Putin may have bitten off more than he can chew

Putin may have bitten off more than he can chew. By Paul Monk.

War, Clausewitz famously wrote, is the continuation of politics by other means. Vladimir Putin tried, for many years, to create a puppet regime in Ukraine by means of political subversion. He failed. Now he is trying war. He is floundering and paying a high price for his arrogance. This war, whatever its outcome, will entrench Ukrainian nationalism forever.

Morale among Russian forces is poor. Russian soldiers, told they were on a training drill or being sent into Ukraine to stop a genocide, ran into fierce mass resistance. Casualties and loss of military platforms have been heavy. Ukraine has been aroused and will not easily be crushed.

NATO has been galvanised. Germany — under a green/left government — has declared it will double its defence budget and send military equipment to Ukraine. Neutral Sweden and Finland are seeking membership of the alliance. Serious Western sanctions have triggered a massive fall in the Russian stockmarket and the value of the rouble.

There is even widespread dissent in Russia against the war.

Putin and his inner circle appear to have fallen into the trap of believing their own propaganda about Ukrainian independence being some kind of Western plot to weaken Russia. In fact, what Putin has unleashed has not only triggered massive resistance in Ukraine, but has roused alarm about Russian imperialism in the Baltic states, Eastern Europe (especially Poland) and Scandinavia — for deep historical reasons. That history is Putin’s nemesis. …

A little history is relevant here:

Putin’s claims, in short, date back not to the Soviet Union but to the first Russian Tsar, Ivan III. But Ukrainians and Lithuanians have a very different view of the matter. …

Ivan III styled himself Tsar/Caesar because he was married to Sophia Palaeologa, a niece of the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus — and, on that basis, declared Muscovy to be the successor state of the Roman Empire, the “Third Rome”. Constantinople had fallen to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Putin yearns for those days, as Turkey’s Recep Erdogan does for the Ottoman Empire.

This first Russian Tsar created the dream of a Russian Empire. But it took centuries for the Russians to conquer the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and its successor state the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was only created by the Union of Lublin, in 1569.

Putin’s current war has its roots in that era. The Tsardom of Muscovy and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were, from the 15th century onwards, locked in a prolonged struggle for control of Ukraine. Tsar Ivan the Terrible (1530-84) fought relentlessly to impose Russian rule on Ukraine. He failed, lapsed into paranoia and, after a ­violent purge of the Russian oligarchs (the boyars), died defeated. His death was followed by the so-called Time of Troubles, in which the very future of the Russian state was in doubt.

NATO’s resistance to Putin bears striking similarities to the ­resistance Ivan the Terrible faced from the Swedes, Poles, Lithuanians and Ukrainians long ago. Perhaps the outcome will be similar.

Following the Time of Troubles, a new dynasty, the Romanovs, came to power in 1613. Over the following 300 years, they gradually succeeded where Ivan the Terrible had failed. They asserted Russian rule over Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia and Finland — as well as the Caucasus, Central Asia and Siberia. It was not until the three partitions of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, between 1772 and 1795, however, that Russian rule was ­finally stamped on Ukraine as a whole, along with much of Poland and all of Lithuania.

But that conquest no more made Ukrainians into Russians than it made Poles or Finns into Russians — or than British rule made the Irish into Anglo-Saxons.

Romanov control lasted until the Russian Revolution of 1917. Then the Russian Empire disintegrated. The Soviet Union, however, set about reconsolidating it and maintained its dominance until it, too, collapsed, in 1989-91.

Stalin’s brutal treatment of Ukraine in the 1930s, during forced collectivisation, and again in 1944-45 as the Red Army drove the Nazis out, has never been forgotten or forgiven. But it was the collapse of Soviet power, in 1989-91, that gave Ukraine a chance to break free. Lithuania declared independence in March 1990, following the collapse of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. Latvia and Estonia did likewise. Gorbachev, goaded by hardliners, attempted, in early 1991, to reverse these declarations, sending in tanks that killed Lithuanians, but the invasion failed. Gorbachev fell from power himself, in an attempted hardline coup in August 1991. The coup was foiled by Boris Yeltsin, who took control of Russia, and the Soviet Union fell apart. …

When Gorbachev fell and Yeltsin took over in Russia, Ukraine declared independence in the name of a thousand-year memory of statehood. In the Ukrainian parliament, 346 deputies voted for independence, five abstained and only two voted against. In December 1991, the declaration of independence was put to a popular vote. There was an 84 per cent turnout. More than 90 per cent of voters supported independence. Even in Crimea, where the population was 66 per cent Russian, well over half of voters supported independence.

In this decisive manner, in late 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. It would be eight tumultuous years before Vladimir Putin rose to power. During those years, the economic and political transition in Russia was bungled badly. Putin’s own rise to power was made possible by that bungling — under Yeltsin. As Putin asserted power in the name of Russian nationalism, more and more states on Russia’s periphery sought shelter under the wings of NATO and membership of the EU. Why did NATO expand? It was wanted. Russia was not.

In 2022, all this history is on the table. Putin’s brutal attempt to reassert imperial sway by force, in the tradition of Ivan the Terrible, could bring about his downfall, but it could, prior to that, trigger a wider war and a very serious disaster for much of Europe.

Putin must go, for Russia to become a full member of the West:

If Putin can be brought to heel without a wider war, perhaps, at last, a chastened and democratising Russia could be brought into the Western and European world.

Mikhail Gorbachev spoke, in the 1980s, of a “common European home” including Russia. That is something worth aiming for. But Putin cannot be accommodated. He must go. …

The fact that severe sanctions have been imposed by a US-led coalition, rather than a military intervention in Ukraine itself being mounted by NATO, is not a sign of weakness or irresolution. It should be heralded as the harbinger of a better order and of less destructive means for bringing aggressors to heel. …

The irony of Putin’s war is that it is hardening nationalism in all the states around Russia’s borders and reinforcing the case for NATO as a pan-European security structure. From the point of view of Russian prestige, security and influence, this is the very opposite of what any sound strategist should have wanted. Putin has shown himself, for all his ruthlessness and dissimulation, to be a failed strategist and nihilist. …

The immediate danger is that he will recklessly escalate this war and take us all to the brink of a nuclear war — or over that brink. The war must be contained. Putin must be checkmated. The costs for Russia must be calibrated, such that those with the most to lose in Russia decide Putin has to be removed from power. Then negotiations over a viable settlement can begin.

Combatants must exhaust themselves first.