Andrew Kenny decodes Russia’s actions in Ukraine, advocates pragmatic solutions

In a world where Russia remains a geopolitical enigma, Churchill’s famous description seems at odds with reality. Examining the historical context, one questions the true mystery of Russia compared to other nations. Fast forward to a pivotal moment in 2022, as Putin, perceived as a murderous thug, faces scrutiny over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As the conflict unfolds, pondering Putin’s motivations and a potential resolution, a call for pragmatism echoes—ending the war, redrawing borders, and securing Ukraine’s independence through a pragmatic lens reminiscent of Churchill’s strategic approach in turbulent times.

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By Andrew Kenny*

Russia is ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. This is one of the most famous of Churchill’s epigrams and in my mind the clumsiest. I don’t think it is even true; I don’t think Russia’s actions in the past have been particularly more mysterious than those of, say, England.

But the timing of his remark was important. He was then out of power. He spoke those words on 1 October 1939, six weeks after Stalin and Hitler had signed the pact that led to the Second World War, and a month after the war had begun.

Hitler did not find Stalin the slightest bit difficult to understand. He read him like an open book and used him like a willing tool. On 22 June 1941, when Hitler finally invaded Russia, as he said he would, Churchill instantly gave his 100% support to Stalin, who suddenly became not at all enigmatic but just a treacherous tyrant whose support he needed badly. I agree with Churchill. He wanted to win the war and was happy to be pragmatic about the methods used to do so.

How does Putin compare with Stalin? Is he a ‘mystery inside an enigma’? I pondered this as I watched his two-hour video interview with the American broadcaster, Tucker Carlson. It was strange and interesting. There were some noteworthy side issues, but the main issue was Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, two years and a week ago. It is here where you paid the most attention to what Putin had to say, and where you tried to judge his sincerity and his intentions.

Putin is a murderous thug – no doubt about that – who has killed opponents in Russia and abroad. His most important domestic critic, Alexei Navalny, died in a horrible ‘corrective colony’ in the Russian Arctic on 16 February 2024 – just ten days after the Tucker Carlson interview. I thought Carlson was callous when he responded to news of Navalny’s death, but I thought he was spot-on when he said he thought Putin was very anxious to be liked and wanted to justify his actions. He said Putin reminded him of an over-prepared pupil before an exam. My lasting impression is that Putin would be willing to end the war against Ukraine if the terms were right. In that case, let’s end this wretched war as soon as we can.

The interview began when Carlson asked Putin why he had invaded Ukraine. (Putin calls the invasion a ‘special military operation’.) Putin responded with a half-hour long ramble through the history of Russia, starting in 862 AD. The point was to show that Ukraine had always really been part of Russia and had never been an independent country. This was because outsiders, such as Lenin, had drawn up her present borders for her. That is a silly argument.

By this measure, very few countries on Earth are independent, since most of their borders have been decided by others. South Africa, for example, is purely a colonial construct. The present South African borders were all drawn up by European colonialists. Before the Europeans came, there was no such entity as South Africa and the various people living here had no natural affinity with each other. Surely the only thing that matters is whether people living in a country today believe that it is an independent country to which they belong? It seems that over most regions of Ukraine the people feel Ukrainian and not Russian. The problem is that there are large regions that feel Russian and not Ukrainian.

More sympathy

I felt more sympathy for Putin’s arguments that, after the fall of communism in Russia, the West behaved in an aggressive and opportunist way, seeking advantage over a fallen and weakened foe. In 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev ended communism peacefully and disbanded the Soviet Union. He allowed the various Russian colonies to become independent if they wished, which they did. He showed goodwill towards the West and everybody else.

This was a wonderful opportunity for the West to reciprocate by disbanding NATO, which after all was a military organisation to defend against the Soviet Union, which no longer existed. It had worked very well but it had served its purpose. The West had won but it then behaved stupidly and badly, as Putin suggested. Far from disbanding NATO, they extended it eastward among the former Soviet colonies. It was completely voluntary, of course; the ex-colonies joined because they wanted to join, and who can blame them after their persecution under Russian socialism? Nonetheless NATO was advancing towards Russia and Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Ukraine was being ruled by a bewildering succession of corrupt governments and experiencing one major scandal after another. Democracy was not well secured. In some parts of the country, notably the Donbas in the northeast, there was a conflict between allegiance to Ukraine and allegiance to Russia. Support for Russia seems almost total in Crimea. In the presidential election in 2010, Victor Yanukovych, who was pro-Russian, beat the prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, in what was regarded as a fair election. (Please click on to see a somewhat unusual picture of a political leader.)

Yanukovych decided not to sign a political and trade association with the European Union, and instead chose closer links to Russia. He was accused of corruption and oppression. In February 2014, fierce civil unrest drove him out of office, and he fled to Russia. Putin claims there were military actions by the following Ukrainian government against the Russian-supporting Donbas. Putin says some Western governments indicated they were happy to work with Russia towards solving problems in Ukraine, and then quietly forgot about these agreements. And so on. In 2019, a former actor and comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was elected president of Ukraine. On 24 February 2022, Putin invaded Ukraine with a military force of 190,000 men.

Murky and confusing

Many moral issues about Ukraine are murky and confusing. The moral issue of the invasion is crystal clear and simple: it is an outrage and must be condemned out of hand. Nothing that had been done by the Ukraine government or the West, nothing that had been cited by Putin or by sympathetic Western commentators such as John Mearsheimer can even come close to justifying the atrocity, in which tens of thousands of innocent people have been killed (it is difficult to get good numbers from either side) and much of the Ukrainian economy has been turned to rubble. The invasion was an evil act. Why did Putin do it?

The best explanation I have heard was that it was a horrible misjudgment on Putin’s part. As a sort of dictator, Putin has the advantage of not having to win fair elections, and not having to face an opposition in open debate. But he has the huge disadvantage, which democrats do not have, of being shielded from the truth. The advisors to a dictator know that they must always tell him what he wants to hear, and never any painful truth. Putin wanted to hear that the Ukrainian government under Zelenskyy was very unpopular and just aching to be part of Russia. Knowing this, his advisors might have told him that if he invaded Ukraine with tanks and guns and artillery in a spectacular show of force (although not necessarily a large show of force), the Ukrainian people might rise up against their unpopular government and acclaim the invaders as liberators.

By a terrible irony of the terrible past, that is exactly what the Ukrainian people did in 1941 when Germany under Hitler invaded. They greeted the Nazis as liberators who would free them from the tyranny of socialist Russia.

(How bad that tyranny was I have only recently discovered in reading Red Famine by Anne Appelbaum, which describes Stalin’s deliberate famine in Ukraine, which killed four million men, women and children. They were killed to ‘achieve socialism’ and to teach Ukraine a lesson. Some of the people, going mad with hunger, turned to cannibalism. They included parents eating their infant children.)

But the Nazis were not liberators; they slaughtered and enslaved Ukrainian people. This time the Ukrainian people did not look upon the Russian invaders as liberators. They saw them as a hateful enemy that had to be resisted by guns and blood.

Russia’s invading force was much too small to overcome a determined and hostile Ukraine. When the Ukrainians hurled themselves against the invaders and Zelenskyy’s popularity soared, Putin knew he had bungled on a big scale. Since then, I believe he has been looking for a way out. I think that for over a year he has been open to a settlement that would save his face and give him something to show to the Russian people to justify his invasion, however bogus that something might be.

Treacherous clown

According to Putin, Zelenskyy was open to such negotiations for peace until Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, visited in April 2022. Johnson, a treacherous clown, the biggest political disappointment of my life, was visiting more to save his own sinking reputation than to help Zelenskyy – let alone to save lives. He seems to have given Zelenski gung-ho encouragement to fight on, no matter how many people died.

All sorts of strange people in the West suddenly became blood-thirsty warmongers over Ukraine, urging stronger action. Smash Russia; give Ukraine more expensive weapons; establish a no-flying zone over Ukraine, or even, let’s invade Ukraine ourselves with Western soldiers. These people scare the life out of me. Do they want to blow us all up in a nuclear war? Another strange thing is that people who say we should try to negotiate with Russia and end the killing are now called ‘right-wing’. If you want peace, you are ‘right-wing’; if you want war, you are ‘left-wing’. I suppose if you wanted to drop a hydrogen bomb on Moscow, you would be a ‘left-wing’ extremist. Tucker Carlson, after his interview with Putin, was described as ‘right-wing’ by most of the media. They spent more time condemning Carlson than Putin.

The media lied about Ukraine’s successes in the war. Ukraine did indeed fight bravely and well against the invader, but it is nonsense to suggest that they could ever beat Russia. Russia is just too big in people and armaments, in her economy and industries. The Ukrainian offensive against Russia was a stupid and bloody mistake, bound to end in failure. I am sick of hearing about another wonderful victory for Ukraine and another terrible loss for Russia. The people who might be about to die deserve to be told the truth.

After the interview, back in the USA, Carlson described his visit to Moscow, the first time he had ever been to Russia. He said he was surprised and impressed. He found it clean, bright and safe, free of the litter, homeless people in the streets, and the hypodermic syringes you now find in most big US cities. Everything worked. The famous Moscow underground railways lived up to their expectations. He was chided for these remarks in some quarters. It so happens that I, a free market liberal, spent a week in Moscow in 2016. I found it exactly as he said.

A Russian friend tells me she can walk alone through any part of Moscow at any time of night in complete safety. She took me through the famous underground with its palatial marble stations, with sparkling chandeliers and works of art. She also told me that Moscow had been a stinking mess before Putin came to power. (I have to put a different complexion on the gleaming underground. It was built under Stalin and commissioned in 1935, just at about the time of the Ukraine famine. Stalin was spending a fortune on baubles while four million people were starving to death.) This paragraph is an interlude.

Let’s not waste time and lives

I now think all good people should strive to end the Ukraine war as soon as possible. I think most people know what the likely end will be, so let’s not waste time and lives; let’s implement it now. Using internationally supervised referenda or something like that, the Ukrainian borders will be redrawn, ceding all or part of the Donbas to Russia; Crimea will remain Russian; Ukraine will promise never to join NATO; Russia will guarantee Ukraine’s independence and right to trade with whomsoever she wishes. That’s it.

So Russia gets off with invading Ukraine? I’m afraid so. Pragmatism, as Churchill recognised in far worse straits, is often preferable to virtue. Putin is no Stalin, and if we could be pragmatic with Stalin we should certainly be pragmatic with Putin. Britain entered the Second World War to defend Poland against occupation by a wicked enemy (Nazi Germany); when the war ended in victory for the West, Poland was still occupied by a wicked enemy (communist Russia). But most people think that the Second World War was worth fighting. I think peace in Ukraine is worth ending the fighting for.

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*Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal.

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission


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