Will Russia’s unconstitutionally elected president, Vladimir Putin, unleash a full-scale land war against Ukraine.
I can give you ten reasons for every possible answer to this question. Which is to say that, like everyone else trying to divine Putin’s “mind,” I don’t know.
But there is one thing that I definitely do know. Suddenly, we are all talking about war in Europe. The one thing that was supposed to have become “unthinkable” and “unimaginable” after the end of the Cold War and the rise of the European Union has become perfectly thinkable and quite imaginable.
And all thanks to Putin. If tomorrow’s headlines scream “RUSSIA INVADES ESTONIA,” we’d be shocked, but would we be surprised?
Don’t blame the thinkability and imaginability of war on the Ukrainians. All they did was remove a corrupt dictator and embark on building a democracy. The Ukrainians didn’t invade Crimea. Nor did they arm separatist republics with Russian soldiers and weapons. That was Putin’s doing and only Putin’s doing.
There’s a lesson here, and it’s not either of the ones that are usually drawn: that Putin is a power-hungry madman, if you’re his critic, or that Putin is a shrewd statesman motivated by raison d’état and Realpolitik, if you’re his backer. The real lesson is that dictatorships, especially fascist dictatorships built on the ruins of collapsed empires, are prone to do bad things, such as engage in imperialist wars.
I’ve made the comparison many times before (starting in the late 1990s, by the way), but it’s worth reminding ourselves just how similar Russia’s and Putin’s trajectories are to those of post–World War I Germany and Adolf Hitler. The point is not to score easy debating points or to shake Germans’ assumptions about the uniqueness of Nazi evil, but to demonstrate that there are deeper structural reasons for Putin’s aggressiveness and indifference to international norms.
Both Germany and Russia lost empires and desired to rebuild them. Both Germany and Russia suffered economic collapse. Both Germany and Russia experienced national humiliation and retained imperial political cultures. Both Germany and Russia blamed their ills on the democrats. Both Germany and Russia elected strong men who promised to make them grand and glorious again. Both strong men employed imperialist arguments about “abandoned brethren” in neighboring states, remilitarized their countries, developed cults of the personality, centralized power, gave pride of place in the power structure to the forces of coercion, constructed regimes that may justifiably be called fascist, and proceeded to engage in re-annexing bits and pieces of lost territory before embarking on major landgrabs. Both strong men demonized friendly nations. Germany’s strongman ended up starting a world war. Russia’s strongman—well, we don’t know what he’ll do, but please do notice that a rigorous pursuit of the comparison does not bode well for peace in Europe or the world.
Democracy matters. Dictators are more prone to war precisely because they can manipulate public opinion and ruthlessly pursue whatever warped visions they have without much resistance from institutions and elites. Democratic presidents don’t have that luxury—as a rule of course. That’s why democracies plod along. That’s why they muddle through. That’s why they’re the worst form of government, as Winston Churchill observed, except for all the others.
Ukraine’s democracy has at best been crummy and creaky for the last two and a half decades. It’s done far too little about reform and it’s been much too enamored of corruption. As a result, Ukraine has muddled along, sometimes muddling up, sometimes muddling down. Change is imperative, and, thanks to the Maidan Revolution, everyone in Ukraine finally knows it. Stasis is bad, possibly unsustainable, probably destructive. And yet, and yet: Ukraine remains a democracy, far more so now than just a few months ago. It’s searching for answers to complex questions, balancing far too many interests and sensitivities, moving much too slowly to satisfy proponents of breakthroughs (and that includes me).
But do take note of one very important fact. Amid all this democratic sludge, independent Ukraine has been pacific for the entire time of its existence. At the same time, when provoked, as in the past few months, democratic Ukraine has also demonstrated that it can fight to defend itself and its values.
Which goes to show two things: that, except for the likes of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Stephen F. Cohen, Marine Le Pen, and Aleksandr Dugin, even a crummy Ukrainian democracy is preferable to an efficient Russian dictatorship and that a war initiated by democratic Ukraine really is unthinkable and unimaginable.