As the Russian offensive continues unabated in Ukraine, much of the world struggles to decipher the seemingly encrypted endgame of President Vladimir Putin’s ‘special military operation’. ‘Where does he go from there’ certainly is the most asked question in the world today.
There is little to indicate how the Russian all-out war in Ukraine is going to play out. Many, including myself, were surprised that President Putin, known for his near-perfect calculations since he came to power 20 years ago, has actually decided to go all out in the neighbouring state. But as Russian forces march towards Kyiv following the near fall of Ukraine’s second largest city of Kharkiv, we are being faced with a different equation, one that is tough to crack.
Pundits on CNN, the BBC and other networks love to ‘dive deep’ into the mind of the Russian president these days. I hear the question ‘what is going on in his mind?’ whenever I tune in on one of these networks. Not that all of what is being said is nonsense. But most of it clearly miss the point.
Those who didn’t expect an all-out war had based their opinion on the belief that conquering your neighbour for political gains has become a thing of the past. Perhaps Iraq’s late dictator Saddam Hussain was the last one to do that when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. On Saturday, Kuwait celebrated the 31st anniversary of its liberation. The Soviet Union at the time didn’t take part in the international coalition that drove Saddam’s army out of Kuwait but it was fully behind it politically.
To understand what President Putin’s actual plan today might be challenging. But an article he wrote in July last year, published on the Kremlin’s official website, might give us some hints of where he is going with this. But before we go into that it important to note that on Sunday the Kremlin announced that a delegation representing the president and the foreign and defence ministries had arrived in the Belarusian city of Hormel for talks with Ukrainian officials. “The Russian delegation is ready for talks and we are now waiting for the Ukrainians,” a spokesman said.
In his article, titled ‘On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, President Putin discusses in great length the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations, stressing the notion that Ukrainians are ‘an ancient, inseparable part’ of the ‘triune Russian nation’ — people who share a common history “spanning one thousand years,” the language, the Russian ethnic identity, the shared cultural sphere and the Orthodox Christian religion.
Any attempt to weaken these links, Putin argues, will only lead to the collapse of the state of Ukraine. He presumably refers here to the West’s plans to integrate Ukraine in the European Union and Nato alliance. He will not accept that Ukraine, which currently encompasses some areas dominated by ethnic Russians, to be used against Russia.
If Ukraine continues its path in trying to ally with the West, which will certainly use this to threaten the strategic security of Russia, then, President Putin writes, Ukraine should return to its 1922 borders. And this is an important point, very much relevant to what is happening today.
President Putin blames the Bolshevik leaders, the revolutionary leaders of the early Soviet Union, for robbing Russia of the territories that were awarded to Ukraine in the years from 1922 to 1964. In pre-1922, Ukraine was merely half of what it is today. Large swaths of territory, including Donbas — the region of southeastern Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk, and Lviv, in the west, can be seen only in Ukraine’s post-1964 map.
(An interesting historic note: most of the powerful men who ruled the Soviet Union from the 1950 onward somehow hailed from Ukraine: Nikita Khrushchev, who led from 1953 to 1964, Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982), Konstantin Chernenko (1984-1985), Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991).
The Russian president writes that the West wants to transform Ukraine into an anti-Russia “springboard”, something he says is “against the interests” of the Ukrainian people. The Western plan, tolerated by the current administration in Kyiv, he argues, was steadily leading to the militarisation of Ukraine, through Nato’s possible admission, and the future deployment of Nato’s infrastructure and hardware, which is clearly a threat to Russia.
This anti-Russia project was rejected by millions of Ukrainians, he says, in the Crimea and the Donbas. But the “the followers of Bandera did not abandon their plans to crack down on Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk”. Here, Putin refers to Ukrainian controversial right wing nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, who died in 1959.
Bandera, while considered as a national hero of the struggle against the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, is seen by others as a pro-Nazi politician whose pro-Hitler militias massacred Jews and Poles during World War II. An anti-Russia Nazi ideology is rife among today’s Ukrainian political elite, President Putin says. A statement by the Russian defence ministry issued at the start of the current war said that the operation’s objective was “the demilitarisation” and “denazification” of Ukraine.
It is unreasonable to think that Russia plans an old style military occupation of Ukraine. Russia, of all countries, knows that is not possible, taking into account its history in Afghanistan. Thus, President Putin’s essay of last year and the trip of his negotiators to Belarus on Sunday suggest something different.
Moscow probably aims at a short blitz that it hopes would ‘persuade’ Kyiv to give up its ‘anti-Russia project’ the Kremlin talks about. It seeks a relationship with Ukraine similar to the one of the US and Canada, probably. Or ensuring a neutral Ukraine that enjoys ‘a special’ friendly relations with Russia.
Nevertheless, the price is high. And it is getting higher by the day as the war drags on. Nothing compensates for the loss of precious lives.