Putin takes a calculated gamble

The lack of a clear reason for the attack may undermine support for the war at home

So it’s war. Once again a brutal spectacle of humans killing humans fills our newspapers and screens. Vladimir Putin unleashed the vast Russian war machine methodically put in place over the last few months on the Ukraine, just as analysts feared.

This is not a war of hot anger, a spontaneous outburst. Rather this is a calculated war, one fuelled by resentments accumulated over decades, of long experience with Western diplomacy, war-making, and hypocrisy (as he sees it), of cold anger at organised conspiracy against Russia, its neighbours, and his own government.

This is a war of choice by a president who decided some time ago that Russia’s best defence was, once again, to invade a neighbouring state, destroy its military, and bomb its people.

Why did Putin take this path?

While Putin’s psychology must be part of any explanation we should avoid cheap self-satisfying emotional othering, the “Putin-is-mad” school of analysis. Instead we need to examine his stated reasons for war carefully.

Putin’s pre-recorded war speech does not begin describing a precise trigger for the war. Instead, after a perfunctory reference to the tragic events in Donbas, he begins with resentments over Nato expansion.

“Over the past 30 years we have been patiently trying to come to an agreement with the leading Nato countries regarding the principles of equal and indivisible security in Europe. In response to our proposals we invariably faced either cynical deception and lies or attempts at pressure and blackmail, while the North Atlantic alliance continued to expand despite our protests and concerns. Its military machine is moving and, as I said, is approaching our very border.”

Too many western analysts dismiss Putin’s complaints about Nato expansion. They respond that what Putin, as an autocrat, is really afraid of is Ukrainian democracy. This habit of dismissal and recasting of the expressed security concerns of Russia’s leadership is part of the tragedy of this crisis.

Putin’s resentments over Nato expansion, and the security order in Europe built around it with no room for Russia, are central emotional facts in this crisis.

Touchstones

Putin’s views on Ukraine also entwine the strategic and the emotional. Two of the defining touchstones of Putin’s affective world are the Great Patriotic War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Putin lost an older brother he never knew to starvation in the siege of Leningrad. As is well known, he served the Soviet Union as a KGB official in East Germany, and then experienced the humiliation of the aftermath of the Soviet collapse in his home town of Saint Petersburg where, he recently admitted, he drove a taxi for a while to make ends meet.

When he became Russian president he inherited Russia’s policy of shaping Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation by tilting the balance of political forces there toward pro-Moscow candidates. Putin’s considerable efforts to bolster Viktor Yanukovych in 2004, however, ended in the humiliation of the Orange Revolution, an event he views as a plot against Russia. Putin was patient, however, and Yanukovych was able to recover and become Ukraine’s president in 2010.

When new protests broke out against Yanukovych after he tilted toward the Eurasian Economic Union rather than the European Union, Putin viewed them not only as a western conspiracy but a fascist one because of the prominence of far-right forces on the Euromaidan. Putin reacted by seizing Crimea and, in the process, changed Russia’s game in Ukraine.

No longer could Russia tilt an evenly divided field. Crimea and then two large cities in the Donbas were taken out of Ukrainian political life. Thereafter, Russia’s game became using the Donbas as a territorial lever to veto the geopolitical orientation of Ukraine. But the Minsk Accords, which were supposed to do this, were never implemented. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was elected on a peace platform yet failed to deliver. Putin came to see Ukraine as captured by far-right forces, a US-organised conspiracy, a hostile “anti-Russia” taking shape on historical Russian lands.

National identity

In aggressively revising its historic memory and national identity, a Europeanising Ukraine was dishonouring the two emotional touchstones in Putin’s life: the Great Patriotic War and the achievements of the Soviet Union.

Putin’s anger was palpable in his speech on Ukraine a few days earlier: “You want decommunisation? Very well, this suits us just fine. But why stop half way? We are ready to show what real decommunisations would mean for Ukraine.”

In announcing this week the independence of the two proxy states set up by Russia in the Donbas after 2014, Putin changed Russia’s game in Ukraine once more, this time toward a directly punitive policy. To justify this, however, Putin needed an outrage along the lines of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s bombardment of Tskhinvali in August 2008.

The script was already in place and the scenario familiar from Nato’s war against Serbia in 1999 over the plight of Kosovar Albanians.

A vengeful parent state, run by fascist nationalists, abuses a vulnerable minority population. Women and children are dying. Genocide is unfolding. Rumours of mass graves abound. A guardian state is forced to act, to intervene in the situation and, with righteous force, rescue the vulnerable and punish aggressors.

Thereafter order can be restored and the previously victimised can live in peace in their own state.

Ukraine’s current punishment at the hands of Russia has echoes of the Kosovo war but, in the end, the Donbas rescue story did not take the spotlight in Russia’s war rationale. Though it is hyped on Russian television and will convince some, this war lacks a defining outrage in the Donbas to project to international audiences. The genocide story does not convince.

Instead this is a war driven by the emotional rationality of one man, a man of the Soviet Union caught up in a world that has shifted beyond his comprehension.

Will his long-standing geopolitical resentments and disgust, his history lectures and emotional posturing work to convince ordinary Russians that this war is justified, that the scenes of Ukrainians being killed by Russians, and Russians by Ukrainians, is just and noble?

That is the unknown. Putin has opened Pandora’s box and all sorts of ugly demons are springing out.

Gerard Toal is professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University