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Leave Putin His Scraps

Would territorial retreats whet Vladimir Putin’s imperialist appetite?

I’d be rich if I had a hryvnia for every time I’ve heard that question answered in the affirmative. Accordingly, if one concedes an inch to Putin, he’ll take a mile. And, naturally, that mile will only be the prelude to many more miles. In sum, you can’t concede an inch—or else.

Critics of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s “peace plan” for the Donbas enclave controlled by Russia and its terrorist proxies generally make this argument. Providing the enclave with a special status and effectively conceding Russian control of the territory isn’t just a “capitulation.” It’s an invitation to further Russian aggression.

Let’s unpack the arguments for inches becoming miles.

Ukraine Should Abandon the Donbas Enclave

Ukraine has two nonnegotiable priorities in its ongoing war with Russia: survival and reform. Ukraine must survive as a sovereign democratic state in the short term if it is to reform, and it must reform itself in the medium term in order to survive and become a prosperous and secure sovereign democratic state in the long term. Both goals can be best advanced if Ukraine washes its hands of the enclave of the Donbas region that Russia and its proxies now control.

Europe’s foremost priority is inextricably connected to Ukraine’s. Europe’s two key pillars—the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—must survive as effective institutions, but they can do so only if Ukraine survives and reforms. If Ukraine, a geopolitically pivotal country in the heart of Europe, falls to Russia or becomes a European Zimbabwe, Europe will be hard-pressed to remain functional, prosperous, and stable.

Ukraine Must Reform to Save Itself

Will NATO Save Ukraine from Russia? I’m surprised by how many people, especially in Ukraine, believe the answer is yes. And I’m no less surprised by how many Western analysts and Russian policymakers claim that that’s exactly what NATO hopes to do—and, by implication, will do. Naturally, Russians describe NATO’s presumed intentions as offensive and not defensive.

It’s time to wake up and smell the espresso in Brussels.

First, NATO has no army. As an institution, as a bureaucracy located in two complexes in and near the capital of Belgium, the alliance does not have troops. It can cajole, persuade, bluster, and the like, but the troop-sending is done—if it is done at all—by NATO member states on behalf of NATO member states or, more problematically, in out-of-area missions. Second, most Europeans have slashed their defense budgets way below the limits they have publicly agreed to sustain. The United States is the only significant exception to this general rule. To put it mildly, Europe has passed the military buck to America, while insisting on the right to kvetch about Washington’s occasionally unwise use of armed force.

Enthusiasm for Separation and Reform Weakens in Ukraine

Three recent news items deserve our attention.

First the good news. According to the Russia-based Sociological Service of the Anti-Corruption Fund the vast majority of residents of Odessa and Kharkiv provinces support Ukrainian statehood and oppose Vladimir Putin’s New Russia (Novorossiya) project. A telephone survey of 1,000 people conducted on September 8th to 17th revealed the following attitudes:

Will Putin's Successor Be Worse?

Who will succeed Vladimir Putin if and when he falls? Will things get better or worse? Those are the intriguing questions posed by Benjamin Bidder, Moscow correspondent for the German news weekly Der Spiegel.

Bidder concludes that the democrats have little chance of replacing Putin and that his successor is likely to be worse.

It takes little fantasy to imagine Putin’s political end. He cannot be voted out of office like his friend Gerhard Schröder. Two scenarios are possible: either the current political elite in the Kremlin installs a successor or the Russians get rid of Putin and his minions….

And then what? The fear is that someone could seize control of the Kremlin who thinks and acts more radically than Putin. The president created the preconditions of such a possibility with his own failed policies. If the Kremlin insiders want to find a successor, they will have to recruit him from the immediate circle of the current president. But Putin has reinforced hard-liners and pushed out the liberals.

Ukraine to Wall Out Putin, Literally

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced on September 10th that he intends to build an extensive set of fortifications along Ukraine’s frontier with Russia and the Russian-occupied enclave of the Donbas. Called “The Wall,” the defensive line would consist of a ditch, a “no-man’s land,” an actual wall, and watch towers.

Although the name brings to mind the Berlin Wall, Poroshenko actually compared Ukraine’s planned fortifications to the Mannerheim Line, the Finnish defense against the Soviet Union, clearly suggesting that he sees today’s Ukraine as interwar Finland and Putin’s Russia as Stalin’s USSR. That reference alone underscores just how profoundly Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has changed Ukrainian attitudes to Russia. The formerly big and intrusive strategic partner has become a mortal enemy akin to the Soviet empire under its genocidal dictator, Stalin.

West's Refusal to Arm Ukraine Invites Guerrilla War

If Russia launches a full-scale invasion and Ukraine is unable to defend itself with its armed forces, the result will be a “people’s war” entailing enormous casualties and millions of refugees. Ukrainians, like the citizens of other countries on Russia’s borders, know that Vladimir Putin is an existential threat to their survival as a people. They also know they have no choice but to respond to continued Russian aggression with mass popular resistance.

Such a war—involving a partisan movement with widespread civilian participation—will be extremely costly. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians will die; streams of refugees will head west. In addition, Putin will have learned that he can have his way with the United States and Europe. Aggressors everywhere will have been emboldened.

If, however, Ukraine’s military has the military equipment needed to deter a Russian invasion, people’s war will not take place, a humanitarian catastrophe will be prevented, Europe will not be inundated with refugees, and the international order might not be toppled.

There are six arguments against the West’s arming Ukraine, and none of them is persuasive.

Loose Cannons and Ukrainian Casualties

So now the number of dead Ukrainian soldiers is 722. The number of wounded is 2,625. The Ukrainian army keeps on making slow but steady advances; the pro-Russian terrorists appear to have suffered heavy losses; Russian regular forces are openly engaged in the fighting; Russia’s “humanitarian convoy” apparently looted some Ukrainian armaments factories on its way back home; and, on August 25th, Russian tanks crossed into Ukraine just north of the Sea of Azov.

All is definitely not quiet on the eastern front.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Kyiv on August 23rd, where she expressed support of Ukraine. Some Ukrainians were unhappy that her support wasn’t stronger, but they should remember that her very presence in Ukraine on the eve of its Independence Day celebrations was a powerful message to Russia’s unconstitutionally elected president, Vladimir Putin.

Hitler and Putin: A Tale of Two Authoritarians

Will Russia’s unconstitutionally elected president, Vladimir Putin, unleash a full-scale land war against Ukraine?

I can give you ten reasons for every possible answer to this question. Which is to say that, like everyone else trying to divine Putin’s “mind,” I don’t know.

But there is one thing that I definitely do know. Suddenly, we are all talking about war in Europe. The one thing that was supposed to have become “unthinkable” and “unimaginable” after the end of the Cold War and the rise of the European Union has become perfectly thinkable and quite imaginable.

And all thanks to Putin. If tomorrow’s headlines scream “RUSSIA INVADES ESTONIA,” we’d be shocked, but would we be surprised?

Don’t blame the thinkability and imaginability of war on the Ukrainians. All they did was remove a corrupt dictator and embark on building a democracy. The Ukrainians didn’t invade Crimea. Nor did they arm separatist republics with Russian soldiers and weapons. That was Putin’s doing and only Putin’s doing.

‘Criminal in the Kremlin’: An Interview with Professor Walter Clemens

Below is an interview I conducted recently with Walter Clemens, a professor emeritus of political science at Boston University and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.

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MOTYL: Walter, you’re well known for tackling complex moral and legal issues of international relations in your work. One of your books was Can Russia Change?

CLEMENS: I’m still doubtful.

MOTYL: Your current project is titled “Can—Should—Must We Negotiate with Evil? The World and North Korea.”

CLEMENS: The subtitle could also read “The World and Vladimir Putin.”

MOTYL: What should the international community do about Mr. Putin?

Recriminations and Denials After Putin

One of these days Russians will wake up from what they now think is a dream and realize that it was a terrible nightmare. They’ll realize that Vladimir Putin—their current hero and demigod—is really a loser and a thug who’s brought ruin to their country, ruin to their people, ruin to their ethnic brethren in Ukraine and other non-Russian states, and ruin to the world. They’ll realize that Putin is a criminal, that the regime he created is fascist, and that his policies are paranoid, delusional, destructive, and self-destructive to the point of being suicidal.

And that’s when the recriminations and denials will begin. There’ll be lots of finger pointing. “Blame it all on my neighbor,” many Russians will say, “He’s the collaborator. He’s the flag-waver. He’s the one who voted for Putin and attended all those mass rallies. And he did it voluntarily too.” 

An Interview with Jiri Valenta

Below is an interview I conducted recently with Jiri Valenta, a distinguished scholar of Soviet and post-Soviet studies.

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MOTYL: Jiri, you’re one of the world’s most experienced and knowledgeable observers of Russia. How would you characterize the downing of Malaysian flight MH17 and the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine?

VALENTA: The ongoing war in Ukraine has involved a covert military intervention by Russia that is slowly becoming overt. The downing of the Malaysian plane is a game-changer. Thus, as bodies arrive in the Netherlands, two more Ukrainian planes have been downed and a new deployment of Russian hardware is pouring into Ukraine. The Russian Duma has held an unexpected session. There is again the possibility of a large Russian invasion.

How Much Are Ukrainian and Malaysian Lives Worth?

When Vladimir Putin’s proxies shot down a Malaysian Airlines jet with close to 300 passengers over eastern Ukraine on July 17th, I was shocked.

But I wasn’t shocked on July 15th, when the former head of the Ukrainian General Staff stated that 330 Ukrainian soldiers had died in the course of Kyiv’s anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine, while the press liaison of the National Security and Defense Council said the correct number was 258. Both numbers were immediately wrong, as some 10 soldiers were killed that day.

The sad fact is that I’m getting used to Putin’s killing spree.

I still remember when the first demonstrator was killed on the Maidan back in January. What a shock that was. And then the mass sniper shootings in late February. What an outrage. The victims came to be known as the Heavenly Hundred and memorials to them still dot the area around Kyiv’s Independence Square.

What’s Rong with Wrussia?

Everything, according to some. Many things, according to others. Nothing, according to many Russians.

Back in 2004, two US academics, Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman, wrote a controversial piece for Foreign Affairs in which they argued that statistics proved that Russia was a “normal country.” Since they focused on mostly economic parameters, such as GDP, income distribution, and the like, they had a point.

What Shleifer and Treisman overlooked was the politics. Do “normal” countries normally invade their neighbors, lop off bits and pieces of foreign territory, support unconstitutionally elected, power-obsessed strongman leaders, distrust the world and continually whine about their lost glory, take the crudest Goebbelsian government propaganda at face value, export terrorism, call democrats fascists and fascists democrats, and approve of profoundly corrupt, deeply inefficient, hyper-chauvinist, and blatantly imperialist fascist states?

Contradictions Define Kremlin Apologists

According to the conventional wisdom, Vladimir Putin and his Western supporters propagate a uniform message throughout the world. At its most extreme, this view sees Russia as having a formidable propaganda machine that is running roughshod over the Western media and public.  

In fact, Putin and his supporters and apologists often disagree. One reason may be that the machine just isn’t as formidable as it’s made out to be. Another may be that the Kremlin’s supporters make mistakes when interpreting or anticipating the frequently contradictory or incomprehensible statements of the Delphic oracle that is Putin. A third may be that they have difficulties bridging the growing gap between reality and Putin’s oftentimes shifting views. The Putinite interpretation—one that I won’t even bother refuting—is that disagreement is the foundation of vigorous democracies such as Putin’s Russia.

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