Vladimir Putin is bound to lose his attempt to take over Ukraine, which is why I thought he wouldn’t do it. Eventual defeat will come for three reasons: the price of any conquest, the need for public support in Russia to ensure the morale of his troops, and the impossibility of long-term occupation.
Less clear is why he has done it and what happens afterward.
My assumption was that Putin, as a cunning dictator who hates democracy and is smart enough to play the corruptions of the West, had a cold measure of realities. I also thought he felt personally threatened by the Belarus uprising against Alexander Lukashenko and the possibility that a democratic revolution there could inspire Russian voters. While Western governments lamented the way the popular opposition in Belarus was crushed in 2020–2021, they allowed the markets to refinance Lukashenko’s regime. For Putin it was a close call, and so I reckoned—perhaps I should say hoped—that the massive mobilization of Russian military forces around Ukraine over the past several months was a feint, whose real aim was not to take Kyiv by force but to consolidate his control over Minsk. Which, it seemed to me, was bad enough.
Instead, with a vast act of armed frustration, Putin has exploded the era of “the end of history” supposedly begun when the United States emerged victorious from the Cold War and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990. Who really expected this? Especially as Putin himself is the creature of this order.
Dreadful as it is, his war may create an opportunity to reframe the world order in a way that puts democracy in charge of capitalism, to borrow a phrase from Robert Reich.
First, Putin will and, more important, should be defeated. Now is the time for war, given that he has chosen it, until Russia withdraws. The conflict will be suffered by the people of Ukraine, and we must extend to them solidarity and support, including military support. But the larger purpose should be to replace, not reconfirm, enmity with Russia. Together with Russian democrats, we need to terminate the entire paradigm of military polarization and kleptocratic capitalism.
Anatol Lieven, one of the wisest commentators on Russia and the Ukraine, foresaw and sought to prevent the present disaster, but argues against a strategy of support for guerrilla warfare because it would “instrumentalize Ukrainians as a weapon to weaken Russia and recall some of the worst US actions of the Cold War.” Instead, he wants sanctions designed to “help the Ukrainian people.” However, the help the Ukrainian people want is to be aided in their resistance. As the Vietnamese can tell you, other powers may support you for ulterior motives, yet at the same time you make your own history with the support that you get. Just read this letter to the Western left written from Kyiv.
Ukraine is a large country with a proud people and long borders. It cannot be successfully occupied against determined patriotic resistance. First, Russian forces have to subdue Ukraine’s professional army. They can crush Kyiv and Kharkiv in the north and Mariupol in the south. Then they need to join their armies by taking the industrial Dnipro Oblast of 3 million, whose mayor declares it will be “a Stalingrad for the Russians.” In addition, Lviv in the west is close to Poland’s border and already an armed citadel of resistance.
Success in such a war demands determined forces supported by their motherland. The premise of Putin’s assault, as set out in his historically unhinged address, is that Ukrainians are really Russian—“an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.” As his troops will learn, this is untrue. To ask young soldiers to die for a manifestly false premise with only 8 percent domestic support is to ask for defeat.
Suppose, despite this and the costs of economic sanctions, Russia captures or kills Ukraine’s national and local leaders and occupies all its cities. In 2003, the American chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be required to occupy postwar Iraq. He based this on his experience in the Balkans. He was promptly humiliated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who said 100,000 was sufficient. But Shineski was right. Iraq then had a population of fewer than 30 million, compared to Ukraine’s 44 million. The Ukraine insurgency is already better armed than Iraq’s and is taking shape in drone ambushes of Russian logistics and supplies.
Defeat for Putin may or may not come sooner than it did for President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Rumsfeld after 2003, but come it will. What everyone must now strive to ensure is that the tragedy of Putin’s folly and his eventual defeat does not turn into a further tragedy—a return to smoldering polarization guaranteeing another future conflict.
Putin himself is a product of the disastrous way America replaced the Cold War. As I write in Taking Control!, in 1992 then-President George H.W. Bush expressed “the joy that was in my heart” at the way America had “won the Cold War.” Bush was thrilled that “a world once divided into two now recognizes one sole and pre-eminent power, the United States of America.” Other countries, he continued, “regard US pre-eminence with no dread. For the world trusts us with power, and the world is right. They trust us to be fair and restrained. The trust us to be on the side of decency. They trust us to do what’s right.”
Dread would have been much the wiser course. The 40 years that followed saw enormous economic growth and innovation. China’s transformation is without precedent, and the global economy went from analog to digital with the rise of global platform corporations with unparalleled reach into our personal lives. But politically, far from being restrained and fair, America’s solo hegemony was responsible for a period of unrestrained unfairness. Its wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq were worse than indecent, while its insatiable financial system exploded in the great crash of 2008.
And no place was more indecently and unfairly treated than Russia.
After 1992, the United States could have supported Russia’s transformation into a relatively uncorrupted democracy, as its people wished. Instead of extending an updated Marshall Pan, as it did with Japan and Germany after 1945, Washington ensured that Russia was ravaged by economic “shock therapy” and bankrupted. Putin is the foster child of Washington’s greed and myopia, determined to take revenge on the forces of the capitalist family that orphaned him, even while he has been personally enriched and empowered by it.
His invasion, therefore, should not be seen in Cold War terms as a response to “the threat” of NATO expansion. He understood the weaknesses of the West and knew he could prevent NATO expansion into Ukraine. His fear is the potential shift to democracy and liberal values like the rule of law, freedom of speech, and human rights. Hence his backing of Western friends, above all Donald Trump, who shared his corruptions and contempt for due process, even if they didn’t murder their opponents.
Which means it is time to debate and seek to shape the kind of peace we want to see in a post-Putin, post-Trump world. Ukraine’s heroic President Volodymyr Zelensky is right to put his country’s neutrality on the table in any negotiation. Also, new, democratically arrived at borders may need to be drawn, to resolve the territorial questions. Putin’s defeat must be turned into a victory for Russian and Belarus democracy as well as Ukraine’s and a path for their joint renewal. Only this can compensate for America’s ghastly orchestration of the decades when it was the “sole pre-eminent power.”
So far, Biden’s strategy has been intelligent and dignified. He took three courses of action that distinguished him from Trump. First, his administration has armed Ukrainian forces with defensive weaponry and training (and presumably advisers) as well as detailed intelligence. Second, it has systematically revealed what it knew and risked its classified information gathering, in order to ensure that the world had reliable, real-time knowledge of what was happening; this restored credibility to America’s claims after four years of Trumpian bluster. Third, the US has built an international alliance rather than proclaiming “America first.” In addition, Biden has, wisely, not called for Putin’s overthrow nor sought to provoke a man consumed by crazy notions of history who also has nuclear weapons at his disposal.
In this way, the US administration has—so far at least—allowed Putin to defeat himself. Defied and frustrated on the battlefields of Ukraine, Putin can only be replaced by the Russians themselves.
One of the striking things about the recent popular opposition movements in the ex-Soviet autocracies is their disparate character. It was only after the movement in Russia led by Alexei Navalny in the 2018 elections was put down that massive protests erupted against Lukashenko’s outrageous steal in Belarus in 2020. These were fully crushed by the time of the Kazakhstan rising in 2021. Now, revulsion against war is generating opposition in Belarus as well as Russia. An invasion intended by Putin to consolidate his unified sway across the ex-Soviet space could lead to coordinated demands for distinct democracies in Minsk as well as Moscow.
This is what Navalny has just called for in an incendiary 12-part thread on Twitter sent from his prison cell:
But let’s at least not become a nation of frightened silent people. Of cowards who pretend not to notice the aggressive war against Ukraine unleashed by our obviously insane czar.…
I cannot, do not want and will not remain silent watching how pseudo-historical nonsense about the events of 100 years ago has become an excuse for Russians to kill Ukrainians, and for Ukrainians to kill Russians while defending themselves…
We cannot wait any longer. Wherever you are, in Russia, Belarus or on the other side of the planet, go to the main square of your city every weekday and at 2 pm on weekends and holidays.
Writing in openDemocracy, Greg Yudin, a Moscow professor who followed the frustration of the opposition to Putin, also argues that he chose war to save himself—not his country. Just before the assault was launched, Yudin concluded: “The war with Ukraine will be the most senseless of all the wars in our history. Because we can never fight with Ukrainians…. We will be alone against the whole world, and our defeat will be heavy.”
We need to ensure that defeat is swift, decisive, and Putin’s—but also, and crucially, that the weight of its burden is lifted from the Russian people once victory has been secured. This is an opportunity to help Russia to become a political ally, not an enemy, and thus genuinely terminate both the Cold War era and its disastrous aftermath.
A central issue posed by Navalny is one we might as well face now. His popularity in part stems from his nationalism. For example, he believes, as do most Russians, that Crimea is Russian, not Ukrainian, and among other solutions has suggested an honest referendum to enable people there to decide if they agree.
Because Crimea was historically Russian, they probably will agree and we must support their right to be part of Russia, even if an originally illegitimate use of force removed their land from Ukraine. This is one part of what it will mean to draw democratic lines to resolve territorial questions. It will also apply to the Donbass.
The larger principle, as set out by Mary Kaldor, is to move from a world based on force to one based on human rights and human security. This cannot be done without also ending the kleptocratic corruptions of democracy everywhere—not just in the ex-Soviet and petrodollar countries but also in the United States, Britain, and other countries grown rich on catering to the capitalist oligarchy.
The consequences of there being a democratic Russia that is no longer to be treated as an enemy will be profound. When the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War, the USA sought to preserve its “sole pre-eminence” by crippling Russia. Treating it in this way created the enmity Putin weaponized and has now deployed. After Ukraine is liberated, the way to end Putinism is to terminate hostilities between Russia and the US-Europe alliance and prevent any reconstruction of enmities that serve the military-corporate complex, so as to welcome Russia as well as Ukraine and Belarus as democratic allies in the creation of a sustainable world.