As many of you know, I have been writing about Russia’s military actions since the beginning of last fall and on Putinism, the ideology.
At the time, I entertained the possibility of Putin escalating his military actions in Ukraine. And I say escalate, as this war was not initiated in February of this year, but in March 2014 when he illegally annexed Crimea.
When I argued that Putin was planning to take Kyiv by early 2022, many were baffled by my remarks. In their view, my analysis portrayed a biased opinion about the Russian leader – the same biased opinion that is held by some in institutions like the State Department or the National Security Council.
“Putin would never do that; he is a realist, a pragmatic,” they said.
In fact, let me paraphrase the type of comments I received in response to my remarks about Putin’s imperial ambitions:
“Putin decided to take Crimea in 2014 because of its geopolitical interest. Without Crimea – and the Sevastopol Marine Trade Port particularly – Russia cannot access the Black Sea. Russia’s lack of warm-water ports is a risk to its national security. C’mon Jraissati, we all know that. Putin is simply doing now what Catherine the Great did in 1783.”
My problem with that rationale is simple: I don’t consider Putin as a tactician or a pragmatic. On the contrary, he seems to be governed by his emotions and deeply anachronic ideology about political power in general, and Russia’s place in the world specifically.
This became evident with his famous speech in Munich in 2005. It was in that speech, which took part in the Munich Security Conference, that Putin said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.”
This is an astonishing remark, considering that the last century saw the unfolding of two world wars, which resulted in the killing of roughly 20 million and 50 million people, respectively.
Putin’s comment is even more troubling considering that thanks to the fall of the Soviet Empire, millions of people were finally free from the Kremlin – from the same regime that sent their ancestors to the gulags and took away their rights.
But that’s not the way Putin sees the world. He sees the world through the eyes of a KGB man. He rules by fear. He believes in fear. And because of it, a free and democratic Ukraine was unacceptable in his eyes – a threat to his own regime.
His war in Ukraine has never been about NATO expanding eastward. Putin does not fear NATO; he just hates democracy.
That’s why Putin decided to invade Crimea in March 2014. For him, Ukraine’s “revolution of dignity” was intolerable. He saw those young people protesting in Maidan Square as troublemakers. And he saw Viktor Yanukovych’s exit in February 2014 as a plot by Ambassador Michael McFaul and the U.S. government. This plot, of course, was aimed at undermining his power in Russia as well as his “privileged sphere of influence” in Eastern Europe, especially among the Eastern Slavic nations.
Since then, Putin has done everything in his power to destroy Ukraine’s already weak democracy. He illegally annexed Crimea. He supported separatist groups in Donetsk and Luhansk. He launched cyber attacks against Kyiv. And this spring, he did what many considered unthinkable in the twenty-first century, he launched a military attack against Ukraine. This time, not just to recreate what he calls Novorossiya, but to take the whole country.
Ultimately, it is a shame that Putin rose to power in 1999. Boris Yeltsin did many things wrong, but perhaps his worst legacy is no other than Putin’s ascension to power. Just imagine a world where Yeltsin instead of choosing Putin as his successor, had chosen a young governor named Boris Nemtsov, whose reforms in the region of Nizhny Novgorod Oblast were praised at the time. By now, almost certainly, Russia would be a democratic, respected, and prosperous nation, instead of the pariah, authoritarian, and poor nation that it is today.
But we all know the story. More than two decades after this decision, Putin is still in power, while Nemtsov is no longer with us, brutally killed in 2015. And the bottom line is that as long as Putin is in power, Russia’s full potential will never be achieved.
I do believe that Russia can indeed play a big role in our world; but to do so, it has to be free and democratic. It has to be open to innovation. It has to respect the rules-based international order we have today. And it has to give opportunities to its young people. The Russian people deserve it. And the world will benefit greatly from it.
This article is also published on LIBERTATIO’s SUBSTACK page here