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Ukraine: Putin’s War to Change the World 

Ukraine: Putin’s War to Change the World 
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

At the end of his lengthy meeting with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on February 7, President Macron said that his Russian counterpart appeared to have "changed." Putin seemed locked in the past, harping on about the same old grievances and appearing uninterested in possible solutions to the crisis that he himself had triggered a few weeks earlier over Ukraine.

The two men had not met since December 2019. What happened between then and the February meeting that could explain Putin's sudden "change"? Many observers have developed theories based on the Russian leader's increased isolation due to the pandemic. An excellent example of this was a New York Times article by Michael Zygar, a highly respected observer of Russia's internal politics, which was revealingly titled How Vladimir Putin Lost Interest in the Present. During this period, the Russian President largely stopped seeing most of his confidants and collaborators. Instead, he locked himself in tête-à-têtes with Yuri Kovalchuk, a longtime friend who has risen the ranks to become the most influential man in Putin’s entourage. According to Zygar, Kovalchuk—both an oligarch and an ideologue—subscribes to a worldview that combines "Orthodox Christian mysticism, anti-American conspiracy theories and hedonism."

In a recent interview with Le Figaro, Ben Judah—author of a well-informed book on Putin's Russia—spoke of the "intellectual itinerary" that the President followed during his prolonged confinement. Putin's July 2021 article on the "historical unity" of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples reflected an intense rumination over his own role in history, alongside those of Peter the Great, Catherine II, Alexander I and Nicholas I. Added to the denial of Ukrainian nationhood - a recurring leitmotif in Putin's statements - the Covid-19 crisis has corresponded with the crystallization of a neo-imperialist worldview founded upon nostalgia for the greatness of the USSR, ethno-nationalist impulses, and a revisionist reading of history.

According to other observers, Putin's strict, largely self-inflicted isolation has pathological overtones, both psychologically—the use of excessively long tables hints at a severe case of coronaphobia—and perhaps even physically, if this phobia is the result of being immunocompromised. If the Kremlin's leader is indeed immunocompromised, this may also help explain the particularly dark vision presented during his talks with Macron.

It is not for us to comment on these various points. However, in the field of diplomacy, it is imperative—although often extremely difficult—to properly evaluate the personalities of the individuals involved. As much as they influence the systems in which they operate, leaders are always the products of structural factors. Therefore, we should first evaluate Putin's policies before we look at any potential changes in his personality. We shall begin with the following idea:if the Putin of 2022 is animated by reflexes that are essentially unchanged since his KGB training in the 1970s, followed by his work in the Saint Petersburg Mayor's office in the 1990s, a pragmatic analysis of his actions over the last two decades will allow us to distinguish several distinct phases in his relationship with the West.

A Kremlin operative named Vladimir Putin.

A reason to be cautious in seeking psychological explanations in international politics is that people who rise to power, particularly in authoritarian regimes, are rarely candid or sincere with others. According to Arkady Ostrovsky (as quoted by Quentin Peel in his portrait of the Russian President for Institut Montaigne), Putin's ability to conceal his true personality was crucial to his rise to power: "He was put into power under the pretense of being a strong man…he was supposed to fit the image of the strong man, but that isn't him in reality. In any event, that's how it was sold to Yeltsin".

Angela Merkel said that Putin was "living in another world," an opinion she reached after witnessing him alternate between seduction and brutality, as well as his unlimited capacity for lying. Merkel's quote is referred to in the lengthy portrait of Putin that Roger Cohen wrote for the New York Times. The article begins by recalling the early Putin, the one who proclaimed his faith in democracy and human rights—in German—before the Bundestag in 2001, and who called President George W. Bush to offer his help after 9/11. By that time, Putin had come to power under dubious circumstances, immediately waged a brutal war in Chechnya, and embarked upon a systematic attack upon the freedoms Russians had gained during the late 1990s. Regaining control of the mass media was one of his first moves upon becoming President. It was the same Kremlin chief who would later raze Aleppo to the ground, in the same way he had destroyed Grozny and ordered (or at least supported) the assassinations of Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov, as well as the attacks on Sergei Skripal in the UK and the murder of Chechen separatist Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin—alongside numerous other attacks.

Recent biographies of Putin emphasize his mafia links, forged alongside the mayor of Saint Petersburg in the 1990s, or his decision to make kleptocracy a pillar of the system of power that he built. One detail is particularly disturbing—we are told that, at the height of his power, Putin repeatedly watched videos of the infamous end of Colonel Gaddafi, almost as if he identified with the Libyan dictator. Even allowing for the classic paranoia of a former KGB officer regarding America's evil intentions, is it not strange for a constitutionally legitimate head of state of a country as significant as Russia to identify with a mentally deranged tinpot dictator?

In any event, even if Putin's personality has undergone an evolution, there remains a continuity to his violence and his lies that perfectly aligns with the Soviet mold. 

In any event, even if Putin's personality has undergone an evolution, there remains a continuity to his violence and his lies that perfectly aligns with the Soviet mold.

As for relationships with the West, there have been significant developments over the last quarter century that need to be considered. For the Russian elites that emerged during the 1990s and early 2000s, there was simply no alternative other than joining the West and its systems—albeit on terms that, to some degree, preserved Russian specificities. However, as the 2000s progressed, and Putin's Russia strived to "remake" itself, this was bound to change, especially with the assistance of evolutions in the oil market and effective management of the country's economy. This continued throughout the 2010s, with Russia re-establishing its international position and China embarking upon its spectacular rise in power.

Indeed, when Merkel asked Putin, "What is your biggest regret?" he answered, "To have trusted you"—"you," meaning the West as a whole. This response can be interpreted in two ways: on the one hand, Yeltsin's successor is alluding to the supposed "betrayal" of the West over the "promises" they made to Mikhail Gorbachev, particularly concerning the non-expansion of NATO. On the other hand, it may be an unconscious admission of Russia’s former expectations of the West—indeed, in the 1990s, Russians believed that the West would help solve the internal chaos that was plaguing their country. The "humiliation" that Russians claim in response to repeated American "provocations" not only refers to the  nostalgia for the Soviet empire, but also the genuine disappointment felt by many Russians during the chaotic upheavals of the 90s.

The paradigm shift of the early 2010s

In his aforementioned New York Times piece, Roger Cohen develops his account by identifying successive inflections that transformed the Russian leader from his beginnings, where he was open to the West, or at the very least available for cooperation, into what he is today—a dictator that has re-established an iron grip over his society, prepared to remain in power for life, and always to remain implacably hostile to Western designs. Without meaning to contradict Cohen's article, we believe that there are, in fact, two significant points of rupture that specifically marked the evolution of Putin's relationship with the West.

The first major change—or rather, the first "block" of major changes—occurred in 2011 (Syria), 2012 (Putin's reelection as President), and 2014 (Crimea and Donbas). 

The turning point of 2011-2012

By all accounts, when Putin was re-elected as President of the Russian Federation in 2012, he ceased to be interested in the economy; reform programs were ended, and corruption became increasingly widespread. The President was deeply concerned over the major demonstrations that swept Russian cities during the winter of 2011-2012, following the rigged general election. He subsequently launched the first measures aimed at "foreign agents"—measures that, over time, became increasingly severe. Externally, he adopted a strategy of confrontation with the West. He began to attempt a "repolarization" of the world, the clearest example of which was his approach to Syria, where we saw the Kremlin vetoing Security Council resolutions that mirrored the wishes of the Arab League. This was contrary to the established Russian doctrine at the UN of always following the lead of regional organizations; while Vitaly Churkin, Russia's UN ambassador at the time, had approved the text of those resolutions in preliminary consultations, when it was time to vote, he received direct orders from Moscow to veto them.

Some have interpreted Moscow’s attitude as a reflexive reaction to Western support for the Arab Spring; however, this explanation misses the point. The Russian analyst Dmitri Trenin, in his book, What is Russia up to in the Middle East?, notes that many Russian Middle East specialists saw the Arab Spring as the result of economic, social and demographic factors. However, a conspiratorial viewpoint was put together that alleged an alliance between the United States and the Islamists, and it was this interpretation that the Kremlin chose to retain.

It is more likely that the primary cause of the 2011-12 "turnaround" was, in fact, fear of a democratic upsurge in Russia itself, at a time when a similar push was taking place in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. It was Putin's fear of "color revolutions" – a fear that had begun with Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" of 2004—that pushed him towards reinforcing both his authoritarianism and his opposition to the West. Secondly, and decisively, he saw that the "repolarization" he was seeking internationally earnt his country additional prestige—without provoking a reaction from America.

It is more likely that the primary cause of the 2011-12 "turnaround" was, in fact, fear of a democratic upsurge in Russia itself.

Putin's role in the Syrian crisis allowed Russia to return as a power in the Middle Eastern theater, and The BRICS group that Minister Lavrov had so skillfully formed  allowed Russia to rejuvenate its waning international influence. Most of the world's developing nations agreed with his denunciation of Western "treason" over Libya.

Western hesitancy over supporting the Syrian rebels, particularly Obama's failure to follow through on his "red lines" in August 2013 and the dazed Western response to Russia's Syrian intervention in September 2015, convinced Putin that he had adopted a winning strategy. 

An approach endorsed by Crimea's annexation in 2014

Putin took the strategy a step further in 2014 by annexing Crimea and supporting the separatists in Donbas. These offensive actions, the boldest he had ever taken, followed a new democratic upswing in Ukraine with Moscow's ally, President Viktor Yanukovych, having fled the country in the wake of the Maïdan revolt. Putin found that the annexation of Crimea was understood—and even tacitly supported—by the emerging powers. 

However, some argue against this interpretation—after all, there had been a number of crises that had pitted Russia against the West prior to 2011-14. So why highlight this particular period rather than Putin's threatening Munich speech in 2007, which was quickly followed by Russia's 2008 intervention in Georgia? Notably, this intervention took place just four months after the NATO summit in Bucharest, which  left the door ajar for Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance.

What sets the period between 2011 and 2014 apart is that it marked the end of Russia's readiness to cooperate with the West.

What sets the period between 2011 and 2014 apart is that it marked the end of Russia's readiness to cooperate with the West. Following previous crises, working relations were, as far as possible, re-established between Moscow and the Western capitals. Let’s take the Corfu process as an example, launched by the OSCE in 2009. But after the Syrian uprising in early 2011, and even more so after 2014, constructive relations between Russia and the West practically ended, with the possible exception of the Iranian nuclear issue. This represented a profound paradigm shift. Before 2011-2012, the coexistence of both confrontation and cooperation with the West was possible.

Post 2011, however,  Moscow perceives confrontation on all sides as most beneficial to Russia. Moreover, it was during the Ukrainian crisis of 2014 that Putin—despite some reluctance among the Russian elites—made new moves towards building closer ties with China, as the Chinese horizon emerged as a potential substitute for the West.

It could be argued that our approach fails to take into account NATO's expansion and the significant anger that this has generated in Moscow. It is difficult to evaluate just how much of this anger stems from wounded self-esteem over NATO's expansion, how much comes from genuine national security concerns, or the extent to which we are facing a propaganda discourse aimed at making Westerners feel guilty.  The integration of new NATO members was accompanied by a policy of openness towards Russia (including the Partnership for Peace in 1994, the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, and 2002's creation of the NATO-Russia Council) and a policy of self-limitation over the alliance's activities on new members' territories. Therefore, in the Founding Act, NATO forbids itself from deploying combat forces, installing nuclear weapons and even organizing major exercises along its eastern flank. Indeed, it was not until the annexation of Crimea in 2014 that NATO began to station units in the Baltic states, and even then, only on a rotational basis. When Putin embarked upon invading Ukraine early this year, it had been many years since NATO, weakened by the Trump presidency and a new emphasis on the Chinese threat, had engaged in "provocations" of any kind towards Russia.

Ultimately, there is no denying that the Atlantic allies have made significant mistakes in their dealings with Russia. Still, it is unrealistic to cite this as the primary reason for Moscow's distancing from the West. In an interview with the New Yorker, historian Stephen Kotkin correctly situates the current animosity that exists between Russia and the West within a much longer history, one that is consistently marked by Russian imperialist ambitions and autocratic governments and, therefore, one that remains antinomic to good relations with Europe, and the West more generally.

The beginning of the second paradigm shift 

The second paradigm shift—the one we are currently experiencing with the war in Ukraine—began in early 2020 with a significant domestic policy move. 

Russian domestic politics and perception of Ukraine

In March 2020, the State Duma rapidly approved an amendment to the Constitution that allowed Putin to remain in power until 2036. In June, the authorities submitted this "reform"—in reality, a constitutional coup d'état—to a sham popular vote. This surprised many who considered such a move premature, given the pandemic sweeping the country. One of the explanations given for the haste in calling the vote was concern over the continuing erosion of Putin's popularity. The status he had achieved through the annexation of Crimea—alike to a post-modern Czar, above the vagaries of politics—had been steadily eroding since the 2018 announcement of pension reforms.

In March 2020, the State Duma rapidly approved an amendment to the Constitution that allowed Putin to remain in power until 2036. 

He began acting in an increasingly detached manner, demonstrating himself to be a less than brilliant manager during the Covid crisis. Indeed, in an article from June 2020, we asked, "would a new external adventure act as a palliative for the leaders of the Kremlin?"

Ukraine had never left the agenda of the Russian leadership. In Antoine Vitkine's remarkable documentary, "Putin's Revenge," we hear the President declare, during a February 2020 Russian television interview, that "if Russia and Ukraine merge, it will form a powerful geopolitical rival to the West." On December 9, 2019, Putin met with Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the Elysée Palace. The meeting went notoriously badly, and it appeared that Putin had developed a profoundly personal hostility towards his counterpart in Kyiv. From then on, Russian negotiators began to systematically obstruct the Normandy Format discussions between Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine. Some recall Putin's approach at Brégançon in August 2019, where he discussed issues such as climate change, the G20 and the various international crises, much like any other statesman dealing with a range of issues. The first changes in this attitude were seen during that meeting at the Elysée Palace, with an already stubborn Putin facing the German Chancellor and the French President—while demonstrating his contempt for Zelenskyy.

After the "coup" of March 2020,Russia’s domestic politics began to change with a series of events that signaled a hardening approach. These included the poisoning of Alexei Navalny and the persecution that followed his return to Russia in January 2021, Putin's July 2021 article on Ukraine and Russia, and the banning of the human rights NGO Memorial in December 2021. The Navalny affair was particularly extraordinary, as it endangered Russia's relationship with a key European partner, Germany, over a relatively minor issue. This inevitably led to a tightening of EU sanctions. The July 2020 article on Ukraine-Russia relations confirmed its central importance to Putin's regime, followed by a similarly nationalist and revisionist document written by former Prime Minister and President Dmitri Medvedev. Finally, the suppression of the Memorial reveals the changing nature of the Russian regime. It shows that Putin believes that covering up Stalinist crimes is necessary, in order to present the Russian state as sacred and infallible, forged in the glory of the "Great Patriotic War" that has, through various reinterpretations, become the basis of the current regime's legitimacy.

Triggering factors of the crisis

A major trigger of the current Ukraine crisis was undoubtedly the large-scale protests in Belarus after Lukashenko's theft of the 2020 election. From Putin's point of view, the risks of a color revolution and democratic contagion were resurfacing once again on "Russian lands." In retrospect, these events can be seen as one of the forces driving the increased repression in Russia during the health crisis, with the events in Belarus coloring the Kremlin's perception of developments in Ukraine. At the same time, the Biden administration's support for Ukraine, alongside the transfer of drones from Turkey to Kyiv, was rapidly changing the balance of power against the Russian proxies in Donbas, while Zelenskyy continued to attack Russia's levers of influence within his country. 

Belarus has another reason for being at the heart of the Ukraine war—its role as Moscow's eager satellite provides the Kremlin's strategists with a territorial platform from which to launch assaults upon Kyiv and its surrounding areas. One cannot help thinking that the chaotic US withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021 played a similar incentivizing role in the minds of Russian leaders, as did the American debacle over Syria in August 2013.

One cannot help thinking that the chaotic US withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021 played a similar incentivizing role in the minds of Russian leaders, as did the American debacle over Syria in August 2013.

If we move further upstream and consider relations between Moscow and Washington, another important element should be noted. Vitkine's documentary perfectly illustrates what the end of the Obama administration and Donald Trump's subsequent presidency must have been like for the nerves of Putin and his advisors. The Russians feared the election of Hillary Clinton, who was considered to be Russia's implacable enemy. In response, they mounted a campaign of interference in the 2016 American election that they may legitimately consider a triumph. However, their chosen candidate's presidency provided them with little satisfaction—and, following Biden’s election, they now have to deal with the old horse of the Cold War.

Biden is not without his weaknesses, but he certainly harbors no illusions about the nature of the Russian regime.

What motivates Russian power?

In the weeks preceding the Russian invasion, the West—showing a cohesion that has undoubtedly disarmed the Kremlin—was looking for effective ways to re-establish a constructive dialogue with Moscow. Among the possible motivations for Russia, three in particular could have provided diplomats with a potential way forward.. 

First, the desire to return to a relationship of equals with the United States was supposed to remain a major aim of Russia's foreign policy. It was, after all, Biden's offer of a meeting at Geneva in June 2021 that defused the crisis  earlier that year. Similar proposals were made in early 2022, but this time without a positive result. On February 21, just three days before the Russian invasion, President Macron believed he had obtained an agreement from both parties for a Putin-Biden summit, but the Kremlin denied it. 

A second possible goal for Russia related to its alleged concerns over European security. Evidence of this was found in Moscow's demand for "security guarantees," formalized in the draft treaties it provided to the Americans and their European allies. 

Despite having nothing to discuss concerning the unacceptable demands put forward by the Russians, the Americans and NATO continued to seek dialogue over the security balance in Europe; the Kremlin, however, has rejected this. This Russian evasion is reminiscent of Emmanuel Macron's failure to get Russia involved in discussions over a new European security architecture: however, both the French President in 2019 and the allies in 2021 seemed to be addressing the Putin that existed before the 2011-2014 paradigm shift, not the Putin of the present day. 

This Russian evasion is reminiscent of Emmanuel Macron's failure to get Russia involved in discussions over a new European security architecture.

There are numerous concerns over the continuing conflict in Ukraine, including the Kremlin’s potential reaction if victory continues to remain elusive for Russia. Accordingly, the French President and the German Chancellor have tried to revitalize the Normandy format discussions; this attempt failed, but President Zelenskyy publicly acknowledged that Ukraine would not be joining NATO. Chancellor Scholz himself took this message to Moscow on February 15, with trial balloons launched from the Ukrainian side concerning possible concessions over Donbas. This is one of the most surprising aspects of the crisis—President Putin chose war when he was not that far from obtaining, through "diplomacy" (although, in reality, threats of war), the "guarantees" that seemed to most concern him over the Ukrainian issue.

Which Vladimir Putin are we dealing with now? 

Even if we need more time to define the "new paradigm" of the Putin regime's attitude towards the West, some initial observations are immediately apparent. 

Firstly, Russia has moved from primarily political confrontation between 2011 and 2014 to a military offensive today, from "hybrid warfare" (including cyber-attacks) to linear warfare. Moreover, this could have been predicted by its unbridled aggression over the past few years in external theaters, including the Sahel. The Russian leadership has clearly internalized the idea – or rather, the illusion – that the West has given up defending its positions. Secondly, a priority of Putin's current policy is a "gathering of Russian lands," combined with a refusal to accept the consequences of the end of the Soviet empire. It is no coincidence that the invasion of Ukraine followed a return of the Russian presence in Nagorno-Karabakh and the re-establishment of Moscow's control over Kazakhstan and Belarus. But this impulse towards a reunion of Russian lands, which refers to a "historical Russia", is combined with the very contemporary element of wanting to put an end—in conjunction with China—to Western domination of the world order.

It is important to recall that the invasion of Ukraine took place only a few weeks after the signing of the Sino-Russian joint declaration on February 4, which acts as a manifesto for the replacement of Western power with a new, alternative order. Another extraordinary document fully demonstrated how Russian leaders see the world: the Novosty news agency editorial, placed online by mistake (and hastily withdrawn) on February 26, which was scheduled to be released the day after the anticipated rapid victory in Ukraine. The article clearly indicated that beyond Ukraine, the success of the Russian war machine was intended to considerably shake a world order still dominated (temporarily) by the West: it wasn't just about Ukraine; Putin wanted a war that would change the world.

The result is that omnipresent references to the "Great Patriotic War" have been transformed into a particularly aggressive ideological delirium.

The desire for a "duel to the death" with the West is constantly communicated (through state-controlled media) by Moscow's leaders to a Russian populace that inevitably ends up  becoming conditioned by the propaganda. Putin's speech on February 24 was striking in its ideological presentation of a Russian fortress under siege from a hostile West: "The West does not like us, it wants to dismember us, it wants to destroy us."

In the media, the idea is spread that in order to "denazify" Ukraine, it is also necessary to "de-Ukrainize" the country, as well as weaken a West that is supporting the neo-Nazis against Russia. The result is that  omnipresent references to the "Great Patriotic War" have been transformed into a particularly aggressive ideological delirium.

This messaging appears to carry the support of large swathes of a Russian population, long bludgeoned by propaganda, even if significant parts of both the intelligentsia and the young do not follow along. Civil society continues to be severely repressed. An alternate reality is imprinted on people's minds: for many Russians, the aggression did not begin on February 24th, but actually on the 22nd, when Ukraine began moving its forces to Donbas and thereby "forced" Putin to act. The horrors documented in Mariupol, Bucha and elsewhere are denounced as Ukrainian disinformation. Russia's entrapment in its own myths is further reinforced by the economic decoupling from the West resulting from sanctions,and the flight of many young, well-qualified Russians. Formerly moderate figures such as Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Lavrov now speak words of hatred towards both Ukraine and the West.

How long will Russian popular support for the war last? And what will be the long-term effects of the growing distance between Putin and the rest of the Russian state machine?  Are we seeing the beginning of the end for the Putin regime, just as the coffins returning from Afghanistan marked the point at which the Soviet system was bound to collapse? In the short term, isn't it evident that what the Czar needs is a victory, at least in Donbas and along the Azov Sea? That he would, without hesitation, consider using extreme means, including nuclear weapons, to achieve that victory? And in the case of a victory in the East, would he not then move towards resuming the offensive upon Kyiv in the near future?

Putin's war

Even though we cannot answer these questions, we do know that Putin's war has pushed the world into a new and uncertain era. On the one hand, the Russian dictator can maintain a long battle in Ukraine that will have devastating effects on all the economies of Europe; on the other, the whole globalization project would be at risk if Beijing goes too far in its support for Moscow, provoking massive sanctions upon themselves by the United States. The consequences for the rest of the world would also be immense.  The Russian leader seems to be out of touch with reality, held in the grip of a kind of nationalist ideological fervor. Yet he remains rationally minded and has not ceased with his schemes and calculations, as Fiona Hill has noted in recent interviews. However, if there is one variable that the West can control—one that is of primary importance to Putin's view of the world—it is the balance of power with Russia. This is the main lesson learned from the last two decades, and one further reinforced by any examination of the circumstances that have led to the current war. Therefore, the United States and its allies have no choice but to hope that the Russian military apparatus and Russia's capacity for aggression emerge as weakened as possible from the conflict into which Putin has thrown his country. In particular, the current situation has demonstrated the need for a complete revision of European policies in order to both re-establish military deterrent capacity and end Europe's dependence on Russian oil and gas. It will increasingly be up to the Europeans themselves, in cooperation with the Americans, to deal with their vast neighbor.

Once these two conditions—of a weaker Russia and a stronger Europe—have been met, it will be time to examine the possibility of rebuilding bridges with Moscow, particularly with the Russian elites and broader society. The question is whether this will ever be possible so long as Putin is the country's leader.


Copyright: Thibault Camus / POOL / AFP

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