Why Does Putin Want a War in Ukraine?
...and a quick note about the Durham investigation.
So, yesterday evening the Jackal had not yet been written. Instead, I was out with a friend eating tacos and drinking margaritas, and after I got home I pitched two ideas to Elisabeth, my editor:
Should I finally write about Ukraine and Russia, even though I probably don’t know enough?
Should I write about conservative media again and how it is purposefully deceiving its audience?
Elisabeth said another long post about conservative media would probably be “beating a dead horse,” so let’s take a deep dive into Ukraine.
Off the bat, I should note that there is a great discussion of the Ukraine crisis on Mona Charen’s podcast. And, while I do think too many of the guests praise the Biden Administration’s “handling” of Russia, the key takeaway is that none of them know what’s going to happen. Given that foreign policy experts can’t tell you what’s about to happen in Ukraine, it’s important to be humble here: We don’t know what’s next, but we should be praying for peace.
This uncertainty is perhaps best exemplified in Julia Ioffe’s summary of last week’s Ukraine news, which should be praised for its tidiness in the midst of chaos. She whittles it down:
Vladimir Putin has virtually encircled Ukraine with an unprecedented number of soldiers, tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery installations, ships, and the logistical backup required to support this war machine. And, as observers have pointed out, all of this is being done out in the open, for all to see. The Kremlin continues to say it has no plans to invade Ukraine and that it is simply conducting perfectly legal military exercises, but that is, quite obviously, a lie. Putin has built this military presence on Ukraine’s borders at the same time as he publicly drew his “red lines,” and as his foreign minister warned of the “nightmare” of war in Europe. He has spoken openly this winter of keeping up the pressure until the West takes his demands seriously and gives him what he wants—or at least some of it. Ukraine is the unfortunate hostage in this game of chicken between Moscow and Washington.
So, it really looks like Russia is about to invade Ukraine and potentially start a legitimate “hot” war in Europe. The relevant question is, “Why?” The short answer is that Putin does not view Ukraine as its own country and still considers it a part of Russia. So, he wants to fold it back into the Mother Country and greatly increase the geographic size of Russia. The long answer to the question is (duh) more complicated.
To be honest, these are probably deeper questions than your friendly neighborhood newsletter can handle. However, I do know some things about Russia. Putin was actually the subject of my senior thesis in college, although I wrote it about a thousand years ago. I am also one of the seven people on the planet who thought Mitt Romney was right about Russia and Barack Obama was wrong:
So, while I don’t come to this topic with a ton of credibility or expertise, I do have some. And the “some” that I have tells me that Ukraine in 1932 is incredibly relevant to our current-day crisis.
Not a lot of people are aware of the Soviet-enforced famine of Ukraine in the early 20th century. The official death toll is still a matter of debate, but between Ukraine and its nearby regions in Russia, the final estimate is anywhere from 5.7 million to 8.7 million people. In other words, Ukraine had its own mini-Holocaust inflicted on it about 10 years before the actual Holocaust.1
Bringing up the Ukrainian Famine is relevant, because in the Russian textbooks that were hand-selected by President Vladimir Putin, the Famine is barely mentioned. From Kremlin Rising, by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:
For Irina Viktorovna, history class was more about thinking than about facts and dates. The textbook could provide those at home. Russia and the World was not the book she would pick; actually, she said, “I don’t like it at all.” But Moscow school authorities sent it to School Number 775 and paid for it. And besides, she had no one to complain to about its failures. She knew it was flawed. The devastating famine that had resulted from the Soviet Union’s forced collectivization policy and killed an estimated 7 million people in Ukraine and southern Russia in 1932-33 was covered in one paragraph.
And here’s the kicker:
When it came to the current president, the textbook was outright sycophantic. “Residents of Russia on the whole have positive attitudes toward the policy of the government,” the book concluded about Putin. “Many are attracted by the democratic values, openness of society, possibility of free choice, market abundance, and, finally, hope for economic growth and improvement in the quality of life in the future.”2
It’s important to cite to these things because I truly believe that Americans have warped understanding of Vladimir Putin. He is not some scrappy, extra-European leader who has a hip, different take on Western Democracy; he is essentially Kim Jong Un with more friends than just China. If you are spinning fictional narratives about yourself to indoctrinate your populace (in one textbook, Putin fights a bear as a child), then you aren’t just some goofy autocrat.
Putin is a dictator, and one of the reasons he can seemingly do whatever he wants in Ukraine is that he never has to worry about winning another election, an advantage that isn’t afforded to, Joe Biden, for instance.
It’s weird then, that some people in the West (particularly Fox News hosts) seem eager to take him at his word. Michael Weiss addresses this:
Putin is largely weaving a fictional narrative about alleged aggression from Ukraine (and, by proxy, the U.S.) to justify him attacking the country. In a great piece, Terrell Jermaine Starr, gets to the heart of it:
Yet, progressives sometimes fail to acknowledge that some people, like Putin, have no interest in peace, and the world needs messaging to address that reality. After eight years of diplomacy—where Ukraine has done nothing to justify Moscow’s eight-year occupation of its sovereignty—I see no moral issue with providing defensive weapons to Ukraine so it can at least defend itself against a bully. Or for the United States and European Union to surgically target Putin and his inner circle with sanctions, as Magnitsky Act architect Bill Browder told me. Even on sanctions, progressives need to learn to distinguish the kind of sweeping measures that have been rightly criticized for hurting ordinary people from the targeting of a corrupt elite’s offshore holdings.
A lot of people debate why Putin wants Ukraine so badly. Some experts think he is truly off his rocker and is paranoid, so he truly believes that the United States is attacking Russia through Ukraine (and NATO at large). Others say he feels boxed in and is facing diplomatic pressures at home (this was in the piece I linked to last week).
Having read a lot about Putin, specifically Putin’s Russia by Anna Politkovskaya (a journalist Putin murdered), I think the truth of it is that Putin hates the idea of Western democracy and wants to destroy it. He sees Ukraine as the perfect example of that real threat: As it has gotten closer to the West, Ukraine has shrugged off Russian influence repeatedly, a serious crime by Putin’s standards.
Putin holds the West responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union - an event he has said was the most tragic in world history - and he thinks the spread of democracy is a danger to “world order.” That is why he props up autocrats whenever he can, be it in China or in the Middle East.
However, Putin does not want to return to the Communism of the Soviet Union; he is probably the world’s first trillionaire right now, he just keeps his wealth a secret. So he likes capitalism just fine. However, lots of people write publicly about how Putin wants to restore the territory of the Soviet Union, but they rarely explain why. Dan Fried and Kurt Volker cite back to a Putin speech from 2007 in Munich, saying he laid out the game plan then:
What is more surprising is how the U.S. and Europe, despite Putin’s obvious warning in Munich and Russia’s many actions over 15 years, have nonetheless clung to the notion that we can somehow work together with Putin’s Russia on a strategic level. It is finally time for the West to face facts. Whether or not Putin launches a major new invasion of Ukraine, he has rejected the post-Cold War European security architecture and means it. He is on a deliberate and dedicated path to build a greater Russia, an empire where the Soviet Union once stood.
Gary Kasparov (yes, the chess guy) puts it more bluntly:
There is a lot you could write about why Putin hates democracy and why he thinks it’s poison. But it’s probably easier/more fun for me to show you a clip from Air Force One:
First off, the 1990s was the best decade for American cinema. Everything was ridiculous and fun, the way movies were originally intended. If you want a great example of how far we’ve come, just contrast Outbreak with Contagion. Both are pandemic movies and one ends with a heady explanation about how pandemics start and the other one ends with a helicopter chase and a Daisy Cutter being blown up over the ocean. The 90s rule.
Second, this speech - while goofy - is emblematic of Putin’s actual views on freedom. From Politkovskaya’s book:
Why is it difficult to sustain a rosy point of view [about Putin] when you are faced with reality in Russia? Because Putin, a product of the country’s murkiest intelligence service, has failed to transcend his origins and stop acting like a KGB officer. He is still busy sorting out his freedom-loving citizens; he persists in crushing liberty, just as he did earlier in his career (my emphasis).
There is some debate as to whether or not Putin was always skeptical of democracy. In his speeches in the early 2000s, he made a lot of promises about a democratic Russia that would be close to the will of the people. Things seemingly changed in 2012, after a number of revolutions in former Soviet states, and that (in this theory) pushed Putin away from democracy.
But most Russia experts reject this theory and say that Putin has always has always believed in authoritarianism. In 2003, George Will already saw this in Putin:
Putinism is uprooting the shallow seedlings of democracy across Russia's 11 time zones. Putinism is becoming a toxic brew of nationalism directed against neighboring nations, and populist envy, backed by assaults of state power, directed against private wealth. Putinism is a national socialism without the demonic element of its pioneer who, 70 years ago this year, used plebiscitary democracy to acquire the power to extinguish German democracy. There probably are not enough Jews remaining in Russia to make anti-Semitism a useful component of Putinism. But do not bet on that either.
In other words, Putin was following a standard playbook for autocrats:
Heavily promote nationalism.
Find a minority scapegoat within your population.
Unite the country against them.
Establish full control of government.
Keep doing “elections,” even though everyone knows they’re rigged.
Putin has followed this formula to a T, and he is now at the point where he no longer has to pretend to “step down” from the Presidency like he did in 2008-2012. He is “President for Life.”
Some progressives argue that, in spite of the foregoing, we should just allow Putin to do his thing. After all, what do we care of places like Estonia, Ukraine, and Latvia all return to the Soviet Union? That’s where they were for most of the 20th Century and parts of those countries still consider themselves Russian.
This is where the scapegoating I mentioned above comes into play. Politkovskaya wrote a book about Putin and I’ve cited to it a bunch here, but she is most notable for her coverage of the Chechen Wars. Russia did begin attacking Chechnya shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which was before Putin’s time, but after he took over, human rights abuses kicked into high gear. For instance, rape began being used as a form of torture against Chechen citizens. Estimates at the high end say 300,000 Chechens have been killed by Russia since the wars began.
Since Chechnya, Putin’s Russia has conducted invasions of Ukraine and Georgia, and waged foreign influence campaigns in the United States, France, the U.K., Bulgaria, Belarus, and a host of others. The crucial point is this: If Putin’s goal is to restore Russia to its former geographic glory, and he views Western Democracy itself as a poison infecting on Europe (and the world), even if he backs down from invading Ukraine right now, when does anyone think he will stop? Will he decide that Estonia isn’t worth it?
I am outing myself as a closeted Neoconservative right now, but Putin is going to be a can we continue kicking down the road unless some Administration finally decides to deal with him. I highly doubt that this is the last thing you will read about a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
There was also a lot of John Durham news since the last Jackal. On Friday night, his team added a filing to Michael Sussmann’s case, and conservative media basically went ballistic. For a recap, here is our old friend Julian Sanchez with a helpful thread:
Up and down on every program on Fox News was talk about how Hillary Clinton’s Campaign had spied on Donald Trump in Trump Tower and also the White House. On Saturday, after the filing, Trump basically called for people from the Clinton Campaign to be executed:
The latest pleading from Special Counsel Robert Durham provides indisputable evidence that my campaign and presidency were spied on by operatives paid by the Hillary Clinton Campaign in an effort to develop a completely fabricated connection to Russia. This is a scandal far greater in scope and magnitude than Watergate and those who were involved in and knew about this spying operation should be subject to criminal prosecution. In a stronger period of time in our country, this crime would have been punishable by death. In addition, reparations should be paid to those in our country who have been damaged by this.
After this statement, conservative media went to bat for the President. “Trump really was spied on” became a major headline in the Wall Street Journal and just about everywhere else.
The problem is that it’s completely made up. In fact, Durham chastised conservative media in his own filing after Fox News went nuts:
Setting aside the question of intent, let’s focus on the point here. Durham is stating, explicitly, that members of the media may have “overstated” and “misinterpreted” facts included in his filing. This isn’t me, Washington Post guy, saying that his filing sparked an inaccurate narrative. It’s Durham saying that this (might, perhaps, maybe) happened.
The “spying” allegation involves a February 2017 meeting between Sussmann and a tech executive with clearance on White House servers, Robert Joffe. Reading that, it’s easy to assume that Joffe (who was not working for the Clinton Campaign), was maybe looking at servers in the Trump White House, but Durham made clear in his brief that the events in question took place in 2016, before Trump took office. He cleared this up later:
The “member of the defense team” who was working for the executive office of the president is Michael Bosworth, who served as deputy White House counsel under Barack Obama. He was not still serving in the White House when Trump was president (perhaps obviously), but he was there “during relevant events that involved the EOP.” In other words, he was there during the period in which the relevant data collection from the EOP was occurring — meaning that the relevant data was being collected only when Obama was president!
In other words, it’s a bunch of nonsense to get Fox News viewers angry. Clinton hinted recently that Fox’s coverage of her is getting awfully close to “actual malice” (libel, in other words), and I honestly think she might be right.
Meanwhile, Sussmann filed a motion asking the judge to dismiss the case. I want to be clear here: Motions to dismiss on materiality grounds are rarely successful, but I do think Sussmann has a pretty good chance of succeeding. I’d still only put his chances at about 20%, but that is way higher than the 1% it’d be normally.
A great tribute to P.J. O’Rourke, who died this week.
The Mazars news is insanely bad for Trump. It’s possibly worse than any of his previous scandals, including his second impeachment. With his accounting firm basically confirming that he lied to them about his assets, it will make it almost impossible for banks to loan to him.
A great piece from David French.
That’s it from me my babies. As a reminder, there is no Jackal next week. Everyone enjoy the three-day weekend, and the next time I see you it will be March!
I acknowledge that Holocaust comparisons are bad, but I do think it is relevant here. And I call it a “mini” Holocaust because the Jews were selected explicitly because of their race, which is different from what happened in Ukraine in 1932, and more evil.
Page 362 of Kremlin Rising.