Beyond Putin’s war – The inconvenient “Russian question”

Vladimir Putin’s ongoing attempt at bringing a definitive resolution to the “Ukrainian question” is raising, once again, the inconvenient question of Russia’s difficult relationship with the world around it – a question that predates Putin and will likely outlast him.

Russia’s special peacekeeping operation in Ukraine is progressing according to plans. Russian soldiers are methodically and humanely bringing peace to Ukraine and will keep doing so until the country is liberated, neutralized, demilitarized and denazified. The anti-Russian Ukrainian government, illegitimately installed and manipulated by the United States to threaten Russia and the Russian people, will be removed, and the genocide of Russian citizens committed in Eastern Ukraine by the Nazi-infiltrated Ukrainian army in the last eight years will be punished.

This, in essence, is the “truth” being served to the Russian population by Russian media, and the only truth, in fact, that they are now allowed to hear and compelled to accept. Questioning it in any way is not just repressed anymore, but fully criminalized.

The State Duma (lower chamber of Russian Parliament) just fast-tracked a law introducing astronomical fines and up to 15 years in prison for spreading “fake news” on Russia’s “special operation” in Ukraine – fake news being anything that does not align with the official “truth”, in all its dimensions, about the operation itself and its consequences. With the enactment of this new law, meaningful and independent journalism and reporting are becoming impossible in Russia. The only remaining independent media have been shut down, and Western media – including social media – have been banned. Russia is in fact forbidding and preventing its citizens from viewing, hearing or reading anything else than the official truth. Russians are being made unable to know what is really going on beyond their borders, just as foreigners are being made unable to know what is really going on in Russia.

Russia, which has been largely cut off from the global economy and financial system by the West in response to its war of aggression against Ukraine, is therefore cutting itself off from any kind of uncensored information inflow and outflow. Russia has become an economic, financial and information island, whose bridges to the outside world are being blown up one after the other.

No possible way back

With this new law, Putin’s regime has just made a big and decisive step on the way that leads from brutal authoritarianism to outright totalitarianism. There is no possible way back for a state apparatus that decides to make such step – just like there is no possible way back from the decision to invade Ukraine.

The West needs to come to terms with the fact that Vladimir Putin is making these steps and choices consciously. He is not acting recklessly and foolishly, but “rationally” – at least based on his own rationality – and methodically, and he perfectly knows what the consequences of his acts are and could be.

The West also needs to come to terms with the fact that Putin is no more interested in “de-escalation”, if he ever was. He perfectly knows that there is now way back to the situation that preceded the war, be it for him personally, for Ukraine, for Russia, or for the world, and he actually doesn’t want it.

Why did he do it? And why now?

Vladimir Putin, in fact, has made a world-changing gamble, and he perfectly knows what this gamble means and the risks it entails. If he has made it, it is because he thinks the risks are worth taking, the gamble can be won, and the time is right to go for it.

Putin’s motivations for invading Ukraine are manifold, and are only superficially related to Russia’s alleged “security concerns” about getting “encircled” by NATO and threatened by US missiles. Rather, they relate to his drive for “revenge” over the West-dominated world order that has belittled Russia and enabled the Westernization of its former sphere of influence in Europe.

Indeed, the war that Putin has consciously decided to start in Ukraine is not just a “special operation” aimed at subjugating a neighboring country which he claims could someday host nuclear missiles pointing towards Moscow. It is a “great war of revenge” against the perceived injustices made to Russia by the West since the end of the Cold War. In his hour long-address to the Russian people – and to the world – that preceded the invasion, Putin clearly expressed his anger and resentment at the way post-Soviet Russia had been continuously mistreated by the West and in particular by the US, despite his own initial attempts at finding ways of peaceful or even friendly cooperation. The West’s only goal, he indicated, is and always was “to restrain the development of Russia” and to punish it “just because we exist, and we will never compromise our sovereignty, national interests and our values”.

Putin and his aides have in fact been expressing this kind of paranoid resentment for many years, hinting ever more plainly that the West would not always be capable of ignoring Russia’s interests, and that payback time would inevitably come some day. That this payback is finally coming over Ukraine should not surprise anyone – Putin has been making clear for about 15 years that Ukraine was his ultimate red line, a no-go zone for the US and NATO – implying as well that Ukraine could never be entitled to full sovereignty.

Hence, his objective today cannot be to just demilitarize and “denazify” Ukraine and to force it to accept neutral status, it rather is to bring it back, once and for all, as forcefully as needed, into the “Russian world” where, Putin says, it culturally and spiritually belongs. In other words, what Putin is pursuing is the resolution, once and for all, of the “Ukrainian question” – the problem posed to Russia by the temptation for Ukraine to drift towards the West and emancipate itself from the “Russian world”.  This Western temptation has to be annihilated once and for all, and Putin is taking upon himself “a historic responsibility by deciding not to leave the solution of the Ukrainian question to future generations”.

Beyond this, however, he is also clearly pursuing a wider, strategic goal: overturn of the US-dominated world order, an order that has not just brought back the Ukrainian question to the fore, but that he believes is bent on hindering Russia’s development. In that respect, solving the “Ukrainian question“ is only just a step, even if a decisive one.

Forcefully bringing back Ukraine into the “Russian world” will indeed, or so he probably thinks, expose the weakness of the US security guarantee in Europe and impose the fait accompli of Russia’s superior might and power. Should he get his way, he would then be able to further undermine the credibility of the US security guarantee by putting continuous and hybrid pressure on other parts of the continent, from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea.

If Putin decided to unleash his great war of revenge now, it is also because he thought that the time was ripe for the confrontation with the West. There are several reasons for this, but the main one is that he believes Russia is now ready and equipped for this confrontation, and that it can win it.

Putin has in fact been making preparations for this great confrontation for many years – militarily, economically, and strategically.

Militarily, Russia has been heavily rearming, and has developed new weaponry that he believes gives Russia an edge over the US and the West – both for conventional warfare and possible nuclear exchange. The first days of combat in Ukraine are casting some serious doubt on Russia’s actual conventional capacity – its army being apparently ill-prepared and ill-equipped for the assault. However, it is too early to draw any firm conclusion in that respect, as it is possible that the full force of the Russian military may yet have to be really unleashed. Concerning nuclear capacity, Putin seems to believe that Russian advances on hypersonic missiles and defensive capabilities have put an end – temporarily at least – to “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) and opened a window of opportunity to resort to a first strike use of nuclear weapons if need be – hence enabling him to take risks that would otherwise be too great to contemplate.

Economically, Russia has been following for many years – and especially since the imposition of Western sanctions that followed the annexation of Crimea in 2014 – a strategy of “independentization” from the West, in particular through a process of “import substitution” – i.e., the replacement of external supplies of strategic goods with domestic production. It has also been distancing itself financially from the West by slashing its external debt, accumulating and diversifying financial reserves, and following a strategy of de-dollarization – i.e., reducing ties with and dependency to the Western financial system by reducing the use of the US dollar in its exchanges with the rest of the world.

Strategically, Putin’s Russia has for years been working on establishing a wide-ranging strategic geopolitical alignment with China – the other superpower seeking some sort of revenge over the established, US-led world order. This alignment, dubbed the “Dragonbear” by geopolitical analyst Velina Tchakarova, is falling short of a formal military alliance, and rests on a convergence of interests that is inherently temporary, yet it gives Russia far more leverage at global level than its own economic weight would allow. In particular, it provides Russia with access to external markets and supplies without which it could not even consider being able to weather the sanctions imposed by the West.

If Putin sees Russia as being ready and equipped for the confrontation, he also sees the West as being engulfed in a spiral of decline, which he thinks has reached a stage where he can now move to not only exploit it, but to accelerate it.

This decline, as he sees it, is all encompassing – economic, financial, political, but also cultural and moral – and even “civilizational”. The epicenter of Western power, the US, is also, in his view, the epicenter of that spiral of decline, and is fast descending into a quagmire of economic and financial collapse as well as cultural and political infighting that weakens its resolve and capacity to act on the world stage.

America’s humiliating retreat from Afghanistan last year, and Joe Biden’s perceived weakness confirm, in Putin’s view, that the US is now unable and even unwilling to impose its will on others. The images of US helicopters and planes escaping Kabul as fast as they could were in fact a sign that the pressure was very likely to mount very quickly on other geopolitical fronts. Putin, in particular, sensed that the time was now ripe for the great pushback against the American Empire he had been preparing for.

Other factors may have played a role in Putin’s decision to act now. The first is of course the leverage and influence that Russia has been patiently and methodically building in the West, which he thought was probably giving him some means and tools to weigh on both public opinion and decision-making.

Russian influence and leverage over the West has essentially been built around three dimensions: money, information, and above all energy.

Ever since the early 2000s, Russia’s dirty money has been infiltrating the Western financial system, enabling Putin’s friendly oligarchs to buy economic and political influence and privileges.  This has in particular been the case in the UK, where the City of London has become the global hub for dirty money, and where entire sections of the country’s economic, financial and political elite and apparatus have been compromised, infiltrated, or outright bought.

The second dimension of Russia’s influence building strategy has of course been information, with the establishment and development of a web of media/propaganda outlets and relays.  Under the guise of promoting “free speech” and questioning the “official” narratives, Kremlin-backed media outlets have in fact been deliberately and purposedly sowing the seeds of confusion, cynicism and division, over many years. They have been systematically and methodically relaying and amplifying the failings, sins and evils – real or alleged – of Western societies and their leaders, with a view to inflaming the public debate and weakening the fabric and cohesion of Western societies – this was in fact their mission. These Russian media/propaganda outlets have now been shut down in the West, but the seeds of misinformation, confusionism and discord they have sown have blossomed and given rise to a whole web of political and media relays that keeps perpetuating, more or less intentionally, Moscow’s misinformation work.

The third and the main dimension of Russia’s influence building strategy and leverage over the West has of course been energy. Russia is, fundamentally, a resource-rich extractive economy with an outsized military-industrial complex. It has very few competitive advantages in anything else, except for some agricultural products, but it knows very well how to leverage or even “weaponize” its natural resources endowment for political purposes. With the implicit or explicit complicity of short-sighted Western European governments, it has been working over several decades to increase Europe’s dependence on its energy resources – natural gas of course, but also oil and even coal. This has given Putin very significant leverage over energy prices in the EU – as demonstrated by Russia’s role in the natural gas price shock of recent months. This has also given him a very credible retaliation capability against Western sanctions – as he can turn the spigot off on gas and oil, as well as on a number of other essential commodities and agricultural products.

In the medium to long term, Europeans will suffer more from not receiving Russian gas, oil, coal, but also cereals, fertilizers, palladium or uranium, than Russians will in the short term from not receiving dollars or euros – or at least that’s Putin’s calculus. Only time will tell if he’s right, but what is clear already is that Russia has indeed built up sufficient leverage to inflict massive economic pain on Europe, in particular Germany, and by way of consequence to significantly destabilize a global economic and financial system that is already overstretched and extremely fragile.

Putin knows, in addition, that the window of opportunity for using Russia’s energy wealth to fund his revanchist drive will not be open for very much longer, as its oil and gas reserves are depleting and becoming harder to recover. This may have been a reason why he felt compelled to act now, while this window of opportunity still exists. Similarly, Russia’s demographic situation may also have influenced his decision – as it may not have a sufficient fighting age population to forcefully reconstitute its imperial sphere of influence in a few years time. Also, his own age and situation may have been a factor – he is now 69, and even if rumours of ill health are unfounded, he knows that his grip on power will inevitably start dwindling at some point and that he won’t be able to camp a credible wartime leader for ever.

What next?

So there are numerous reasons why Vladimir Putin made his Ukrainian gamble, and why he made it now.

At this stage it is rather pointless to speculate about how this gamble will turn out. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen next, even if everybody is talking and writing about it. Information about what is occurring on the ground in Ukraine is partial and often contradictory, meaning that it is difficult to appreciate the reality of Russia’s strategy, of its advances – or lack thereof – and of its losses. It is even more difficult to appreciate what Putin will do next, both militarily and politically, and the extent of destruction he is willing to inflict on Ukraine and its people. It is also, of course, increasingly difficult to understand the situation that really prevails in Russia, both within the population and in the circles of power, as a blanket of silence and repression has fallen on the country.

One thing seems to be clear, though: the situation has reached a point where none of the parties to the conflict – Putin and the Russian leadership around him, Ukraine, and the West – can back down, because the fight has become “existential” for all of them. There is far too much at stake for any of the parties to retreat and accept defeat or even compromise. There is no way Putin can back down without achieving his stated aims of neutralizing, demilitarizing and “denazifying” Ukraine, because he would probably not be able to remain in power for more than a few days if he would do so. There is no way Ukraine can back down and accept Russia’s conditions for stopping its offensive, even the minimum ones, because it would immediately cease to exist as a sovereign and independent nation, and probably forever, if it would do so. There is no way the West can back down and accept that Russia may be allowed to get its way by subjugating or absorbing its neighbor by sheer force, because doing so would not just blow up the European security order but also obliterate the very moral and political foundations upon which the West’s claim to power is built.

That none of the parties can anymore back down, in a conflict where the stakes could hardly be higher, means that pretty much anything can be considered as plausible, including the worst, including a complete destruction of Ukraine and “genocide” of the Ukrainian population, including a direct military confrontation between NATO and Russia, and even including a nuclear exchange. A Russian military defeat can also not be excluded, though it still looks like a distant and very hypothetical prospect right now.

Since Putin cannot and will not back down, the best-case scenario, from Ukraine’s and the West’s point of view, would be that he be removed from power, either by a popular uprising or by a palace coup. At this stage, both seem exceedingly unlikely. The capacity of the Russian people to rise against its ruler has now been all but annihilated. For years, a majority of Russians had no wish to revolt; they were happy to go along with Putin’s illiberal and then authoritarian drive in exchange for stability and some (relative) prosperity. Now that he is going full totalitarian, they find themselves ruined and trapped in his gigantic, continental scale prison, with no possibility to escape or to revolt. A palace coup also seems very unlikely, as Putin has had over twenty years to consolidate his grip on power – and on the circles of power. There is no meaningful opposition nor any sign hinting at the possibility of dissent or disloyalty in those circles, as even under Western sanctions the members of the political and economic elites have more to loose from Putin’s downfall than from his continued rule. A palace coup cannot be fully excluded, though, once some around Putin start understanding that he is leading the country towards an abyss of misery and tyranny rather than towards a new era of glory and greatness.

The return of the Russian question

Which brings us to the most inconvenient of challenges raised by Vladimir Putin’s attempts at bringing resolution to the “Ukrainian question”, and which can itself be called the “Russian question”.

The Russian question designates the problem posed by Russia’s complex and difficult relationship with the world around it. At this point in time it could be put like this: even if, say, Vladimir Putin is deposed by some apparatchik or general following a palace coup, or even ousted by a popular revolt, and even if the new leadership accepts to stop the invasion of Ukraine and to withdraw Russian troops, what is then to be done with Russia? On what basis could a peaceful, trustful and mutually beneficial relationship be established between Russia and its neighbors, as well as the wider world?

This Russian question is not new, in fact it has been a major question for European security for at least two centuries. Russia very early on grew into an outsized country by expanding eastward, from Europe and into Asia. That expansion gave it an immense territory, which was however scarcely populated, mostly constituted of rather desolate and not so hospitable lands, and of little economic value before energy and mineral resources were discovered and could be exploited. In the 17th and 18th century Russia thus turned back towards expanding westward, entering in competition with the Western kingdoms and empires. The Napoleonic wars convinced it that it had no defensible natural borders on its West flank, and hence that its security was best assured by the existence of a buffer of amicable or at least neutral smaller states between itself and its possible enemies/invaders in the West. At the same time, Russia grew increasingly suspicious of Western cultural evolutions resulting from the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, which it quickly perceived as a threat to traditional Russian identity as well as to Russia’s aspirations to power and influence in that buffer zone.

The Russian empire collapsed at the end of the First World War, but then got restored under a communist guise and in a much more brutal form as the Soviet Union. Then again, the key priorities were to keep Western ideas and influences at bay and to keep Western militaries at a safe distance from the Russian motherland by forcing a ring of neighboring countries into either neutrality or submission.

And here is the problem: in the course of its history, Russia has never really tried to establish and nurture amicable, peaceful, trustful and equal relations with its closest neighbors to the West, but rather to ensure that they play their assigned role as buffer states separating it from the West. This, of course, is fundamentally incompatible with recognizing them equal status and full agency and sovereignty. On the contrary, it requires imposing them an unequal relationship based on power and domination, as well as restricting their capacity to drift towards an alliance with the West.

Domination, subjugation, coercion and or outright colonization by an external power is always a traumatizing experience for any people of nation, and the fact and the matter is that Russian domination has left very deep scars and traumatizing memories in the countries that have had to endure it – and this includes Ukraine. For some of them, these scars and memories predate the Soviet period, actually, and hence do not just result from it. Contrarily to what they typically claim and believe, the Russians were not greeted as saviors and liberators anywhere in Central and Eastern Europe when they kicked out the Germans in 1944-1945. Besides communists, nobody in those countries had any illusion about what being “liberated” by soviet soldiers meant.

Russian authorities are now denouncing the massive hostility to Russia’s “special operation” in the West as being the result of widespread “Russophobia”. And to some extent they are right, Russophobia is a thing – both as a fear of Russia (the country) and a distrust or even distaste of Russians (i.e., the people/nation/culture/geopolitical entity, not individuals). And there seems to be a rule, easily verifiable empirically, by which Russophobia appears to be directly proportional to proximity and experience of Russia and the Russians. The closer one lives to Russia, the more one knows the Russians, the more experience one has of dealing with them and more precisely of living under their domination, the more “Russophobic” – i.e., fearful and distrustful of Russia – one tends to be.

Which is why the people who lived and grew up in any of the countries that were still, not so long ago, subjugated by Russia or even part of the Soviet Union, will all say, without almost any exception, that the absolute worst thing that could ever happen to their country would be to fall under the spell of Russia again. None of these people has any illusion about America’s motives or historical misdeeds, yet all of them, again without almost any exception, will happily take a hundred years as a vassal to the American Empire rather than a single day back under Russian domination or in Russia’s sphere of influence.

The fall of Putin’s regime in Moscow and a subsequent retreat over Ukraine that could be decided by a new leadership would not, in itself, bring any resolution to the “Russian question”. If Putin has been able to rule Russia for so long, and apparently to remain so popular among the Russian population, it is because the blend of nationalism and revanchism that he has been championing and nurturing over the years is not confined to the circles of his regime but very much widespread across the country.

A majority of Russians does in fact believe in a form of Russian exceptionalism and supremacism – i.e., the uniqueness of Russia as a civilization, and the right and duty of Russia, because of its civilizational uniqueness as well as of its size, power, culture and history, to abide by its own rules and claim and impose supremacy over neighboring people if need be. In fact, Russia never fully adhered to the rules of the “liberal” world order, even after the end of the Cold War. It never really engaged in good faith in the game of international cooperation based on equal and mutually beneficial relations, and rather kept reasoning and acting in terms of balance of power. As one of its top diplomats said in the weeks preceding the invasion of Ukraine, “freedom of choice does not exist in international relations“, meaning that Russia’s neighbors can never really be fully free to choose their own course and that Russia is entitled to impose its will upon them.

A majority of Russians also still resent very deeply the humiliation of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the years of chaos and misery that ensued, and the way the US did, in their view, take advantage of Russia’s temporary weakness to subjugate it economically, strip it from its former sphere of influence in Europe, encircle it militarily and try to impose its values on Russian society. A majority probably supports Putin’s revanchist agenda and the will to restore Russia’s sphere of influence, and understands that the only thing that really stands in the way for doing so is the American security guarantee enshrined in the NATO treaty – which must therefore be nullified.

Of course, the prevalence of nationalism and revanchism in Russia’s collective psyche results from the many years of propaganda and indoctrination imposed by Putin’s regime. However, the soil on which Russian nationalism and revanchism have grown over the last couple of decades was already a fertile one for this. In the chaotic years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and even less so during the Putin years, the Russian people did not get the possibility to engage in any critical examination of its past relationship with its neighbors. Which is why a majority of Russians still believe these neighbors should be unconditionally and eternally grateful to Russia for paying the price of blood that was needed to liberate them from Nazi Germany. If they are not so grateful, the story goes, it can only be because they are either “Russophobes”, or worse, because they are themselves “Nazis”. Hence the tendency to call “Nazis” a wider and wider array of external opponents, to the point of devoiding the word of any meaning.

Similarly, the Russian people did not get the time and possibility, in the interlude between the Soviet collapse and the Putin era, to gain any significant experience of a functioning democracy and to develop a real democratic culture. Rather, the botched democratization attempt of those years was enough to convince a majority of them that democracy was a bankrupt governance system, imposed from outside and unadapted to Russian civilization, and that Putin’s authoritarian rule was a better and safer bet. Russia had an opportunity to choose a democratic path, a small one yet undoubtedly the best it ever had in its history, and it decided to pass on it.

Generalizations are of course always wrong, and all this doesn’t mean that all Russians willingly and fully supported Putin’s authoritarian, nationalistic and revanchist drive. A real liberal class did in fact emerge in Russia in the last couple of decades, opened to the world, critical of the regime and supporting democratization. This liberal class has however remained rather small, and mostly confined to the educated youth living in the bigger cities. Precisely the kind of people who could easily be dismissed by the regime as being privileged and corrupted by the West – or even as being “Russophobes”. Precisely also the kind of people who were trying to flee the country in recent days, and who now find themselves trapped and threatened with harsh prison sentences if they dare to speak up.

So the Russian question is well and truly back to the fore. It never went away, actually, it was just hovering in the background. Russia and the West had developed over the last two decades a mode of interaction that was more or less working and practical for both sides, but this has now been blown up by Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.

In the short term, the key question is therefore whether the West and Russia will soon be at war. In the longer term, tough, and provided a nuclear escalation is avoided, the most fundamental question is how the West and Russia will manage to be at peace again.

Will Russia somehow be able to establish relations with its European neighbors on the basis of equality, mutual trust and respect rather than intimidation, interferences, threats and coercion? Will it manage to overcome the perceived humiliations of the past in a way that doesn’t sow the seeds of future tragedies and humiliations? Whatever happens now in Ukraine, and whatever happens to Vladimir Putin, the Russian question is not going away.

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