Responding to Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine

Western democracies must prepare for a long period of confrontation with Russia, argues Dr Alexander Maxwell.

What is Vladimir Putin trying to achieve? On 25 February, just after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, he proclaimed his goal was to halt “genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime” and “to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine”.

It’s pretty typical political rhetoric. All over the world, even in New Zealand, people compare their political opponents to genocidal Nazis. It’s not surprising Putin describes the Ukrainian leaders as “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis”.

Nevertheless, Ukraine’s prime minister, Volodymyr Zelensky, makes an unlikely neo-Nazi. He’s a former actor and comedian who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform. He’s also from a Jewish family. So when Putin declares he wants to rid Ukraine of Nazis, he’s making propaganda for the Russian domestic audience.

But what is Putin really trying to achieve? His essay On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians sheds some light. It claims that in the middle ages Russians and Ukrainians were one people who shared orthodox Christianity and a common language.

Only in Soviet times did the notion of “three separate Slavic peoples: Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian” replace the greater Russian nation. Putin concludes that “modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era” and, as such, lacks legitimacy.

Putin then declares the current Ukrainian government unacceptable. He speaks about “a climate of fear”, comparing policies of Ukrainisation to “the use of weapons of mass destruction”. Putin blames the Ukrainian government’s wickedness on “the western authors of the anti-Russia project”, not the Ukrainian people themselves.

Putin outlines two main goals. First, he objects to the “military ‘development’ of the territory of Ukraine and deployment of Nato infrastructure”, equated with “the protection and control of the western powers”. Given Russia’s huge military, Putin’s hypocritical talk about the “militarisation” of Ukraine implies his objective is to create a helpless Ukraine wholly dependent on Russia.

Second, Putin declares “Kiev simply does not need Donbas”. The Donbas refers to two pro-Russian client states in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. Pro-Russian forces rebelled against Ukrainian rule in 2016 and, thanks to covert Russian military aid, have resisted Ukrainian attempts to restore control. The rebel statelets do not control the entire provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, but when Putin recognised their independence he recognised their claim to the entirety of the relevant provinces.

Putin may not seek to annex the Donetsk and Luhansk republics directly to Russia: he may prefer to keep them as dependent states. (There is a precedent: Putin established similar dependencies in Abkhazia and South Ossetia after a 2008 war with Georgia.)

When the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk emerged in 2016, their leaders briefly proclaimed a “Novorossiya confederation” extending across the Odessa, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Kharkiv, Zaporozhzia and Dnipropetrovsk provinces. Putin squelched the idea and so far has not made any reference to Novorossiya in the current war.

While it’s hard to know what exactly Putin intends, the lack of talk about Novorossiya suggests Russian territorial aspirations are limited to the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. Russia does not presently pose an immediate threat to the Baltic States or Poland, if only because the Russian army has its hands full.

Putin probably does not wish to annex the whole of Ukraine. As a model for future Russian-Ukrainian relations, Putin proposes “how Austria and Germany, the USA and Canada live next to each other. Close in ethnic composition, culture, in fact sharing one language, they remain sovereign states”.

Putin nevertheless claims to represent Ukrainians. “The anti-Russia project has been rejected by millions of Ukrainians,” Putin writes, apparently referring to various bogus plebiscites organised by pro-Russian separatists. He claims that “for many people in Ukraine, the anti-Russia project is simply unacceptable. And there are millions of such people.” Putin claims to speak for them.

Putin, however, has no mandate to speak for Ukrainians. Indeed, his habit of arresting or killing opposition politicians ought to call into question the legitimacy of his government in Russia itself, even though Putin still does well in Russian opinion polls.

A strong majority of Ukrainians voted for Zelensky in 2019. Ukrainians are also heeding their government’s call to arms. The Ukrainian army probably cannot prevent the Russian army from occupying Ukraine, but the Russian army may find itself unable to defeat Ukrainian partisans. War in Ukraine may last for a long time.

So what should Nato do? In the past few days politicians in the US and Britain have compared the Russian offensive to Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland. The practical implication of the comparison is alarming. It suggests that as military conflict with Russia is inevitable, Nato’s best course of action is to declare war now! The Russian nuclear arsenal is too frightening for such open confrontation.

But if Nato cannot treat Putin as a new Hitler, it can and should treat him as a new Stalin. Instead of fighting World War III, Nato should acknowledge the unwelcome beginning of Cold War II. A Russia that attacks its neighbours without provocation has become a rogue state. It should be sanctioned and ostracised as such.

Western democratic countries must prepare themselves, militarily and psychologically, for a long period of confrontation with Russia. Some domestic realignment may be necessary. Democratic intelligence services should, for example, take on the Russian troll army. Russia is trying to destabilise the western world. The west should resist.

In the short term, finally, Cold War rules permit military aid in proxy wars. Latest reports suggest about 20 countries, including several Nato members, are already supplying weapons to Ukraine. If Ukrainians are prepared to fight for their country, Nato should supply them.

Read the original article at Newsroom.

Dr Alexander Maxwell is an associate professor in history at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.