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Putin's preparing better than us for a long war

Putin's preparing better than us for a long war

For Putin, this is destiny, the debt he owes to his predecessors in the Kremlin.

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Last Updated : 15 May 2024, 03:57 IST
Last Updated : 15 May 2024, 03:57 IST
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By Marc Champion

Vladimir Putin, an avid student of Russian history, knows well the twin threats that undid some of his predecessors in the Kremlin, from Tsar Nicholas II to Mikhail Gorbachev: One is to start and lose a war, the other to tank the economy. His decision to replace an incompetent defense minister with an efficient economist aims to insure against both, which may be reassuring for Putin and his circle, but nobody else.

The appointment of Andrey Belousov represents a particularly dangerous combination because his task will be to put Russia’s war machine on a more sustainable footing, at a time when the country continues to be run by a man driven by grandiose visions. This demands a rethink from Ukraine and other former subjects of Moscow, but also in the West.

If that sounds alarmist, pay attention to what Putin has told Russians since his landslide re-election in March. Never mind that the vote was preordained and had nothing to do with democracy. He won 88% and emerged with restored authority and confidence, putting behind him the early disasters of his invasion of Ukraine and even a mutiny by his former chef-turned militia chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Addressing the May 9 Victory Day parade on Red Square, Putin accused the West of colonialist policies that support today’s “Nazis” and provoke inter-ethnic and sectarian conflict around the globe. Russia’s strategic (nuclear) forces, he warned, would allow nobody to threaten the Motherland. He also sought to link today’s struggle against NATO-backed Ukraine with that of World War II, in which he said Russia had been left to fight Hitler alone for three years, while Europe supported the German Wehrmacht.

It's tempting to dismiss this kind of a-historical gaslighting, but that’s a mistake for three reasons. First, because too many Russians will believe it. Second, because so much of the world will be inclined to parrot it, including those in the West like Donald Trump who see Putin as an ally in their fight against liberalism. And finally, because the threat posed by Putin’s Russia is real, not due to any actual intent he has to push the nuclear button or invade Poland, but because his understanding of the Motherland is so expansive that “protecting” its interests must inevitably meet with resistance.

So let’s address Putin’s claims, where as so often there is just enough truth to cloud the enormity of the falsehood. On neo-Nazis, yes, Ukraine has some. Yet Russia has a dramatically larger ultra-right representation in its parliament than does Ukraine, which is doing nothing more Nazi-like than defend itself from aggression, just as the Soviet Union did in 1941.

As to the Western efforts to weaken and harm Russia, just keep in mind it was Moscow that invaded a sovereign neighbor without provocation, and then announced the annexation of roughly a quarter of that neighbor’s territory, despite having not only formally recognized their common border in international treaties, but also guaranteed them against attack in 1994. There is only one colonial power here that’s attempting to subdue a former subject in breach of international law, and that’s Russia.

As for World War II, history matters precisely because Soviet suffering was so great. The consequence of persuading Russians that such horror was inflicted with the support of then Western allies is that today’s lies also become an easier sell. The reality is that th Soviet Union sat out the first two years of World War II, having made a non-aggression pact with Germany and a deal to partition Poland. Once Hitler reneged and invaded, he had already occupied most of continental Europe. But unoccupied Europe didn’t support operation Barbarossa, and without US military and financial aid – which Putin did eventually acknowledge in his speech – it’s not clear that Moscow could have prevailed.

What makes all of this dangerous is that Putin’s idea of the Motherland is much larger than Russia’s current, internationally recognized borders, an atavism that’s widely shared within Russia. His understanding of Russia’s proper place in the world is also infinitely grander than its current economy and population size would suggest.

It’s critical to understand this mindset, because what we are seeing is a process of imperial disintegration that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but remains unresolved and increasingly contested. The threshold for a threat to “the Motherland” doesn’t require an attack on Russia. It can be reached as soon as a former territory of the empire refuses to bend to Moscow’s will, thwarting Putin’s bid to return Moscow to its rightful place as the center of a great power, equal to the US, China, Europe and India.

For now, Putin is fully occupied with recovering control over Ukraine, but he has unfinished business in the Baltics, the Caucasus and Moldova. He also has influence to restore in the Balkans and central Europe, and a need to weaken other powers while strengthening his own. The more success he has, the more of this unfinished business he will take on.

For so-called realists, this is something the West needs to accept. But that is frankly facile, failing to recognize that Russia’s unwilling former subjects have agency, too, and are not simply proxies of the West in a game of superpowers. Putin’s goals are a recipe for regional instability. Ukrainians, after all, drove the might of the Russian armed forces back from Kyiv in the first weeks of war, when they had no Western help beyond a few anti-tank missiles whose role was vastly overstated at the time. Georgians are again jamming the streets of Tbilisi to protest their government’s caving to Russian influence.

For Putin, this is destiny, the debt he owes to his predecessors in the Kremlin. European leaders are now only beginning to recognize what that vision implies, while in the US, Russia policy has become too entwined with domestic politics to reman purposeful. Leaders in both regions will need to become as focused in building up the defenses they need to deter Putin as he has proved to be in appointing Belousov. That will be expensive, but nowhere near as costly as the alternative.

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