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Why the West's Betrayal of Democratic Russia Brought Us Putin​


This year was the 25th anniversary of the August coup against Gorbachev, and the demise of the Soviet Union. In Moscow in August 1991 I joined the crowds outside the KGB’s headquarters, jubilantly celebrating the felling of the hated statue of “Iron Felix” Dzerzhinsky, the founder of that murderous organization that had kept them in check for seven decades. I drank Soviet champagne out of any plastic cup that was offered to me, and was swept away, like all the revellers, on a wave of euphoria.

A couple of days later, tens of thousands turned out for the funeral of three young men killed during the short-lived putsch. The events that followed made me dizzy: Russia’s president, Boris Yeltsin, recognized the independence of the Baltic states, Ukraine declared itself independent, and the mayor of Moscow ordered that Gorbachev’s office in the Communist Party Central Committee building be sealed.

After 73 years, Soviet communism was over. It was a re-run of the popular outpourings I had witnessed in 1988 in the Baltic states, and in 1989 as communism was toppled in Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia... For me, it was all part of the same movement — the people rose up in all those places and overthrew totalitarianism. The Russians embraced freedom in 1991, exactly as the eastern Europeans had done. 

But that is not how it was seen in the West. The revolutions in eastern Europe came to be viewed not just as the overthrow of communism (an experience shared with Russia itself) but as liberation from Russian occupation. That was a grave mistake, which a quarter of a century on has brought us to the brink of a new Cold War, or something even worse. 

We in the West have to ask ourselves: Why did we treat Russia differently? 

The peoples of eastern Europe, with understandably bitter memories of Soviet rule, found it hard to distinguish what had oppressed them — an ideology or a nation. The West listened to the urgings of those whose views we should have been wariest of — those who had suffered the worst of Soviet sins in the past, the Poles and the Balts — as though Russia had not changed. Emotion was not a good basis for such a momentous decision. 

We invited them to join NATO, thereby making the equally liberated Russians feel unwanted and distrusted. Remember that at the point when NATO resolved to expand, in the early 1990s, there was no Vladimir Putin — there was Yeltsin, close bosom-friend of Bill Clinton, lauded as a democrat, the Yeltsin who had welcomed the freedom of the Baltic states and was praised by them for doing so. There was, at that point, no threat from Russia at all. Many senior Western figures (including Clinton’s “Russia hand,” Strobe Talbott) had great qualms at the time, because they foresaw exactly what would happen if every other country in Europe was corralled into a military alliance against Russia. 

But the doubts were overwhelmed by the West’s visceral and ancestral hatred and suspicion of Russia. Did we not understand what had happened there? Russia needed our help even more than the eastern Europeans did. Poles had only 44 years of communism to recover from, and people were alive who remembered living in a democracy. Not so in Russia, a country that had to reinvent itself from scratch now, while its economy was in ruins.

We failed to help the Russians adequately. Our aid in the Nineties was pathetic. We poured billions of dollars into Western consultancies, but little trickled down to the people who needed it. Russians were left with the very worst impression of both capitalism and democracy — poverty for millions, oligarchs with their snouts in the trough, and fraudulent elections that kept Yeltsin in power in 1996 when he had no popularity at all. 

The West ignored Russia’s attempts to recover any semblance of influence in the world. While patronizing Yeltsin as a “democrat,” it rejected him as a partner in world affairs, and caused puzzlement among democratically-minded, westward-looking Russians by casting them as NATO’s “enemy.” 

For eastern Europe there was praise and inclusion. For Russia, humiliation and exclusion. And it was precisely those conditions that allowed a hard-man like Putin to come to power eight years later, promising to restore the nation’s pride. If we had handled Russia’s revolution better, there would probably have been no Putin. All the disastrous consequences might have been avoided. 

At the end of this anniversary year, it is worth reflecting on the great opportunity we missed, to build a new Europe. We didn’t just betray the Russians who came out to celebrate their freedom in 1991; we betrayed the eastern Europeans who longed for security, yet ended up (in NATO!) feeling less secure than they did in the years following Russia’s democratic revolution.

The West must act to end the war quickly, before Putin destroys Ukraine



NB The Guardian published this article under an absurd and entirely misleading headline, suggesting the West should stop arming Ukraine and accede to Putin's demands - which I do not believe, and do not suggest in the article.

Few people in the west doubt that Ukraine is fighting a just war. Russia’s invasion was entirely unprovoked. Whatever complaints it may have had about Nato expansion or Ukraine’s mistreatment of Russians in Donbas, nobody had attacked Russia, and nobody was planning to. Vladimir Putin launched a straightforward war of aggression and territorial conquest.

It follows that supporting Ukraine is the right thing to do. But it is not at all clear that the kind of support we are giving (and not giving) is the right way to go about preserving the Ukrainian nation.

The longer this war rages on, the more Ukrainians will flee their homeland, and the more devastation will be wrought upon their homes, cities, industry and economy. Yet the west’s current approach of supporting Ukraine’s war aim of defeating the aggressor, and providing arms for that purpose while pointedly avoiding direct military intervention, is guaranteed to prolong the war. Russia’s progress may be slowed, but it’s highly unlikely to be stopped, far less pushed out of Ukraine, and in the meantime the grinding destruction and hideous war crimes will continue.

No day goes past without some senior western politician proclaiming that Ukraine will be “successful” and that Russia is “failing”. This is certainly morale-boosting. But it is clearly nonsense.

The fact is, as time goes on, more towns and cities are destroyed and then fall to the Russians. In two months, the area under Russian control – originally just the breakaway parts of Donbas – has grown to perhaps five times the size. If Russia continues to suffer “defeats” at this pace, then in another two months the entire south of Ukraine will be in ruins, cities such as Odesa will resemble Mariupol, and thousands upon thousands more Ukrainians will have died.

Worse, as the war goes on, and more towns are destroyed, it becomes less likely that Ukrainians who have fled to other countries will ever return, because they will have no homes or workplaces to come back to. How many citizens of Mariupol will ever return? If Russia’s aim was to exterminate the Ukrainian nation, then the west’s approach is helping to do just that.

Surely, if the lives of Ukrainian people are our concern then the west has to do something to stop the war – now. Encouraging the Ukrainians to continue, however just their cause, is merely making their country uninhabitable.

The trouble is, there are only two ways to stop the war quickly, and neither is palatable to most western leaders.

One would be for Nato to enter the war and make a quick, massive and decisive strike to cripple Russia’s invasion forces. Unlike with Russia’s actions, it would have every right under international law to do so. When Putin intervened in Syria, he very carefully framed this as a response to a request from Syria’s legitimate and internationally recognised government. The west could do the same in Ukraine. Putin himself has no such justification for his invasion.

The risk involved in this – of a third world war – is obvious, and it’s why the west refuses to intervene directly.

The other option is to persuade Putin to implement an immediate ceasefire, by inviting Russia to comprehensive peace talks. Western leaders are disinclined to parley with a butcher such as Putin. But they did it with Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević, only months after the massacre at Srebrenica, and the result was the Dayton Agreement that put an end to the war in Bosnia in 1995.

To get Putin to the negotiating table at all, everything would have to be up for discussion – including Ukraine’s borders, Russia’s age-old security concerns, perhaps even the very logic of basing today’s international frontiers in that part of Europe on what were internal borders in the USSR, drawn up by communist leaders precisely to prevent Soviet republics and regions from being viable independent states. The outcome of the talks does not need to be predetermined. The important thing is to talk rather than fight.

Western leaders cannot bring themselves to broach these matters, which would seem to reward Putin for attempting to redraw the map by force. They would rather fight – or more accurately, let Ukraine fight, in the hope of defeating Russia. But if one thing is certain it is that Putin will never accept defeat. He is already too deeply invested in this war to back off with nothing to show for it. If western leaders think that their arms-length encouragement of Ukraine will bring about a Ukrainian military victory, then they are fatally misreading Putin’s intentions and resolve. For Ukraine’s sake, we need to stop him now, one way or the other, before nothing is left of the country we want to protect.

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