By attacking another European country, Putin crossed a line drawn after World War II. But he also changed Russia.
A grim old Soviet joke probably rings far too true to Ukrainians today. A Frenchman says: ‘I take the bus to work, but when I travel around Europe, I use my Peugeot.’ A Russian replies: ‘We, too, have a wonderful system of public transport, but when we go to Europe, we use a tank.’
That joke emerged in 1956, when the then leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Nikita Khrushchev, ordered tanks into Budapest to crush the anti-Soviet Hungarian revolution. It reappeared in 1968, when his successor, Leonid Brezhnev, sent tanks to Czechoslovakia to crush the ‘Prague spring’. But in 1989, when the last such figure, Mikhail Gorbachev, chose not to send tanks or troops to Germany to preserve the Berlin wall, the quip seemed set to become a thing of the past. If today’s Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has shown us anything, however, it is that we cannot believe the present, and all that matters for Russia’s future is its past.
For Putin, the past that matters most is the one which the dissident author and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn exalted—the time when the Slavic peoples were united within the Orthodox Christian kingdom of Kievan Rus’. Kyiv formed its heart, making Ukraine central to Putin’s pan-Slavic vision.
But, for Putin, the Ukraine war is about preserving Russia, not just expanding it. As his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, recently made clear, Russia’s leaders believe that their country is locked in a ‘life-and-death battle to exist on the world’s geopolitical map’. That worldview reflects Putin’s longstanding obsession with works of other Russian emigrant philosophers, such as Ivan Ilyin and Nikolai Berdyaev, who described a struggle for the Eurasian (Russian) soul against the Atlanticists (the west) who would destroy it.
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Yet Putin and his neo-Eurasianists seem to believe that the key to victory is to create the kind of regime those anti-Bolshevik philosophers most detested, one run by the security forces. A police state would fulfill the vision of another of Putin’s heroes—the KGB chief turned Communist Party general secretary, Yuri Andropov.
In 1956 and 1968, Andropov was the main advocate of sending in the tanks. He believed that crushing opposition to Soviet rule was essential to forestall the destruction of the USSR at the hands of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United States Central Intelligence Agency. It is much the same logic that is being applied in Ukraine today—if one can call it logic. Today, the battle to ‘save Russia’ seems to be little more than the product of one man’s fervid imagination.
There is good reason to believe that not even the highest-ranking Russian officials have had much of a say in the Ukraine war. Lavrov has put forward conflicting explanations and objectives. The head of Russia’s central bank, Elvira Nabiullina, attempted to resign shortly after the invasion, but Putin refused to allow it.
As for Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), it seems its Department for Operational Information was responsible for feeding Putin the Ukrainian narrative he wanted to hear: Russia’s Slavic brothers were ready to be liberated from the Nazi collaborators and western puppets leading their government. It probably never crossed their minds that Putin would order an invasion of Ukraine—a move clearly running counter to Russia’s interests—based on this information. But he did, and some 1,000 personnel have reportedly lost their jobs over the operation’s failure.
Those job losses extend beyond the FSB to the military, which seems also to have been kept mostly in the dark about whether, when and why an invasion would occur. The defence minister, Sergei Shoigu—the longest-serving member of the government—has largely disappeared from the public eye, prompting speculation that Putin may have planned the war with his fellow former KGB officers, rather than with the military brass.
However it started, the war will probably end in one of four ways. Russia could seize control of part or all of Ukraine, but only briefly. The Russian military’s struggle to gain control over Ukrainian cities and to keep control over the one major city it has seized strongly suggest that it cannot sustain a long-term occupation. The disastrous Soviet war in Afghanistan, which hastened the USSR’s collapse, comes to mind.
In the second scenario, Ukraine agrees to recognise Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk as Russian territories, enabling the Kremlin’s propaganda machine to churn out stories of ‘liberated’ Ukrainians. But, even as the Putin regime claimed victory, Russia would remain a global pariah, with its economy permanently scarred by sanctions, abandoned by hundreds of global companies and increasingly devoid of young people.
In the third scenario, an increasingly frustrated Putin deploys tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. As Dmitry Medvedev, a former president who is deputy chair of Russia’s security council, recently warned, Russia is prepared to strike against an enemy which has used only conventional weapons. Kremlin propaganda would surely present this as a victory, most likely citing America’s 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as precedent for the use of nuclear weapons to end a war—and proof that any western criticism was rank hypocrisy.
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In the final scenario, the US president, Joe Biden, gets his wish: Putin is removed from power. Given that Russia has no tradition of military coups, this is highly unlikely. Even if it did happen, the system Putin built would remain in place, sustained by the cohort of former KGB colleagues and other security goons (siloviki) he has been grooming for two decades. While foreign adventurism might abate, Russians would remain isolated and oppressed. After all, the FSB may not have believed the war was coming, but it has eagerly exploited Putin’s ‘special military operation’ as an opportunity to implement restrictive measures and assert full control over society.
By attacking another European country, Putin crossed a line drawn after World War II—and changed the world. But he also changed Russia, from a functioning autocracy into a Stalinesque dictatorship, a country characterised by violent repression, inscrutable arbitrariness and a massive brain drain.
While the fortunes of Ukraine, Europe and the rest of the world after the shooting stops remain to be seen, the outcome for Russia is all too obvious—a future as dark as its darkest past.
Republication forbidden—copyright Project Syndicate 2022, ‘Putin’s war will destroy Russia’
Nina L Khrushcheva is professor of international affairs at the New School in New York and co-author of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones (St Martin's Press).