1. an advocate or supporter of a political policy of revanche, especially in order to seek vengeance for a previous military defeat.
2. of or pertaining to a political policy of revanche;
3. of or pertaining to revanchists or revanchism.
Sometime between February 21st and February 22nd, Vladimir Putin decided to violate the settled international order. By all evidence, like Andropov and Ustinov over Afghanistan in Dec. 1979, his rump war cabinet was insular: FSB Chairman Bortnikov, Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov and very few others.
He started a war of aggression on Ukraine and against the Western international system. He chose war for both internal and external reasons. He gambles that he can improvise more skillfully than Western coalitions. Any Western pressure he judges will not be much or last long. He can also use pressure for internal consolidation ala his speech denouncing internal opposition as a “5th column”. So far his assumptions aren’t markedly off.
Ukraine’s Maidan in February 2013 toppled a key pillar of Putin’s foreign policy, luring Ukraine into his orbit with $15 billion in loans. Maidan also halted Putin’s effort to transform Ukrainian President Yanukovich into a Putinist authoritarian.
Far worse, however, was Maidan’s challenge to Putin’s domestic legitimacy. Berkut and Yanukovich’s rout ignited a firestorm in Russian state media. Soon Russians began circulating images of burning tires in Russian cities on the Internet as pro-Maidan support. Maidan’s power over Russian imagination can be seen in how Russian FSB/GRU troops and ‘militas’ ritually and deliberately re-enacted Maidan’s iconic imagery in reverse. Putin’s regime largely rests on controlling Russian media and its messaging. Crushing Maidan’s narrative became a matter of perceived regime survival, and remained the Alpha and Omega for initial invasion AgitProp goals.
Putin did act impulsively. He used an off the shelf plan to seize Crimea that almost certainly was a long standing Russian contingency should Ukraine ever join NATO. He deliberately excluded his Ministry (Minister) of Foreign Affairs. Later he famously refused to take Lavrov’s phone call from London. Tactical impulsiveness doesn’t mean Putin lacks a long term conceptual goal. Putin does have an ideology which he’s promoted within ruling circles by assigning specific books to read. When Angela Merkel and Madeleine Albright say “Putin lives in his own world” what they’re saying is “Putin isn’t following our own preconceptions”. It’s an alarming lack of understanding.
Putin’s goal is to rebuild a Slavic civilization as equal and eventually dominant opponent to the West. His rejection isn’t merely post-Soviet bitterness but as spiritual and racial superior. Perhaps fanciful. He promotes murky (even incoherent) Slavic ideologies drenched in mysticism. Collectively, they are a mishmash and do not spell out a coherent strategic plan. Yet that pastiche arguably forms a generalized North Star under which he improvises or makes isolated tactical decisions. His self-pitying speeches about Russia’s past slights and grievances he writes himself. They’re from the heart. They’re also manipulative red meat for his new nationalism.
Western leaders don’t grasp that Putin’s aims are beyond just ‘re-inventing the Soviet Union’ with his Custom’s Union. His long term ambition is far more profound from his point of view. His proposed Union “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” – in his own words – repeats Slavic ideologues’ calls for a Slavic Eurasia “from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. *He’s* not talking about a EU 2.0 even if he knows others will think so. Here’s an English version of the vision from Dugin, a prominent fascist Slavic ideologue.
Putin’s public rejection of the West in Crimea may have been premature. But that was always his intent. True, he talks often about BRICs as an alternative geopolitical home. Or even just China. These tactical adjustments always support the longer term goal of Russian civilizational independence and rejecting Western ‘hegemony’.
The West mistakes what he does for what he is. For example, many who’ve dealt with him in purely transactional terms proclaim he’s a pragmatist. Others assert he’s merely profoundly cynical. Putin and his then-new propaganda chief Volodin in 2012 concocted a ersatz nationalism seen in today’s Russian chauvinism, new patriotism and racism. Many interpret it all as a ploy to crush domestic dissent after protests greeted his 2012 re-election. Or to distract Russians from the economic circumstances. Both may be true and still miss the larger point. Putin’s 2012 return marked a broad range of personnel changes and programs that align with his long term renewal concept. Sometimes ‘good’ politics also coincides with good policy (from his point of view).
Then again, Russians misrepresent Putin, too. Journalist Anton Krasovsky:
“People say that Putin doesn’t care what the west thinks; that’s nonsense. He does care, and he doesn’t understand the hatred towards him from the West, which he feels has no basis. In Sochi, he organised what he saw as an incredible Olympics and people still criticised him for it. It’s partly a generational and civilisational thing. He wishes he could go back to the era when he could just drink wine and have fun with Berlusconi. He just doesn’t understand why people criticise him so much.
We assert his specific actions should be evaluated within the above framework. Many mock Sochi as economically nonsensical. For Putin, revitalizing Russian nationalism on a global scale and wedding it to him is priceless. Sochi was always about Russian self-esteem. The international audiences being props for the acting out. Crimea and what is to come are further extensions. His domestic approval ratings authentically may be almost 80%.
History shows that revanchist regimes are unusually popular while successful. And remain so while the regime can point to further successes or threats. The psychology of grievance and its relief forge strong ties between ruled and ruler. The Corporal only began to lose public support in 1943. In April 1945 estimates are that 10% of the population still proclaimed allegiance. Others elsewhere had longer runs. The Soviet regime continued for a decade after Brezhnev’s ‘era of stagnation’ became undeniable.
Will Putin manufacture more conflict? Not necessarily. He hopes the West caves early and returns to business as usual. Should we deploy a new containment, he will test it with provocations and overtures. His challenge then is managing discontent should economic sluggishness endure. Putin’s family suffered tragedy during Leningrad’s siege. He and others will believe Russian capacity to endure privation far greater than the West’s.
Sanctions won’t convince Putin to change course. He will use Western pressure to strengthen his domestic position. Putin has already demonstrated he believes the Russian economy is subordinate to his goals. Some regime figures call for using Western sanctions as pretext to assist the State to direct re-building non-existent domestic manufacturing. (At best, a modern oligarchical corrupt NEP). Foreign pressure also assists cracking down on potentially independent actors, whether oligarchs with foreign exposure or what’s left of the so-called ‘liberal opposition’. Putin’s invasion bought him substantial but not infinite time to weather Russia’s from 1.2% economic growth – or lower.
Now consider the conceptual gap among Obama, the West and Putin. Who’s surprised Putin ignored Obama and Kerry’s public “off ramp” offerings?
Mistakes were made by all sides: Europe, Kiev, Moscow and the U.S. Their magnitude unforeseen because parties did not fully grasp the agenda and priorities of the other.
The EU Americans generally don’t understand the EU well. We tend to confuse the Brussels permanent apparat or European Parliament with the actual member country governments. For years Brussels’ EU bureaucracy pursued their imperative for EU expansion via meetings, agreements and other symbolic formalities. As the EU moved farther East it seemed its actions were unconnected with actual member country support. Ukraine underscores the disconnect. Many member countries opposed Ukrainian overtures or key players like Germany indifferent. The EU merely flirted with a nation of blatant core Russian interest and sensitivities.
In November 2013, the EU and Ukraine’s then-President Yanukovich met to sign a Partnership Agreement in Vilnius. His signature was to culminate years of laborious conversations. Yanukovich promised Ukrainians many times he would sign. He balked at the last minute. The EU, lacking focused member state support, couldn’t offer Yanukovich or Ukraine, a failed State, anything tangible – no money, no aid. Just words and sentiment.
Putin by contrast offered Kiev $15 billion in hard cash loans and gas discounts. Contingent on Yanukovich walking away in Vilnius. Putin played traditional hard ball politics and won “cleanly” by putting his wallet where his mouth was. When Yanukovich walked, outraged students flocked to Kiev in protest and ignited Maidan’s drama.
Europeans were as surprised as anyone by Maiden and Ukrainian protesters’ EU flags and face paint. (Who wears EU flags in Europe?) The EU and Europe didn’t understand flirtation with Ukraine could have such consequences. The EU belatedly promised 11 billion euro to Kiev after Putin invaded. Had it done so at Vilnius almost everything since would have been different. The EU’s suitability or even competence as a geo-political actor must be in fundamental question.
Moscow Russian mistakes are less understandable even before invasion. Beating the EU for Yanukovich’s allegiance a classic game of Great Power politics. Yet Maidan surprised Moscow, too. Russian FSB and SVR penetration of Ukraine’s institutions deep. Millions of Russians and Ukrainians are intermarried, watch each others television and even the languages are not far apart. Yet Moscow completely misread the volatile political situation. Worse, Moscow continued to rely on Yanukovich to execute its ill-fated Maidan crackdown – even when his unsuitability (from Moscow’s point of view) obvious to all.
Sochi’s revelries and obligations doubtlessly hampered Putin’s focus. What intelligence and MFA reports made it back to Moscow accurately? Did Putin received timely warnings? Ukraine showcases a strategic failure of the Russian intelligence product cycle. Failure could be in collection, analysis or users’ misuse or disregard. We suspect it was the later two. Primakov years ago conceded that Soviet and then Russian intelligence lacked any meaningful independent analytical function. Soviet ideology precluded independent voices. He vowed to build it. Given the inclusion of FSB Chairman Bortnikov in Putin’s war cabinet, access to Putin isn’t the issue. If “Putin doesn’t have all the informaton”, Primakov’s diagnosis remains true under Putin’s nationalism, too.
In the end, Putin chose impulsive attack. Could he have waited? Ukraine 2004, Libya, Egypt, etc. show that bottom-driven protest movements rarely succeed as actual governing forces. Movements usually disintegrate or become corrupt themselves. Had he waited for Maidan’s likely collapse, this “rational” Putin could have renewed the $15 billion pledge as Big Brother savior. Putin would gain all of Ukraine. If Maidan unexpectedly formed a working government, the ‘rational’ Putin still could have waited. He would encourage Ukraine to have soft ties to West, clarify no NATO, and wait for the EU to bail out Kiev and modernize her economy. When she was rebuilt, he could have then courted a healthier and better run Kiev.
Such a ‘rational’ calculus suggests Putin won’t likely attack Southeastern Ukraine or the East. Regardless how the scenario plays out (including a full Ukraine occupation, etc.) Putin ironically would be the one putting NATO on his borders.
He couldn’t wait. As we noted. Maidan’s overthrow of a neighboring authoritarian regime too threatening to his domestic position. Regarding further operations in Ukraine, the jury is out. He’s still evaluating Western responses. Putin the improviser doesn’t believe he’s met strong Western resistance yet. Plus, the West should not underestimate the emotional, cultural and ideological factors underscoring uniting Ukrainians, including Kiev’s role as ‘cradle’ to and origin for Rus (modern Russia). We don’t think he will try a full scale assault on Kiev because the Russian army is in poor operational shape (Crimea a GRU Spetnaz and FSB operation mostly). More likely he will probe or push more limited objectives like a land bridge to Crimea.
Putin temporarily set back his own goal of Slavic unification. Kiev renounced participating in his Customs Union. As of today – Crimea is Putin’s strategic defeat. Euphorics in Moscow compare Crimea to victory in Berlin. Yet that mood will not last forever. Putin the improviser will be looking for ways to win back Kiev and turn defeat into victory. The West should support Ukraine as a geopolitical glacis with deep, visible economic and other assistance (modulating IMF obsession with clinical austerity). An enduring pro-Western, reformed Kiev (not necessarily in NATO) will be a monument to Putin’s impulsiveness. And a model for future Russians to see and embrace.
Ukraine Yanukovich’s mistakes are well documented.
U.S. Again we see the “lead from behind” problem. The U.S. misjudged encouraging the EU as Western proxy flirt with Kiev. First, as noted, because of EU foreign policy competence issues. Secondly, the U.S. accurately perceived years ago its visibility would provoke Moscow. That should have been a wake up call about the policy’s essential soundness. Initial U.S. visibility might have triggered tensions or even a crisis with Moscow at the outset. Or shut the venture down. That early clarity at a smaller and manageable scale far better than stumbling into war.
The U.S. response should be on two levels. Russia isn’t a Soviet Union superpower. Russia’s own military experts’ believe power projection is limited to ‘local conflicts’. Regional and global operations are not options for now. The economy isn’t a major world player beyond natural resources. And Russia lacks a global, universal ideological appeal like the Soviets. Russia’s threat doesn’t warrant a second world-wide American Cold War militarization.
We need a new kind of containment. It will be more complicated than before. Russia is more integrated in European economies than 1947-1991. Ideologically, we need to be blunt about his authoritarian regime and expose its corruption. We need to re-affirm commitment to liberal democracy as a superior society even with our obvious room for improvements. We should avoid the temptation to allow Putin to define our agenda and distract from larger U.S. global priorities or opportunities. Joining Putin in his dark Manichean agenda a mistake.
Economically, sanctions are fine for initial salvos. They will not force a change in behavior. But over time they will bite. Overt, immediate economic assistance to Ukraine is essential. Ukrainians must see benefit rejecting Putinism even if work and sacrifice are required to reach them. Other countries in Eastern Europe need assistance as well. Specific, tangible economic assistance is the best inoculation against Russian adventurism. Lessening European energy dependence of Russian gas is a test of resolve. Canceling the South Stream Russian gas pipeline would be a clear first signal signal.
Militarily, increased, visible U.S. and NATO presence in Eastern Europe should begin yesterday. There is no need to return to Cold War force levels, aggressiveness and associated tensions. The U.S. also should encourage regional military cross ties among countries in Eastern Europe. We believe reconsidering BMD in Europe is appropriate as well.
NATO also should re-evaluate doctrine and force posture to address Russian interior lines of communication and maskirovka. NATO chain of command must be reformed to allow swift operational response. This would allow NATO to counter Russian ability to alter ground truth before coalitions like NATO can react. Russian invasions in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and now Crimea illustrate how much importance Russians place on their faster decision cycle.
We believe this is a new protracted conflict. Putin will probe Western reaction and coalition cohesion with new tests and provocations but not necessarily immediately. Putin and Russia signaled disdain for the settled international order in Crimea. Future actions will expand on this demarcation in new and especially psychological dimensions. Putin’s agenda will be tear down or damage the Western international position – or its perception.
Most actions won’t be military or even paramilitary. The West should expect Russia, for example, to seek BRIC alternatives to Western institutions. Chinese reluctance to embrace Putin in public on his challenge to Western international norms will likely change. Covert and overt cooperation should be expected. Other states will use tensions to further their own geostrategic purpurposes. Russia will look for strategic surprise or stage managed perceptions of creeping inevitability.
This really isn’t the Cold War again. In some ways it may be more difficult. Confronting revanchism in Europe is a challenge not seen for over 75 years. Pundits often use the word. It’s vital that its implications are truly absorbed.