What Does Putin Want?
By Rostislav Ishchenko
Foreword by the
The analysis below is,
by far, the best I have seen since the beginning of the conflict in
the Ukraine. I have regularly posted analyses by Ishchenko on this
blog before, because I considered him as one of the best analysts in
Russia. This time, however, Ishchenko has truly produced a
masterpiece: a comprehensive analysis of the geostrategic position
of Russia and a clear and, I believe, absolutely accurate analysis
of the entire “Putin strategy” for the Ukraine. I have always said
that this conflict is not about the Ukraine but about the future of
the planet and that there is no “Novorussian” or even “Ukrainian”
solution, but that the only possible outcome is a strategic victory
of either Russia or the USA which will affect the entire planet.
Ishchenko does a superb overview of the risks and options for both
sides and offers the first comprehensive “key” to the
incomprehensible behavior of Russia in this conflict. Finally,
Ishchenko also fully understands the complex and subtle dynamics
inside Russian society. When he writes “Russian power is
authoritative, rather than authoritarian” he is spot on, and
explains more in seven words than what you would get by reading the
billions of useless words written by so-called “experts” trying to
describe the Russian reality.
We all owe a huge debt
of gratitude to Denis, Gideon and Robin for translating this seminal
text, which was very
difficult to translate. The only reason why we can read it in such
a good English is because the innumerable hours spent by these
volunteers to produce the high quality translation this analysis
I strongly recommend
that you all read this text very carefully. Twice. It is well
Translated from the Russian
by Denis, Gideon, and
What Does Putin Want?
By Rostislav Ishchenko
April 22, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - It’s gratifying that
“patriots” did not instantly blame Putin for the failure to achieve a full-scale
rout of Ukrainian troops in Donbass in January and February, or for Moscow’s
consultations with Merkel and Hollande.
Even so, they still are still impatient for a victory. The
most radical are convinced that Putin will “surrender Novorossiya” just the
same. And the moderates are afraid that he will as soon as the next truce is
signed (if that happens) out of the need to regroup and replenish Novorossiya’s
army (which actually could have been done without disengagement from military
operations), to come to terms with the new circumstances on the international
front, and to get ready for new diplomatic battles.
In fact, despite all the attention that political and/or
military dilettantes (the Talleyrands and the Bonapartes of the Internet) are
paying to the situation in Donbass and the Ukraine in general, it is only one
point on a global front: the outcome of the war is being decided not at the
Donetsk airport or in the hills outside Debaltsevo, but at offices on Staraya
and Smolenskaya Square,2
at offices in Paris, Brussels and Berlin. Because military action is only one of
the many components of the political quarrel.
It is the harshest and the final component, which carries
great risk, but the matter doesn’t start with war and it doesn’t end with war.
War is only an intermediate step signifying the impossibility of compromise. Its
purpose is to create new conditions whereby compromise is possible or to show
that there is no longer any need for it, with the disappearance of one side of
the conflict. When it is time for compromise, when the fighting is over and the
troops go back to their barracks and the generals begin writing their memoirs
and preparing for the next war, that is when the real outcome of the
confrontation is determined by politicians and diplomats at the negotiating
Political decisions are not often understood by the general
population or the military. For example, during the Austro-Prussian war of 1866,
Prussian chancellor Otto Von Bismarck (later chancellor of the German Empire)
disregarded the persistent requests of King Wilhelm I (the future German
Emperor) and the demands of the Prussian generals to take Vienna, and he was
absolutely correct to do so. In that way he accelerated peace on Prussia’s terms
and also ensured that Austro-Hungary forever (well, until its dismemberment in
1918) became a junior partner for Prussia and later the German Empire.
To understand how, when and on what conditions military
activity can end, we need to know what the politicians want and how they see the
conditions of the postwar compromise. Then it will become clear why military
action turned into a low-intensity civil war with occasional truces, not only in
the Ukraine but also in Syria.
Obviously, the views of Kiev politicians are of no interest to
us because they don’t decide anything. The fact that outsiders govern the
Ukraine is no longer concealed. It doesn’t matter whether the cabinet ministers
are Estonian or Georgian; they are Americans just the same. It would also be a
big mistake to take an interest in how the leaders of the Donetsk People’s
Republic (DPR) and the Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR) see the future. The
republics exist only with Russian support, and as long as Russia supports them,
Russia’s interests have to be protected, even from independent decisions and
initiatives. There is too much at stake to allow [Alexander] Zakharchenko or
[Igor] Plotnitzky, or anyone else for that matter, to make independent
Nor are we interested in the European Union’s position. Much
depended on the EU until the summer of last year, when the war could have been
prevented or stopped at the outset. A tough, principled antiwar stance by the EU
was needed. It could have blocked U.S. initiatives to start the war and would
have turned the EU into a significant independent geopolitical player. The EU
passed on that opportunity and instead behaved like a faithful vassal of the
As a result, Europe stands on the brink of frightful internal
upheaval. In the coming years, it has every chance of suffering the same fate as
the Ukraine, only with a great roar, great bloodshed and less chance that in the
near future things will settle down – in other words, that someone will show up
and put things in order.
In fact, today the EU can choose whether to remain a tool of
the United States or to move closer to Russia. Depending on its choice, Europe
can get off with a slight scare, such as a breakup of parts of its periphery and
possible fragmentation of some countries, or it could collapse completely.
Judging by the European elites’ reluctance to break openly with the United
States, collapse is almost inevitable.
What should interest us is the opinions of the two main
players that determine the configuration of the geopolitical front and in fact
are fighting for victory in the new generation of war – the network-centric
Third World War. These players are the United States and Russia.
The U.S. position is clear and transparent. In the second half
of the 1990s, Washington missed its only opportunity to reform the Cold War
economy without any obstacles and thereby avoid the looming crisis in a system
whose development is limited by the finite nature of planet Earth and its
resources, including human ones, which conflicts with the need to endlessly
After that, the United States could prolong the death throes
of the system only by plundering the rest of the world. At first, it went after
Third World countries. Then it went for potential competitors. Then for allies
and even close friends. Such plundering could continue only as long as the
United States remained the world’s undisputed hegemon.
Thus when Russia asserted its right to make independent
political decisions – decisions of not global but regional import – , a clash
with the United States became inevitable. This clash cannot end in a compromise
For the United States, a compromise with Russia would mean a
voluntary renunciation of its hegemony, leading to a quick, systemic catastrophe
– not only a political and economic crisis but also a paralysis of state
institutions and the inability of the government to function. In other words,
its inevitable disintegration.
But if the United States wins, then it is Russia that will
experience systemic catastrophe. After a certain type of “rebellion,” Russia’s
ruling classes would be punished with asset liquidation and confiscation as well
as imprisonment. The state would be fragmented, substantial territories would be
annexed, and the country’s military might would be destroyed.
So the war will last until one side wins. Any interim
agreement should be viewed only as a temporary truce – a needed respite to
regroup, to mobilize new resources and to find (i.e., to poach) additional
To complete the picture of the situation, we only need
Russia’s position. It is essential to understand what the Russian leadership
wants to achieve, particularly the president, Vladimir Putin. We are talking
about the key role that Putin plays in the organization of the Russian power
structure. This system is not authoritarian, as many assert, but rather
authoritative – meaning it is based not on legislative consolidation of
autocracy but on the authority of the person who created the system and, as the
head of it, makes it work effectively.
During Putin’s 15 years in power, despite the difficult
internal and external situation, he has tried to maximize the role of the
government, the legislative assembly, and even the local authorities. These are
entirely logical steps that should have given the system completeness,
stability, and continuity. Because no politician can rule forever, political
continuity, regardless of who comes to power, is the key to a stable system.
Unfortunately, fully autonomous control, namely the ability to
function without the president’s oversight, hasn’t been achieved. Putin remains
the key component of the system because the people put their trust in him
personally. They have far less trust in the system, as represented by public
authorities and individual agencies.
Thus Putin’s opinions and political plans become the decisive
factor in areas such as Russia’s foreign policy. If the phrase “without Putin,
there is no Russia” is an exaggeration, then the phrase “what Putin wants,
Russia also wants” reflects the situation quite accurately in my opinion.
First, let’s note that the man who for 15 years has carefully
guided Russia to its revival has done so in conditions of U.S. hegemony in world
politics along with significant opportunities for Washington to influence
Russia’s internal politics. He had to understand the nature of the fight and his
opponent. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have lasted so long.
The level of confrontation that Russia allowed itself to get
into with the United States grew very slowly and up to a certain point went
unnoticed. For example, Russia did not react at all to the first attempt at a
color revolution in the Ukraine in 2000-2002 (the Gongadze case,3
the Cassette Scandal,4
and the Ukraine without Kuchma protest5).
Russia took an opposing position but did not actively
intervene in the coups that took place from November 2003 to January 2004 in
Georgia and from November 2004 to January 2005 in the Ukraine. In 2008, in
Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia used its troops against Georgia, a U.S. ally. In
2012, in Syria, the Russian fleet demonstrated its readiness to confront the
United States and its NATO allies.
In 2013, Russia began taking economic measures against
[Victor] Yanukovych’s regime, which contributed to his realization of the
harmfulness of signing an association agreement [with the EU].
Moscow could not have saved the Ukraine from the coup because
of the baseness, cowardice, and stupidity of the Ukraine’s leaders – not only
Yanukovych but all of them without exception. After the armed coup in Kiev in
February 2014, Russia entered into open confrontation with Washington. Before
that, the conflicts were interspersed with improved relations, but at the
beginning of 2014 relations between Russia and the United States deteriorated
swiftly and almost immediately reached the point where war would have been
declared automatically in the prenuclear era.
Thus at any given time Putin engaged in precisely the level of
confrontation with the United States that Russia could handle. If Russia isn’t
limiting the level of confrontation now, it means Putin believes that, in the
war of sanctions, the war of nerves, the information war, the civil war in the
Ukraine, and the economic war, Russia can win.
This is the first important conclusion about what Putin wants
and what he expects. He expects to win. And considering that he takes a
meticulous approach and strives to anticipate any surprises, you can be sure
that when the decision was made not to back down under pressure from the United
States, but to respond, the Russian leadership had a double, if not a triple,
guarantee of victory.
I would like to point out that the decision to enter into a
conflict with Washington was not made in 2014, nor was it made in 2013. The war
of August 8, 2008, was a challenge that the United States could not leave
unpunished. After that, every further stage of the confrontation only raised the
stakes. From 2008 to 2010, the United States’ capability – not just military or
economic but its overall capability – has declined, whereas Russia’s has
improved significantly. So the main objective was to raise the stakes slowly
rather than in explosive fashion. In other words, an open confrontation in which
all pretences are dropped and everyone understands that a war is going on had to
be delayed as long as possible. But it would have been even better to avoid it
With every passing year, the United States became weaker while
Russia became stronger. This process was natural and impossible to arrest, and
we could have projected with a high degree of certainty that by 2020 to 2025,
without any confrontation, the period of U.S. hegemony would have ended, and the
United States would then be best advised to think about not how to rule the
world, but how to stave off its own precipitous internal decline.
Thus Putin’s second desire is clear: to keep the peace or the
appearance of peace as long as possible. Peace is advantageous for Russia
because in conditions of peace, without enormous expense, it obtains the same
political result but in a much better geopolitical situation. That is why Russia
continually extends the olive branch. Just as the Kiev junta will collapse in
conditions of peace in Donbass, in conditions of world peace, the
military-industrial complex and the global financial system created by the
United States are doomed to self-destruct. In this way, Russia’s actions are
aptly described by Sun Tzu’s maxim “The greatest victory is that which
requires no battle.”
It is clear that Washington is not run by idiots, no matter
what is said on Russian talk shows or written on blogs. The United States
understands precisely the situation it is in. Moreover, they also understand
that Russia has no plans to destroy them and is really prepared to cooperate as
an equal. Even so, because of the political and socioeconomic situation in the
United States, such cooperation is not acceptable to them. An economic collapse
and a social explosion are likely to occur before Washington (even with the
support of Moscow and Beijing) has time to introduce the necessary reforms,
especially when we consider that the EU will have to undergo reform at the same
time. Moreover, the political elite who have emerged in the United States in the
past 25 years have become accustomed to their status as the owners of the world.
They sincerely don’t understand how anyone can challenge them.
For the ruling elite in the United States (not so much the
business class but the government bureaucracy), to go from being a country that
decides of the fate of inferior peoples to one that negotiates with them on an
equal footing is intolerable. It is probably tantamount to offering Gladstone or
Disraeli the post of prime minister of the Zulu Kingdom under Cetshwayo kaMpande.
And so, unlike Russia, which needs peace to develop, the United States regards
war as vital.
In principle, any war is a struggle for resources. Typically,
the winner is the one that has more resources and can ultimately mobilize more
troops and build more tanks, ships, and planes. Even so, sometimes those who are
strategically disadvantaged can turn the situation around with a tactical
victory on the battlefield. Examples include the wars of Alexander the Great and
Frederick the Great, as well as Hitler’s campaign of 1939-1940.
Nuclear powers cannot confront each other directly. Therefore,
their resource base is of paramount importance. That is exactly why Russia and
the United States have been in a desperate competition for allies over the past
year. Russia has won this competition. The United States can count only the EU,
Canada, Australia, and Japan as allies (and not always unconditionally so), but
Russia has managed to mobilize support from the BRICS, to gain a firm foothold
in Latin America, and to begin displacing the United States in Asia and North
Of course, it’s not patently obvious, but if we consider the
results of votes at the UN, assuming that a lack of official support for the
United States means dissent and thus support for Russia, it turns out that the
countries aligned with Russia together control about 60% of the world’s GDP,
have more than two-thirds of its population, and cover more than three-quarters
of its surface. Thus Russia has been able to mobilize more resources.
In this regard, the United States had two tactical options.
The first seemed to have great potential and was employed by it from the early
days of the Ukrainian crisis.
It was an attempt to force Russia to choose between a bad
situation and an even worse one. Russia would be compelled to accept a Nazi
state on its borders and therefore a dramatic loss of international authority
and of the trust and support of its allies, and after a short time would become
vulnerable to internal and external pro-U.S. forces, with no chance of survival.
Or else it could send its army into the Ukraine, sweep out the junta before it
got organized, and restore the legitimate government of Yanukovych. That,
however, would have brought an accusation of aggression against an independent
state and of suppression of the people’s revolution. Such a situation would have
resulted in a high degree of disapproval on the part of Ukrainians and the need
to constantly expend significant military, political, economic, and diplomatic
resources to maintain a puppet regime in Kiev, because no other government would
have been possible under such conditions.
Russia avoided that dilemma. There was no direct invasion. It
is Donbass that is fighting Kiev. It is the Americans who have to devote scarce
resources to the doomed puppet regime in Kiev, while Russia can remain on the
sidelines making peace proposals.
So now the United States is employing the second option. It’s
as old as the hills. That which cannot be held, and will be taken by the enemy,
must be damaged as much as possible so that the enemy’s victory is more costly
than defeat, as all its resources are used to reconstruct the destroyed
territory. The United States has therefore ceased to assist the Ukraine with
anything more than political rhetoric while encouraging Kiev to spread civil war
throughout the country.
The Ukrainian land must burn, not only in Donetsk and Lugansk
but also in Kiev and Lvov. The task is simple: to destroy the social
infrastructure as much as possible and to leave the population at the very edge
of survival. Then the population of the Ukraine will consist of millions of
starving, desperate and heavily armed people who will kill one another for food.
The only way to stop this bloodbath would be massive international military
intervention in the Ukraine (the militia on its own will not be sufficient) and
massive injections of funds to feed the population and to reconstruct the
economy until the Ukraine can begin to feed itself.
It is clear that all these costs would fall on Russia. Putin
correctly believes that not only the budget, but also public resources in
general, including the military, would in this case be overstretched and
possibly insufficient. Therefore, the objective is not to allow the Ukraine to
explode before the militia can bring the situation under control. It is crucial
to minimize casualties and destruction and to salvage as much of the economy as
possible and the infrastructure of the large cities so that the population
somehow survives and then the Ukrainians themselves will take care of the Nazi
At this point an ally appears for Putin in the form of the EU.
Because the United States always tried to use European resources in its struggle
with Russia, the EU, which was already weakened, reaches the point of exhaustion
and has to deal with its own long-festering problems.
If Europe now has on its eastern border a completely destroyed
Ukraine, from which millions of armed people will flee not only to Russia but
also to the EU, taking with them delightful pastimes such as drug trafficking,
gunrunning, and terrorism, the EU will not survive. The people’s republics of
Novorossiya will serve as a buffer for Russia, however.
Europe cannot confront the United States, but it is deathly
afraid of a destroyed Ukraine. Therefore, for the first time in the conflict,
Hollande and Merkel are not just trying to sabotage the U.S. demands (by
imposing sanctions but not going too far), but they are also undertaking limited
independent action with the aim of achieving a compromise – maybe not peace but
at least a truce in the Ukraine.
If the Ukraine catches fire, it will burn quickly, and if the
EU has become an unreliable partner that is ready if not to move into Russia’s
camp then at least to take a neutral position, Washington, faithful to its
strategy, would be obliged to set fire to Europe.
It is clear that a series of civil and interstate wars on a
continent packed with all sorts of weapons, where more than half a billion
people live, is far worse than a civil war in the Ukraine. The Atlantic
separates the United States from Europe. Even Britain could hope to sit it out
across the Channel. But Russia and the EU share a very long [sic] border.
It is not at all in Russia’s interests to have a conflagration
stretching from the Atlantic to the Carpathian Mountains when the territory from
the Carpathians to the Dnieper is still smoldering. Therefore, Putin’s other
objective is, to the extent possible, to prevent the most negative effects of a
conflagration in the Ukraine and a conflagration in Europe. Because it is
impossible to completely prevent such an outcome (if the United States wants to
ignite the fire, it will), it is necessary to be able to extinguish it quickly
to save what is most valuable.
Thus, to protect Russia’s legitimate interests, Putin
considers peace to be of vital importance, because it is peace that will make it
possible to achieve this goal with maximum effect at minimum cost. But because
peace is no longer possible, and the truces are becoming more theoretical and
fragile, Putin needs the war to end as quickly as possible.
But I do want to stress that if a compromise could have been
reached a year ago on the most favorable terms for the West (Russia would have
still obtained its goals, but later – a minor concession), it is no longer
possible, and the conditions are progressively worsening. Ostensibly, the
situation remains the same; peace on almost any conditions is still beneficial
for Russia. Only one thing has changed, but it is of the utmost importance:
public opinion. Russian society longs for victory and retribution. As I pointed
out above, Russian power is authoritative, rather than authoritarian; therefore,
public opinion matters in Russia, in contrast to the “traditional democracies.”
Putin can maintain his role as the linchpin of the system only
as long as he has the support of the majority of the population. If he loses
this support, because no figures of his stature have emerged from Russia’s
political elite, the system will lose its stability. But power can maintain its
authority only as long as it successfully embodies the wishes of the masses.
Thus the defeat of Nazism in the Ukraine, even if it is diplomatic, must be
clear and indisputable – only under such conditions is a Russian compromise
Thus, regardless of Putin’s wishes and Russia’s interests,
given the overall balance of power, as well as the protagonists’ priorities and
capabilities, a war that should have ended last year within the borders of the
Ukraine will almost certainly spill over into Europe. One can only guess who
will be more effective – the Americans with their gas can or the Russians with
their fire extinguisher? But one thing is absolutely clear: the peace
initiatives of the Russian leaders will be limited not by their wishes but their
actual capabilities. It is futile to fight either the wishes of the people or
the course of history; but when they coincide, the only thing a wise politician
can do is to understand the wishes of the people and the direction of the
historical process and try to support it at all costs.
The circumstances described above make it extremely unlikely
that the proponents of an independent state of Novorossiya will see their wishes
fulfilled. Given the scale of the coming conflagration, determining the fate of
the Ukraine as a whole is not excessively complicated but, at the same time, it
will not come cheap.
It is only logical that the Russian people should ask: if
Russians, whom we rescued from the Nazis, live in Novorossiya, why do they have
to live in a separate state? If they want to live in a separate state, why
should Russia rebuild their cities and factories? To these questions there is
only one reasonable answer: Novorossiya should become part of Russia (especially
since it has enough fighters, although the governing class is problematic).
Well, if part of the Ukraine can join Russia, why not all of it? Especially as
in all likelihood by the time this question is on the agenda, the European Union
will no longer be an alternative to the Eurasian Union [for the Ukraine].
Consequently, the decision to rejoin Russia
will be made by a united federated Ukraine and not by some entity without a
clear status. I think that it is premature to
redraw the political map. Most likely the conflict in the Ukraine will be
concluded by the end of the year. But if the United States manages to extend the
conflict to the EU (and it will try), the final resolution of territorial issues
will take at least a couple of years and maybe more.
In any situation we benefit from peace.
In conditions of peace, as Russia’s resource base
grows, as new allies (former partners of the United States) go over to its side,
and as Washington becomes progressively marginalized,
territorial restructuring will become far simpler and temporarily
less significant, especially for those being restructured.
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