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Putin and the Recline of the West
Cold War performances
Cold War is performative, a dance where both sides move together in time without ever touching. Cold War II is really not very different from Cold War I. One could even say that Vladimir Putin has resumed the previous Cold War along the eastern line of Russia’s defeat. With the sole exception of the internet, I would even venture that in material terms, the technology gap between 1918 and 1939 was much greater than the gap between 1992 and 2022. For example, the same nuclear bombers still fly today. We ought to feel right at home in this sequel.
Or perhaps we should think of it as Cold War: Season 2, because —again — this is all a performance.
Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014. Whatever Joe Biden says, there is no “new” invasion, merely an old one already in place. Putin is just making the outcome of that earlier invasion official. So it only took the former(?) KGB operative eight years to finish conquering the eastern part of a much smaller, weaker country, hooray! Let there be great rejoicing throughout the glorious motherland.
Never mind that no one will recognize the newly independent states he has created. After all, his audience lives in Russia, not Ukraine. Putin is performing this new cold war entirely for Russians. They are the only audience that matters, that has ever mattered to him. You can tell that much just from reading a translation of Putin’s speeches.
Addressing the Russian nation on Monday, Putin spun a version of history that justifies his actions by casting the 1924 Soviet constitution as overly-deferential to nationalist impulses. In short, Putin blames Lenin for everything he has done:
Why was it necessary to appease the nationalists, to satisfy the ceaselessly growing nationalist ambitions on the outskirts of the former empire? What was the point of transferring to the newly, often arbitrarily formed administrative units – the union republics – vast territories that had nothing to do with them? Let me repeat that these territories were transferred along with the population of what was historically Russia. …Why was it necessary to make such generous gifts, beyond the wildest dreams of the most zealous nationalists and, on top of all that, give the republics the right to secede from the unified state without any conditions?
Putin has always deplored the post-communist breakup of Russia’s empire. This stance is quite popular with Russians who are old enough to remember the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Hardly anyone misses communism, of course, but the blow to Russian pride has been deep and lasting. “You want decommunization?” Putin asked Ukraine rhetorically on Monday. “Very well, this suits us just fine. But why stop halfway? We are ready to show what real decommunizations would mean for Ukraine.” The world can only assume that, given the chance, Putin would immediately restore Ukraine to its former status as a satellite of his mafia state. To the rest of the world, that is not endearing language. Russians are the only people on the planet who will really appreciate this kind of talk about Ukraine.
Putin’s invasion has separated the most-Russian parts of Ukraine from the rest of that country for eight years. Now he deplores “the policy to root out the Russian language and culture and promote assimilation” in a country where the vast majority of people do not speak Russian and very few are inclined to rejoin Russia’s empire.
The [legislature] has generated a steady flow of discriminatory bills, and the law on the so-called indigenous people has already come into force. People who identify as Russians and want to preserve their identity, language and culture are getting the signal that they are not wanted in Ukraine.
Then Putin went into the deep end of the crazy-pool, claiming that Ukraine is on the verge of developing nuclear weapons to threaten Russia, and that it is part of a sinister plan by NATO and the United States.
Never mind that Ukraine specifically gave up the Soviet nuclear weapons on their own soil; such a move by Ukraine would run contrary to every nonproliferation policy of the United States. It would certainly complicate any effort to join NATO afterwards, whereas if Ukraine joined NATO as a non-nuclear state, they would enjoy the “protection” of the American nuclear umbrella. Nothing Putin says here is the least bit realistic. His only purpose in saying it is to frighten Russians. Perhaps he has taken a page from the George W. Bush book of WMD-propaganda, and instead of “color revolutions,” Russians will now enjoy a color-coded threat condition, updated every day to make sure they remain terrified of the Ukraine nuclear boogeyman.
Putin has always bet on the recline of the West — our collective relaxation, post-Soviet Union, of military and nuclear capabilities that had once contained the USSR. This has turned out to be a mistake. Policy hawks in the US have never been happy with the response of any American administration to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. He has massed substantial ground forces on the border; in response, the West only ever sends a few battalions that would be little more than a speed bump for the Russian Army. We can choose to see this as weakness, as some do, or we can see it as a rational calculation: Putin is spending a far larger portion of his GDP to do this than the US or America’s European partners. The cost of invading the rest of Ukraine is more than Putin seems willing to pay, and so the West — still reclined — is calling his bluff. Diplomatic recognition for any part of Ukraine as an independent state amounts to a “Mission Accomplished” banner fluttering over a fiasco.
What happens now? The new war will probably stay cold. If Ukraine takes this as an opportunity to join NATO, Putin will make a big fuss, but there will be little he can do on the ground. Worse for Putin, Ukraine might not be the only state to join NATO after this display of imperial hubris. Finland may be next. Perhaps no outcome would hurt Putin more than a new Cold War on terms set by the West.