Vladimir Putin is bound to lose his attempt to take over Ukraine, which is why I thought he wouldn’t do it. Eventual defeat will come for three reasons: the price of any conquest, the need for public support in Russia to ensure the morale of his troops, and the impossibility of long-term occupation.
Less clear is why he has done it and what happens afterwards.
My assumption was that, as a cunning dictator who hated democracy, Putin, who is smart enough to play the corruptions of the West, had a cold measure of realities. I also thought he felt personally threatened by the Belarus uprising against Alexander Lukashenko and the possibility that a democratic revolution there could inspire Russian voters. While western governments lamented the way the popular opposition in Belarus was crushed in 2020-2021, they allowed the markets to refinance Lukashenko’s regime. For Putin it was a close call and so I reckoned – perhaps I should say hoped – that the massive mobilization of Russian military forces around Ukraine over the past several months was a feint, whose real aim was not to take Kyiv by force but to consolidate his control over Minsk. Which, it seemed to me, was bad enough.
Instead, with a vast act of armed frustration Putin has exploded the era of ‘the end of history’ – when the US emerged victorious from the Cold War and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990. Who really expected this? Especially as Putin himself is the creature of this order.
Dreadful as it is, his war may create an opportunity to reframe the world order in a way that puts democracy in charge of capitalism, to borrow a phrase from Robert Reich.
First, Putin will and, more important, should be defeated. Now is the time for war, given that he has chosen it, until Russia withdraws. The conflict will be suffered by the people of Ukraine, and we must extend to them solidarity and support, including military support. But the larger purpose should be to replace not reconfirm enmity with Russia. Together with Russian democrats we need to terminate the entire paradigm of military polarization and kleptocratic capitalism.
Anatol Lieven, one of the wisest commentators on Russia and the Ukraine, foresaw and sought to prevent the present disaster but argues against a strategy of support for guerrilla warfare because it would “instrumentalize Ukrainians as a weapon to weaken Russia and recall some of the worst U.S. actions of the Cold War”. Instead, he wants sanctions designed to “help the Ukrainian people”. However, the help the Ukrainian people want is to be aided in their resistance. As the Vietnamese can tell you, other powers may support you for ulterior motives, yet at the same time you make your own history with the support that you get. Just read this letter to the western Left written from Kyiv.