Getting inside the mind of Vladimir Putin

14 February 2022

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The danger of war between Russia and Ukraine is hotting up. Despite endless talks with Western leaders and their senior officials, Vladimir Putin continues a massive build-up of Russia’s military capabilities all along Ukraine’s borders, as well as in Belarus – which would be the shortest invasion route to Kiev.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Friday: “We are in the window when an invasion could begin at any time should Vladimir Putin decide to order it.” According to reports of a call with European leaders, President Joe Biden now believes Putin has decided to go ahead with an invasion of Ukraine, and allegedly named specific dates when Washington believed it might happen. In Melbourne, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “We’re in a window when an invasion could begin at any time and, to be clear, that includes during the Olympics.”

I need to stress at the outset, I do not endorse Moscow’s belligerent attitude and the threat being posed to the very peace of Europe. But we need to begin by recalling what happened to the Soviet Union as it collapsed in 1991 and how this calamity continues to dominate thinking in the Kremlin. Putin recalls the Soviet collapse as a time when gross injustice was done to the Russian people: “It was only when the Crimea ended up as part of a different country that Russia realised that it had not simply been robbed but plundered.”

The former director of the CIA and US secretary of defence, Robert Gates, has recently stated that almost everything Putin does at home and abroad these days is rooted in the collapse of the Soviet Union, which for him marked the collapse of the four-century-old Russian empire and Russia’s position as a great power. Gates remarks that Putin’s current actions, “however deplorable, are understandable”. Since becoming President in 1999, Putin’s objectives have been to return Russia to its historical role as a major power and its historical policy of creating a buffer of subservient states on Russia’s periphery.

Putin strongly believes Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s fumbling policies of reform generated total chaos that legitimised runaway separatism in the Baltics and, ultimately, in the core Slavic territories of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

In the summer of 1991, as the Soviet economy was collapsing under spiralling inflation, the expectation among the Soviet elites of a new Marshall Plan courtesy of the US became almost universal. But many in Washington wanted to break up the Soviet Union for security reasons. The US secretary of the Treasury, Nicholas Brady, advised president George HW Bush that America’s strategic priority was to see the Soviets become “a third-rate power”.

Regarding the prospect of the incorporation of a democratising Russia into a larger Europe and NATO, president Boris Yeltsin wanted Russia to join NATO, but the new Clinton administration chose to offer Russia only “a partnership” because the general American view was that Russia was simply too big and would dominate NATO. Yeltsin warned that NATO’s enlargement could lead to a new division in Europe.

US secretary of state James Baker reassured Gorbachev in 1990 that NATO would “not shift one inch eastward from its present position” once it had safely taken in a reunited Germany. But those words were never recorded in any mutually agreed document.

Neither was the issue of Crimea raised when the leaders of the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Belarus met in secret near Minsk on December 7, 1991. It was there that they agreed to dissolve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Before Yeltsin’s departure from Moscow, adviser Galina Starovoitova suggested he offer the Ukrainian leadership an option of negotiated changes to the borders of Ukraine after a moratorium of three to five years. Yeltsin, however, did not raise this issue in the Minsk negotiations. The attitude of his state secretary, Gennady Burbulis, was that all this could be resolved by skilful diplomacy. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Turning now to the NATO issue, former UK ambassador to Moscow from 1988 to 1992 Rodric Braithwaite’s view is that under relentless US pressure NATO’s borders have advanced until they are “within spitting distance of Russia and Ukraine”. That is how it is seen in the Kremlin, with – for example – Estonia’s eastern border being only 125km from St Petersburg. Even so, it is ridiculous to suggest that NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland present any realistic military threat to such a powerful country as today’s Russia.

Putin, of course, takes an entirely different view. He believes the Americans conspired to break up his country and encourage the creation of a separate country called Ukraine. Putin regards Ukraine as a critical security risk for Moscow – a dagger pointed at the Slavic heart of Russia. For him, Russian success is defined as either a change of government in Kiev – with the successor regime bending the knee to Moscow – or Russian conquest of the country.

Putin now proclaims Ukraine’s membership of NATO is a “red-line” issue for Moscow and that he wants written guarantees from the US that Ukraine NATO membership will never be allowed. He asserts that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people – a single whole”. He argues modern Ukraine “is entirely the product of the Soviet era and we remember well that it was shaped – for a significant part – on the lands of historical Russia”. He goes on to argue that the US and EU countries systematically pushed Ukraine into a dangerous geopolitical game “aimed at turning Ukraine into a barrier between Europe and Russia, a springboard against Russia”.

He ominously concludes: “And we will never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia. And to those who will undertake such an attempt, I would like to say this way they will destroy their own country.”

So, in effect, there is Putin’s declaration of war if the US and NATO do not forever ban Ukraine from NATO membership. Rightly, in my view, Washington and Brussels will never accept this. And – therefore – some form of military confrontation now seems almost inevitable.

Paul Dibb is emeritus professor of strategic studies at the ANU and is a former deputy secretary of Defence.

This article was first published by the Australian.

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