It is absurd that every single action in the world is coloured by the political optics of one nation. Adults could have sorted this out ten years ago.
Photo: ‘Why did Putin stake so much on a high-risk enterprise that will at best bring him a tenuous grip on a ruined land?’ The aftermath of Russian missile attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Photograph: EyePress News/Rex/Shutterstock
After six months of bloody and terrible war, what exactly does Putin want from Ukraine?
Nearly six months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is still widespread disagreement in the west on Vladimir Putin’s motives.
This is of more than academic interest. If we do not agree why Putin decided to invade Ukraine and what he wants to achieve, we cannot define what would constitute victory or defeat for either of the warring sides and the contours of a possible endgame.
At some point, like all wars, the present conflict will end. Geography condemns Ukraine and Russia to live beside each other and that is not going to change. They will eventually have to find a modus vivendi. That also applies to Europe and Russia, although it may take decades before the damage is repaired.
Why, then, did Putin stake so much on a high-risk enterprise that will at best bring him a tenuous grip on a ruined land?
At first it was said that he was unhinged – “a lunatic”, in the words of the defence secretary, Ben Wallace. Putin was pictured lecturing his defence chiefs, cowering at the other end of a 6-metre long table. But not long afterwards, the same officials were shown sitting at his side. The long table turned out to be theatrics – Putin’s version of Nixon’s “madman” theory, to make him appear so irrational that anything was possible, even nuclear war.
Then western officials argued that Putin was terrified at the prospect of a democratic Ukraine on Russia’s border, which would threaten the basis of his power by showing Russians that they too could live differently. On the face of it, that seemed plausible. Putin hated the “colour revolutions” that, from 2003 onwards, brought regime change to former Soviet bloc states. But Ukraine’s attractions as a model are limited. It is deeply corrupt, the rule of law is nonexistent and its billionaire oligarchs wield disproportionate power. Should that change, the Russian intelligentsia may take note but the majority of Russians – those fed on state propaganda who make up Putin’s political base – would not give two hoots.
The invasion has also been portrayed as a straightforward imperialist land grab. A passing reference to Peter the Great earlier in the summer was taken as confirmation that Putin wanted to restore the Russian empire or, failing that, the USSR.
Otherwise sensible people, mainly in eastern Europe but not only, held that Ukraine was just a first step. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” a former Swedish minister told me last week, “if, in a few years, Estonia and Latvia are next in line.”
Given that Putin once called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, that may seem to make sense. But he also said: “Anyone who does not regret [its] destruction has no heart; anyone who wants to see it recreated has no brain.”
Leaving aside the fact that the Russian military is already hard-pressed to achieve even modest successes in Ukraine, an attack on the Baltic states or Poland would bring them into direct conflict with Nato, which is the last thing that Moscow (or the west) wants.
In fact, Putin’s invasion is being driven by other considerations.
He has been fixated on Ukraine since long before he came to power. As early as 1994, when he was the deputy mayor of St Petersburg, he expressed outrage that Crimea had been joined to Ukraine. “Russia won Crimea from the Turks!” he told a French diplomat that year, referring to Russia’s defeat of the Ottoman empire in the 18th century.
But it was the possibility, raised at a Nato summit in 2008, that Ukraine should become a fully-fledged member of the western alliance that turned his attitude toxic.
Bill Burns, now the head of the CIA, who was then the US ambassador to Moscow, wrote at the time in a secret cable to the White House: “Ukrainian entry into Nato is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In my more than two-and-a-half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in Nato as anything other than a direct challenge to Russia’s interests … Today’s Russia will respond.”
Successive American administrations ignored Burns’s warning and Putin did respond. In 2014, he annexed Crimea; then he fomented a separatist revolt in the Donbas; finally, in February of this year, he launched a brutal, undeclared war to bring Ukraine to heel.
Nato enlargement was merely the tip of the iceberg. Many other grievances against the west had accumulated in the two decades Putin had been in power. By the end of 2020, when planning began for a renewed push against Kyiv, the wheel had come full circle.
The young Russian leader who had so impressed Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, who had backed George W Bush to the hilt after 9/11 and who had insisted that Russia’s place was with Europe and the western world, had slowly morphed into an implacable adversary, convinced that the US and its allies were determined to bring Russia to its knees.
Western politicians dismiss that as paranoid. But the problem is not western intentions, it is how the Kremlin interprets them.
Putin’s goal is not only to neutralise the regime in Kyiv but, more importantly, to show that Nato is powerless to stop him. If in the process he extirpates Ukrainian culture in the areas Russia occupies, that is not collateral damage: it is a bonus.
Whether he succeeds will depend on the situation on the battlefield, which in turn will depend on the extent of western support over the autumn and winter, when energy shortages and a soaring cost of living risk putting Ukraine’s western partners under intense strain.
Moscow does not have to achieve a great deal for Putin to be able to claim victory. It would be enough for Russia to control all of the Donbas and the land bridge to Crimea. He would certainly like more.
If Russian troops take Odesa and the contiguous Black Sea coast, it would reduce Ukraine to vassalage. But even more modest gains would show the limits of US power. It is possible that Ukraine, with solid western backing, will be able to prevent that. But it is far from certain.
The war in Ukraine is not happening in isolation. While Russia is contesting the US-led security order in Europe, China is challenging it in Asia. A geopolitical transition has begun whose results may not be fully apparent for decades. But the post-cold war order that has governed the world for the past 30 years is drawing to a close. From its demise, a new balance of power will emerge.
- Philip Short has written authoritative biographies including Putin: His Life and Times, Mao: A Life and Pol Pot: History of a Nightmare, following a long career as a foreign correspondent for the BBC in Moscow, Washington and other world capitals