No one knows what Putin is doing in Ukraine
Maybe not even Putin
There were a lot of things I wanted to write about this week—the return of lethal U.S. “dollar diplomacy” in Afghanistan, the untimely death of Dr. Paul Farmer—but, well, circumstances intervened. After weeks of debate and disbelief, the unthinkable happened last night, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The reason there was so much uncertainty for so long, even as an estimated 190,000 Russian troops and the Russian Navy completed their encirclement of the country in plain sight, was that there was plainly nothing to justify an all-out assault. Yes, there was ongoing shelling between Ukrainians and Russian proxies in Ukraine’s far southeast. Yes, there were reasons for Russian officials to feel threatened by NATO enlargement—as far-fetched as the prospect of NATO actually admitting Ukraine to the U.S.-led alliance might have been. Yes, Vladimir Putin’s position at home may not be as secure as he would like us to think. But as analysts like historian Timothy Snyder keep pointing out, this invasion is liable to make his problems worse.
Even if you grant that Putin is a fascist and a bully who needs no further incentive than his apparently deep ideological annoyance at his neighbors’ continued existence, the potential cons so outweigh the potential pros of this invasion for Russia that they barely bear listing. First among them: that prosecuting a war of regime change and trying to occupy a country of over 40 million people—a significant number of whom are armed and hate you—practically invites a blood-soaked quagmire, which could take your own regime with it. Just ask George W. Bush.
Yet Putin, and Putin alone, decided to go through with it. And now the world has to figure out how to respond. To do so intelligently, it would be helpful to figure out why Putin is doing this. Julia Ioffe has chalked it up to Putin’s obsession with (Great Man) history, or, alternately and somewhat contradictorily, that he’s emulating Stalin, Hitler, or Peter the Great. (The implication here is that he is a megalomaniac bent on world domination, and thus only sane response is either Cold War brinksmanship or to go ahead and answer the call to World War III.)
John Ganz on the other hand recently pointed out, before the invasion, an intriguing theory by one of Putin’s former confidants who posited that the Russian president and former KGB agent was bent on an ironic form of Soviet revanchism: by giving “the capitalist predators on our side a chance to develop and devour the capitalist predators on theirs.”
That latter idea is, of course, especially appealing to me, a guy who just wrote this book. And there is something almost Wilsonian about the way Putin is going about his invasion, dressing it up in hoary rhetoric about “demilitarizing” and “de-Nazifying” what he calls an illegitimate Ukrainian “junta,” and stopping a supposed “genocide” in the Donbas, then turning around and huddling with his most influential allies in the Russian banking, energy, and industrial sectors.
(Woodrow Wilson ordered the invasions, decapitations, and occupations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, both of which sparked fierce insurgencies. He also considered a war of total occupation in our larger, better-armed, and more industrialized southern neighbor, Mexico, in 1914, when Texaco and other U.S. oil companies urged him to overthrow the dictator Victoriano Huerta. But he rejected that regime change plan—a plan co-authored, incidentally, by Smedley Butler—rightly reckoning that it would be too dangerous and costly, and opted for a limited invasion of the port city of Veracruz instead.)
If Putin was trying to beat America at our own game, it seems he has either decided to abandon that strategy, or thinks he already finished it. He had the Wagner Group all over the Middle East and Africa, an ally essentially running one of the two U.S. political parties and his crooked buddies in every high-rise in Manhattan. Now he is either shoving all those chips back onto the table or flushing them down the toilet.
In his speech declaring war, Putin explicitly contrasted his new illegal war with the U.S. attack on Belgrade during the 1999 Kosovo War, as well as the illegal invasion of Iraq and the bombing of Libya and Syria, all of which were done in violation of those countries’ sovereignty and in contravention of international law and the U.N. Charter. This was whataboutism—and just like the original kind, it used real examples of American crimes to distract from impending Russian ones.
Yet if he had listened to himself he would have gathered the warning of the hell he was about to unleash on himself, noting that the U.S. wars sparked “a humanitarian catastrophe and a civil war that has not ended to this day … doom[ing] hundreds of thousands, millions of people … [and giving] rise to a massive migration wave from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe.”
Maybe Putin has solved the riddle that has eluded imperialists and would-be imperialists for over a century: how to conquer and subdue a mechanized, industrialized nation at minimum cost to his side. (Hitler, don’t forget, needed the complete acquiescence of every other European power to invade Czechoslovakia, and the direct military cooperation of the Soviet Union to take half of Poland in 1939.)
I doubt it. Some Russians are already, extremely bravely, defying protest bans to take to the streets in opposition to the invasion. Ukrainians, as the shock wears off, are gearing up for what could be a long, brutal resistance.
But, necessary as all of that is, the prospect that Putin could be disappointed or even threatened by the effects of his own actions only increases the danger to the world. It is hard to imagine that a protracted war fought across all 230,000 square miles of Ukrainian territory (an expanse roughly the size of Texas) won’t spread to neighboring countries in some way, potentially triggering a direct confrontation with NATO. Sanctions and U.S.-sponsored cyberattacks will inevitably be met with Russian counterstrikes, which could have serious or even life-threatening consequences on this side of the Atlantic.
And if an isolated Putin fears he is losing — and blames Western Europe or the United States for stoking dissent through sanctions and arming and supporting his enemies — he could make good on his promise to unleash “consequences you have never encountered in your history,” a not-at-all veiled threat to put some of the more than 6,200 nuclear weapons he has in his arsenal into play.
To state the obvious, we are entering an extremely uncertain time. It is made more uncertain by the opaque motives of the man who has chosen, against all humanity and reason, to launch this conflict. It gives new meaning to the dictum written by my favorite, belatedly pacifist Marine about war: “Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many.”
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Edited by Sam Thielman
Other reading on the Ukraine war:
David Klion has a great new explainer in Jewish Currents
Historian Serhii Plokhy on Ukrainian identity and resistance
Maria G. Rewakowicz on poetry from the war