The Context Behind Putin’s Failure in Ukraine

Cash Mendenhall

The aged Cold War-era liaison to the United States Georgy Arbatov predicted our current international crisis in 1988 and almost by accident, speaking to an American audience on the rapidly dissolving politics of the Soviet Union he represented. “We’re going to do a terrible thing to you,” he mused. “We are going to deprive you of an enemy.” Arbatov’s portend on the fall of the USSR was remarkably farsighted, sensing the vapidity of victory that the Cold War brought to the West and the globalized decentralization of ideology and foreign policy objectives between former allies. The rushed and manic imposition of free-market capitalism in Russia and the kleptocratic oligarchy it resulted in, the rise of the technocratic and ruthless Vladimir Putin and the rebirth of Russia’s expansionist dreams went unchecked by a distracted, disorganized, and divided West that slowly lurched into neoliberal stagnation without the specter of communism to organize against. But the enemy has reemerged. As Russian troops surged across the border into Ukraine, the echoes of the Soviet Union and centuries of autocracy and political repetition in Eastern Europe became louder, louder still as Arbatov’s hometown of Kherson became the first major city to fall to a newly occupying Russian army.

It’s worth making a point in a school paper, even if it is outside our typical wheelhouse, that the historical precedent for the war runs deep. Historical study can usually unlock the present, and this invasion is no different. This expansionism is rooted firmly in a vision of regional history founded on autocracy, and one that can only be undone by the careful and vigilant work of ensuring freedom and equity for the populations of war-torn countries. But that expansionism contains the seeds of its own downfall, and the waters Putin has chosen to wade into are not guided by favorable currents. To predict the outcome of a war, made up as it is by a million decisions, is impossible. But escaping history is something that authoritarians find elusive, and Putin has done nothing to suggest he is unique. “The past isn’t dead,” William Faulkner wrote, “It’s not even past.”

The dream of Greater Russia goes back far, and isn’t particularly unique when compared to other world powers, including the United States. The view that smaller neighboring states were and are the rightful vessels of imperialism and control isn’t new, but Tsar Peter the Great iterated it in a way that would lay foundations for his successors. By building St. Petersburg, reconstructing Russia’s economic and industrial capabilities, and developing a modern and imposing navy, he oriented Russia towards western Europe and a vision of colonial control and international power that was developed in the courts of Britain and France. Peter’s assertion of sovereign control, either through soft power or direct military intervention, over states like Poland, Lithuania, and Georgia would become basic doctrine for future Tsars. Catherine the Great’s direct emulation of Peter at home and abroad extended well into her destabilization of rival European states through a series of carefully orchestrated wars and proxy conflicts that assured Russian hegemony in the region for a time. And despite the wholesale rejection of most of Tsarist policy and ideology, the USSR retained this element of historical destiny, overrunning a burgeoning fascist empire in World War Two and keeping the countries they seized under tight control. This Eastern Bloc defined what many thought of as the natural extent of the Russian Empire, and it included Ukraine fully. The KGB that Vladimir Putin came up in was a byproduct of this thought, and as a young officer deployed to East Germany during the end of the Cold War he lamented the daring of the western powers in suggesting that Russian power did not extend throughout Europe. Putin’s later wars in Chechnya and Syria further proved this assertion of the extent of Russia’s sphere of influence. Putin and his advisors were raised in and actively pursue this view without a hint of disguise. The rhetoric he has fallen back on during the buildup to war are perfect examples, calling Ukraine and Russia “one and the same” and suggesting that they were unlawfully separated by international powers. His justification for war was not the protection of a sovereign people, but the protection of his people.

This belief in historical power is aided by a very modern inferiority complex, one that has afflicted Putin’s regime since the beginning. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has lost much of the international power it previously enjoyed. A demographic crisis has led to an aging and contracting population. A lack of employment and growth for the poor and young and a lack of presence in technology have led to an economy roughly the size of Italy’s. Although the boom of the 90s was excellent for the wealthy, many of those gains have been stagnating or even reversing for the working class, and Russian production power has not kept pace with the United States or China, which Putin views as global peers. This, and a loss of the ideological mission that communism gave it, means that the ability of Russia to exert soft power – diplomacy, aid, and cultural exchanges – has lessened. From the Kremlin, it looks as if the strategy of containment has reemerged, too: cut out from the growing and dynamic European Union and isolated by many former allies, in Europe Russia is becoming physically boxed in. In the midst of this perceived decline, the military gives identity and cohesion to Russian foreign policy. Defense spending has kept up, the nuclear arsenal and intimidation factor that the Soviet Union built up during the Cold War have largely been retained, and despite rumored concerns over a lack of modern equipment and munitions on the frontline the Russian army consistently remains one of the most imposing fighting forces on earth. The resurgence of the army after the fall of the Eastern Bloc has been meteoric: defense minister Sergy Soghyu has become a massive force in Kremlin politics, leading an army takeover over a national security apparatus long-dominated by the FSB. Taken together, this view of historical destiny combined with an inferiority complex plastered over by an increasingly unimpeded military provides the foundations of the view from Moscow.

The doctrine that powered Putin’s wars in Chechnya and Syria, however, will require adjustments if he is to be successful in Ukraine. Brutal artillery and air tactics that eliminated entire city blocks, the mass destruction of civilian infrastructure, and the near-total razing of the Chechen capital of Grozny provided a view of warfare that prioritized the deployment of terror and military efficiency. But with a highly publicized war against a European nation, the effectiveness of such tactics in garnering anything but anger towards the Russian military is unlikely. Simultaneously, a more careful occupation could allow breathing room for insurgents to organize and grow in force. Walking the tightrope of successful occupational guerilla war is something few great powers have been capable of over the last century. As Russian forces close in on Kyiv, the likelihood of extremely violent house-to-house fighting seems great. Ukrainian forces are still highly organized, motivated, well-trained, and well-equipped, and with Western support, a guerilla war could stretch on for years. Many analysts have drawn parallels to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan four decades earlier, which helped bankrupt the Soviet state. How long Putin can last is an open question.