Staunton, January 28 – Many Western policies are based on the notion that Vladimir Putin will change course once he sees that the costs of his invasion of Ukraine far exceed any possible benefits, but such an approach is based on the false assumption that the Kremlin leader is a rational actor.
In fact, Russian analyst Dmitry Oreshkin argues, Putin is anything but a rational actor and instead is trapped in a set of assumptions about the nature of the world, many of them inherited from his Soviet past, that make it more likely he will continue to expand the war however much his or his country’s interests as understood by others will suffer.
Putin and his entourage, the analyst continues, still are under the power of “an incurable Soviet mythology which arises from ignorance” of the way the world is, and that drives much of what he and they do (nvua.net/publications/siloviki-vokrug-putina-govoryat-chto-rossiyskaya-armiya-silnee-ukrainskoy-i-eto-nado-ispolzovat-rossiyskiy-politolog-31334.html).
He and then believe, Oreshkin says, in the Stalinist notion that “the bigger the land, the richer the territory” rather than recognizing that size and wealth are not necessarily the same thing and that additional territory may in fact entail additional and unwelcome costs rather than benefits.
But Putin, those around him, and increasingly thanks to Moscow’s propaganda many in the Russian population believe as Stalin did and thus the others view the current Kremlin leader as someone who is addressing and thus helping to overcome the wound to their pride that they suffered as a result of the demise of the USSR.
From this perspective, “others have cut off our land, and NATO is surrounding us.” And Putin is “using this Soviet mantra to boost his rating,” but as he does so, he is running into “really existing limitations which are not considered in this mantra and which cannot be considered because it – the mantra – is something invented.”
“If Putin were rational and lived in a contemporary system of values,” Oreshkin says, the Kremlin leader would have long ago recognized that he and Russia have no need for a Donetsk “republic” and that having one would only put new burdens on Russia, burdens that it is not easily able to bear.
Even now, deciding to sacrifice the Donbas would be “a rational choice,” the analyst continues, “but it would be a catastrophic loss for him because in that event he would begin to be viewed as a traitor.” As a result and against all rational logic, Putin has thus been “forced to play the role of the ingatherer of Russian lands.”
He is quite willing to play this role, but his own policies are working against it. By invading Ukraine, he is driving all the rest of what might be a Russian world into opposition – even including Belarus. “In this sense,” Oreshkin says, “Putin is a loser, but he will devote all his efforts in order that people in Russia will not understand this. Therefore, he will present himself as a victor,” whatever his real losses.
That is one of Putin’s failures. The second has the same roots and involves the contradiction between the ingatherer of Russian lands and the actual lack of the resources that would be necessary for him to play that role. Related to that is that he must navigate between appearing macho at home while not appearing too macho for the West’s tastes in Ukraine.
Putin also is in trouble because of his “personal problems” which impose a particular and false view of the world. “As a chekist, he cannot allow that something happens on the earth in a natural way.” He believes that it is always “organized by one or another group” and “therefore, he really thinks that the Americans made the Maidan.”
This is not so much paranoia as some may think but rather a limitation in Putin’s ability to think about the world, Oreshkin says. “He simply cannot understand that people would like to live in a country where elections are honest, where the authorities steal a little less, and where tax payers can exert a little more influence on the politics of their country.”
Instead, he “sees his function as one of the leaders of an influence group to oppose other influence groups which in his understanding are eating away at Russian sovereignty which he conceives as the sovereignty of his influence group” and not that of the Russian people as a whole.
As a result, “he does not understand who is sovereign in Ukraine. He thinks that it is Obama, just as many [Russians] do. What can he do in this situation? He is required to oppose these influence groups which took territory away from the Soviet Union.”
At the same time, Putin “does understand” that Russia is falling ever further behind the West economically and that he “cannot offer Ukraine a more effective economic model, while the EU can. He can only offer Ukraine a discount on the price of gas or in the opposite case shut it off. That is all he can do.”
Only in war can he maintain the competitiveness of the Soviet past. In a direct clash with Ukraine economically, Russia will fall behind in two or three years; but militarily, it is still stronger. In that circumstance, Putin cannot allow Ukrainians to have a better standard of living or stability not only because of Ukraine but also because of Russia as well.
Putin thus wants to ensure that Ukraine cannot become a member of Western institutions like the EU and NATO, and he sees the only way to do that is to continue to generate instability in Ukraine via military means. He certainly cannot offer Ukrainians something better than the West can.
He will thus be compelled to continue to fight even though the Russian army is not in a position to take Kyiv except at costs Russians won’t pay, however wonderful the Russian army is in the eyes of Putin’s military advisors. But because he sees no way out for himself but to go on as now, he will find himself caught in an extremely unwelcome and unnecessary war.
What Putin is doing and will do, Oreshkin concludes, is “nothing new” for Moscow. The Russian analyst points to the way in which the Russian government used the Karabakh conflict in the 1990s. At that time, the conflict bubbled along when nothing was at stake for Moscow and then exploded when Moscow was concerned about an oil or gas pipeline.
“Today,” Oreshkin says, “Eastern Ukraine is going to fill the very same function” that Karabakh did then.