Vladimir Putin’s recognition of two breakaway Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine, followed by the arrival of Russian troops, signal what seems a decisive escalation in his aggression towards Ukraine. Putin seems hellbent on punishing the country for exercising the autonomy due to any sovereign state, offering further evidence that he will use force to maintain a buffer zone of fealty around his country’s borders. Putin’s decision-making is increasingly unchallenged by wiser counsel, since he has systematically eliminated all checks on his power and scrutiny of his actions. Appeasement won’t work: a unified international response is needed to put economic pressure on Putin’s inner circle and his military machinery.

It’s now clear diplomacy matters little to Vladimir Putin. Despite the efforts of a string of presidents and prime ministers to prevent war, on 21 February Putin granted recognition to two breakaway, Russian-controlled areas of east Ukraine in Donetsk and Luhansk. Shortly after, Russian troops rolled into these zones. Under a pretence of ‘peacekeeping’ that fools no one, this looks like the start of a bigger invasion.

Much effort went into trying to guess Putin’s intentions before this seemingly decisive move. An avalanche of commentary has tried to work out how realistic Putin’s threat of war is and what he hopes to achieve through his threats.

What now seems clear is that Putin expects to maintain a Cold War-style sphere of influence around Russia’s borders. It isn’t only his treatment of Ukraine, seemingly punished for orienting a little more towards the west and entertaining a vague idea of joining NATO, that shows this.

Putin intervened decisively to prop up a fraudulently elected dictator in Belarus; in return, Belarus became Russia’s client state, currently hosting many of the troops poised on Ukraine’s border. In January Russian troops were despatched to suppress a protest movement for political and economic change in Kazakhstan. It’s now evident that demands for democracy or even displays of autonomy will not be allowed in what Putin sees as Russia’s buffer zone, and force will be used if required.

Power without accountability

The two areas of Donetsk and Luhansk under the spotlight have been Russian-controlled and Russian-aligned since the 2014 conflict. But they remain part of Ukraine’s sovereign territory, and no government has ever recognised them as independent states. They are not viable as states – only as Russian puppets. Concerningly, Russia appears to be laying claim not just to the parts of Donetsk and Luhansk currently controlled by its proxies, but also those under Ukrainian control, giving a further signal of invasion.

This inflammatory move was preceded by a bizarre televised ceremony of statesmanship in which one by one members of Putin’s security council lined up to give an opinion that coincided with his, in scenes oddly reminiscent of a Soviet-era show trial. The staged discussion began with the delivery of an angry speech from Putin, not for the first time, in which he denied Ukraine’s right to an existence separate from Russia.

This is what untrammelled, unaccountable power looks like, and this is where it leads: to the making of erratic, emotional and possibly catastrophic decisions. Putin has eliminated all real political opposition. He’s changed the rules to stay in power as long as he likes, won elections that weren’t remotely free or fair and jailed opponents – or even ordered them killed. He’s crushed independent civil society and media, ordering organisations to close, smearing them as foreign agents and making virtually all forms of protest illegal. The disastrous results offer a powerful reminder of the value of democracy, accountability and independent scrutiny of power.

The cost of Putin’s unchecked, unpredictable rule is clear: conflict will bring death and human rights violations on a potentially large scale. At a time when the world should be fighting climate change, conflict zones will see further environmental devastation. Unimaginable resources will be spent not on addressing climate change, developing essential infrastructure or improving the lives of local communities but on destruction and immiseration.

Untrammelled, unaccountable power leads to the making of erratic, emotional and possibly catastrophic decisions. These offer a powerful reminder of the value of democracy, accountability and independent scrutiny of power.

This has costs for Russia too. Putin’s aggression will cause his country immense diplomatic and likely economic harm. Having extracted some potential concessions, he’s thrown them away. Any conflict that erupts in Ukraine has potential to become an extended one. Although Russia has far superior forces, it could still incur heavy losses. Conflict could even revivify NATO and encourage more countries to join – the opposite of what Putin might have been trying to achieve.

Conflict could, in short, be bad not just for Ukraine but also for Russia. But there’s no one left who can tell Putin that. This is terrible news for Russians, and it’s increasingly endangering the world.

Need for an international response

A response of international censure must follow, and it must be a unified response. As Russia’s neighbours, the 27 states of the European Union (EU) and other European states such as the UK should hold a strong common line. States that have previously kept on friendly terms with Putin, such as Germany and Hungary, must get on board.

This means the cessation of trade that benefits Putin’s military machinery and his inner circle. As part of this, Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, must stay offline whatever the short-term pain for Europe’s gas supplies. The UK, long a safe haven for the fortunes of Russian oligarchs and Putin allies, must finally get tough on Russian money laundered in London. Putin moved to buffer himself from sanctions by reaching new trade and energy deals with China on the eve of the Winter Olympics, but these would not be sufficient to mitigate the economic pressure exerted by unified action by democratic states.

EU countries also have a responsibility to accept and respect the rights of refugees who may be driven from Ukraine by conflict. They must respond with empathy and compassion – something they have rarely shown so far.

At the global level it must be recognised that Russia’s movement of troops into Donetsk and Luhansk is a clear violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty – ironically from a state that is quick to rebuff any international questioning of its appalling human rights record as intrusive foreign interference in its sovereign affairs. Since China’s international representatives always push a public position of respect for sovereignty and non-interference, it should face diplomatic pressure to distance itself from its ally.

Given the disparity between the military strength of the two countries and Russia’s evident determination to go to war, any conflict started by Russia would be a war of aggression – a conflict without the justification of self-defence – which is one of the most serious crimes in international human rights law. This act threatens to undermine the international order – and it is coming from a permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council.

There are signs that Russia is already losing friends at the UN. Current Security Council member Kenya, which previously abstained on a vote on Ukraine, spoke out powerfully against Russia’s latest imperial action, in a session Russia tried and failed to hold behind closed doors. No one is buying Putin’s lame attempts to somehow position Ukraine, a country that has repeatedly made clear it does not want war, as the aggressor.

Russia’s status as a Security Council permanent member means the body can do nothing. This sorry state of affairs only strengthens civil society’s longstanding calls for Security Council reform. But at the very least more states – and more global south states – should follow Kenya’s lead and condemn Russia’s aggression, on the basis that Putin’s trampling of international norms endangers us all. There should be not path back to respectability for Putin.

Vital role of civil society

In the context of any conflict, there’s a need to monitor and collect evidence of human rights violations – with the aim of one day holding the perpetrators and commissioners of crimes to account in the international justice system. Civil society can play a vital part here – not just in defending human rights and monitoring violations, but also in building peace at the local level.

As Russia’s propaganda machine goes into full effect – already there are examples of clearly falsified reports attempting to establish Ukrainian aggression – there’s a need to build links of mutual understanding and dialogue between Russian and Ukrainian citizens. Alongside their other efforts, democratic states should invest in local civil society, which in bleak times is needed more than ever.


  • States should immediately cease all trading activity that benefits Russia’s military infrastructure and Putin’s inner circle.
  • The international community should condemn in the strongest terms Russia’s aggression and insist on the centrality of international norms.
  • Donors should support local civil society’s role in documenting rights violations and peacebuilding.

Cover photo by Omer Messinger/Getty Images