More Than A Feeling?
The war in Ukraine started today. It’s an opportunity to record what it was like at the time rather than how it will be remembered. Over the past few months, a common perception has been that Putin is playing “the West” like a fiddle, that he has been engaged in some form of four-dimensional chess, as the internet likes to term it, which his enemies are unable to fathom. His technique of making threatening moves followed by blithe reassurance that he has no aggressive intent has been interpreted as masterful “trolling”, again as the internet likes to term it.
Such an interpretation is of course partly motivated by a wish to believe that he isn’t really serious, that it’s all wind up to make our leaders look foolish, and we can all sleep soundly in our beds. Putin also benefits from the kind of appraisal at a distance that often attributes greater ability to politicians in other countries than to those in our country, with whose failings we are all too familiar. Recent examples of this effect include Obama, Merkel and Ardern. All have prompted the heartfelt wish that our leaders could be more like them.
However, Putin’s behaviour perhaps has a simpler interpretation. It is important to segregate what he wants from his means of trying to achieve it. The obvious example is war — nobody “wants” war, but war and, even more, the threat of war are means of persuasion. Putin obviously wants something; what it is we can leave till later. Like anyone he would have preferred to get it with as little effort as possible. It’s clear that he hasn’t succeeded yet and is now forced to expend much more in obtaining it than he would have wished.
Putin has been moving troops to the Ukrainian border for over a year. One of the odd features of the crisis is how long it took before western governments registered this was going on. We are dependent on media coverage but there is no indication that the powers that be were already engaged and concerned long before the issue gained public prominence. This may have been the first cause of difficulty and/or irritation for Putin. His posturing was being ignored, immediately indicating that achieving his goals was going to be more difficult than he may have hoped, and also already making more unpleasant outcomes more likely. What he couldn’t do at that early stage was just pack his army’s bags and return them to base. Once he had made the initial move the logic was that he had to pursue it, and the lack of response meant escalating to attract attention.
It was only when he had a massive presence positioned on the Ukrainian frontier that diplomatic engagement began. At this point Putin faced his second set-back. The response of the West wasn’t particularly compliant. There was the usual divergence of opinion, a certain lack of cohesion in response, individual leaders more or less subtly trying to use the situation to their domestic advantage. But generally the resistance to his demands was uniform and unyielding. There was the offer of talks but not much else. Even what many thought was the easy concession of making explicit the tacit understanding that Ukraine would not join NATO was not forthcoming. Meanwhile Ukraine received material assistance with the supply of, ostensibly defensive, weaponry.
It is at this point that Putin’s hokey-cokey tactics of threatening then denying the threat can be seen as a strong signal that he would really rather not go through with this, if only we would give him a way out, some kind of deal he could claim as a victory. But anything that was offered was not enough. The late initiation of slow, grinding diplomacy offered no guarantee of satisfaction, and, more pressingly, meant delay which would soon complicate the logistics of keeping his troops in place. He was now in a position where he was left hanging and the remorseless logic of negotiation meant he had to go ahead with what he had threatened.
He is now in the uncomfortable position of a war without real war aims, as his plan was always to use only the threat of war. What is the best possible outcome for him at this stage? He could conduct a quick campaign of intimidation that induces a complete collapse of morale in Ukraine: their army capitulates, the liberal regime is deposed, and a puppet government is installed and quickly imposes authoritarian control, allowing the Russian forces to withdraw. But is even this a stable settlement? To what extent does that commit him to further push back against former Warsaw Pact countries? What is more likely is that even if he establishes some sort of political control, there is ongoing resistance in pockets of the country, requiring an expensive and unsustainable occupation, or worse, from Putin’s point of view, the conflict settles into some kind of stalemate requiring ongoing military commitment.
So let us return to the question of what he wanted when he first started sending troops to his western border. In asking this we are assuming that he did indeed have a clear, well-formed aim, when it is also possible that his goals were inchoate, and he was motivated more by unease and a need to do something even if he could not discern exactly what that should be or where it would lead. A possible key here is events in Belarus. After the Maidan revolution of 2014 ousted the Russian-friendly government in Kyiv, Belarus was the last country on Russia’s European border that was leant towards Putin. The protests after the Belarussian elections of 2020 raised the possibility that here too, a new government could realign towards the EU.
It was not necessary for Putin to have had some rational and coherent geo-political objection to these events, it is enough that he felt, emotionally as much as politically, threatened. Nor is it necessary to incorporate in this analysis Russia’s history of invasion from the west, the paranoia of the regime, or the supposedly distinct mindset of its people that we are duty bound to try and fathom. It is enough for Putin to feel that the tide was turning fully against him, that Russia could be isolated with all its neighbours enjoying the fruits of greater economic engagement with the European mainstream, that his own population could be inspired by the courage of protestors elsewhere and make it impossible for him to retain a grip on power. His talk of security concerns seems absurd to our ears given the likelihood of a NATO attack on Russia, but they make much more sense in the context of his own survival in office.
Equilibrium is the hardest state to achieve. More typical is a constant state of flux. If you don’t like the course of events, it is easier to try and reverse them rather than maintain some fragile status quo. Alongside this there is the constant law that politics abhors a vacuum; these are people who feel something should be done, so the temptation is always to do something, rather than leave things be or see how they develop. This was the position in which Putin found himself and it seems understandable that to him doing something meant trying to engage the West, and that the means for doing so should be Ukraine. However, this doesn’t mean he had a clear strategy or any desire for it to end in war.
Finally, what is the responsibility of the West for the descent into actual conflict? Should it not have reached some compromise that could have averted this? Perhaps the main fault is not having reacted more quickly to the problem before events took on a logic of their own. But beyond this the idea of compromise requires a compromise to exist and for it to be sustainable. Putin’s choice of means is a major obstacle to the emergence of any such agreement. Negotiating under threat of military action is always a terrible precedent that will induce great reluctance in the other party. Putin’s error here is that his choice of ‘signal’ was less likely to encourage engagement, not more. Furthermore, the opacity surrounding his intentions, which might at first sight seem a clever tactic to keep the opposition guessing, has only served to preclude the emergence of clarity around what could be a satisfactory conclusion. His very vagueness only conjures fears that this could be the thin end of a particularly unpleasant wedge, or that nothing we can give is likely to satisfy him.
If you try and induce anxiety and confusion in your opponent, you destroy the trust you need to get what you want. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that Putin is trapped in a sequence of events he has instigated but has little control of, subject to a greater logic. Analysis craves rationalization and perhaps he will yet achieve something that appears like a success, and he will prevail in power. But this doesn’t mean that he had or has a clear idea of what that will be. It doesn’t mean that his methods were well chosen. And it doesn’t mean that things could have been different, that there was something we could have done if we had just been more wise. If his actions are rooted in a sense of personal vulnerability then what he wants is for that feeling to be removed, but that is not in the gift of the West.