Putin should just say no to pointless blunders
That guest column was pretty bad.
If you’re looking for a reason to feel sympathetic to Russia, the real one is that its current behavior is really rooted in some old and not entirely unwarranted pathologies.
If Prussia was an army with a state, modern Russia is a security apparatus with a state. And I mean “modern” in the sense of the latest iteration of the Russian nation to pull itself back together after the Mongols flattened its predecessor.
Russia’s history is basically an unending liturgy of other states attempting to conquer it and failing to do so or to hold it, but being repelled at the cost of vast numbers of its people and much of its wealth. The Mongols, Tatars, Turks, French, British, Germans, Germans…
That is the frame through which Russia’s policy makers view everything. No sooner had they genuinely neutralized the threat from the east, quite literally by conquering virtually all of the steppe not under “civilized” Chinese control than the Turks pose an existential threat from the south.
They mostly resolve that problem in their favor, again with much bloodshed and the repressed devastation of southern Russia and Ukraine, and then France appears to the west. 10% of the civilian population frozen to death later and they’ve repelled that threat, but the UK has decided they’re a threat and launched a limited invasion.
And on, and on, through the history of the 20th century, which is way worse than anything else since the Mongols.
The proximate issues at hand are clear enough; the Russian state is a manifestly untrustworthy actor when it comes to anything security-related, and it views the continued existence of a stable, prosperous US as a threat.
But understanding how it became this way in the first place is something we’re bad at, and that needs to inform our policy more.
I'm skeptical that there's really a "deal" to be had here. Yes, the 2008 Bucharest Declaration was a mistake, but what prompted Putin's 2014 intervention wasn't NATO but an EU association agreement. Putin does not want a neutral or "Finlandized" Ukraine. He wants Ukraine as Russian client state - ideally he likely wants Ukraine in the Eurasian Union and in CSTO.
I know the familiar narrative that the US and the west have been overly focused on denying Russia a sphere on influence. I think the reality is a lot more mixed. For all the condemnation it drew at the time, the west quickly moved on from the Georgia War. Nobody in the western world has pushed back on Russian intervention in Nagarno-Karabakh. The west has rarely sought to counter Russian influence in Central Asia. Even Ukraine spent most of the post-Soviet years as a Russian client state which few in the west really challenged.
What changed the equation for Ukraine was domestic pressure to align with Europe. (On that note, I think Matt is overly cynical about western intentions and underplays that there is a lot of genuine sympathy in official circles for Ukraine's western / European aspirations.)
Last point, I want to push back on Matt's dismissal about inviolability of post-Soviet borders. It's not that borders can't or shouldn't ever be changed - borders should not be changed by force. Obviously that hasn't always been true. (And all major powers - certainly the US, but also Russia - were offenders in the 19th Century and before.) But no changing borders by force really has been a central organizing feature of the post-WWII settlement, and has likely been a significant factor in the decline of global conflict, given how much historical conflict has been driven by conflict over land.
Crimeans probably want to be Russian, and that's fine. But the means matter. A reasonable rapprochement deal would be something like an interim UN administration, an internationally monitored referendum (which would likely confirm Russian sovereignty), and perhaps provisions like Northern Ireland whereby residents are eligible for Ukrainian passports as well.
What I think is most likely to happen is not a full on invasion of Ukraine in its entirety, but Putin entering the separatist regions of Ukraine already not under the control of the central government (Donbass). He is unlikely to face an insurgency there and probably hopes that this minor incursion will not spark a united and ferocious response from the U.S. and its European allies.
I think an underrated part of this saga is Putin’s “nostalgia” for medieval Russia, namely the fact that the Russia we know today was born in Kyiv in the 9th century. Yes, he’s a cagey negotiator and may be blustering about an invasion to win concessions from the West… but I dunno, maybe he’s really serious about goals that transcend politicking. In the past, he’s spoken (almost jealously) about the loose US-Canada border and the united cultural community it reflects. If he wants something similar for Russia and Ukraine, I don’t think we can safely count out the idea of an invasion, despite the massive potential downsides.
>>A peaceful, stable Ukraine that successfully fights corruption and that builds commercial ties to central and western Europe could become rich. . . And its prospects as a country under quasi-occupation by the Russian military, wracked by constant political instability and with tons of people fleeing, are not good at all.
>>Russia would be, at potentially great cost, picking up something essentially worthless to them.. . .
>>There really ought to be a win-win here where Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine, Ukraine disavows NATO membership, the western powers acknowledge the referendum that incorporated Crimea into Russia, Russia acknowledges that Ukraine can follow the footsteps of Sweden, Finland, and Austria into the EU without violating neutrality, and everyone goes back to buying and selling natural gas instead of killing each other.<<
I believe this is a fundamentally wrong view of the situation and especially of Russia's view of its strategic interests. And I think we're totally misunderstanding the debate as one of Ukraine's possible entry into NATO, despite what Russia is saying.
It's hard to believe that Putin is *that* worried about a military threat on his western flank (despite 1812 and 1941 and all that). But we *do* know what he is worried about, because he has acted against that threat constantly: and this is a dissatisfied Russian population, fed up with the corruption and economic incompetence of the Putin regime. Like Xi, though more so, he fears the ire of the people rising against him, and threatening the rule of him and his fellow oligarchs. And one source of that ire is seeing nearby countries pick an alternative model, and flourishing. In particular, East European countries that enter the EU, and see growth rates far exceeding those of Ukraine or Russia, not to mention (in most instances) far more political freedom.
*That's* what Putin and his cronies ultimately fear. So the idea that it's a "win-win" for Ukraine to join the EU and grow more than Russia is just wrong. Putin *wants* Ukraine to stay relatively poor and misgoverned (relative to Russia at least) so it can't serve as a model for his subjects to aspire to. That's how he can keep Ukraine from becoming a strategic threat to the survival of his regime.
The only confusing thing here is his focus on NATO. I think it's a stalking horse, and a stand-in for the EU. Imagine that Europe (with the US) says, OK, Ukraine will never join NATO, but we would welcome its joining the EU (after passing some qualification tests). Would Putin be fine with that deal?
No, he would not.
I seriously doubt Putin has any interest in occupying Kiev or the Western, ethnically Ukrainian regions of Ukraine. However, he very well might want to bite off more of the majority Russian portions of Donetsk and Luhansk. His motives are irredentist, much like France wanted to take back Alsace and Lorraine in 1914 but had no interest in annexing Saxony or Hesse even after Germany surrendered.
The additional territory and population Putin wants are relatively small, an area the size of Maryland or New Jersey with a couple million inhabitants. The real risk is that Putin might invade territories he doesn’t want to keep to use as bargaining chips, much like 1914 France backed Russian power plays against Austria Hungary, not because France cared who ruled Silesia, but because France needed Russian participation in a war against Germany to have any hope of recapturing its lost provinces.
The idea that Putin has become isolated in his own echo chamber and is simply being irrational does seem the most likely explanation. Why else would Putin want to steer Russia on a path of becoming to China what Canada is to the US, instead of aligning with Germany and the EU in an European orientation where Russia in time could be the first among equals?
It would hardly be the first time an autocratic leader who has purged dissenters has lost touch with reality and damaged his country.
It's amazing to me that Matt can write this column without a word about China/Taiwan, which is a key strategic reason that it's important to reassert the inviolability of national sovereignty and to work out the details of a potent sanctions regime. Similarly, Matt makes no mention of the impact of a Russian invasion on the Baltics, Poland and other former-Soviet bloc states.
Excellent post! My only disagreement is that I think you miss just how risky an invasion of the Ukraine would be for Russia short term. It's a big place with lots of people, and Russia's army is comparatively small with no experience in maneuvering combined arms divisions and corps. And those divisions and corps require huge amounts of petrol, rations, socks, etc. Just to deploy that army and drive it into the Ukraine without opposition would be tough--think of those Russian GIs deployed out there in the snow waiting for the "Go!" signal, burning petrol to keep warm. We should be able to give Putin a way to avoid that.
Why should we care if Hitler invades Poland, it doesn't really change our position... Maybe France & England made a mistake sticking up for them. Could've just waited for the Polish insurgency to wear out the Germans.
I get it, it's not the 1930s, but perhaps pushing back against unprovoked aggression is simply a good idea when dealing with bad actors.
Russia surely won't try to occupy all (or most of) Ukraine, for the reasons this article lists.
Much more likely would be a "minor incursion" along the lines of what they did with Georgia 14 years ago: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russo-Georgian_War carving off the most sympathetic (in Ukraine, the most ethnically Russian) areas. As an aside, the Georgian war also illustrates that what's going on is not "unprecedented" or "the first war in Europe" in however long, as pundits often like to say.
I guess I wonder if a Ukrainian insurgency might be less effective than Iraq's or Afghanistan's was because the Ukrainians have much more to lose (even taking into account how badly their economy has underperformed for the last three decades). Sort of like how the Nazis had a harder time pacifying Greece and Yugoslavia than France. Do wealthier people have the stomach for guerrilla warfare, and are they as willing to make the necessary sacrifices? Same logic holds for Taiwan, but even more so.
I don't know what will happen in Ukraine. However it seems clear to me that Russian history since at least 1905 is dominated by catastrophic conflicts. The Nazi invasion was not their fault (though Molotov-Ribbentrop didn't help...) but most of the rest was initiated by them. Seems well, well, well overdue to put the guns away and focus on building a functional society.
As appealing as an EU-yes, NATO-no solution for Ukraine is, I have to say I'm sobered by the Netflix dystopia in Occupied -- which posits a similar situation for Norway (it's a Norwegian production)
So this inspired a weird thought. It looks like our primary rival for the 21st century is going to be China. Russia and China have now entered into some sort of alliance. The added strength of Russia may encourage Chinese adventurism in places like Taiwan. Given that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is likely to a) tie up much of Russia's conventional military power for the foreseeable future; and b) help demonstrate the folly of invading territories that do not want to be invaded, maybe it would be a good thing for the US in the long run.
I agree with your solution. But it may be hard for Biden to get Ukraine to agree to no NATO given how much hot air America has used to puff up Ukraine's illusory perception of their own leverage. And domestically, Biden would be criticized as giving in to Russia. Look at a map, and it's obvious that Ukraine is a poorly chosen issue to have a showdown with Russia.