Saturday, February 19, 2022

Will Putin Invade Ukraine?

Enter the mind readers. Serious foreign policy experts, like Tom Friedman of the New York Times and Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic Monthly are weighing in to explain to us what is going on in the mind of Vladimir Putin.

If we were so inclined, we would laugh at the presumption, but still, you do not need to be a mind reader to assess the situation in Ukraine. Whereas the mind readers insist that Ukraine is a prosperous democracy, a visceral threat to the autocrat rule of Putin and his cronies, others might believe that Ukraine threatens to join NATO, thus putting Western armaments on Russia’s borders.

Then again, Putin is staring down Barack Obama’s vice president, and you can imagine the opportunity that that provides. Having easily annexed Crimea during the Obama administration, he understands that the weak-kneed Biden administration, led by a senile demented old man, will be no match for his armies. 

And yet, for our amusement, if not edification, Tom Friedman suggests that Putin has been outplayed by Joe Biden. Full disclosure-- why I read this column I concluded that now it would be impossible for Putin not to invade. The loss of face would be too grave and would threaten his authority.

As it happens, those who analyze these situations never seem to consider the importance of maintaining respect, that is, saving face.

But, Friedman is correct to see it all as a chess game, meaning that both sides are making moves in the game. This is far better than trying to analyze Putin’s psyche, futile exercise that fails to recognize that in foreign policy leaders people are not just expressing their inner mental conflicts. 

One does understand that the Biden foreign policy team has decided that the best way to deter Putin is to keep saying that he is going to attack. Of course, if he then does not attack that will make Biden look good, and one suspects that Putin will never allow that.

I quote Friedman here, so you will have some sense of how many words he is going to be eating in the very near future.

Specifically, the Biden team has mobilized enough solidarity among the NATO allies, enough advanced defensive arms transfers to Ukraine and enough potentially biting economic sanctions on Russia to put into Putin’s mind the only thought that matters: “If I go ahead with a full-scale invasion and it goes bad — wrecking Russia’s economy and resulting in Russian soldiers returning home in body bags from a war with fellow Slavs — could it lead to my own downfall?”

Anyway, Friedman then assesses the reasons why Putin might want to show the world how powerless the Biden administration is:

That is the only calculation that matters, and Biden has done the best job a U.S. president could do, given the asymmetry in interests between America and Russia on Ukraine, to frame it. Ukraine is not only right next door to Russia, but it’s also a country whose fate and future are vitally important to Putin personally. By contrast, most Americans could not find Ukraine on a map and feel zero emotional attachment to its future. And, as Putin found when he seized Crimea in 2014, Americans will not send their sons and daughters to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Fortunately for us, Friedman seems to understand that the Russian interest in Ukraine derives from history, not from anyone’s psyche.

For starters, Putin is obsessed with Ukraine, not only because of his fear that it could join NATO, but also because of its deep cultural-religious-historical connection to Russia. While he may not seize the country by invasion, he will not easily give up meddling in its politics, trying to install lackeys in its presidential palace and empowering Russian speakers there to constantly try to pull the two countries closer together.

Then, Friedman concludes that a wondrously prosperous Ukraine would show the world what Russia could be like without Putin. I find this reasoning frankly idiotic, but still, here it is:

No, the Ukraine crisis has never been exclusively about Putin’s fear of the expansion of NATO’s forces to Russia’s borders. Not even close. His greater fear is the expansion of the E.U.’s sphere of influence and the prospect that it would midwife a decent, democratic, free-market Ukraine that would every day say to the Russian people, “This is what you could be without Putin.”

Yes, indeed, you too could have a country that looks like America, that is ruled by a senile buffoon and that counts among its political leaders people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. One understands that foreign leaders would not be lining up to emulate America.

True enough, and as Anne Applebaum will emphasize, Putin does fear America’s cultural influence-- as does China’s president Xi Jinping-- but he does not fear it because he worries about losing power. He fears it because he believes that the habits of Western decadence will destroy his country and its people.

Now, Applebaum begins her reverie-- it does not count as analysis-- with a meditation on the psyche of Vladimir Putin. Just because it’s inane does not mean that I cannot share it. 

She begins with the scene when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989:

Putin missed that moment of exhilaration. Instead, he was posted to the KGB office in Dresden, East Germany, where he endured the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as a personal tragedy. As the world’s television screens blared out the news of the Cold War’s end, Putin and his KGB comrades in the doomed Soviet satellite state were frantically burning all of their files, making calls to Moscow that were never returned, fearing for their lives and their careers. For KGB operatives, this was not a time of rejoicing, but rather a lesson about the nature of street movements and the power of rhetoric: democratic rhetoric, antiauthoritarian rhetoric, anti-totalitarian rhetoric.

You see, it was a trauma. And people who know very little about matters psychic tend to believe that personal traumas determine future actions. In truth, they do not. A leader who is solely involved with processing a trauma will never survive.

Anyway, Applebaum also believes, as many other thinkers do, that leaders want nothing but power. It is a Nietzschean fantasy that they should long since have discarded. Yet, she believes that Putin dreads democracy because it works so well.

Putin, like his role model Yuri Andropov, who was the Soviet ambassador to Hungary during the 1956 revolution there, concluded from that period that spontaneity is dangerous. Protest is dangerous. Talk of democracy and political change is dangerous. To keep them from spreading, Russia’s rulers must maintain careful control over the life of the nation. Markets cannot be genuinely open; elections cannot be unpredictable; dissent must be carefully “managed” through legal pressure, public propaganda, and, if necessary, targeted violence.

This is obviously blather. The reason that countries are more likely to adopt the totalitarian model is that American democratic institutions, not to mention Canadian ones, are not working very well at all. And if you look for a nation that has produced the most wealth and prosperity for the most people in the shortest period of time in human history, you would be looking East, not West.

In any event Applebaum thinks that Putin just wants to keep his power:

And yet at the same time, Putin’s position is extremely precarious. Despite all of that power and all of that money, despite total control over the information space and total domination of the political space, Putin must know, at some level, that he is an illegitimate leader. He has never won a fair election, and he has never campaigned in a contest that he could lose. He knows that the political system he helped create is profoundly unfair, that his regime not only runs the country but owns it, making economic and foreign-policy decisions that are designed to benefit the companies from which he and his inner circle personally profit. He knows that the institutions of the state exist not to serve the Russian people, but to steal from them. He knows that this system works very well for a few rich people, but very badly for everyone else. He knows, in other words, that one day, pro democracy activists of the kind he saw in Dresden might come for him too.

He certainly understood the power of democratic language, of the ideas that made Russians want a fair political system, not a kleptocracy controlled by Putin and his gang, and he knew where they came from. 

Legitimate or illegitimate, it is surely for the Russian people to decide the matter. The same applies to other autocracies where, by many reports, people are largely happy with their rulers. In America, of course, no one is happy with sleepy Joe Biden.

In truth, Applebaum’s description of autocratic horrors seems an awful lot like America, or even Canada:

Instead of democracy, they promote autocracy; instead of unity, they try constantly to create division; instead of open societies, they promote xenophobia. Instead of letting people hope for something better, they promote nihilism and cynicism.

So, no, Putin is not warring against democracy. He is working to inoculate his nation against the decadent and degenerate system that passes for democracy in many Western countries.

Applebaum has it precisely wrong, but allow her her say:

Putin is preparing to invade Ukraine again—or pretending he will invade Ukraine again—for the same reason. He wants to destabilize Ukraine, frighten Ukraine. He wants Ukrainian democracy to fail. He wants the Ukrainian economy to collapse. He wants foreign investors to flee. He wants his neighbors—in Belarus, Kazakhstan, even Poland and Hungary—to doubt whether democracy will ever be viable, in the longer term, in their countries too. 

And also:

He wants to undermine America, to shrink American influence, to remove the power of the democracy rhetoric that so many people in his part of the world still associate with America. He wants America itself to fail.

What he wants is irrelevant here. The truth of the matter is that America is and has been failing. And its failures have nothing to do with Vladimir Putin or even Xi Jinping.


Anonymous said...

Putin won't invade, himself. He'll just send in his army.

Anonymous said...

"That is the only calculation that matters, and Biden has done the best job a U.S. president could do, given the asymmetry in interests between America and Russia on Ukraine, to frame it." Welll, Biden might be doing the best he can, but I'm pretty sure there would be numerous better U.S. presidents than Joe.

Vitus said...

Geography and the asymmetry of stakes give Putin an advantage. But Mr Biden, for all the foreign policy expertise we were told he had accrued in the Senate and as VP, has not done much to inspire Allies nor to sow fear & doubt among adversaries. I anticipate limited military action by Putin in support of Russian separatists -- which should be sufficient to further discredit the West while not threatening the demand for Russian energy.

John Fisher said...

I’m guessing (underlined!) but I don’t think Putin intends to invade Ukraine. I think his endgame is a written guarantee that Nato will expand no further. And by expand no further, I mean both the Ukraine and Sweden and Finland, both of which have been snuggling up to Nato with joint military exercises and acquisition of Nato common hardware for a while. The Baltic would become an unhappy place for Russia if Sweden and Finland were no longer neutral. Getting a written guarantee would humiliate both the US and Germany and probably fracture Nato. All for keeping his troops cold in the field for a couple of months.

IamDevo said...

Very few ordinary Russians entertain serious antipathy toward Putin. They support his ideas of Russian ethnic and religious solidarity as well as a sense of their historic Russian heritage. They see the decadent West as a threat to their national sovereignty, inherited traditions and culture. Trust me, I'm part Russian. (Part Ukrainian as well, so I come at this from both sides.) Putin has his detractors among some of the oligarchs who see him as a challenge to their continued positions of power and wealth, but they are hesitant to act against him because they know how he has dealt with some of their class who did that. Applebaum and Friedman are putting their own fantasies into the public records, projecting, as it were their own beliefs on to Putin. It is well to remember their prognosticating track records, which are miserably wrong, at best. When they do stumble upon some truth, it is only the result of pure coincidence; they are the proverbial broken clock that is correct twice a day.