Putin vs the West, BBC review: World leaders seem rightly shamefaced about how they got taken for a ride by the Russian president

Putin versus the West The latest series from the legendary Norma Percy, the three episodes contain everything you’d expect from the veteran documentarian – the perfect mix of revelation, anecdote, history, drama, forensic analysis and storytelling. Putin, the war in Ukraine and how the West got it wrong are all understandable. It’s amazing and you have to watch it to understand how we got to where we are now.

It’s so brilliant, in fact, that you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat, listening to the testimony of half-forgotten souls like former French President Francois Hollande. Former President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso; Cathy Ashton, who was once the deputy foreign secretary of the European Union. And various other operatives, advisers, politicians, and former ambassadors — who have had the bruising experience of dealing with Vladimir Putin firsthand over the years.

In the hands of the programme-makers, archive footage of ministers coming and going at EU meetings and conferences in Brussels and Minsk takes on the quality of a tense thriller as revelations about what goes on behind the scenes come together. The first episode looks at the events leading up to Russia’s first invasion in 2014, when they seized Crimea and the eastern Donbas region with minimal resistance and Western punishment and maximum Western confusion and disorder. The Russians bluffed their way to victory. When Putin appears at a major conference and the Ukrainians are confronted with hard evidence that they have captured large numbers of Russian soldiers on their territory, such as ID tags and official orders, Putin makes a series of pythonic excuses. Proposes: The Ukrainians pretended that the Russians were “on vacation”. Or “lost their way” along the border.

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On another occasion, when Putin was denying the infiltration of shadowy Russian forces and the occupation of eastern Ukraine, Merkel told him not to be so stupid, according to one witness. However, he remains reluctant to push the Russians too hard for fear of escalating tensions and losing gas supplies. The European Union and NATO were completely divided. Elsewhere, Barack Obama apparently deliberately called Russia a “regional power”, something that was particularly offensive to Putin – and hardened his attitudes. Obama talked tough about sanctions, but like Germany, Americans at the time simply weren’t going to send military aid and risk war. That’s what we’re learning from Obama’s closest advisers at the time. Merkel and Obama did not do interviews for the series, which is understandable because they came out of it so badly.

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They were confused by Putin. “Denials and lies” has been and remains Russia’s standard approach, and the only Western leader who seems to be able to cope with it is Boris Johnson. Funny, to his credit, he ignored Putin’s ridiculous threat to target him with a cruise missile.

Cameron, Hollande, Barroso and the rest of the simple heads are often filmed in front of imposing bookshelves or inside ornate palaces. The juxtaposition of bombed-out Ukrainian schools or tanks rolling down the roads of Crimea makes them seem detached from the bloody reality they have allowed to happen.

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At least they seem rightly ashamed of how they rode. Somehow, they apparently only believed what was politically expedient, and never took Putin at his word when he talked about how he wanted to take back control of Ukraine. For example, Barroso tells how he listened with his mouth open as Putin told him that Ukraine was a creation of the CIA and the European Commission. He admits that European disputes encourage Putin to push and push.

Almost, but not quite, Hollande apologizes: “Europe still faces a threat to its unity. When we don’t punish hard enough at first, we have to punish harder later. And this is what is happening today.” There is no dispute about this. We can only hope it’s not too late and Norma Percy’s next series isn’t How Putin Defeated the West.


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