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The invasion of Ukraine is not grounded in Russian history or national character; it is an expression of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly isolated and paranoid world view.  By Mark Edele.

Inside Vladimir Putin’s paranoia

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
Credit: Alexey Nikolsky / Sputnik / AFP

Ask a historian a simple question and the likely answer is, “It’s complicated.” Not so in this case: the war in Ukraine was caused by Vladimir Putin. Not by North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion, not by Ukrainian fascism, not by Russian history or the Russian national character. By Vladimir Putin.

This is not a war of the Russian people against the Ukrainian nation. Unlike the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, this war is not popular in Russia. Initially, there was some rallying around the flag. The president’s approval ratings rose as he ratcheted up the confrontation, but the outbreak of war came as a shock to many. As of December last year, reputable opinion polls in Russia showed that more than half of the population considered war unlikely or impossible. A similar portion believed Russia and Ukraine should both be independent countries. More than 80 per cent held positive views of Ukrainians.

Despite heavy-handed repression and mass arrests, there have been sizeable anti-war demonstrations in Russia, as well as open letters and petitions in reaction to the invasion. There is not a lot of war enthusiasm on Russian social media, but much apathy, some prominent anti-war statements, and many worried reactions to the quickly unfolding economic crisis.

Family members of soldiers taken captive by the Ukrainian armed forces have reacted with disbelief and often anger to the news their sons had been fighting in this war, a term that has been banned from use by Russian media, in favour of “special military operation”. An increasing number of reports note Russian soldiers surrendering, draining their vehicles of diesel, or otherwise sabotaging the war effort when they learn that their destination is the battle of Kyiv. They do not want to die in a war they do not seem to understand. Morale in many units of Putin’s army is low.

One of the invasion’s stated goals is to “de-Nazify Ukraine”. This claim is ludicrous. There are of course fascists in Ukraine – as there are in Australia, or indeed in Russia – but their influence on the political process is marginal. The real Ukraine that Putin is fighting is a democracy. It is led by a Russian-speaking Ukrainian Jew. His grandfather served in the Red Army in World War II while other family members were murdered in the Holocaust. President Volodymyr Zelensky won office in 2019 in free and fair elections, with 73 per cent of the vote. He campaigned on anti-corruption and on reviving dialogue with Russia to end the conflict with its powerful neighbour. Now, he is at the top of the Russian forces’ hit list.

This war is not an understandable reaction to aggressive eastward expansion of NATO or the European Union. On the contrary, NATO and Europe were careful not to provoke Russia – too careful in retrospect. They should have provided Ukraine with the means to defend itself much earlier instead of assuming Russian posturing was just that. NATO expansion was driven by the desires of eastern European countries to be protected from a neighbour that historically had threatened their independence. Ukraine was not admitted. Now it is under attack.

Whatever contribution NATO expansion made to Putin’s sense of insecurity and resentment, the current crisis was not created by any change in NATO’s line: that the alliance was open to new members, but that Ukraine did not currently fulfil the criteria. Instead, it was Putin who escalated. Perceiving NATO and the EU as weak and disunited, he concentrated the bulk of his significant fighting force at Ukraine’s borders. Only then, and far too late, did Western countries deliver lethal weaponry necessary for Ukraine’s defence. Now, with a full war on hand, even Germany, historically reluctant to antagonise Russia or send equipment to conflict zones, has decided to deliver lethal weapons. This radical turn of the German position is a result of Putin’s aggression, not its cause.

This war was not even caused by the Russian political elite, the kleptocrats who help Putin rule his country and rob its people. There was enough pushback against Putin’s high-risk endeavour that he felt compelled to publicly humiliate his closest collaborators on Russia’s Security Council, the most powerful institution in the land. In a televised session, a stern Putin made sure that all his courtiers fell in line, one by one.

Why, then, did Putin start the largest European war since 1945?

One answer is Putin’s record: he is used to waging war; he has got away with it again and again and often profited from it. Under his leadership, the Russian Federation was at war nearly constantly: from 1999-2009 in Chechnya, in 2008 in Georgia, from 2014 in Ukraine, and from 2015 in Syria, to name just the most prominent theatres. There were repeated reports of human rights violations and war crimes in these engagements, but no real consequences.

And there was a clear escalation of the targets and the scope of Putin’s wars: from warfare on Russian territory threatened by separatists (Chechnya), to waging war against a former Soviet republic to stabilise a pro-Russian separatist regime (Georgia), a scenario with many parallels to what would take place in the Donbas in Ukraine’s east from 2014. Ukraine saw a further step: the illegal annexation to Russia of foreign territories (Crimea).

As with Chechnya and Georgia, there was international outrage over Putin’s action in 2014 but no real consequences. The sanctions imposed were relatively mild. They hurt the Russian economy, and with it everyday Russians, but did little to impose pain on Putin and his kleptocrats.

Public approval at home, meanwhile, fuelled Putin’s addiction to fighting wars. Leading a country at war dovetailed with the image of the macho man, shirtless on a horse, which his propaganda apparatus projected and he clearly enjoyed. His questionable performance in Chechnya, where he levelled the capital Grozny in what many now fear is a precedent for Kyiv, helped his transformation from unknown sidekick of the decrepit then president Boris Yeltsin to election victory with 53 per cent of the first-round vote. After years of chaos brought on by the breakdown of the Soviet Union, many Russians appreciated a strong hand, all the more as his did not tremble from drink, a strong contrast to his predecessor. Crimea, too, led to a temporary lifting in his approval ratings, statistics about which he clearly cares.

Recently, ratings have been down. Putin has mangled the response to Covid-19. The economy was in trouble because of the sanctions imposed in response to Crimea and low prices for a major export commodity, oil. This was part of a longer trend: his rising approval ratings early in his presidency had been linked to economic growth, which had lifted everyday Russians’ standard of living after the catastrophe of the Soviet breakdown, although not as much as it did the wealth of the super-rich around Putin. This economic miracle was driven by petro-dollars. Recent lower oil prices meant slower growth, which translated into poorer approval ratings. As his popularity started to decline, the state became more repressive and foreign adventures helped stabilise the slide.

Given his track record, it is not surprising that Putin might have felt inclined to wage a little war in order to boost his approval ratings. More difficult to explain is this war’s scale: a much smaller incursion would have done the trick, such as annexing the rebel territories Putin already controlled de facto. So why has he launched a war on this scale?

To answer this question, we need to acquaint ourselves with the world according to Putin. It’s a strange world, as Angela Merkel observed in 2015. The former German chancellor, who knows her Russian interlocutor well, noted that she was not sure he was “in touch with reality”.

I have studied this world for years. I do so with an increasingly morbid fascination. Putin is obsessed with history and with his place in it. He is very intelligent and well read, but his conclusions are one-sided and driven by the conspiratorial thinking typical of a former KGB agent. His musings have all the hallmarks of the amateur historian learning the proverbial “lessons of history”. And the lessons learnt show the same radicalisation as his engagement in wars abroad or his ratcheting up of repression and control at home. His interpretations of Russian history have become increasingly extreme, culminating in the bizarre June 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. This essay holds the ideological underpinning of the current war.

Putin sees himself as the current historical embodiment of the Russian state. Far from wanting to rebuild the Soviet Union, the object of his passion is the Russian empire. The Bolsheviks are anathema: they executed the tsar, weakened the state, destroyed the empire, and gave Ukrainians a national homeland, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, precursor of the post-1991 nation state of Ukraine. Only once the Bolsheviks become Stalinists, who rebuilt the state, the army, the empire, and won World War II, do they become part of a positive history of Putin’s present.

Putin truly believes we are out to get him. The “we” is the non-Russian, democratic world and the “him” is Russia itself. He sees his country as encircled by nefarious forces, a world view inherited from his Soviet past. After moving NATO closer to his borders, the CIA, he thinks, has taken over Ukraine in a coup to make it into “anti-Russia” tasked with weakening his great country by demonstrating that east Slavs are neither historically nor culturally predisposed to authoritarian rule.

The same dark forces that support the notion of a Ukrainian nation – a Bolshevik invention and a fascist construct, in Putin’s view – also promote other dangerous tendencies, including queer rights, human rights, liberalism, democracy, the memory of Stalinist repression, et cetera, et cetera. All of these are weapons to weaken the Russian state and emasculate the Russian people, he believes. They pose an existential threat and hence need to be fought with all means possible.

The slide into extremism coincided with the building of an ever more authoritarian state and, eventually, with increased self-isolation. Putin never felt he could trust the Russian people, no matter how high his approval ratings. This explains the increasing political repression, the control of the media, and the “management” of elections. Covid-19 added fear for his physical safety, which led to self-isolation and massively decreased human contact. He no longer communicates with academics (he used to enjoy conferences with historians, whom he addressed as “colleagues”) or the highly competent civil servants in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (who could tell him a thing or two about the world outside). The recent dressing-down of his underlings in the Security Council indicates he will not tolerate frank advice even from his closest entourage. The chance of fearless advice is even less. The result is an echo chamber that reinforces his increasingly paranoid world view.

What, then, are his goals for Ukraine? Let us see the problem through Putin’s eyes. First, for Putin, Ukraine is an unreal construct, a chimera, which hides the underlying essential unity of all “Russians”. Second, Ukraine is a tool of the West to undermine his great nation: an “anti-Russia”. Third, the Ukrainian government is a fascist junta engaged in “genocide” against Russians. All of this, of course, is nonsense, but it’s how Putin sees the problem.

Against this background, what might the two stated goals of the “special military operation” mean in practice: to “de-Nazify” Ukraine and “de-militarise” it? The latter part is easier: what Putin is after is the destruction of Ukraine’s military potential, its army, its navy, its military infrastructure, its weapons industry. Putin’s delusional expectation was that Ukraine’s armed forces would collapse under the initial blows of the mighty Russian army, its politicians would run, and its government surrender. Given this did not happen, “de-militarisation” will require a prolonged and brutal campaign of conquest.

“De-Nazification” is more ambitious. In Putin’s eyes, Ukraine is not a nation. Its government is a fascist dictatorship, so the phrase can mean only the liquidation of the current government, either by arrest or execution. Ukraine can then become either a vassal state ruled by proxy or even be annexed to Russia in what he would call a “liberation”.

Making judgements about this war, then, is simple. On the one side is Vladimir Putin, a leader whose views have become increasingly extreme, who has distanced himself from both his people and his power elite, who is fighting a real war against imaginary Ukrainian fascists. He does not represent the interests of his people, his elite, his country, and he was not forced into this war by anybody. On the other side is Ukraine and its complex population – Ukrainians, Jews, Russians, Tatars and others. They fight for their country, for democracy, and for the life and liberty of their loved ones. They deserve our unconditional support.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2022 as "Inside Vladimir Putin’s paranoia".

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Mark Edele is Hansen professor in history and deputy dean in the faculty of arts at the University of Melbourne.

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