I read because it helps me make sense of the world. I blog because it helps me distill what I’ve read, and hopefully it helps others make sense of the world too.
The events of the past week make all that seem like a futile and irrelevant pastime.
How can anyone make sense of Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine? Why is he doing this? What is he trying to achieve? Why now?
Nothing I’ve read so far has provided clear answers.
Why Is Putin Invading Ukraine?
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright writes here that Putin and others in his inner circle are still humiliated by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and want to resurrect it.
Some, like New York Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman, think the West is at least partially to blame. Friedman writes here that NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and the Baltics after the collapse of the Soviet Union was an historic mistake that alienated Russia. Putin views even the possibility of Ukraine eventually, someday, maybe joining NATO as an existential threat.
Similarly, lots of pundits, writing with 20-20 hindsight, have noted how naive the West has been, how we ignored the signs and drew down military forces in Europe, how we assumed peace and democracy were our birthrights, and that territorial conquest was just something nations don’t do anymore.
Anne Applebaum, writing here in The Atlantic, delves more deeply into Putin’s psychological motivations: his traumatizing experience watching the fall of the Berlin Wall while stationed in Dresden, Germany, his nostalgia for the Soviet Empire and his desire for revenge against the United States.
These explanations all sound plausible, but, to me at least, they don’t add up to a convincing motivation for Putin’s actions. And they don’t come anywhere close to justifying a barbaric invasion and all the death and suffering it will cause.
Maybe I’m looking for a rational explanation where none exists. Maybe it really is long-simmering resentment and humiliation finally boiling over into rage and revenge.
Maybe Putin is just crazy.
Either way, it still doesn’t make any sense.
What is Putin Trying to Achieve?
Putin has done everything he can to keep Ukraine out of the European orbit, from cyberattacks, to the annexation of Crimea to supporting breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. Everything, that is, except trying to attract Ukraine by being a partner and an ally that Ukraine would want closer relations with.
He has failed.
Ukrainians drove pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych from office in 2014.
Ukraine has moved decisively away from Russia economically too. Ukraine trades more with the EU than with Russia. That’s a shift that happened in the years since Russia’s seizure of Crimea, notes Tom Friedman here. In fact, China, not Russia, is Ukraine’s biggest single trading partner. 30% of China’s corn imports come from Ukraine, and it’s also a major importer of Ukrainian barley. (What will China do if Putin’s invasion disrupts China’s food supplies?)
So has Putin concluded that military conquest is his only remaining option?
If so, what does he hope to achieve? Does he really think he can reconstitute the Soviet empire by force? Does he think he can occupy a country of 40 million people, or install a puppet regime that would actually be able to govern? Will he be satisfied with conquering Ukraine, or will he expand the war to include other former Soviet satellites like the Baltics? Does he think he’s going to destabilize Europe or the NATO alliance or upend the post-Cold War world order?
I haven’t found a clear answer to these questions either.
Putin has chosen to attack Ukraine now. But why? There doesn’t seem to have been a triggering event or some upcoming deadline.
Perhaps he hopes to strike while the US is divided within itself, while the US President is down in the polls and facing midterm elections. But of course Putin didn’t attack when Trump was even lower in the polls.
Many commentators have speculated that Putin sees America’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan as evidence of fundamental American weakness.
Maybe he thinks the rest of the world is preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Are there economic factors driving Putin’s timing? According to this Investpedia report, over two-thirds of Russian exports are either petroleum or its distillates. As the world moves away from fossil fuels, does Putin foresee the decline of Russia’s most profitable industry? And does that mean he believes he must act quickly while he can still finance an expensive military?
Putin has been in power for over 20 years. He’s nearly 70. Could all this just be about polishing up his legacy?
How does this end?
Badly, in all probability. For everyone.
In his 2017 book The Myth of the Strong Leader (my review here), Oxford Professor Archie Brown writes that so-called strong leaders who exercise “untrammeled power” often make disastrous decisions. Whether Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will turn out to be disastrous for Russia remains to be seen. Sanctions on Russia will have some effect, but they take time and are unlikely, by themselves, to cause Putin to change course. He most likely factored them into his decision to invade anyway.
One thing is already certain: it’s a disaster for the people of Ukraine. Writing in The New Yorker here, Masha Gessen predicts “the loss of life will be staggering.” And the loss of hope for better, freer lives among both Ukrainians and Russians will be “crushing.”
The best possible outcome could be that the combination of Ukrainian resistance, economic sanctions and internal dissent cause enough pain for enough people in Russia that Putin is forced from power. But that won’t happen overnight, if at all.
The worst case, I suppose, is nuclear war. I think that’s very unlikely, but then I didn’t think Putin would actually invade Ukraine either.
* * *
In the end, I’m baffled and horrified. Despite everything I’ve read, I can’t make any sense of the invasion of Ukraine at all.
I have to admit my own biases and blinders. I look at this conflict from a Western perspective. I believe freedom and democracy form the best foundation for healthy and flourishing societies. Above all, I prize reason and tolerance.
But reason and tolerance can’t explain madness and barbarism.
We should also be careful not to become sanctimonious. American actions have sometimes been equally violent. The US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan may have had better initial justifications than Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – I thought so at the time – but the death and suffering they caused were far out of proportion to any harm or threat to the US.
One last thought:
We don’t have time for this shit. The world has more important problems to deal with than assuaging the bruised male ego of some billionaire kleptocrat with adolescent fantasies of imperial conquest.
We’re still fighting a coronavirus pandemic raging around the world. Health experts predict more pandemics to follow.
We’ve barely begun to address climate change – the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, and one that is affecting Russia too with heatwaves, flooding, wildfires, and melting permafrost.
Yet at a time when the world needs to come together to cooperate on global approaches to global problems, we’re reverting to violence and division.
It makes no sense at all.
I’m going to add updates to this post over the coming weeks and months, highlighting articles and interviews that I find helpful to understanding this war.
Update (Mar. 12, 2022): The war in Ukraine has now been going on for just over two weeks. The Ukrainians are putting up incredible, inspiring resistance. Putin’s military is bombing and shelling indiscriminately. It’s still impossible to comprehend this level of brutality, but here are a couple more interviews that I found helpful.
Putin is ‘Profoundly Anti-Modern.’ Masha Gessen Explains What That Means for the World.
In this episode of the Ezra Klein Show podcast, Ezra Klein interviews New Yorker staff writer and author Masha Gessen about what it’s like to live in Moscow at this moment, what ordinary Russians are thinking, and how Putin views history, the world, and his place in it.
“Putin is perfectly consistent in his thinking and his behavior. It’s just that the universe he lives in is what he describes quite openly — we just have to listen — and it is the pre-modern, or if you do take into account that it is 2022, the anti-modern, universe of imperial logic.”
The Weakness of the Despot
New Yorker editor David Remnick interviews Steven Kotkin, a professor of history at Princeton and author of a definitive biography of Josef Stalin. They discuss Russian history, how Putin’s regime actually functions, and the surprising weaknesses of despots like Putin.
“This is the thing about authoritarian regimes: they’re terrible at everything. They can’t feed their people. They can’t provide security for their people. They can’t educate their people. But they only have to be good at one thing to survive. If they can deny political alternatives, if they can force all opposition into exile or prison, they can survive, no matter how incompetent or corrupt or terrible they are.”
Update (Mar. 17, 2022): Ezra Klein has been producing an outstanding series of podcasts about Ukraine, its history and its relationship with Putin and Russia Here’s the latest.
Timothy Snyder on the Myths That Blinded the West to Putin’s Plans
Klein interviews historian Timothy Snyder about the myths and the stories that culture tell about themselves and how that shapes politics and conflict. The transcript is quite long — the show was just over an hour — but it’s hugely informative. Snyder has written several books about Ukraine and his perspective is profound.
“But what I want to say is that what’s interesting about the Ukrainians is that they seem to be moving more towards the argument that the nation is not about a clear story of the past. It’s more about action directed towards the future.”
Update (Mar. 27, 2022): A couple of articles this week discussing the exodus of people from Russia, especially IT workers.
The Russians Fleeing Putin’s Wartime Crackdown
Writing in The New Yorker, Masha Gessen documents how many of their Russian friends and colleagues are fleeing Russia.
“People have fled Russia because they fear political persecution, conscription, and isolation; because they dread being locked in an unfamiliar new country that eerily resembles the old Soviet Union; and because staying in a country that is waging war feels immoral, like being inside a plane that’s dropping bombs on people. They have left because the Russia they have built and inhabited is disappearing—and the more people who leave, the faster it disappears.”
“No comparison is possible between Kyiv, a city under bombardment, and Moscow. Except perhaps this: it—the surrender to Putin’s tyranny—had already happened in Moscow. “
Russia Is Facing a Tech Worker Exodus
This article in WIRED focuses on tech workers leaving Russia.
“Putin’s government has signaled that it regards technology workers as a strategic asset, and it has tried to stem exits by introducing new financial incentives for tech companies and announcing that IT workers would be exempt from conscription. Vinogradov says that, paradoxically, those promises had the “opposite effect” on some tech workers.”
Update (Apr. 2, 2022): The Economist interview with Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv.
Volodymyr Zelensky on why Ukraine must defeat Putin
Editor in Chief Zanny Minton Beddoes and Russia editor Arkady Ostrovsky traveled to Kyiv for this in depth interview
In the war room with Volodymyr Zelensky
Impressions from Oliver Carroll, correspondent for The Economist in Ukraine
Update (May 1, 2022): Here’s an in-depth essay by Prof. Timothy Snyder about the history of Ukraine. It’s also a refutation of Putin’s claim that Ukraine doesn’t exist.
The War in Ukraine Is a Colonial War
Essay in The New Yorker by Timothy Snyder, Apr. 28, 1011
“Ukraine is a post-colonial country, one that does not define itself against exploitation so much as accept, and sometimes even celebrate, the complications of emerging from it. … The model of the nation as a mini-empire, replicating inequalities on a smaller scale, and aiming for a homogeneity that is confused with identity, has worn itself out. If we are going to have democratic states in the twenty-first century, they will have to accept some of the complexity that is taken for granted in Ukraine.”
Can the West Stop Russia by Strangling Its Economy?
In this episode of the Ezra Klein Show podcast, Ezra Klein interviews Columbia University history professor Adam Tooze about the economic war against Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine, March 1, 2022
Chartbook #90: Heavy Fires
Very insightful analysis of the Russia-Ukraine war and the history behind it by Adam Tooze, March 1, 2022
The war on Ukraine explained: Hear from our experts
A series of articles by academics from the School of Security Studies and the Russia Institute at King’s College London