.

Which brings us to President Biden, and his remarkable speech at the Royal Castle in Warsaw last week. In his memoirs, Barack Obama remarks with fondness that his vice president’s “lack of a filter periodically got him into trouble”; and so it has often proved.

It certainly did so on Saturday when Biden concluded his impassioned address with a straightforward and unambiguous statement of his intentions regarding Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power”. Rarely has the White House auto-correct facility so quickly hummed into action, declaring that the commander-in-chief had not meant what he had quite clearly meant.

According to an unnamed White House official: “The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change”. Oh yes, he was: as absolutely everybody – including the White House official – knew, and knows, perfectly well. (Regrettably, Biden, too, has effectively retracted his remark. Asked as he left a church service in Washington yesterday whether he wanted “Putin removed” and had been “calling for regime change”, he simply replied: “No”.)

Since Biden said what he said in Warsaw, the whispering campaign about his alleged senility has ratcheted up in an ugly fashion, as if it were obviously symptomatic of dementia to suggest that, just possibly, the world might be better off without a genocidal warmonger in the Kremlin. 

After all, Emmanuel Macron himself (who rather likes his pointless three-hour conversations with Putin) had already declared his silken disapproval. “I would not use those words,” the French president told France 3. Speaking for the UK government on the broadcast round yesterday morning, Nadhim Zahawi said that the question of Putin’s future was “up to the Russian people.”

Except that’s not really the end of the matter, is it? The Russian president, after all, is no longer simply just another head of state: he is directly and personally responsible for the biggest war to afflict Europe since 1945. By invading a sovereign neighbour without just cause, he has violated every basic norm and law of the international rules based order. 

Each day of the conflict brings reports of fresh atrocities: a daily Mỹ Lai, if you will. Yesterday, the Ukrainian MP, Maria Mezentseva, told Sky’s Sophy Ridge of Russian troops opening fire on ordinary Ukrainian citizens in queues, and of the systematic rape of women – followed by their execution. “There is one case which was very widely discussed recently,” she said, “because it’s been recorded and proceeded with [by] the prosecutor [general Iryna Venediktova]’s office, and we’re not going into details, but it’s quite a scary scene when a civilian was shot dead in his house in a small town next to Kyiv. His wife was – I’m sorry but I have to say it – raped several times in front of her underage child”.

Late on Sunday, Zelensky’s office issued a statement reporting that 2,000 Ukrainian children have been “abducted” by Russian forces. In spite of Colonel General Rudskoi’s claims to the contrary, the bombardment of cities and residential areas has continued unabated. Over the weekend, cruise missiles have been raining down on the western city of Lviv. Magnificently, the mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boychenko, has declared that the southeastern port remains in Ukrainian hands – though it lies in ruins. About 3.8 million Ukrainians have now left the country. 

It is one thing to watch all this aghast in London or Paris or Rome; quite another for those in Poland and the Baltic states who wonder what, if Putin is rewarded in any way for his aggression, this means for them, for their nations, and for stability in the region. Around the world, the economic sanctions that have – quite rightly – been imposed upon Putin’s regime are already taking their toll. The most fundamental principles of international law, national sovereignty and liberal democracy are being put to the test. 

So, no, Mr Zahawi (and everyone else resorting to this pat formula): Putin’s future is not just a matter for the Russian people. It is, in fact, a question in which we all, to varying degrees, have a stake.

Biden’s outburst in Warsaw was a “gaffe” only in the classic sense that it expressed an uncomfortable truth that many – perhaps most – would rather not say out loud. So consider, for a moment, the alternate proposition: that a negotiated settlement is reached and that Putin clings to power.

We have been here before, of course. In the Gulf War of 1990-91, Saddam Hussein was driven out of Kuwait by the US-led international coalition but – there being no explicit UN authority for his removal – was not driven from the presidential palace in Baghdad.

There followed 12 years of nerve-shredding sanctions, weapons inspections and failed diplomacy. In 2003, Saddam was finally ousted on the pretext that he was developing, or already had, weapons of mass destruction. This second conflict – which mutated into a civil war that rages in a lesser form to this day – has understandably toxified the very notion of “regime change”. But it is possible to reframe the entire episode and draw a different conclusion: that, once an autocrat invades sovereign territory, it rarely pays to leave him in place.

Whether this can be hardened into a firm geopolitical rule is open to debate. What is certain – and what Biden was trying to say – is that the Russian president has passed the point of no return. As early as 2 March, Boris Johnson told the Commons: “What we have seen already from Vladimir Putin’s regime… in my view, already fully qualifies as a war crime.” To which end, the Attorney General, Suella Braverman, yesterday announced that Sir Howard Morrison QC will act as an independent adviser to Prosecutor General Venediktova.

Last week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told Die Zeit: “We all agree that this war violates all the rules. It is a crime. It is Putin’s war.” Biden, for his part, called Putin “a war criminal” on 16 March. 

How can these heads of government and their counterparts elsewhere in the free world ever again stand with Putin on a podium or across a table, however long? How could such a spectacle even be conceivable?

True, the dictates of realpolitik or sheer conflict fatigue have a way of stretching the limits of the conceivable. Nixon sat down with Mao. Mandela negotiated with De Klerk. Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley even became firm friends.

But this is a very different context. For a start, it is the first full-blown war to be comprehensively covered on global social media. It has transformed Putin from a stony faced autocrat into an all-purpose planetary supervillain. The electorates of the democratic world may not be prepared for Nato to take on Putin directly in a confrontation that could escalate quickly into World War Three. 

Equally, they will look seriously askance at their leaders if they see the Russian warmonger coming anywhere near the circle of free nations. To this extent, Putin is completely correct. He has been cancelled. 

I understand why Biden’s staff and counterparts in other nations were exasperated by his moment of gruff candour. It is far from clear how Putin can be forced from power without risking a nuclear conflagration. The US president may be right that the suite of sanctions now deployed against Russia represent “a new kind of economic statecraft with the power to inflict damage that rivals military might” – though precedent does not support this claim. If there is an internal movement of organised dissent capable of ousting Putin, it has yet to reveal itself.

All the same, Biden was right, first time: Putin has to go. The only question is how. To adapt the words of the late Shimon Peres, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s just that there isn’t a tunnel yet. Its shape, when it emerges, may well lack neatness, and might take longer to be built than we all wish. The instinct to hang on is etched into Putin’s DNA.

Yet what is the alternative to a strategy that ends with his fall? If Ukraine is sold out yet again, and Putin is permitted even partial victory, the invaded nation will be locked into a frozen conflict of unknowable duration, at an unimaginable human cost. The refugee crisis will be insoluble, the economic instability will be insupportable – and, in a few years, we shall be back where we started, with Putin back to his old tricks; perhaps in the Baltics, perhaps in Poland, perhaps in Ukraine once again.

No amount of cool diplomacy, rhetorical rationalisation or seminar talk can wish away this brute reality. In the great scheme of things, it doesn’t matter all that much if a Hollywood actor slaps another, and gets to keep an award. But it matters very much if a mighty nation unleashes carnage, fire and mass rape on a neighbouring state – and expects to keep at least some of the spoils. 

Those responsible cannot possibly maintain their position on the world stage; not, at least, if those who also occupy that stage are to retain a shred of credibility. Biden’s only offence in Warsaw was to say explicitly what everyone else knows to be true. 

Whatever now happens in Ukraine, there can be no return to business as usual. Though there are some who might hope otherwise, the Will Smith Doctrine has no place outside tinseltown.