Three-Part Thinkpiece: Putin, His War, And Ours?

Here are three analyses of how the Ukraine war is unfolding, especially from Vladimir Putin’s perspective.

The first is by Tatiana Stanovaya, a U. S.-based scholar who has observed Putin and tracked his thinking and actions for twenty years.

She argues, in sum, that Putin has a plan for conquering and absorbing/erasing Ukraine, and despite what seem to westerners like major setbacks he thinks the plan is working out fine, even if it may take a few more years to meet its goals. Along the way, he expects it to roll back NATO and promote the rise of a broader authoritarian world order, in which a renewed Russian empire will be a central player.

The second is by Simon Tisdall, a columnist for The Guardian in London. Tisdall has called repeatedly for escalation of NATO direct actions in the war, insisting that NATO governments have not faced up to the magnitude of actual peril facing them in Putin’s imperial drive.

And finally, we hear from Putin directly, in excerpts from his address to the Russian public on the eve of the invasion. (The complete official English text of this February 22 address, from the Kremlin website, is here.)

All these writers foresee a war that will be extended, and pose much risk of escalation and expansion. One, at least, openly calls for the latter. Two seem to agree that the impact of the war on NATO and many other countries, even if it stays non-nuclear, will be huge, and perhaps catastrophic. How should thoughtful and concerned readers respond?

New York Times: Putin Thinks He’s Winning

By Tatiana Stanovaya  —  July 18, 2022

Ms. Stanovaya is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She writes about Russian domestic politics and foreign policy.

Everything is going according to plan.

That’s the line from President Vladimir Putin. The war in Ukraine, in its fifth month and with no end in sight, may be grueling. But senior Kremlin officials keep repeating that Russia, gaining the upper hand in Ukraine’s east, will achieve all its goals.

That might seem hard to believe. After all, Russia has been forced to retreat from Kyiv, experienced several military reversals, faced sanctions on an unprecedented scale and been subjected to a chorus of international condemnation. To call such a litany of difficulties and outright failures a success may be to court the charge of propaganda, hypocrisy or even self-delusion.

But it’s what the Kremlin seems to believe. Over two decades I have closely followed Mr. Putin’s words, behavior and decisions, forming a comprehensive picture of the president’s calculations. Based on his public rhetoric and policy moves and informal discussions with insiders, I have been able to work out — as far as is possible — the contours of the Kremlin’s current thinking. What is very clear is that in late May, the Kremlin came to the firm conclusion that it is winning this conflict in the long run. And Mr. Putin, in contrast to the early chaotic months, now has a clear plan.

Consisting of three main dimensions, the plan is a kind of strategic Russian doll. Each aspect fits within another, amounting to a grand scheme that goes far beyond Ukraine yet centers on it. It may sound extremely fanciful, and it certainly reveals how divorced from reality — to put it mildly — Mr. Putin is. But it’s important for the West, whose response has wavered between confrontation and acquiescence, to understand the full scope of Mr. Putin’s hopes as it continues to assess its role in defending Ukraine against Russian aggression.

The smallest, most pragmatic and achievable goal concerns Russia’s territorial ambitions in Ukraine. Having failed to advance much further into Ukrainian territory since the first few days of war, Russia promptly downsized its ambitions, relinquishing the idea of taking Kyiv. The current, more realistic goal appears to be control over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions — which the Kremlin sees itself attaining in a matter of time, a view seemingly vindicated by Russian forces’ effective capture of the Luhansk region — and the land corridor that would secure access to Crimea.

For this goal, of minimal geopolitical weight for the Kremlin, Mr. Putin appears to believe that time is on his side. You can see why. Western military support has shown its limits, while Washington has signaled that it is not prepared to risk invoking Mr. Putin’s wrath by crossing any red lines. His earlier threats to resort to nuclear weapons seem to have been heeded: The West will not directly intervene, nor will it assist Ukraine to a point that could lead to Russian military defeat. Today, for all the protestations to the contrary, the conventional wisdom in the West is that Ukraine will not be able to win back the areas occupied by Russian troops. The Kremlin appears to believe that sooner or later the West will abandon that idea completely. Ukraine’s east would then effectively be under Russian control.

A wall poster of the Russian Emperor called Peter the Great, who is evidently one of Putin’s role models for neo-imperial expansion.

The next goal appears to be focused on forcing Kyiv to capitulate. This isn’t about the occupied territories; it’s about the future of Ukraine’s remaining territory — something that has far more geopolitical importance. On a practical level, capitulation would mean Kyiv accepting Russian demands that could be summarized as the “de-Ukrainianization” and “Russification” of the country. That would entail criminalizing the support of national heroes, renaming streets, rewriting history books and guaranteeing the Russian-speaking population a dominant position in education and culture. The aim, in short, would be to deprive Ukraine of the right to build its own nation. The government would be replaced, the elites purged and cooperation with the West voided.

This second goal sounds fantastical, of course. But for Mr. Putin it is also seemingly inevitable, though it may take longer to achieve. In one to two years, by which point the Kremlin expects Ukraine to be exhausted by the war, unable to function normally and profoundly demoralized, the conditions for capitulation will ripen. At that stage, the Kremlin’s calculation appears to be, the elite will split and an opposition seeking to end the war will coalesce to oust the Zelensky administration. There’d be no need for Russia to capture Kyiv militarily; it would fall of its own accord. Mr. Putin apparently sees nothing that could prevent it.

There is much discussion over what is truly more important for Mr. Putin in his war: stopping NATO from expanding to Russia’s doorstep, or his imperial ambitions to enlarge Russia’s territory and annex at least part of Ukraine. But the two issues are intertwined. As Ukraine slid toward NATO and the conflict in the Donbas hit a stalemate, Mr. Putin became ever more obsessed with the country. He saw the land he believes historically belongs to Russia being brought to heel by Russia’s worst enemy. As a response, Ukraine’s territory became a target alongside — but not instead of, as many think — the confrontation with NATO.

That brings us to Mr. Putin’s third strategic goal in the war against Ukraine, and the most geopolitically important of them all: building a new world order.

We are used to thinking that Mr. Putin sees the West as a hostile force that aims to destroy Russia. But I believe that for Mr. Putin there are two Wests: a bad one and a good one. The “bad West” is represented by the traditional political elites that currently rule Western countries: Mr. Putin appears to view them as narrow-minded slaves of the electoral cycle who overlook genuine national interests and are incapable of strategic thinking. The “good West” consists of ordinary Europeans and Americans who, he believes, want to have normal relations with Russia, and businesses who are eager to profit from close cooperation with their Russian counterparts.

In Mr. Putin’s thinking, apparently, the bad West is declining and doomed while the good West is slowly challenging the status quo with a raft of nationally oriented leaders, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France and even Donald Trump in the United States, ready to break with the old order and fashion a new one. Mr. Putin believes that the war against Ukraine and all its consequences, such as high inflation and soaring energy prices, will nourish the good West and help people rise up against the traditional political establishment.

Mr. Putin’s wager appears to be that the fundamental political shifts in Western countries will in time bring about a transformed, friendly West. Russia will then be able to return to all the security demands it set out in its December ultimatum to the United States and NATO. This may seem wishful to the point of impossible. But that doesn’t stop it from being what Mr. Putin expects to happen.

There is some good news. The very fact that the plan seems realistic to him should, in the short term, prevent any nuclear escalation. But the bad news is that sooner or later, Mr. Putin will face reality. It is in that moment, when his plans are stymied and his disappointment high, that he is likely to be most dangerous.

For the West avoid a catastrophic clash, it needs to truly understand what it’s really dealing with when it comes to Mr. Putin.

The Guardian: Putin is already at war with Europe. There is only one way to stop him

Simon Tisdall — Sun 17 Jul 2022

He has weaponised food, energy and refugees, spreading economic and political pain across the continent. Sanctions don’t work, a land for peace deal would be a disaster. Only the military route remains

Russia-Ukraine war: latest updates

Time to wake up and smell the cordite. Like shockwaves from an exploding missile, Vladimir Putin’s war on Europe’s edge is rapidly rolling westwards, blasting its way through the front doors of homes, businesses and workplaces from Berlin to Birmingham. Its fallout seeds a toxic rain of instability, hardship and fear.

The idea the Ukraine conflict could be confined to Ukraine – Nato’s politically convenient grand delusion – and that western sanctions and arms supplies would stop the Russians was always a nonsense. Now, enraged by Kyiv’s stubborn resistance and hell-bent on punishing his punishers, Putin’s aim is the immiseration of Europe.
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By weaponising energy, food, refugees and information, Russia’s leader spreads the economic and political pain, creating wartime conditions for all. A long, cold, calamity-filled European winter of power shortages and turmoil looms. And like a coin-fed gas meter, the price of western leaders’ timidity and shortsightedness ticks upwards by the hour.

Russia’s destabilisation operations, social media manipulation, cyber-attacks, diplomatic double-talk, nuclear blackmail, plus its unrelenting slaughter of civilians in Ukraine, will only intensify Europe’s state of siege in the months ahead. The west’s fanciful belief it could avoid continent-wide escalation is evaporating fast.

Though not entirely due to Putin’s war, Europe now faces fundamental challenges as big or bigger than the 2008 financial crash, Brexit, or the pandemic. Yet many EU and UK politicians skulk in denial. If, as predicted, the gas stops flowing and the lights dim, it will not just be a matter of closed factories, lost jobs, and depressed markets.

Freezing pensioners, hungry children, empty supermarket shelves, unaffordable cost of living increases, devalued wages, strikes and street protests point to Sri Lanka-style meltdowns. An exaggeration? Not really. Blowback, fanned by the Putin-admiring far right, is already gathering strength in Greece and Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.

In prospect, too, is a shattering of EU solidarity as national governments compete for scarce resources. Brussels is due to publish a “winter preparedness plan” this week. But its provisions are unclear and unenforceable. The broader context is lack of an agreed, implemented EU-wide energy policy.

Despite bilateral cooperation pledges, a total Russian cut-off could pit country against country, further inflate prices, and split the anti-Moscow coalition. In such a scenario Putin would demand sanctions relief in return for resumed supplies, just as he has over blockaded Black Sea grain.

Import-dependent Germany is already taking unilateral steps, seeking alternative oil and gas suppliers. A national emergency moved closer after Moscow turned off the Nord Stream I pipeline last Monday. Many in Berlin fear (and some environmentalists hope) the shutdown – and any subsequent rationing – may become permanent.

Robert Habeck, Germany’s vice-chancellor, fretted publicly about a “political nightmare”. Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, sounded similarly panicky last week. He predicted an imminent gas cut-off. Waxing Napoleonic, he urged European countries to form up in “order of battle”. But as in 1812, Russia has “General Winter”.

As if the mounting misery of millions were not daunting enough, then consider, too, the war’s knock-on impact on efforts to combat the climate and biodiversity crises. In the UK and elsewhere, net zero targets appear at increasing risk of being abandoned.

Because Europe faces “very, very strong conflict and strife” this winter over energy prices, it should make a short-term return to fossil fuels, Frans Timmermans, the European commission’s vice-president, suggested. Once again, Germany is showing a lead, increasing electricity production from coal-fired power stations. Once again, the west looks to tyrannical Gulf oil sheikhs for salvation.

A European winter of chaos may also strain US ties. By comparison, America’s post-pandemic recovery is more advanced, its economy more resilient, its energy costs much lower. Yet it is US president Joe Biden’s too-cautious leadership of Nato that has led Europe into this geopolitical cul-de-sac, even as a weakening euro slides below one dollar.

For Europeans, as they are re-learning to their cost, all wars are local. For Americans, as ever, all wars are foreign.

The sanctions, economic aid, and other non-military measures preferred by Biden were never going to be enough to bring Putin to heel. Some observers suspect a stalemate that slowly bleeds Russia suits US purposes, whatever the collateral damage. Yet right now, it’s Putin who is bleeding Europe. Sanctions are backfiring or poorly enforced. His energy coffers bulge. And Ukrainians aside, the pain is disproportionately felt by less wealthy European and developing countries. As instability grows, US-Europe divergence will feed pressure to change course.

The obvious escape route is a land-for-peace deal with Putin, agreed over Ukraine’s dead bodies. This kind of shoddy sellout has influential advocates. If (and it’s a big “if”), Russia returned to business as normal, it would alleviate Europe’s suffering – though probably not Ukraine’s.

Yet such a deal would also be a precedent-setting disaster for future peace and security across the continent and globally, too. Just think Taiwan. Or Estonia. It would destroy the sovereign integrity of democratic Ukraine.

Fortunately, there is an alternative: using Nato’s overwhelming power to decisively turn the military tide.

As previously argued here, direct, targeted, forceful western action to repulse Russia’s repulsive horde is not a vote for a third world war. It’s the only feasible way to bring this escalating horror to a swift conclusion while ensuring Putin, and those who might emulate him, do not profit from lawless butchery.

Intent on inflicting maximum disruption, Putin openly menaces the heartlands of European democracy. The writing is on the wall and may no longer be ignored. Enough of the half-measures and the dithering! Nato should act now to force Putin’s marauding troops back inside Russia’s recognised borders.

It’s not only Ukraine that requires saving. It’s Europe, too.

Addendum: From Tisdall’s Guardian column of 1 May 2022

“Biden has repeatedly insisted the conflict will be contained. ‘Direct confrontation between Nato and Russia is world war three, something we must strive to prevent,’ he said after the invasion began.

But war has its own deathly momentum. Daily acts of escalation point in one direction. Nato is like a patient in denial. The reality, by many measures, is that it’s already at war with Russia.

Perhaps future historians of the Ukraine conflict will map the path to wider conflagration in the same way academic predecessors traced the origins of the first world war.

It’s not hard to discern the developing pattern right now. Grievance, provocation, reaction, escalation, explosion. It’s unravelling in plain sight. Yet unlike in 1914, or during the first cold war, there are no agreed limits or rules in this fight. Worldwide, from Iran to North Korea, counter-proliferation efforts fail. Nuclear arms control treaties lapse. A revived global nuclear arms race accelerates.

Military planners have normalised the use of low-yield tactical (battlefield) nukes. Russian doctrine reserves the right to go nuclear in response to conventional threats, if the state (or leadership) is at risk. Russia’s test last month of the nuclear-capable “Satan II” long-range missile carried a clear warning.

“Given the setbacks they [Russia] have faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons,” CIA director William Burns warned.

It’s clear the west cannot abandon Ukraine simply out of fear over how far manic Putin might go. Such a collapse would wreck the global order, the UN, and Europe’s security. Yet the longer the war rages, the bigger the risk of a different kind of cataclysmic, world-changing event.

So here’s the choice, as the northern English say: piss or get off the pot. Either the western allies act decisively, right now, to halt this war by demanding an immediate ceasefire and threatening and, if necessary, launching direct military intervention to secure it – as previously urged in this space. . . .”

In His Own Words – Excerpts: Address by the President of the Russian Federation  — February 21, 2022

[The complete published text of this address is here.]

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Citizens of Russia, friends,

My address concerns the events in Ukraine and why this is so important for us, for Russia. Of course, my message is also addressed to our compatriots in Ukraine. . . .

I would like to emphasise again that Ukraine is not just a neighbouring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space. These are our comrades, those dearest to us – not only colleagues, friends and people who once served together, but also relatives, people bound by blood, by family ties.

Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians. This was the case before the 17th century, when a portion of this territory rejoined the Russian state, and after.

It seems to us that, generally speaking, we all know these facts, that this is common knowledge. . . .

Still, it is necessary to say at least a few words about the history of this issue in order to understand what is happening today, to explain the motives behind Russia’s actions and what we aim to achieve.

So, I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia – by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought.

Then, both before and after the Great Patriotic War, Stalin incorporated in the USSR and transferred to Ukraine some lands that previously belonged to Poland, Romania and Hungary. In the process, he gave Poland part of what was traditionally German land as compensation, and in 1954, Khrushchev took Crimea away from Russia for some reason and also gave it to Ukraine. In effect, this is how the territory of modern Ukraine was formed. . . .

[T]he Ukrainian authorities – I would like to emphasise this – began by building their statehood on the negation of everything that united us, trying to distort the mentality and historical memory of millions of people, of entire generations living in Ukraine. It is not surprising that Ukrainian society was faced with the rise of far-right nationalism, which rapidly developed into aggressive Russophobia and neo-Nazism. This resulted in the participation of Ukrainian nationalists and neo-Nazis in the terrorist groups in the North Caucasus and the increasingly loud territorial claims to Russia.

A role in this was played by external forces, which used a ramified network of NGOs and special services to nurture their clients in Ukraine and to bring their representatives to the seats of authority.

It should be noted that Ukraine actually never had stable traditions of real statehood. And, therefore, in 1991 it opted for mindlessly emulating foreign models, which have no relation to history or Ukrainian realities. Political government institutions were readjusted many times to the rapidly growing clans and their self-serving interests, which had nothing to do with the interests of the Ukrainian people.

Essentially, the so-called pro-Western civilisational choice made by the oligarchic Ukrainian authorities was not and is not aimed at creating better conditions in the interests of people’s well-being but at keeping the billions of dollars that the oligarchs have stolen from the Ukrainians and are holding in their accounts in Western banks, while reverently accommodating the geopolitical rivals of Russia. . . .

Meanwhile, the radicals became increasingly brazen in their actions and made more demands every year. They found it easy to force their will on the weak authorities, which were infected with the virus of nationalism and corruption as well and which artfully replaced the real cultural, economic and social interests of the people and Ukraine’s true sovereignty with various ethnic speculations and formal ethnic attributes.

A stable statehood has never developed in Ukraine; its electoral and other political procedures just serve as a cover, a screen for the redistribution of power and property between various oligarchic clans.

Corruption, which is certainly a challenge and a problem for many countries, including Russia, has gone beyond the usual scope in Ukraine. It has literally permeated and corroded Ukrainian statehood, the entire system, and all branches of power. . . .

Today, one glance at the map is enough to see to what extent Western countries have kept their promise to refrain from NATO’s eastward expansion. They just cheated. We have seen five waves of NATO expansion, one after another – Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary were admitted in 1999; Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004; Albania and Croatia in 2009; Montenegro in 2017; and North Macedonia in 2020.

As a result, the Alliance, its military infrastructure has reached Russia’s borders. This is one of the key causes of the European security crisis; it has had the most negative impact on the entire system of international relations and led to the loss of mutual trust.

The situation continues to deteriorate, including in the strategic area. . . . In March 2021, a new Military Strategy was adopted in Ukraine. This document is almost entirely dedicated to confrontation with Russia and sets the goal of involving foreign states in a conflict with our country. The strategy stipulates the organisation of what can be described as a terrorist underground movement in Russia’s Crimea and in Donbass. It also sets out the contours of a potential war, which should end, according to the Kiev strategists, “with the assistance of the international community on favourable terms for Ukraine,” as well as – listen carefully, please – “with foreign military support in the geopolitical confrontation with the Russian Federation.” In fact, this is nothing other than preparation for hostilities against our country, Russia.

As we know, it has already been stated today that Ukraine intends to create its own nuclear weapons, and this is not just bragging. . . .

If Ukraine acquires weapons of mass destruction, the situation in the world and in Europe will drastically change, especially for us, for Russia. We cannot but react to this real danger, all the more so since, let me repeat, Ukraine’s Western patrons may help it acquire these weapons to create yet another threat to our country. . . .

Presidents and Rada deputies come and go, but deep down the aggressive and nationalistic regime that seized power in Kiev remains unchanged. . . .

We want those who seized and continue to hold power in Kiev to immediately stop hostilities. Otherwise, the responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodshed will lie entirely on the conscience of Ukraine’s ruling regime. . . .

One thought on “Three-Part Thinkpiece: Putin, His War, And Ours?”

  1. The virtue at stake in Ukraine/Russia is the same one at stake in our country: will democracy prevail.

    Putin’s view is that democracy leads to weakness caused by in-fighting. That can and is happening — take the USA as an example.

    The great democratic revolution across the globe in the 80’s and early 90’s have some successes and many failures. Democracy is hard.

    Listening to and connecting with those with different views is hard — and that is the heart and soul of a democratic society.

    At least some Quaker variants, perhaps all, hold that Spirit is present in every person. That perspective on the person who sits with positions we find abhorrent is the key to strengthening and broadening democracy. Seeking Spirit in each other is the process basis for democracy.

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