Inside Story

“It’s NATO, stupid!”

Two new books disagree about the origins of Russia’s war against Ukraine

Mark Edele Books 22 November 2022 3278 words

Strongman? A portrait of Russian president Vladimir Putin lies on the ground in Kherson on 16 November after the Russian retreat. Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo

It’s just eight months since Putin launched his war against Ukraine — an event that might be seen as Europe’s 9/11 — and already the first books have hit the shelves. They are of two kinds: quickly written, book-length op-eds thin on research but thick on opinion; and books in the making for years that matured in the post-24/2 world.

Samir Puri’s Russia’s Road to War with Ukraine is one of the first kind. “Rapidity was the key to writing this book,” he admits — and it shows. Puri’s opinions, strongly expressed throughout, oscillate between sincere shock at the invasion, empathy with Ukraine and the Ukrainians, and dismissal of Ukraine and Ukrainians as khokhols (a slur he claims is harmless slang) who might be creating “legends” about their heroic self-defence but are ultimately mere “pawns” in “the unforgiving world of geopolitics.”

Orthodox international relations theory, also misleadingly known as “realism,” sees the world as an anarchic place where the strong rule and the weak obey. Russia, a former empire, is strong; Ukraine, a former colony, is weak. The rest follows. That Russia might indeed be in the process of learning that Ukraine is stronger than expected, that Putin might be schooled by “the unforgiving world of geopolitics,” doesn’t compute.

You want to rebuild an empire? A perfectly normal aspiration, according to the theory. Just make sure that you have a functioning military and adequate economic resources before you try to take over neighbouring countries. Such preparation would probably show “realism.” Russia’s current behaviour certainly does not.

Why did Putin go to war? Puri doesn’t really know. An international relations scholar, he suspects that it has to do with another great power — NATO, the European Union, the United States or a coalition of all three — having encroached on Russia’s turf. The overall argument of the book: It’s NATO, stupid!

The problem is that this theory doesn’t fit the observable facts. It is true that neither NATO nor the European Union has covered itself in glory in interacting with post-Soviet Russia. Russia no longer mattered, they seemed to believe, and thus could be ignored, or maybe even bossed around. Among many Europeans, that arrogance was coupled with the utopian notion that the post-1991 world was all about “soft power.” Tanks were no longer needed. Dependency on one source of oil and gas was fine. We’re all civilised, after all. War is a thing of the past.

Writing earlier this year, Britain’s former ambassador to Moscow, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a historian of Russia, was scathing. “Western diplomacy,” he wrote, was “by turns arrogant and incompetent.” He was right: to dangle NATO membership in front of Ukraine without a consensus in the alliance, a plan of how to achieve it, or a mechanism to ensure Ukraine’s security while the details were worked through, was “an unserious position.” Not to think about how to manage the Russian reaction was, likewise, negligent.

But Braithwaite also argued that “Putin’s military posturing around Ukraine is several degrees more irresponsible,” a qualification Puri ignores when he quotes the former ambassador.

Did the issue of Ukraine’s putative NATO membership drive Putin to war? Puri tries hard to squeeze recalcitrant facts into this mould. The Russian government has indeed repeatedly expressed its irritation and resentment at NATO enlargement. But NATO didn’t expand into Ukraine in 2021–22. Quite the opposite. Russia’s expressions of discontent convinced enough members — Germany chief among them — to oppose a NATO accession plan nearly a decade and a half before the current escalation. Ukraine was snubbed by NATO in 2008 only to be told repeatedly that the door was open “in principle.”

Anybody who had even the slightest knowledge of NATO’s internal affairs knew that these assurances were gestures towards the never-never. NATO’s approach was, indeed, “unserious.” In 2021–22, as Puri admits in passing, there were “no immediate signs of Ukraine’s admission into the alliance that Russia could say it was retaliating against.” That should have been the end of this theory. But no: Puri spends another seven pages trying to make the case that Putin’s “paranoia” was perfectly understandable.

Historians are used to reading international relations scholarship with sceptical tolerance. This discipline doesn’t rest on detailed knowledge of any one time, place or culture; instead, it tries to construct universalising models to be applied to any case.

But Puri doesn’t just simplify. He also makes mistakes, at time egregious ones. Russia’s provisional government of 1917, in place between the abdication of the Tsar in February and the Bolshevik coup in October, was not, as he claims, anti-imperial. The people in charge might have been liberals but they were also supporters of the empire. Looking askance at Ukraine’s parallel revolution and requests for autonomy, they continued to prosecute a war with imperial aims. That was indeed a major cause of the provisional government’s fall.

The (second) Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which the Bolsheviks were forced to sign in 1918, did not, as Puri believes, afford “Ukraine’s Nationalists a rare opportunity to make a break for freedom.” The Ukrainian People’s Republic’s declaration of independence actually preceded the treaty and Ukraine signed its own treaty with the Germans, the First Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, before the Russian Bolsheviks.

Nor did the “independent Soviet republics in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania” spring from Lenin’s head in 1918 or 1919, as Puri implies. They were independent anti-Bolshevik states until Stalin brought them back into the empire in 1940, and only then did they become Soviet republics. Western Ukraine was invaded by the Red Army on 17 September 1939 and annexed in November of that year rather than “incorporated into the USSR only after 1945,” as Puri believes.

There was indeed a referendum in Ukraine on 17 March 1991, but 71 per cent voted not “for independence,” as Puri writes, but for a reformed union of Soviet republics. It was only on 1 December of that year that a majority voted for independence, but in that case the figure was 92 per cent.

Kazakhs, meanwhile, might more than quibble with the claim that “Ukraine’s suffering was worse than in any other part of the Soviet Union” during the great famine. A larger share of Kazakhs died than of Ukrainians, although in absolute numbers Ukraine — a much larger nation — lost more.

Puri’s account, in other words, is deficient on both empirical and analytical levels. Unless readers are looking for quick soundbites, his book is best left on the shelf.

Journalist Anna Arutunyan’s Hybrid Warriors falls into the second category. Based on her years of reporting since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, it combines a deeply textured knowledge of ground-level politics with a well-theorised sense of how Putin’s regime works.

Arutunyan’s Putin is no master strategist. Nor is he an all-powerful dictator. He’s indecisive and relatively weak, driven along by his more dynamic (and often more radical) underlings. He rules “by signal” rather than by command, issuing “vague directives that could, depending on the recipient, be interpreted as commands or mere opinions.” More often than not, political entrepreneurs, both in Russia and abroad, have “projected onto the Russian president’s cryptic words everything they wanted to hear.” In reality, Russia’s strategy has been “confused, convoluted, unformed.”

The Crimean annexation was the result of improvisation. Contingency plans for the operation had been on the shelf for a while, but when they were activated the exact goal of the operation wasn’t completely clear. What transpired was the interaction of a planned and well-executed special forces operation (the famous “little green men,” unmarked, polite, silent and well equipped), local militias enraged by the revolution in Kyiv, which they saw as a coup, and local politicians.

The staged referendum, in which the vast majority of Crimean residents voted to join Russia, lacked validity in international law. But annexation nevertheless had a significant degree of popular support, with a 1996 Gallup poll showing 59 per cent support among Russians living in Crimea and 41 per cent among Crimean Ukrainians.

In a way, the Russian government caved in to pressures from below, breaking the pledge to respect Ukraine’s borders that it had made in both the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership with Kyiv. But while Moscow was riding a popular wave and interacting with local pro-Russian forces, it was clearly Putin’s regime that took the initiative in Crimea.

Donbas was different. Here, local initiative was key. Yes, a gang of fifty-two military veterans and second world war re-enactors trudged across the border in April 2014 and took the regional city of Slovyansk, which they would hold until the Ukrainian army pushed them out in July. True, they were led by a retired agent with the Federal Security Service, or FSB, Igor Girkin (known as “Strelkov,” or shooter), but Girkin was a freelancer at that stage.

Elsewhere, it was angry locals — a militant minority, but still locals — who were inspired by the Crimean example to take matters into their own hands. “By early May 2014,” writes Arutunyan, “miners, truck drivers, an assortment of local pensioners and shady businessmen, and an army of local and Russian adventure-seekers had set up their own pretend governments with flags, parliaments, defence ministries, militias, declarations of independence and even proto-constitutions with formal elections scheduled for later in the month.”

While their grievances were local and of long standing, these groups didn’t represent the local population. Independent opinion polls showed only 30 per cent support for secession. Also unlike Crimea, they were not guided by the Kremlin. As Arutunyan puts it, they “lacked the main thing… that they had fought for: Russia’s formal recognition and protection.”

Essentially, a militant minority — scared by the revolution that had driven president Viktor Yanukovych from office, saturated by Russian state television propaganda about “fascism” in Kyiv, and inspired by the takeover of Crimea — staged a coup and then appealed to Moscow to bail them out. But the weak dictator in the Kremlin refused. By the end of April 2014, the Kremlin had decided not to send troops to the Ukrainian mainland.

We don’t know why this decision was made, but it’s worth remembering that the European Union had suspended preparations for a G8 summit in Sochi on 3 March 2014, cancelled bilateral talks with Russia on 6 March, and begun imposing sanctions against Russian officials and companies on 17 March, 20 March and 15 April. Europe also threatened “broader economic and trade sanctions” should Russia further escalate its aggression against Ukraine.

These EU measures were synchronised with a set of executive orders by US president Barack Obama on 6, 17 and 20 March, which added sanctions against individuals in Russia’s elite. The timing suggests that the Kremlin retreated from exposed positions because it found the likely cost of escalation prohibitive.

Sanctions were indeed one of three reasons Putin changed his mind, according to Arutunyan. He also recognised that, in contrast to Crimea, Russia would have to contend with military action by Kyiv, which had announced its “anti-terrorist operation” on 15 April. And he understood that, wishful thinking aside, local support for the insurgents in Donbas was nowhere near as widespread as in Crimea.

But the tough EU and US response had a contradictory result:

Putin felt he was in a bind. Crimea had demonstrated that the Kremlin and its army was perfectly capable of decisive action — of securing an entire peninsula and enabling a parliament to vote to join Russia — swiftly and secretly, with the help of the local population. However, in the Donbas the risks were higher, the opposition greater and the support weaker. If he launched a full-blown military intervention, he would trigger a tougher Western response and quite possibly find himself trying to prop up a regime with no real constituency. Yet if he backed away entirely, he would show weakness to the Americans and to his own nationalists. He could neither advance nor abandon the Donbas project.

Thus, Russia continued to be involved in Donbas. By July 2014 the FSB and military intelligence were competing to command the Donbas insurgents in an attempt “to demonstrate their own value to the Kremlin.”

The FSB in particular became deeply embroiled in the Donbas mess. Its assessment that the revolution against Yanukovych was a CIA-inspired plot rather than a popular uprising had contributed to the decision to annex Crimea. Now it had “300 men in Donbas,” as one FSB major told Arutunyan, and was awaiting orders from Moscow. “Putin — give us orders!” they demanded. “We need just one day and Ukraine will be ours.”

The weak dictator was being bum-steered by his most devoted underlings. But he was resisting their push without being in a position to call back the FSB, which he had once led and which was full of his old comrades from KGB times. “His very power as president rested on their loyalty to him — and thus on his loyalty to them,” writes Arutunyan.

The support for the Donbas adventure went far beyond the FSB. To put a stop to it would have required a veritable purge of the power apparatus. Thus, the strange limbo in which the situation remained. Neither willing to escalate nor able to reverse, the Kremlin began imposing control over the separatist movement and its self-proclaimed “governments.”

Eventually, however, Putin did send troops. He had been hitching his political wagon increasingly to the ultra-nationalist right since 2012, when massive demonstrations against his return to the presidency had alienated him decisively from the political middle (to say nothing of the left). His new right-wing constituency supported the political freelancers in Donbas, so when Kyiv launched a successful operation to take Donbas back from the putschists, his new allies convinced him that it was in Russia’s interest to resist.

Russian troops, regular ones this time, were fighting in Ukraine by August 2014. This “covert Russian invasion of mainland Ukraine” halted the Ukrainian army’s attempt to re-establish control of Ukrainian territory. It was regular Russian troops that turned the Donbas insurgency into a frozen conflict; it was regular Russian troops that won the battle of Debaltseve in February 2015. Then the frontlines froze.

Once again, according to Arutunyan, no grand Russian strategy existed. Events were driven not by geopolitics but by the balance of power within the Russian dictatorship.

The right wing of politics, on which Putin’s regime increasingly relied, could only be contained if Ukraine could be stopped from taking back Donbas. This dynamic became self-reinforcing: the support of the nationalists, imperialists, monarchists and fascists at home required support for the Donbas rebels; the continuing existence and, as they saw it, martyrdom of the Donbas proxies propelled the domestic far right further into the mainstream. “For Putin,” writes Arutunyan, “it was paramount that these people continued viewing the West as their true enemy, and not the Kremlin itself.”

How did we get from this impasse to 24/2? Arutunyan doesn’t really know. Her account becomes much less richly textured after 2015, and in particular after 2019. Why negotiations with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president since 2019, were abandoned remains unclear. Why the decision was made to allow all-out war remains mysterious. The logic of her argument would point to some dynamic from below, some initiative by political entrepreneurs. But there is no evidence to that effect. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that the initiative came from Putin, and that it shocked even those closest to him.

Arutunyan’s explanation thus focuses on the Russian president, and his resentments and likely thought processes. The invasion, she writes, was “about one man, and his vendetta.” Earlier in the book she had dismissed such mind-reading, but what is the alternative given Putin’s centrality in Russia’s political system?

This centrality seems to have increased since 2014. The destruction of civil society, which hampered the left, might also have hampered the right. The disaster of the Donbas war, caused by freelancers, might well have made Putin more reluctant to take advice from the same or similar people. Coronavirus isolation in 2020–21 might have done the rest: Putin spent the pandemic reading history books, stewing in his resentments (about NATO expansion, about not being taken seriously), and pondering his legacy (he turned seventy this year).

Then there was Russia’s recent success in Syria, which suggested its army was top-notch. The FSB presented the Ukrainian army’s intensified training and improved equipment as a Western conspiracy to weaken and maybe destroy Russia. Yet the West also seemed weak. Maybe now was the time to solve this problem once and for all? Whatever the reasons, in the end it was Putin who pulled the trigger on 24/2.

What are the implications of Arutunyan’s analysis for policymakers confronting an aggressive Russia? She is unsure herself. “[I] gave up my futile attempts to come up with some sort of possible solution to this mess,” she writes in frustration. And she’s right: if the invasion was the result “of a Kremlin fumbling in the dark, staggering to respond to a multitude of real and perceived threats and opportunities, and proving itself largely incapable of distinguishing one from the other,” and if 24/2 was the result of an increasingly isolated and erratic dictator steaming in his own resentments and historical analogies, then rational outside action is difficult.

Arutunyan’s description of the complexity of the political environment in which Putin functions, moreover, serves to remind outsiders of how little influence their actions have on the Kremlin. This might chasten both the critics of NATO, who overestimate how much Putin was swayed by the perceived aggression of “the West,” and the supporters of sanctions against Russia, which Arutunyan’s account makes clear were just one factor, and mostly marginal, in Putin’s calculus.

What is left? For the time being, all we can do is try to support Ukraine as best as we can to give it a chance to survive and win this war. And when Ukraine is ready to negotiate with Russia, we should support this process with as much humility as we can. A lot of bitterness exists on both sides of the frontlines now, and it won’t go away anytime soon. If we take into account not just the war itself but also the rebuilding effort, we are talking about a long haul indeed.

Stamina will thus be required at a time when inflation and the climate crisis also call for sustained government attention.

Russia, meanwhile, won’t be defeated in the way Germany or Iraq were. Putin’s troops might eventually be pushed out of much or all of Ukraine’s territory, but nobody in their right mind will want to go further and march on Moscow. The regime might thus survive, more resentful than ever. Or it might be replaced by another, probably no less resentful or autocratic. In any case, Russia could require containment for some time to come. Here, too, stamina will be necessary — and a significant amount of humility about what can be achieved.

All things come to an end eventually. And maybe Arutunyan is right when she says that Russia’s younger generation will in time provide more rational leadership for this large, rich and beautiful country. The rising generation is “muzzled” but “watching, in horror” while “learning from the mistakes of this dying regime,” she writes. A “new Russia, with its own, new national identity, will eventually emerge.” Let’s hope she is right. •

Samir Puri responds to Mark Edele’s review

Russia’s Road to War with Ukraine: Invasion Amidst the Ashes of Empires
By Samir Puri | Biteback | $39.99 | 304 pages

Hybrid Warriors: Proxies, Freelancers and Moscow’s Struggle for Ukraine
By Anna Arutunyan | Hurst & Company | $44.99 | 352 pages