SIR ANTONY BEEVOR: Putin thinks he's avenging mistakes

SIR ANTONY BEEVOR: In his craved fantasy mind, Putin thinks he’s avenging the mistakes made by Lenin and Stalin

Hell hath no fury like a dictator not taken seriously. We have laughed too often at the posed action-man photographs of Vladimir Putin, stripped to the waist while fishing, or flexing his pectorals on horseback or following other manly activities in the great outdoors.

In Western democracies it is very hard to take such posturing seriously.

Yet it was a grave mistake to have underestimated the danger that he presented.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, pictured, addressing the nation in Moscow earlier this week

Russians would not have been so blind to such threats to themselves, for there are many examples in their history of such a fatal error.

Perhaps the most striking was the way that Leon Trotsky and other Bolshevik intellectuals dismissed Joseph Stalin as a pock-marked Georgian gangster until it was too late.

Putin is not another Stalin, but he has managed through propaganda and the education system to change Russian opinion dramatically over the past five years, doubling the proportion of those who regard Stalin as a great leader to 56 per cent.

This convinced Putin of the necessity to project himself as a strong leader, too. And ‘strong’ in Russian history means ruthless.

Yet to categorise Putin simply as a born-again Bolshevik would be very far from the mark.

In his bizarre and rambling treatise last week immediately before his declaration of war on Ukraine, Putin’s anger against Lenin was very clear.

He blamed the Bolshevik leader for having introduced into the constitution of the USSR the idea that the national republics were all equal.

This, Putin has said, ‘planted in the foundation of our statehood the most dangerous time-bomb, which exploded the moment the safety mechanism provided by the commanding role of the Soviet Communist Party was gone, the party itself collapsing from within’.

‘Leon Trotsky and other Bolshevik intellectuals dismissed Joseph Stalin as a pock-marked Georgian gangster until it was too late,’ Sir Antony Beevor writes

Thus Lenin’s overconfidence in world revolution eventually allowed Ukraine to seize its independence in 1991 when the USSR fell apart.

This was the event that led to Putin’s famous lament that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political tragedy of the 20th Century.

Putin has convinced himself that a separate Ukrainian identity is totally artificial because the country is inherently part of ‘the same historical and spiritual space’ as Russia. We are a ‘single people’, he declares.

The fact is that he is living in a crazed fantasy world of the imperial past when he declares ‘a hostile anti-Russia is being created in our historic lands’.

In his view, no population from the old Tsarist empire has the right to follow its own path.

Putin’s other belief, that the West was largely to blame, came from the rash ambitions of the United States, Nato and the EU in the first decade of the millennium to promote democracy everywhere. It was a dangerously naive crusade.

Sir Antony Beevor says: ‘Thus Lenin’s overconfidence in world revolution eventually allowed Ukraine to seize its independence in 1991 when the USSR fell apart’. Pictured, a statue of Lenin in Donetsk, Ukraine

Putin also saw that a democratic and independent Ukraine, even a corrupt one then, would become a threat to his own kleptocratic and increasingly dictatorial regime.

To him, it was a treason against Russia for Ukraine to desire to become part of the EU.

He also continued to resent bitterly those former Soviet satellites that had joined Nato to guarantee their freedom.

He saw Nato’s incremental expansion eastwards since 1999 as a deliberate threat aimed at Russia.

This was part of that atavistic Russian fear of encirclement and the idea that the whole world was against it.

Putin is simply following the Stalinist policy of the last century. ‘We do not intend to occupy Ukraine,’ he stated when declaring war.

He may still insist that he has no plans to incorporate Ukraine into Russia, but he is almost certain to adopt Stalin’s mode of operations in 1945 when the Red Army swept across central Europe.

Just like Stalin, Putin evidently intends to install his own puppet government of quislings in Kyiv.

A sign by a checkpoint in Stanitsa Luganskaya, a rural town abandoned by Ukrainian troops without resistance

One can be sure that Russian special forces and military intelligence service have lists of those Ukrainians they wish to eliminate in one form or another so that the country can be turned into a satellite state, as central European countries were in 1945.

It is not history that repeats itself. Instead, all countries are, to a certain degree, prisoners of their past.

But Russia, more than any other nation state, suffers from the way its leaders tend to trap their country, as well as neighbouring victims, into a tragically repetitive cycle.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine finally revealed how much his anger has grown as he is surrounded by a gang of Kremlin yes-men. It was telling that his phobia about catching Covid-19 led him into an even tighter isolation, with no outsider permitted to approach him.

The increasingly irrational behaviour and his rambling monologues, which clearly embarrassed his own Security Council in that broadcast just before the invasion of Ukraine began, presents a terrifying possibility.

An enraged Putin is a very dangerous beast who risks extending his war on Ukraine to the Baltic states and beyond.

He is an unstable dictator with the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world, but who can rein him in?

  • Antony Beevor’s Russia – Revolution And Civil War 1917-1921 will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in May.

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