Ukraine Recap: Putin plays historian while the west closes its ranks

On day one of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, February 24, Russian troops seized Snake Island, a tiny rocky outcrop south-west of Odesa which – before the war – played host to a marine research station and a lighthouse. Resistance to the Russian assault became a propaganda coup for Ukrainians. The defenders gave a Russian warship the finger and sent the message: “go fuck yourself” – something that became shorthand for the defiant Ukrainian resistance. It is now reported that the Russians have been forced to withdraw, a serious strategic and propaganda coup for Ukraine.

I mention this because, in last week’s Recap, we featured a story from Basil Germond, a maritime power expert from the University of Lancaster, who pointed to the strategic importance of the island and predicted that Russia’s increasing impotence in terms of naval power is likely to become its undoing. It looks as if we may be seeing this theory playing out in real-time. More about this in next week’s newsletter.

While Russia’s grind through the Donbas region continues, leaving grieving relatives and homeless families in its wake, most of the headlines this week have concerned the diplomatic front, where some important decisions taken by world leaders at summits of the EU, the G7 and Nato will reorder global security in response to Russia’s aggression and China’s increasingly assertive economic and military posturing.

Writing before the summit, meanwhile, the University of Birmingham’s Mark Webber, observed that most of the biggest contributions Nato could make to the cause of Ukrainian self-defence would be off the table: the idea of a no-fly zone was ruled out early on, while a naval operation to break the blockade is also unlikely. And the idea of fast-tracking Ukraine into the alliance is also a non-starter. For now, writes Webber, Nato remains an alliance committed to defending the territory of its member nations.

Read more: Ukraine war: Nato summit to meet in a world reordered by Russian aggression and Chinese ambition

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Ukraine Recap weekly email newsletter

This is our weekly recap of expert analysis of the Ukraine conflict. The Conversation, a not-for-profit news group, works with a wide range of academics across its global network to produce evidence-based analysis. Get these recaps in your inbox every Thursday. Subscribe here.

Webber’s Birmingham colleague Stefan Wolff sees the main takeaways from the Nato summit and the G7 meeting which immediately preceded it as the limit to western-dominated global governance in the face of forces the west cannot control. Russia’s war on Ukraine and its associated food blockade, on the one hand, and China’s COVID clampdown on the other are creating a shortage of food and fuel and disrupting supply chains, forcing up prices across the board.

Meanwhile, the decision to admit Finland and Sweden to Nato will merely ratchet up the temperature another notch, while inviting Australia, Japan, Korea and New Zealand as “key partners” hints at the intention of creating an equivalent alliance in the Asia-Pacific, although this is something that Nato’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg has denied.

Read more: G7 and Nato summits lay bare deep and hostile divide between Russia and China and the west

The Nato and G7 summits followed a meeting of the EU at which Ukraine and Moldova were accepted as candidate members. But, writes Stephen Hall – an expert in international politics at the University of Bath, whose focus is the post-Soviet space – this is where the hard work will really begin for both countries. Some candidate members – Turkey and various Balkan countries spring to mind – have been made to wait many years.

Read more: Ukraine and Moldova gain EU candidate status but face a long road to full membership

So, at present, international support for Ukraine is limited to the supply of advanced weaponry and the application of ever more stringent sanctions on Russia and various prominent Russians. Our colleagues from France have published this excellent piece from a team of economists at the French research network CEPII, which highlights that the deeper the sanctions, the more blowback on the countries doing the sanctioning. And after six separate packages, these sanctions are huge.

Read more: Sanctions against Russia: taking stock four months after the start of the war

The propaganda war

We have consistently pointed out that the battle for hearts and minds is as crucial as the military operation. That remains as true for Russia as for Ukraine, truer perhaps – after all, Putin needs to continue to motivate the Russian people to send their sons and daughters into harm’s way as well as endure the privations brought on by the above-mentioned western sanctions. So far the Kremlin’s propaganda machine appears to be succeeding in maintaining support for the Russian president and the war (in April, 83% of Russians said they supported their president and most also backed the war).

Julia Khrebtan-Hörhager, from Colorado State University, and Evgeniya Pyatovskaya, from the University of South Florida, explain that much of Putin’s message is rooted in his understanding of history: the hankering after empire and restoration of the national pride that had been so damaged by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the years of turmoil and hardship that followed.

Read more: Putin’s propaganda is rooted in Russian history – and that's why it works

But Putin’s knowledge of history appears to be rather coloured by his own self-image. Earlier this month he gave a talk to a group of young entrepreneurs and scientists during which he compared himself to Peter the Great, whose 1721 conquest of lands formerly controlled by Sweden enabled him to transform Russia from a tsardom to a Eurasian empire. “Putin the Great” has a certain ring to it, one imagines him thinking.

But, as Oxford historian Olivia Durand points out, Peter the Great, one of whose greatest achievements was to build St Petersburg, Russia’s “window on the west” (and Putin’s birthplace), actually had very little in common with the Russian president. Durand runs through a few Russian rulers who might make a more apposite comparison, including Ivan the Terrible.

Read more: Ukraine invasion suggests Putin is more Vladimir the Reactionary than Peter the Great

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