There he goes again. Over the weekend Emmanuel Macron once more declared how unwise it would be to ‘humiliate Russia‘, and that he was convinced France could be a ‘mediating power’ over the war in Ukraine ‘so we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic means’.
It did not take long for the Ukrainian government to respond, tersely. Its Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted: ‘Calls to avoid humiliation of Russia can only humiliate France.’
Indeed, the French President was immediately humiliated for his pains . . . on Russian state TV. Rossiya 1’s presenter Vladimir Solovyov told his viewers: ‘Let’s not delude ourselves about Macron’s statements. He has no influence on anything, no influence whatever.’
There he goes again. Over the weekend Emmanuel Macron once more declared how unwise it would be to ‘humiliate Russia’
What may even more infuriate Macron, given his apparent contempt for Boris Johnson, is that another presenter on the same show a few weeks ago exclaimed: ‘Today the British really are the masters of Ukraine. Right there in their pocket they’ve got [President] Zelensky. It’s bitter for me to recognise it.’
We are not, of course. But Boris Johnson’s early and forceful warnings about Russia’s plans — and our ‘lethal aid’ that accompanied this — changed the terms of diplomatic and military trade in a way that has more powerfully affected events than the entire sum of the French President’s futile phone calls with Vladimir Putin.
We, alongside the Americans (and based on publication of our own intelligence reports), warned Ukraine that Russian invasion was imminent. This was rubbished by Germany and France: that was an early humiliation for Macron, who as a result sacked his intelligence chief.
The British Army had for the past seven years been training the Ukrainian military — this was Operation Orbital. And a month before the invasion, the UK supplied thousands of our NLAW anti-tank weapons, which were essential to the ability of the Ukrainians to repel the gigantic Russian tank convoy from the outskirts of Kyiv. No wonder the Ukrainians would often shout ‘God Save the Queen’ before firing them.
And it was also before the invasion that the PM, at the Munich Security Conference, went further than any other of the Western leaders, even including President Biden, in declaring that, if Putin did what we feared in Ukraine, Russia ‘must fail and be seen to fail’.
According to Macron — and indeed the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — one should never say such a thing (even now, after the most horrifying evidence of war crimes and the murder of civilians on a grotesque scale), as it would ‘humiliate Russia’.
Boris Johnson’s early and forceful warnings about Russia’s plans — and our ‘lethal aid’ that accompanied this — changed the terms of diplomatic and military trade
There are several things infuriating about this — quite apart from the moral squalor of speaking in such a way after what we have seen of the Russian army’s depravity in Bucha.
First, Macron never explains what he thinks it is that would ‘humiliate’ Russia, and which should be avoided at all costs. Leaving the sovereign independent country it has invaded, without annexing further territory? How would that count as a failure for what is called the ‘law-based international order’, of which France and Germany are supposed to be leading and principled advocates?
Second, this is based on a complete incomprehension of the way Putin handles political and media life in Russia — and through them, the population. Few have explained this better than Timothy Snyder, a leading historian of the region, notably in his book Bloodlands.
Professor Snyder observed last week: ‘Russian politics takes place within a closed information environment which Putin himself created and which Putin himself runs. He does not need our help in the real world to craft reassuring fiction for Russians.
‘What matters is not Putin’s feelings nor battlefield realities but the ability of the Putin regime to change the story for Russian media consumers. What happens if Putin decides he is losing in Ukraine? He will act to protect himself by declaring victory and changing the subject. He does not need an off-ramp in the real world.’
One can see this in the way that the Russian state media had been frenetically parroting the Kremlin line that there was no plan to invade Ukraine, that this was all lies by the CIA and British intelligence. But when it duly happened, the same broadcasters and newspapers effortlessly promoted the new ‘truth’: that this was not a war at all, just a ‘special operation’.
There is a third and most fundamental point, rooted in history, long predating Putin’s reign and influence: there is nothing we can do to stop Russia feeling ‘humiliated’, vis-a-vis the West, as that is its presiding state of mind.
This can be seen with characteristic intensity in the words of one of the country’s greatest writers from the 19th century: Fyodor Dostoevsky. The author of Crime And Punishment had spent years in a Siberian prison camp as a critic of the Tsarist system, and had enjoyed support and freedom in Europe. Even so, he wrote in his Diary Of A Writer: ‘Everyone in Europe has long been secretly nursing malice against us.’ He went on: ‘In Europe we were hangers-on and slaves, while in Asia we shall be the masters.’
Alas for that dream, it is China now placed to achieve that ambition, a country with which Putin has formed an alliance out of weakness, not strength.
The Russian sense of being humiliated by the West, in other words, was deeply instilled long before the collapse of the Soviet system, for which the U.S. was blamed, even though the economic failures which caused its demise were entirely Russia’s own doing.
Russia is the world’s largest country, with unmatched natural resources and a cultural inheritance second to none. Yet its economy is no larger than Italy’s, and smaller than the British: Russians look at our ‘little archipelago’ (as they call it) and puzzle how we can be so much better off than they are. It must somehow be the fault of ‘sabotage by British and American intelligence’, rather than that they did all this harm to themselves, without any assistance from outside.
Someone who understands this from a unique personal perspective is Nina Khrushcheva, the great-granddaughter of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (who in 1956 sensationally denounced Stalin’s cult of personality in a secret session of the Communist party congress). Khrushcheva was born in Moscow, but is now based in New York as a professor of international affairs.
In an interview last month with the New Yorker magazine, she observed: ‘When Putin became President, early on, I said: he is horrible for Russia, and he’s perfect for Russia. He’s perfect for Russia in a sense that he channels the Russian inferiority complex with regard to the West, but he also channels a superiority complex because at the same time Russia is a giant piece of land.’ And, as has now become clear, Ukraine is deemed by Putin, as well as many millions of Russians, to be rightfully ‘his’ land.
The point is, there is nothing tolerable or reasonable that we could offer, or do, in respect of Ukraine, which would remove Putin’s sense of not being respected
A characteristic of such an inferiority complex is that the sufferer — if one can call it that — is desperate for respect. Yet as Khrushchev’s great-granddaughter explained to American readers, ‘in the Russian language there is a saying that ‘somebody’s afraid of me; that means he respects me’. In this sense Putin is typical, though obviously it took a long road, 22 years, to get to where we are today. I didn’t know it would end this badly.’
The point is, there is nothing tolerable or reasonable that we could offer, or do, in respect of Ukraine, which would remove Putin’s sense of not being respected, of being humiliated. And leave aside the fact that Putin’s own word cannot be trusted, not only would an offer of this sort fail to increase such scant respect as Moscow has for us, it would probably be seen as part of some American plot.
The truth is that the British line — of giving the military aid sought by Kyiv, and leaving it to Putin to decide what’s in his own best interests — is the least likely to lead to the West’s own humiliation.