Great artists know an essential truth about the road. Doing a one-off show is often harder than preparing for a lengthy tour, whether musically, theatrically or even politically. One date demands the same rehearsal time and need for clarity as a whole tour. That’s a lot to ask for one gig. Far easier to wing things, hoping that charisma’s momentum and spontaneity will carry the day. History’s detritus shows a vast landscape of tattered reputations from humbled musical legends to self-immolating political candidates.
War, unsurprisingly, isn’t much different. Consider Tommy Franks’ war plan (albeit with OSD and OVP intrusions) 2002-2003. Not only did he wing it, Franks did a two-for, abruptly bugging out and retiring in 2003 before his mistakes became devastatingly obvious. Adding Wolfowitz’ last minute failure with Turkey for a northern front and one gets the point. Conversely, much of the American success in the Pacific 1941-45 famously grew from significant planning and thinking about amphibious warfare campaigns dating back to the 1920s.
Germany 1935-45 is also an obvious choice although somewhat less than many think. It’s true that Germany lost the war on September 1, 1939. And German conceptual and economic preparations for an intercontinental war with the US are often ignored by the still British-dominated historiography and *those* cable channels. Germany’s 1936-37 economic crisis spurred radicalization and planning for a general war by 1943-45. What’s ignored is the regime’s longer vision in 1938 when the Four Year Plan and industrial base began alignment for the ‘inevitable’ world war with the US. The Corporal’s improvisations within this overall strategic concept doomed both.
Not everyone shirks planning and rehearsals even for a single gig. Led Zeppelin famously spent an entire month in 2007 rehearsing for a solitary 2 hour London show. Stung by ridicule after decades of calamitously unrehearsed ‘re-unions’, vanity demanded it.
So what to make of Putin’s War on Ukraine? We say it’s a one-off, and Vladimir Putin is no Led Zeppelin.
Putin launched his attack on or about the night of February 22nd relying only on his closest advisors, meaning almost no one. Assurances from MFA/MID and other senior government officials at the time otherwise we attribute to being simply cut out. He invaded Crimea based on a war plan dating back to the late 1990s to secure the Black Seas Fleet. We completely reject spurious claims by non-specialists that a speech on the characteristics of emerging war by the General Staff in 2013 are a modern “Hossbach Memorandum” and prove Putin has been long planning a carefully considered war of aggression on Ukraine. Such allegations by casual observers and social media hype mongers misunderstand the culture, nature and purpose of General Staff discussions and Putin’s 2014 context.
Putin shares the Soviet/Great Russian prejudice that Ukraine is an unstructured cultural and ethnic ecumene. (“It’s not a country, George”). Yet his emotional volatility and impulsiveness triggered his war and continue still. Putin took no advance (even clandestine) measures to prepare the Russian economy, social sphere or even military force posture. Much of the GRU success in Crimea simply due to extensive local networks and the Ukrainians never fired a shot.
Maidan, Berkut’s rout, Yanukovich’s flight, and cascading Lenin statutes wounded his personal prestige. More seriously, Maidan’s an existential problem. Putin and his closet circle from the intelligence and security world all interpret spontaneity elsewhere as purposeful direction by others. Perversely, American general passivity re Ukraine post 2008 merely compounds the insistence that it’s an unseen, lurking controlling force – a Rumsfeldian “unknown unknown”.
Putin started lucky. He got Crimea and can now say he expanded Russia unlike Stolypin. And his agitprop at home inoculated against the Maidan. He paid no costs. Berlin, Paris & elsewhere “understood”. Granted, it was all a tragi-comical high school troupe re-enactment of a mini Koniggratz. But a win is a win. Look at Grenada.
Putin’s mistake was to continue. Even now he still isn’t sure how to to get out and keep face. But in his zigs and zags, he’s made progress, jettisoning some of the people who sparked his worst instincts.
He lost personal control in Donbass beginning in May. Russian fascist and orthodox activists ignored his explicit public wishes and directly criticized Putin personally in the media. Worse, these same Novorossiya ideologues were screwing up on the ground in the Donbass. Here we begin to see Putin looking for a way out of being in the passenger seat. Until then, Putin for a period genuinely seemed sensitive to pressure from his fascist, nationalist right. Eventually, their continued public personal disloyalty forced his hand. They were not part of his answer out but the problem.
Putin began to turn to loyalists like Surkov. Besides being a Kremlin grey cardinal of political manipulation, Surkov earlier served as an emissary to Ukraine. In this role, he vied with neo-fascist sympathizer ‘economist’ Glazyev. Glazyev, besides calling for destruction of the world dollar economy, is affiliated with the Izborsk Club, a gathering of nationalist and fascist personas and organizations.
Surkov could be counted on for discretion, following Putin’s personal interests and political savvy – he knows how to make deals. Glazyev is a blunt bulldozer. He makes Rogozin look like Warren Christopher. In parallel, the Kremlin began to break up the ultra-nationalist/fascist wedge. Well known Kirginyan, founder of the uber-nationalist “Essence of Time” movement (among the 20 plus neo-fascist groups in the Russian constellation), began aggressively combating National Unity, Dugin and a host of others over Novorossiya and the Donbass as a Putin cut out in public, in the media. The signal was clear. Putin’s improvisation continued.
Putin next purged a few senior security officials (in part for particulars, in part to send a signal). The Power Ministries? Firmly his. He also announced on national TV there would be no general purge of the so-called ‘Fifth Column” demanded by fascists/ultra-nationalists (Russian fascists have created a sixth and seventh, too, if you are counting). Many Western observers missed the importance of Putin’s brief comment, hungry for more sensational news to tweet.
Then it became time to clean the decks. First, Dugin was fired from his professor’s chair. His entire department at Moscow State University also purged of like-minded. Significantly, court jester Zhirinovsky took Dugin’s place in an exquisite demotion of Dugin twice over. Putin’s broom also swept the Donbass. Girkin and the whole Novorossiya lot recalled and now twist in a vague, quasi obscurity. The intended message? What happens in Donbass will be because the Kremlin made the call, not a bunch of atavistic re-enactors. Jury’s still out but with Russian military more or less open now, ignoring Putin becomes much less whimsical.
Finally, Putin pivots to an exit. He’s lined his ducks up. He’s no longer seeking to grab Ukraine like in April. He’ll settle for protracted negotiations. So Putin does two things. He basically yells to the West at Yalta in Crimea before his government and international journalists Russia seeks a unitary Ukraine, as an independent country, a cease fire and federalization. Zhirinovsky specifically sits on stage with Putin in the court jester role and trots out all of the fascist Novorossiya arguments comically, only to be cut off and put down by Putin. Putin goes so far as to roll his eyes in front of all several times. Putin rejected it all as a personal opinion but having nothing to do with official Russian policy. It is significant none of this was shown on TV but in front of international journalists.
Putin’s second step is building huge hype in Russia as a humanitarian hero. He’s beyond a war maker; he cares. The Kremlin polls and surveys more extensively than an American political campaign. He knows Russians don’t want body bags (Cargo 200) coming from Ukraine. Thus the genesis of the Potemkin Convoy for Russian TV. It was a great plan except Ukraine and the international community got a vote. Putin’s victory lap became an embarrassment as the convoy went nowhere and the trucks exposed as empty.
We said at the time the convoy’s mission was (i) PR optics for Russian domestic politics; (2) exfiltration of men, casualties, equipment & evidence; (3) a replay of Germany post May 1945 re seizure of capital plant. A little of all occurred, but with even Russian TV unable to hide the convoy’s lingering delay, Putin’s improvised hero moment escaped his grasp. Still, at this time, Ukraine’s ATO controlled Luhansk, most of the Donbass except for Donetsk and the pocket. Merkel, although criticized at the time, travelled to Kiev to caution about over extension.
Denied a hero role, Putin in sullen mood went to Minsk in August to meet Ukraine’s Poroshenko, Lukashenko (Belarus) and Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan). It was a car wreck. Putin offended the other presidents from his own Union. Tensions only grew. Poroshenko forgot the essential truth of Vladimir Putin: everything is personal. Unfortunately, Porosohenko and the Ukrainians acted as though the ATO was on the verge of victory. Games were played about whether a bilateral meeting would occur and when. The Poroshenko left to his embassy and gave an address, blowing off the planned wrap up session with all four presidents. Putin apparently took all of it as personal slights.
The next day the Russian army overtly entered Donbass without pretension and began the destruction of Ukrainian volunteers exposed and unsupported by the Ukrainian military. Luhansk fell and Poroshenko finally realizes the difference between an ATO and a competent military campaign. For domestic reasons, Putin put the Novorossiya label on it all. It not only quelled the voices calling for troops, but allowed Putin to claim Novorossiya for himself, personally.
Many in the West misunderstood Putin’s move post Minsk. This tactical move did not mean a wider offensive into Ukraine. (Mariupol was the first clue). Putin undermined his own PR by commenting he could take Kiev in 2 weeks if he wanted. The Russian language is complicated with subjunctives. Without hearing the conversation, our sense was that Putin’s alleged claim was in a explanatory boast – “Look, I’m standing were I am. Don’t you think if I wanted to take Kiev we couldn’t do it?” As with most Putin boasts, it rings hollow. Domestic Russian tolerance for casualties is already fraught. And of all peoples, the Russians should know that taking something and holding it are worlds apart.
So we are now actually where we were in Yalta, with Putin raising the chips of a ceasefire, dangling unitary Ukraine with federalization (Kiev rightly wants de-centralization) except Kiev controls far less of the Donbass, suffered casualties and has little prospect for changing ground truth in the next few years.