Wednesday, January 19, 2022

What does Putin really want in Ukraine

As Vladimir Putin plays soldiers along the borders of Ukraine, I have to stop and wonder just what it is that he wants and why he wants it. Granted, it's a little difficult for me to put myself into the head of a megalomaniac dictator but, try as I may, I still just really don't get it.

Putin has now moved over 100,000 troops and a whole load of military machinery to the borders of neighbouring Ukraine, including some into adjacent puppet-state Belarus. His intentions appear to be either to invade sometime soon, or to pretend he is going to do that for whatever twisted reasons he may have.

But why would you want to rule over a population that you know is going to hate you (in the main). Yes, there are a good number of ethnic Russians (about 17%, maybe 8 million individuals) in Ukraine, especially in the eastern part of the country, but the 77% ethnic Ukrainians that make up most of the country are not going to welcome a return to a Russian-led pseudo-Soviet Union. So, why would you want to put yourself in that position? What would make it worthwhile?

The best analysis I could find comes from  the Council on Foreign Relations website. Historically, Ukraine was the second most populous and second most powerful of the 15 Soviet republics, after Russia itself, and the home of much of the Soviet Union's agriculture and its military and defence industries. Since independence, thirty years ago, though, Ukraine has been very clear in its determination to steer its own course, and a noted preference for alignment with the European Union and NATO, rather than with Russia (and now we can see why that might have been wise).

To us in the West, Russia looks to be the clear aggressor in the current situation, particularly in the aftermath of the unilateral (and illegal, in the eyes of most non-Russian observers) 2014 invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia. For its part, Russia argues that it is merely responding to Western aggression in its backyard, particularly the 2017 acceptance into NATO of the ex-Soviet Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

When the Soviet Union broke up in the early 90s, it was not actually promised a "sphere of influence" going forward, but President Putin has been very vocal in claiming such a "guarantee". Neither was there any promise that NATO should not expand not expand own influence in the region. In fact, Russia is a signatory to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which is promised to respect Ukraine's independence and territorial integrity, as well as the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, in which Russia agreed to the very NATO "expansion" it is now so outraged about. But then, Putin is not one to let the odd writen agreement stand in the way of his lust for power.

Of course, most ex-Soviet republics don't actually want to be in Russia's sphere of influence and, quite rightly, don't trust Russia. Bulgaria and Romania have been particularly outspoken in refusing to move NATO troops from their territories, arguing that Russia has no right to interfere in the decisions of other sovereign states. If Putin is looking to establish a buffer of "friendly" countries between Russia and the West, he does not have many options, as very few ex-Warsaw Pact countries remain friendly to Russia. But, what Russia really wants to avoid in particular is larger countries like Ukraine and Georgia also joining NATO - what Putin refers to as the "eastward expansion of NATO" (as though NATO is invading Russian territory), and this is the "red line" that must not be crossed for him.

As a matter of principle, the USA and NATO will not give into Russian demands that it guarantee that Ukraine will not be allowed to join NATO: Russia will never be allowed a veto over who can join NATO, nor should they. Nor are they likely to give in to Putin's other major demand, that NATO remove all weapons and troops from Eastern European member countries. But it's far from clear that NATO actually has any intentions of allowing Ukraine to join, for a whole variety of reasons, however much Ukraine may want to.

So, is that really what Putin is after? Or is he just hung up on re-creating the Soviet Union, come what may (despite official protestations to the contrary)? I also have yet wonder whether he has not had his nose put out of joint by the increased attention on China in recent years - Putin likes to be top of the news cycle, likes to consider himself the USA's principal bugbear. It looks, for all the world, like he is suffering from paranoia, narcissism and delusions, increasingly out of touch with the Russian people and political reality, and a victim of his own culture of propaganda and disinformation. The man is as extreme a psychological study as his erstwhile buddy Donald Trump. 

So, might all these military machinations and chest-thumping, not be, in the end, all about President Putin's personal legacy and his delusions of grandeur? (I'm certainly not the only person to believe that; some bona fide Russian experts also think that "it's not about Russia, it's about Putin" and his need to cement his place in history.) In which case, there may be no logical, strategic grounds for Putin's military moves at all, and no amount of negotiation is going to make any difference.

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