A mythological monster is haunting the fevered imagination of the West. Its name, as pronounced by the US media and political establishment, is “Put’n.” It has the body of the bear, the arms of an octopus, and the head of a super-intelligent extraterrestrial. Its other characteristics are equally contradictory. It is an ethnic chauvinist whose chief followers include strikingly large numbers of national minorities and whose publicly stated idea of Russia is explicitly multiethnic. It is reckless and aggressive to the point of insanity, yet has repeatedly failed to seize opportunities for successful aggression.
The monster Put’n of the Western imaginary is utterly cynical and interested only in its own domestic power and profit, but at the same time willing to run colossal personal risks to expand its nation’s power. It rules over a country that is supposedly a pathetic, impoverished wreck—and at the same time a mortal threat to some of the richest and most powerful countries on earth. It is a congenital “disruptor” dedicated to overthrowing the “status quo,” that has at the same time defended the status quo in the Middle East against catastrophic attempts to overthrow it by America, self-proclaimed defender of world order and the status quo.
This fantastic creature is related to President Vladimir Putin of Russia—but only distantly. The real Putin is certainly ruthless, cynical, and cold-blooded, but also highly cautious and level-headed—too much so, in the view of more ambitious and hotheaded members of the Russian elite. He has never once taken an international action that actually risked war with the West or local Russian defeat. This should give confidence that we can emerge from the present crisis without disaster.
By no means complete confidence, though, for in observing Putin I have often recalled a remark by John Maynard Keynes about Georges Clemenceau, French prime minister during World War I: that he was a deeply cynical individual with only one illusion—France. There can be no doubt that Putin identifies completely with the glory and power of Russia, which he is probably (like many such leaders) genuinely psychologically incapable of distinguishing from his own.
Moreover, though Putin is obviously ruler of Russia, he is also chairman of the Russian establishment—their version of the Blob. And like all such blobs around the world (including most notably the American), the Russian blob operates on the basis of certain firmly held doctrines concerning its country’s vital interests; beliefs that are also shared by many ordinary citizens. In the Russian case (like the American), these includes the exclusion of hostile military alliances from the country’s immediate neighborhood and the maintenance of an important say in European security.
The Russian blob also feels a duty to meet a challenge that America has not yet faced: the defense of the Russian language and the position of Russian minorities beyond the borders of Russia. This applies especially to Ukraine, Russia’s largest neighbor, with by far the biggest Russian minority and the closest historical and cultural ties to Russia. Opposition to the intensifying Ukrainian campaign of linguistic and cultural “Ukrainianization” is hardwired into Russian state consciousness.
If Putin were Put’n, then Russia would already have marched deep into Ukraine. Indeed, it would have done so in the spring of 2014, when militarily speaking there was nothing to stop the Russian army, and when incidents like the mass killing of pro-Russian demonstrators in Odessa gave Russia a perfect excuse for much more radical intervention than the annexation of Crimea and limited help to the Donbas revolt. Russian hard-liners continue to blame Putin for not seizing that chance, and accuse him of failing to do so out of a hope of maintaining co-operative relations with France and Germany—a hope that has met with serious disappointments since then.
If Putin’s past record is anything to go by, then only as a very last resort will he launch a full-scale invasion of eastern Ukraine. Put’n would have done so already this winter, given that all Russia’s key demands have been categorically rejected by the USA. Diplomatically, however, Russia has already scored two small successes. The first is the re-opening of direct high-level talks between the USA and Moscow, which implicitly acknowledge Russia’s key position that there can be no stable security architecture in Europe that does not include a role for Russia.
The second is the reopening of the “Normandy Format” talks between France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine on a peace settlement for the conflict in eastern Ukraine. This is centered on the “Minsk II” agreement of 2015, which sets out a solution based on full autonomy for a demilitarized Donbas within Ukraine under international guarantees. As previously described in The Nation, since signing this agreement Ukrainian governments and parliaments have however repeatedly failed to pass a law giving Donbas permanent autonomy, and the West has brought no pressure to bear on them to do so.
Moscow has no great hope that the Normandy format will lead to a Donbas settlement, both because of dysfunction of the Ukrainian political scene and the strength of the radical Ukrainian nationalists—and because of the lack of serious US commitment (despite the fact that Minsk II remains official US policy). However, talks with France and Germany allow Russians to continue to hope (or dream) that one far-off day a new European security architecture might be created in which France, Germany, and Russia would all have the key roles.
As I have long argued, solving the Donbas conflict on the basis of autonomy ought to be a top priority for Western diplomacy. As long as it continues to fester, it will provide opportunities for Russia to put pressure on Ukraine and the West by starting local battles; Ukrainian radical nationalists will also have the chance to increase their image (and self-image) by doing the same thing.
And if a new war does start in the Donbas, it is unlikely to be confined to that territory. Only the mythological Put’n would march into Kiev and central Ukraine, let alone attack Poland or the Baltic States. These are ridiculous Western fantasies generated partly by genuine paranoia, partly by members of the US and European blobs who need to demonize Russia in order to cover up their own appalling mistakes and lies over the past 30 years, and partly to allow NATO, that chorus line of pantomime warriors, to parade its heroic resistance to a threat that does not in fact exist.
But when it comes to occupying more territory in eastern and southern Ukraine, perhaps even the actual Putin would feel in these circumstances that he missed a chance in 2014, and should not miss that chance again. Any such move would be followed by a new Russian offer to negotiate an agreement on Ukrainian neutrality and federalism; but, in the meantime, thousands of people would have died.