David Remnick: It's impossible to understand the destruction and slaughter that Vladimir Putin is unleashing in Ukraine without understanding his most basic conviction, that the breakup of the Soviet empire was a catastrophe that Russia has yet to recover from. No one I know understands this history more intimately than Stephen Kotkin. Kotkin is a Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and he's a research scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.
He's written two volumes so far on the life of Stalin with one more to come, as well as books on the Soviet Union in its last years. We've been hearing from voices both from the past, and present telling us that the reason for what has happened is as George Kennan said, the great blunder of eastward expansion of NATO. A modern realistic story like John Mearsheimer tells us that a great deal of the blame for what we're witnessing now must go to the United States. I thought we'd begin by your analysis of that argument.
Stephen Kotkin: I have only the greatest respect for George Kennan, whom I knew, John Mearsheimer is a giant of a scholar but I respectfully disagree. The problem with their argument is that it assumes that had NATO not expanded, Russia wouldn't be exactly the same or very likely close to what it is today. What we have today in Russia is not some deviation from a historical pattern. Way before NATO existed in the 19th century, Russia looked like this. It had an autocrat, it had repression, it had militarism, it had suspicion of foreigners in the West.
This is a Russia we know, and it's not a Russia that arrived yesterday or arrived in the 1990s. It's not a response to actions of the West. There are internal processes in Russia that account for where we are today. I would even go farther. I would say that NATO expansion has put us in a better place to deal with this historical pattern in Russia that we're seeing again today. George Kennan was the greatest Russia expert who ever lived, but I just don't think blaming the West is the right analysis for where we are today.
David Remnick: When you talk about the internal dynamics of Russia, historically, it reminds me of a piece that you wrote and was published in foreign affairs six years ago. It began like this, "For half a millennium, Russian foreign policy has been characterized by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country's capabilities. Beginning with the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, Russia managed to expand at an average rate of 50 square miles per day for hundreds of years, eventually covering one-sixth of the Earth's landmass."
You go on to describe three fleeting moments of remarkable Russian ascendancy during Peter the Great. Then Alexander I victory over Napoleon, and then of course Stalin's victory over Adolf Hitler. Then say, "These high water marks aside, Russia has almost always been a relatively weak great power." If you could expand on that and talk about how the internal dynamics of Russia have gone on to describe it both historically and in the present day under Putin, that would be, I think, very helpful.
Stephen Kotkin: With Russia, what you've got is a remarkable civilization. You know it. You know it in the arts, in music, in literature, in dance, in film, in science. It's just a de-profound remarkable place. A whole civilization more than just a country. Its problem has always been not that sense of self, not that sense of identity, but the fact that it's in a struggle to live up to this aspiration that it has for itself, which it can't because the west has always been more powerful. Russia is a great power, but not "The great power," except for those few moments in history that you just enumerated.
In trying to match the West or at least manage the differential between Russia and the West, they resort to coercion. They use a very heavy state-centric approach to try to beat the country forward and upwards. That works for a time ostensibly, very superficially it works and Russia has a spurred of economic growth and it builds up its military and then, of course, it hits a war. It then has a long period of stagnation where the problem gets worse. The worst part of this dynamic in Russian history is the conflation of the Russian state with some personal ruler.
Instead of getting the strong state that they want to manage the Gulf with the West, they instead get a personalist regime. They get a dictatorship, which usually becomes a despotism. Putin is what he is, he's ruling in Russia and he's got these circumstances, almost a syndrome where geopolitics is trying to make up for a power differential that it can't make up for.
David Remnick: Let's describe Putin and Putinism what kind of regime is it? It's not exactly the same as Stalinism. It's certainly not the same as Xi Jinping or the regime in Iran. What are its special characteristics and why would those special characteristics lead it to want to invade or why would Putin want to invade Ukraine? Which seems at least from this distance singularly stupid.
Stephen Kotkin: Yes. War usually is a miscalculation it's based upon assumptions that don't pan out things that you believed to be true or wanted to be true but let's back up for a second. Of course, this isn't the same regime as Stalin. Of course, there's been tremendous change. The shock is that so much has changed and yet we're seeing this pattern that they can't really escape from where you have an autocrat or even now a despot making decisions completely by himself. Does he get input from others? Perhaps.
Do they bring him information he doesn't want to hear? That seems unlikely. Does he think he knows better than everybody else? That seems highly likely. He believed, it seems that Ukraine was not a real country. He believed that the Ukrainian people were not a real people, that they were one people with the Russians. He believed that the Ukrainian government was a pushover. He believed what he was likely told or wanted to believe about his own military. That it had been modernized to the point where it could organize not a military invasion, but a lightning coup to take Kyiv in one, two, four, five days.
Either install a puppet government or force the current government and president to sign some paperwork. One other example we might allude to is what happened in Afghanistan in 1979. Very similar situation in some ways. The Soviet Union did not invade Afghanistan. It did a coup in Afghanistan. It sent special forces into the capital of Kabul. It murdered the Afghan leadership, and it installed a puppet, Babrak Karmal. Of course, they decided they might need some security in Afghanistan for the new regime and so they sent in all sorts of army regimens to provide security.
They ended up with an insurgency against their rule and they ended up with a 10-year war that they lost. We have here, the assumption that it could be a successful version of that, and it wasn't. It turned out the Ukrainian people are brave and they're willing to resist and die for their country. It turned out that the television president Zelensky who had a 25% approval rating before the war, which was fully deserved because he couldn't govern, now he has a 91% approval rating. The biggest surprise of course, was the West.
All the nonsense about how the West is decadent, the West is over, the West is in decline, it's a multipolar world, the rise of China, et cetera. All of that turned out to be bunk. The courage of the Ukrainian people and the bravery and smarts of the Ukrainian government and its president Zelensky, galvanized the West to remember who it was.
David Remnick: Let's discuss the nature of the regime because it seems to me that the Putin regime changed somewhat. What actually is the nature of the regime and the people who are loyal to it and the people who are important in it?
Stephen Kotkin: It's a military-police dictatorship. In addition, has a brilliant coterie of people who run macroeconomics, for example, your Central Bank, your Finance Ministry, are all in the highest professional level. That's why Russia had this fortress, this macroeconomic fortress, these foreign currency reserves, the rainy day fund, reasonable inflation. For the macroeconomic stability, for the economic growth, you need decent relations with the West.
For the military security part of the regime which is the dominant part, the West is your enemy, the West is trying to undermine you. It's trying to overthrow your regime in some type of so-called collar revolution. What happens, the balance of those groups shifted more in favor of the military security, let's call it the thuggish part of the regime. Of course, that's where Putin himself comes from. The regime became more and more corrupt, less and less sophisticated, less and less trustworthy, less and less popular. It hollowed out. That's what happens with dictatorships. Once again they hollow themselves out.
David Remnick: Such a regime, it seems to me would care above all about wealth, about the highlife about power. Why would they care about Ukraine?
Stephen Kotkin: It's not clear that they do. We're talking about one person here. This is the thing about authoritarian regimes. They're terrible at everything. They can't feed their people, they can't provide security for their people. They can't educate their people, but they only have to be good at one thing to survive, the suppression of alternatives. If they can force all opposition into exile or prison, they can survive no matter how incompetent, no matter how corrupt, no matter how terrible they are.
If money just gushes out of the ground in the form of hydrocarbons, diamonds, or other minerals, the oppressors can emancipate themselves from the oppressed. The oppressors can say, "We don't need you. We don't need your taxes, we don't need you to vote, we don't rely on you for anything because we have oil and gas, palladium, and titanium," and fill in the blank. All the minerals that they have that they extract which is all just cash flow.
David Remnick: Now the West has decided for obvious reasons not only not to go to war with Russia but not to have a no-fly zone for all the reasons we know. The greatest exertion it showed is in economic sanctions which in fact, have proved to be more comprehensive and more powerful than maybe people had anticipated some weeks ago. In the scheme that you're sketching out, it seems to me that at least for a good while, the people these are most aimed at will be able to absorb sanctions. Would you think I'm wrong?
Stephen Kotkin: Oh, yes. The financial sanctions are very impressive but they'll take a while to affect the calculus of those people around Putin and Putin himself. The biggest sanctions and the most important sanctions are always technology transfer. It's always starving them of the high-tech. If you deny them over time through the Commerce Department, American-made software, and American-made equipment and products, you can hurt this regime and create a technology desert.
The Chinese cannot come in and substitute because they need that same technology that we're denying to the Russians and so that’s the biggest--
David Remnick: In the meantime, as we saw in Grozny in ’99 and 2000, as we saw in Aleppo, Russia is perfectly willing if precision doesn’t work, they’re perfectly happy to use decimation. That is what we're seeing in Kharkiv, we’ve seen it in other parts of Ukraine, and to my mind, it's only just begun potentially.
Stephen Kotkin: Russia has a lot of weapons that they haven't used yet but there are a couple of factors here. First of all, Ukraine is winning this war only on Twitter. On the battlefield, they are not winning this war. Russia is advancing very well. What's failed was the attempt to take Kyiv in a lightning advance. Otherwise, their war is unfolding well. Moreover, the largest and most important consideration is that Russia cannot successfully occupy Ukraine. They do not have the scale of forces, they do not have the number of administrators and they do not have the cooperation of the population.
They don't even have a Quisling yet. We're waiting for Viktor Yanukovych to reappear. Viktor Yanukovych was the duly elected president in 2010 in free and fair elections, who was unbelievably corrupt, was chased out of power by protests and he fled to Russia. Viktor Yanukovych is still in Russia. Let's think about him. He's a psychologically unimpressive character, he was incompetent, could he actually have the willpower? Would he even agree to run Ukraine on behalf of Russia? If not him, who else? Moreover, think about all those Ukrainians who would continue to resist.
If you're an administrator or a military officer in occupied Ukraine, and you order a cup of tea, you're going to drink that cup of tea?
David Remnick: [laughs]
Stephen Kotkin: You want to turn the ignition on in your car, you're going to turn that ignition on? You're going to turn the light switch on in your office? All it takes is a handful of them being assassinated to unsettle the whole occupation.
David Remnick: Finally, you've been very quick to give credit where credit's due to the Biden administration for reading out its intelligence about the coming invasion, for sanctions, and for a mature response to what's happening. What if anything have they gotten wrong in this?
Stephen Kotkin: They've done much better than we anticipated based upon what we saw in Afghanistan withdrawal, in the Aukus rollout, the rollout of the deal to sell nuclear submarines to the Australians but they've learned from their mistakes. That's the thing about the United States in the West. We have corrective mechanisms, we have a political system that punishes mistakes. We have strong institutions, we have powerful and free media. Administrations that perform badly can learn and get better which is not the case in Russia and it's an advantage we can forget.
The problem now, David is not that the Biden administration made mistakes, it's that it's really hard to figure out how to de-escalate. We keep raising the stakes with more and more sanctions and cancellations because that's where the pressure is on our side to "do something" because the Ukrainians are dying on television every day. The more you corner, the more there's nothing to lose for Putin, the more he can raise the stakes. We need a de-escalation from the maximalists spiral. We need a little bit of luck and fortune here, perhaps in Moscow, perhaps in Helsinki, or Jerusalem, perhaps in Beijing, but certainly in Kyiv.
David Remnick: Steve Kotkin, I'm very grateful to you. Thank you.
Stephen Kotkin: Thank you.
David Remnick: Stephen Kotkin is a professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University. This was an edited version of my conversation with him and you can read much more, and also watch the video at newyorker.com. For more context on the invasion of Ukraine, you might want to hear my conversation with reporters Masha Gessen and Joshua Yaffa who shed light on everything that they've seen on the ground. That's on a recent episode of our podcast.
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