Putin vs the West is the latest series from the legendary Norma Percy, and the three-parter contains everything you’d expect from the veteran documentarian – the right blend of revelation, anecdote, history, drama, forensic analysis and storytelling. It’s Putin, the Ukraine war and how the West fouled up, all made comprehensible. It’s brilliant, and you have to watch it to understand how we got to where we are now.
It is in fact so brilliant that you find yourself in the unexpected position of being almost on the edge of your seat listening to the testimony from the half-forgotten dullards – such as former French president Francois Hollande; ex President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso; Cathy Ashton, once a sort of surrogate EU foreign minister; and various other former apparatchiks, advisors, politicians and ambassadors – who have had the usually bruising experience of dealing first hand with Vladimir Putin over the years.
In the hands of the programme makers, stock archive footage of ministerial comings and goings at EU summits and conferences in Brussels and Minsk take on the quality of a tense thriller, as they are interspersed by revelations about what was going on behind the scenes. Episode one deals with the events that led up to the first Russian invasion of 2014, when they took Crimea and the eastern Donbas region, with minimal Western resistance and punishment, and maximum Western disunity and disarray. The Russians bluffed and fibbed their way to victory. When Putin turns up at a big conference and the Ukrainians confront him with hard evidence that they’ve captured scores of Russian soldiers on their territory, such as ID tags and official orders, Putin comes up with a series of Pythonesque excuses: the Ukrainians are making it up; the Russians were “on holiday”; or they “lost their way” along the border.
On another occasion, when Putin denies unmarked Russian forces have infiltrated and occupied eastern Ukraine, Merkel tells him not to be so silly, according to a witness. However, she still won’t push the Russians too far, for fear of escalation and loss of gas supplies. The EU was utterly divided, as was NATO. Elsewhere, Barack Obama seemingly deliberately calls Russia a “regional power”, something that was particularly offensive to Putin – and hardened his attitudes. Obama talked tough on sanctions, but, like Germany, the Americans then were simply not going to send military assistance and risk a war. This is something we learn from Obama’s close advisers at the time. Merkel and Obama didn’t give an interview for the series, which is understandable because they come out of it quite badly.
They got bamboozled by Putin. “Deny and lie” was and is the standard Russian approach, and the only Western leader who seems able to cope with it is Boris Johnson. Funny, that. To his credit, he took no notice of Putin’s jolly threat to target him with a cruise missile.
Cameron, Hollande, Barroso and the rest of the gullible talking heads are mostly filmed in front of impressively full bookcases or inside what look like ornately furnished palaces. Juxtaposed with bombed-out Ukrainian schools or tanks rolling down Crimean roads, this makes them look rather detached from the bloody reality they allowed to happen.
They at least seem rightly shamefaced about how they got taken for a ride. Somehow, they apparently only believed what was politically convenient, and never took Putin at his word when he went off on one about how he wanted to take back control of Ukraine. Barroso, for example, tells how he listened, open-mouthed, as Putin told him that Ukraine was a creation of the CIA and the European Commission. He acknowledges that European divisions encouraged Putin to push and push.
Hollande almost, but not quite, comes to an apology: “Europe is still facing this threat of its unity. When we do not punish hard enough at first, we are forced to punish more severely later. And that’s what’s happening today.” There’s no dispute about that. We can only hope that it’s not too late, and that the next Norma Percy series isn’t titled “How Putin Beat the West”.