Why Putin might be pleased with the results of his war in Ukraine

As we reflect on the 100-day mark of the Russo-Ukrainian war and what we’ve learned, we need to understand that the West has fundamentally misunderstood Russia and continues to do so, argues Kyle Wilson, visiting fellow at the Centre for European Studies and former Australian diplomat who had postings in Russia, China and Poland.

This is why many in the commentariat are failing to appreciate that Russian President Vladimir Putin is probably happy with how his invasion of Ukraine is turning out, he says.

The Western foreign policy community has assumed for a long time that Russia under Putin had similar notions of what it means to be a world power, had more or less accepted the rules of the post–World War II international order, and was moving—albeit with setbacks—on a similar neo-liberal economic trajectory.

But, argues Wilson, something completely different has been going on in Putin’s mind. He has only been marginally interested in building stability and prosperity as the West would understand it.  Rather, his entire project has been about building Russia’s ability to be a coercive, expansionist and undeniably great power, with control concentrated in the hands of one person.

The Russian translation of ‘great power’ is velikaya derzhava, the second part of which is a cognate of a verb that means to seize or to hold, and Putin’s worldview represents a continuum of Russia’s imperial mythos.

Wilson points to the work of historian Stephen Kotkin, who has calculated that, over a period of about 450 years, Russia expanded outwards at a rate of 100 to 150 square kilometres a day, in the process engulfing 184 different nationalities or ethnic groups.

And that expansion continues, Wilson says: Russia now claims roughly half of the Arctic.

This imperial worldview has always been in evidence, he says.

For example, in 2005, Putin established a commission to rewrite Russian history textbooks. ‘It produced a textbook for history teachers. In that book was the remarkable paragraph that said most of the Russian politically conscious class rejects the present boundaries of the Russian Federation. They are inadequate to protect Russia’s security.’

Then, in 2008, Putin invaded Georgia and seized territory. And the Russians continue to ‘gradually move their barbed wire further and further into Georgia,’ says Wilson.

Six years later, in 2014, Putin invaded Ukraine for the first time, and Russian forces shot down a Malaysian commercial passenger jet, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, in the process.

‘Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who was then the secretary-general of NATO, goes to Moscow, and says to Mr Putin, “I’ve come with a package of proposals to reform Russian NATO relations.” And Putin says to him on camera, “I don’t want to reform Russian NATO relations. I want NATO abolished.”’

Also in that year, Wilson notes, a senior Russian official came to Chatham House in London. The official said, ‘Putin is not so silly as to think that he can recreate the Soviet Union, but there is a core of the former Soviet Union that is properly ours—Belarus, Ukraine and northern Kazakhstan. And it would be nice to have it back.’

In 2018, Putin unveiled what Wilson describes as a ‘rather frightening array of new doomsday weapons, including a nuclear-armed torpedo that says, “You didn’t listen to us. Look at these weapons and listen to us now.”’

All of this was accompanied by ‘lurid and strident propaganda 24/7 on Russian television, pushing anti-Western messages,’ explains Wilson. An important part of this propaganda campaign was the idea that Ukraine is not a country or a people. ‘Putin said that very early on to George Bush. Again, we didn’t listen,’ he says.

During the past decade, Putin also accelerated the remilitarisation of Russia.

‘Under Putin, the military receives one in five roubles of revenue, but the security services and the national guard—a 350,000-strong riot police—also receive the same. So essentially three out of every five roubles of state revenue is going to control: an army to smite your foreign enemies and a domestic army to smite the traitors, the fifth column within.’

It’s therefore likely that Russia believes it is now demonstrating strength on its own terms by being able to wage what Wilson refers to as the ‘Russian way of war’.

‘There’s an expression in Russian that translates as “To be tender-hearted does not become a sword”,’ says Wilson. What this means in practice is the exercise of extreme brutality towards civilians, combined with an indifference to Russia’s own casualties.

Putin is likely to be equally indifferent, at least in the medium term, to Russia’s sanctions-induced economic suffering. Wilson argues that we shouldn’t be defining the health of the Russian economy in GDP terms.

‘Russia occupies about a fifth or a sixth of the world’s land surface. According to BHP Billiton, Russia sits on between 5% and 25% of almost everything on the planet, with exceptions like uranium and rare earths. Lake Baikal contains one-sixth of the world’s fresh water.

‘Oil and gas will remain important sources of revenue for the next 30 years. And the decline in Russia’s labour force is compensated for by Central Asian migration.’

On the economic front, while Russia has two big weaknesses—corruption and the brain drain of the best and brightest—Wilson says it is dangerously self-delusionary to argue that Russia has a weak economy.

Putin will also be encouraged by cracks in European support for Ukraine, as well as by the distinct lack of enthusiasm for Kyiv’s struggle among much of the developing world.

This will be feeding into the perception, endlessly peddled by Russian propaganda, that democratic nations don’t have the stomach for the Russian way of war and that Russia, as part of its exceptionalism, has an ability to suffer in a prolonged way that Western countries simply don’t have, Wilson says.

So right now, Putin may not be feeling dissatisfied with the way things are going, despite all the assertions that the invasion is a disaster for him.

According to Wilson, Russia’s Black Sea blockade and destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure means that what Putin has achieved is the probable end of Ukraine as a viable nation-state.

‘Yes, the losses have been far higher than expected, in terms of both manpower and material. Yes, the attempt to take Kyiv was a notable failure. But if you look at how Putin defines winning, it would be, if Ukraine can’t be reintegrated back into the Russian empire, then no one will have it.’