The mainstream story of the conflict in Ukraine is mind-meltingly simple: it was Russia wot dunnit. Since the fall of its Russian puppet of a president, Viktor Yanukovych, Russia has ceaselessly and relentlessly pursued a policy of military aggression against Ukraine. It really is that simple. Everything that is happening in Ukraine, from the displacement of nearly 300,000 people, to the killing of 2,200 more, is the fault of Russia and its chest-beating throwback of a president, Vladimir Putin.
Just listen to what Western politicians are saying. US president Barack Obama’s administration has talked darkly of Russia’s ‘pattern of escalating aggression’; Republican senator John McCain has spoken explicitly of the Russian ‘invasion’ as the work ‘an old KGB colonel [who] wants to restore the Russian empire’; and German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier admitted at the weekend that thanks to Russia’s ‘border infringements’, ‘the situation is slipping out of control’. Little wonder that The Times editorial talks in concerned tones of ‘Mr Putin’s war’. Because that’s what it looks like: a war planned out and pursued by Putin.
And why might Putin be waging this massively costly, destabilising war? Because, so the story goes, he and his cronies want to create a new Russian empire. This is clearly what one Guardian columnist has in mind when he writes that Putin has ‘a long-term plan to recreate a greater Russia by regaining control of Ukraine and other states in the “near abroad”’. According to a US academic in the Globe and Mail, it’s all part of Putin’s ‘dream of imperial restoration’, his ‘delusionary imperial ambitions’. And why the additional adjective ‘delusionary’? Because the key character in this brilliantly simple story of Russian aggression, Putin, is also undeniably mad. Why else would he be trying to act out his imperial dreams, runs the logic, if he didn’t have a screw loose? ‘Mr Putin is not rational’, states a New York Times op-ed: ‘Any rational leader would have reeled from the cost of Western sanctions.’ Slate goes further: ‘[Putin’s] actions are certainly consistent with the portrait of an enraged, hypernationalist, conspiratorial madman who is heedless of the consequences to Russia and to himself.’
So there you have it. The situation in Ukraine is the product of the machinations of the Moscow madman, and his circle of ex-KGB macho men. It is Russia’s fault. The bloodshed in Ukraine, its fragmentation, its region-shaking instability – all of it can be laid at Russia’s feet.
Or at least it could be if any of this were true. Yes, Russia did annex Crimea, a region of Ukraine with a mainly ethnically Russian population. Yes, there clearly are Russian soldiers operating in eastern Ukraine (reports estimate 1,000). And, yes, the pro-Russian separatists in places like Donetsk will have had support from Russia. But none of this is the result of Putin’s ‘dream of imperial restoration’, or his ‘hypernationalist, conspiratorial madness’. Russia is not realising any sort of pre-meditated plan at all. In fact, it is not determining events; it is responding to them. It saw anti-Russian protesters in Kiev violently replace Ukraine’s democratically elected leader, Yanukovych, with a pro-Western government complete with a faction of bona fide neo-fascists in February. And it watched on as Western leaders serenaded Ukraine’s new government with songs of approval. And seeing what happened, seeing Ukraine transformed into a strategic threat right on its own borders, Russia responded by swiftly taking back Crimea, and then attempted to shore up other parts of eastern Ukraine. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine isn’t madness; it’s a rational, realist response to what it correctly perceives as a geopolitical threat right there in its own backyard.