The History Behind Putin’s War in Ukraine
Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine is a horrific, unconscionable act. NATO’s expansionist policy made such an invasion more likely. Both of these things are true.
- Interview by
- Doug Henwood
In the 1980s and 1990s, Anatol Lieven covered the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and the wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and the southern Caucasus, for the Financial Times and the Times of London. In the 2000s, he worked at several think tanks in Washington and is now a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He also has seven books to his name, most recently Climate Change and the Nation State.
Earlier this month, Doug Henwood spoke with Lieven about Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and the post–Cold War expansion of NATO. Henwood edited the interview — originally broadcast on March 3 — to make it read more like prose than spoken word (Henwood’s comments are in square brackets). It appears below.
Some background on the first question. In February 1997, George Kennan, one of the architects of the Cold War policy of containment of the USSR, wrote this in the New York Times:
[E]xpanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking . . . . Why, with all the hopeful possibilities engendered by the end of the cold war, should East-West relations become centered on the question of who would be allied with whom and, by implication, against whom in some fanciful, totally unforeseeable and most improbable future military conflict?
In May 1998, the usually dopey Thomas Friedman did something useful by calling Kennan for a follow-up on the topic. Kennan said: “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely . . . it is a tragic mistake.”
This war is horribly brutal, and everyone I know is in a terrible state of mind over it. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. What George Kennan worried about twenty-five years ago has pretty much come to pass.
Exactly. Since the mid-1990s, when the issue of NATO enlargement first came up, Russian officials, Russian intellectuals, and leading Western experts, including George Kennan, the architect of containment — and myself in a small way — have all been saying that if this were extended one day to Ukraine and Georgia it would lead at best to deep confrontation and at worst to war. The [Boris] Yeltsin administration warned of this — this is not just a [Vladimir] Putin thing. And over the past almost three months, before the war, the Russian government was making it clear that there was a threat of war if the West did not compromise on what Russia regarded as its vital interest.
The Russian government has committed a very grave crime under international law by invading Ukraine. I think it’s also made a terrible mistake, but as you say, in international relations, one also has to take account of realities. And the reality is that Russia has always regarded keeping Ukraine out of a hostile Western alliance as vital to Russian national security.
How much manipulation of the political scene in Ukraine has the United States and other Western powers been guilty of? Are the Russians rightly concerned about that, or are they just getting carried away?
In 2014, it was obvious from funding — including by institutions that are rather comically in America called nongovernmental institutions even though they’re funded by Congress like the National Endowment for Democracy [NED] — to the Ukrainian opposition made clear the West’s desire to overthrow the then-elected government of Ukraine, President [Viktor] Yanukovych. [The NED has deleted the records of its grants to Ukraine on its website; they’re archived here.]
And obviously there was the famous intercepted telephone conversation by Victoria Nuland, which made clear the role of the [Barack] Obama administration in manipulating the formation of the next Ukrainian government. [Audio, with Sex Pistols outro music, here. Transcript, annotated with tendentious BBC commentary, here. In the call, Nuland, the Obama administration’s resident neocon, and Geoffrey Pyatt, US ambassador to Ukraine, planned the personnel of the government that would replace Yanukovych’s. The scandal of Nuland’s intemperate “fuck the EU” comment overshadowed the content of the call.]
Since then, it hasn’t been exactly a matter of covert manipulation. The West has aided Ukraine, and has strongly encouraged Ukraine to try to join the Western alliance while not actually offering Ukraine anything but the vaguest possibility of membership in future. The West has funded, educated, and supported large numbers of the Ukrainian elite, but this is not covert manipulation. This is overt. You can say it is Ukraine’s development toward free-market democracy, which is quite true, but it is obviously also an attempt to turn Ukraine into a Western ally. If the West, as it’s done in some other places, had supported democracy in Ukraine and economic reform but without raising the possibility of NATO membership for twelve years now, which they’ve had no intention of actually implementing — if we’d stuck to the one without introducing the other — maybe this catastrophe could have been avoided.
You said in the Prospect interview that we never had the slightest intention of defending Ukraine. Was that ever expressed? Did the Ukrainians understand it? Did they not hear it? Were they not told it?
I think they must have understood it more or less, or at least sensible Ukrainians did. Because after all we’d done the same thing to Georgia in 2008, when there was this half promise of NATO membership, but when this led to war with Russia — well, actually, Georgia’s attack on the Russians in South Ossetia — America never came to Georgia’s aid. And the West didn’t come to Ukraine’s aid in 2014.
But there are problems. One is that for a long time now, ever since the 1990s, we have made membership of NATO and the European Union synonymous with belonging to Europe and that has two problems. It makes it virtually impossible for democratic reformers anywhere in Eastern Europe not to try to join the EU and NATO because they are basically branding themselves as second-class Europeans or non-Europeans. So, the option, which was entirely viable in itself, of joining Finland and Austria as free-market democracies, but nonaligned ones — we morally and emotionally and politically speaking closed that door.
But the second thing, of course, was that by defining Europe in these terms and going in for this NATO rhetoric of Europe home and free, we told the Russians completely explicitly, “You are not Europeans, go away. We don’t consider you part of Europe and we’re not going to consult you about European affairs.” That is about as deep an insult to Russia as one can easily imagine. It was not going to go down well with any Russian government, let alone Putin’s.
What are Putin’s goals here? Do we have any idea if he really believes Ukraine is a fiction, or more of a fiction than most nations are? Does he just want a buffer zone or complete absorption? What’s the endgame?
I don’t know. The striking thing is, I’ve been talking to quite a lot of what you might call the outer Russian establishment. They were all surprised by many aspects of this invasion. And they all said that now the decision-making circle in Russia, in the Russian government, and the circle of people who Putin actually listens to has narrowed to fewer than ten people. It’s become very, very, very closed.
Those pictures of him at that gigantic table are capturing something aren’t they?
Yeah, and of course COVID, as many people say, has made this worse. Like US administrations in the run up to Vietnam, but much more, it seems likely that Putin has been cut off, or has cut himself off, from accurate and objective information. If Putin and his immediate followers were so incredibly stupid as to believe that they could impose a puppet government on the whole of Ukraine, then, unless they’re blind as well as mad, they must realize that the strength of Ukrainian resistance and the display of Ukrainian unity since the war began have rendered that completely impossible. This isn’t Czechoslovakia or Hungary during the Cold War where you at least had the structures of a Communist Party to maintain Soviet domination.
You will not be able to create anything but the most grotesque, ridiculous, obvious puppet authority in Kiev. If that’s what Putin wants, it will lack all legitimacy. It will be totally incapable of running a stable state. It will face continual protests and resistance, which will have to be put down by ruthless means. And it will necessitate the permanent presence of a Russian army to keep it in place, just like the Soviet Union or America in Afghanistan.
The war so far has clarified some things. One thing it’s clarified is that although NATO has imposed harsh economic sanctions, NATO will not fight for Ukraine, which of course makes the idea of Ukrainian NATO membership completely empty. Ukraine might as well give that up and sign a treaty of neutrality. But on the other hand, I think it has completely destroyed Russian plans — if that’s what they were — to impose a puppet government.
We don’t know how far Russia will compromise on its terms. We’ll have to see, but I think the maximal Russian aim in Ukraine, thank God, has already been defeated by the Ukrainian people and army.
How long can that go on?
This is beginning to take on aspects of Chechnya in 1994 to 1996, which I covered as a British journalist, or even in a way, the American occupation of Iraq. I don’t know how much the Russian army as a whole was really behind this invasion. There are suggestions that the bulk of the generals were not consulted and certainly some of them have looked extremely unhappy on television, but, when an army is in a war, particularly a war of this kind of importance to Russia, they want to win. And of course, Putin cannot leave Ukraine without the appearance of at least a limited success, or I think he would be finished. I think there would be some form of coup against him from within the regime.
So, I have this horrible feeling that if they can’t get a peace agreement, which allows them to claim a measure of success, that they will feel that they have no choice but to go on, irrespective of the destruction and the civilian casualties. My own view is we should all seek a negotiated solution now because it may be that in ten years, twenty years, we will get basically the same solution that we could have gotten today. The difference of course, will be tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of Ukrainian lives.
What about the nuclear threats? I find myself being nostalgic for the Soviet leadership, which at least seemed rational. Is Putin so unhinged that these should be taken seriously?
No, I don’t think so. He knows, for very good reasons, that people are scared of nuclear war. In a rational world, it would be crazy, but of course we don’t live in a rational world. In the actual world it’s an obvious weapon for Russia to brandish, to frighten the West. But that doesn’t mean that he’s going to launch a nuclear attack. Nor of course are we.
What I worry about more is that if we get into a state of permanent deep tension, if we have a guerrilla war on Russia’s borders, probably overlapping into terrorism in Russia itself backed by the West, through Poland, the level of tension and the potential from clashes will be such that has not existed in Europe, between Moscow and the West, since the Berlin blockade of 1948.
And in those circumstances of heightened tension and fear on both sides, there is always the possibility of some disastrous accident or miscalculation. We really need to remember the number of times when by accident there could have a nuclear exchange during the Cold War. It came down to the wisdom and caution of one man on either side. Just because Putin is not going to deliberately fire missiles at us, doesn’t mean that the threat isn’t genuinely there.
Sanctions and Discontent
What about the Western reaction? Are sanctions really that effective? And now we hear yahoos on cable TV talking about attacking the Russians or declaring no-fly zones.
I haven’t noticed that any of these people calling for no-fly zones are going to be flying US or NATO planes themselves. As far as I can see there are no pilots among them. As I’ve said again several times in recent days, chicken hawks don’t fly, they squat on the ground at a very safe distance and squawk loudly.
Plus I fear — I think this is a terrible idea by the way — I fear support for a Ukrainian insurgency against Russia. If, of course, Russia occupies areas where such an insurgency can be launched.
Now, as to the effectiveness of these sanctions. Obviously, what the West is trying to do is to hurt Russia as badly as possible without hurting the West and of course, in this case, particularly the Europeans who are dependent on Russia for energy imports. We’ve sanctioned everything we possibly can short of cutting off the gas and oil.
That means that Russia will still have an international revenue stream. [This was recorded on March 2, before oil and gas sanctions.] But on the other hand, the sanctions that have been imposed will hit Russia very badly, and are harsher than Russia expected, particularly the sanctions against the central bank, and will lead to Russia’s isolation from at least the Western economies, except in the area of energy. In addition, the measures introduced by the West and the countermeasures introduced by Russia will hit very badly the international lifestyles of the Russian elites and especially the younger elites to which they’ve become accustomed. This doesn’t affect the inner circle around Putin. These are hard men, as they say in Ireland, and they are undoubtedly deeply patriotic, and they are very, very determined and resolute — and of course completely ruthless.
But I think it’s worth remembering that in the 1980s, as the children of the Soviet elites became aware of how much better they could live in a Westernized Russia than a Soviet Russia, that played a huge part in the fall of Communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. If you are plugged into the wider Russian elites and listening to what they’re saying in private, and what some of them have even started to say in public, you see that they are becoming really anxious. And they understand better than the rest of the population, even the educated population, just how badly this is going to affect them. If the Ukrainian quagmire goes on for a long period, then I think discontent against Putin will mount very, very high.
Look, one doesn’t know. But if it mounts high enough, more likely than a revolution on the streets like in Ukraine 2014 or Georgia would be a coup from within the Putin regime, to get rid of him and some other top officials. It could be a relatively polite coup. A delegation goes to him and says, very politely, you know, we respect your record. We guarantee your property and your personal security and that of your family, but it’s time to go.
But as I’ve said, I don’t think that any Russian government that succeeds Putin will simply surrender unconditionally in Ukraine, in the sense of giving up Crimea and the Donbas and acceding to Ukrainian NATO membership and giving up any guarantees for the Russian minority in Ukraine. I find it very difficult to believe that, unless Russia collapses as a state that any Russian government will agree to that.
Now I’m very afraid that a good many people in the American security establishment do want to use this to destroy Russia as a state. That condemns us to endless warfare against Russia, with everything that would mean for the world economy. It condemns Ukraine to endless war with horrible suffering for the Ukrainian people. But also, a program of sanctions, which is openly aimed at what many Russians would see as not just getting rid of Putin but destroying the Russian state, could have the completely opposite result.
As far as the support of Russians for the regime, we just don’t know. What we do know is that similar sanctions aimed at regime change in Cuba, in Iraq, in Venezuela, in Iran, in North Korea have all failed. All of them, without exception. And so all one can say is, look, it could be different in the case of Russia, but there are no historical grounds to believe this.
Putin’s Power Base
Who is Putin’s power base, who surrounds him? Does he have a constituency in the elite, or is it pretty much a little clique of cronies?
Putin has assembled a wider establishment, which is beholden to him in many ways, and he has tamed what remains of the old financial and economic oligarchy and gained their public support. But these people are extremely cynical and self-interested and ruthless. They will not stick with Putin if they think their own vital interests are in danger or that sticking with Putin is going to mean that their own fortunes and positions will be destroyed. The inner circle, the people who are completely beholden to Putin — or perhaps not exactly beholden to Putin but completely identify with Putin — have the same background and ideology, are a very small group of mainly ex-KGB people or linked to the KGB in various ways. And they occupy all the top positions in government, at least on the security side.
Also, they’ve been put in control of a large part of Russia’s energy economy and various other places. So there’s quite a sharp difference between this small inner group — they’re called the siloviki in Russian, the men of force, or as I say, the hard men — and the wider establishment. One question is whether any of this inner circle will turn against Putin. If enough of them do then it’s over for him. But on the other hand, they’re so closely associated with him, they’re so closely associated with the war, it’d be very difficult for them to do so.
Then there is the question of the Russian army. The Russian army, like the Soviet army before it, has never been involved in politics. And they don’t want to lose in Ukraine. But if you get an endless quagmire, then at the very least they may start really, really pressing for a diplomatic compromise to get out of Ukraine, if, of course, the Ukrainians and the West are prepared to offer a compromise.
There’s one issue that people haven’t looked at yet, but the Ukrainians are trying to call up basically all their men of military age. How many they’ll get depends on how much territory Russia conquers. It depends on how many Ukrainians flee to the West. But even so, if Ukraine calls up everybody it possibly can, it will hugely outnumber the existing Russian army in Ukraine.
Now, if the Russians in response have to call up their reservists, we’re talking about ex-conscripts who served and then left the army and now have jobs and have families. If you start telling twenty-eight-year-old Russians to leave their well-paid jobs and their children and return to fight in Ukraine, a war that they were never consulted about and where they’d been watching very demoralizing pictures of Russian Ukrainians, Russian-speaking women and children being killed — that is the moment when the Putin regime will be in really serious trouble. If it has to call up a large part of the Russian population to fight, at that point, Putin would’ve signed his political death warrant.
Finally, we’re seeing China now stepping into possibly a peacekeeping role. How much of all this reflects the decline of US power or prestige? And is there anything to this talk of a Russia–China alliance?
Just as the West has not fought for Ukraine, so China has not actually officially sided with Russia on Ukraine. It abstained in the UN Security Council. It has stressed respect for international law and international sovereignty. And we don’t yet know how far China will go in supporting Russia economically. This will be very, very expensive for the Chinese. And they would also drive an extremely hard bargain in terms of redirecting Russian energy exports to China to guarantee China’s energy security. So, it seems to me that China is not actually so far trying to exploit this crisis as much as it might have.
If China would step in and broker a reasonable compromise, this will be an excellent thing, because I don’t trust the United States to do so, to be honest, given the strength of the anti-Russian agendas here and the desire of some people actually to turn this into a permanent war to destroy Russia. So, I think it would be an excellent thing if the Chinese stepped in, but I also know that America would do everything in its power to block a Chinese-brokered agreement.
As for the decline of American power, it is striking just how distorted the view of the world of many establishment Americans has become over the past thirty years. Even after the failure in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rise of China and the failure to pacify the Middle East and the disaster that followed the intervention in Libya, there is still this idea around that one heard so often in the 1990s and well into the 2000s that basically America can do anything anywhere.
Doug, we’re both old enough to remember before the end of the Cold War. If you think back thirty-five years, if you had said to anybody, and I mean anybody, in a Western position of authority or any serious intellectual that the West should support a war Ukraine — not take part in it but support it — for the sake of Ukraine joining NATO theoretically and turning Ukraine into a full military ally of the West against Russia, even the hardest line Western anti-communist hawks would have laughed their heads off.
They’d have said, “You must be mad. We don’t have the resources to do that. That will lead to actual war with Moscow. Don’t forget they have thousands of nuclear missiles. And in any case, how could this possibly be in our interest if we can take such an appalling risk and make such a commitment if can manage to get not just the Poles and the Czechs and the Hungarians, but to rescue the Balts from the Soviet Union and free them and turn them into Western allies. Well, this would be a magnificent, a historic, a wonderful Western victory…”
It’s a rollback, right?
Surely people would’ve said, “You can’t be suggesting we should go further than that.” Well, now of course, we’ve spent years thinking that we could go further than that. And the result has been disaster.