Russia’s real reasons for war with Ukraine

As Ukrainian forces mount a last-ditch defense of Severodonetsk in the Donbas region, it is more important than ever that Americans ignore the advice of self-described “realists” that Ukraine should surrender territory to Russia to achieve peace. 

On May 23, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Davos called on the Ukrainians to demonstrate “wisdom” and not try to liberate all occupied territory. He said the defeat of Russia would have “disastrous consequences” for the long-term stability of Europe. 

But an outcome that looks like a Russian victory will not lead to stability. The regime put in place by former President Boris Yeltsin and consolidated by President Vladimir Putin fears its own people. It uses foreign aggression to strengthen its hold on power. 

In late 1994, Yeltsin faced a crisis as a result of the economic collapse that resulted from his policy of “shock therapy.” His solution was an invasion of the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Oleg Lobov, former head of the security council, told Sergei Yushenkov, former chair of the Duma defense committee, “We need a short, victorious war to increase the President’s rating.” He compared such a war to the recent U.S. invasion of Haiti. Yushenkov said, “I was not able to convince Lobov that Chechnya was not Haiti.”

The first Chechen war, in the end, proved neither short nor victorious but it set a pattern of sending barely trained and uncomprehending troops to die in the thousands to reinforce the leaders’ hold on power. 

On Sept. 8, 1999, Yeltsin told President Bill Clinton in a telephone call, that Mr. Putin, his newly appointed prime minister, would be Russia’s next president. Yeltsin’s rating at the time was 2%. It would have seemed that Yeltsin had no ability to name his supposedly democratic successor. 

On Sept. 9, however, an apartment building on Guryanova Street in Moscow was blown up in the middle of the night. It was the second of four apartment bombings in Moscow, Buinaksk and Volgodonsk that claimed 300 lives. The bombings were blamed on Chechens and used to justify a new invasion of Chechnya. Mr. Putin was put in charge of the war. His popularity soared and he was elected president. A fifth bomb, however, in the basement of a building in Ryazan was discovered and defused. The bombers were caught and turned out to be not Chechen terrorists but agents of the Federal Security Service.

Once in power, Mr. Putin benefited from an extraordinary economic recovery. A surge in world energy prices, as well as the first benefits of the economic changes under Yeltsin and huge pent-up demand, launched an economic boom that gave Russia its first taste of Western prosperity and led to a sharp rise in Mr. Putin’s popularity. In the meantime, the institutions of the state were steadily strengthened and the open criminality under Yeltsin was centralized under the control of the government. Between 2001 and 2005, bribes to government officials increased nearly tenfold. 

Mr. Putin maintained his popularity throughout the 2000s, but, as economic growth slowed in 2010, there was growing discontent over the regime’s corruption. In December 2011, the parliamentary elections were openly falsified and Mr. Putin announced that he was running for a third term as president. This gave rise to a protest by more than 100,000 persons in Moscow on Dec. 24 and demonstrations in Perm, Samara, Kazan, Ekaterinburg and Novosibirsk. They were the largest protests since the fall of the Soviet Union. 

The demonstrations unnerved the regime. The regime’s system of bureaucratic control was difficult to challenge except by mass popular protests which were now a reality. Leading businessmen and bureaucrats began seeking safe havens, laundering their money and shipping their assets abroad. The government, however, introduced crushing fines for taking part in unsanctioned meetings. The opposition split and the protest wave largely dissipated. But in 2013, a much more massive wave against Viktor Yanukovych, a leader supported by Mr. Putin surfaced in neighboring Ukraine. 

The Euromaidan revolt in Ukraine overthrew Mr. Yanukovych and was a blueprint for the overthrow of the regime in Russia. Mr. Putin responded by diverting attention with the annexation of Crimea and war in Eastern Ukraine. 

The strategy was a success. A wave of euphoria over the seizure of Crimea and “restoration of Russian greatness” swept the country. Mr. Putin’s popularity reached 89%. But the underlying problems of Russian society; corruption and economic and demographic decline had not been eliminated. This created the need after eight years again to rally the Russian population which, as in the past, was best achieved with the help of a new war. 

There was no reason for Russia to attack Ukraine at the time that it did. But Mr. Putin may have concluded that Ukraine could be attacked without risk after the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan which had the status of a major non-NATO American ally, a status to which Ukraine had aspired. 

In his statement at Davos, Mr. Kissinger referred to a “proper place” for Russia in the European balance of power. But it is doubtful that the Putin regime agrees on the place that Mr. Kissinger has in mind for it. In 1993, well before the expansion of NATO in 1997, Russia was already laying the groundwork for future aggression. It defined a threat to Russia as “acts against the Russian population” in any neighboring country. When Mr. Putin became president in 2000, he promised to defend Russians “beyond Russia’s boundaries.” 

Only the Ukrainians can decide on their war aims and how long to keep fighting. But if they follow Mr. Kissinger’s advice and cede territory, they will not satisfy Russia’s appetite for war. We should have no illusions. For Russia to pursue peace, it must be finally convinced of the futility of war. 

• David Satter is the author of “The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin.” He is an academic adviser to the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. 

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