Putin’s thirst for war, conquest and revenge is unquenchable

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Welcome back. US President Joe Biden said in Warsaw on the eve of the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine that Vladimir Putin “can end the war with one word.” But the Russian leader will not take such a step unless he can claim victory on terms totally unacceptable to Ukraine and its Western backers – that seems clear from Putin’s defiant public speeches in Moscow this week. So what will happen next? I’m at tony.barber@ft.com.

Predictions about the outcome of long, seemingly evenly fought wars are fraught with risk. Who in November 1917 foresaw that 12 months later France, Great Britain, the USA and their allies would win a comprehensive victory in World War I over Germany and the other Central Powers?

Having spent this week sifting through an extensive body of commentary on the Ukraine war, it’s my impression that the consensus prediction is that neither side is headed for decisive victory, no peace solution remotely in sight, and even a ceasefire – temporarily or not – is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

A war of attrition

An excellent analysis setting out this argument comes from Thomas Graham, a distinguished Council on Foreign Relations staffer and former US diplomat in Moscow. Graham, writing for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Russia Matters website, explains that the domestic policies of Russia, Ukraine and the US all point to the continuation of the “war of attrition”.

A series of maps showing Russia's invasion of Ukraine has stalled as Ukraine hit back February 24, 2022: Russia launches a full-scale invasion of Ukraine advancing on Kiev in hopes of a quick victory. Full invasion 30 Apr: Withdrawal from Kiev and transfer to Donbass - Strong resistance from Ukraine, logistical and tactical mistakes by the Russian army force them to withdraw from Kiev 31/08: Stalemate - During the summer months, the Russians make little progress, apart from a few Winning in northern Donbass region 09/30: Lightning strikes in Ukraine Offensive - In early September, Ukraine launches a lightning offensive around Kharkiv, reclaiming thousands of square kilometers of territory. Nov 30 Russians withdraw from Cherson - Russians are forced to abandon the only provincial capital they captured in the war. Feb 23, 2023: Slow Advance on Bakhmut - After eight months of grueling fighting, Russian forces attack Bakhmut

Here are Graham’s thoughts on Putin:

He has shown no interest in negotiating anything other than Ukraine’s surrender. . . His hyperbolic rhetoric, which compares the conflict to the great patriotic wars of survival against Hitler and Napoleon, limits his room for manoeuvre.

About President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy: “[He] is dedicated to total victory. . .[He]can trade land for peace and hope to survive politically.”

On Biden, the war and the 2024 US presidential election: “Having made it a historic contest between democracy and autocracy. . . Biden cannot afford to see Ukraine defeated and hope for re-election.”

The US President himself put it this way in Warsaw:

President Putin chose this war. Every day that the war goes on is his choice. He could end the war with one word. It’s easy. If Russia stopped invading Ukraine, it would end the war. If Ukraine stopped defending itself against Russia, that would be the end of Ukraine.

This last point is reinforced in an article by Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister, for Project Syndicate appearing in the Korea Times. What would have happened, Bildt asks, if Russia had won the war quickly a year ago?

[Zelenskyy] would most likely have been murdered by Russian special forces or imprisoned after a quick trial. At best, he would lead a government in exile from Warsaw or elsewhere. . . Ukraine as a political entity would have ceased to exist and returned to the status it enjoyed under 19th-century Russian imperialism.

And so, despite heavy casualties, mass displacement of civilians, and the war’s devastating impact on the economy, Ukraine struggles on, as outlined in this December IMF report.

Western military and financial support is keeping Ukraine’s war effort afloat, although the Finance Ministry in Kyiv reportedly received only €31 billion by December, out of the €64 billion pledged by Western countries since the invasion, the FT reports became.

As the above chart by the Kiel Institute shows, the US is providing the lion’s share of Western aid, but for how much longer?

Felicia Schwartz, our Washington-based US foreign and defense correspondent, writes that once-rock-solid political and public support for supplying Ukraine with weapons and money is waning and may come under even more pressure as the 2024 elections loom.

war aims

Any significant reduction in US support would certainly destroy Ukraine’s hopes of achieving all of its wartime goals. These have hardened as the conflict intensified towards a full re-establishment of state control over all territories seized by Russia since 2014, including Crimea and the south-eastern Donbass region.

Few Western leaders dare publicly suggest that these war aims are too ambitious, but some think so privately. Russia’s atrocities in occupied territories and its deportations of Ukrainian civilians, including many thousands of children, make it particularly difficult for Western leaders to promote the idea of ​​leaving such areas under Moscow’s control — even as part of a ceasefire, let alone a long-term settlement.

No less true, however, is that Putin deliberately avoided specifying Russia’s war aims in detail. Would he be happy with Crimea and four other regions of Ukraine, which he declared for Russia in September, even though they are not under Moscow’s full military control?

Putin and the historical destiny of Russia

In my view, it would be unwise to assume that. The destruction of the independent Ukrainian state after 1991 and the incorporation of Ukrainian identity into a Russian-led East Slavic union strike me as fundamental to Putin’s increasingly mystical vision of Russia’s fate.

Few have described Putin’s obsessions more succinctly than historian Thomas Otte, who wrote for the H-Diplo website almost a year ago:

Putin’s views. . . reflect his acceptance of the fundamentally anti-Western, anti-European concept russian me [the Russian world]a part historical, part ideological construct based on the 10th-century idea of ​​Holy Rus’ – itself a ‘invention’ of 19th-century historians.

It encompasses late Tsarist notions of an ethnocultural pan-Slavic bond between the East Slavs and is fed by memories of the victory over fascism in the Great Patriotic War.

Otte also underscores the importance to Putin of his grievance-filled claim that the West betrayed post-Cold War Russia by admitting the newly free, formerly communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe into NATO. Mary Elise Sarotte, a leading authority on diplomacy at the time, demolished that argument in the FT last weekend.

However, as Otte points out, Putin’s accusations of Western bad faith have morphed into the Russian equivalent of Germany’s post-1918 right-wing nationalist “stab in the back” myth, according to which Jews, socialists and other domestic “traitors” caused the country to lose World War I.

In short, Putin’s thirst for conquest, revenge, and a revered place in the annals of Russian history remains unquenchable. Former Russian diplomat Boris Bondarev, who resigned last year in protest at the attack on Ukraine, offers this insight into Putin and the officials who serve him:

He will always be a source of war, aggression and destabilization. . . This war is his personal war because nobody around him wanted this war. And they don’t want it now. They just follow it because it’s not their responsibility to think about it and decide.

What do you think? Will fighting in Ukraine stop by the end of this year? Vote here.

More on this topic

How Russia’s war shook global energy routes – an analysis by Benjamin Storrow and Sara Schonhardt for E&E News

Tony’s picks of the week

  • Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has taken a more active role in public life as he seeks to bolster the Iranian regime’s authority after the most violent demonstrations since the Islamic revolution, reports FT’s Najmeh Bozorgmehr from Tehran

  • Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has lagged behind for most of the past three and a half years, but still has a chance of remaining in power after general elections scheduled for later this year, says Aleks Szczerbiak, a politics professor at Britain’s University of Sussex

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https://www.ft.com/content/898ffbdf-bf28-460c-87d3-02c9c47af6cb Putin’s thirst for war, conquest and revenge is unquenchable

Brian Ashcraft

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