Putin's War Has Consolidated Ukraine
Viewed historically, the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war is the product of four deeper causes and one trigger. First, the Soviet empire’s collapse in 1991 propelled its successor state, Russia, to seek reimperialization for structural and ideological reasons. Second, the emergence of a “fascistoid” (or almost fully fascist) regime made imperial revival a central feature of Vladimir Putin’s hyper-masculine strategy of self-legitimation. Third, the European Union and NATO expansion placed Ukraine in an untenable security vacuum, between a Europe manifestly uninterested in Ukraine and an imperial Russia that was increasingly making claims on Ukrainian sovereignty. Fourth, the “colored revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in 2003-05 directly threatened Putin's imperial regime and legitimacy—compelling him to wage war against Georgia and launch a variety of protective measures vis-à-vis Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
Finally, Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan Revolution was the trigger that led Putin to exploit that country’s post-revolutionary weakness by invading Crimea and eastern Ukraine in the hope of promoting Russia’s empire and consolidating his regime.
1. The normal trajectory of imperial decline is the decay of ties between the empire’s core and its peripheries or colonies, followed by progressive territorial attrition. Sometimes, empires collapse rather suddenly, usually the result of wars. In the Soviet case, that shock came from within. Once Mikhail Gorbachev embarked on perestroika in the mid-1980s and began dismantling totalitarianism, he subverted the empire, resulting in the end of core Russian rule over its non-Russian peripheries by 1991.
Several factors led to reimperialization in post-Soviet Russia. The non-Russian ex-periphery remained linked to the Russian ex-core with respect to energy, trade, culture, and language. Facilitating continued core dominance was Russia’s relative state strength and the openness of borders. Soviet-style imperial discourse, culture, and ideology also survived in Russia, as they usually do in post-collapse successor states such as Weimar Germany. Opposition to and demonization of NATO expansion and Ukrainian nationalism were part of that mindset, which was evident in Russia even in the democratic 1990s.
2. Russia suffered all the typical consequences of imperial collapse: economic distress, humiliation, loss of faith. Blame fell on the democrats who ruled Russia following that collapse, and on non-Russians—specifically Ukrainians—who had supposedly betrayed Russia. Boris Yeltsin, who embodied the democratic ’90s, left office in disgrace, while his successor, Putin, assumed control in 1999, promising to reestablish Russia’s place in the sun. By the mid-2000s, Putin had eviscerated Russia’s democratic institutions and succeeded in constructing a fascistoid regime with three institutional features. The first was standard authoritarianism (centralizing the power ministries; subordinating business to the state; restricting rights; forming mass pro-regime movements; controlling the media; and establishing a massive propaganda apparatus). The second was Putin’s undisputed supreme leadership. The third was Putin’s hyper-masculine personality cult and neo-imperialism, which he used to legitimize the regime. That cult drew on and reinforced the sexism within Russian political culture. The Putin regime eventually came to resemble those of interwar Italy and Germany, and Putin himself came to resemble Mussolini and Hitler.
3. EU-NATO expansion created a no-man’s land between Russia and Europe, with Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova finding themselves in an untenable security vacuum. By expanding European economic, political, and security institutions just short of them (and of course Georgia), Europe effectively signaled to Moscow that it had no interest in these countries—precisely as Russia’s neo-imperial tendencies were taking off and the Putin regime’s fascistoid features were consolidating. The timing couldn’t have been worse. In effect, if not in intent, NATO enlargement enhanced the security of countries like the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria that faced no conceivable security threat. It extended security guarantees to countries such as the Baltics that could not easily be defended by NATO. And it failed to extend security guarantees to countries like Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova that suddenly faced existential threats thanks to NATO’s enlargement, which annoyed the Russians. NATO—an institution in crisis—did not threaten Russia and the Kremlin, with its many spies in Brussels, knew it. What worried Moscow was the symbolism of the West’s “strength” in the face of Russia’s post-collapse “weakness.”
4. The colored revolutions posed the first concerted outside threat to Putin’s regime, but his response was as spontaneous and unplanned as they were. Regime change in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan suggested that people power could succeed. That mattered because Putin was well aware of the continued strength of the democratic movement in Russia’s key cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution empowered pro-Western forces led by President Mikhail Saakashvili. His determination to join NATO and other Western institutions eventually led Putin to provoke a “glorious little war” in 2008 that resulted in the partition of Georgia. The 2004 Orange Revolution caught Putin flatfooted, which was unsurprising, given his belief in an ideology that sees Ukraine as a weak, feminine Little Russia. Putin resolved to solidify Viktor Yanukovych’s puppet rule in Ukraine, to such a degree that both of them helped bring about the next Ukrainian uprising in 2013. In Kyrgyzstan, Moscow opposed the 2005 Tulip Revolution, but then learned from its mistake and supported the 2010 uprising.
With these four factors in place, all that was necessary for full-scale war with Ukraine to break out was a trigger. That came in the form of the 2013-14 Maidan Revolution—a genuinely democratic movement that heralded Ukraine’s abandonment of Russia’s imperial domain and fundamentally challenged fascism and Putin himself. Putin’s threat perception had little if anything to do with potential Ukrainian membership in NATO, since neither Ukraine nor NATO had traditionally shown much interest in each other. Putin’s answer to the Maidan was to annex Crimea, promote separatism in Ukraine’s southeast, and wage war—in the manner of Saddam Hussein’s 1980 attack against revolutionary Iran.
The upshot of Putin’s war has been the exact opposite of what he hoped to achieve. Ukraine has not collapsed. Instead, Putin has consolidated the Ukrainian state, nation, army, and security apparatus, pushing the country toward the EU, NATO, and reform. For the first time since independence in 1991, Ukraine’s people and elites are united around a pro-Western, pro-reform, pro-democracy agenda. And for the first time, Ukraine has the West’s support. Although Putin is straining that country’s economy to the max, he has lost Ukraine, which should pull through and become stronger.
At the same time, the weakness of Putin’s fascistoid regime is evident. Institutional decay and ineffectiveness are rampant; the elite appears to be divided; the cult of hyper-masculinity will diminish as Putin ages. In addition, Russia suffers from economic decay, declining energy revenues, the pain of Western sanctions, the costs of war, and growing non-Russian assertiveness. Regime collapse, a putsch, massive instability, or even civil war is no longer unimaginable, as the recent discussions of Putin’s inexplicable absence showed. But there is nothing the West can do to prevent Russia’s possible collapse as long as Putin is in power. All it can do is try to protect itself and Russia’s neighbors from the consequences of collapse by supporting the front-line states: Ukraine, the Baltics, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, and Kazakhstan. In short, the West must finally appreciate that Ukraine’s continued existence as an independent democratic state is absolutely vital to its own security.
Ensuring Ukraine’s independence means one of two things—and the haphazard dithering that has characterized Western policy toward Ukraine in 2014 is neither of them. The West must provide Ukraine with either massive military assistance or massive economic support far in excess of the few billions hitherto made available. Put another way, the West must choose whether to draw Ukraine into NATO or into the EU. If, as many Western analysts and policymakers argue, massive military assistance or NATO membership would only provoke Moscow to escalate its war, then the West has no choice but to transform Ukraine into its economic and political protectorate—and that means EU membership. Tertium non datur. There is no third alternative.