THE Russia-Ukraine war is the biggest geopolitical crisis to hit the world since World War 2. Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin's War against Ukraine by Owen Matthews is a thorough piece of research and an exposé of the causes and course of the Russia-Ukraine war. It explains why Vladimir Putin, once a capable actor in the post-Soviet era, turned overnight into a reckless gambler who put Russia's future, and his own, at stake.
Matthews has been a correspondent in Moscow for 25 years. He is married to Xsenia, a Russian woman, and they have two sons. The roots of Matthews' own ancestors reach deep into the history of Russia and Ukraine. His mother was born in the Soviet-Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. He is the author of several books, of which Stalin's Children, a memoir of three of his ancestors under the Stalinist regime, is the most famous.
For his research, Matthews draws on personal interviews with informants inside and outside the Kremlin, conversations with people as wide-ranging as Dmitry Peskov, Putin's personal press secretary, the political philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, Putin's spiritual adviser, Russian prisoners of war and Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine's president.
Overreach begins with an overview of the history of Russia from Ivan the Terrible and Catherine the Great to the Soviet Union period with its suffocating communist policies and the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.
On that day, 37-year-old Vladimir Putin — a KGB major — was in command of a police station in Dresden when a group of rioters stormed in. Threatening to shoot, Putin called the commander of the Red Army's tank corps and asked for protection.
“We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” the Soviet officer replied. “And Moscow was silent.”
This answer changed Putin's life. He saw his beloved Soviet Union crumbling around him. First East Germany, then Lithuania. There were riots and anarchy everywhere. Ukraine held a referendum and overwhelmingly voted for independence from the Soviet Union. Even the Crimean Peninsula voted for independence.
The USSR shrivelled into the Federation of Russian States, and Nato's borders moved closer, like a stranglehold around Russia. This was too much for Putin. In 2014, he annexed the Crimea in a bloodless takeover. The West did nothing to prevent this, only reinforcing Putin's belief that it is sluggish and unwilling to fight back. In the euphoria of the Crimean annexation, Putin's forces invaded Chechnya, Georgia and Syria. The Red Army was triumphant. The West offered no resistance.
Matthews traverses the stormy post-Crimea years: the corrupt Ukrainian government under President Viktor Yanukovych, his government's overthrow in the Maidan Revolution, the election of TV comedian Volodymyr Zelensky as president. Among the Russian-minded Donbas separatists, Zelensky held a referendum offering the Donbas semi-autonomous government in exchange for the withdrawal of all Russian support forces. His proposal was rejected by his own far-right ex-combatants, as well as Putin.
The Covid pandemic hit Russia hard. The paranoid Putin retreated to his estate at Lake Valdai and disappeared from public view. There he studied the history of the mighty Soviet Union in detail. His mentor was the fascist philosopher Dugin, who was the whisperer in Putin's ear:
“The global American empire strives to bring all countries of the world together under its control,” Dugin told the Kremlin. “They come in through the fifth column which they think will allow them to take over natural resources and rule over countries, people and continents. They have invaded Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya. Syria and Iran are now on their agenda. But their goal is Russia. We are the last obstacle on their way to building a global evil empire… To resist this most serious threat we must be united and mobilised! We must remember that we are Russian! That for thousands of years we have protected our freedom and independence. We have spilled seas of blood, our own and other people’s, to make Russia great. And Russia will be great. Otherwise, it will not exist at all. Russia is everything. Everything else is nothing.”
The time was ripe. The US was no threat due to the previous president, Donald Trump, who was all talk, and Joe Biden's indecisiveness. In contrast, Nato and its creeping eastward expansion posed a threat. But with the Red Army's triumphant invasion of Chechnya and Georgia and successes in Syria, America's tail-between-the-legs retreat from Afghanistan and Angela Merkel's retirement as German chancellor, Russia was on its way to taking its rightful place in the world order. Only Ukraine had to be reincorporated to restore historical Russia. On February 24, 2022, Putin invaded Ukraine with blitzkrieg successes in the south and catastrophe in the north.
Putin miscalculated the situation at several levels. Instead of welcoming the invaders, Ukrainians fought back ferociously. A 30km convoy of tanks heading to Kyiv was stopped by Javelin missiles and the attack on Hostomel Airport by helicopters and fighter planes was a fiasco. Putin underestimated Zelensky but the “TV comedian" showed his mettle.
On the first day of the invasion, the US government told Zelensky he had no chance against the Russian steamroller, advised him to negotiate and said it was prepared to evacuate him and his family. Zelensky stiffened his backbone and replied: “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”
He made a confident appearance on the Independence Square in Kyiv and assured Ukrainians: “We are ready for everything. We will defeat everyone. Because we are Ukraine.”
Putin's advisers fed him only positive news. No one dared mention anything negative. When the humiliation of the invasion of Kyiv was revealed, he flew into a destructive rage. Eighteen generals and government officials were dismissed and 30,000 Russian soldiers withdrew from Kyiv's suburbs. On their way out, they murdered, tortured and raped the citizens of Bucha and destroyed their homes. On March 18, talks took place in Istanbul for a negotiated peace. Surrounded by journalists, Zelensky visited Bucha.
“His face was ashen and he struggled to control his emotions. I think he aged 20 years that day,” an assistant commented. “When he returned to Kyiv, he broke down… it was hard for him to keep control.”
Bucha was a turning point. For Zelensky, for Ukraine and for the international community.
“[For] Western leaders and millions of people around the world, Russia’s invasion had been revealed as an act of savagery against civilians unprecedented in Europe since Bosnia — and before that, the Second World War. From that moment on there could be no more compromise,” Matthews writes.
What is behind the senseless attacks on civilian targets and the destruction of infrastructure and cities such as Mariupol? Is it an inherent longing for mass destruction in the Russian psyche? Journalist Peter Pomerantsev's view:
“Beneath the veneer of Russian military ‘tactics’ you see the stupid leer of destruction for the sake of it. The Kremlin can’t create, so all that is left is to destroy. Not in some pseudo-glorious self-immolation, the people behind atrocities are petty cowards, but more like a loser smearing their faeces over life. In Russia’s wars the very senselessness seems to be the sense. After the casual mass executions at Bucha; after the bombing of maternity wards in Mariupol; after the laying to waste of whole cities in Donbas; after the children’s torture chambers, the missiles aimed at freezing civilians to death in the dead of winter, we now have the apocalyptic sight of the waters of the vast Dnipro, a river that when you are on it can feel is as wide as a sea, bursting through the destroyed dam at [Nova] Kakhovka.”
Russia's cycle of destroying itself and others is described by the Ukrainian literary critic Tetyana Ogarkova:
“Russia [is] a culture where you have ‘crime without punishment, and punishment without crime’.”
Matthews' book ends by September 2022. What happened next with the senseless destruction of the Nova Kakhovka Dam reinforces his view of Russia's path of destruction and what was to come.
“Russia claims to be a powerful ‘pole’ in the world to balance the West — but has failed to create a successful political model others would want to join. So it has nothing left to offer except to drag everyone down to its own depths. ‘How dare you live like this,’ went a resentful piece of graffiti by Russian soldiers in Bucha. ‘What’s the point of the world when there is no place for Russia in it,’ complains Putin. After the dam at Kakhovka was destroyed, a General Dobuzhinsky crowed on a popular Russian talk show: ‘We should blow up the Kyiv water reservoir too.’ ‘Why?’ asked the host. ‘Just to show them.’”
Overreach is an easy read, but the facts are not easy to digest. Matthews' summary:
“Not only would Putin leave no lasting ideological legacy but any legacy of prosperity and stability that he may have created had been destroyed by his own decision to make war on Ukraine. The price of his illusions was not only thousands of lost lives but also a lost future for Russia. Most ominously of all, the misbegotten war had opened a Pandora’s box of alternative futures for Russia that were more scary than Putin’s regime had ever been.”
♦ VWB ♦
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