In the U.S. debate over the Ukraine crisis, with its inward focus on which U.S. administration has been the most naive about Vladimir Putin’s intentions, it’s easy to lose sight of the recent history that led him to judge he could get away with seizing the Crimean peninsula.
Former President George W. Bush famously described looking into Putin’s soul, but he failed to block Putin’s dispatch of troops to Georgia, while Republicans now blame President Barack Obama’s attempt to “reset” tense relations with Russia for producing flawed policies. The Bill Clinton administration signed a nuclear disarmament agreement promising to guarantee Ukraine’s borders _ Russia and Great Britain were also signatories _ but no one apparently contemplated that one of the signatories would be the one to challenge Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came under harsh criticism for comparing the Russian leader’s actions in Crimea to Hitler’s takeover of the Sudetenland in 1938 and march into Poland in 1939. But Putin’s claim that he was rescuing ethnic Russians from chaos in Ukraine is straight out of the pre-World War II playbook and may come closest to Marcel Van Herpen’s contention that the driving force behind Putin’s intervention in Ukraine are Russian politics and Russian history, not U.S. policy.
A scholar who directs an East-West think tank in Maastricht, Netherlands, Van Herpen asserts in a timely new book, “Putin’s Wars,” that the Russian leader deliberately launched two wars after coming to power in 1999, first in Chechnya and then in Georgia, and that his relative success in both led directly to his current drive to dismember Ukraine.
Putin’s supreme geopolitical aim is to restore the Russian empire that was lost with the collapse of communism a quarter-century ago. But the former Russian intelligence chief also has a personal political agenda – nine more years in power beyond the 15 years he’s already dominated Russia, Van Herpen says.
The annexation of Crimea, which has driven up Putin’s domestic approval ratings, serves to distract attention from the country’s failure to turn into a modern state. Its economy depends on the export of oil and gas, democratic development has gone into reverse, and the absence of rule of law stymies economic development and growth.
“In Russian history, there has always existed a negative relationship between empire building and territorial expansion on the one hand and internal democratization on the other,” Van Herpen writes.
Unlike Western Europe, which launched colonial empires after the formation of nation-states, Russian expansionism has gone hand in hand with the establishment of the Russian state, he says. From the middle of the 16th century, Russia conquered territory the size of the modern Netherlands every year for 150 years running. Catherine the Great, who was emperor from 1762 to 1796, famously stated: “I have no way to defend my borders but to extend them.”
The Russian empire grew most dramatically after the defeat of Germany in 1945, when Communist Party boss Josef Stalin, a Georgian, unified the peoples of Eastern Europe under Russian control.
Real reforms, Van Herpen contends, have come only on the heels of foreign policy setbacks – in 1855, as Russia was losing an earlier Crimean war; in 1905, after Japan defeated Russia; and in 1989, with the defeat in Afghanistan that led to the collapse of communist rule.
The collapse of the Soviet Union “offered the first real chance in modern Russian history to break the infernal cycle of imperialist expansion and colonial subjugation of neighboring peoples,” he writes. “Unfortunately . . . after a short period of shock, the loss of empire did not result in a gradual acceptance, but in a swelling wave of chauvinism and nationalism. It resulted in nostalgia for lost greatness mixed with revanchism and hatred of the ‘enemies’ who brought the Soviet Union down.”
Putin is the best known of Russia’s post-communist leaders to press for a restoration of empire, but two men viewed in the West as modernizers _ Boris Yeltsin, who named Putin his successor, and Dmitriy Medvedev, whose readiness to alternate top positions has facilitated Putin’s grip on power _ have played an important support role, Van Herpen says.
For example, Yeltsin concluded a “founding act” with NATO in 1997, which mapped out a future cooperative relationship with the Western alliance. That same year, Yeltsin concluded a treaty with neighboring Belarus, with the aim of creating a union between the two post-Soviet states. Putin followed up by proposing in 2003 that Russia merge with Belarus, an offer that Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko flatly rejected. That same year, he also proposed the “federalization” of Moldova, a step that would give new power to a breakaway Russian-dominated republic, Trans-Dniester.
War was critical to empire building. Responding to separatists who wanted an independent status for Chechnya, Yeltsin launched the first war there in 1994 but lost it by 1996. Putin deliberately restarted the conflict in 1999, Van Herpen says.
Drawing on a wide variety of Russian sources, Van Herpen documents how Russia’s FSB intelligence agency, under Putin’s direction, staged a series of explosions directed against civilian targets in Moscow and other cities. He notes that no Chechen has ever been put on trial for the bombings of apartment buildings, and the parliamentary commission set up to investigate the attacks had to stop its work because of a lack of cooperation from the Russian government.
“Russia is defending itself. We have been attacked,” Putin said in September 1999, before starting the second assault against the Chechens. It was a war “without limits,” lasting 10 years. Through carpet-bombing, the use of fuel and cluster bombs and ruthless sweep operations, some 150,000 to 200,000 Chechens were killed, more than 15 percent of the population, Van Herpen estimates.
He says Putin began preparations for his second war, in Georgia, in 2002 by ordering the illegal distribution of Russian passports to residents of two Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. By 2006, there was a “fake diaspora,” Van Herpen writes, in which 80 percent of the Abkhazia population were dual citizens.
A full year before the actual conflict, Putin unilaterally renounced the international treaty on conventional arms in Europe, which would have limited the deployment of Russian heavy military equipment in the region. Four months before the first shots were fired, Russia gave de facto recognition to local authorities seeking to break away from Georgian rule. He then deployed Russian “peacemaker” troops in South Ossetia, railway soldiers in Abkhazia, and Cossack troops, who van Herpen says function as Putin’s Pretorian Guard, to prepare the way for the five-day war in August 2008.
In a preview of the takeover of Crimea, Putin ordered a military exercise, after which troops did not return to their bases. In Georgia as later in Ukraine, the government-controlled Russian media was full of phony news accounts of dangers to Russian citizens. In South Ossetia, the Russians evacuated 4,000 civilians days before the conflict began. Medvedev provided the justification for the conflict, claiming that Georgian forces had killed at least 2,000 civilians in Tskhinvali in what he called a genocide. But the number killed turned out to be 162, Van Herpen writes.
Sergey Lavrov, then as now the Russian foreign minister, explained the underlying reason for the land grab in a conversation with Condoleezza Rice, then the U.S. secretary of state. “This is just between us. Misha Saakashvili has to go,” Lavrov said of the Georgian leader, Rice wrote in her memoir.
Although Russia portrayed its intervention at the time as an attempt to rescue its “peacekeepers” and “prevent genocide,” and the European Union criticized Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for firing the first shots, Russia’s assault was pre-planned and pre-approved, Van Herpin writes, saying that Putin confirmed that contingency plans were prepared at the end of 2006 and that he approved them in 2007.
The war in Georgia was a sneak preview for Russia actions in Ukraine in other ways. Two days into the fighting, Medvedev signed a law permitting the use of Russian troops in foreign countries “to protect citizens of the Russian federation.” Later that month, Medvedev stated that protecting Russians “wherever they are” was a principle of Russian foreign policy.
Ukraine for more than a decade has been the subject of a vigorous tug-of-war between Russia and the European Union.
Putin has repeatedly spoken of Ukrainians as a “brother” people, implying that they should not be separated from Russia. To head off EU membership, he has used political and economic pressures such as below-market prices for Russian-supplied oil and gas and proffered invitations to join Russian-dominated economic integration schemes, the latest of which is a “Eurasian Union.”
But his trump card has always been the dismemberment of Ukraine, whose constituent parts include territory Stalin took from Poland and Romania. At the NATO summit at Bucharest, Romania, in April 2008, where the alliance endorsed Georgian and Ukrainian membership but deferred the accession process indefinitely, Putin gave a preview of his strategy when he told President Bush that Ukraine “is not a real country,” Van Herpen recounts.
The stakes in Ukraine are high for Putin and for the West, Van Herpen stresses. He calls the Eurasian Union a “thinly disguised attempt to restore the lost empire on new foundations.”
“It cannot be stressed enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire,” he writes.
Putin’s Wars: The Rise of Russia’s New Imperialism By Marcel H. Van Herpen, Lanham, Md.: Rowan Littlefield 2014, 276 pp.