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George Mitchell: Why the west is playing into Putin’s hands

An estimated 100,000 Russian troops with tanks and other heavy weapons have gathered near Ukraine.
An estimated 100,000 Russian troops with tanks and other heavy weapons have gathered near Ukraine.

Russia is in the news, again. It rarely seems to be out of it these days.

Due to lockdowns, it’s been two years since my last trip there. I plan to go in May of this year, but we’ll see.

I’ve been going to Russia, often for months at a time, since 1993. If you’ve been reading my numerous columns on Russia over the years, you’ll know I’m certainly no apologist for the Kremlin.

However, I’m deeply concerned at the hyping up of fear, and the apparent lack of understanding about Russia from a western perspective. And where we, the west, are headed.

“An all-out war is coming”, scream some papers.

Is a full Russian invasion of Ukraine coming? I do not believe so. And the more western governments and the press hype it up, they are playing right into Putin’s hands. We are doing his work for him. We are creating the panic and fear.

I doubt that Russian tanks are going to roll into Kiev. Putin will not fire missiles into, say, Latvia, or send troops marching into Poland. It’s scaremongering that just wipes another billion or 10 off the stock market and creates more uncertainty.

There may well be “incursions” by whoever, into secluded parts of Ukraine. I don’t know, but I doubt it will be official Russian soldiers.

A Russian armoured vehicle drives off a railway platform after arrival in Belarus, further bolstering forces near Ukraine.

Is Russia involved in disinformation? Yes, it has done so for years. Is it involved in cyber attacks? Possibly, but near impossible to prove.

I think it’s more likely that Russia will recognise eastern Ukraine’s rebel-held areas as part of Russia, a highly provocative move. Worryingly it has recently handed out countless thousands of Russian passports to folk who live there. This could be used as a pretext to troops moving in there, under the guise of “defending Russian citizens”, if Moscow doesn’t get what it wants. A dangerous, yet very clever move from the Kremlin.

One hundred thousand Russia troops on Ukraine’s border does sound scary. Provocative even. But the fact is, they are on Russian soil and as long as they don’t cross over, they have every right to be there.

Cabinet ministers change jobs like musical chairs. I don’t know Liz Truss or Antony Blinken. Maybe they are highly educated on all things Russian, but I’m not convinced. Their rhetoric doesn’t suggest they are.

Russia stopped caring what the west thought a long, long time ago. No bluster or threats from UK politicians will change the Kremlin view, and believe me, a verbal attack on Russia will be ramped up at home and played for all its worth.

The Russian navy’s frigate Admiral Essen on an exercise in the Black Sea. Russia has launched a series of drills amid the tensions over Ukraine.

What we need to do is not necessarily change how we handle Russia, but more importantly how we handle ourselves.

What kind of society do we want to live in?

We seem to be trying to micromanage every aspect of our lives. Big Brother and/or the nanny state in the west has never looked so powerful.

This brings me on to the divide, the gulf if you like, between current-day Russia and the current-day west. It has never been bigger. By the year 2022, Russia, European Russia I mean, which includes Moscow and especially St Petersburg, can and should be way more European in nature.

Yet we can’t blame Russia for not being so. We must shoulder a huge responsibility for where Russia is today. We failed to bring Russia with us, failed to take it in from the cold after the breakup of the USSR.

We allowed Russia, when it needed us most in the ’90s, to go into freefall. Should we really be so surprised when strongman Putin comes along and has constantly promised to restore glory and pride to the nation?

We missed our chance to bring Russia in from the cold. Too little too late.

George believes Russian President Vladimir Putin knows how to play the west.

Russia wants NATO to return to its pre-1997 borders. Basically, that means removing the member countries that were once in the old Warsaw Pact out of the organisation. Rightly or wrongly, it’s not going to happen.

Also, it’s surely up to Ukraine or any other country to join whatever security organisation it wants. It’s not for Russia to say they can’t. However, let’s see it from a Russian point of view.

Whether we like it or not, Russia still sees and probably always will regard many of the states that surround it, as “under its sphere of influence”.

And of course, we did what we said we wouldn’t do, which was to allow former members of the Soviet-run Warsaw Pact to join NATO in the first place. We broke our promise.

It’s been claimed that the Kremlin will do another Crimea. I’ve even read from a top UK politician that Moscow will install a puppet government in Kiev.

Russia may well interfere more in the far east of Ukraine, but tanks will not roll into western-leaning Kiev and topple the Ukraine government. I cannot envisage a 2022 situation in Kiev like the one I witnessed in 2014.

While I may be no fan of his autocratic style of leadership or the general direction he has taken Russia, especially over the past 10 years, I have to give Putin credit for the way he handles the west.

Putin is very good at instigating the game “chicken”, and we are very good at behaving like said creatures.

Whatever his domestic troubles, which can smack of weakness with journalists and opposition leaders being jailed, Putin is undoubtedly strong when it comes to the west. In fact, Putin is once again playing a blinder.

Russia has no doubt not only built up, but more importantly modernised its once crumbling military. That said, our economies and especially our armed forces are far more advanced than Russia’s.

America’s arsenal alone dwarfs Russia’s, which is not even in the same league. You wouldn’t think it though, would you?

America’s military might is far greater than that of Russia.

Our leaders, when it comes to Russia, are not strong. It’s not about individuals. I’m not actually having a pop at Boris or Biden. All our leaders are weak and have been for many years regarding Russia.

The west is drowning in a moral crisis. We don’t seem to know what we stand for any more. We’ve achieved the big stuff years ago, like human rights, democracy, rule of law, to name but a few. Nowadays though, we seem intent on trying to micromanage every aspect of our lives.

Then there’s the outrage, or fake outrage as I call it, which is a day-to-day drain on our collective energies. I’ll give you just one example.

The other day, when the news was full of a potential Russian invasion, and the stock market was wobbly, what made the headlines?

Outrage that Boris apparently “body shamed” SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford.

At PMQs, Blackford stood up and said: “The impending National Insurance tax hike hangs like a guillotine while they eat cake.”

Boris’s reply?: “I don’t know who has been eating more cake.”

Boris Johnson was criticised for his cake comment made towards Ian Blackford.

“Outrage” in the press. Shock horror. Body shaming, fat shaming even. The PM is “unfit for office”, his remarks will have a “damaging impact on many young people”, the PM “mocked someone because of their body”.

An eating disorder charity even went as far to say that the PM was showing a complete lack of regard for 1.25 million people with an eating disorder. Come on.

I have previously written about the abuse that goes on all over social media and the bullying of young people especially. It must be heartbreaking for a 13-year-old, for example, who puts a make-up video on YouTube then has to read comments that she’s ugly. But this “outrage” at PMQs? Really?

This is not a pro-Boris column, I just want to look at the bigger picture. Is this what we are really getting our knickers in a knot over? It seems so. We’ve lost all perspective of what is important and what is not.

I can’t speak for Ian Blackfold. I have no idea if he was genuinely offended or hurt by that comment. I’d seriously doubt it though. He is a strong man who dishes it out, and I believe is more than capable of taking it on the chin when it’s thrown back at him.

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford.

I used to passionately persuade friends abroad, especially Russians, to watch PMQs and read the British press, to see how open we were, how much freedom of speech we had and how we held our leaders to account.

Nowadays, be it the blatant doom and gloom one-sidedness news over Covid, constant intense debating about whether people should isolate for 10 days, seven, five, and opposition sensing blood at every opportunity over parties in Number 10, we are becoming a laughing stock.

We are sliding, day by day, into a world of “wokeness”, a world of “can’t say this, can’t do that”.

We’ve taken our eye off the ball regarding what’s important.

Putin? He’s sitting back enjoying this and pushing on with his agenda, whatever that may be.

The west, while very strong on paper, looks increasing as weak as water.

It’s time for the west to rediscover its backbone.

Before it’s too late.

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