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Russia’s War in Ukraine: Putin’s Soviet Delusion

Russia’s War in Ukraine: Putin’s Soviet Delusion

Soviet mythology is a driving force in the Kremlin’s justification of war. On the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, experts address the long shadow of the USSR. Part two in a series.

Batu Kutelia, Vladimir Tismaneanu, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, Victor Monteverdi

The Phenomenon Known as Russia

Batu Kutelia, former Georgian ambassador to the United States, 2009-2011

Russia’s war on Ukraine was preceded by a terrorist-like ultimatum: The West must retract its invitation for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO. Meeting that demand would most certainly not have averted the current war, but would rather only have served to discredit NATO, demoralize aspirant countries, and enable Russia to pursue its goal of dominance along the belt of the Black and Caspian seas and Central Asia.

Russia’s rationale to embark on the wars in Ukraine and Georgia can be found in U.S. National Security Decision Directive 75, issued forty years ago last month by President Ronald Reagan: “The U.S. recognizes that Soviet aggressiveness has deep roots in the internal system [my emphasis] and that relations with the USSR should therefore take into account whether or not they help to strengthen this system and its capacity to engage in aggression.” Russia’s internal “system” has not changed much since then.

Russian history since the creation of the USSR consists of a series of fundamental failures leading to catastrophes of one kind or another. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union—one of these catastrophes—Russia embarked on a varied version of imperialism but one that nonetheless similarly involved force and fraud, the faking of history, propaganda, fueling separatism, committing atrocities, occupying and annexing territories, assassinating political opponents, suppressing free speech, supporting authoritarians globally, and deploying a network of malign influences within democracies.

The ongoing war against Ukraine is yet one more catastrophe, and possibly the last. After the collapse of the USSR, Russia never became a proper country. Its enduring “system” has no future in a liberal world order. It can only generate violence, lies, and Vladimir Putins. The mass atrocities and war crimes it has perpetrated in Ukraine show that it has passed the point of no return. The war, in the words of late Yuriy Afanasyev, is destined to “bring about the end of the cultural and historical phenomenon that is still known as Russia.” Our responsibility is to minimize the harming of innocents along the way.

Just as the 1983 Directive asserted the need to “contain and revert Soviet expansionism,” the free world today must pursue absolute victory with regard to Russia. Ukraine’s military efforts are essential to that end. The Ukrainians’ glorious resistance and heroism, combined with Western unity, have brought about historic developments: the myth of Russian military might has been destroyed, NATO is expanding on the Baltic Sea, and “America is back.” As a reply to the Russian ultimatum of a year ago, NATO should focus on the wider Black Sea region by “keeping Russia out; China down; and Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia in.” We must see to Russia’s final end. The scale of military assistance should quadruple, sanctions should be further toughened, and the malign network of Russian kleptocrats, oligarchs, corrupt politicians, and criminals neutralized. The job of dismantling and trying the “system” of Ruscism should ultimately be completed by bringing Putin and his enablers to an international tribunal for war crimes.

Batu Kutelia is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program and the former Georgian ambassador to the United States, 2009-2011.

Russia's Gravedigger

Vladimir Tismaneanu, Romanian political scientist and professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park)

Vladimir Putin's February 2, 2023 apocalyptical speech in Volgograd leaves no doubt about his delusional worldview. He is a tyrant surrounded by coward bootlickers and sadistic thugs. His confidant, Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, could be a character in any novel about the criminal underworld. As Putin's grandfather, Spiridon Putin, was chef to Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s widow, so Prigozhin masquerades as "Putin's chef." He knows the spices the khoziain (хозяи) loves. But this bromance can end at any moment: Putin cannot afford to have the Wagner mercenary group act erratically and irrationally. With their propensity for cruelty and brutality, they are the Russian regime's Sturmabteilung (SA), the Russian Federation's Supermen, the Siegfrieds of the 21st century. Will this culminate in a Russian Night of the Long Knives? Will Prigozhin be expeditiously disposed of like Ernst Röhm was in June 1934? Perhaps. German composer Richard Wagner’s intense sense of tragedy is everywhere on display as Prigozhin and Putin's nibelungen terrorize Ukraine. But there is nothing heroic in the latter’s genocidal actions—only sheer criminality.

The original purpose of the invasion was to overthrow the legal Ukrainian government and to set up a Russophile client regime that would facilitate the country’s incorporation into Putin’s empire. The goal was the complete annihilation of Ukraine’s statehood, which Putin and his cronies regard as an anomaly. Once this happened, the glorious revanchist dream would have triumphed as a new Union of the Three Russias: Rossiya (Great Russia), Ukraine, and Belarus. But this has not happened. It’s Putin who is losing the war militarily, strategically, politically, and morally. The man who bitterly lamented the Soviet Empire’s demise has led the Russian Federation into a geopolitical catastrophe. He fancies himself as a new St. George killing the dragon. In fact, he is the dragon, coordinating mass massacres against civilians. Far from heroic conduct, Putin has shown an abysmal military and psychological incompetence. His understanding of history is similarly rudimentary, simplistic, and self-serving.

Years ago, Polish journalist and historian Adam Michnik interviewed Putin, asking about his favorite personality in Russian history. Trying to varnish his image, the former KGB lieutenant-colonel mentioned Peter the Great. Rather, there is a lot of Ivan the Terrible and Stalin in Russia’s contemporary strongman. He distrusts and despises the West. His political vision is ultra-centralistic and viscerally hostile to any form of dissent. The secret police (FSB) cadres are the real center of power in Putin’s Russia. Putin has long used criminal methods to silence his domestic critics—his war against Ukraine is the extension of such repressive domestic policies.

The war’s original purposes have (thankfully) thus far not been fulfilled. Ukraine stands strong. In addition, there has been no fracturing of the two most important Western alliances, NATO and the EU. Putin’s assault on Ukraine has resulted in the complete opposite—the fostering of stronger links between their members; a renewed sense of Ukrainian self-determination; and a mindboggling descent of the Russian terrorist state to the lowest level of disrepute. Instead of its imperial redeemer, Putin has become the Russian Federation’s gravedigger.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and co-author with Kate Langdon of Putin’s Totalitarian Democracy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020)

Lessons from Mongolia

Tsakhia Elbegdorj, former president of Mongolia, 2009-2017

Slava Heroyam! Ukraine will be glorious again. Life will return to the wounded hills of Ukraine. The destroyed homes and streets will be built again. Separated families and loved ones will be united again. Ukraine will celebrate freedom and peace.

I know Vladimir Putin does not tolerate freedom. I have sat with him on many occasions. He despises differences and competition. He is afraid and fears a free Ukraine. As a deeply narcissistic man, he cannot afford to see more successful and prosperous neighbors. He envisioned that a free, civil Ukraine could represent a grave danger to his regime. The Russian aggression against Ukraine did not happen out of the blue. It was the culmination of long-fought rivalries between ideas of freedom and fists of suppression.

There are some in Russia who are disappointed with other countries, including Mongolia, for its stance on the war against Ukraine. Because of Mongolia’s geographical position, tightly squeezed between Russia and China, the Government of Mongolia is forced to perform a balancing act. However, public opinion in Mongolia is resolutely opposed to the brutal attack against this sovereign nation.

In this regard, I would like to bring a historical record to your attention. When Adolf Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, the people of Mongolia united against this fascist invader. Each and every soldier. They showed solidarity with the Soviet people and spared nothing. To give just one example, if nomadic herders had over 100 horses, they sent more than half of their livestock to the Soviet Union. A quarter of all the horses on the front lines during World War II came from Mongolia.

After the war's end, it was not unusual to see a skinny but sturdy Mongol horse standing together with victorious Allied forces in the ruins of Berlin. Horses were logistical lifelines, moving heavy equipment and weaponry through mud and rough terrain. In challenging circumstances, Mongolian horses were the only means of transportation and sometimes a much-needed source of nourishment. The number of horses supplied by Mongolian herders to the Soviets reached more than half a million.

Also, in late 1941, the Soviets began a counter-offensive against German forces on the outskirts of Moscow. During those unusually harsh winter months, most of the Red Army soldiers and officers wore warm winter uniforms made from cattle in Mongolia. In addition, the Soviets, with donations from Mongolia, produced columns of tanks and fleets of fighter aircraft. The Government of Mongolia donated its gold and hard currency reserves to the Soviet Union for four years in a row. Mongolian lamb and meat donations to the front lines outperformed those sent by the Lend-Lease Act.

When Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, we Mongols stood with our northern neighbor as best we could. When Putin's Russia attacked Ukraine, from day one, the people of Mongolia stood against the brutal invasion. My point here is, do what the Mongols did. Act as the Mongols acted. Be like the Mongols. When it comes to fighting for the right to exist. When one sovereign nation attacks another. When it comes to offering support and contributions.

Tsakhia Elbegdorj is the former president of Mongolia, 2009-2017.

Russia’s Destiny, a Global Challenge

Victor Monteverdi, independent observer

Popular discourse today remarks on the failure of Putin’s military campaign in Ukraine and muses about what he will do next. Convenient pastime! Putinology distracts from the story of Western failures to understand Russia’s trajectory and figure out how to nudge history in a more positive direction.

Who remembers the fiasco of Sovietology, which asserted that the Soviet Union was as solid as a rock, right up to the moment it started to crumble? Who could have foreseen that a member of the Council of Europe, a U.S. partner in the “reset,” and a participant in the EU Partnership for Modernization would kick over the global chess board? All of us have to eat our slice of humble pie.

The myth-making about Russia continues. Some argue that Putin will not survive the end of the war. Really? But do you see his successor? If so, will he take a different course? Others say that Ukrainian neutrality will help to achieve peace. This could be true if NATO were the source of the Kremlin’s anger. And yet Putin seems remarkably complacent about Finland and Sweden joining NATO.

We persuade ourselves that we are dealing with ambitions of a mind that has lost touch with reality. Remember Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comment about Putin being “in another world?” Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s agenda is about saving the spine of the state—its great-power role. Ukraine became the means to force the West to accept Russia’s rules of the game. We are dealing not only with the logic of the system, but with the pattern of national survival formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russians found their refuge in the memory of a glorious past, a litany of grievances, revanchism, and a belief in Russia’s uniqueness.

Only reconfiguration of the Russian state can alter Russia’s existential path. Are Russians—and the world—ready for a new state surgery that could again end with a complete unraveling? We see the civilizational drama: Russia’s system can’t respond to modern-day challenges, but is unable to transform itself, either. We continue gazing into an abyss. Even peace in Ukraine can’t solve the problem of the state-civilization that got stuck in time and history. This makes Russia’s destiny a global challenge.

Victor Monteverdi is an independent observer.

This compilation is part two in a series. Part one, "Russia’s War in Ukraine: Views from the Region," can be accessed here.

Image: A 1953 Soviet propaganda poster depicting Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Stalin. (Heritage Auctions)

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