The Invasion Of Ukraine Through Putin’s Eyes

The Invasion Of Ukraine Through Putin’s Eyes
On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin launched a “special military operation” against Ukraine with 200,000 Russian troops. The operation is now in its second year. Russia has gained little and lost a lot.

Why would a man who was just shy of his 70th birthday, and who had been at the helm in Moscow since 1999, plunge his country into a senseless war?

Russia long ceased to be America’s rival. Its economy ranks 9th in the globe, its per capita income ranks 61st. It’s living off its reserves of fossil fuels. It has the world’s largest reserves of natural gas, the second largest reserves of coal, and the eighth largest reserves of oil. Putin presides over an oil and gas economy whose major exports are crude oil, refined petroleum, and natural gas. The bulk of its trade is carried out with the EU and UK.

Russia’s economy is heavily militarised, armed to the teeth with nuclear and conventional arms, including ICBMs. It is also the world’s second largest exporter of arms and ammunition.

A desperate man, flustered at not being able to take Kyiv, Putin is now raining hypersonic missiles on Ukraine, killing hundreds of innocent civilians.

Philip Short has written a penetrating biography, ‘Putin’ which lets us see the war in Ukraine through the dictator’s eyes. It’s based on eight years of research and more than 150 interviews. The book is a hefty tome, with 673 pages of text, supported by 150 pages of notes. The narrative, smoothly presented, provides a unique perspective into the mind of Vladmir Putin.

Short tells us that Putin grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Leningrad (St Petersburg), which taught him how to be “street smart.” He was a kid who would hit much bigger guys hard if they threatened him. He studied law, joined the KGB, and was posted in Dresden. Had the Soviet Union not collapsed in 1991, he would probably have retired as an unknown intelligence officer.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he moved back to St Petersburg and joined the mayor’s office. He rose rapidly through the ranks and said multiple times that he had no interest in politics or politicians. At some point, he took a higher-ranking job in Moscow, much as he did not like the city. Later, he became head of the FSB, the KGB’s successor.

Putin got the attention of President Boris Yeltsin, who ruled from 1991 to 1999. Eventually, Boris appointed him the prime minister and soon thereafter he was elected President, with a nudge from Yeltsin. On more than one occasion, the man who had repeatedly said that he did not like politics and disdained politicians, was now saying: “My fate was allowing me to work at the highest level… It would be stupid to say, ‘No, I’d rather sell sunflower seeds,’ or ‘No, I’m going into private law practice’.”

As he approaches the end of his fourth term in office, he has had the Russian constitution modified to remove all term limits, opening the door for yet another presidential run in 2024.
Why would a man who was just shy of his 70th birthday, and who had been at the helm in Moscow since 1999, plunge his country into a senseless war?

Despite the failure of his Special Military Operation in Ukraine, a cleverly coined euphemism for invading a much smaller neighbour, he continues to be very popular in Russia. Why? Because he has created an aura of indispensability around him. He has convinced millions of Russians that only he can restore the lost glories of the Russian Empire. Only he understands Russian history and culture, and only he can ensure that Russia will get its rightful place in the globe.

His invasion of Ukraine, outrageous as it was, has not isolated him from the entire world community. Many countries in Asia and Africa continue to see Russia as the only power in the world which can act as a check on American hegemony. China has lined itself with Russia and, in many ways, so has India, despite its close ties with the US. Other countries, including Pakistan, continue to trade with him since he keeps on dangling natural gas at discounted prices to them.

He’s not someone Pakistan can trust. Early in his tenure, he reminded the US that Pakistan supported extremists in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war. He claims to have alerted the Clinton administration to the Osama bin Laden problem but they had shrugged their shoulders and said, “What can we do?” While backing the Taliban, he said, Pakistan provided covert support for the jihadists and a refuge for bin Laden.

He took credit for giving transit rights to the US to resupply its troops in Afghanistan, without which he claimed it would have been impossible for the Navy Seals to carry out their mission to take out bin Laden at his safe house in Pakistan, a mile from the military academy.

On more than one occasion, he has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the saddest events in history, and then gone on to say that the collapse of the Russian empire was an even sadder event.

Early in his career, when he was still an unknown, he was reluctant to acknowledge the enormity of Stalin’s crimes against Russians. Gradually, he started talking up the virtues of democracy and the freedoms that came with it, going so far as to say that totalitarianism was transient and democracy was permanent.

At some point, he launched a full-mouthed attack on communism and totalitarianism, citing the horrors they had inflicted on Russia. And then he began criticising Stalin by name, often mentioning the death camps which proliferated during his reign. Several years later, he went a step further, and attacked Lenin, who had founded the Soviet Union.

He was re-elected twice as president, which was then the limit allowed by the constitution. He then became prime minister under his hand-picked man, a younger person, named Dmitry Medvedev, who was elected president.

During his four terms in office, he interacted with western leaders, including four presidents, and gave lengthy interviews to western media outlets. Along the way, while talking up democracy and freedom, he started attacking dissidents first by name, and then having them arrested and jailed. A few high profile adversaries were assassinated, beginning with Aleksandr Litvinenko, the FSB whistleblower in London. On learning of his death, Putin offered his condolences, saying every death is a tragedy but then he added, with a touch of malice, “Mr. Litvinenko, unfortunately, is not Lazarus.” Nerve agents, a hallmark of the KGB, were used by the FSB to dispatch him and several others in the years that followed.

Sensing a total lack of progress on the economic front, the urban middle class began to get alienated from him. So, he turned to people in the countryside and small townships, calling them “Authentic Russians,” and promising to make Russia great again, a theme that would be borrowed by an admirer of his across the oceans who promised to make America great again.

Seeking to further entrench himself in the Russian psyche, Putin entered into a Faustian Bargain with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and began citing the Bible. The fact that the Bible never endorsed mass incarcerations, tortures, and killings, which were happening on his watch, did not bother him in the least.

He had become a hypocrite like so many politicians in history, lying when needed, talking up virtues when that would endear him to the populace. Hiding behind a thin veneer of democracy and modernism, there was a dictator who pulled no punches.

He understood the West better than it understood him. Various US presidents called him cold blooded, a man without a soul, and a bored kid in the back of the classroom. Other western analysts agreed, noting that he did not indulge in small talk or give anything away, which fit in perfectly with his early career in the intelligence services.

At various times, analysts called him a cold fish, a Prussian, very thin-skinned, very touchy, a man who had no sense of humour. It was noticed by more than one observer that he had to work hard to seem at ease with people. He was curious and observant, but not a person who opened up. He would give others a mirror image of what he thought they would like to see. Notably, he was good at eliciting information from others without revealing much about himself.

So it was that no American president ever fully understood him, and thus none could predict his next move. That’s why the US was caught by surprise when he invaded Ukraine. Putin knew America would not attack Russia because of the fear of starting a nuclear war that no one would win. He knew America had not attacked any country, large or small, if it had nuclear weapons.

When a Russian journalist told Putin that Saudi Arabia would always be a US ally, Putin answered: “Always doesn’t exist.” Unknowingly, he was echoing the imperial sentiments once spoken by former Prime Minister Henry Palmerstone in 1848: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

By now, Putin had begun to temper his talk of democracy by saying that freedom would be given “as was required.” Who would determine how much freedom was “required” was left unsaid. In due course of time, his critics – politicians, businessmen, and journalists -- would discover those limits as they would lose their freedom.

His tough stance on Chechnya endeared him to all Russians. The more the West pressured him to respect the human rights of Chechens, the more attractive he appeared to Russian voters.
Sensing a total lack of progress on the economic front, the urban middle class began to get alienated from him. So, he turned to people in the countryside and small townships, calling them “Authentic Russians,” and promising to make Russia great again, a theme that would be borrowed by an admirer of his across the oceans who promised to make America great again.

Always anxious to project his masculinity, he flew into Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, in a Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighter. He was in the co-pilot’s seat and for a few minutes, he was given control of the plane, during which time he executed a roll, which left him “close to ecstasy.”

Referring to the jihadists in Chechnya, he said at a press conference: “If you want to become an Islamic radical and are ready to be circumcised, I will invite you to Moscow. I will recommend that you have the operation done in such a way that nothing will ever grow again.” A hushed silence descended over the room. The next day, that malicious remark unbecoming of a statesman made headlines.

On Ukraine, he began saying that it was “Not even a country,” since part of its territory was in Eastern Europe and the rest was a gift from Russia. He reminded Russians that Ukraine was created during the Soviet era, a third of its population was Russian, and nine-tenths of the population of Crimea was Russian.

Under Putin’s guidance, Russian textbooks used in schools have been revised to state that Stalin was a despot, Khrushchev was hare-brained, Brezhnev restored stability, Gorbachev broke up the USSR and Yeltsin had a crisis-ridden style of governance.  It was only under Putin that Russia has had an efficient, democratic government.

A personality cult is being carefully created. Putin watches, akin to Stalin watches, are being sold, and so are flashy calendars featuring a different picture of Putin for each month, Easter eggs with Putin painted on them, and T-shirts displaying him. He has made sure that photographs of him posing bare chested on horseback or swimming across rivers in Siberia have gone viral on social media, showcasing his machismo.

He does not fear assassination, citing a Russian proverb — those who are destined to be hanged are not going to drown.

By the time he concluded his third term in office, he had come to the conclusion that nothing was to be gained accommodating either his domestic or foreign opponents. Domestically, he began shifting away from those who opposed him – the educated, urban Middle Class, and began gravitating toward “authentic Russians,” people who lived in small towns or countryside.

Almost from the time he came to power, he has talked about the need to groom a successor, but has also ensured that no one begins to think of themselves as his successor. At one point, that thought may have crossed former Prime Minister Medvedev’s mind. So, Putin began to isolate him and then denigrated him. He ended up being thrown under the proverbial bus.

Seeking to find accommodation with the people of the former Soviet Republics, he began saying Russia was a civilisational state, bonded together by the Russian people, Russian language and Russian culture, “native for all of us, which unites us.” A Commonwealth of Independent States was created, in some ways akin to the British Commonwealth that sought to reunite the countries that were in the British Empire.

He began talking of their common heritage: “We are all members of one economic community. Historically, our peoples have a great deal in common – kinship, cultural links, a common history and common problems.”

Ukraine, Putin said, “lay at the heart of the shared history.”  He reminded Russians and Ukrainians that Ukraine’s insistence in 1991 on independence precipitated the USSR’s collapse. In July 2021, he wrote a long article, titled On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians.

As he approached the end of his fourth term in August 2021, Ukraine was the only piece of business that remained unfulfilled. It would be the capstone of his career, his legacy. In an address to the Russian people on the evening of February 21, 2022, he said that Ukraine was historically Russian land which had now become America’s puppet regime. It was like a knife on Russia’s throat.

That address was preceded by Putin’s meeting with the Russian Security Council, whose meetings were always held in secret. A picture was released showing Putin talking to members of the council, who were seated 20 yards away from him, a staged scene that could have come from the days of Tsars.

The man who had condemned the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and later America’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was different. Russia was fighting a war of self-defense. The West had left it with no other choice. Unless the Russian bear fought back, Putin noted, the “Bear’s skin will end up on the wall.”

What happens next is anyone’s guess. Wars never go as planned. Since the war began, Russia has lost 65,000 troops, who have either been killed or gone missing. Much of Ukraine, including the capital Kyiv, is not under Russian occupation. In the Afghan war, they captured the entire country and lost only 15,000 troops over 10 years.

How much additional suffering is Putin going to put on the Russian people? It’s not just his future but their future which hangs in the balance.

Dr. Faruqui is a history buff and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan, Routledge Revivals, 2020. He tweets at @ahmadfaruqui