NOTE: This is the second in a five part series.
PART I: American Adventurism, Non-Interventionism, Trumpism and Afghan Chaos
PART II: The Misunderstanding of Vladimir Putin
PART III: China Awakens Under Xi Jinping
PART IV: Crony Capitalism and the West’s Achilles Heel
PART V (September): The New World (Dis)order
PART II: The Misunderstanding of Vladimir Putin
“To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside: If you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history. All relevant decisions have been taken. I hope you hear me.”
-Vladimir Putin, 24th February 2022
In February, 2014 after three months of violent and sustained demonstrations in Ukraine, their Russian-leaning President Victor Yanukovych fled Kyiv. The Ukrainian parliament appointed an acting president and prime minister who immediately announced they wanted to bring the country closer to Europe and further away from Russia.
Fearing the Arab Spring could arrive at Moscow’s doorstep and banking on Mr. Obama’s non-interventionism, Mr. Putin invaded Crimea, days after Mr. Yanukovych fled. There is an argument to be made that his decision to annex Crimea was driven less by a desire to rewrite history and more as a strategic maneuver to ensure Russia’s Black Sea Fleet would not get evicted from its base in Sevastopol, as Ukraine drew closer to Europe.
However, regardless of his motivations, what is laughable is Mr. Putin’s claims that Crimea has always been a part of Russia, and that he was liberating its ethnic Russian population. Records in Russian government archives show that Crimea was transferred to Ukraine in 1954, under Stalin, and in 1991 Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence from the Soviet Union.
At the time Mr. Obama condemned the Russian aggression in Crimea but insisted that the country was a "regional power” and said that Mr. Putin’s actions were a sign of weakness, not strength. He said the US remained committed to defending NATO allies but non-members, like Ukraine, could only count on non-military pressure and sanctions to dissuade Russia from making further territorial encroachments.
Again, Obama rejected the recommendations of his national security advisors and overruled Congress when they tried to send lethal military aid to Ukraine. A senior Obama administration official said that they did not want to “provoke Russia”.
Unlike after Putin’s invasion of Georgia, this time the international community did impose economic sanctions and target members of Putin’s inner circle. Vice-president Biden vowed the sanctions would leave Russia standing "naked before the world”.
There is no question that the sanctions that were imposed after Putin’s invasion of Crimea hurt Russia’s economy. However, it is hard to pinpoint the direct impact they had because Russia retaliated by issuing a ban on food imports from Western nations, which contributed to rising food prices and inflation at home. Also, a drop in oil prices that occurred around the same time, put downward pressure on the Rouble. The combined effect of sanctions and these events helped exacerbate underlying weaknesses in the Russian economy.
The more important thing that happened is that Mr. Putin took on the post-Crimea sanctions as a challenge and decided to enact measures that would make the Russian economy less reliant on the West and sanction-proof in the future.
Russia grew its foreign currency reserves to $631 billion, the fourth largest in the world. They adopted a new fiscal policy, cutting expenses to enable greater financial stability and withstand future volatility. They created their own payment system, in the event the West blocked them from SWIFT. They invested in homegrown food production to become self-reliant and far less dependent on imports from the West.
All these measures should have been a clear indication to the West that Mr. Putin’s territorial ambitions were far from satiated. Also, Mr. Putin believed he held the ultimate trump card - he supplied 40% of Europe’s energy and the Georgian and Crimean invasions had not deterred Europe’s thirst for Russian oil.
From Putin’s perspective, it was a victory. The post-Crimea sanctions caused pain, but they did not cripple Russia or leave her standing "naked before the world”. If we reviewed his tally sheet, we would see that he achieved his goals in Georgia, annexed Crimea without a shot being fired and occupied the Donbas with scant resistance and with no consequences from NATO or the US. In addition, his popularity soared back home with the majority of Russians supporting the annexation of Crimea.
On the heels of his annexation and illegal occupation of Crimea, confident the U.S. would again not intervene militarily, an emboldened Putin sent Russian troops to Syria in 2015. It was Russia's intervention that made the difference and helped turned the tide in favour of Assad’s regime.
Obama’s non-intervention in Syria had given Mr. Putin an opportunity to get a foothold in the Middle East. This was something Russia had wanted since the end of the Cold War, and now they were able to do it while sidelining America.
The fact is that every post-Cold War US President has underestimated Mr. Putin and failed to understand his motivations. A fundamental miscalculation of successive administrations is that unlike in democracies, where we think in four or five year terms, autocrats play the long game and plan their moves over decades, not over election cycles.
In 2001, Bush famously said that he had looked in Putin’s eyes and had,“seen his soul” and found him to be “very straightforward and trustworthy”. Bush was partly right because in 2008, Putin told Bush in a straightforward way during a one-on-one meeting that Ukraine was not a real country, a comment the US President laughed off.
President Obama, like his predecessor, believed he could tame Mr. Putin and declared the infamous Russia ‘reset,’ after taking office in 2009. This foreign policy reboot was launched with much fanfare when Hillary Clinton presented Sergei Lavrov with a cartoonish “reset” button which misspelled the word in Russian.
Mr. Obama scrapped plans to deploy a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The administration claimed it was due to a reduced threat from Iran and technological challenges, but it was widely seen as a move to appease Mr. Putin in order to win Russian support for a vote in the UN Security Council. The vote would support tougher sanctions on Iran and bring them to the negotiating table for the deal Mr Obama sought.
Obama’s most memorable quip, reinforcing his naivety about Russia, came in the form of his response to Mitt Romney during the 2012 Presidential debate. After candidate Romney stated that Russia remained one of America’s greatest national security threats, Obama retorted, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War's been over for 20 years”.
To understand Mr. Putin, we have to go back to the days before the fall of the Soviet Union. His worldview was formed during this time, while he was in the KGB. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, he was stationed in Dresden, Germany. He witnessed first-hand how leaders and systems could be toppled when citizens grew too powerful. While Putin acknowledged that the Soviet Union had been in decline, he believed it was ailing due to paralysis of power and the frailty of political elites.
He wrote in his autobiography that after his office was surrounded by protestors threatening to storm the building, he called the Red Army’s German tank unit, stationed nearby, and asked them for protection. They said they could not do anything without orders from Moscow. They had reached out but no orders came. The words “Moscow is silent” are said to have haunted Putin his whole life, and shaped his worldview.
Putin watched helplessly as everything he spent years building collapsed in the blink of an eye. First, East Germany disappeared when it was reintegrated into the West, and then the mighty Soviet Union disintegrated. In his mind, this was a direct result of the weakness of its current leadership.
Mr. Putin’s ambition has always been to rebuild the Russian Empire and unite all the people displaced after its collapse. He has publicly stated these aims many times. In a 2005 address to the Russian Duma, he said ”…the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.”
In a 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference he started by asking the audience not to get angry, or turn on the red light because his remarks might seem “polemical, pointed or inexact”. Then he launched into a tirade about United States “unipolar” global domination after the Cold War and how America’s “Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have not resolved any problems” but created more conflict and human tragedy.
Alluding to the US invasion of Iraq he said “We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law” and added that “… the United States has overstepped its national borders in every way.” “This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?”
He expressed concerns about NATO’s expansion, saying it had less to do with “modernization” or “ensuring security” and was a “serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.” He spoke of a new world order that would upend the current one.
He pointed to the fact that the combined GDP of India and China was greater than the U.S. and that the BRICs - Brazil, Russia, India and China - cumulative GDP surpassed that of the EU. He warned that the “economic potential” of these new centers of power would soon translate into “political influence”.
Mr. Putin is convinced that the West actively works to undermine Russia, inflicting their woke, weak and morally bankrupt ideology to foment and finance colour revolutions across former Soviet republics. We saw this paranoia on display when Mr. Putin rapidly deployed “peacekeeping” troops as part of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to quell growing unrest in Kazakhstan last year.
In March 2014, Mr. Putin made a speech to both houses of parliament about the annexation of Crimea. He claimed, after holding an illegal referendum, that 96% of people had voted in favour of reuniting with Russia. In the same speech, he put the West on notice that Russia would be staking further territorial claims.
Then in July, 2021 he laid out his mission in a 5,000 word essay entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in which he argued that Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians are all descendants from Ancient Rus. That they are still bound by a common language and faith. According to his version of history, Ukraine has never been a sovereign nation, except for a few times when it tried and failed to become an independent state.
He accused the West of using Ukraine to undermine Russia and made false claims about Zelensky’s government actively supporting “Neo-Nazi’s” and burning people alive in Odessa. He concluded that the sovereignty of Ukraine was only possible in partnership with Russia and declared “we are one people.”
Mr. Putin has never hidden his ambitions to restore Russian greatness which he is convinced was robbed by the West, making it hard to believe that he will stop at Ukraine, even though his invasion had not gone according to plan.
He has made it amply clear that until every former Soviet republic is fully subservient or part of Russia, Russia's very existence is threatened. Along the way he seeks to diminish US influence in Europe, degrade NATO and form a new anti-US global alliance.
There is no question that Mr. Putin’s and his generals badly miscalculated the Ukrainian invasion on every front. They underestimated the level of resistance from a disciplined and well-trained Ukrainian army, while overestimating the capability of their own forces. The biggest surprise , which nobody saw coming, was President Zelensky’s Churchillian rise and his ability to rally not just his fellow countrywomen, but the U.S. and Europe.
With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine not going according to plan, some observers believe it might dissuade him from achieving his goals and lead him to look for an off-ramp. I disagree.
Despite the Russian army’s battlefield humiliation, Mr. Putin remains in a strong position to finance his war because the Russian economy, while it did wobble, is far from hobbled. In fact, it weathered the sanction storm better than anyone predicted.
Russian economic output contracted a mere 2.1% in 2022, surprising some economists who had expected a catastrophic meltdown. Meanwhile, the war has damaged billions of dollars of infrastructure and caused the Ukrainian economy to shrink by more than 30% in 2022.
An independent poll taken immediately after the invasion found that 58% of Russians approved of Putin’s military action, while 23% opposed it. Most people expected support to drop as the average Russian began to feel the day-to-day pain of Western sanctions and losses on the battlefield mounted, but the opposite has transpired with support for the war hardening and less than one fifth of Russians now opposing it.
But Russian support must be taken with a bag of salt because Mr. Putin has unleashed a wave of repression with new laws that punish people who spread misinformation. Sharing “false information" includes using the word ‘war’, for which people can face up to 15 years in prison.
Public works deemed critical of the war have resulted in exhibits being torn down and replaced with state propaganda. Actors, writers and artists have been hounded and forced out of jobs. Curricula in schools and universities have been changed, and students are being taught to report teachers who talk of peace, and Russians are encouraged to snitch on anyone who opposes the war.
A single father was recently sentenced to three years in prison for social media posts that came to light after his daughter made a drawing for a school project with the words “No to War” under the picture. The thirteen year old girl has been placed in a state orphanage, after her father fled arrest.
In addition, the Russian government is doling out cash payments in the country’s most impoverished regions to buy public support, and brainwashing the population. Every media outlet that countered the false state narrative has been shut down and replaced by propaganda that paints the war as “far away,” while highlighting Mr. Putin’s “economic successes, new welfare benefits and renovated clinics”.
It is true that Mr. Putin believed that European support for Ukraine would crumble fast because of their reliance on Russian energy. However, while Europe has managed to miraculously cut their reliance on Russian gas by almost half, India and China have massively increased their oil purchases, which has eased part of the hole it might have caused in Mr. Putin’s coffers, and thus his ability to continue financing his war.
To further hurt Mr. Putin’s ability to finance his war, last December the EU added a ban on sea borne Russian oil into the Europe, and prohibited European insurance and shipping services from transporting it anywhere in the world. At the same time G7 nations put a price cap on Russian oil of $60 per barrel, hoping it would deliver the fatal blow to Russia’s war chest.
Earlier this year, research by Columbia University found that the ban and price cap have not had the intended effect on the flow of Russian oil, and that Russia has been commanding prices ranging from $74 - $82 per barrel from China, India and other countries. A New York Times investigation used publicly available shipping data to track the movement of some of these shadow oil tankers. However, more recently there is new evidence that the price cap is starting to work and oil revenues have declined substantially, but it is still not to anywhere near a level that would bankrupt Russia, or prevent Mr. Putin from continuing to fund his war.
So, Mr. Putin has no reason either to acquiesce to peace talks or to agree to terms that would amount to a humiliating loss of pride and his political clout. For Mr. Putin to admit he wants an off-ramp, one that would result in a territorial retreat, would be a fate worse than death. For the time being we are at an impasse, with neither side willing to negotiate anything short of complete victory.
Prior to the war the NATO alliance looked fragile and fractured, with President Macron publicly declaring it “brain-dead”. NATO’s weakness is something Mr. Putin likely factored into his calculations, but unfortunately for him Russia’s invasion had the opposite effect, not only jolting NATO back to life but also bolstering European unity.
Mr. Putin has claimed that his invasion of Ukraine was partly intended to stop NATO expansion by sending a message to other countries that border Russia not to join NATO. This too has not worked out for Mr. Putin, as the previously neutral nordic countries of Sweden and Finland overwhelmingly voted in favor of joining NATO.
Europe also got lucky with an unusually warm winter, which helped avert an energy crisis. Also, they were helped with the US boosting natural gas deliveries and brokering deals with countries like Qatar to fill the gaps. However, these are not long-term solutions and the jury is still out on whether Europe can survive a harsh winter next year.
So, where do we go from here?
Mr. Putin has made it clear that he is digging in for a long, drawn out war of attrition. This is a man who has no respect for life, so he will keep throwing ill-equipped, poorly trained Russian troops as cannon fodder onto the battlefield. While the Ukrainians have shown tremendous courage, resolve and tactical military superiority, they are reliant on the US and NATO for aid, equipment, munitions and weapons.
To break the stalemate on the battlefield, President Zelensky is pushing for delivery of heavy weaponry like armored vehicles, tanks and fighter jets, and has grown increasingly frustrated at the pace at which they are being supplied. It was this request for heavy weapons which showed the first cracks in the Western alliance.
Germany pushed back on sending tanks and only reluctantly agreed to send them after US prodding. Germany is also dragging its feet on doubling its defense budget, something Chancellor Schultz had publicly announced he would do three days after Russia invaded.
There are other cracks within the NATO alliance too. Hungary continues to play both sides because it is reliant on Russia for its energy needs. They even secured an exemption on the EU oil ban, along with the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Turkey has refused to impose sanctions while significantly increasing trade with Russia, and continues to buy lots of oil. Both President Erdogan and Hungary spent months dragging their feet on approving Finland’s accession to NATO and continue to block approval for Sweden’s.
While the US remains a staunch ally, President Biden now has to contend with a less Ukraine-friendly Republican Congress. If a Republican were to win the White House in the next election, Ukraine would most likely lose their blank cheque and without US support, they would not be able to stand up to Russia for long.
So it is in Mr. Putin’s interest to drag out this war. The longer it goes, the better the cards he will hold and President Zelensky knows that time is not on his side. He is acutely aware that only a decisive Ukrainian victory on the battlefield, sooner rather than later, will shift the calculus decisively in their favour, and force Russia to the negotiating table.
Read next installment in series:
PART III: China Awakens Under Xi Jinping