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Putin’s Zeal to Restore the Past Has Foreclosed Russia’s Future

What misfortune, after a tumultuous decade in which Russia sought to right itself after the breakup of the Soviet Union and become a fledgling democracy, that Boris Yeltsin on resigning the presidency chose as his successor ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin, engrained in paranoia and sinister tradecraft, protest
Protest in St. Petersburg.

rather than some enlightened leader with a zeal to make Russia great again, economically strong, taking advantage of an enormous land expanse filled with resources, and increasingly moving toward the West.

Instead, we have a man obsessed with recreating the past, starting with a takeover of Ukraine, and the larger goal of disrupting the European alliance and NATO. A man whose actions have made the case for why there is a NATO.

Instead, just before Ukraine, we saw a man cozy up to China to form an alliance specifically against the U.S., electing to turn away from Europe and make Russia Asian. How is that likely to turn out?

China is soon to overtake the United States as the world' biggest economy. Next to them, Russia is very much the junior partner, with a GDP less than that of Texas. For a time, Russia will prosper, selling China energy, wheat, etc. But Xi Jinping wants China to become self-sufficient, exemplified by his "Made in China 2025" plan. Xi is averse to imports; why send money out of the country so that another can prosper? His gaze must already be drawn to Siberia, the vast, empty land full of oil, gas, timber, fresh water, arable land, diamonds, gold, rare earths, and with global warming soon to make Russia the world's largest wheat producer. As retired Adm. James Stavridis, formerly head of NATO, has said, "China looks at that like my dog looks at a ribeye steak."

THERE WERE SIGNS

It should have always been clear from the massive build-up that Vladimir Putin would invade. He made demands that he knew the U.S., the European nations, and NATO would not agree to. He used diplomacy to bide for time to build up his forces. Protests that Ukraine might join NATO were a pretext.

There hadn't been any movement by the West or by Ukraine for the Russian neighbor to join NATO since eight years ago, and it was then the European Union that Ukraine was hopeful to join. Nothing has been happening since for that to have been the Russian's excuse to invade.

Speculation right up to the invasion thought it probable that Putin would have his army nibble chunks out of Ukraine. A puppet government in Kyiv would likely suffice. The media seemed incredulous that he would want the whole country.

Belarus may find itself in Russia's grip along with Ukraine. Alexander Lukashenko, its dictatorial president for 28 years, has accepted Russian forces into the country for invading Ukraine from the north and is having Belarus abandon its non-nuclear policy so as to accept Russian nuclear weapons. Putin was outraged by NATO's eastward advance pressing up against Russia in the case of two of the small Baltic states, Estonia and Latvia in 2004. protest
NATO member nations colored in. To their east, Russia adjacent to Estonia and Latvia, Belarus below, then Ukraine, Moldova.

But now with attacking Ukraine and muscling into Belarus, it is Putin who has elected to press up against NATO countries and along borders six times longer.

the obsession

Putin cannot conceive of a Russia without Ukraine, Russia's historic breadbasket, and Kyiv the mother of Russian cities in his telling. For him, Ukraine as its own sovereign state is a fiction, its nationalism an artifice. He speaks of the government in Kyiv as a "gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis”, that "Nazis are in control of the Ukrainian government". He has called it his "duty" to reunite Ukraine with Russia.

When he asserts that "modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia…by Bolshevik, Communist Russia", he only reminds Ukrainians of the brutal treatment by its neighbor. The Bolshevik takeover led to the Leninist collectivization of the land in the 1930s that drove kulaks and peasants off their farms, deported them to gulags, and left behind starvation that killed millions for there "being no grain and the only meat was human", as Yale's professor Timothy Snyder tells us in his book, "Bloodlands". Compare that genocidal treatment of Ukraine by Russia in the years after the revolution to Putin's claim that he is saving the separatist regions in the east still held by Ukrainians from "genocide" where "they are torturing
"You should have sunflower seeds in you pockets so they will grow on Ukrainian land after you die”

people, children, women, elderly people". That better describes the Russian-occupied sector, where a Ukrainian novelist and journalist told The Wall Street Journal he was repeatedly tortured with electric shock in "a Soviet system of the 1930s and 1940s" that had been built, "with dungeons, with torture chambers”.

This may be Vladimir Putin's design for a Ukraine that has surely made it clear that it would not choose to live under the Russian yoke. Near the end of 2013, Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych rejected an agreement that would bring Ukraine and Europe closer, and instead opted for closer ties to Russia accepting a Russian loan bailout. Demonstrations broke out in the main square of Kyiv, the M aidan, leading to over a hundred deaths in clashes with the police. Yanukovych and others in his government fled to Russia in February 2014 in what came to be known as the Revolution of Dignity.

CLAIMS OF HUMILIATION AND DECEIT

A little recent history: After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it was a time when American and other western "advisers" poured in to teach capitalism to the Russians and scavenge for bargains that would make them rich. A new Russian oligarchy emerged that divvied up state assets among themselves in deals tantamount to theft, transforming their nation into a kleptocracy.

The West — principally the United States — unlearned the lesson of its hugely lauded Marshall Plan reconstruction of Europe after World War II and adopted instead an attitude of triumphalism over the humbled Russia, now stripped of its satellite nations. During the Clinton administration NATO began its eastward advance with the addition in 1999 of major countries — Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland — which made no sense well after the Soviet bloc had dissolved. The Russians say that two years earlier NATO had vowed not to station troops further than the alliance's border at the time, and that in 1990 then-Secretary of State James Baker had pledged to “not shift one inch eastward from its present position” in return for Gorbachev agreeing to withdraw from East Germany to allow for reunification of the divided country. And yet the 1990 agreement that reunified Germany added East Germany to NATO, moving the perimeter eastward contrary to assurances.

In Putin's view, the West had repeatedly shown that it could not be trusted. Eastward creep became a gallop while George W Bush was U.S. president with nine more countries joining NATO, including the Baltic nations Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania pressed right up against Russia. The total NATO count is now 30, all arrayed against Russia.

NOT JUST UKRAINE

For Putin it has been a festering buildup of resentment. He seeks to redress Russia's humiliation. Millions of Russians harbor the same feelings.

Putin has shown his ambition extends well beyond Ukraine. He memorably said that the Soviet Union’s collapse was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Moscow lost 41% of its GDP and just shy of 50% of the Soviet Union's population.

Still, commiseration doesn't well up for a tyranny that owed that size to an agglomeration of countries held as vassal states by force, as in 1956 when the USSR suppressed the Hungarian Uprising against Soviet occupation, and again in 1968 when the Soviets sent half a million troops and armor to occupy Czechoslovakia for eight months to punish the Czech government for its intent to loosen restrictions on media, speech and travel.

“For Putin, it’s not just 30 years of historical wrong but centuries of injury inflicted on Russia, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Empire,” said Fiona Hill, senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council during the Trump administration. Putin wants to bring back into the fold

tens of millions of "Russian speakers stranded beyond truncated borders", says a Journal article, much as Hitler wanted to annex areas of other countries where ethnic Germans lived, such as the Sudetenland portions of Czechoslovakia that the Nazis annexed in 1938.

"He wants to renegotiate the end of the Cold War", writes Stephen Fidler, a European editor of the Journal. "Mr. Putin has made clear he wants to redraw the post-Cold War security map of Europe." He wants NATO to turn the clock back to the 1990s when the alliance extended no further than Germany.

a Putin they did not know

Russians have praised Putin's steady hand running the country which has given rise to an economy in which city-dwellers, at least, can prosper. His sudden turn has invited a steady stream of sanctions that is throwing that away. He is turning Russia into an "impoverished, disconnected hermit kingdom" in the words of Russia expert Julia Joffe. That he is killing the people of the country most closely connected historically to Russia has staggered the Russian populace, sending them at great risk of arrest into the streets of Russian cities in protest.

Mr. Putin must have had some expectation of this; he tried to minimize the invasion by calling it a "special military operation". What is left of Russian media is told not to use the word "war". The last independent media outlet, TV Rain, has been shut down, with Novaya Gazeta, edited by Nobel Prize winner Dmitri Muratov, likely to follow. Even Facebook and Twitter have been silenced. The Duma, the Russian assembly, has just passed a law that calls for 15 years imprisonment for anyone who criticizes the government.

No one will now speak out, leaving only the propaganda channels to misinform a public that knows little of what is happening in Ukraine. A 25-year-old in Kharkiv talks regularly with her mother in Moscow but cannot convince her, even after sending videos, that the Russians are bombing her city. "They still say it probably happens only by accident, that the Russian army would never target civilians. That it's Ukrainians who're killing their own people."

stiff resistance

The surmise is that Putin expected the war to go smoothly, with resistance overcome in a few days as the Russian military experienced when it snipped off a piece of Georgia in 2008 and again in 2014 when it annexed Crimea. How else to explain the extraordinary tactical blunder of the 40-mile convoy on a single road forced to a standstill by Ukrainians blowing bridges in the line of advance. The irony is that they chose to use main roads so as to move more quickly rather than deal with the possible mud of back roads and terrain, only to have their vehicles run out of fuel, their troops run short of water and food, their flanks exposed to Ukrainian attacks, their columns a target for armed drones. .

Eight days into the war, a woman told a Journal reporter that Russian forces were looting local stores and homes for food. Unsubstantiated, but Richard Haass, who heads the Council on Foreign Relations, says he is hearing of Russian soldiers sabotaging their own vehicles rather than fight a sister country in which so many Russians have relatives and friends.

The general assumption is that the smaller Ukrainian military will eventually succumb to the encirclement by the more powerful Russian force. But Ukraine does have one of Europe’s largest militaries with 170,000 active-duty troops, 100,000 reservists, 100,000 or more veterans, and thousands of civilians now enlisting. The fighting in the eastern Donbas region has produced thousands who know how to fight Russians. The Russian seizure of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 led to an influx of U.S. military advisers, including Army Green Berets, training more than 27,000 Ukrainian soldiers, says The New York Times. Those trained were smartly fanned out into regular units where they could become trainers themselves to spread what they had learned.

Right off, Ukrainian troops surprised the Russians, repelling an airborne and special forces attempt to take a key airfield north of Kyiv which Russians hoped to use to fly in troops, weapons, supplies. Eight days into the war, Ukrainian special forces trained by the U.S. and allies and armed with British and American anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft stinger missiles have stymied Russian troops for a week in Irpin, a suburb north of Kyiv, according to a Journal report. “We’re in shock at how dumb their behavior is,” a soldier told the newspaper, claiming that his unit had killed 60 Russians in recent days with losses of only two of their own.

That stiff resistance has prevented marching triumphantly into cities as planned — “Kyiv was supposed to have fallen in three days”, said a Ukrainian delegate to cease-fire talks — suggests why Putin resorted instead to bombing them into submission. A sociopath who poisons his enemies, he is untroubled by committing war crimes with indiscriminate shelling of civilians where they live, as shattered apartment buildings attest. The result is that he is destroying the country he so cherished to make a part of Russia. How will his country of 145 million, crippled by sanctions, afford to rehabilitate a country of 44 million it has reduced to rubble? He may just leave Ukraine to suffer and resurrect itself, in which case will he ask himself what he and Russia have gained? All but the worst of the world have turned against him.

unhinged

Putin lives a Covid-phobic existence, well apart from everyone, as we have seen in photos of his meeting with his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and others, seated far apart at 30-foot-long tables, and in the bizarre arrangement below.
Those hoping to meet with him must first hotel-quarantine for 14 days. A former adviser says Putin is "more isolated than Stalin was". This seems to have changed him.

Perhaps it is that isolation that has caused him to focus on Russian history and the indignity of the many invasions of his country by others — the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Swedes, and of course the French and Germans. In an essay in July, Mr. Putin made his claim that Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are one people, reaching back to origins in the ninth century when Ancient Rus was the largest state in Europe. But in a recent speech he described Ukraine as a dire threat to Russia, a bewildering inversion of the opposite, the Russian genocide that killed millions of Ukrainians almost ninety years ago. Tatiana Stanovaya of the political analysis firm R. Politik seems to have caught the moment, as quoted in the Times:

“Putin has brought himself to a place in which he sees it as more important, more interesting, more compelling to fight for restoring historical justice than for Russia’s strategic priorities. This morning, I realized that a certain shift has taken place.”

His address to the Russian people days before the invasion was "rambling". He has been making nuclear threats of "consequences you have never faced in your history". The "your" is aimed at the United States more than the NATO member nations, as this makes clear:

"Nearly everywhere, in many regions of the world where the United States brought its law and order, this created bloody, unhealing wounds and the curse of international terrorism and extremism. Therefore, one can say with good reason and confidence that the whole so-called Western bloc formed by the United States in its own image and likeness is, in its entirety, the very same ‘empire of lies.’”

He has placed Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert in response to recent sanctions and “aggressive statements” from NATO countries. In an act of insanity, his army began to attacked the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe.

Failure to subjugate Ukraine — and realize his dream — may cause unpredictable responses.

That Vladimir Putin's attack on Ukraine has brought about universal opprobrium, and even something of a pullback from his new friend China, may be viewed by him as yet more humiliation. The havoc we are causing within Russia with sanctions and cordoning off a number of banks from the Swift interbank transaction system may be pressing too far. These moves have caused inflation to soar with the ruble plunging to less than a U.S. penny. Interest rates have gone to 20%.

Unlike Mike Pompeo's assessment of Putin as an "elegantly, sophisticated counterpart and one who is not reckless but who has always done the math", there are questions of whether in his Howard Hughes-like hermetically-sealed isolation Mr. Putin has lost his grip on reality. He is called "unhinged", a "madman". There is talk of totally breaking the Russian economy, of banning the import of Russian oil, but we need to tread carefully against a madman who controls the world's largest nuclear arsenal.

6 Comments for “Putin’s Zeal to Restore the Past Has Foreclosed Russia’s Future”

  1. Kenneth MacWilliams

    My March 1 comment pertained to the earlier version of this article.

  2. Tony White

    Excellent summary of pivotal points in Russian-Ukraine history. However, the 2014 coup in Ukraine which removed the pro-Russian president and was supported by the United States is not included as an important part of that history. Certainly, that uprising and its pro-West inclinations has had a major impact on Putin and reinforces his belief that NATO and the United States continue to undermine and surround Russia. While Putin’s view of reality may be distorted, his perception is paramount.

    • From Editors

      Thank you for calling us out on that, a sizable omission. That’s been patched in, if you care to have a look. Search on “This may be…”

  3. Dr David Barnett

    A lot of people are making analogies with the Soviet Union empire or the 3rd Reich’e annexation of the Sudetenland. To me, this feels a lot more like the prelude to the First World War, where pride, an elites looking for a reason to exist a privileged class running states with dubious morality, walked us into an epoch-defining devastating war.

    In 1914-18 we were on the side of the “winners” in the sense that our states continued intact. Today, the west has a hollowed out leadership of mediocre talents educated by religiously woke institutions that long since ceased to deserve the title “university”. It is far from clear to me that we will be on the winning side this time.

    If our civilisation is to survive the coming catastrophe it will not be with the kind of leadership that orchestrated the Covid-19 response and the shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan. However the incompetent technocracy that rules us will not yield willingly to the superior minds whom they vilify as “fringe”.

    There is only one rational path past the current crisis – a deal with Putin.

    • Kenneth MacWilliams

      For Dr. David Barnett – I appreciated your comment. It feels WWI to me as well. And I agree with your last sentence. I would be interested in connecting directly with you regarding further discussion of this topic. Perhaps the editor would link us if you give him permission; I do. Kenneth MacWilliams

  4. Kenneth MacWilliams

    Very good summary of a very long and complex situation.

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