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Putin’s War in Ukraine, For Russia’s Imperial Past

Putin Russia Ukraine
Credit: Presidential Executive Office of Russia

Putin’s defense for his war on Ukraine is repeating Russia’s trope that Ukraine is not a real nation, and that Ukrainians are not a real people.  But it is his punitive passion to resurrect Russia’s past from the graveyard of empires that drives his brutality.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me –
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller
Lutheran Pastor

Opinion by Eve Geroulis

I am a product of unintended consequences.  A daughter of the Balkans, my history is shadowed by the violence of displacement that Cold War communism spread across Eastern Europe. I was raised on stories of how my tribe’s political borders were capriciously redrawn by men with upturned mustaches.  Vladimir Putin also dreams of redrawing borders, and perhaps he can borrow Donald Trump’s black Sharpie to indulge his cartographic passions.

The West may have forced the East to capitulate to new political borders in 1945. They won’t this time.

Putin’s defense for his unprovoked attack on Ukraine is repeating the Kremlin trope that Ukraine is not a real nation, and that Ukrainians are not a real people.  But it is his punitive passion to resurrect Russia’s past from the graveyard of empires that drives his brutality.

As Anne Applebaum describes in her most recent piece in The Atlantic, Moscow has for centuries seen Ukraine as a threat to Russian interests.  Putin will save Ukraine from drug-addicted Nazi leadership with his “peacekeepers.”  It is a shockingly naïve precursor for war in the digital age, and frankly pathetic considering how universally celebrated Putin is for his acumen as a former K.G.B. director.

Not so much it appears.

Russia underestimated Ukraine’s courage

As the entire world watches in horror, it is becoming ever clearer that Putin’s strategy underestimated three things.

First, the Ukrainian people’s courage.  Overnight, Volodymyr Zelensky has transformed into the president Ukraine didn’t know it needed, managing to Forrest Gump his way into Leader of the Free World.  His “I need ammunition, not a ride” response to the Biden Administration’s offer to evacuate him out of Kyiv will go down as the finest example of the Spirit of Dunkirk.

The Wagner Group – an army-for-hire allegedly run by oligarch and Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin – has flown their mercenaries into Ukraine offering huge sums to assassinate Zelensky and 23 government officials.

Not only has Zelensky masterfully avoided that fate but has brilliantly managed social media in his information war against the Kremlin. While Putin has lost the propaganda war and looks increasingly unhinged with his rambling speeches at impossibly long tables shot through his Riefenstahl lens.

Second, Putin overestimated Western alliance fissures and fractures, and underestimated the loyalty of his oligarchs.  The trans-Atlantic alliance has shown amazing cohesiveness in cementing shift, unilateral sanctions that will have a crushing impact on Putin, his posse of oligarchs, and the Russian economy writ large.

Ironic, coming from a man obsessed by Western decadence, albeit in the imperial style captured in Alexei Navalny’s film “Putin’s Palace” which was the most popular video on Russian YouTube in 2021. You know things are super bad when Switzerland – the most corrupt banking system in the world – breaks with its anachronistic neutrality to freeze Putin’s assets and adopt wholesale EU sanctions.  There is now talk of seizing those assets as well, along with a Russian gas embargo.  Oligarchs too are dropping Putin like last season’s Gucci loafers, notwithstanding the Italian luxury good sector request to be exempt from trade sanctions, and Belgium’s hope to shield its blood diamond industry.

Lastly, Putin can’t understand the beating heart of the Ukrainian response. Ukrainians have spent the past three decades trying to rise above post-Soviet kleptocracy. Ukrainians are civic nationalists.  Anyone that supports Ukraine is a patriot, regardless of religion, race, or sexual orientation.

Calling President Zelensky a Nazi terrorist  – a Ukrainian Jew, whose grandfather fought in the WWII Soviet army – showcases Putin’s complete inability to grasp the passions of the people he is attempting to conquer.  Because in Putin’s Russia, ethnic nationalism is the only accepted form of patriotism. This is a war started by one man’s revanchism, unleashed upon a nation long at the crosshairs of Russian history. This is about payback. Putin’s War against the West by proxy, for the collapse of the U.S.S.R., an event he considers the greatest geopolitical humiliation of the 20th century.

When was Russia great?

Which begs the question: when was Russia great?  Imperial Russia ruled from 1721-1917 over a massive country of peasants and serfs.  Russian nobles dined on caviar and spoke French in court while 80% of their fellow countrymen barely survived on potatoes and beets, illiteracy, and the frankincense and mysticism of the Orthodox Church.

The Romanov Dynasty ended with the abdication of Nicholas II and the brutal murder of his family at the hands of the Bolsheviks. Lenin’s dystopian ambition of overthrowing the capitalist state would have embarrassed even George Orwell.

His worker state devolved into Stalin’s nightmare of gulags. Ukrainians might be forgiven for looking West after the horrors of Stalin’s manufactured famine – the 1932-33 Holodomor – a combination of the Ukrainian words for “starvation” and “to inflict death” that claimed the lives of 4 million people (13% of the population) as punishment for Ukrainian refusal to replace their small farm economy with Stalin’s state-run collectives.

So the entire world must now pay the price for one man’s psychodrama.

President Putin commands a massive military machine but he can no longer control his impulses. History is filled with stories of such men, whose hubris and pathologies would be their undoing. The world should be terrified by the Russia he has designed  – a “gas station with nukes” as some like to call it.

Russia’s economy was already in steep decline before Western sanctions and rife with corruption. The ruble has crashed, the Moscow Exchange closed trading on Monday, and besides gas, oil, military hardware, and some mineral mining, can you name me one great Russian brand that can sustain the Russian economy? Paul Krugman’s expertise on Russian money laundering schemes is a worthy read.

The psychosis of Putin

One of the most illustrative stories about the psychosis of Putin took place in 1989.  The then 37-year-old K.G.B. lieutenant stationed in the East German city of Dresden watched as an angry mob stormed K.G.B. headquarters weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, signaling the end of Soviet control in Europe.  When Putin called Moscow for backup, “Moscow is silent,” was the response on the line.  He went outside and lied to the protesters telling them heavily armed men waiting inside would fire on anyone who tried to enter.  But Putin was alone.  The bluff worked.  The crowds dissipated, and the K.G.B. operator would live another day.  But fear of the mob’s power would haunt him forever.

The Potemkin bluff may not work this time.  Putin’s Achilles Heel is his inability to look forward. He’s gambled with the entire world order that he has now put at stake. According to America’s foremost Russia expert, Fiona Hill, this is Putin versus The World. She believes that, “We are already in the middle of a third World War, whether we’ve fully grasped it or not.  Ukraine has become the front line in a struggle…for maintaining a rules-based system in which the things that countries want are not taken by force,” Hill said in a just published Politico interview. If Fiona Hill is to be believed (and I would), “Every time you think, ‘No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, yes, he would.”

Isolated, angry, and megalomaniacal, Putin’s war is a zero-sum game. He was warned not to but when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he began a civil war that signaled the end of the Roman Republic.  As Huval Noah Harrari has written, “By spilling more and more Ukrainian blood, Putin is making sure his dream will never be realized.  It won’t be Mikhail Gorbachev’s name written on the death certificate of the Russian empire: it will be Putin’s.”

Putin is threatened by Ukraine’s independent spirit and terrified that if they can gain European membership, the mob at Dresden may actually penetrate the Kremlin’s walls. As Martin Niemöller reminds us, if the world doesn’t fight Putin’s existential threat by every means possible, there may be nothing left to fight for.

Eve Geroulis is a Senior Lecturer at the Loyola University Chicago School of Business. She has also taught graduate courses at the Edhec School of Business in France, The American College of Greece in Athens and Loyola University’s Rome Campus.

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