Good morning, and happy Pi Day!
Today folks in Newfoundland & Labrador recognize St Patrick’s Day (which isn’t until Thursday for the rest of us), and British loyalists might even recognize Commonwealth Day. You can also celebrate staplers, crowdfunding, science education, legal assistants, potato chips, and way too much else…
Here at the Insider, we’re entering our 3rd week focusing on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (You can review all 6 instalments in the series so far here.) We’ve started discussing some of the impacts on PSE in Ukraine, in Russia, across Europe and North America, from refugee scholars to students unable to access funds to pay tuition, from suspension of research collaborations to divestment of Russian holdings, and of course growing needs for mental health supports and academic accommodation for affected students on campus.
That’s just the start, and we’ll continue to explore the economic and geopolitical repercussions of the war in Ukraine and the global sanctions in response – but it’s also key to consider the likely trajectory of the conflict, in order to assess the scale of its impact.
Much of the war’s outcome “hinges” on a single, potentially “unhinged,” individual…
Putin’s experiences in the KGB and protracted, authoritarian hold on Russian politics readily suggest comparisons with a power-hungry James Bond villain…
The Would-Be James Bond
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has effectively ruled Russia since the turn of the century, as prime minister or president since Dec 31 1999. (Originally his term as president was constitutionally limited to 2 consecutive terms, but the constitution was amended in 2021 to permit him to extend his presidency until 2036.) Putin studied Law at Leningrad State U, before spending 16 years as a foreign intelligence officer with the KGB, and serving briefly as directory of the FSB under president Boris Yeltsin. Some believe while in that position, Putin orchestrated a fake terrorist attack that bombed Moscow apartment blocks and killed 300+ people, to justify the war on Chechnya. (Those critics all died under mysterious circumstances shortly thereafter.) While training for the KGB, Putin says a supervisor criticized his “lowered sense of danger” as a potentially critical flaw – suggesting “he does not fear risk as ordinary people do.” It’s worth noting that Putin will turn 70 years of age this Oct 7, and even though the constitution allows him to continue in his position until 84, he may be feeling some pressure to achieve major life goals sooner rather than later.
One Man’s War
The invasion of Ukraine was not a decision of the Russian military, the Kremlin nor the people – the action was driven by Putin alone, and reflects his personality. Brock U psychology prof Michael Ashton believes Putin combines “low Honesty-Humility with low Emotionality” making him cold, callous, greedy and power-hungry, and completely unmoved by the suffering of others. “The war is a really striking sign that Putin is a ruthless person with an indifference to mass civilian casualties, as we saw during the Chechen war in Grozny, more recently in Syria and now throughout Ukraine.” Most Russians regarded Putin as a rational, conservative leader, and “awoke in shock” Feb 24 to discover he had ordered a full-scale invasion of their “brotherly nation.” Analysts in Moscow realized they had fundamentally misjudged Putin’s preparations as “an elaborate and astute bluff.”
Although Putin has demonstrated repeatedly that we can’t take him at his word, it makes sense to start by parsing his public declarations about the “special military operation” in Ukraine…
While Russian troops were still massing outside Ukraine’s borders, Putin was publicly denying Ukraine’s legitimacy as a sovereign state, echoing arguments from an essay he wrote last summer “on the Historical Unity of Russia and Ukraine.” (Those who dismissed him as a “hobby historian” are now learning better.) Yale history prof Timothy Snyder observes that Putin wants to correct a 30-year-old injustice, when anti-Russian forces severed Ukraine and other former Soviet republics from the USSR. Like other populist leaders in recent years, Putin gives voice to a grievance narrative. As uToronto history prof emeritus Margaret Macmillan points out, Adolph Hitler began WW2 claiming Germany was merely defending itself against Polish aggressors, even staging false flag battles for the newsreels. Macmillan says the parallels with 1939 are striking: “Where Hitler dreamed of a great Aryan empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals, Mr Putin wants the restoration of the greater Russia of the Czars and the Soviet Union and the mystical unity of the Slavic peoples.” SFU international relations prof James Horncastle explains that Putin and Russian nationalists are still smarting from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, when Russia “went from being a superpower to not being able to protect ethnic Russians outside its borders in less than 10 years.” uAlberta historian David Marples says Putin considers the 2014 Maidan uprising in Kyiv to be the moment that “neo-Nazis” took over Ukraine and exiled the president.
Attacking the “Empire of Lies”
Putin’s public speeches and published writing since 2007 makes it clear that he profoundly resents the unipolar era of American supremacy and expansion of NATO since the end of the Cold War: “Where did this insolent manner of talking down from the height of their exceptionalism, infallibility and all-permissiveness come from?” The imbalance of a world with only one superpower – “a world in which there is one master, one sovereign” – is “a matter of life and death” for Russia. American and NATO interventions beyond its own borders – particularly in the Balkans, Libya, Syria and Iraq – are “intolerable aggressions.” (Book critic Carlos Lozada provides a helpful summary of Putin’s writing in The Washington Post.) uCalgary historian Alexander Hill admits that NATO’s expansion in Europe “does present an existential threat of sorts to Putin’s notion of Russia,” just as Western ideas helped fuel 19th-century uprisings against the czars, and even the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Kim Ghattas writes in The Atlantic that the fate of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi might loom large in Putin’s mind as an example of what happens if a strongman accepts the West’s terms: it could be a death sentence. Putin was “apoplectic” when Gaddafi was killed, and he may have concluded that staying a global pariah was the safer way to retain power.
Initially, Putin floated the transparent lie that he was providing military aid to independent, breakaway states and had no intention to invade Ukraine. (Never mind that Russia had been arming those separatists for a decade.) Days later, he absurdly claimed that the “special military operation” was intended to protect Russian citizens subjected to “genocide” in eastern Ukraine, and that he was striving to “demilitarize and de-nazify” Ukraine. Putin claimed his objective was not a military occupation, but to disarm Ukraine in defense of Russia. Reuters
Russian forces seem most focused on bombarding, besieging, and ultimately conquering major political centres in Ukraine so that they can institute regime change. The weeks of anticipation as Russian troops massed at the Ukraine border, and the slow-moving convoys since, could be a deliberate strategy to encourage anti-Russian Ukrainians to vacate the country. That would make occupation, or even a democratic vote to rejoin Russia, much more successful for Putin. As a Harvard expert explains, Putin was unsuccessful at electing a pro-Russian government in Ukraine, so now he wants a puppet government he can control.
“What we have heard today are not just missile blasts, fighting and the rumble of aircraft. This is the sound of a new Iron Curtain, which has come down and is closing Russia off from the civilized world.” – Volodymyr Zelensky, president, Ukraine
Time and time again, Putin has demonstrated a willingness to use any means to achieve his ends, even when he later denies responsibility for them, or attempts to blame the victims…
War on Democracy
Putin, writes German Lopez, “has spent more than two decades consolidating power, rebuilding Russia’s military and weakening his enemies. He has repeatedly undermined democratic movements and popular uprisings, including those in Syria and Belarus. He has meddled in Western elections. And he has deployed Russian troops to enforce his will, including in Georgia and Crimea.” (Georgia moved to join NATO, prompting Russia to invade in 2008.) And don’t forget, adds Garrett Graff, a dozen years of geopolitical misbehaviour and corruption: Putin “had invaded Ukraine twice already, crushed political dissidents, rewritten the nation’s history, poisoned political opponents at home and abroad, backed brutal regimes overseas, attacked and attempted to undermine the US election, and hosted a toxic stew of transnational organized crime that has pillaged Western banks and businesses through ransomware and other cyber-enabled fraud.” Until now, Putin faced few meaningful sanctions in response. His invasion of Ukraine signals an all-out “war on democracy” and the rule of law. New York Times | Wired
Much of the truth remains to be uncovered about former US president Donald Trump’s personal or financial ties to Putin and/or Russian oligarchs or criminals. What is clear, though, is that someone put the thought into Trump’s head to start pressuring Volodymyr Zelensky back in 2019, for political “dirt” on Hunter Biden, by withholding military aid. (The attempt at blackmail triggered Trump’s first impeachment.) In those days, you may recall, Trump repeatedly sided with Putin over America’s own intelligence agencies, called on Russia to investigate his own political opponents, and seemed almost sycophantic in his praise of Putin. (It seems likely that Putin was behind this attempt to sow distrust of the US in Ukraine, and potentially reduce military aid as well.) Even as Russian forces invaded Ukraine last month, Trump’s continued praise for Putin’s “genius” garnered headlines and divided Republicans.
“No one in the GOP should be praising Vladimir Putin. He’s a former KGB officer and a dictator and a thug. We should be clear about that.” – Marc Short, former chief of staff to vice-president Mike Pence
Keeping Ukraine out of NATO, disarming it and even reuniting it with Russia, have been Putin’s goals for more than a decade. In February, he finally took action…
Analysts of the war in Ukraine seem to be unanimous: the Russian forces were equipped for a few days’, easy peacekeeping exercise…
Analysts reported that Russian forces were suffering “unexpected battlefield setbacks” just 4 days into their invasion, faced with surprisingly aggressive Ukrainian resistance and supply chain shortages of fuel and key supplies. Contrary to Putin’s expectations, the Ukrainians did not greet the Russians as liberators, and the invasion did not result in a quick and easy victory. (He “drank his own Kool-Aid,” deceived by his own propaganda. More about misinformation another time!) Perhaps the expectation was that Ukraine would capitulate as readily as it did during the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but instead the intervening years have hardened Ukrainian anger towards Russia. The Ukrainian capital city, Kyiv, has been besieged and bombarded, but is as yet unbowed – defying Russian expectations that it could be captured within 48 hours, after merely token resistance. “The Russian military… was a paper tiger, and now the paper’s on fire.” It’s also likely that Putin wanted to avoid unleashing concentrated missiles and airstrikes, “to preserve his narrative of this not being a real war.” The longer Ukraine can protract the conflict, the better armed it will become – but ultimately, Russia has the resources to bomb Ukraine into submission. National Post | The Atlantic | Vox | Harvard Gazette
“It looks to me like Putin has made a gamble of Napoleonic arrogance and has been proven wrong.” – Kori Schake, director of foreign policy studies, American Enterprise Institute
More than he can Chew?
Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times that Putin’s attempt to seize Ukraine is “a throwback to earlier centuries… when a European monarch or a Russian czar could simply decide that he wanted more territory, [and] that the time was ripe to grab it.” But since WW2, the global political order has been united against such naked aggression. Putin is attempting to forcibly take over a democracy of 44M people – almost one-third of Russia – in defiance of the rest of the world, with “an economy smaller than that of Texas.”
“[Putin has] deluded himself into thinking that behind every Ukrainian is a wannabe Russian. It’s going to be very hard for Russia to keep its thumb on a country that wants nothing to do with Russian rule.” – Charles Kupchan, former director for European affairs for president Obama
A former US ambassador to Russia believes “Putin listens to no-one inside Russia,” and that China’s president Xi alone commands his respect. (Israeli PM Bennett has been trying to broker peace, and Turkish president Erdogan has been urging a ceasefire, but neither look truly neutral to Putin.) During the pandemic, Putin isolated himself “in a bubble of social distancing without parallel among Western leaders,” and his “ginormous” tables have become an internet meme, “like a cross between an Austin Powers scene and Dr Strangelove reboot.”
Surrounded by Yes-Men
The bureaucrats who work for Putin are terrified of sharing negative news with him, and “those who punish truth-tellers rarely get the truth.” The circle of oligarchs around Putin are still largely supportive, although any change would be key: “usually authoritarian regimes don’t end through mass protest but through fragmentation of the elite.” Most economic sanctions have been calculated to exert pressure on uber-wealthy Russians, but their reactions have been muted, reflecting their limited influence over today’s Kremlin. (Two Russian billionaires publicly called for peace in Ukraine last month. Russia’s richest billionaire recently warned the Kremlin that confiscating assets of companies that have fled the country would set Russia back more than a century, to the 1917 revolution.) Observes one investor: “We found his Achilles’ heel: we sanctioned the oligarchs, he threatens nuclear war.”
“Now we’ve got much more of a system akin to the Tudor court of Henry VIII, with a king and then a number of aristocrats around him who own their property as long as he’s prepared to tolerate them.” – Oliver Bullough, journalist, Coda
Frustrated by the “failed blitzkrieg,” Putin’s threats have escalated into the apocalyptic, invoking nuclear deterrence forces, directly attacking nuclear power plants, and blaming it on Ukrainian terrorists back home in Russia…
Vlad Gone Mad?
It’s become a cliché to observe that Vladimir Putin has gone “full-on Bond villain.” Bob Rae remarks on his “deeper irrationality.” US Republican Mitt Romney calls him “feral-eyed.” Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sees him as “erratic” and “delusional.” Former US ambassador to Russia and Stanford prof Michael McFaul says “he sounds completely disconnected from reality. He sounds unhinged.”
“Clearly Putin is angry, isolated, and more unhinged than I’ve ever seen him… I’ve always thought he was cold and pragmatic, but clearly his emotions are getting the better of him.” – James Clapper, former US director of national intelligence
Former Latvian president and uMontréal psychology prof Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga opines that Putin is “a narcissist and a psychopath” and “definitely megalomaniac with very strong paranoid tensions.” She has been warning the world for more than 6 years that Putin cannot be trusted. “I think he’s become notably unhinged in recent times. I think this invasion is not the actions of a sane man interested in the welfare of his country.”
“We’re concerned that this isolated individual [has] become a megalomaniac in terms of his notion of himself being the only historic figure that can rebuild old Russia or recreate the notion of the Soviet sphere.” – Mark Warner, chair, US Senate Intelligence Committee
An Antic Disposition?
But other analysts believe Putin remains coolly rational, and that his erratic and extreme behaviour – sabre-rattling threats of nuclear war and even direct assaults on Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia – could simply be calculated performances to intimidate NATO. (I am reminded of the Shakespearean debate about whether Hamlet does indeed “put on” his “antic disposition,” or has in fact been driven mad with grief.) Others point out that Putin has already deployed nuclear and biological weapon on a small scale, and nothing is off the table with him. One US congressman observes that Putin may not be irrational, but merely has “an incredible appetite for risk when it comes to Ukraine.” Ten nuclear weapons experts told Newsweek that they can’t completely rule it out, but that Putin is unlikely to “hit the nuclear button” so long as he can achieve his goals without doing so. “He can, unfortunately, demolish these cities with conventional weapons.” Use of a nuke after 77 years would inevitably trigger a NATO response, and potentially incur the displeasure of China as well. One would put the risk at a 2, “just a notch above very unlikely.”
“Every time you think, ‘No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, he would. And he wants us to know that, of course.” – Fiona Hill, former US National Security Council advisor
Our hopes for a diplomatic end to the brutal attacks on Ukraine depend on Putin finding an “off-ramp” to save face, short of bombing the whole country into a wasteland…
Classic Schoolyard Bully
Tony Volk, a child and youth studies prof at Brock U, argues that Putin is a quintessential schoolyard bully – “aggressive, arrogant, selfish individuals who prey on those who often can’t or won’t defend themselves” – albeit a bully with access to nuclear weapons. More sobering, Volk predicts that if the invasion of Ukraine has no meaningful consequences, “Putin will choose another victim before long.” As Tufts U history prof Chris Miller puts it in the New York Times, “Why is Putin at war again? Because he keeps winning.” Says one Russian investor: “Putin doesn’t do humiliation well. His response is scorched-earth carpet-bombing with massive civilian casualties.”
Backed into a Corner
Ironically, although this war was of Putin’s “own choosing,” he now has no way out, and neither does the rest of the world. uRochester political science prof Hein Goemans explains that, to ensure Russian security and his own personal survival, Putin needs to overthrow the Ukrainian government and install a puppet regime. If he succeeds, “the principles of the international order would be destroyed,” and other USSR successor republics can expect to be invaded next. If Putin fails, he will likely be overthrown or even killed by his domestic enemies. “You don’t want to corner Putin with sanctions to the extent that he feels that he must gamble—all or nothing.” The National Review warns that “there is a danger that Putin — trapped and risking a humiliating defeat — will choose a desperate escalation, threatening the West with nuclear blackmail… or sabre-rattling on the border of a NATO country… We must look for ways that might allow Putin to back down while retaining some semblance of face.”
So, how could the war on Ukraine possibly turn out? Stay tuned…
As the world’s “first TikTok war” unfolds on social media, memes about Putin’s irrationally-long tables are just the beginning…
To Russian Mothers
Ukrainian ad agency Bickerstaff, based in Kyiv, has joined the “information war” to try to “get the truth to Russian military families” through a new campaign. The :90-sec spot above, “To Russian Mothers,” shows graphically the airstrikes on civilian targets, names and photos of young Russian soldiers, and appeals to their mothers to ask their sons to surrender. (It’s in Russian, with English subtitles.) Says one young Russian, “I was deceived” – over a photo of Vladimir Putin. The campaign is finding “less-than-official ways” to get their messages into Russia, while the creative team tries to work remotely in a warzone. YouTube | Fast Company
As always, thanks for reading! I hope your week gets off to a good start (despite losing an hour of sleep yesterday).
Stay safe and be well!
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