Putin's Preparing Better Than Us for a Long War

Author: Editors Desk, Marc Champion, Columnist Source: Bloomberg
May 14, 2024 at 06:09
Russia's President Vladimir Putin.Photographer: MAXIM SHEMETOV/AFP
Russia's President Vladimir Putin.Photographer: MAXIM SHEMETOV/AFP

Vladimir Putin, an avid student of Russian history, knows well the twin threats that undid some of his predecessors in the Kremlin, from Tsar Nicholas II to Mikhail Gorbachev: One is to start and lose a war, the other to tank the economy. His decision to replace an incompetent defense minister with an efficient economist aims to insure against both, which may be reassuring for Putin and his circle, but nobody else.

The appointment of Andrey Belousov represents a particularly dangerous combination because his task will be to put Russia’s war machine on a more sustainable footing, at a time when the country continues to be run by a man driven by grandiose visions. This demands a rethink from Ukraine and other former subjects of Moscow, but also in the West.

If that sounds alarmist, pay attention to what Putin has told Russians since his landslide re-election in March. Never mind that the vote was preordained and had nothing to do with democracy. He won 88% and emerged with restored authority and confidence, putting behind him the early disasters of his invasion of Ukraine and even a mutiny by his former chef-turned militia chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Addressing the May 9 Victory Day parade on Red Square, Putin accused the West of colonialist policies that support today’s “Nazis” and provoke inter-ethnic and sectarian conflict around the globe. Russia’s strategic (nuclear) forces, he warned, would allow nobody to threaten the Motherland. He also sought to link today’s struggle against NATO-backed Ukraine with that of World War II, in which he said Russia had been left to fight Hitler alone for three years, while Europe supported the German Wehrmacht.

It's tempting to dismiss this kind of a-historical gaslighting, but that’s a mistake for three reasons. First, because too many Russians will believe it. Second, because so much of the world will be inclined to parrot it, including those in the West like Donald Trump who see Putin as an ally in their fight against liberalism. And finally, because the threat posed by Putin’s Russia is real, not due to any actual intent he has to push the nuclear button or invade Poland, but because his understanding of the Motherland is so expansive that “protecting” its interests must inevitably meet with resistance.

So let’s address Putin’s claims, where as so often there is just enough truth to cloud the enormity of the falsehood. On neo-Nazis, yes, Ukraine has some. Yet Russia has a dramatically larger ultra-right representation in its parliament than does Ukraine, which is doing nothing more Nazi-like than defend itself from aggression, just as the Soviet Union did in 1941.

As to the Western efforts to weaken and harm Russia, just keep in mind it was Moscow that invaded a sovereign neighbor without provocation, and then announced the annexation of roughly a quarter of that neighbor’s territory, despite having not only formally recognized their common border in international treaties, but also guaranteed them against attack in 1994. There is only one colonial power here that’s attempting to subdue a former subject in breach of international law, and that’s Russia.

As for World War II, history matters precisely because Soviet suffering was so great. The consequence of persuading Russians that such horror was inflicted with the support of then Western allies is that today’s lies also become an easier sell. The reality is that th Soviet Union sat out the first two years of World War II, having made a non-aggression pact with Germany and a deal to partition Poland. Once Hitler reneged and invaded, he had already occupied most of continental Europe. But unoccupied Europe didn’t support operation Barbarossa, and without US military and financial aid – which Putin did eventually acknowledge in his speech – it’s not clear that Moscow could have prevailed.

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