PUTIN – A CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER
In February 2014, following a meeting with his security chiefs that lasted all night, Vladimir Putin said: "We must start working on returning Crimea to Russia". By 18th March that year he had achieved his objective, effectively annexing Crimea and the city of Sevastopol as two federal subjects of the Russian Federation. So far, in the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, more than 13,000 people have been killed and over 30,000 injured, many of them innocent civilians. In a particular outrage during the early months of the conflict, Russian separatists used a Buk missile to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 en-route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 passengers and crew. The missile system had been shipped into Ukraine from Russia. It was hurriedly returned to Russia following the tragedy, responsibility for which was strenuously denied by Putin.
The seizure of Crimea was simply the latest example of Putin’s attempt to recreate the former Soviet empire. In August 2008 he annexed more than 20% of Georgian territory. The regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both scenes of violent separatist conflicts which left thousands dead and tens of thousands homeless, are virtual no-go areas. Putin allows limited visits to Abkhazia by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), but South Ossetia has become a Russian military camp and the ill-defined demarcation lines established by the Russians are blockaded with tangled razor wire, guarded by military watchtowers.
Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee during the 2008 war. Georgian government ministers claim that those who remain inside the two occupied territories routinely suffer human rights abuse, a lack of freedom of expression and widespread discrimination; their children are even denied education in their own native Georgian language. Scores of Georgian villages were completely destroyed by the Russian-backed separatists, particularly in South Ossetia and ethnic cleansing forced hundreds of thousands to flee. The then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, claimed that he had arranged a ceasefire and single-handedly persuaded Putin not to send his tanks on to the Georgian capital Tbilisi, thwarting Putin’s plans to occupy the whole of Georgia.
As highlighted by the ‘Russia Report’ compiled by the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee, Putin’s aggression goes beyond territorial adventurism. He has shown his ruthlessness in imprisoning and assassinating political opponents, including journalists whom he regards as unhelpful, like Anna Politkovskaya, the human rights activist, murdered in Moscow on 7th October 2006, the day of Putin’s birthday. She was the author of several books that were highly critical of Putin. She paid with her life. Dozens of prominent Russian businessmen and politicians who dared to criticize Putin have met a similar fate. Alexander Litvinenko 2006, a former KGB agent who fled to England and became a vocal opponent of the Russian leader, died three weeks after drinking a cup of tea laced with deadly polonium-210 in a London hotel.
In a TV interview in 2010, Putin issued death threats to Russia’s defecting spies and traitors, stating: “Traitors will kick the bucket, believe me. Those folks betrayed their friends, their brothers in arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them.” A video clip of his threat emerged days after the poisoning in Salisbury in March 2018 of the retired Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. Both had been poisoned with a deadly Russian nerve-agent - Novichok, smeared onto the front door handle of Sergei Skripal’s house, by a team of Russian agents. Both Skripals survived the attack after weeks in hospital. However, on 30 June 2018, a further two British citizens unwittingly fell victim to the Russian assassins. A man found a discarded perfume bottle near Salisbury and handed it to his girlfriend, who sprayed it on her wrist. It was later found to contain Novichok. She fell ill within minutes and died a week later. Once again Putin denied all responsibility for the attack.
Now that Putin has won the right to stay in power for decades as Russia’s new Tsar, his megalomania will know no bounds. Already he has proved himself capable of deploying smart technology to interfere in the US presidential elections that brought Trump to power and divided America. His skilful manipulation of social media was used to help win the Brexit debate and divide the EU and Britain. He backs the murderous regimes of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran. He is a friend to anyone who is an enemy of the West. His strategy of divide and conquer will almost certainly see Russian attempts to encourage Scottish independence and the breakup of the United Kingdom.
But Vladimir Putin also has his eyes on the Baltic States, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, fully-fledged members of the EU. As three former countries within the Soviet Union, they are on the Kremlin’s hit list. Putin wants to make them Russian Protectorates and he could be prepared to take dangerous risks to achieve his objectives. From the Kremlin leader’s perspective, the presence of ethnic Russian compatriots and Russian citizens in these countries gives him the right to demand that they become joint NATO and Russian Protectorates, otherwise he could be forced to engage in “humanitarian intervention” exactly as he did in Georgia and Ukraine. Putin believes that America would never be prepared to challenge Russia on this, echoing the words of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who said: “America has no interest in fighting a war in Putin’s backyard”.
As a former KGB agent, Putin does not view the collapse of the Soviet Union in August 1991 as a victory for the people over an oppressive communist regime. He was part of that regime. Thus, psychologically for him, the collapse of the USSR was a defeat. He believes that Russia was humiliated, just like Hitler believed Germany was humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Like Hitler, Putin feels he has the complete right to take something back and has already proved his willingness to use military force to do so in Georgia and the Crimea. The Russian president is a clear and present danger to the West and to world peace. America, the EU and NATO should take heed. Trump’s plans to withdraw US troops from Germany will play right into Putin’s hands. The American president should think again.