June 6, 2022
The “standard narrative” about the war seems to be that Putin single-handedly made a terrible mistake based on misleading information about the state of his military, the situation in Ukraine, and the expected reaction of the West. I have tried to explain why some of these mistakes might have been unavoidable (I am still of the opinion that nobody could have predicted how united and powerful the Western response would be), so here I would like to tackle another issue, and that is Putin’s singular responsibility.
Let’s start with the thesis: Putin is neither unique nor uniquely responsible for this war among the Russians. In fact, he is a fairly typical representative of the way Russian elites look at Ukraine, and what they consider to be its “proper place.” Russia never reconciled with the loss of Ukraine in 1991, and its entire foreign policy in that regard has been remarkably consistent, trying to bring it back within Russia’s “sphere of influence” or, preferably, direct control. The brief glimmer of hope under Yeltsin died when he had to deal with the brown-red coalition of nationalists and communists, and made important concessions to them on foreign policy (the Duma had already declared Sevastopol a federal subject, and was chafing to snatch Crimea). The two reasons Yelstin exercised some restraint were the need for American support with the failing economy, and the prospect of Ukraine keeping the nuclear weapons, especially when the dispute over the disposition of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet escalated. The Russian elites’ attitudes ranged from ultra-nationalist (Ukraine is not a legitimate country), to imperialist (Ukraine must be subjugated, as it always had been) to great power status (Ukraine must be in the Russian sphere of influence). I am not aware of any important faction or even a person in Russia who advocated for independence of Ukraine then or ever, certainly not within its 1991 borders. Even famous opposition leaders like Nemtsov and, later, Navalny tended to agree with the notion that Ukraine’s 1991 borders were illegitimate because of Crimea (properly Russian) and Donbas (possibly so).
Russian foreign policy toward Ukraine was to subsidize it with cheap energy, and then threaten the energy supply if the government veered too far off the course the Kremlin wanted. The Russians created, and promoted, an oligarchy that made its fortunes from the sweetheart deals they got from controlling the import of Russian energy products — these were ready supporters for pro-Moscow politics. On the other hand, Russia had very little to offer in terms of markets or access to technology, so the West proved alluring as ever to the elites as well. And so Ukrainian politics “stabilized” in the no-man’s land between Moscow and Brussels. On the one hand, the Ukrainian economy could no afford the loss of cheap Russian energy, and the oligarchs did not want to lose their lucrative deals. On the other hand, the Ukrainian economy could benefit from exports to the West, as well as imports of desirable Western products. So Kyiv toed a fine line, trying to appease Russia but simultaneously attempting economic integration with the European Union. (This story would be familiar to Bulgarians as well.)
For a while, having pro-Moscow presidents like Kuchma (who had come from the Dnepropetrovks clan that had produced Brezhnev) actually helped calm down domestic politics: Crimea’s secessionist attempt was quashed (hard to complain that you are downtrodden by nationalists in Kyiv with Kuchma at the helm), and Donbas also quieted down. This was no permanent solution, however, as any movement toward deeper economic ties with the West immediately threatened the dependency that Moscow wanted from Ukraine. The Kremlin never gave up on its long-term goal of reconstituting a version of the USSR/Russian Empire, in which Ukraine and Belarus would become part of a federation led by Russia, and within which Moscow would call the shots.
One important aspect of this Russian goal was that it tended to treat Ukrainians as “mini Russians” mislead by Westerners. It was axiomatic in Moscow that Ukrainians were “brothers” who would never want to part ways with Russia on their own accord. With that assumption, the only reason for any drift westward would be because of pernicious influence of the West in general, but the United States in particular. Having denied agency to Kyiv, Moscow forever saw American meddling everywhere, which of course triggered all sorts of other security concerns.
The US position on Ukraine was initially hostile (it really did not want the Soviet Union to fall apart), then — when independence became a fact — it changed to one of neglect, with the only issue of interest to Washington being the disposition of the nuclear weapons, which it wanted returned to Russia. The Ukrainians tried to bargain for some resources in exchange for relinquishing the nukes, but they had a weak hand, and so could not get a deal nearly as good as the Russians had gotten.
People are fond of quoting Zbigniew Brzezinski’s exchange with Andrei Kozyrev in Foreign Affairs (1994), when the former National Security Adviser to President Carter argued that Russia’s foreign policy is at best proto-imperial and that the US should strive to ensure “geopolitical pluralism within the former Soviet Union” (that is, the independence of the former Soviet republics). He focused specifically on Ukraine: “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned, and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” It would follow, then, that the US should do everything it could to maintain the independence of Ukraine.
This line of reasoning would put Washington on a direct collision course with Moscow, which the Russians were quick to point out. In his reply, Kozyrev who argued that “Russian foreign policy inevitably has to be of an independent and assertive nature… Russia is predestined to be a great power.” The US government realized this, and so US foreign policy with respect to Ukraine did not follow Brzezinski’s line, preferring instead a modus vivendi with the Russians that would respect their wishes when it came to places Washington considered of “legitimate” interest to them (Belarus, Ukraine, Caucasus, and Asia). This did not, of course, include the Baltics or the Eastern European countries, which soon joined NATO and th European Union. The accommodation seems to have suited Moscow as well.
In the early 2000s, Russia experienced a fast economic recovery, which solidified Putin’s position at home and made Russia more attractive to its neighbors. While the Americans welcomed this in the belief that a prosperous and well-integrated Russia would cease to be a threat to its neighbors and Europe, the West ignored the consolidation of power in Moscow as well as the massive investment in the military that Putin began to make. The West looked elsewhere as Russia fought brief, and victorious, wars with its wayward neighbors in Georgia, Chechnya, and Dagestan, among others. It sat complacent as Russian money poured in, corrupting Western elites and encouraging the growth of far-right ultra-nationalist (and in some cases, neo-Nazi) political movements in Europe. In thrall of the exuberant nonsense of an “end to history” and democratic triumphalism, the West just ignored the steady penetration of Russian influence everywhere.
The Kremlin was busy restoring what it believed to be Russia’s rightful place under the sun. Even in this new world, where the global competition had crystallized between Washington and Beijing, Russia wanted to be a player — and it had its formidable military to make the claim that it belonged to that exclusive club. It should go without saying that Putin’s foreign policy was not especially sinister or unique — anyone in his stead would have done something very similar with the Europeans — after all, what is the point of having all these natural resources if you did not make good use of them, both financially and politically. Putin’s foreign policy was not confrontational, which served Russia’s interests best, much like China’s decades-long policy of quiet development. The big difference from China, however, was the Putin did not invest in domestic development, preferring to just run the clan hierarchy that he had inherited and come to dominate. Reforming this without the backup of a party like the communists in China would have been extraordinarily difficult, and probably impossible. The best organized parties (e.g., Zhirinovsky’s) were not exactly keen on domestic liberalization and market-based development either.
All of this could have gone on for much longer had it not been for the Ukrainians in 2013. When Moscow-friendly President Yanukovych scrapped the economic deal with the European Union, Ukrainians in the West took to the streets. This they had done twice before, back in 2004-05, when they put Yushchenko in power after Kuchma tried to falsify the elections (Orange Revolution), and, before that, in 1990, when students forced the resignation of the Soviet Chairman of the Council of Ministers (Revolution on Granite). Yanukovych tried to suppress the protests and his security services fired on civilians, murdering nearly 200, but this only made matters worse. Yanukovych fled to Russia on February 21, 2014, and on the following day Parliament declared his post vacant and scheduled fresh elections.
Putin immediately convened a meeting with his security chiefs to discuss how to restore Yanukovych to power, but there was little prospect of success without a military intervention, and apparently Yanukovych refused to ask for one (he denied having requested it despite a Russian member of the Duma producing a letter that purported to have been from Yanukovych that contained that request). With Ukrainian politics in chaos, with no immediate solution in sight, and with an unmistakable turn West by both the provisional government and its likely successor, the Russians put in motion plans to take Crimea.
That this had been a long-term goal all along cannot be doubted. The Russians were not shy of announcing it, including with votes in the Duma, for years. They could count on solid support from the local population that had, after all, voted to secede in the 1990s although back then Russia was too weak to accept it. Now that Kyiv would not be able to mount any response, Putin could expect to take Crimea without a fight. And so it happened, with unmarked Russian troops pouring in just four days later, capturing the seat of government and key positions throughout the peninsula. Some of the Ukrainian military and navy defected to the Russians, and soon a hastily concocted referendum declared independence on March 16, with Russia annexing Crimea two days later. There is no reason to think that had the referendum been conducted legitimately, the outcome would have been different.
The annexation catapulted Putin’s approval ratings into the stratosphere, which is not surprising given the attitudes of the Russians — people and elites alike — toward Ukraine generally and Crimea specifically. This was no conquest, it was merely correcting a historic injustice inflicted on Russia at a moment of temporary weakness. It was inevitable that it would happen, and how it had. This is how the annexation played domestically, and it also provided the template for subsequent moves against Kyiv. It is important to realize that nobody in Russia opposed this or saw it as an illegitimate move by Putin. Sevastopol was now a federal subject, and the Russian Black Sea Fleet would have its home without pesky agreements with the Ukrainians.
It is in this context that one can understand the next steps, which were still aimed at restoring Moscow’s influence in Kyiv. Of course, taking Crimea did not endear the Russians to many Ukrainians, and deepened divisions in their society: pro-Russian Ukrainians were heartened and hoped that Crimea was just the first step toward arresting Ukraine’s slide into a Western abyss, nationalists feared that the pro-Russian Ukrainians might be right, and for many people in the middle, the move was tantamount to tearing a piece of their country away. Overall, one could expect a rise in nationalism in the West, a rise in separatism in the East, and a noticeable hardening of attitudes toward Moscow on average.
In such an environment, Putin’s only move had to be coercive: nobody would pay attention to him “playing nice” after gobbling up Crimea, so the only way to push Kyiv back into a conciliatory position was to destabilize the current regime and hope that pro-Moscow elements could take over. To this end, the Kremlin encouraged the spread of separatism in the south (Mariupol, Kherson, Odessa) and in the east (Donbas). Russian agents fanned out and quickly established “people’s militias” that provoked clashes with the Ukrainian regime and clamored for autonomy (initially, at least, they did not seek independence). When Kyiv tried to eliminate them, the Russians sent reinforcements, and pushed back the ill equipped and badly motivated Ukrainian military. Soon, the only Ukrainians fighting in these areas were volunteers from various paramilitary organizations, some with less than attractive ideological origins, having been hastily cobbled together from soccer fans, neo-Nazis, ultra-nationalists, and people spoiling for a fight with Russians. These groups managed to prevent the full takeover of Donbas by the separatists, and even expelled them from the South, allowing Kyiv to keep its access to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.
The US and the Western Europeans attempted to find a solution to the conflict, and they were under no illusion that despite his denials, Putin had been behind the separatists. While Russia agreed to negotiate, Putin adamantly refused to do so on behalf of DNR/LNR (the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics). The Westerners knew that only an agreement with Putin would yank the rug from under the separatists — much like it had when Milosevic went to Dayton on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs) — and with Putin feigning innocence of any involvement, no cease-fire could last. Minsk I and II agreements came and went, and with them the hope for a quick solution. Russia was, of course, entirely uninterested in a solution that would restore peace: its entire strategy was predicated on making Kyiv’s life difficult to the point that the government would agree to serious concessions, maybe even to rule by someone friendly to Russia.
Putin’s strategy was cheap and, at least initially, effective. The West denounced the annexation of Crimea but slapped only desultory sanctions on Russia — clearly, it had no stomach to resist Moscow. In Donbas, its main activity seems to have been counting casualties on both sides. There was no reason for Putin to change course… except that the strategy showed clear signs of failure by 2021.
The fighting in Donbas subsided by 2017, and the frontlines stabilized. Instead of genuflecting to Moscow, Kyiv took a firm turn to the West, reorganizing its military along NATO lines instead of the Soviet top-heavy model, improving its weapons, and seeking further integration with the European Union. It refused to accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and planned on recovering Donbas — by arms if necessary — at some point in the future. Putin also made a strategic mistake in his effort to keep the citizens of Donbas upset — Russia did not invest anything in the region, which accelerated its economic downturn. The pandemic only made things worse. People left in droves, both to territories controlled by Ukraine (where investment flowed in) and to Russia. The people who stayed behind either could not leave for lack of opportunities or did not want to, and none of them would have been especially happy with Russia, especially when witnessing the contrast with the development in the rest of Ukraine. When Russia finally came to “liberate” them, there would be no flowers to meet the soldiers.
I have spent considerable time explaining the timing of the Russian attack, but that it would have to come at some point was never in doubt. The entire thrust of Russian foreign policy since the disintegration of the USSR has been to “recover” Ukraine in some form or another. With the Donbas strategy in tatters, what was Moscow’s next move to be? One tempting course of action would be to imitate Beijing on Taiwan: go slow, make yourself indispensable to the country’s economy (China now accounts for over 40% of Taiwanese exports), and wait for the opportune moment to strike (perhaps when the US is distracted by some other major conflict, like perhaps a war in Europe involving Russia). The problem is that time was not on Russia’s side: Ukraine was just going further West while Russia’s own prospects looked bleak.
While some Russian elites might have been in the dark about the moment of the attack, it is unlikely that they did not expect one to come — the government had been building the case of Ukrainian neo-Nazis and Western influence for years. So while some may bemoan the war now (not that many, at least not openly), it is more about the way it has gone rather than what its goals were. In other words, Putin might have plenty of hidden critics in Russia, but these disagree with how he pursued the war rather than that the war should have been pursued.
This is why hoping that a change in regime would bring peace because an anti-war guy would take over is a dangerous illusion. The only way Putin’s fall would bring an end to the war is if it creates so much chaos in Russia over the succession and perhaps over retaining the Russian Federation intact that there would be no one left to fight the war in Ukraine. A hastily patched up peace might follow but even this would not be stable. If the party that signs it gets overthrown, it would be declared invalid. And even if he survives, the next government might still not be bound by it, extracted as it would have been, in yet another moment of weakness for Russia. Any other solution would a cease-fire, at best. Russia never gives up its claims, and it never abides by agreements it has been forced to negotiate. It will be back to claim what it considers its when it rebuilds. Sometimes I wonder what history Macron and Scholz are reading.
The only ways to guarantee Ukraine’s security is either by admission into NATO (and then, fingers crossed) or by helping it build, and maintain, an army large enough to make another Russian invasion a truly grim prospect. If Russia falls apart, then Ukraine would be able to stand up to rump Muscovy. If Russia stays together, it will inevitably rebuild and attempt a revanche. Only a democratic Russia has a hope of not threatening its neighbors, and the likelihood of democratization there is practically nil.
It Putin goes, he will be replaced by someone at least as hawkish as he is, and with perhaps less acumen in keeping the country together. One truly scary prospect is that this someone might depend on Kadyrov and his troops. Think this is far-fetched? Consider the following: the Russians are prone to bring about regime change at gun point — from Catherine the Great taking the throne from her husband, to the attempted Revolution in 1905, to the successful revolution of 1917, to Zhukov getting rid of Beria after Stalin’s death in 1953, to the old guard attempting to overthrow Gorbachev in 1991, to Yeltsin shelling the Duma in 1994, and these are the famous ones. Who is going to provide the military muscle for Putin’s replacement? Certainly not the regular military, which is tied up in Ukraine (with a sizeable chunk destroyed). Then who?
Kadyrov, that’s who. For all his weird TikTok videos, don-don from Chechnya has created a remarkable presence. From an anti-Russian fighter, to a traitor, to President of Chechnya (more like, a Russian satrap), Kadyrov has carved out a menacing position. He has about 20-30,000 troops under his command (technically, under command of the National Guard, but with the understanding that they listen to Kadyrov exclusively), of whom only a few hundred have been sent to Ukraine, and even there not in combat positions, all their TikTok adventures notwithstanding. The remainder of this well-paid force is in Moscow and Chechnya. In Moscow, they have the right to parade around with their guns, and they enjoy the patronage of Putin, which allows them to engage in all sorts of nefarious activities of the criminal variety.
Two days ago Minister of Defense met with Kadyrov, certainly not to plan an invasion of Poland. Right now, Kadyrov might be the only one who could command a military muscle to either assist or prevent a (palace) coup. Shoigu probably asked him for his price whatever the insiders are going to do after Putin’s demise, which might not be long now (he looks pretty frail, and then there are the rumors about an assassination attempt in March). Then there is the option of “doing a Zhukov” on Kadyrov (meaning, finding a commander with enough troops to neutralize the Kadyrovtsi while other eliminate the leader). There is a lot of turmoil on the top right now in Russia, mostly because of how badly the war has been going. Everybody is pointing fingers, and Putin has relieved many commanders and FSB siloviki from duty, most often without removing them from their positions to create the illusion of stability. Nobody seems to know how this ends, and most are probably going to wait until it becomes more clear which faction might have the upper hand.
I am not going to hazard a prediction about how this internal struggle will turn out. The situation is, however, reaching a boiling point because of RFA’s inability to deliver even Donbas — and this before the American lend/lease aid has even started to flow. The Ukrainians seem to have recovered most of Severodonetsk last night, and now there are more reports about fighters from DNR refusing orders of their Russian commanders. This is why Putin has been turning the screws on Lukashenko — he desperately needs the distraction the Belarusian invasion would provide. (Given the continued movements toward Brest and the border, I have to upgrade my risk assessment to 50/50.)
How long can the Russians throw people and machinery into the grinder in the East, I do not know. But the Ukrainians seem to have hit upon a good strategy for them: delay and let the casualties mount. The Russians always respond with savage missile hits and bombs when they suffer setbacks on the battlefield, and last night was no different. The war of attrition will continue, and I do not believe we should expect a large counter-offensive by the Ukrainians this summer — it is likely to be extraordinarily costly, and might galvanize a response in a way that the slow but steady drip currently cannot. When the Ukrainians get the better weapons they have been asking for, they could minimize the Russian hits on their own targets, but also pound Russian positions further from the frontline.
To recap, steel yourself for a summer of attrition, and expect flashes from the Kremlin, especially toward the fall, when the economy will truly feel the pinch of the sanctions.