Putin appears to have locked himself into fighting a long war which he can neither win nor end.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso)
Cross-posted from Counterpunch
Photo by Don Fontijn
President Vladimir Putin made a carefully calculated response to the death of Mikhail Gorbachev. He went to the hospital where the former Soviet leader died, placed red roses beside his coffin, and stood for a few minutes in silence before departing. His office explained that “regrettably, the president’s working schedule would not allow him” to attend Gorbachev’s funeral in Moscow on Saturday.
Instead, Putin traveled to the isolated Russian territory of Kaliningrad on the Baltic to reiterate his determination to wage a successful war in Ukraine. He described it as “an anti-Russian enclave” created by foreign powers that “is threatening our country.”
In other words, Putin is doubling down on winning a war that is proving as risky for the Russian state as the radical changes introduced by Gorbachev during his years in power between 1985 and 1991. Unsurprisingly, Putin wants to avoid any close association with a man who presided over the dissolution of the USSR and failed utterly in his ambition to modernise the Communist party and the Soviet state.
A long war he cannot win or end
But Putin’s failure may be as momentous as Gorbachev’s because he appears to have locked himself into fighting a long war which he can neither win nor end. Caution is essential here because the outcome of any war depends on numerous wild cards of uncertain value that have yet to be played.
Putin is not alone in his inability to know what to do next: Liz Truss, the likely next prime minister of the UK, has had nothing much to contribute – except a bit of jingoistic bombast – about the greatest military conflict of our age that has helped provoke a devastating cost of living crisis. But her fellow EU foreign ministers have not done much better, deciding this week to end partially a deal with Russia on visas for Russian holiday makers and shoppers.
But the great loser in this war so far is Russia. Putin thought he could win it in a few days because the Ukrainians would not fight. His wishful thinking was bolstered by an opinion poll shown to him by the FSB intelligence showing that only a minority of Ukrainians – though a large one – were prepared to resist a Russian attack. He accepted this wishful thinking because it was in tune with his own over-optimistic views. Invading with far too few ground troops, Putin has never since been able to build up the superior forces that military handbooks assert are essential to invade and occupy a country successfully.
Like Gorbachev, Putin has always had something of an inflated reputation. Gorbachev was lauded abroad mainly because he admitted defeat in the Cold War, but he was never hugely popular at home. But Putin’s claim to be a tough authoritarian leader who had ended the chaos of post-Soviet Russia under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s was largely accepted by Russians and foreigners alike, even if the latter made disapproving noises about the suppression of free speech and periodic state gangsterism.
In reality, Gorbachev and Putin both owed their rise to supreme power through their skill in bureaucratic maneuvering within the ruling elite. This is less condemnatory than it sounds because there was no other ladder available for an ambitious official to climb. It would not be fair to put Gorbachev, a decent man with strong democratic instincts, on the same level as an arrogant secret policeman like Putin, but both men were considerably less able and experienced than was widely believed.
Once in the Kremlin – inheriting the dictatorial traditions of Tsardom and Communism – Gorbachev and Putin saw the world as they wanted it to be. Gorbachev persuaded himself that a militarised Communist party holding a monopoly of power and built to wage a ferocious class struggle, could be converted to democratic socialism with free elections and freedom of expression. This belief was naïve, but Gorbachev was not alone in holding it since several “Eurocommunist” parties in Western Europe in the 1970s and 1980s held similar self-deceiving beliefs. But Communist parties, as designed by Lenin, were organised and commanded like a war machine, and could not operate on any other basis.
Putin brought order to licensed criminality
Putin has always aped what he sees as Communist ruthless determination to achieve their ends regardless of costs. But he himself is very much the product of the predatory years of Boris Yeltsin, when oligarchs and former members of the Soviet elite were founding great fortunes by plundering state assets. Putin brought order to this licensed criminality, but he did not end or reverse it – and is now paying a price for this institutional dysfunctionality in Ukraine.
One reason for this failure is chronic corruption within the military machine, rotting its capacity to fight. This is something that Putin should know a lot about, according to Farida Rustamova in an article in her Faridaily newsletter, entitled “How Putin pumped money into Russia’s army for two decades, and what became of it”. This explains much about the Russian military machine’s incompetent performance at the beginning of the Ukraine war.
Putin himself was put in charge by Yeltsin of an attempt in 1997 to stop corruption in the Defence Ministry, according to Rustamova. She quotes him as telling a journalist at the time that “The corrupt generalship itself is not capable of fighting corruption. Therefore, it is clear that the Defense Ministry itself cannot be reformed.” This turns out to be all too true.
A liking for expensive high tech weapons
Putin’s association with the Russian military left him with a liking for expensive high tech weapons and an exaggerated idea of their military usefulness. On becoming president in 2000, much effort went into burnishing the new leader’s militarised image and keeping him a safe distance from responsibility for the decay of the Russian armed forces. I was in Moscow in the summer of 2000 when the nuclear submarine Kursk sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea, killing its entire 118-strong crew. Foreign specialists had to be brought in to deal with the wreck. Putin stayed on holiday in Sochi on the Black Sea and, when asked on television what had happened to the submarine, he simply said: “it sank.”
Two decades later, nothing much had changed for the better when Putin gave the order for his army to invade Ukraine on 24 February. For all the money it had received under his rule, Russian forces behaved like an ill-officered rabble. They not only failed to achieve their objectives, such as capturing Kyiv and Kharkiv, but their failure ended myths about Russian military might that stretched back to the defeat of Hitler in 1945.
Economic sanctions on Russia are turning out to be the mother of all boomerangs for Western Europe. Economically, they are proving counter-productive because they raise the price of oil, gas and other commodities, thereby contributing to the rise in the cost of living worldwide. The Russian economy will be damaged, but this does not pose an existential danger to the regime, nor is it likely modify its behaviour.
Financial and economic sanctions now being deployed against Russia are in the nature of a collective punishment of all Russians, be they pro or anti-Putin. Members of the ruling elite may not be able to holiday or shop in New York, London or Paris, but these are petty inconveniences, their very pettiness projecting weakness rather than strength.
In the latest instalment of sanctions, EU foreign ministers have agreed to suspend a deal with Moscow on visas for Russian holiday makers and shoppers, but who is this going to hurt? It will certainly make it easier for the Kremlin to persuade ordinary Russians that they are the victims of Western Russophobia.
The problem with sanctions – economic warfare – is that it is like military warfare: you never know about the existence or direction of the boomerang effect until it is too late. This point is well made in an interview with Stephen Kotkin, professor of Russian history, with Bloomberg. Speaking just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he says that “what happens for the most part with economic sanctions is that the local people, the civilians, pay the price. The regime doesn’t pay the price…the sanctions make you feel better that you are doing something.”
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