With Vladimir Putin meeting Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande in Moscow to discuss the Ukraine conflict, what is driving the Russian president, what is he seeking, and will he get it?
Margaret Thatcher famously said of Mikhail Gorbachev: “I like Mr Gorbachev, we can do business togther.” It is hard to imagine David Cameron – or any other western leader – being as effusive about Vladimir Putin, although Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande hope to make some progress in the Russian capital.
The conflict started in April 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea, previously part of Ukraine, in a move the west failed to avert. This followed Putin’s brutal response to rebellion in Chechnya and invasion of Georgia.
Pro-Russian separatists seized large parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine, causing 1.2 million people to flee their homes, in their fight for independence from Kiev. In the last 10 months, 5,300 people have died, according to the UN.
The most shocking event was the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, with the deaths of 298 people. The incident has been blamed on separatists.
Pro-Russia protesters storm a police building in eastern Ukraine (Getty)
Moscow is accused of arming the separatists, which it denies. It also rejects claims that its forces have been fighting alongside the separatists, despite evidence to the contrary from satellite imagery and intelligence reports.
Putin has never wavered from these denials and it is difficult to know whether he really believes what he is saying, or is just a “natural-born liar”, in the words of Sir Andrew Wood, a former British ambassdor to Moscow (more later).
In Minsk in September, he agreed a ceasefire with Petro Poroshenko afer the Ukrainian president threatened to post the dog tags from captured and dead Russian soldiers on the web – proving that regular Russian forces were fighting in Ukraine. The ceasefire did not hold and violence flared up again.
America has been supplying “non-lethal” assistance – night-vision goggles and body armour – to Ukraine, but there are calls in the US for arms to be sent to Kiev. The Russians say such a move would “inflict colossal damage to Russian-American relations”.
Francois Hollande has said he wants to avoid “total war”, which is why he and Angela Merkel are meeting Putin in Moscow on Friday. The French and Germans want to stop the fighting, and have been spooked by talk of the US arming the Ukrainian military. This could mean giving the separatists more territory than envisaged in Minsk.
Russian pride was wounded when the Soviet Union, which included Ukraine. came to an end in 1991. Putin, for whom the disintegration of the post-war old order was a tragedy, wants to restore that pride.
The west’s belief that he is responsible for what is happening in Ukraine has led to sanctions being imposed, which, along with falling oil prices, are damaging Russia’s economy. But Putin has stood firm. well aware that the west does not want a military confrontation with Russia.
Sir Andrew Wood, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank and a former British ambassador to Russia, has met Putin and describes him as “not truthful, a natural-born liar”.
He told Channel 4 News: “Looking into his eyes is a very difficult thing to do, It’s not clear he believes what he says about the cold war and Russia not being party to what’s happening in Ukraine, but he probably believes this is a conflict between Russia and the west – the US in particular – and he’s pushing this domestically and abroad.
“His popularity was declining because it wasn’t clear what his purpose was when he came back for a third term. The logic for his regime was to keep it going, clamp down on protests, run the economy in a statist way.”
Sir Andrew believes Putin is seeking the “total domination” of Ukraine. “He could carve out two eastern regions (Luhansk and Donetsk) and make them into a coherent whole dependent on Russia, but this would be very expensive and an unstable solution.
“What is the national interest in Russia getting deeper into Ukraine? Was it necessary to take Crimea? No. Was it sensible to get into an inceasingly repressive set of actions? No.
“As far as Ukraine is concerned, he had a quick, easy takeover of Crimea, He thought the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine would come over to Russian hegemony, but that didn’t happen. The people whio have taken over have no history of popular support or unity.”
Much has been written about a new cold war, with Russia seeking to dominate and control its neighbours, as it managed to do when the Soviet Union was intact.
While Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania voiced their concerns, Putin talked about protecting the ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine. What about the ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the Baltic states? Do they also need “protection”?
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general of Nato until 2014, has said there is “a lot of concern among the allies”. Unlike Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are Nato and EU members, and Putin knows he has to tread more carefully in these countries.
Putin caused a stir in August 2014 when he questioned the legitimacy of Kazakhstan – a former Soviet state which also has an ethnic Russian minority and is not a Nato member – and said he was “confident that a majority of its population supports development of close ties with Russia”.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, responded by saying: “Our independence is our dearest treasure, which our grandfathers fought for”.
Although there are fears about what Putin might do next, no-one can be sure.
Sir Andrew Wood said: “There are practical limits to his ability to dominate – money and the economy in trouble. He has bitten off more than he can chew, which has limited his ability to go further and take over other territories.”