3 Mar 2014

Is ‘big nasty Putin’ really as bad as he’s made out to be?

So we sit here today with William Hague telling us Ukraine is the biggest crisis of the century. That’s the same William Hague – foreign secretary – who led a campaign to arm the Syrian rebels of such flimsiness that even his own Foreign Office latterly commuted it into non-lethal support and now says scarcely anything about it at all.


Has he misread this situation too? Has he misread the extraordinary scenes played out in the centre of Kiev which have led to the current reaction in eastern Ukraine and Crimea?

The trouble with Kiev was that so much of the coverage was so completely one-sided. I mean literally so. The bulk of TV news coverage was filmed from the protesters’ side in the square.

Their point of view, physically. Literally – western viewers were on the side of the protesters far more than the government forces.

When they were brutally and inexcusably wounded and killed by gunfire we saw that and incredible footage it was. “Our side”, at least physically, was getting slaughtered.

Read more: inside Ukraine… praying for peace in the shadow of war

But we saw rather less – a lot less in fact – of gunmen on the protesters’ side.

We saw very little of security forces shot by then. More often than not western cameras just weren’t on that side.

No doubt there are good reasons for this but the net effect should trouble us.

We saw riot police captured and rounded up by the rebels and offered cigarettes as they were lined up for the media and paraded as prisoners (an illegal act in terms of warfare and the Geneva Conventions) but note that we saw nothing of what happened to them after that.

Read more: could Russia invade Ukraine?

The response to the protesters was terrible of course. But there was violence on both sides, very obviously so. Troublingly, a democratically elected government was arguably overthrown by force in Kiev itself.

When the cameras reached the deposed president’s lavish house and private zoo we were invited to make comparisons with history’s maniacal despots – Mobutu, Bokassa or Ceausescu nearer to home. That should cause us in the west to pause more than we do.

Vladimir Putin is an easy bogeyman. He is everything we want a “Big Bad Russian” to be. In his shirt-removing, animal hunting absurdity he is too easy to pigeon-hole.

But faced with provinces in Crimea and perhaps beyond where the hefty majority is ethnically Russian and has seen their government democratically elected, toppled by violence, should we be surprised by Mr Putin and is the easy demonising of him into silly cold war imagery really accurate or reasonable?

Read more: Russia behaving ‘like 19th century power’ – Kerry

Mr Putin has simply done precisely what I predicted he would do when I reported on this the day before the move into Crimea happened – used special forces to spearhead a defence of his own ethnic people. Think Georgia in 2008 though this time with – as yet – mercifully no violence at all.

That could change. Or a deal could be quickly reached for a democratic way out.

Clearly the people of Crimea are welcoming the Russians to at least some degree. Crimeans need to have the choice – by vote – about which country they wish to live in and Ukraine and Russia need to abide by that.

Mr Putin is no salesman for democracy – he is a semi-dictator in image, style and action.

Read more: can a divided west take a stand against Russia?

But however the west may gag on it – the democratic edge in this stuggle may well lie with Moscow at the moment.

Has Mr Putin burned that in sending in regular forces after the special forces made their initial move?

That is the more difficult question to weigh. But for now “big bad Russia”, “big nasty Putin” and “poor heroic Ukraine” looks a little too simplistic to me.

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