Putin’s Asymmetric Blind Spot


OPINION — Perhaps it is just a reckless Khrushchevesque opening gambit, but Russia’s recent security demands suggest that Vladimir Putin’s condition for avoiding military action against Ukraine is Western acquiescence in converting Ukraine into a Russian vassal state. Given he also demands NATO roll back deployments of personnel and equipment to its 1997 positions, before Poland or the Baltic republics joined the alliance, it is not just Ukraine he wants to see neutered. 

Russian officials never hesitate to raise their country’s genuinely horrific suffering at the hands of the Nazis during World War II when justifying their need for a cordon sanitaire at their borders, but their historical self-righteousness is highly selective. What they fail to mention, but what Russia’s neighbors will never forget, is that in 1932-33, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin precipitated a politically driven famine, the “Holodomor,” which killed nearly 5 million Ukrainians. This was followed by the 1937-38 Anti-Kulak campaign (NKVD Order 00844), resulting in the execution of another 400,000 people. The concurrent anti-Polish campaign (NKVD Order 00485) resulted in the execution of 100,000 ethnic Poles, and the Anti-Latvian campaign (NKVD Order 49990) killed more than 16,000 Latvians. Over a 15-month period, these hundreds of thousands of non-Russians were executed for the alleged crime of being “anti-Soviet.” Most were dispatched by a gunshot to the back of the neck and buried in unmarked mass graves. Many thousands more were imprisoned or deported to Siberia or Central Asia. 

To this unimaginable slaughter, add the 1939 Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland and the execution of 22,000 captured Polish officers, the 1940 Soviet occupation and annexation of the Baltic states, and the 45 years of imposed communist rule in Central Europe after World War II and crushing of multiple uprisings against it. Can it be surprising that these post-Soviet states, once freed, would gravitate toward a defensive alliance for collective security?  Perhaps their worries would have been alleviated had Russia cleanly broken with its Soviet past after 1991, but after halting steps under Boris Yeltsin, Putin turned back the clock on the expansion of civil liberties and candor about the Soviet past, which increasingly glorifies Stalin’s role.

Putin’s focus on NATO is disingenuous. Remember in 2013, Russia pressured then-President Viktor Yanukovych to terminate Ukraine’s steps toward an association agreement with the EU, seeking an economic not a military alliance. This prompted the “Maidan” uprising which ousted Yanukovych, quickly followed by Russia’s use of military force in the Donbas and outright annexation of Crimea. Only after the killing of Ukrainians and occupation of their territory by Russia did joining NATO become a serious Ukrainian national objective. Putin can blame himself for this.

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Putin’s real fear, however, is not NATO. He knows its decisions are made by consensus, i.e., unanimously by all member states, thus the prospect of offensive military action by NATO against Russian aggression is negligible. His actual fear is that Ukraine will succeed in developing into a Europe-oriented democracy where state power is limited by a free press, independent judiciary, and the rule of law.  Success in this endeavor by Ukraine, so close to Russia culturally and linguistically, would serve as an intolerable contrast to Putin’s authoritarian, state-centric vision for Russia’s future, and he must therefore prevent it.

The West understands it cannot afford another Munich moment by allowing fear of armed conflict to lead to passivity while an independent country seeking to join the European family is broken by an authoritarian hegemon intent on blocking its way. The Western democracies, and Central Europeans in particular, vividly remember the harsh lessons of the last century that Russia minimizes and will see Putin’s gambit for what it is. The U.S. and Europe will not negotiate behind Ukraine’s back to sell out its independence, and Putin will then likely move to achieve his objectives by military force. 

Western leaders have already ruled out direct military intervention if Russia invades. Ukrainians will do the fighting and dying. The West will respond asymmetrically, but most of the asymmetric options in their playbook are predictable and have been telegraphed over the years by politicians and pundits, so they have already been factored into Russia’s plans. The most obvious are economic sanctions, an area of chronic asymmetric weakness for Russia, whose economic output is about the same as the state of New York. The West has gone to the sanctions well many times over the years, choosing this over the so-called ‘nuclear-level’ responses that include blocking the Nordstream-2 gas pipeline or evicting Russia from the SWIFT financial transactions system. These would indeed bite hard, but a Russian invasion of Ukraine would justify their use.

Other, harder government-led asymmetric options would include providing the Ukrainians with more capable military technology and a deeper sharing of intelligence information and collection capabilities. Yet these too are predictable, and the Russians likely assess they can overcome them. If this was purely a tabletop exercise, the Russian logic in theory, is unassailable.  However, real-life conflicts unleash powerful human factors that inject far greater uncertainty. Russians fight like lions to defend their motherland but selling an invasion of Ukraine to Russian soldiers and the Russian public as “liberation” will be harder when they find themselves fighting Ukrainians and not NATO. Putin’s casus belli is weak.  It may resonate with the Russian national security elite, but the narod are no fools and are tired of being lied to.  They will see that in this case, it is the Ukrainians defending their land, homes, and independence who are the lions.

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The most powerful asymmetric response to a Russian military invasion of Ukraine, however, will not be launched by any government, it will be the visceral reaction of civil society to injustice given voice through a vibrant free press and media-savvy population. The Russian regime’s attempts to control Russians’ access to information exposes Putin’s greatest fear, the fear of all authoritarians, his own people.  He is right to worry; his war talk is wearing thin at home. The greatest threat to his plans, especially if they involve war, is that he will not be able to prevent people talking over his head to communicate directly with the Russian population, and he will pull out all the stops to prevent that. 

Western governments will in turn, do their best to penetrate Russia’s information blockade in the event of a conflict, but the most successful efforts will undoubtedly arise spontaneously from the crowd-sourced ingenuity of independent actors impassioned by displays of brutality who will find inventive ways to link up with like-minded Russians to discover the truth. These will not be governments, but the same sorts of people and organizations who investigated the MH-17 shootdown, the poisonings of Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny, and the Panama Papers. Putin will have difficulty defending against this dynamic because he is inherently unable to understand it. To him, civil society is something that is guided by the state, not the other way around. Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution” and 2014 “Maidan” uprising were in his mind not spontaneous popular events provoked by egregious political blunders, but “operations” or “projects” carried out by foreign special services that were deliberately designed to undermine Russia. He believes this because that is what he does. In that sense, this would be the purest form of asymmetrical response, one that Vladimir Putin is incapable of seeing.

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