After six months of Russia’s brutal and reckless war in Ukraine, it is still hard to discern what can be the endgame of the conflict that marked the end of the post-Soviet era.
To understand Vladimir Putin’s goals and the possible outcomes of the war, we need to try to determine why he started it.
Is Putin just a madman bent on restoring the Soviet Union and righting what he believes are the historical injustices of the famed cities of Odesa, Mykolaiv, Kherson, and others falling under the Western spell?
Or is it true that he has calculated that the window of opportunity is closing, and as Ukraine becomes more successful and pro-Western, it can drag Russia and its people away from his control?
Was NATO expansion as much of a threat to Russia, or was it just a concise pretext for the invasion?
All these arguments have their deficiencies. Putin has said that Russia cannot restore the Soviet Union. Moscow was also unable to occupy Ukraine in its entirety – the spectacular failure of the Russian forces near Kyiv will long be one of the most aching defeats for Putin. The madman flair could have been a subterfuge used by the President to distract Western policymakers from his true motives.
Inside Russia, Putin firmly controls the entire political landscape – just before the war, the economy had been accelerating, driven by post-COVID recovery; the elites were in the Kremlin’s grip. Ukraine was still decades away from becoming a shining beacon of European-style prosperity. In terms of economic metrics, it has been lagging far behind Russia.
As for NATO expansion – after Sweden and Finland decided to join, Russian officials said that the alliance’s expansion to Ukraine is an entirely different story, so in earnest, NATO’s enlargement did not prompt the war.
These and other factors led many analysts to conclude that such an invasion was not in Putin’s interest and, thus, was impossible – more precisely, unthinkable. Still, Putin was willing to sacrifice a lot for an earth-shattering war whose consequences (regardless of the result) will likely define his legacy.
As it appeared, they had not seen the elephant in the room.
The world has misread Putin, just as it is misreading Russia now. The Kremlin’s decision to invade was predicated on a combination of factors, but at the core was the idea that the West has been trying to absorb Ukraine away from Russia. Putin and his circle believe that in Ukraine, with the use of soft power, subterfuge and propaganda, the West has been trying to do what Russia is now doing by targeting Ukrainian cities with missiles and artillery. Russia and Western states clashed in Ukraine ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and even before. Both Moscow and Washington were driven by hubris and geopolitical adventurism in luring the Ukrainian elites to their sides.
For both, therefore, the war appeared to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Russia, propaganda has been promoting the idea that the West has betrayed the country after the Soviet collapse and is only interested in dismembering it and benefiting from its abundant natural resources. Today, some Western commentators argue that the West should do just that. In the West, people have made careers arguing that Putin is an expansionist dictator, bent on re-creating the Russian empire – and in many ways, they got what they wanted.
The result of it all, however, is a tragedy of enormous proportions. It is also a direct consequence of the historic failure of both Russia and Western states in their attempt to mend mutual grievances and build a mutually inclusive system that would bring peace and prosperity not only to them, but to Ukraine too. Today, both sides blame each other, but no healing would be possible without the recognition that many policymakers and analysts made grave mistakes.
For instance, the entire Western policy has assumed that, in essence, Russia would not survive without the West. The war proved this wrong. It turned out that Putin and his elites were not as concerned about their connections with the West. They were also indifferent to the reaction of many Russian oligarchs and members of the elite, who were integrated into Europe and beyond. It appeared that Putin did succeed in defeating the oligarchs – there are no oligarchs in Russia now because they wield no influence over the country’s politics.
It also appeared that Russians were ready to sacrifice much to soothe their national pride and channel the entrenched sense of resentment and revanchism, buttressed by highly effective state propaganda. Most Russians do not support the war as such. Many of them, however, support the Kremlin’s interpretation of it. As long as the economic situation does not deteriorate to the levels seen in late Soviet times or in the 1990s, it is unlikely that Russians will pose any political danger to the Kremlin.
Therefore, sanctions did not work – they damaged the economy but failed to stop the war.
The war also put a final nail in Russia’s post-Soviet aspiration to become a fully-fledged part of the West. Even after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ensuing conflict in Ukraine’s east, many members of the Russian elite cherished hopes that Moscow and the European capitals were just too interested in mutual trade and other ties and that they would find a compromise in the end. There was a tacit hope that a new period of peaceful coexistence could last a long time since both sides agreed that they had enough to benefit from it. This is why the war appeared so shocking to many Russian and European pundits, businessmen, and members of the wider public. They saw no benefit in it but destruction. Both sides lost from the current disaster.
One might believe that questions of status, balance of power and security pale in comparison to a world drawn toward prosperity and progress. However, it now appears that these notions are still firmly ingrained in the world’s geopolitical toolkit. This war is also a textbook battle between idealist and realist approaches.
But few could have expected this to turn into a tragedy of such enormous proportions. Clearly, Putin cannot afford a defeat. For him, the balancing act is no longer between pro-Western liberals and law enforcement apparatus bosses, but between various shades of pro-war radicals. The Ukrainian government cannot afford a defeat either, but it is not self-sustainable and is dependent on the goodwill and public opinion in the West, which has also been hostage to its initial cavalier approach.
Russia’s brutal and reckless invasion of Ukraine marked the end of the post-Soviet era. That period started with the collapse of the Berlin wall with high hopes that the east and west would be united in the new liberal world order. More than thirty years later, these hopes ended in a profound failure. The world is sharply divided again, and new walls are being built. Both sides misread each other, recklessly pursuing agendas that aggrandized them at home, but failed to produce peace. No reckoning is possible without some recognition of this.
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