Before we plunge into the nightmare of reliving the January 6 insurrection, I thought I would pause here and take a look at the Russia-Ukraine war.
The Russian war on Ukraine has passed the 100-day mark, which was about 95 days longer than Vladimir Putin expected it to last. The usual retrospectives have focused, mostly, on “where we are now,” with charts and lines and color-coded maps that explain the current state of the fighting.
This is understandable, especially because the situation today is utterly counterintuitive, with the Russians taking huge losses and the Ukrainians recapturing a lot of territory. But the Russians aren’t going anywhere; they control something like 20 percent of Ukraine, and as retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling said recently, we’re in for a long summer of slogging it out on the Ukrainian eastern front.
Instead of providing more maps and labels, I want to ask a different question: What does Russia, at this point, want?
The first thing to understand about this question is that there is no such entity as “Russia” that “wants” anything. “Russia” at the start of this war meant “Putin.” The invasion of Ukraine was his idea, a malevolent and stupid scheme that was kept from all but his closest advisers. Now that the war is a mess, Putin has to deal with the Russian public, Russia’s governing elites, and the Russian military.
Let’s take each separately.
We know what Putin wanted at the outset: to conquer Ukraine whole, in a quick victory, and append it to Russia in some sort of Slavic Christian confederation that would look like both the Russian empire and the former Soviet Union. Putin is no Communist, but he aches for the old U.S.S.R. He yearns to be some weird combination of a tsar and a Soviet general secretary leading a giant Russian-Soviet imperial blob against all of Europe and North America.
When Plan A blew up in his face, however, it was clear he had no Plan B. (This is why I worried about a desperate choice to use nuclear weapons; when all else fails, the magical power of a nuclear weapon might seem an attractive game changer.)
What Putin wants probably hasn’t changed. He wants Ukraine, and he will go to his grave—which might happen soon—thinking he made the right call. The question now is what Putin will settle for, and the answer is probably “nothing.” He will keep throwing men into the fight while grinding away at Ukraine and sitting on Ukrainian territory. Putin is not the kind of man to admit a mistake, and he’s not going to start now.
But can he sustain his own “forever war" on his border?
The Russian public
As I once wrote, we Americans live in a time of mass psychosis, where millions of people believe perfectly ridiculous things and act on them as if they are true. This is, in part, because the worst people among us are in control of large propaganda outlets that create entirely separate realities. Think of Fox News, where it is always the day after a stolen election and the drag-queen caravans are coming to force your children to learn critical race theory.
Russian media make the Fox News hosts look like propaganda amateurs.
The Russian public is being fed a farrago of madness that defies description for anyone who has never seen Russian television. Russian hosts regularly talk about nuclear war, including nuking the ocean so that Britain drowns in a tsunami. (They have a particular animus for “Anglo-Saxons,” probably out of a sense of itching guilt at how many rich Russians have stashed their money—and their children—in London.)
Does anyone believe this lunacy? Educated and urban Russians don’t buy it, not least because they still know how to access information from outside of Russia through these things called “phones” and “the internet.” But those urbanites aren’t Putin’s target audience. Putin, instead, needs only to keep educated Russians scared and quiet while he generates support (and draftees) from the older, more rural, less educated Russians who are the backbone of his rule.
(A movement that relies on the rural, less educated, older, least informed, and most nationalistic citizens? Where have we seen this before?)
So, for the time being, yes, the Russian public will not only endure this war, they’ll actively support it—but only if it doesn’t touch them directly. Sanctions hurt, but they can blame the West for those; the actual fighting needs to stay far away. Putin seems to know this. In his Victory Day speech, he swerved away from mass mobilization, which I thought he might trigger as a means of escalating the war. My guess is that Putin realizes the limits of public support, and knows that as long as the war is a big television event and Russian boys aren’t being dragged into the army, the masses will go along with it.
Especially if the boys who are dragged into the army are ethnic non-Russians from the provinces and not the children of the elites.
The Russian elites
No one in the lofty reaches of Russian business or government wanted this war. The financial elites, obviously, had no interest in a scheme that would cost them billions and set Russia’s economy back 30 years.
The intelligence and military elites, for their part, spent years blowing sunshine up Putin’s skirt about their great contacts in Ukraine, how they could have Kyiv in the palm of their hand, and how the Russian armed forces have used the billions of rubles they’ve been given to improve their combat capacity, but no one wanted to test those claims, because everyone knew they were nonsense. (In fact, some senior intelligence officers are now in hot water, and by “hot water” I mean “prison.” When Ukrainians didn’t throw flowers and Kyiv didn’t collapse, Putin blamed his spies, because he had to blame someone whose name wasn’t Putin.)
Putin fired a shot over the heads of these powerful men and their families when he vented about the rich Russians who cannot live without foie gras and who will be spit out of the mouths of real Russians like bugs. (I am not exaggerating. He said this.) Get on board, he was saying. I know where you live.
And so they have. While some have left the country and a handful have spoken up in protest, most of the Russian elite got the message. The most recent example of this craven surrender to Putin’s madness is Dmitry Medvedev, himself a former president of the Russian Federation. Medvedev was once the hope of people—say, like me—who thought that he might be the transitional figure away from Putinism.
Fat chance. “Little Dima,” as he is sometimes called due to his short stature, has decided to go all in. He recently said of the Ukrainian people:
I hate them. They are bastards and scum. They want death for us, for Russia. And as long as I’m alive, I’ll do anything to make them disappear.
You don’t usually see this kind of flat-out endorsement of genocide, but there it is.
So now we know where the Russian elites stand. Their strategy is the time-honored approach of Kremlin survivors: They’re going to swear allegiance, tough it out, and hope that The Boss dies soon.
The Russian military
This leaves the last wild card, the Russian armed forces. Are they willing to keep walking into a buzzsaw, losing men and materiel for incremental territorial gains?
The answer, so far, is yes.
The Russian military has a lot to prove now. The army that to this day prides itself on terrifying Adolf Hitler to the point of suicide has lost a war to a country a third the size of Russia. The Russians had every advantage an invader could want: They controlled the timetable; they surrounded their prey on three sides; the enemy capital was in easy striking distance; the enemy leader was an untested political rookie with no military experience.
And yet they walked into a disaster and took more casualties in a few months than the United States took in 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only were Russian soldiers poorly trained and equipped; they were (and are) led by officers who don’t care about them. Some of those officers have paid the ultimate price, of course, because the Russian command system is so rigid and clumsy that almost any problem up near the actual fighting needs the intervention of a general officer.
A few months ago, the British tabloids reported that the Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, had a heart attack. That doesn’t seem to be the case, but after this kind of performance by the Russian armed forces, what Russian military leader wouldn’t have a heart attack?
The Moscow rumor mill has long bet on Shoigu as a possible successor to Putin, but nothing fails like failure. Shoigu and Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov now must prove that they can overcome years of graft and incompetence and show some gains in Ukraine. Even if they wanted to extricate their men from this disaster—and they probably do—there is no clear path for them to advocate for a cease-fire.
I want to offer one other observation about the performance of the Russian military. You may wonder why the men of the Russian armed forces, cheered on by Russians back home, have acted like such savages against their Ukrainian “brothers and sisters,” a people much like themselves, to whom they are bound by history, proximity, and family ties. They have engaged in the full panoply of war crimes, from rape to pillage.
I can only offer two impressionistic conclusions after years of watching both the Soviet Union and Russia.
First, brutality and cruelty is bred into Russian soldiers. Unlike the American military, where officers and NCOs (the sergeants and chiefs) think of the men and women under their command as their charges and responsibility, Russia has an old-school hierarchy in which younger enlisted men are at the mercy of veterans, and the veterans are under the command of senior officers who keep their distance and expect to be treated like royalty. It’s too deep a problem to go into here, but this is a problem ingrained in Russian military culture, and it predates even the Soviet experience.
Second, and more worrisome: For many Russians, life under Putin is miserable, and Russian military life is especially miserable. What we’re seeing now is the gleeful murder and destruction of innocent people by men who are taking out their own misery on others. The Russian military were never going to be greeted as liberators, but they never saw themselves as liberators anyway. They saw themselves as getting even with people who were happier than they were, which is why instead of “liberating” the Ukrainians, Russian soldiers raped Ukraine’s daughters and stole anything that wasn’t nailed down, including the plumbing.
So what’s the good news?
There isn’t any. This war will grind on and take many more lives. As I wrote in this newsletter, it is not for us to tell the Ukrainians to quit. The Russians are sitting on a fifth of their country. Ukraine is a democracy and a friend of the United States, and Ukrainians have a right to fight on for their independence and the liberation of their occupied territory. We and the rest of the free world have an obligation to support them in that fight.
But even if the Ukrainians were to offer a cease-fire, it’s hard to imagine Putin accepting one. This ongoing slog is now the closest thing he has to a strategy after his initial attempt at a fait accompli failed, and he is going to keep murdering Ukrainians for their insolence and take as much of their land as he can grab.
So what does “Russia” want?
Putin wants to stay in power, the Russian public wants their constant sense of inferiority soothed by nationalistic television fantasies, the Russian elites want to stay out of prison, and the Russian military wants to prove they’re not a bunch of incompetent stumblebums.
This isn’t going to end soon.
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