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Putin's Russia is not what you think

Updated: Mar 5

Putin never saw NATO as an invasion threat to Russia, but has always seen liberal democracies like the US and EU as an overwhelming threat to his authoritarian regime.

"Red Square" isn't really Red. It was really called Beautiful Square, but the word for beautiful gradually evolved to mean red and the word for red today sounds quite similar. It's one of many things we continue to get wrong about Russia.

(There is a brief personal update at the end of this entry, and there is also a request for questions at the very end. I would appreciate hearing from you about Ukraine and whatever questions you have.)

The recent waffling among certain western leaders in the Ramstein Ukraine Defense Contact Group on the matter of sending main battle tanks to Ukraine is probably a result of several factors. While we may not know for years why Herr Scholz and Mr Biden have acted as erratic as they have, I suspect much of it rests with a fundamental misunderstanding of the world we now inhabit.

I’m no Russia expert, and am certainly not privy to the kind of intelligence that the Pentagon or Bundesministerium der Verteidigung has, but we mustn’t confuse the decision of policy makers as necessarily a direct result of the advice they receive. The US invasion of Iraq under the W Bush administration is a classic example that I’ve used before.

I believe there are a lot of historical misconceptions about the region and Russia that are still influencing western leaders. This is most evident in the difference of approach taken by those allies that border Russia and those that are more distant. Unfortunately those proximate allies are not the wealthy allies with large and dynamic economies, and thus can do little at the scale that is required. It’s not just happenstance that Eastern Europe is so poor, by the way, but rather has much to do with Russia itself and not just the part when they suffered under communism and the Bolsheviks.

In this piece, I want to cover the reasons why many of us are still getting the situation wrong and how that’s hindering a march to a less destructive end to the war in Ukraine. I do caution you, though, that the larger war of Russia vs the West, and the growing likelihood of conflict between authoritarian and liberal democratic societies globally, is probably going to get worse even after this specific conflict in Ukraine is considered over. That is, we currently inhabit a globe that is in an ideological conflict that is much bigger than the Ukrainian War, and the more we understand that, the better prepared we’ll be to prevail.

In Putin's 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference, he excoriated the European security arrangement and surprised many of those who had worked to bring Russia into the fold. Perhaps the event that brought him out was the US invasion of Iraq that ousted a totalitarian ruler, Sadam Hussein

Putin and his conviction that the West is at its end

Let me put this on the table: Putin is no mastermind. He’s not particularly insightful, and he’s certainly no cultural aesthete or intellectual. He is, however, politically savvy. Continuing: He hasn’t been playing his cards close to his chest and has been rather clear about his intentions over the last 15 years or more. I’m using that duration as marked by his now-infamous 2007 Munich speech and the 2008 invasion of Georgia that signal the beginning of his larger geopolitical assault.

He believes that liberal democracy, and the West on whole, is in decline. (Note that I use “liberal” in this sense more in its original meaning, as in “liberal market economics”, which favours the rights of the individual over the government. It has nothing to do with Liberals and Conservatives.) Even if you were to agree with that observation about democracy being in decline, you’d be hard pressed to agree with the degree to which Putin and his Kremlin cronies ascribe to the impending end of the free world as we know it. Their view is we're on life support. I personally think we can characterise recent years as a rough patch for liberal democracy in many ways, absolutely, but I don’t believe we can say democracy is wholly in a bear market. Even if it is, democracy, like markets, can recover stronger than they previously were.

Conversely, Putin fundamentally believes that society at large is incapable of governing itself. He does think of himself more as a tsar with the only title of president, and that most glipses of democracy within the federation are their own Potemkin villages. They’re for appearances. He’s worked this way for years, indicated most clearly with the changing of the constitution that limited the time someone could be president so he could remain in power for the remainder of his hypochondriac life. (I make that flippant reference to his apparent fear of catching Covid, but think that many made too much about whether chronic illness was at the heart of this irrational disastrous military misadventure.)

So all that interference in elections from Montenegro to Czechia to the US, the misinformation campaign around Brexit, that wasn't really so much about the Kremlin choosing its preferred candidates so much as sowing dysfunction in democratic societies. They’re playing spoiler, attacking the strength of the western system, which has at its heart our productive, creative, ambitious, independent, and powerful private sector. Disentangle the richness of our private sectors from our representation governments, and those governments lose both their bark and their bite.

I’m making a box out of this point because I believe it’s fundamentally important for folks in rich countries to remember. Rarely do we inhabit wealthy countries because of great resource wealth alone. Look at Japan or Switzerland or Ireland. More often than not – and there are exceptions, but they’re usually places in transition – it’s the productivity, creativity, education, and drive of the population that makes nations wealthy. What’s more, wealthy nations have a much better track record at staving off extreme poverty than do poor ones. There hasn’t been an example yet where a poor nation has embraced a different kind of governance – communism or socialism, for example – that has made that nation wealthier or brought the extremely poor out of poverty. Numerically speaking, there's really raising GDP per capita by redistributing an already low GDP.

Back to the case in point, the might of the NATO military alliance isn’t derived from its several governments, but from the combined power of the private economies and the philosophical cohesion of their private societies around the ideas of individual liberty and prosperity. We'd have no F-35 or Gerald Ford-class aircraft carriers if the West's private sector didn't generate a whopping amount of tax revenue.

You might recognise this conflict of Putin vs the West not only in the secret election meddling but also in the open antagonism he has expressed toward American hegemony – a position shared by the current Chinese regime along with Iran and North Korea and Venezuela. The conflict is most recognisable, however, in this invasion of Ukraine starting with 2014.

Putin (and any thinking person) knows that NATO represents no invasion threat to Russia. Still, he’ll use NATO expansion as a foil to weaken NATO’s position with the international community. It presents just enough logic to those looking to paint the US in an unfavourable light. Nevermind the many countries like Ukraine and Georgia that want to join NATO precisely out of fear of Russian aggression, that thinking goes, despite the preponderance of historical evidence supporting this fear.

Putin certainly recalls that back in the 1990s the US and UK put a lot more faith in a new non-communist Russia than it did in fellow former Soviet Republics like Belarus, Ukraine, or Kazakhstan (see the Budapest Memorandum of 1994). The US also aided the Russian military in its transition from its Soviet predecessor, and was deeply concerned that Soviet weapons in less responsible hands could present a substantial security risk. Those of us who were adults in the 1990s probably remember this as a time when we thought it was the end of Russian antagonism. The former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact countries, however, had much longer and more traumatic memories about Russia than just the USSR. How justified all these fears have become and how naive so many of us in the West have looked.

So it seems to us over here that while Biden and Scholz sincerely support Ukraine, they’re contorting all reason to believe you can do so without pronouncing a desire for Ukraine to win this war or at least without acting accordingly. (I believe former UK Prime Minister Johnson said as much in the past week here in Kyiv.) Supporting Ukraine does not mean propping up a beleaguered Ukrainian military and economy through a never-ending war that hangs like a ball-and-chain around the European economy. Europe still seems to be operating on a belief that Europe itself is not under attack from Russia, despite the evidence of the last fifteen years. Trading goods for energy wasn’t about improving relations with Russia so much as exposing vulnerabilities. On that point, the US has warned Europe on numerous occasions.

1420 in a YouTube channel where a couple young (and bold) Russians go around the country asking the populous hard questions about the war and politics. It's NOT where I go for comfort and reassurance. The depoliticisation of the largrest segment of Russian society is largely how Putin and his Kremlin have been able to survive.

Putin isn't threatening us so much as continuing to sell the great Russian lie at home

If you can see the point I’m making about the larger conflict between authoritarian regimes and liberal democracies, then you can begin to see why Putin invaded Ukraine first in 2014 and then again a year ago. A prosperous and west-facing Ukraine was not only a loss of what Putin sees as historically Russian territory – he argues that the entirety of this thing called Ukraine is a fiction – but flies in the face of his theory that democracy teeters on the edge of collapse. Seen from a purely domestic perspective, an economically successful Ukraine weakens the authoritarian argument and specifically threatens Putin’s position in Russia.

On that point, it really is helpful to look at most of what Putin says or does as playing to his domestic audience. When he threatens use of nuclear weapons, it’s really not made at us or 1600 Pennsylvania Ave or 10 Downing Street. It’s usually because Russian hawks are circling him, looking for a win, a sign that Russia is the military power that they have embraced close to their tiny beating hearts. When mighty Putin waves the nuclear sword, the world quakes, and the myth of mighty Russia swells in the hearts of its proud people.

​There are like-minded academics and philosophers out there these days who are regularly addressing the topic of nuclear threats. It's a hot topic, as we can all appreciate. It's one that I've previously represented as a false choice for NATO to make. If someone comes to you saying, "give me what I want or I'll drop a bomb on you," you may be tempted to give them what they want. You must recognise, however, that you just created more opportunities for them to take more and more. The threat still persists and you may have given up more that your conscience can stomach. I've found others who portray this more as a distinction between manageable risk and simple uncertainty. When something is truly uncertain, you cannot say it will be more or less likely if we do this or that, which you could do with risk management. It's uncertain and out of your control. This may be a cleaner way for some folks to understand the nuclear sword waving if the way I presented it was more long-winded.

This isn’t just true of Putin and Russia. Politicians in Brussels who meet Hungary’s Orban Viktor meet a very different person than the one they see on TV who tosses verbal daggers their way at every opportunity. I’d say it’s true of all politicians to a degree; what they say about their place in the world is really for the home audience. Take Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act and its emphasis on renewable energy investment. It’s basically an anti-competition act that is seen in Europe as a full broadside on fair trade and European manufacturing. It’s more “MAGA” than MAGA was, if you will.

But the primary reasons Ukrainians are fighting isn't quite so geopolitically charged

While I can argue that this war in Ukraine is part of a larger campaign against Europe and the West – an ideological conflict over whether Ukraine can be allowed to be a free and prosperous liberal democracy – that’s not how Ukrainians see it first and foremost. Here, the primary motivation is expressed simply as “we are Ukrainians, not Russians, and will govern ourselves as such.” It’s firstly a war of national determinism and independence, and secondly about the kind of society and future Ukraine will enjoy. (Perhaps sometime soon I’ll summarise for you all the corruption scandals that are going on in Ukraine and why this is an important sign of its commitment to being a part of the EU sooner than later.)

I personally remain committed to Ukraine more for the second reason than the first, as I don’t see national determinism alone as reason enough for conflict of this scale. Nationalism run amok in Europe could see this small continent of 40-some tiny nations devolve into even smaller pieces of equally ungovernable populations. It gets you nowhere except backwards when considering how the people of Europe will compete with the US, China, and other emerging players like India.

In the case of Ukraine vs Russia, though, whether they're independent from Moscow has almost immeasurable importance and a global significance for the cause of individual freedom. Few things light my fire like individual liberties.

Putin, master mythologist

Earlier I said of Putin that he is no intellectual. That may seem obvious to many observers, but I think it's really most clear in his decades-long effort to make himself the national historian of Russia. It’s in this campaign that he has washed Ukraine off the map that it actually inhabited longer than the Grand Duchy of Muscovy and its descendants have. It’s also in this way that he makes Crimea Russia’s connection to classical Greece, and it’s claim to being the primary beneficiary of classical European culture. That's right, Putin's Russia is the current manifestation of Classical Europe and all the monuments and accolades that come therewith. I'm sure you're shocked that you were previously not properly informed.

In case you haven’t yet checked, you needn’t look back far into the history of the Crimean Peninsula to know it was never very Russian for very long. It was annexed by Catherine (who herself never spoke Russian) from the Crimean Khanate of the Ottoman Empire in 1776 when it was populated mostly by Tatars. There was no Russian population there prior to the annexation, and the Russification of the peninsula would take centuries, peaking with the deportation of the Tatars from the peninsula in 1944 under Stalin.

All national identities are built on myths to some degree, but in the Kremlin myth is the go-to weapon time and time again, and it is the foundation of what most Russians understand about their country. This has likely been true since the 1910s, which was perhaps the best opportunity Russian society ever had to turn toward liberal democracy. It was an opportunity the Russians decided not to take.

All this reminds me of a Patrick McGuinness line, one of a few that I like, which I'll paraphrase with Russia replacing communism: With Russia the future is certain, it's just the past that keeps changing.

Noisy diesel generators: a wholly normal fixture outside most shops and restaurants across Ukraine.

On the Personal Front

I’ve been back in Ukraine again for a few weeks now, and my answer to the recurring question of how things are here is it’s noisy. You’ll be aware that the country has been under periodic but persistent attacks on its power infrastructure for more than a few months. My Thanksgiving Day in Pennsylvania was partly spent trying to explain via text how to manually restart an unfriendly heater in my apartment to someone with admittedly limited mechanical skills. This was all necessary once missile strikes that had previously targeted the eastern and central cities expaned westerward and began to reach as far as L'viv.

The results of these attacks have been considerable and the repairs are and will be expensive. We’re in a condition now that most areas have public power, but no place has uninterrupted electricity. The demands on the national grid are more than its capacity to generate power, and so we cycle through a map of which regions get the juice and when. It’s scheduled, and we have a chart of when those outages are supposed to occur but you can’t really rely on that. The schedule is a three-colour checkerboard of the week, with one colour saying you’ll definitely have it, another saying you definitely won’t, and the other saying we definitely don’t know whether you will.

The civilian and commercial answer to this challenge is primarily to deploy the diesel generator by the tens of thousands. To call it a lawnmower's hum, like from some sentimental suburban summer scene, isn’t so accurate as is a clamorous din. The noise of a half-dozen diesel generators within earshot at any given time is irritating for most people here. I largely ignore it, but then I’m not trying to talk to anyone (other than myself) on the street most of the time. Once inside, most lights and kitchens operate without any indication as to where the electricity is coming from. Most of our time indoors this winter is spent really without much inconvenience.

The solution that I’ve settled on for my apartment, where mostly aid workers have been staying, is a portable power bank. It’s a rechargeable battery about the size and weight of a small car battery. Anything that takes a charge, like a phone or a laptop, or an appliance that doesn't pull a lot of amps can be plugged into it. Most importantly, though, is it gives the gas boiler that little bit of electricity is needs to operate, and can do so for the many hours of an outage. No hot water kettle or toaster, though.

I also bought a few rechargeable LED lamps for light inside the apartment, and now with mobile phone hotspots working more reliably than a few weeks ago… well I can tell you that the fears of Ukrainians freezing out the winter haven’t materialised. The solutions, so far, have been simple but the scaling up to make this possible for millions of Ukrainian homes and businesses is really rather impressive.

It’s important at this stage to recall that war is mostly a contest of will and logistics. In the battle for Ukrainian civilian comfort and economic persistence, Ukrainian will and logistics have once again proven formidable.

Questions and Answers

I'd like to use the next post to answer some questions from you folks. On the surface, it seems like an easy way for me to cover a range of subjects without having to find a theme that I stick to. I get to jump around as well as cover things that are interesting to upi folks. I think you should be able send messages anonymously, if you desire, via the contact form. Otherwise just send them to me at tomgallagher72 on my account.

Just saying "До побачення і дякую" with a lovely winter photo from L'viv today, conveying a continuing calm and sense of peace that is not uncommon in these difficult times.

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