Putin v. West, BBC review: World leaders appear to be ashamed of how the Russian president has taken them for a ride

Putin against the West The latest in a series from the legendary Norma Percy, the three-part film has everything you’d expect from a veteran documentary filmmaker–the right mix of revelation, anecdote, history, drama, forensic analysis, and storytelling. It’s Putin’s war with Ukraine and how the West made mistakes, it’s all becoming 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 find yourself in the unexpected position of being almost on the edge of your seat listening to testimony from half-forgotten overlooked idiots – like former French President François Hollande; former President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso; Cathy Ashton, formerly the EU’s alternate foreign secretary. and many ex-servicemen, advisers, politicians and ambassadors – who usually have had painful experience dealing directly with Vladimir Putin over the years.

In the hands of the makers, archive footage of the ministerial comings and goings at EU summits and conferences in Brussels and Minsk appears with the quality of a thriller, peppered with revelations about what went on behind the scenes. The first episode deals with the events that led to the first Russian invasion in 2014, when they seized Crimea and the eastern Donbass region, with minimal Western resistance and punishment, and maximum Western division and chaos. The Russians cheated and slashed their way to victory. When Putin attends a major conference and Ukrainians confront him with overwhelming evidence that they have captured dozens of Russian soldiers on their soil, such as ID cards and official orders, Putin comes up with a series of Pythonic excuses: Ukrainians are fixing it; the Russians were “on vacation”; or “lost their way” along the border.

On another occasion, when Putin denied unmarked Russian forces had infiltrated and occupied eastern Ukraine, Merkel told him not to be so ridiculous, according to an eyewitness. However, she still did not push the Russians away, fearing an escalation and the loss of gas supplies. The European Union was completely divided, and so was NATO. Elsewhere, Barack Obama appears to be intentionally calling Russia a “regional power”, which was particularly offensive to Putin – and strengthened his positions. Obama spoke firmly about sanctions, but, like Germany, the Americans were not then simply sending military aid and risking a war. This is something we learn from Obama’s close advisers at the time. Merkel and Obama didn’t give an interview to the series, which is understandable because they got out of it so badly.

Putin deceived them. “Denial and lying” has been and remains the standard Russian approach, and the only Western leader who seems capable of dealing with it is Boris Johnson. That’s funny. To his credit, he missed Putin’s ludicrous threat to target him with a cruise missile.

Cameron, Holland, Barroso, and the rest of the silly talking heads are mostly photographed in front of admiring bookcases or inside what look like ornately furnished mansions. Combined with bombed-out Ukrainian schools or tanks rolling down Crimean roads, this makes it seem somewhat detached from the bloody reality that was allowed to happen.

At least they seem rightly shy about how you take them on a trip. Somehow, it seems, they only thought what was politically expedient, never taking Putin at his word when he launched into one about how he wanted to take back control of Ukraine. Barroso, for one, recounts how he listened, with an open mouth, as Putin told him that Ukraine was a creation of the CIA and the European Commission. He acknowledges that European divisions have emboldened Putin to push and push.

Hollande almost, but not completely, apologized, saying: “Europe still faces a threat to its unity. When we don’t punish hard at first, we are forced to punish harder later. And that is what is happening today.” There is no dispute about that. We can only hope it’s not too late, and Norma Percy’s next series isn’t titled How Putin Beat the West.

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