'Let's hope Putin's army renounces Vlad the Invader'

Russia's President Vladimir Putin has launched a "full-scale" invasion of Ukraine

What does Putin really hope to achieve? - Credit: Tass/PA Images

There are two times a year when I try to sit down in an armchair and do my best to actually think, rather than - as so many of us do - hurtle between life events in a permanent state of crisis management.

The first time is that week after Christmas when so much that really matters in life, from family to the eternal predicament of people whose lives have been less fortunate, fill us with resolve to do better in a New Year. The second is now when almost all of us have forgotten what those resolutions were in the first place, but can be grateful that we have another bite of the cherry in Lent.

With a pile of pancakes duly despatched, Lent in the Christian calendar began with Ash Wednesday, the first of 40 days of observance inspired by Jesus Christ in the wilderness. Whether you believe or not, it’s a magnificent story, climaxing in Jesus refusing to renounce the spirit of God in exchange for kingship over all the countries of the world.

The offer was made, of course, by the Devil. Let’s work on the assumption that all of us agree (I hope) that Jesus did the right thing.
Rather obviously doing the wrong thing at the moment is Vladimir Putin, with his violent and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. It’s very tempting to take a black and white view of his appalling conduct, and as the days go by he does indeed appear to be somewhat unhinged.

However, if we are going to survive this we need the patience of Jesus in the wilderness and a copy of Tim Marshall’s fantastic book Prisoners of Geography by our sides. Marshall’s huge bestseller brilliantly explains how so much history, and future trouble, is bound up with where the particular drama is taking place.
If you can work that out, you can understand what your enemy is after, what is in their head. Then, maybe, you can negotiate a peace.

It’s already pretty well understood that Putin wants to control the Black Sea coast. To understand why you need to look at a map. For such an immense country, Russia has a pretty pathetic capacity to get out to sea. Yes, there are ports in the north like Kaliningrad and St Petersburg, and in the east ports such as Vladivostok. But these are thousands and thousands of miles away from each other.

To the south on the Black Sea it continues to occupy Sevastopol in Crimea, but it wants more dominance on that coast. So that is what he is after in Ukraine, more sea access.

And like so many dictators we won’t understand his motives until we understand his vulnerabilities. For Russia is the Prisoner of Geography in one dramatic way; it is not protected from Western Europe by any natural geographical barrier at all. No insurmountable mountain ranges, scarcely any hills, just an endless plain which previously saw Napoleon and Hitler roll his way, and in their hubris over-extending their supply lines, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of their own fighters.

This is what Vlad the Invader is up to now – trying to secure his legacy by consolidating his presence on the Black Sea. He doesn’t want a puppet regime in Ukraine, though he’ll take it if it’s a by-product of current events. But the way to bring him to the table and make him leave with face – and that is crucial for an egomaniac – a solution needs to be found around the coast.

It’s the oldest lesson in the book for anyone in conflict, indeed even for any lowly local political figure: know what the enemy wants and try very hard not to give him more than you can afford. And let’s hope this Lent that Putin’s allies and army do a bit of self-reflection too, and renounce this tyrannical despot forever.