Over the past decade Europe has sleepwalked into an increasingly precarious and less safe place. The postwar order that provided so much peace and stability across the continent appears to be breaking up.
Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, as much as rejoiced in this at the recent Munich security conference when he spoke of the a new “post-west” era in Europe. Reversing the breakup of the Soviet Union and restoring the Russian empire have now become an obsession for the Kremlin. There are three things central to understanding what motivates Russia, and how Vladimir Putin’s government works.
The first is Russkiy mir – “Russian world”: a philosophy that harks back to the Soviet era. Central to it is the belief that Ukraine is part of a greater Russia. In 1991, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia was too weak to resist when more than 92% of my fellow Ukrainians voted for an independence we had hungered for over centuries. Gradually, however post-Soviet Russia has sought to exert its influence over my country, and when in 2014 a popular revolution ousted Viktor Yanukovych, it was more than Russia could stomach.
It subsequently illegally annexed Crimea and invaded Donbas in support of the so-called “People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk”, which my government believes to be little more than a mixture of terrorist and criminal organisations.
Russia’s appetite for hegemony does not stop with Ukraine. It greedily eyes other former states and satellites of the Soviet Union, and more broadly seeks to destabilise and divide the rest of Europe and the wider transatlantic alliance. It is instructive that the Kremlin is commissioning new statues of Stalin, one of the 20th century’s worst mass murderers.
Second, hybrid warfare is a term that will be unfamiliar to most. It was developed and brought to new heights by the Kremlin, and unveiled to the world with the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the east of my country. Military aggression was accompanied by carefully planned propaganda and the orchestration of sham elections to support the Russian version of reality. Like old-style propaganda it uses pernicious lies to support the Kremlin’s cause, but it is more sophisticated and insidious than the old Soviet propagandists could ever have dreamed of.
This sort of warfare makes full use of modern technology, and is waged across the globe by the well-funded TV station Russia Today, or RT, with its benign call to “Question More”. What they want questioned is the established order. To this end RT deploys well-paid stooges from both the right and left of the political spectrum. They do not carry a coherent Russian narrative – they simply seek to undermine that of the west.
Hybrid warfare goes further than TV and the internet. From the top of the Kremlin to thousands of “keyboard jockeys” in troll factories outside St Petersburg or Moscow, who drip their poison across social media, Russia lies on an industrial scale. It is a sophisticated strategy, sometimes combined with conventional aggression, sometimes not, but always serving Russian geopolitical interests.
Third, Russia cannot be trusted. The Ukraine government is fundamentally different, but we understand the mindset of the Kremlin leadership: Russia, as any diplomat who has dealt with the Kremlin will tell you, respects only power and should only be negotiated with from a position of strength and international solidarity.
Russia exploits weakness. It does this in bilateral negotiations just as it surely as it exploits the weakness of the UN security council, where it abuses its right of veto as one of five permanent members.
Russia also breaks its promises. Few in my country could have envisaged the consequences when in 1994 Ukraine gave up the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal, under guarantees protecting its territorial integrity from the UK, US and Russia. By annexing Crimea and invading Donbas Russia has spat on that historic document, the Budapest memorandum, which Ukraine signed up to in good faith to make the world a safer place. And 20 years on, Russia has not honoured a single clause of the Minsk agreement that they signed in an effort to bring about a resolution to the war in Donbas, in which 10,000 of our people have been killed and 23,000 wounded.
Today Russia poses the greatest threat to the security and unity of Europe since 1945. There can be no talk of lifting sanctions until Russia is brought to heel and persuaded to comply with international rules. And sanctions hurt Russia more than the Kremlin cares to admit. They are slowly reducing Russia’s ability to destabilise Europe and the world.
The west must remain united in the face of the threat, and must not blink first. Remember what that great Briton, Winston Churchill, said about appeasers: they are the ones who feed crocodiles, hoping they will be eaten last.