Staunton, Mar. 9 – Given how horrific and fateful Putin’s war in Ukraine is proving to be, Vladimir Gelman says, ever more people are trying to explain how the Kremlin leader took the decision to do so, with many suggesting that it was an emotional act or reflected Putin’s thinking about Ukraine alone.
Both those views are profoundly mistaken, the political scientist at St. Petersburg’s European University says. Putin had in his own mind rational reasons for taking this step; and his action was completely consistent with the nature of the political system he has created, two things that make this action even more dangerous (ridl.io/sut-pagubnogo-resheniya/).
“Most of the steps taken by the Kremlin” both before and after the invasion began “look quite rational,” Gelman argues. “There is thus no reason to consider the launch of this military campaign as something exceptional. Instead, it should be assumed that it fits within the general logic of governance in Russia.”
The “perniciousness” of what Putin has done in Ukraine is not the result of “the specifics of Russian policy towards Ukraine” alone but “to more fundamental factors” -- “the characteristics of the Russian regime, its mechanisms of governance, misconceptions about the consequences of decisions, and assessments of future results on the basis of experience.”
Personalistic autocracies like Putin’s are far more likely to fall victim to that. If one compares his decision to go into Ukraine with the Soviet decision to intervene in Czechoslovakia in 1968, one sees the difference. In Putin’s case, there was no real decision; in the Soviet one, there were discussions in a variety of places.
Moreover, Gelman continues, “foreign and defense policies are affected by the vices of ‘bad governance’ far more than are other areas.” They are concealed behind “a veil of state secrecy” which allows those in power to “hid various miscalculations and encourages executors to focus only on ends rather than costs and consequences.
Another factor that undoubtedly played a role in this decision was the propensity of Russian rulers “to project on the leadership of Ukraine their expectations that ‘the American puppets’ would run away to their masters when threatened” and then collapse when the latter did not support them.
the Russian authorities could project onto the leadership of Ukraine the expectation that the «American puppets» would run away to their masters when threatened, and that they themselves would stop supporting them.
Other mistaken assumptions that played a role include the notion that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people,” that the divide between eastern and western Ukraine is “eternal and irremovable,” and that most Ukrainians except for the nationalists in the government are pro-Russian.
And behind all these mistakes were the worldview of many in Moscow and elsewhere that the past can be restored what has been lost. That is to be found in the rhetoric of Donald Trump who talks about “making America great again” just as it is found in Putin’s oft-repeated insistence that “we can do it again.”
Such views undoubtedly led Putin to conclude that he could repeat the victory he won in 2014 and in much the same way, especially because he views the recent troubles in the West as evidence that it is “in a state of deep and irreversible decline and thus is fundamentally incapable of decisively resisting Russia.”
It is highly likely, Gelman concludes, that “the Kremlin assumed that everything in 2022 would follow approximately the same course as in 2014 albeit on a larger scale; but it has turned out that “one cannot go into the same river twice.” Whether Putin will learn from this very much remains to be seen.