Everyone knows the saying about people who fail to learn the lessons of history being condemned to repeat it. It’s a slight misquotation, but the idea that we should be able to avoid making the same mistakes by studying the past is undeniably attractive. So what does history tell us about the behaviour of Europe’s biggest country, Russia, which is currently fighting an undeclared war with its neighbour, Ukraine?
I’ll come back to that in a moment but Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, singled out Russia’s military ambitions in a speech on Friday, describing 2014 as “a black year” for European security. He revealed that the alliance recorded more than 400 incursions into foreign airspace by Russian warplanes last year, around four times as many as in 2013. The previous day, British fighters were scrambled to intercept two Russian bombers over the English Channel, an episode that resulted in the Russian ambassador being summoned to the Foreign Office.
Around the time Stoltenberg was giving his assessment of the Russian threat to peace, the reality of the situation in Ukraine was brought home by the shelling of a cultural centre in Donetsk, killing at least six people. In theory, the conflict is between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists who have declared a breakaway republic, but no one seriously believes that Russia isn’t behind the fighting. More than 5,000 people are believed to have been killed since April yet public attention, which suddenly turned to Ukraine after the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane in July last year, is focused elsewhere.
While the terrorist organisation Islamic State (Isis) is responsible for huge numbers of casualties, it has killed far fewer people in Europe than have died in the Ukrainian conflict. It could be argued that the spectacular type of warfare favoured by Isis has actually done the Russian government a favour, deflecting attention with a series of attention-grabbing atrocities. Russia’s tradition of covert warfare is long-established, and some Kremlin officials visibly enjoy the process of repeating denials which are bare-faced lies.
In a repeat of recent history, dead Russian soldiers are once again being returned to their families without any information about where they were killed. The names of more than 260 have been published on a website run by opponents of President Putin, along with a map of eastern Ukraine showing where they died. The Russian government denies involvement but 10 Russian paratroopers were captured in Ukraine in August. The mother of a Russian soldier, whose body was returned with his legs blown off, said he had phoned her to say his unit was being deployed to Donetsk.
When something similar happened during the second Chechen war, the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya interviewed bereaved mothers and wrote about what was going on. She was assassinated in Moscow on President Putin’s birthday in 2006, a month or so before the Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London. At a public inquiry last week, Litvinenko’s death was described as “an act of nuclear terrorism on the streets of a major city”. Ben Emmerson, the QC representing Mr Litvinenko’s widow, said the trail led directly to Putin and called for him to be “unmasked by this inquiry as a common criminal dressed up as a head of state”.
This is a staggering statement. Some commentators are reluctant to accept it, arguing that Putin genuinely feels under threat from Nato; Greece’s inexperienced new government, led by the coalition of left-wing parties known as Syriza, is making friendly overtures towards Russia. No one wants a new cold war but the evidence suggests they’re making a mistake of epic proportions: what European leaders are dealing with here is classic psychopathic behaviour. Putin displays a complete absence of empathy and is painfully thin-skinned; he found being mocked by the punk band Pussy Riot so intolerable that two of the women ended up in penal colonies. Even more alarming is his lack of fear and enjoyment of risk, which means he enjoys baiting people he sees as opponents.
All of this brings me back to the problem with learning from history. The leader-as-psychopath is far from unusual: Saddam Hussein displayed similar characteristics, although a closer parallel in this instance is Stalin. The question is what to do about it, and it would help if people who make excuses for Putin stopped fooling themselves about how dangerous he is. I’ve believed this ever since the assassination of Politkovskaya, whom I knew slightly, and I’ve watched the evidence accumulate: at least 29 journalists have been murdered in direct connection with their work since Putin came to power: opponents have had their assets seized and been sent to harsh prisons in Siberia; neighbouring countries live in fear of cyber-attacks, such as the one on Estonia in 2007, or military invasion.
The Conservative MP Rory Stewart, who chairs the Defence Select Committee, described last week’s incident over the Channel as “a symptom of a much bigger pattern which means we got Russia wrong”. I think it’s more accurate to say that world leaders got Putin wrong, treating him as an authoritarian who would nevertheless keep his behaviour within recognisable boundaries. Remember when George W Bush gave him the affectionate nickname Pootie-Poot? If history teaches us anything, it is that treating unstable psychopaths as if they are normal, reasonable people doesn’t work.
Psychopaths love attention, so allowing Putin to host big sporting events such as the Winter Olympics and the World Cup is a mistake. They like to feel important, so he shouldn’t be invited to attend summits with other world leaders. His behaviour is escalating as economic sanctions start to bite, which is why he is sending military aircraft to test the air defences of other countries. He isn’t going to give up power of his own accord, which means that keeping open back-channels to people around him is vital. Europe didn’t pick this fight, but we should be in no doubt that Russia under Putin is an unpredictable rogue state.