Home World Putin’s Ukrainian War Is About Making Vladimir Great Again

Putin’s Ukrainian War Is About Making Vladimir Great Again

Current conditions are ideal for a Russian invasion, but the historical inspiration is more tsarist than Soviet.

War is coming — a not-so-great northern war. 

Don’t be fooled by last Thursday’s conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart Joe Biden, with its promise of further negotiations in January. When one party is bent on war, this kind of diplomatic activity often continues until just hours before hostilities begin. We should not be deluded: Putin is bent on war against Ukraine.

What is coming is the opposite of a surprise attack — though no doubt when it happens Biden will insist that, like the omicron variantno one could have anticipated it. Back in July, Putin published a lengthy essay, “On the Historical Unity of the Russians and Ukrainians,” in which he argued tendentiously that Ukrainian independence was an unsustainable historical anomaly. This made it perfectly clear that he was contemplating a takeover of the country along the lines of Nazi Germany’s 1938 Anschluss of Austria. Even before Putin’s essay appeared, Russia had deployed around 100,000 troops close to Ukraine’s northern, eastern and southern borders.

The news these days reminds me unpleasantly of the English historian A.J.P. Taylor’s “Origins of the Second World War,” which — in prose that simmered with his trademark irony — traced the diplomatic steps that led from appeasement to war in 1938 and 1939.

Repeatedly this year, the Russian president has warned of “red lines” with respect to Russia’s security, the crossing of which would elicit an “asymmetric response.” On Nov. 30, for example, he declared that “if some kind of strike systems appear on the territory of Ukraine … we will have to then create something similar in relation to those who threaten us.”

On Dec. 17, Russia issued a virtual ultimatum to the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — the keystone of European security since its founding in 1949 — by publishing two draft security agreements, one a bilateral U.S.-Russia treaty and the other a multilateral NATO-Russia agreement. The documents made six key demands: 

  1. NATO must not accept new members, including Ukraine. 
  2. The U.S. and NATO must not deploy short- or intermediate-range missiles within range of Russian territory. 
  3. The U.S. must not station nuclear weapons abroad.
  4. NATO must not deploy forces or arms to member states that joined after the so-called Founding Act of May 1997. This includes all former Warsaw Pact states such as Poland as well as the formerly Soviet Baltic states. 
  5. NATO must not conduct military exercises above the brigade level (3,000 to 5,000 troops) and within an agreed-upon buffer zone. 
  6. The U.S. must agree not to cooperate militarily with post-Soviet countries.

True, some of Russia’s demands amounted to resuscitating defunct security arrangements that NATO and Russia signed in the past. A ban on short- or intermediate-range missile deployments, for example, would be akin to reviving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which collapsed in 2019 following U.S. claims of Russian violations. 

An agreement not to deploy NATO forces to former Warsaw Pact member states would reinstate the 25-year-old Founding Act, which NATO partially froze after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. NATO still does not permanently station troops in Eastern Europe because it never formally abrogated the Founding Act. Russia’s proposed limits on military exercises similarly recall the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, which Moscow suspended in 2007. 

However, since 2017 the alliance has “rotated” approximately 1,100 troops apiece into Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland under its policy of Enhanced Forward Presence. (The term “rotation” was used at Germany’s insistence to avoid explicitly violating the NATO-Russia Founding Act.) Ending rotation would be a significant concession to Moscow.

The Russian demands also include several obvious non-starters. NATO is highly unlikely to revoke its promise, made in 2008, of eventual membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Even if Biden wanted to accede to Russia’s demand that the U.S. end military cooperation with Ukraine, Congress would almost certainly not let him, and could legislate military aid on its own. Finally, Russia’s demand that the U.S. not station nuclear weapons abroad would overturn a founding principle of NATO — nuclear sharing between member states. 

Taken together, the Russian demands imply nothing less than a “new Yalta” that would effectively concede to Russia a sphere of influence extending across the former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe, much like the original Yalta Agreement of 1945, as well as eroding the security of former Warsaw Pact countries. Such demands would be worth discussing only if Russia offered something major in return — for example, a withdrawal of all its forces from Ukrainian territory. But Putin has no intention of making concessions. He is preparing a casus belli.

On Dec. 23, Putin held his usual marathon year-end press conference. He explained that even if Russia’s “red line” security guarantees were met on paper, Russia still could not trust the U.S. assurances because he had been “lied to, blatantly” over NATO expansion. For the U.S. to have offensive strike weapons on “Russia’s doorstep,” he said, was like Russia having such weapons in Canada or Mexico. Asked by a journalist if Russia was angry, he quoted the 19th-century tsarist foreign minister Prince Gorchakov: “Russia is not angry, it is concentrating” — as in “concentrating its forces.”

Western commentators often make the mistake of thinking that Putin’s goal is to resurrect the Soviet Union, recalling his notorious comment in 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet empire was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” To judge by the ruthless way his government has gone after Memorial — an organization dedicated to preserving the evidence of the Soviet system’s crimes and commemorating its millions of victims — Putin does indeed owe some residual fealty to the baleful shade of Stalin. Last week, a Moscow court shut Memorial down on the specious ground that it had failed to acknowledge publicly that it was a foreign agent.

“Memorial creates a false image of the Soviet Union as a terrorist state,” declared state prosecutor Alexei Zhafyarov before the court’s verdict. “It makes us repent for the Soviet past, instead of remembering glorious history … probably because someone is paying for it.”

It is not hard to imagine Zhafyarov having a walk-on role in “The Master and Margarita,” Mikhail Bulgakov’s unforgettable magical-realist depiction of the Stalin era.And yet it is not Stalin’s Soviet Union for which Putin hankers. It is the rising Russian Empire of Peter the Great. He made this quite clear in a fascinating interview with Lionel Barber, then editor of the Financial Times, in 2019. “A towering bronze statue of the visionary tsar looms over his ceremonial desk in the cabinet room,” noted Barber. Peter I was Putin’s “favorite leader.” “He will live,” declared the Russian president, “as long as his cause is alive.”

To understand what exactly Putin meant by this, you need to travel back three centuries, to the time of the Great Northern War (1700–1721). The dominant military power of northern Europe in those days was not Russia but Sweden, then under the leadership of that most extraordinary of Scandinavian warriors, Charles XII. The Great Northern War pitted Charles against Frederick IV, the king of Denmark and Norway; Augustus the Strong, who was simultaneously elector of Saxony, king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania; and the Muscovite tsar, Peter I. By 1709, the Swede had defeated both Frederick and Augustus. But he met his match in Tsar Peter.

At the Battle of Poltava (July 8, 1709), Peter the Great won the most important victory of his reign. Because of Russian scorched-earth tactics, the Swedish army had been forced to abandon its advance on Moscow and instead marched south to establish winter quarters. The location Charles XII picked, the town of Poltava, is around 200 miles east of Kyiv. Today it lies in eastern Ukraine, not far from the contested areas around Luhansk and Donetsk, which are controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

Where was Poltava then? Certainly not in Russia. But you could not really say that it was in Ukraine, either — not in the modern sense, anyway. When Ivan Mazepa, hetman of the Zaporizhian Host, threw in his lot with the Swedish king, he said he was acting “for the common good of our mother my fatherland poor Ukraine, for all of the Zaporizhian Host and the Little Rossian [Ruthenian] nation …”

The Cossack Hetmanate had been founded in 1649 by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who had thrown off Polish rule over the Ruthenian palatinates of Volhynia, Bratslav, Kyiv and Chernihiv, though he ended up being confined to the region around Kyiv. What is Ukraine today was pulled both westward toward Poland and eastward toward Muscovy. The Battle of Poltava decided the issue.

Because of the ravages of severe winter weather, Charles was left with an estimated 22,000 Swedes to face Peter’s 40,000 Russians plus 5,000 irregular troops. Charles himself was wounded when a stray bullet hit his foot. Due to poor reconnaissance and errors during their initial attack, about a third of Swedish forces were lost before the decisive battle. Outnumbered and outfought, the Swedes were put to flight. The survivors surrendered at Perevolochna on the River Dnieper. Charles himself made his escape across the Dnieper into Ottoman territory. Peter had triumphed.

The legacy of Poltava has been an enduring one, as Lindsey Hughes shows in her biography of the tsar. According to legend, Peter narrowly escaped death at three points during the battle. One bullet pierced his three-cornered hat, which is preserved in the Hermitage’s collection of the tsar’s personal effects. (Although no bullet hole is visible, there are traces of military action on his bronze breastplate, which is also preserved.)

Poltava also inspired two of the great paintings of Peter’s reign, J.G. Tannauer’s “Peter I at the Battle of Poltava” and Louis Caravaque’s Poltava panorama. And generations of Russian soldiers have heard recitations of the speech the tsar is supposed to have given before the battle:

Let the Russian troops know that the hour has come which has placed the fate of all the fatherland in their hands, to decide whether Russia will be lost or will be reborn and improve its situation. Do not think of yourselves as armed and drawn up to fight for Peter but for the state which has been entrusted to Peter, for your kin and for the people of all Russia, which has until now been your defense and now awaits the final decision of fortune. … Of Peter know only that he sets no value on his own life if only Russia and Russian piety, glory and well-being may live.

This is the history that inspires today’s Tsar Vladimir, much more than the dark chapters of Stalin’s reign of terror, which will forever be associated in Ukrainian minds with the Holodomor, the genocidal man-made famine inflicted on Ukraine in the name of agricultural collectivization. It is a history that reminds us how crucial victory in the territory that is now Ukraine was for the rise of Russia as a European great power. It also reminds us that this territory was as contested in the early 18th century as it is today.

Is Putin merely a fantasist when he imagines himself the heir of Peter I? Not necessarily. It is not true, as I often hear it asserted, that Russia’s population is shrinking. In fact, it grew every year from 2009 to 2020. True, Russia’s GDP may be less than South Korea’s, and just 20% the size of America’s (based on purchasing power parity, according to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook figures for 2020). But consider the economic size of the aggressor states at the outbreak of World War II. The British economic historian Angus Maddison estimated that the Soviet Union’s GDP then was roughly half that of the U.S., Germany’s was 43%, Japan’s 24% and Italy’s 18%. You do not need to be Goliath to start a war.

In any case, Putin does not need to go to war in the style of 1939, with columns of tanks rumbling across the Ukrainian fields. A full-scale land invasion is just one of his options. He could also launch an amphibious assault on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, or a precision bombing and missile campaign against key Ukrainian targets. He could seize additional territory in Ukraine’s eastern region by ramping up the weaponry of its militias in the region. Or he could launch large-scale cyberattacks, crippling Ukrainian communications and infrastructure. Russia’s most recent wars — not only in Ukraine since 2014 but also in Syria since 2015 — have been marked by steady, stepwise escalation, not by surprise large-scale invasions. You have to go back to Georgia in 2008 to see anything resembling a Russian Blitzkrieg, but even that was over in five days and didn’t involve taking the Georgian capital.

There is no doubting the willingness of many young Ukrainians to fight to defend their country. But without assistance they stand little chance. Unfortunately, no one seems likely to help. For years, Ukrainian governments have sought membership of the EU and NATO. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba renewed these requests in two Foreign Affairsarticles in August and December last year. Ukraine hoped to be invited to join a NATO Membership Action Plan at the alliance’s June 2021 Brussels summit. No invitation came. 

Kyiv suffered another blow when the Biden administration waived sanctions against the company overseeing the construction of the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. The pipeline, which is now finished but not functioning, bypasses Ukraine and will deprive the country of annual transit fees worth between $2 billion and $3 billion. 

Along with Georgia and Moldova, Ukraine is keen to be part of a new phase of EU enlargement. However, Brussels is in no hurry to start the accession process in earnest. The EU’s formal reason for not expediting Ukraine’s application is that the country doesn’t yet meet the Copenhagen criteria:

  1. Stability of the institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities; 
  2. A functioning market economy and the ability to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU; 
  3. The capacity to effectively implement the rules, standards and policies that make up the body of EU law (the “acquis”), and adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union. 

The Ukrainians not unreasonably complain that Romania and Bulgaria scarcely met all these criteria in 2006 (the year before they became EU members), to say nothing of 2000, when negotiations began. The fact that a current EU member — Hungary — today ranks not far above Ukraine in the Freedom House rankings of political freedom is also not lost on the Ukrainians.  

However, this is just an additional reason for EU foot-dragging. So unpopular is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Brussels these days that many European leaders and officials worry that admitting Ukraine would add another illiberal semi-autocracy within the EU fold, which might then join forces with Hungary, Poland and any other populist-led states against an increasingly woke European Commission. 

If Putin does take military action, it is therefore pretty clear that Ukraine will receive no significant military support from the West. Indeed, on Dec. 8 Biden explicitly ruled out sending U.S. troops, and the White House has delayed the delivery of military aid to Kyiv for fear of provoking Putin.

So what does Biden mean when he says, as he told Putin on Thursday, that the U.S. will “respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine”? The answer is that, as in 2014, violence will be met with sanctions. On Dec. 7, Victoria Nuland, the under secretary of state for political affairs, testified to Congress that the U.S. and EU are preparing “Day 1 measures, Day 5 measures, Day 10 measures, etc.” She declined to outline the specific sanctions being considered, but said they would amount to “isolating Russia completely from the global financial system.”

In practice, that probably means canceling Nord Stream 2, sanctioning Russian sovereign debt on the secondary market, sanctioning state-owned banks (including Sberbank of Russia PJSC, the country’s largest financial institution), restricting ruble-dollar currency conversions, restricting imports of Russian commodities, and barring Russia from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), the dominant system for cross-border payments between banks.

These are certainly much tougher sanctions than anything imposed in 2014. However, all the measures that would seriously impact Russia would inevitably have knock-on effects for the West. Russia is aware of this, particularly after 2018 sanctions on the aluminum company United Co. Rusal International PJSC shocked global aluminum markets and forced the U.S. to backtrack.

Sanctioning Russian commodity exporters would be costly not only to Russia, but also to many other countries. The U.S. could add Rosneft, the Russian oil company, to the Treasury’s Specially Designated Nationals blacklist, but that would hardly help the administration’s inflation problem.

Sanctions on Nord Stream 2, which have dominated media coverage, are a relatively minor punishment and would not affect Russia’s ability to generate gas revenues. And Moscow is well-poised to withstand secondary sovereign debt sanctions since it has $620 billion in foreign-exchange reserves, a debt-to-GDP ratio of just 18%, and planned budget surpluses for the next two years.

The weakest link in the West’s strategy is, of course, the dependence of the European Union on Russian natural gas shipments, which accounted for 43% of the EU’s total gas imports in 2020. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Brussels and reiterated the usual pledges of “massive consequences” and “severe costs” if Russia takes military action against Ukraine. But such tough talk was undercut by Scholz’s call — in his first speech as chancellor — for a new Ostpolitik, an allusion to West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Cold War policy of normalizing relations between the Federal Republic and the Soviet bloc countries, including East Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union. 

The Not-So-Great Northern War that seems about to break out will be asymmetrical in more ways than one. Russian forces seem likely to overwhelm Ukrainian defenses. The West will meet kinetic action with financial penalties. But the cost of these penalties will be higher to the Europeans than to the Americans, without being high enough for Russia to deter Putin. It is hard, in short, to see how circumstances could be more propitious for Tsar Vladimir’s boldest stroke. A few more weeks of diplomatic jaw-jaw will not change that.

War, I fear, is coming. It has a habit of doing that to Ukraine and its vicinity, a part of the world justly called the “Bloodlands” by Yale historian Timothy Snyder because of the horrors it witnessed in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet that is not the history uppermost in Vladimir Putin’s mind. Do not be surprised if his victory parade takes place in Poltava.



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