The Russians Are Running Away

According to the Kiev Post, the stunning Ukrainian counteroffensive that began earlier this month has now reached the border with Russia near the town of Hoptivka. Let’s hope Ukraine can secure the thousands of square miles they’ve now recovered and eventually restore all of its national borders.


Tonight, President Zelensky had a message for Russia:


What Was Putin Thinking?

Why did he miscalculate so badly? Greg Sargent of The Washington Post asked that question of historian Timothy Snyder, the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century:

Sargent: What is it about Putin’s way of seeing the world, and his understanding of his own mythologies, that made it inevitable that he’d underestimate the Western response?

Snyder: For me the most revealing text here is the victory declaration, which the Russian press agency accidentally published on Feb. 26. What they say is that the West just basically needed one more push to fall into total disarray.

If you watch Jan. 6 clips over and over again, you can get that impression. The Russians really have been fixated on Jan. 6.

They thought a successful military operation in Ukraine would be that nudge: We’d feel helpless, we’d fall into conflict, it would help D____ T____ in the U.S., it would help populists around the world.

Sargent: When you say Russia has been making a lot of Jan. 6 — what do they read into it?

Snyder: . . . T____’s attempt to overthrow the election on Jan. 6 made the American system look fragile. They think, “One more T____ and the Americans are done.” In invading Ukraine, they think they’re putting huge pressure on the Biden administration. They’re going to make Biden look weak.

That probably was their deep fantasy about the West: Successful military occupation in Ukraine; the Biden administration is totally impotent; we humiliate them; T____ comes back; this is a big strategic victory for us.

Sargent: There’s an essential through line from Jan. 6 to what we’re seeing now: Accountability for Jan. 6 becomes more important in this geopolitical context, where we’re reentering a conflict with Russia over whether liberal democracy is durable.

Snyder: . . . Putin’s idea about Ukraine is something like, “Ukrainian democracy is just a joke, I can overturn it easily. Everybody knows democracy and the rule of law are just a joke. What really matters are the capricious ideas of a tyrant. My capricious ideas happen to be that there are no Ukrainians. I’m going to send my army to make that true”.

That is much closer to the way T____ talks about politics than the way the average American talks about politics. I’m not saying T____ and Putin are exactly the same. But T____’s way of looking at the world — “there are no rules, nothing binds me” — that’s much closer to Putin. So there’s a very clear through line.

Sargent: . . . on some fundamental level, [Republicans aren’t] willing to forthrightly disavow Trump’s alignment with Putin and against Ukraine and the West.

Snyder: I have this faint hope that Ukraine allows some folks to look at domestic politics from a new angle.

When we were in the Cold War, one reason the civil rights movement had the success it did, and one reason we kept up a welfare state, was that we were concerned about the Soviet rival.

Russia is a radically anti-democratic country now. Not only has it done frightful things to its own society; it has invaded another country that happens to be an imperfect democracy. We’re also an imperfect democracy.

When you have to look straight at the reality that a big powerful country is aimed at taking imperfect democracies and wiping them out, that gives you pause. I’m hopeful the realization that democracy rises and falls internationally might change the conversation at some deeper level about how we carry out our own voting.

Sargent: Rising populism made Putin think Western liberal democracy was on the losing end of a grand struggle. But Biden and the Western allies may have seen that populism as a reason to get more galvanized and unified in response to the invasion.

Snyder: In Putin’s mind, there’s a kind of confusion of pluralism with weakness. He’s misjudged both Zelensky and Biden, who are both pluralists: They’re both willing to look at things from various points of view. That can look like a form of weakness.

But history also shows that you can be a resolute pluralist. . . . Zelensky and Biden both embody that: At the end of the day, this whole idea that we listen to each other is something that we’re going to defend.

People in Ukraine are used to being able to exchange views and listen or not listen to their own government. That’s the thing which makes them different from Russia right now. That’s not something Putin can see from a distance.

Sargent: You put your finger on something that’s been an anti-liberal trope for at least a century: That pluralism is in some sense crippling to the possibilities of resolute national action. Putin is steeped in that type of anti-liberal philosophy, isn’t he?

Snyder: Authoritarian regimes look efficient and attractive because they can make rapid decisions. But they often make rapid bad decisions — like the rapid bad decision to invade Ukraine. Putin made it with just a handful of people, so he could make that decision rapidly.

That’s the reason you want institutions, the rule of law and pluralism and public discussion: To avoid idiotic decisions like that.

He’s been working from a certain far-right Russian tradition — that the state and the leader are the same person, and there should be no institutional barriers to what the leader wants to do.

It’s important for us to see that this is the realization of a different model, which has its own logic.

Sargent: Paradoxically, we’re seeing that model’s decadence display itself.

Snyder: Of course the situation is dangerous right now. But a lot of the sparks that are flying out of Russian media are a result precisely of their own fear and their own sense of crisis.

Your word “decadence” is helpful here: When you’re decadent, what you say starts to depart more and more from the way the world actually is. Some Russian politicians are talking about how Poland needs to be taught a lesson. That’s alarming but it’s also unrealistic.

Sargent: I want to explore something you said to Ezra Klein: That in many ways, the response from the Western allies has been realistic and grounded, in that they aren’t trying to do too much. . . . 

Snyder: The thing that I’ve liked about the Biden administration is that they don’t have this metaphysical language that previous administrations have had about American power. They’ve stuck much closer to the ground.

They say, “We can’t do everything. But we can be creative and do a lot of things.”

By the way, that includes some stuff that we and others could go further on. We have to keep pouring arms into Ukraine, and the Europeans — now is the time to move forward on not buying oil and gas from Russia.

Sargent: What’s your sense of where this is all going?

Snyder: This war is happening because of the worldview and decisions of essentially one person. And I think it comes to an end when something shakes the worldview of that one person.

If the Ukrainians can get the upper hand and keep it for a few weeks, I think the worldview we have been talking about may start to shudder.

The right side has to be winning. That’s when we might have a settlement that ends this horrible war.

Where Putin’s Head Is At

A Russian journalist, Mikhail Zygar, offers this explanation of Putin’s behavior. From The New York Times:

I have been talking to high-level businessmen and Kremlin insiders for years. In 2016 I published a book, “All the Kremlin’s Men,” about Mr. Putin’s inner circle. Since then I’ve been gathering reporting for a potential sequel. While the goings on around the president are opaque — Mr. Putin, a former K.G.B. officer, has always been secretive and conspiratorial — my sources, who speak to me on condition of anonymity, have regularly been correct.

What I have heard about the president’s behavior over the past two years is alarming. His seclusion and inaccessibility, his deep belief that Russian domination over Ukraine must be restored and his decision to surround himself with ideologues and sycophants have all helped to bring Europe to its most dangerous moment since World War II.

Mr. Putin spent the spring and summer of 2020 quarantining at his residence in Valdai, approximately halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. According to sources in the administration, he was accompanied there by Yuri Kovalchuk. Mr. Kovalchuk, who is the largest shareholder in Rossiya Bank and controls several state-approved media outlets, has been Mr. Putin’s close friend and trusted adviser since the 1990s. But by 2020, according to my sources, he had established himself as the de facto second man in Russia, the most influential among the president’s entourage.

Mr. Kovalchuk has a doctorate in physics. . . But he isn’t just a man of science. He is also an ideologue, subscribing to a worldview that combines Orthodox Christian mysticism, anti-American conspiracy theories and hedonism. This appears to be Mr. Putin’s worldview, too. Since the summer of 2020, Mr. Putin and Mr. Kovalchuk have been almost inseparable, and the two of them have been making plans together to restore Russia’s greatness.

According to people with knowledge of Mr. Putin’s conversations with his aides over the past two years, the president has completely lost interest in the present: the economy, social issues, the coronavirus pandemic, these all annoy him. Instead, he and Mr. Kovalchuk obsess over the past. A French diplomat told me that President Emmanuel Macron of France was astonished when Mr. Putin gave him a lengthy history lecture during one of their talks last month. He shouldn’t have been surprised.

In his mind, Mr. Putin finds himself in a unique historical situation in which he can finally recover for the previous years of humiliation. In the 1990s, when Mr. Putin and Mr. Kovalchuk first met, they were both struggling to find their footing after the fall of the Soviet Union, and so was the country. The West, they believe, took advantage of Russia’s weakness to push NATO as close as possible to the country’s borders. In Mr. Putin’s view, the situation today is the opposite: It is the West that’s weak. The only Western leader that Mr. Putin took seriously was Germany’s previous chancellor, Angela Merkel. Now she is gone and it’s time for Russia to avenge the humiliations of the 1990s.

It seems that there is no one around to tell him otherwise. Mr. Putin no longer meets with his buddies for drinks and barbecues, according to people who know him. In recent years — and especially since the start of the pandemic — he has cut off most contacts with advisers and friends. While he used to look like an emperor who enjoyed playing on the controversies of his subjects, listening to them denounce one another and pitting them against one another, he is now isolated and distant, even from most of his old entourage.

. . . No one can see the president without a week’s quarantine — not even Igor Sechin, once his personal secretary, now head of the state-owned oil company Rosneft. Mr. Sechin is said to quarantine for two or three weeks a month, all for the sake of occasional meetings with the president.

In “All the Kremlin’s Men” I described the phenomenon of the “collective Putin” — the way his entourage always tried to eagerly anticipate what the president would want. These cronies would tell Mr. Putin exactly what he wanted to hear. The “collective Putin” still exists: The whole world saw it on the eve of the invasion when he summoned top officials, one by one, and asked them their views on the coming war. All of them understood their task and submissively tried to describe the president’s thoughts in their own words . . .

As I have reported for years, some members of Mr. Putin’s entourage have long worked to convince him that he is the only person who can save Russia, that every other potential leader would only fail the country. This was the message that the president heard going back to 2003, when he contemplated stepping down, only to be told by his advisers — many of whom also had backgrounds in the K.G.B. — that he should stay on. A few years later, Mr. Putin and his entourage were discussing “Operation Successor” and Dmitri Medvedev was made president. But after four years, Mr. Putin returned to replace him. Now he has really and truly come to believe that only he can save Russia. In fact, he believes it so much that he thinks the people around him are likely to foil his plans. He can’t trust them either. . . .

The Pro-Russia, Anti-Ukraine Party

Some Republican lowlife actually said the unindicted co-conspirator who leads their cult was, unlike Biden, “tough on Russia”. (Shamelessness is their superpower). Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine reminds us of what happened on planet Earth:

On February 25, the day after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, Lee Smith published an essay in Tablet arguing that Ukraine had brought on its problems. Smith, a house stenographer for Representative Devin Nunes and the author of two pro-T____ books, unburdened himself of a long list of Ukrainian provocations. In 2014, Ukraine’s people rejected Vladimir Putin’s generous offer to remain a Russian dependency and voted out his handpicked presidential candidate. A few years later, Ukrainian Americans accused Russia of hacking Democratic emails and extorting Volodymyr Zelenskyy — the guilt for which, in Smith and Putin’s view, was shared by the country their parents had fled. These defiant actions “reinforced Putin’s view that, especially in partnership with the Democrats, Ukraine did not understand its true place in the world as a buffer state.” The invasion was a terrible shame, conceded Smith, but this is what happens when a country has the temerity to offend Putin and T____ and assert its independence.

Putin’s war with Ukraine is being fought to settle a single question: Does his neighboring state have the right to make its own democratic decisions or must it subsist as a Russian vassal?

President Biden’s marshaling of a strong and united European response has thrown into sharp relief the contrast with his predecessor’s “America First” bluster. But there is an even more fundamental contrast between Biden’s multilateralism and T____’s nationalism, one that goes beyond diplomatic skill to core ideology: Many corners of the American right, including D____ T____, agree with Putin’s position.

Putin views a democratic Ukraine as an existential threat to his regime for two very good reasons. First, Ukraine’s majority prefers economic integration with Europe rather than Russia. Second, all strongmen are mainly preoccupied with maintaining power, and the existence of prosperous democracy in a neighboring country is a dangerous counterexample.

Twenty years ago, there was no significant reservoir of opposition to Ukrainian independence and democracy. The burgeoning alliance between Russian nationalists and America Firsters was set in motion when Paul Manafort went to work for the pro-Russian Party of Regions in Ukraine in 2004. Manafort, once one of the most powerful Republican lobbyists in Washington, had begun a globetrotting career selling his services to dictators. His Ukrainian client, Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, was Putin’s main organ for maintaining control of his neighboring country.

Putin nurtured a cadre of pliant Ukrainian oligarchs and functionaries who served a devious double purpose. They would faithfully weaken Ukrainian democracy on his behalf, and then he could turn around to the outside world and hold up Ukraine’s corruption as a justification for why it should not be treated like a real country.

He paired this with a slowly escalating campaign of violence. Putin and his allies would violently intimidate their political opposition to prevent them from gaining control of Ukraine. In 2004, Putin’s agents poisoned Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-western presidential candidate. (This occurred four years before the United States invited Ukraine to join NATO, a sequence that shows Russia’s threats against Ukraine drove its interest in joining the alliance, rather than the reverse, as Putin and his defenders have suggested.) Ten years later, Manafort’s client unleashed snipers and thugs to drive away peaceful protesters before a democratic revolution forced him to flee the country. After Russophiles lost control of Ukraine’s government, Putin started using militias to seize chunks of territory.

At the tail end of the Obama administration, both Democrats and Republicans supported democratization, westernization, and reform in Ukraine. When the Obama administration pressured Ukraine to fire ineffective prosecutor Viktor Shokin — a key step forward for advancing the rule of law in Ukraine — a bipartisan letter commended its efforts and did not draw any significant domestic opposition.

T____’s rise introduced to the Republican Party a figure who shared Putin’s perspective toward Ukraine and often echoed his propaganda. When Putin ginned up demonstrations in eastern Ukraine as a pretext to hive off chunks of land in 2014, T____ gushed, “So smart, when you see the riots in a country because they’re hurting the Russians, Okay, we’ll go and take it over … You have to give him a lot of credit.” After winning the nomination, T____ promised to consider recognizing Putin’s land seizure because “the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”

T____ brought on Manafort to run his campaign, which further linked Ukraine’s conflict with Russia to the American domestic struggle. Ukrainians released a “black book” of evidence of secret payments by the previous, pro-Russian regime, which implicated Manafort in an embezzling scandal for which he was eventually convicted. After it hacked Democratic emails and released them to aid T____’s candidacy, Russia claimed it had been framed by Ukraine. T____ subsequently endorsed this theory. (“They brought in another company that I hear is Ukrainian-based,” he told the Associated Press a few months after taking office. “I heard it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian; that’s what I heard.”)

T____, of course, was impeached the first time for pressuring Zelenskyy to smear Biden, and his motive was primarily to gain an advantage over his opponent. But he also had clearly absorbed Putin’s idea that Ukraine was corrupt and undeserving of sovereignty. T____ regularly flummoxed his staff by insisting Ukraine was “horrible, corrupt people” and “wasn’t a ‘real country,’ that it had always been a part of Russia, and that it was ‘totally corrupt,’” the Washington Post reported. (The element of Russian propaganda here is not the claim that corruption exists in Ukraine, which is true, but the premise that this somehow destroys its claim to sovereignty or justifies subjugation to its far more corrupt neighbor.)

By the end of T____’s presidency, the distinction between his agenda in Ukraine and the Russian agenda in Ukraine was difficult to discern. In the aftermath of T____’s first impeachment, Rudy Giuliani inherited Manafort’s role as a liaison to the pro-Russian elements in Ukraine’s polity. In his travels through the country, Giuliani linked up with Party of Regions apparatchiks as well as known Russian intelligence agents, ginning up business proposals and allegations to fling against Biden. T____’s agents, Russian agents, and pro-Russian Ukrainian apparatchiks were speaking in almost indistinguishable terms.

That view of the world is expressed cogently, if chillingly, in Smith’s essay depicting Ukraine as a tool of the joint enemies of Putin and T____. And it has bled widely into the conservative mind. In the run-up to the 2020 election, numerous right-wing pundits warned darkly that American liberals were fomenting a “color revolution” akin to the pro-democratic uprisings that had broken out against several of Putin’s vassal states. Both their narrative and their diction depicted pro-democracy activists as a sinister cabal and Putin their innocent victim.

By the outset of Russia’s invasion, pro-Putinist rhetoric was common. “Ukraine, to be technical, is not a democracy,” asserted Tucker Carlson. “And by the way, Ukraine is a pure client state of the United States State Department.” To be sure, this view remained a minority on the right — and just as many of T____’s most fervent supporters recoiled at the January 6 insurrection, even many Putin defenders conceded a full-scale invasion went too far. Still, Putin’s claims against Ukraine have received endorsements from both the right’s most popular politician and its most popular media personality. That is not nothing.

It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration’s combination of sanctions, diplomacy, and military aid will be enough to save Ukraine from the predations of its neighboring dictator. The military odds remain favorable to Russia. But as Putin’s militarized irredentism grows larger on the world stage, an increasingly relevant consideration in American politics is the fact that only one American party truly disagrees with it.

Why We’re Not Doing a No-Fly Zone

No-fly zones aren’t as easy as they sound. Chris Chivvis, a former US intelligence official who works for the Carnegie Endowment, explains:

I share the frustration over Putin’s murderous war. Pressure is growing for a no-fly zone (NFZ) over Ukraine. But I fear we have grown accustomed to fighting enemies who had no way to out-escalate us.

[We can learn about] our options and the risks of escalation [from the history of no-fly zones]:

Eleven years ago, the U.S. was on the cusp of imposing its no-fly zone over Libya to stop Qaddafi’s attacks on civilians. NATO expected a quick no-fly zone operation in Libya. Conditions were favorable because most of Qaddafi’s air force had defected.

But the Libyan dictator still had old Soviet long-range surface to air systems — SA-2 Guideline, SA-3 Goa, and SA-5 Gammons. NATO had to destroy these threats for its planes to fly safely.

And so, the US and UK fired 130 Tomahawk cruise missiles, US B-2 Stealth Bombers dropped 45 precision-guided bombs on Libya, and other NATO aircraft attacked across the country.

What would this look like in Ukraine eleven years later? Russia isn’t Libya, so naturally, the military requirements would be much more stressing. And escalatory.

Consider the reports that Russia has deployed several air defense systems to the theater, including S-400s, their most advanced. These would have to be eliminated for NATO pilots to fly safely over key parts of Ukraine, including potentially Kiev. This means NATO — and almost certainly US pilots — would have to bomb Russian units outside of Ukraine (e.g. S-400s in Belarus). They would also have to engage Russian planes flying over Ukraine. Russia could attack them from within Russian and Belarussian airspace. Would our pilots be allowed to return fire? If so, NATO would then be attacking Russians inside Russia. If not, some US pilots would probably be shot down.

The pressure to broaden the war would then become insurmountable. Unfortunately, there’s an even easier way a #NFZ would escalate. . . 

NATO would struggle to fly passively over Ukraine’s cities while Russia showered them with cluster munitions. We would probably end up attacking Russian forces on the ground [in Ukraine]. That’s not a risk I’m ready for. 

Meanwhile, the historical precedents of NATO NFZs would almost certainly encourage Putin to escalate. Libya is one precedent Russians often complain about, but the 1999 Kosovo air campaign is no less important for several reasons.

In 1999, the United States began an air campaign against Serb forces who were killing Kosovars. Many experts at the time expected the nationalist Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic would capitulate after only a few days. Did he? No. Everyone was surprised when the operation dragged on for months – just like in Libya. Eventually NATO widened its strikes to include civilian infrastructure in Serbia itself. Milosevic capitulated and within a few years was overthrown – just like Qaddafi.

Putin almost certainly has both Qaddafi and Milosevic – and obviously Saddam Hussein – in mind when he looks at Ukraine today. But unlike these despots, the one in the Kremlin has many options for escalation. Anyone who thinks he won’t use them isn’t watching the news.