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The West’s test

The West’s test

America and Europe have done little to deter Vladimir Putin over the years, despite the warning signs. Now he has invaded Ukraine, what is the West prepared to do in response?


Invaded • Voicemails from Ukraine


There is a pretty cast-iron rule that nothing good ever comes from making modern-day comparisons to Adolf Hitler. And for a reason: the supreme evil of the Holocaust and the singularly murderous megalomania of the Third Reich makes him a monster in a category of his own.

But, this week, it’s been impossible to escape the fear that Europe is being revisited by its worst history. The paranoid dictator, who imprisons dissidents and humiliates his flunkies, who marshals the modern tools of propaganda and misinformation, who peddles ethnic nationalism and a victim’s narrative of falsified grievances to restore an old empire and who gulls Western leaders into a pointless effort to sue for peace just long enough to enable him to amass the fullest possible force of tanks, artillery and soldiers to invade a peaceful, sovereign neighbouring country. 

Poland in 1939; Ukraine in 2022. The greatest achievement of the Soviet Union was the defeat of Hitler; you can but wonder at the shame that some Russians must surely harbour to see Putin turn their country into the new aggressor using the old playbook. 

I’m James Harding, Editor and Co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail I want to consider what Ukraine now asks of the West. But, before that, I just want to point you to an element of Tortoise’s coverage that I hope you’ll take a moment to listen to: Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine

The wall-to-wall news of the Ukraine invasion can itself be overwhelming: the souped up graphics and military maps, the aerial pictures of rolling tanks and shelling, the vox pops and the presidential press conferences; the blur of information is itself terrifying. 

We reckon that at Tortoise, a slow newsroom, the one thing we can do in the face of a fast, unfolding story is stay true to the idea of our journalism: organised listening. And so we’ve set out to hear daily from witnesses to the crime of the invasion of Ukraine. We’ve asked people – checked and verified for accuracy – to send voicemails each day, both a chronicle of the crime scene and a personal message to each of us to help understand what is happening, to stick with it and to have the reality of the invasion ring in our ears. (A few of the first voicemails are part of this week’s Editor’s Voicemail; each day, you’ll be able to hear the latest in our app, on the website or wherever you get your podcasts – do listen out for them.) 

Within the Tortoise newsroom, we are, of course, as confused, frightened, sad and angry as everyone else. We’re also trying to make sense of it. Giles Whittell, our World Affairs Editor, who reported from Russia for a fair few years and writes our daily Sensemaker newsletter, says he believes the invasion of Ukraine is the beginning of the end for Putin; it’s a colossal miscalculation, an overreach that will, whether it’s in six months or six years, see him forced from power. 

I hope he’s right, but I’m fearful. I fear that Putin will successfully annexe at least half of Ukraine; that Ukrainians, Russians and Europeans, but not him, will pay a terrible price for this invasion; and that he has for years, with a ruthless accuracy, read the mindset of the modern West and saw our reluctance to defend our values and ideals more clearly than we saw it in ourselves. Much as President George W. Bush famously and foolishly looked Putin in the eye and claimed to have got a sense of his soul; it’s as if Putin has looked the West in the eye and saw our character; he knew we would blink. 

I have, to be fair, no hinterland in this; I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of days I’ve reported from Russia. One of them was, in fact, to interview Putin and I still remember feeling that I’d never met anyone with quite such an unnerving sense of self-assurance and unassailable lack of self-doubt. It was a decade ago, just ahead of Russia’s elections and Putin had deliberately invited editors from Italy, Canada, France and the UK – i.e. journalists who weren’t based in Russia, not in Moscow, and had little expertise of the story. He asked them to come and ask him anything over a televised dinner at his dacha just outside Moscow. Afterwards, he drove his own Mercedes at the head of a vast motorcade of cars to play a late-night game of ice hockey with his gang of 50-plus billionaire bros and a handful of rickety old Russian ice hockey internationals – and he took us along. He treated us like tourists (which is, of course, what we were – in fact, I pocketed one of Putin’s pucks and still have it somewhere at home).

In other words, I don’t put much store by my own armchair observations of Putin today and the response of ordinary Russians in the weeks and months to come; I’ve always stood a little in awe of the real Kremlinologists, so I’m minded to put more faith in Giles’ judgement that he may well have underestimated the risks at home. 

Because, from a Russian point of view, we may have the wrong historical parallel. To Russians, Ukraine in 2022 surely looks worryingly like Afghanistan in 1979, when Soviet tanks rolled in largely unopposed to be met only by fuming rhetoric and noisy sanctions from the West. The invasion was easy; the occupation proved bloody, expensive and untenable. In time, the annexation of Afghanistan consumed the Soviet Union itself; the Russians did not have the appetite their leaders thought they might for body bags and billions sunk into propping up a puppet regime in a neighbouring country. Russia’s collective memory of Afghanistan is much like America’s psychological scarring in Vietnam. Might this be the beginning of a similar moment of Russian imperial hubris? 

We reach for history, of course, to try and cope with this horror story unfolding in front of us now – as we look on, helplessly, hoping and praying for peace. What we can, though, more confidently judge is what Putin’s invasion has revealed about us, the West. 

It has asked us some questions, all of which seem to have the same answer:

  • Did we really think that re-sanctioning a handful of Russian oligarchs, already on the sanctions list, was going to deter Putin from invasion?
  • If we are balking at the disruption to our own businesses by suspending Russia from the Swift financial services network, are we really willing to use the West’s offensive cyber capabilities to degrade Russian infrastructure and essential services, even if it risks Russian cyber attacks on our own?
  • Did the Western intelligence agencies or intelligent diplomats understand their adversary, if they really believe that the issue at stake was Ukraine’s potential membership of Nato?
  • If the UN Security Council cannot marshal a resolution against one of its own permanent five members, is the UN really capable of defending peace and sovereignty in a new age of big-power rivalries, one that pits Russia against the West, the US against China?
  • Come to think of it, do we think that the increasingly oppositional stance the US has taken against China, and the relatively accommodating position towards Russia over the past decade, has really put the West in a good position to forge a joint front with the East when it comes to an act of war?
  • When it comes to democracy, is the West willing to match words with deeds? 

No, no and again, no. So far, the answer to each of these questions is surely no. 

The West has hoped for the best and allowed for the worst. It has appeased a tyrant. The Biden Administration, whose national security team were schooled in the shame of bystanding by the break-up of Yugoslavia and the bloody ethnic nationalism of the Balkans, finds itself presiding over an elaborate policy of standing by as war has returned to Europe.

The question the West faces is: what is it prepared to do now? Crises don’t change us as much as they reveal who we are.