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Worse Than a Crime; It’s a Blunder

The meaning and consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the West’s response

Helena, a 53-year-old teacher injured by shards of glass from a falling mirror, stands next to an apartment complex in Chuhuiv, Ukraine, that has been severely damaged by a Russian bombardment, February 24, 2022.,Justin Yau/SIPA USA via AP Images

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has profoundly shaken the world order (such as it is) and raised a host of questions about Putin’s endgame, the West’s response, the alternative courses that neither side took, and the consequences for Ukraine, Russia, and nearly everyplace else. In search of some preliminary answers, Prospect editor at large Harold Meyerson and managing editor Ryan Cooper talked to Anatol Lieven, senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry. An edited transcript follows.

Harold Meyerson: What is Putin’s endgame, as far as you can discern it?

Anatol Lieven: Up to this morning, I would have said, on the basis of my conversations with people in Moscow, officials and former officials, that what they were going to do was take the Russian-speaking areas of the country in eastern and southern Ukraine and then, basically, offer to reunite Ukraine on the basis of federalism—in other words, basically propose the Minsk agreement for the Donbas, but into a kind of confederal state in which pro-Russian areas would have de facto control over Ukraine’s international alignment. And accompanying that with a treaty of neutrality. Now—and I think it’s still too early to say for sure—but after Putin’s speech and given what looked like Russian moves towards Kyiv, it may well be that they want more than that, they want to replace the government in Kyiv with a pro-Russian government.

Putin’s talk about denazification, demilitarization, punishment of Ukrainian criminals points in that direction, and the fact that they seem to have crossed the border on the ground from Belarus heading for Kyiv. The Russian bombardments, of course, extend across the whole of Ukraine, but that’s what you would have expected, a classic military offensive to knock out the military infrastructure through air power and missiles. But in the end, the political fate of Ukraine will be determined by what territory the Russian army occupies on the ground.

Meyerson: If they attempt to depose the Zelensky government and put their own people in, wouldn’t they have to then continue a military occupation in Ukraine? I don’t know how such a government could be sustained absent Russian troops.

Lieven: They would have to keep a massive military presence permanently. And they will also have to be prepared to use that military to repress what I think would be very serious popular protests by the population of Kyiv and central Ukraine. Before 2014, after all (after 2014, things have got more mixed), this area was solidly Ukrainian nationalist.

And this has deeply sinister implications both for Russia and for Ukraine. Repression in Ukraine would be required, but this would replicate both the Russian and the American experience in Afghanistan. It would replicate the American experience in South Vietnam, it would replicate the Soviet experience in Eastern Europe. You would have a client government that could only survive in the massive presence of your troops.

And Russia would be nailed to this indefinitely, because at that point any compromise would become almost impossible. It would require Russia to abandon its allies in Kyiv. I can’t see the West ever agreeing to recognize a Russian puppet government in Kyiv.

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Meyerson: What are the implications for Russian politics if they have control over a largely hostile population in Ukraine that has to be sustained by a long deployment of Russian troops?

Lieven: My Russian interlocutors, some of whom I’ve known for many years, are by no means pro-Western anymore; they’re very angry with Western policy in recent years and they’re not pro-Ukrainian. But I have to say they’re horrified by what has happened. They really didn’t expect an invasion on this scale. They thought something would happen, but that it would be much more limited.

They think that this will have massive implications for repression in Russia itself. Up to now, Putin’s regime has become more authoritarian over time, but it still might be described as semi-authoritarian. If compared to China, or many American allies in the Middle East, it’s not the kind of repression that affects most ordinary people. But if Russia is going to be massively involved in repression in a neighboring country where huge numbers of people are Russians, speak Russian, are intermarried with Russians, and who may have been hostile to Ukrainian ethnic nationalism, but may very well also be deeply opposed to Russian military occupation—well, this, you know, targets Russians’ Ukrainian neighbors.

Ryan Cooper: If all Russia wanted was to carve off the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, it could just push the Ukrainian government out of those areas the Ukrainian military controls, and then just say, “We’re done.” That’s fulfilling Putin’s argument, but instead it seems Russia is just sweeping across the entire country. To what extent do you think that Putin may be in the grips of a sort of delusion about possibly annexing big chunks of Ukraine back into Russia itself?

Lieven: I’ve been saying for a long time that if Russia launched an invasion, it would not stop at the Donbas. It simply wasn’t worth it from Russia’s point of view to draw upon itself what was obviously going to be intense Western sanctions and political backlash for a couple of, frankly, pretty miserable provinces in eastern Ukraine. So it was always clear that Russia was going to go further than that. But if Russia means to actually replace the government in Kyiv with one of its own, then we are in a radically different scenario than I expected and than most of my Russian friends expected as well.

As to annexation, I think not. The head of Russia’s secret service had a humiliating moment when he talked on Russian television live about Russia annexing the Donetsk People’s Republic, and Putin dressed him down very sharply. That suggests the Russian scenario for Ukraine will not be annexation, at least not for a long time to come. That’s certainly not Russia’s initial plan, which will be the federalization of Ukraine. Russia will then say, “Look, this is what the EU, France, and Germany brokered, the Minsk agreement of 2015, this is what America endorsed, autonomy for the Donbas within Ukraine,” except now it wouldn’t be autonomy just for the Donbas, and Ukraine would then become a sort of loose federation.

But if Russia occupies Kyiv, does it go even further? What if Russia tries to occupy Western Ukraine, which is the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism, and where a lot of people also have very close personal ties to the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada and the U.S.? I think Russia would then be stuck in a guerrilla war and a terrorist war for many years to come, with very severe effects on the Russian economy.

Then, it wouldn’t just be a matter of Western sanctions; it would be a permanent drain of military spending. And, to be blunt, it’s one thing to have your soldiers killing people in Muslim countries, but this would be asking Russian conscripts to suppress revolts not just in Western Ukraine, but in other parts of Ukraine which are very closely ethnically tied to Russia. Over time, that could have a terrible effect on Russian public opinion.

Meyerson: Europe and the United States are going to now impose more severe sanctions, notwithstanding the fact that sanctions really haven’t had a major effect in altering a nation’s policies almost anywhere. What do you see as the maximal effects that such sanctions could have on Russia?

Lieven: Obviously, the first thing the West will do is try to impose everything to hurt Russia and the Russian elites that won’t hurt the West, such as complete bans on technology exports and other forms of export. The Germans will definitely have to give up their investments in Russia, which will have quite a bad effect on Russia: A surprising amount of the Russian food processing industry is actually German-owned.

Of course, the big thing is Russian energy exports to Europe, gas exports particularly. There are two ways of doing this. The first is the obvious way, in which the Germans and the other Europeans simply say, “We’re not going to pay you for your gas anymore,” and the Russians then cut off the gas. At that point, you have a very severe energy crisis in Europe. Prices will surge and there might have to be rationing.

Another way of doing this, which has been discussed, would be expelling Russia from the SWIFT banking system, which would make payment to Russia for exports more difficult. But it wouldn’t block them completely. I don’t want to be cynical, but one might see the European governments going along with some of this, but then actually subverting it because you know they are going to have to ask their populations for real sacrifices here.

The Europeans will face great difficulty, and I think you’ll see a lot of wrangling between Washington and Berlin and European capitals about just how far to go.

At least in the short and medium term, this is a disaster for the struggle against climate change. Gas is the least disruptive of the fossil fuels from the point of view of climate change. Coal is the worst, but the most secure because 70 countries produce it. Germany produces huge quantities; so does Poland. In the short and medium term, I think you’ll see a flight back to coal. In the longer term, I think you will see European moves to reduce dependence on Russian gas in favor of imports from America, but that will take a lot of development of infrastructure, which will take a number of years.

And Russia simultaneously will boost its infrastructure to supply China. This will be a major gain of energy security for China, because it will be supplied over land and can’t be interdicted by the American Navy. It will also be an economic gain in China, because this will be a buyer’s market: China will be able to dictate the price to Russia.

Meyerson: A number of us here in the United States have been periodically saying for years that the strategic function of NATO was, to put it mildly, no longer clear. But in terms of the future of NATO today, I think, if one was investing in transnational political entities, NATO stock would now be a good place to put some money. What do you see in terms of U.S. policy and U.S. deployments of troops and armaments to Europe, I presume at the expense of what was supposed to be the shifting focus of U.S. arms to the Western Pacific and China?

Lieven: I think this crisis is a paradise for NATO, for Western staff officers and military bureaucrats everywhere. It’s back to the Cold War: You move troops around on paper; you talk constantly about defense; you spend huge sums on exercises and papers and papers and papers and more papers, but you never have to fight! The NATO nightmare was Afghanistan, where you actually had to fight and face opposition from Western publics and [for European nations] did your absolute utmost not to fight—with the usual exception of the British. Wind it up and they’ll run.

NATO has made absolutely clear over and over again, just as the U.S. has, that they will not fight to defend Ukraine. And there is no chance whatsoever—none, zero—that Russia will attack NATO, that’s not part of Moscow’s plan at all. Who can say what may happen at some stage in the future if the West supports a Ukrainian guerrilla war, but at present, all these NATO deployments to Poland and the Baltic are completely symbolic and therefore can also afford to be small-scale.

This is also paradise for the U.S. Army. One thing to watch in Washington is the struggle that goes on between the Army and the Navy and the Air Force about who gets most of the money. Once again, you know you get money pouring back to the Army, which was going to lose it as a result of the prioritization of China. But once again, they don’t have to actually fight, because we’re not going to go into Ukraine and the Russians are not going to go into Poland.

We never had the slightest intention of defending Ukraine, not the slightest. Even though Britain and America and the NATO secretariat to the Bucharest Conference in 2008 came out for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia (the NATO HQ was completely behind it on American orders), no contingency plans were drawn up, not the most remote or contingent ones, for how NATO could defend Ukraine and Georgia. There was no intention of ever doing that at all.

That raises the question, since we never intended to defend them, of what in God’s name were we doing? Claiming that we were going to admit them to NATO: It goes beyond actual irresponsibility. In my view, this was deeply immoral, to make such a commitment that we had no intention of fulfilling. This does not in any way excuse or justify the Russian invasion or the monstrous lies with which Putin justified this invasion. Maybe this isn’t the moment, but at some stage, I do hope that we have an honest and searching discussion of the errors of Western strategy that led to this disaster.

Cooper: I’m reminded of the economic aspect of this before the Maidan Revolution, when the Ukrainian economy was in very deep doo-doo and the European Union offered a pitiful amount, like a half a billion euros. I remember Adam Tooze saying that the Ukrainians looked at this like, “What are you talking about? There are oligarchs in this country with personal fortunes bigger than this, with which we’re supposed to rescue our entire economy?” And then Putin leaped in with an offer of a big loan that was also predicated on some very serious concessions. Do you see this in the mix of bungled Western diplomatic policies and unwise promises?

Lieven: In 2013, I think both sides blundered very badly. The Russian offer to Ukraine was not just the specific offer of 2013, but the fact that Russia had been massively subsidizing Ukraine with subsidized gas to the tune of billions of dollars a year ever since Ukrainian independence. On the basis of that, Putin tried to draw President Yanukovych and Ukraine into refusing to join the European Union.

I wrote a book about it called Ukraine and Russia, which came out in 1999. And in that book, I warned specifically that any attempt by one side or the other, by Russia or the West, to take Ukraine fully into an alliance with either of them would disastrously split Ukraine. That is of course exactly what happened.

The European Union contributed to this; this was really an initiative of the Swedes and the Poles by coming up with a very weak EU Association Agreement with, as you say, almost no money attached to it, but which was just enough to block access to the European Union. And then the EU failed to do what it should have done, which is to talk to Moscow about how one could work out a compromise whereby Ukraine could work with both countries or both blocs economically, simultaneously.

Now, of course, Russian propaganda—and one can have some understanding of this, you know, given the role of U.S. State Department official Victoria Nuland and so forth—Russian propaganda says that the Maidan Revolution was simply a coup and orchestrated by America. Well, no, because many ordinary Ukrainians, especially younger Ukrainians, including Russian-speaking Ukrainians, desperately wanted to get away from this horribly corrupt, economically stagnant post-Soviet reality and join the West. I think they didn’t quite realize just how difficult it was going to be to join the European Union and how little real will there is now in the European Union to bring in more members. One reason for that is that what has happened in Poland and Hungary has really tarnished the whole “end of history.” You know, your liberal democracy extends into Eastern Europe, countries joined the EU, and they’ve achieved paradise—except, of course, that’s not true politically in Hungary and Poland. And in Romania and Bulgaria, you still have enormously high levels of corruption and criminality. In private, people in Brussels admit that these countries were admitted years before they were really ready to join.

To quote Metternich, the Russian invasion was worse than a crime—and undoubtedly it is an enormous crime—but it was also a blunder, because it wasn’t necessary from a Russian point of view. Ukraine wasn’t really going anywhere, actually.

Meyerson: Talk a little about the effect that all the events of just even the last 24 hours will have on European politics. How do you see the tremors playing in Europe generally? For starters, most of these nations, except the U.K., have not expressed much desire to increase defense budgets.

Lieven: Defense budgets are a chimera, they’re a cipher, they’re a symbol. As I said, again and again, about NATO, you could increase the German or the Danish or the Dutch defense budget a thousand times over, you could conscript every German from the age of 18 to 35 into the army, and they still wouldn’t fight in Ukraine. Or, indeed, it seems, anywhere else. They’d fight if Germany were invaded, but that’s not going to happen. Just look at the failure to back up France in western Africa.

As far as the political effects are concerned, I think there could be not quite a mirror image, but a resemblance between the effects on Russia on the one hand and the effects on the West on the other.

The economic suffering of Russians is likely to feed into discontent with the regime in Russia, and of course there is already deep discontent over corruption and economic stagnation and the kind of small repressions by the police, police brutality. Corruption, above all.

But I really do not think that you will see any serious Russian politician coming out and saying we should surrender to the West over this. At most, you will see people coming out and saying, “Look, we need to reach a compromise with the Ukrainians.”

I think it will probably be the same in Western Europe: Any economic suffering will feed into discontent and radicalism—especially, unfortunately, right-wing radicalism, but I don’t think you will get people coming out in support of Putin or of Russia.

Russia will do their utmost not to target civilians in Ukraine or Ukrainian cities, because their whole political plan depends on keeping enough of the population on their side. But if enough of the Ukrainian troops retreat into the cities to fight it out, then the cities will be badly damaged and lots of civilians will be killed. That will obviously tarnish Russia still further in the eyes of Western and international opinion, but it will also make it even more difficult politically for Russia’s plans within Ukraine.Cooper: We’ve now seen a violation of one of the last legacies of the post–World War II settlement, and of the United Nations Charter. If you read the preamble, it’s all about preventing wars between nations. Obviously, that was not respected really at all across the Global South; there was the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, etc., etc.But Europe—most of the worst fighting in World War II happened in Europe; so that postwar settlement was a thing that stuck until now. What do you think this invasion
might mean in terms of legitimizing wars of conquest on the European continent?

Lieven: Like both of you, this was one of the reasons why I was so passionately against the Iraq War. The invasion of Iraq was not just a disaster in itself, but I regarded it as a catastrophic precedent. But as you said, we sort of made different rules for other parts of the world.

As to how far this will legitimize war in Europe, I’m not sure it will. Most of Europe is profoundly demilitarized. As for the extreme right in Europe, very, very nasty though they are, it is striking that Alternative für Deutschland is not looking to reconquer large parts of Poland. The Front National, or whatever they’ve renamed themselves in France, is not looking to conquer Belgium. There is all this rancorous ethnic anti-immigrant nationalism, but it’s not the old European military nationalism, partly, of course, because if the AfD suggested to the young voters that they might like to go and spend several years in a trench, up to their knees in mud, being shelled, in order to reconquer Breslau for Germany, in the next election their vote would go down to about 0.00001 percent.

I’m not sure if John Mearsheimer has ever completely forgiven me for this, but I reviewed his book that came out in the ’90s, and he wrote that Germany was inevitably going to come back as a great military power dominating Europe, and I wrote in my review that the man who wrote this has never been in a German disco. That he really doesn’t understand contemporary German youth, and I think that still applies.

Meyerson: I think we should leave this in the spirit of the German disco. This has been hugely informative, and I hope against hope that we don’t have to do this again. But who knows, I suspect we may.

Anatol Lieven, is senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry. 

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of The American Prospect.

Ryan Cooper is the Prospect’s managing editor, and author of ‘How Are You Going to Pay for That?: Smart Answers to the Dumbest Question in Politics.’ He was previously a national correspondent for The Week.

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