Niall Ferguson

Vlad the Invader: Putin is looking to rebuild Russia’s empire

Vlad the Invader: Putin is looking to rebuild Russia's empire
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‘War’, in Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s most famous dictum, ‘is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.’ A generation of Democrats — the American variety, but also European Christian and Social Democrats — have sought to ignore that truth. Appalled by the violence of war, they have vainly searched for alternatives to waging it. When Vladimir Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Barack Obama responded with economic sanctions. When Putin intervened in the Syrian civil war, they tried indignant speeches.

When it became clear that Putin intended a further and larger military incursion into Ukraine, Joe Biden and his national security team opted for sanctions once again. If Putin invaded Ukraine, they said, Russia would face ‘crippling’ or ‘devastating’ economic and financial penalties. When these threats did not deter Putin, they tried a new tactic, publishing intelligence on the likely timing and nature of the Russian assault. Cheerleaders for the administration thought this brilliant and original. It was, in reality, a species of magical thinking, as if stating publicly when Putin was going to invade would make him less likely to do so.

Those who dread war approach diplomacy the wrong way, as if it is an alternative to war. This gives rise to the delusion that, so long as talks are continuing, war is being averted. But unless you are prepared ultimately to resort to force yourself, negotiations are merely a postponement of the other side’s aggression. They will avert war only if you concede peacefully what the aggressor is prepared to take by force.

Putin decided on war against Ukraine some time ago, probably in July when he published a lengthy essay, ‘On the Historical Unity of the Russians and Ukrainians’, in which he argued tendentiously that Ukrainian independence was an unsustainable historical anomaly. This made it perfectly clear that he was contemplating a takeover of the country. Even before Putin’s essay appeared, Russia had deployed around 100,000 troops close to Ukraine’s northern, eastern and southern borders. The response of the United States and the European Union was to make clear that Ukraine was a very long way indeed from either Nato or EU membership, confirming to Putin that no one would fight on Ukraine’s side if he went ahead with his planned war of subjugation.

Over the past few months, Putin has used diplomacy in the classical fashion, seeking to gain his objectives at the lowest possible cost while at the same time carefully preparing for an invasion. Western leaders have achieved nothing more than to remain united in saying they will impose sanctions if he invades. But a Russian invasion of Ukraine beyond the Donbas will create an entirely new situation. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic may express a common outrage, but it will not take long for their unity to be eroded by the altered reality and their fundamentally divergent interests. The US does not need Russia’s natural gas. At least in the short run, Europe does.

If war is the continuation of politics — ‘policy’ is, in fact, a better translation — then what exactly is Putin trying to achieve? This question has elicited many wrong answers over the years. A common assertion is that he is hellbent on resurrecting the Soviet Union. It is true that in 2005 Putin called the collapse of the Soviet empire ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century’. But in fact it is the tsarist Russian Empire Putin is attempting to bring back from the dead. Peter the Great is his hero, much more than Stalin.

He made this quite clear in an interview with Lionel Barber, then editor of the Financial Times, in 2019. ‘A towering bronze statue of the visionary tsar looms over his ceremonial desk in the cabinet room,’ noted Barber. Peter the Great was Putin’s ‘favourite leader’. ‘He will live,’ declared the Russian President, ‘as long as his cause is alive.’

What was Peter’s cause? In essence, to make Russia a European great power, capable of matching the likes of Austria, Britain, Prussia and France in both military might and the economic and bureaucratic foundations on which it is based. No historian would dispute that he achieved that. At the Battle of Poltava (8 July 1709), Tsar Peter won the most important victory of his reign, defeating the army of Charles XII of Sweden, which had been one of the great powers during the 17th century. Poltava lies about 200 miles east of Kiev, not far from Luhansk and Donetsk.

This is the history that inspires today’s Tsar Vladimir, much more than the dark chapters of Stalin’s reign of terror, which will forever be associated in Ukrainian minds with the Holodomor, the genocidal manmade famine inflicted on Ukraine in the name of agricultural collectivisation. It is a history that reminds us how crucial victory in the territory that is now Ukraine was for the rise of Russia as a European great power. It also reminds us that this territory was as contested in the early 18th century as it is today.

Is Putin merely a fantasist when he imagines himself the heir of Peter I? Not necessarily. True, Russia’s economy may be smaller than South Korea’s, and just a fifth of America’s. But using the same method to estimate defence spending — allowing for the fact that Russian soldiers and hardware are significantly cheaper than their western equivalents — reveals that Russia is, in the words of a 2019 study, ‘The world’s fourth largest military spender, behind the United States, China, and India… The Russian General Staff gets a lot more capability out of its military expenditure than many other higher-cost militaries’ — including those of Britain and France.

Russia under Putin has become a great power once again. That is precisely why he has been able to fight and win wars in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria. That is why he is in a position for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine today.

It has long been clear that Putin aspires to much more than the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’, entities that he himself summoned into existence in 2014. The ‘separatists’ in those cities have been Kremlin proxies all along. So anyone who thought this is the limit of Putin’s ambitions was delusional. Recognising their independence was the prelude to a much larger military incursion - the first step of which came almost immediately, with the deployment of Russian regular forces to the Donbas, supposedly to defend the locals against Ukrainian attacks.

Already the Kremlin has announced that it is recognising the independence of not just the parts controlled by separatists but the entirety of the Donetsk and Luhansk administrative areas — a much larger expanse. It also evacuated its embassy in Kiev and issued an ultimatum to Ukraine that amounts to a demand for surrender: the country should be neutral and demilitarised; it should accept the annexation of Crimea and renounce its constitutional aspiration to join Nato. No doubt there will be further desperate, diplomatic Hail Marys by western leaders, but Putin’s televised national security council meeting on 21 February confirmed that he is set on war. He even mocked the US with his ironical allusions to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The pretence that Ukraine is acquiring weapons of mass destruction is vintage Putin.

I know Ukraine well enough to be sure that surrender is not on the cards. A Ukrainian friend tells me that his people will fight Putin’s army the way the Afghan mujahideen fought the Red Army in the 1980s. Recent opinion polling by the Yalta European Strategy group testifies to the extent of popular support for Nato and EU membership, and the reluctance of most ordinary Ukrainians to submit to the Russian knout.

On the other hand, I cannot imagine that Putin intends to repeat the mistakes of Brezhnev in Afghanistan or Bush in Iraq (and Afghanistan). The Russian President’s most likely strategy is a blitzkrieg designed to inflict maximum damage on Ukraine’s armed forces and other military assets, followed by a regime change that replaces Volodymyr Zelenskyy with someone more in the style of Viktor Yanukovych, the corrupt satrap overthrown exactly eight years ago in the ‘Euromaidan’ revolution.

Knowing Ukraine, I imagine a significant number of the oligarchs who still control the country’s economy will prefer to kiss the Muscovite ring than to forfeit their vast wealth, even if much of it is safely stashed in London and Zurich.

On 21 February, Putin went out of his way to correct a member of his national security council who used the word ‘annexation’. He may contemplate partitioning Ukraine but I don't foresee full Anschluss. His goal seems to be to kill off once and for all Ukraine’s aspirations to become like Poland: not merely a member of Nato and the EU, but also a prosperous democracy oriented towards the West. He can achieve that by turning Ukraine into ‘Belarus South’ — a country where, rather like Russia, things changed after 1991 only in order to remain fundamentally the same.

In Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 novel The White Guard — later censored and dramatised (it was Stalin’s favourite play) — Ukraine’s last bid for independence in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution ends bleakly as the Bolshevik forces approach a frigid Kiev. ‘Why had [Petliura, the nationalist president of the Ukrainian republic] existed?’ asks Bulgakov. ‘Nobody can say.

Will anybody redeem the blood that he shed?  

No. No one.  

The snow would just melt, the green Ukrainian grass would grow again and weave its carpet over the earth… The gorgeous sunrises would come again. The air would shimmer with heat above the fields and no more traces of blood would remain. Blood is cheap on those red fields and no one would redeem it.  

No one.

You might say that has been the history of Ukraine going back to the time of Peter the Great. It is certainly the way Tsar Vladimir wants Ukraine’s latest bid for independence to end. If he succeeds, the responsibility will lie heavily on those western leaders who forgot their Clausewitz and wished war away.

It’s impossible to know what he’ll do next
‘Of course it’s impossible to know what he’ll do next.’

Written byNiall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University and a Bloomberg Opinion columnist

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