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Western timidity has only emboldened Putin

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We cannot know if Vladimir Putin timed Alexei Navalny’s death to mark 10 years (give or take a few days) since his proxy Viktor Yanukovych’s removal as Ukrainian president after protests in Kyiv’s Independence Square — or indeed the two years of his full-scale war. But such morbid calendrical symbolism would be in keeping with his character.

What we can be certain of is that Navalny’s murder and the assault on Ukraine are not unrelated. They are manifestations of the same thuggery. For those Putin counts as belonging to him — a category that throws together Russian critics, former collaborators turning on him and a whole Ukrainian nation he claims does not exist — any desire to escape his power is treated, mafia-style, as a betrayal for which no punishment is too harsh.

This is why I wrote a year ago that Russia’s war against Ukraine is not primarily a conflict for territory, or even over Ukraine’s future membership of Nato. It is a fight over ways of life, where Moscow offers only a neo-Soviet restoration and the sort of society-eradicating occupation imposed on eastern Europe in the late 1940s. The brutality of the Donbas, let alone Bucha, testifies to that.

Ukrainians are fully aware of this. Their admirable struggle to defeat Russia’s killing machine has since 2014 been matched by an equally impressive internal struggle to break free of their own legacy of Soviet ways — the corruption, the monolithic governance, the inequality in favour of those who capture the state, the stifling of thought, speech and openness.

Neither the external nor the domestic struggle has yet been won — but it is crucial to realise that they are one and the same. If Ukraine’s western friends could fully absorb this, they would find it harder to maintain a timidity that all the support and contributions they have extended are insufficient to hide.

That timidity is most visible in the question of arms. Ukraine is struggling to hold the front line because of a shortfall in munitions. Its counteroffensive was unsuccessful partly because it could not sufficiently contest the skies. These concrete shortcomings are the result of western leaders’ early denial of Kyiv’s appeal for fighter jets or their failure to match a promise of ammunition with the urgent action needed to produce it.

Still today, the west is reluctant to provide weapons that reach Russia itself. Yet as Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg finally made explicit this month, international law permits Ukraine to defend itself against a war of aggression by hitting valid military targets inside the aggressor country. International law has not suddenly changed. If it is permissible now, it was permissible two years ago.

So in all these cases, more decisive action two years ago would have left Ukraine, and the west, in a much better position today.

The same is true of economic measures. The west’s sanctions have too many shortcomings, loopholes and lack of enforcement to list. As a result, the EU paid much more money to Russia for oil and gas in the first year of full-scale war than it has given Ukraine in two, and a thriving business of sanctions circumvention has been allowed to flourish. In the past year, sanctions have been made more effective — but earlier enforcement would have been better.

Two years ago, western countries blocked Moscow’s access to more than $300bn in foreign exchange reserves. They have vowed not to unblock them until Moscow compensates Ukraine for its destruction. But they have not yet dared to enforce this compensation by transferring the assets to a fund for Ukrainian reconstruction.

If, two years ago, the leaders who decided to immobilise Russia’s reserves had gone further and seized them outright, they would now be held in escrow for the sake of Ukraine’s future needs, or could already be funding reconstruction, further strengthening Ukraine’s ability to resist.

The lesson on both the military and the economic side is the danger of believing in the virtue of caution when that in practice means delay. Early “caution” has prolonged the suffering in Ukraine, emboldened the Russian dictator who thinks he can outwait Kyiv’s western supporters, and increased the cost of pushing him back. Whatever could have been achieved early, can now only be achieved in more time and at greater cost.

Navalny’s message before his last return to Russia was that “the only thing needed for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing”. Evil benefits, too, when good people are too cautious. Don’t keep making that mistake.

martin.sandbu@ft.com

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