Putin is Not Dealin’


A makeshift memorial near the Kremlin in Moscow, in remembrance of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, killed at that spot. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

It’s hard for me to imagine that much spontaneous thinking takes place at the top of the Russian government, as anyone wishing to see President Vladimir Putin in person needs to quarantine for a week or ten days, and then sit like a penitent at the far end of the long table.

Why Putin is running his dictatorship as a boy-in-the-bubble is anyone’s guess. In recent weeks, from varied sources, I have heard numerous diagnoses of the president’s condition: he has pancreatic cancer, is pumped up on steroids, lives in dread of Coronavirus, fears assassination (especially by poison—one of his own equalizers of choice), and imagines plotters behind every curtain (which is where the assassins of Tsar Paul I found him hiding in his St. Petersburg bedchamber in 1801).

Putin’s self-imposed isolation can only mean that he’s cut off from his commanders in the field, as well as others in the Russian government, which probably explains why no one other than the president can make decisions about anything—be it a matter of strategy, tactics, economics, war or peace.

If you’re looking for a metaphor for the Russian military in Ukraine, it would be that forty-mile stalled armored column that, clearly, was awaiting Putin’s signature on a petroleum voucher or whatever before anyone in the chain of command dared to issue a new order.

Note that when Putin appeared at his Special Military Operation Rally at a Moscow stadium (filled with kids let out of school on the condition that they wave flags as directed), he was alone on stage—a cross between Captain Philip Queeg on the bridge of USS Caine (of mutiny fame) and Charles Foster Kane (aka Citizen Kane), who was equally at home with his own delusions (“You can take my word for it. There’ll be no war…”).

Given the realities of Russia as a one-man band (as the French kings would say: “L’État, c’est moi”), is there any chance that Putin will ever negotiate a peace in good faith?

Let’s Not Make a Deal

While there are ongoing peace talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations (some took place on the Ukraine-Belarus border, not far from the smoldering remains of Chernobyl), I would say that neither side is close to making a deal. Nor do I believe that a Putin government is capable of negotiating in good faith.

Russia’s demands are that Ukraine demobilize its military, renounce its constitutional goal of joining NATO, pledge neutrality, recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, and acknowledge that the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk would in effect have the ability to veto decisions of the central government in Kyiv in a new federated government of Ukraine.

One of the ironies of the peace talks (not to mention the war) is that the Russian-speaking President Zelensky was elected in 2019 on a platform of negotiating a settlement with Russia, and his electoral support came largely from the Russian-speaking east (including Donbas) more than the Ukrainian-speaking west.

Another irony is that President Putin claims to be attacking Ukraine to “de-Nazify” the country, as if the government of the Jewish Ukrainian president was rallying its faithful at Nuremberg-like rallies instead of directing them to shelter from Russian missiles in the depths of the Kyiv metro system.

The Ukrainian negotiating position is that, in exchange for agreeing to non-NATO neutrality, the international community should guarantee support (for example, a UN peacekeeping force on its borders?) to protect Ukraine should Russia decide to invade again in six months or a year, in greater numbers, and digest even more of the country?

Although I haven’t seen it stated in summaries of the negotiations, I am sure the Ukrainians are also demanding reparations for war damages (now by many accounts in excess of $100 billion) as well as the complete withdrawal of Russian forces from sovereign Ukraine territory, including Crimea and Donbas.

In effect, each side is demanding unconditional surrender by the other, which is usually a recipe for an endless war.

Terms of Surrenderment

Maybe we’re all making a mistake is calling the meetings between the Russian and Ukrainian governments “peace talks”?

My suspicion is that Putin thinks his government is only engaged in negotiations to hear terms of a possible Ukrainian surrender.

Who in the Russian government would have the nerve to suggest to Putin that the Russian army is stalled in Ukraine or that now might be the best time end the fighting?

Clearly, it was Putin himself who drew up the invasion plans and positioned the units for the blitzkrieg against Ukraine, much as I am sure that it is Putin who is now directing the genocidal attacks on the civilian population as a way to destabilize the Zelensky government.

Anyone recommending the withdrawal of Russian forces, a suspension of the air blitz, or the renunciation of the claims over Crimea and Donbas would sooner find themselves in front of firing squad than heading to the United Nations with talking points for a settlement.

The Soviet Way of Negotiation: Getting to the Nyet

Keep in mind, too, that the Russian style of peace negotiations is to bluster and stall, and to do what it pleases.

At Yalta, the 1945 big three conference toward the end of World War II, Joseph Stalin talked around Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and never really made it clear that he planned to occupy Eastern Europe militarily at the war’s end.

All the fatally ill President Roosevelt heard at Yalta is that Russia would be more than happy to join in the dismemberment of the Japanese empire and that it would accept a seat on the Security Council of the forthcoming United Nations, while Churchill left the Crimean conference assured that Stalin would not block Britain’s efforts to reconstruct its empire.

Remember that, in exchange for Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament, Russia agreed in writing to respect Ukraine territorial integrity. In the same vein, just before the recent war, Putin swore up and down to the leaders of France and Germany, among others, that he had no intention of invading Ukraine.

So one of risks of any negotiated settlement over Ukraine is that Russia will not feel bound by the settlement.

Primary Colors in Ukraine

It does not help the prospects of an Ukraine peace that the positions of the Zelensky government are at such variance from the views of the NATO allies and the United States—despite the West sending weapons and humanitarian aid to the battlefront.

Zelensky understands that he will lose the war unless somehow he can substitute NATO’s jets and missiles for the Ukrainian air force. He also understands, as Dwight Eisenhower observed, that “public opinion wins wars” and that his only chance of success is to retain the sympathies of world community, even if it leads to insufficient deliveries of arms and materiel.

Sad to say, but to the Biden administration, Ukraine matters only so far as it can influence the 2022 mid-term congressional elections (in which, if the current polls hold, the Democrats could well lose control of the House and Senate, effectively ending the Biden presidency).

Does it mean that President Biden is indifferent to the suffering of the Ukraine? No, it does not, but it does suggest that his view of the fighting, and a subsequent peace, focuses mostly on what they would mean in the upcoming congressional elections.

If you think this view is cynical, here’s what Abraham Lincoln said in August 1862 about slavery:

If I could save the union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.

I suspect Biden has similar emotions about Ukraine.

Zelensky’s War of the Worlds

For President Zelensky and some governments in Eastern Europe, the struggle for Europe (between NATO and Putin’s Warsaw Pact revival) has already begun, and for them it is clear that the best way to defeat Russian aggression is to fight (with a no-fly zone and other hardware) on the line of River Dnieper (which roughly divides Ukraine in half).

The Biden administration, however, would prefer not to commit troops to Ukraine and, for all I know, it might prefer the prospect of a long, drawn out proxy war in the East, which would drive the final stake through the heart of Soviet revanchism.

So long as the U.S. can temper the fighting so that it does not include the use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, the Biden administration might well welcome the prospect of Russia, isolated from the West, bleeding itself dry in the Kyiv suburbs.

In that scenario, Biden would be the standard bearer in 2022 and 2024 of a party that both “kept us out of war” (Woodrow Wilson’s slogan in 1916) and at the same time channeled John F. Kennedy during the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis (“…pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty…”).

Of course a Russian victory in Ukraine and maybe a subsequent attack on Moldova or the Baltic States would open Biden to the McCarthyite charge, “Who lost Ukraine?”, if not much of Eastern Europe.

In Biden’s favor in the 2022 mid-term elections (leaving aside runaway inflation, the ongoing pandemic, and that the average age of the Democratic leadership is about that of Rip Van Winkle) is the fact that the Republican Greene party is in thrall of not just one Manchurian candidate (Donald Mole Trump) but a phalanx of crazies who think Putin is justified in wanting to exterminate the Ukrainian nation.

The Prince of Our Disorder

What is unknown in the West—as was the case during earlier Russian eras of one-man rule (about the last 800 years)—is the extent to which in any peace negotiations President Putin needs to consider opinions other than those of his twisted imagination.

I cannot be sure that Putin carries business cards, but assuming that he does, here’s how I imagine his title:

We, Vladimir the First, by the grace of God, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias, of Moscow, Kiev, Vladimir, Novgorod, Tsar of Kazan, Tsar of Astrakhan, King of Poland, Tsar of Siberia, Tsar of Tauric Chersonesos, Tsar of Georgia, Lord of Pskov, and Grand Duke of Smolensk, Lithuania, Volhynia, Podolia, and Finland, Prince of Estonia, Livonia, Courland and Semigalia, Samogitia, Białystok, Karelia, Tver, Yugra, Perm, Vyatka, Bulgaria, and other territories; Lord and Grand Duke of Nizhny Novgorod, Chernigov; Ruler of Ryazan, Polotsk, Rostov, Yaroslavl, Beloozero, Udoria, Obdoria, Kondia, Vitebsk, Mstislav, and all northern territories; Ruler of Iveria, Kartalinia, and the Kabardinian lands and Armenian territories; hereditary Ruler and Lord of the Cherkess and Mountain Princes and others; Lord of Turkestan, Heir of Norway, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein, Stormarn, Dithmarschen, Oldenburg…

Omnipotent as they were, the earlier tsars had to humor the nobility, if not the Cossacks or some of the minorities swept into the Russian empire. Likewise Josef Stalin had occasionally to defer to his military commanders or members of the Politburo.

By contrast, Putin appears to be an unchallenged supreme leader who can imprison or poison rivals with the same impunity that he can lay waste to Ukrainian cities and consign millions to the refugee netherworld—not exactly the profile of someone who might concede a few points in a peace negotiation.

I also have few doubts that Putin would use chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons to vaporize Ukraine, especially if Russia faces the prospect of losing the war—although deploying such weapons against a people otherwise thought by Putin to be Russian might give pause to some of his constituents closer to home.

Vietnamizing Russia

If there is a hope for the Ukrainians and the West in the conflict, it lies in Putin’s anal-retentive management style, that could well turn Ukraine into yet another graveyard of empire.

The American President Lyndon Johnson said famously during the Vietnam War, which he micro-managed from the White House, that “my boys don’t so much as take out a brick shithouse without me giving the approval” (or words to that effect). I am sure Putin shares the same delusion of a well-ordered universe.

Johnson’s control freakiness explains many bad decisions that were made in Vietnam, such as the build-up in American troop levels in 1965, the useless air campaign (as if North Vietnam had the industrial capacity of Germany’s Ruhr), the fruitless search-and-destroy operations in the rice paddies (where American soldiers could never distinguish between friends or enemies), and finally the attrition strategy that reduced American performance in the war to a body count. (In his excellent history, American Reckoning, Professor Christian Appy writes: “Journalist Michael Herr once heard a GI in Vietnam offer his opinion on the domino theory: ‘All that’s just a load, man. We’re here to kill gooks. Period.’”)

In Ukraine, I see a similarity in Putin’s obsessive-compulsive decision-making—the need to approve every missile strike or each deployment of reserves—that would seem to be setting up the Russian government for a colossal defeat of Vietnam proportions.

Am I right in thinking that Putin is living in an endless rage against everyone below him for the Russian failure to capture Kyiv or defenestrate the Zelensky government? Did he not give FSB and the army such an order to take them out?

No wonder the default setting from the Russian side of the war is simply to fire more cruise missies into Ukraine’s cities, as Churchill said, “to make the rubble bounce”. I am sure that the missile command reports directly to Putin, and it’s one of the few units still in touch with the reclusive president. For now that’s a negotiation he’s winning, but things may change.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.