The free world is responding with purpose, albeit belatedly and not yet fully, to defend free Ukraine against Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion. Democratic nations have united in support of the principle of self-determination and Ukraine’s now desperate battle to exist as an independent country. But the question remains: will this newfound resolve be maintained or will Putin succeed in his goal to re-order the world by force? The answer will depend on whether the free world has finally learned from the mistakes of the past decades.
Some consider that Putin misjudged the unity of Western nations. Many called Putin unhinged and irrational following an ahistorical speech three days prior to the Feb. 24 invasion declaring Russia’s inherent right to reestablish its former empire by force (for example his threat that “we are ready to show what real decommunization would mean for Ukraine”). Putin’s heightened bellicosity and his announcement three days after the invasion that he was putting Russia’s nuclear weapons on high alert have led many to believe he is unstable.
But no student of Soviet behavior will find anything new in Putin’s assertions or actions. Putin is speaking and acting deliberately on a longstanding belief system of the post-Soviet national security state – one that the West tolerated throughout his time in office. It is an ideology asserting the essential mission of Russia as rebuilding its empire and Great Power status out of the Soviet ashes and re-orienting its geostrategy back to a Eurasian, not European, posture. Putin’s and the Russian government’s actions over the last 22 years have led to this point.
Most Western observers three decades ago declared communist ideology to be “dead” (or in the triumphalist version, “defeated”). It was not. Rather, as several specialists on the Soviet Union have noted, it was repurposed and reconfigured around Russian nationalist ideas. Putin’s belief system, in fact, reflects a continuation of late Stalinism. As the Soviet scholar Richard Pipes describes it in his book, “The Formation of the Soviet Union”:
“The final five years of Stalin’s dictatorship were characterized by the eruption of an aggressive nationalism that extolled Russians as something akin to a master race. The conquests of tsarism, once denounced as crass imperialism, were now hailed as voluntary acts of submission on the part of the conquered peoples.”
The development of this ideology flowed naturally from the Red Army’s forcible resubmission of republics that had emerged from the Russian Revolution. The Soviet Union was constituted as a state precisely from reconquering most of the lands of the Russian empire. Notwithstanding Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s many crimes, late Stalinism was distilled within the party-state’s “organs of power” and its schools for decades after his death.
For much of the Cold War, Western leaders, news media, and many academic specialists often conflated the Soviet Union and Russia, forgetting that many nationalities and historical states were submerged under the hammer and sickle flag. Given the large participation by members of the nationalities themselves in a system of totalitarian governance (including Stalin himself, an ethnic Georgian, born in Gori during the Russian Empire), there seemed to be a merging of many “peoples” into one Russian-dominant Soviet “nationality.” This merging of interests was late Stalinism’s purpose: to make Soviet nationality an expression of Russian nationalism.
Still, as during the period of the Russian empire, there were many among all the nationalities who rebelled against Russification policies. They sought to keep alive the national identity, language, and culture that late Stalinist ideology sought to extirpate. The Gulag was filled with Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Latvian, Georgian, Azeri, and other national dissidents who built strong alliances with anti-nationalist Russian dissidents like Andrei Sakharov. Most forget today that the Soviet Union’s collapse was driven less by Gorbachev’s failed reforms than by the rise of popular movements for independence in all of the republics, from the Baltic states to Central Asia. Non-Russian nationalists and Russian anti-nationalists were the force of democratization; Russian nationalists were the rising anti-democratic force.
US Opposed Late-Soviet Freedom Movements
U.S. policy opposed these freedom movements and their drive for independence, wishing to support Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms and his failed efforts to keep the USSR together through a new “all-union” treaty. As late as Aug. 1, 1991, President George H. W. Bush went to Kyiv to upbraid Ukrainians for “suicidal nationalism.” (Ukrainians ignored what they later referred to as the “chicken Kiev” speech. Four months later, on Dec. 1, more than 90 percent of citizens in the republic, including most ethnic Russians, voted to affirm Ukraine’s independence and withdraw from the Soviet Union.) U.S. recognition of the Baltic States’ independence occurred only after the failed coup against Gorbachev; the recognition of non-Baltic States only occurred on Dec. 26, 1991, when forced by Gorbachev’s effective dissolution of the USSR.
Contrary to realist analyses today that the U.S. “provoked” Russia by (somehow unilaterally) expanding NATO to its borders, Western policy after 1991 tried to deflect pressures from former Eastern Bloc countries and their supporters for admission into structures of the democratic West (for example, through the Partnership for Peace initiative) and placated demands of Russia’s leadership to respect its “sphere of influence” over former Soviet republics. With the exception of the Baltic countries, which restored their inter-war independence, U.S. policy did not actively support democratic movements in the newly independent states that tried to free their countries from the legacy of the Soviet Union. As a result, nearly all leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States – the nominal successor of the USSR – were former KGB or Communist Party leaders who imposed authoritarian regimes dependent on Russia and – it should be stressed – its security agencies.
None of this was an accident of history. For example, less than two years after the Popular Front and another democratic party, Musavat (Equality), established a parliamentary democracy in Azerbaijan and one year after one of its leaders won presidential elections, Russia facilitated a coup by the former KGB general and Soviet Politburo member Haidar Aliyev to overthrow President Abulfaz Elchibey. Aliyev instituted an autocratic regime that has been continued under his son, Ilham, to this day.
U.S. and European Union policy accepted the reconstitution of repressive states with Soviet characteristics, and did not seriously object when Russia fostered ethnic conflicts, effectively occupied territories, interfered in other countries’ domestic politics, or used force to direct, select or change governments. The most important interests for Western nations were the pursuit of energy deals and other economic investments, not promotion of democracy. The United States and the EU might, for a time, support the results of “color revolutions,” as in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and Georgia’s Rose Revolution, but the West would not make any real commitment to their security or their transition to liberal democracies.
Thus, following the Bucharest Summit in April 2008, when NATO made a vague promise of future membership for Georgia and Ukraine, there was no actual path offered to either of them, even when Russia, in testing this non-commitment, invaded Georgia later in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. (Despite both countries contributing to U.S. allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, they were never even declared major non-NATO allies by the United States, something the U.S. Helsinki Commission is now advocating for Ukraine.) And no serious policy was developed to counter the rising kleptocracy or authoritarianism of Russia-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych or the deterioration of democracy in Georgia.
Ukraine and Belarus were specially targeted by Putin as Slavic “brethren” (representing “White Slavs” in contrast to “black” Caucasians and Asians in the Eurasian imperium). Russia intervened through intelligence and criminal operations; use of long-serving and newly bought agents; controls over the economy, especially over energy supplies and exports; and direct interference in elections, politics, and media, seeking to ensure a pro-Kremlin orientation of both countries.
In Belarus, Russia helped boost an unknown former collective farm manager, Alexander Lukashenka, to the presidency in 1994 and aided him in reconstituting the country’s KGB and reestablishing a Soviet-like police state, now lasting 28 years. In Ukraine, in 2004, Russian intelligence agencies failed in trying to kill Viktor Yushchenko, the democratic challenger to a pro-Kremlin candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. When an uprising of Ukrainian citizens then thwarted efforts to manipulate the 2004 election results in Yanukovych’s favor, the Kremlin put its bought-and-paid for Ukrainian oligarchs and agents to work with another asset, Paul Manafort, to themselves thwart democratic reforms and engineer the comeback of Yanukovych and his pro-Russian Party of Regions in the 2008 and 2010 elections. Yanukovych quickly adopted authoritarian methods of rule, including jailing Yulia Tymoshenko, his opponent in the 2010 election.
All of Russia’s actions made clear it would not allow newly independent states to reorient towards Europe or move away from Russia’s “sphere of influence” without consequence.
Ukraine’s Echoes of Chechnya
By now, the nature of Putin’s regime is generally attributed to his being a former KGB agent. But most Western analysts draw rather simplistic conclusions from this fact, focusing on individual characteristics leading him towards authoritarianism. Putin’s assumption to power, however, was not just as an individual. He was the chosen representative of an anti-democratic, post-communist system built around the reconstituted “organs of power,” namely the security, intelligence, and military agencies. Trained in “late Stalinism” during the periods of Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov, the scions of this new system aimed to restore Russian “greatness” and dominion over a former empire.
Putin’s first tasks were to destroy democratic features that emerged within Russia since 1991 and all manifestations of independence among the remaining nationalities directly under the control of the Russian Federation, most significantly the Chechen Republic. The terror and destruction now being rained down on Ukraine were deployed first in Chechnya. Western countries were indifferent to the fate of predominantly Muslim Chechens, both when bombarded by Yeltsin in 1995-96 as the new system started to form, and then, after 1999, by Putin. The American Committee for Chechnya that we were involved in, for example, in the aftermath of Putin’s military campaign got a very cool reception from both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, and found little support for humanitarian and civil society assistance and none for policy action such as sanctions to press an end to the war. There was no support for pursuing charges of war crimes or crimes against humanity. Russia was even invited to the first Community of Democracies meeting in 2000, and when civil society organizations proposed a resolution on Chechnya, U.S. government representatives asked that it be tabled. After the al-Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Western leaders and intelligence agencies accepted Russian claims that indiscriminate killing, forced exile, and destruction of a historic nation’s patrimony was justified to fight “terrorism.” The Chechens who survived the slaughter have had to live under hand-picked leaders who terrorize the population and serve Putin’s murderous interests.
Today, it is clear: Western leaders and intelligence agencies miscalculated the intentions of Putin and Russia’s national security state. When Putin ordered the invasion and annexation of Crimea and the effective occupation of two additional regions of the Donbas in 2014, he was serving notice that Ukraine’s second uprising to demand democracy, the “Revolution of Dignity” that drove the autocrat Yanukovych from power, would not be allowed to stand. But the West imposed limited sanctions on Russia’s economy and ruling elite. U.S. and EU threats of escalating sanctions on Russian banking, energy, and other sectors were abandoned. Ineffectively targeted individual sanctions meant most of Russia’s oligarchs still played freely in the West and could hide their fortunes. Trade and investments (such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that would directly link Russia and Germany and bypass Ukraine to that country’s detriment) continued apace. By accepting, de facto if not de jure, the first territorial annexation in post-war Europe – Crimea – the West effectively accepted Putin’s claims for restoring territories to the Russian empire, just as it accepted Russia’s “sphere of influence demands” after 1991.
West Ignored Crimea After Russian Capture
In the meantime, for eight years, parts of Ukraine – Crimea in the south and the occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east – lived under harsh Russian occupation and ongoing war. The death count rose to over 14,000 soldiers and civilians. Significantly, the Crimean Tatars, who struggled peacefully over 45 years to return to their homeland after Stalin’s forced exile of the entire national community to Central Asia in 1944, have lived under intense repression and terror for their continued support of democratic Ukraine. The structures of the Crimean Tatars’ self-organized community are shattered. Dozens disappeared; more than a hundred Crimean Tatars are serving long prison sentences; as many as 60,000 of the small population of 250,000, have been driven from their homeland. As in Chechnya, Russian authorities targeted Crimean patrimony, such as the national library, for destruction. Yet, few know of the Crimean Tatars. Neither they nor the return of Crimea are mentioned in current Western reporting or in Western demands for Putin to withdraw from Ukraine.
Russia’s actions in Belarus over the last two years also made clear the Russian national security state’s intentions. For decades, Western countries sought to draw Lukashenka to the West, imposing sanctions when he repressed opponents but offering investment and other enticements when he eased repression. All this was Western conceit that conversely aided Lukashenka’s dictatorship. Over the same time, Russia increased its economic control and interwove Belarus’s armed forces into its military operations and structures.
When, as in Ukraine, the Belarusian citizenry rose up against falsified election results in August 2020’s presidential election and mounted massive protests for two-and-a-half months, Lukashenka relied on Russian support to impose a terror regime to put down the democratic movement and force an end to public protests. Western democracies again acted tepidly, not imposing heavy costs either on the regime or on Putin for propping up Lukashenka. Russia has now moved to effectively occupy Belarus while Lukashenka initially ordered his army’s participation in the invasion of Ukraine. (While no troops have been reported sent, at least 70 missiles have been fired from Belarusian territory as of March 15 with the government’s acceptance.)
Throughout his 22 years in power, Putin has acted with clear rationality and calculation, both in consolidating the power of the national security state and in serving to fulfill its ideological and geostrategic aims. These aims, based fully on Russian racism, were in growing alignment with the interests of other authoritarian powers, leaders, and movements, from China’s Xi Jinping to Hungary’s Viktor Orban to France’s Marine Le Pen and her National Rally.
Yet, as Putin ordered deployments to carry out a fuller invasion on Ukraine, a country of 44 million people struggling to establish their independence from Russia, the West took no proactive measures to prevent the war by demonstrating the full costs of such an invasion other than a promise of “massive,” but unstated, sanctions, nor to fully bolster Ukraine’s abilities to defend itself. Given the West’s previous tolerance and even facilitation of his aggression, Putin made a rational calculation that the resolve of democracies will weaken and that what he sees as the U.S.-led “neo-liberal” globalist order is in decline.
Reorienting the West’s Policy
Now, after two decades of impunity for Putin, massive sanctions that President Joe Biden threatened and negotiated with NATO, the G-7 and other allies are being put in place to cripple Russia’s economy and, it is hoped, coerce a reversal of Putin’s full invasion of Ukraine. These include ending Nord Stream 2; sanctioning Russian banks; restricting Russian access to Western financial systems; sanctioning and seizing assets of oligarchs; and banning of air transport, media, cultural exchanges, and technology exports. Individual western nations and the EU are rushing to provide military hardware to Ukraine’s defense forces, receive refugees, and isolate Russia diplomatically.
All of this is too late to save Ukraine from greater bloodshed and suffering. If, however, these actions continue over time to reorient the West’s policy away from unprincipled pursuit of economic interest and toward consistent policies to support democracy and independence and to build a common front against authoritarianism and imperialism, there may be hope, even if 30 years late, that “Putinism” and Putin can ultimately be repulsed.
To reorient policy, however, means to maintain resolve in supporting Ukraine’s long struggle for freedom and independence with both increasing arms and escalating sanctions and not to fear “humiliating” or “cornering” Putin. It means not to weaken the comprehensive sanctions in exchange for a coerced peace that would grant Russia’s demand to redraw the borders of Europe.
A stronger Western policy also means remembering Crimea and the Crimean Tatars and their national rights and adhering to the stated U.S. policy (established in 2014 and reinforced by the State Department’s Crimea Declaration in 2018) to reverse Russia’s annexation and return Crimea to Ukrainian sovereignty. Sanctions should, therefore, not be lifted until the Russian withdrawal from all Ukrainian territory. It means supporting the now-completed expulsion of Russia from the Council of Europe and suspension from other international structures, such as the OSCE, for violating the basic terms of membership. It means establishing full accountability for Putin and his regime for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and gross violations of international human rights.
To reorient policy means also to remember Belarus’s democratic movement at this crucial moment. As its exiled leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya has said “this is not the time for half measures.” While the EU has stepped up some of its sanctions in response to Lukashenka’s participation in Russia’s war, the United States has not, and already Belarus is being used as a sanctions buster since sanctions are not as comprehensive on Belarus’s Central Bank or its banking and financial sectors nor on overall trade and exports. But more, Western democracies need to formally derecognize Lukashenka as president, remove Belarus from international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (and prevent it from receiving its Special Drawing Rights), and recognize Tsikhanouskaya as the leader of democratic Belarus. The West should support all her demands until democracy is achieved and Belarus’s sovereignty is restored.
Re-orienting policy also requires not forgetting the democratic aspirations of the peoples in the Caucasus and Central Asian nations and having a consistent pro-democracy policy that is not compromised by economic or energy interests, one that clamps down on rampant kleptocracy, holds accountable autocratic regimes, and fully supports democrats seeking to finally achieve self-governing states. It means also not forgetting Chechnya, where Putin’s aggression started, and supporting the national autonomy and free elections Chechens deserve.
Finally, because Putin will never accept such demands for peace nor ever respect sovereignty and human rights, it means abandoning ideas of “strategic stability” and fully supporting Russian democrats who seek to rid Russia of Putin and, just as importantly, its post-communist national security state.
Only with an end to Putin’s regime can the legacy of Stalinism and the Russian empire, now being expressed in its most aggressive form, start to be overcome.