Or how the power of story is why the West doesn’t understand Russia

It has been over a year since Russia invaded Ukraine (Feb 24, 2022). Over the past year, we have learned to stop calling it “Ukraine,” and we have changed our pronunciation of Kyiv from “key-ev” to “keev.” This has been the most significant land war in Europe since World War II (although it should be noted that when I said this over the summer, someone remarked that the collapse of Yugoslavia was a European war). This is a war that the West has feared for years, but as it turns out, Western fears were exaggerated. No one knew how bad the Russian military was or how faulty and poorly maintained the equipment was.

How did we get here? Why did Putin decide to make every Western fear come true?

War Game: Russia Invades Ukraine

One of the biggest threats to European security, especially before the end of the Cold War, was Soviet armoured tanks driving across Warsaw Pact countries and into Europe. After the end of the Cold War, a new buffer zone appeared to protect the West from this threat. Some nations, like Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland, would join NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and hold the line against the Russian Federation should they ever become aggressive. For the former Soviet states or former Warsaw Pact countries, this was a way to maintain their independence from Moscow. Ukraine was given security assurances from Russia (under Yeltsin) and the United States that their territorial integrity would be maintained.

In the post-Soviet period, Pentagon war planners theorized about what would happen in the event of an invasion of Ukraine. A few former Soviet states/Warsaw Pact countries, like Ukraine and Moldova, remained outside the alliance. Their invasion wouldn’t automatically trigger an American response due to NATO. The question was simple, how long would the Ukrainians hold out before the problem reached Poland and NATO? In the early days of the invasion, the only thing that halted the progress of Russian troops was poor equipment, bad logistics, and expired food. It certainly was not the fight in the Ukrainians. Russian troops were well on track to arrive at Kyiv, and Moscow still bombs the city regularly. People fled the country en masse.

Russian soldiers called home to their parents on the cellphones of locals. One Russian soldier was overheard arguing with his girlfriend about whether raping women and girls and Ukraine constituted cheating. He got permission to do a little raping on his adventures. In contrast, old women in Ukraine told soldiers to fill their pockets with sunflower seeds (the national flower of Ukraine) so that something of value would grow when they died.

However, the one thing we’ve never really figured out is why Putin decided to do this. Publicly, he claimed it was because Nazis had taken over Ukraine in the form of the Azov Battalion. The Azov Battalion is indeed nationalistic and ethnically centred. One could describe them as a white power movement. The Azov situation doesn’t explain the full picture. The story of this extends back to 2014.

Keeping Ukraine

Ukraine is a country that, until the end of the Soviet Union, had been part of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union for nearly 300 years. In 1991, that all changed. Ukraine and Russia are still close geographically and through the many social and familial connections between the people of both countries. This is one of the reasons that the Russian people protested against the invasion. Their families were at risk on both sides of the firing lines. Not only were their young men being shipped off to war, but their relatives were in danger of being bombed. Russian soldiers could be killing their relatives if they weren’t careful.

On the Russian side of the equation, it is easy to understand why Putin would think that people in Ukraine would welcome his troops with open arms, in the not-too-distance past, Ukraine was part of Russia. Their histories have been linked for centuries. Half the country speaks Russian, not Ukrainian, as a primary language. The Russian troops have mostly taken that part of the country, although cities like Kherson are still under siege.

Putin’s aims at getting Ukraine back into the fold extend back to 2014 when he annexed Crimea. President Obama was caught on a hot mic asking him to do it after the 2012 election so that it wouldn’t elicit an American response. The Russians promptly built a bridge to connect their new province to Russia and held a plebiscite to prove that the people of Crimea wanted to be part of Russia. That vote is widely believed to have been manipulated.

However, the annexation of Crimea was just one strategy that Putin used. He has also been manipulating Ukrainian public opinion using the same methods he used in 2016 to help Trump, and also openly manipulated elections to keep Russia-friendly politicians in power over those who wanted to more closely. As Ukraine tried to pull away from Moscow, the Russian-backed Yanukovich was finally thrown out of power in favour of the Western-aligned Poroshenko, even though Russia tried to poison him and left him with visible scarring and disfigurement. After Poroshenko, Volodimir Zelenskyy was elected in 2019 and began integrating with the EU by signing a trade letter with the bloc. This infuriated Moscow, who did not want Ukraine to align with the West meaningfully.

Putin’s Gambit

I recently watched the 2018 documentary about Putin and Russia by Oliver Stone. In a series of interviews, Oliver Stone asks Putin about everything imaginable about the relationship between Russia and the West. It is clear from these interviews that Putin sees NATO and the other countries who are Western-aligned to be “vassal states” of the United States and remarks at one point, “Russia is in a unique position to assert sovereignty.” This is where the grand story comes into play.

One of the things the West does not understand about Russia is that Russia lives in narrative and story. The Russian language didn’t exist in any quantified form until the author Pushkin standardized Russian, which until that time was a mish-mash of several Slavic languages depending on the region. When a country’s language is “invented” or at least standardized by a writer, especially one of fiction, that tells us something about how a group of people thinks.

It is clear from the Oliver Stone interviews that Putin thinks in the grand narrative of history. He views the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy to ever happen to Russia. Forget the pogroms, the bolshevik revolution, or anything else; it was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the power it represented that was the real tragedy. He admits that change has benefitted him and his family. It is quite a personal story to go from an unremarkable KGB officer to President of the Russian Federation in a decade and maintain an iron grip on power and Russian politics for 20 years. When Putin first came to power in 1999, it was hoped that he would continue the democratic institutions, tenuous though they were, set up by Yeltsin. He did the opposite and instead created one of the most direct autocracies in the world and broke the power of the Russian oligarchs by killing anyone who disagreed with him and cowering the others. It is no wonder why people called him Czar Putin. He acts like the Czars of old.

The Grand Narrative

In the Russophone world, the story is all-powerful. In this part of history, Russia finds itself at a low. Indeed, Russia has been here before. In a novel, this would be about when the hero (Russia) makes a big comeback and asserts himself in the world. I think that was the original intention of Putin from the start. He had been manipulating the Ukrainian government for years, so why not keep that up? The FSB trains its electronic manipulation tools on Ukraine (as beautifully documented by Frontline), and Putin has maintained Ukraine as a buffer against the West. So, why now?

On the face of it, Ukraine was beginning to join the EU, which meant Ukraine was becoming more Western-aligned. Putin said publicly that it had to do with the rise of fascism in Ukraine and that the nazis needed to be stopped before they took more power in the Ukrainian government. Then there was the question of NATO membership and having a NATO nation on the border of Russia. There are already countries (the Baltics and Turkey) on Russia’s borders as part of NATO. Putin had also been funding Russian separatists in the Donbas in Ukraine, which triggered a low-level civil war that had been going on for years before the invasion last year.

I believe that Putin wanted to begin the remarkable comeback of classic Russia. An assertive and powerful Russia that could thumb its nose at the West, especially the United States. Putin wasn’t stupid enough to take on the United States unilaterally but instead decided that seizing Ukraine (after having already seized Crimea) would do just the trick. The only trouble is that his corruption left the Russian military in disrepair. After years of fighting Syria with and without uniforms, they weren’t ready for the operation. I’m sure his success in the Middle East buoyed the idea that he could drive into Ukraine with open arms and be welcome as a hero. It is an epic idea. It’s worthy of the written word, but a great plot for a book does not mean a war win.

But that is the trouble between the West and Russia. The Russians live in a grand story and a novel in which they are the heroes who are simply down on their luck and are trying to turn things around. The West wants a consistent and stable world order in which the interests of markets and capital reign supreme. This is fundamentally at odds with how Putin and the wider Russian world see the world. They do not view the world as we do, so we can’t understand them.

What Does it Mean for the US?

Putin has made it clear that he has expanded his aims. He understands this is a proxy war between Russia and the United States. Only this time, the Ukrainians are doing the dying backed up with American money, equipment, and intelligence. The Pentagon has stated that its goal is to permanently remove Russia from the playing field of international politics. Will Putin consent to this unplanned dénouement? Will he drag out the war in Ukraine, hoping the West will eventually get tired of the expense and give up, or will the Ukrainians finally exhaust themselves like the Chechnyans? However, as this story plays out, it is clear that Putin is in charge of how this goes. He has found himself in peril. He is sick with cancer, and the tiger at the end can sense it, and he will fight like hell to avoid drifting quietly into that quiet night.

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