Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Real Threat to Putin from Ukraine was that Ukraine is a Democracy

Chris Alexander is a former Canadian diplomat and former Canadian Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. As a foreign service officer, he spent over six years at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. He first met Vladimir Putin in 1995, when he was St Petersburg’s deputy mayor. Alexander was Putin’s liaison officer at the last G8 summit he attended in Canada, at Kananaskis.

PS – Chris , thank you for taking the time to speak with us. As someone who has seen Vladimir Putin at close quarters in Russia, how would you characterize him? 

CA – Yes. And I’ve seen Putin at some international events since then, but I have tracked his trajectory, let’s put it that way. 

I think there are two trajectories or two lines in his life. One is remarkably consistent. I would call him a Russian chauvinist, someone who is nationalist to the point of extreme intolerance toward those who don’t share his views. He has always believed that Russia needs to use violence and subversion to pursue its national interest. And why do I say that? Because he’s a guy who, even in his early teens, had only one dream, which was to join the KGB. Joining the KGB in the Soviet Union, of course, meant buying into a set of values that had repression and propaganda and all kinds of underhanded dealing as its signature. So he’s been consistent. He got into the KGB, and as a political leader, if you look at his agenda of coming to power over the war in Chechnya and then invading Georgia, Syria, and invading Ukraine twice, as well as many other forms of state interference such as assassinating people abroad, he’s been true to those KGB values throughout his life. So that’s the consistent side of Putin. 

On the other hand, when he came to power, when he returned to Russia from his KGB job, his only KGB job abroad in Germany, Russia was a weak and chaotic place. The Soviet Union had just broken up. Organized crime was taking control of many assets, including the Port of St Petersburg. And then, when he came into government in St. Petersburg and then in Moscow, he played a very direct role in corrupt practices, cronyism, organized crime, and the bribe paying economic model that came out of Russia in the 1990s. But he didn’t just take part in it, as Navalny has very well chronicled in his video about Putin’s Palace, he made it work for him, and he started to amass a fortune. He continued that once he had become president, but he was careful in his early years as president to mask his agenda for trying to reconstitute a larger Russian state because he personally as president and the country were quite weak. 

Ten years into his time as president, he came more out into the open and gave his famous speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, saying that Russia wouldn’t stand for certain things and certain Western practices and would break the rules if necessary to pursue its interests. The following year, he invaded Georgia. A few years after that, he was helping Assad in Syria, which led to a genocide. And then, for the last ten years, his focus has been on Ukraine. His first invasion in 2014 was fairly modest, only seven percent of territory. He never acknowledged that his forces were in eastern Ukraine. They were beaten back to some extent by the Ukrainians. But over the last eight years, he’s been tremendously emboldened to the point where he’s now engaged in a war of conquest. So one line of Putin’s biography is very consistent with one set of values that he’s pursued, I would say unremittingly and unswervingly. But the second line is one of escalation. He didn’t have the means. He didn’t have the concentrated hold on power 20 years ago that he now has. He’s built that up slowly. He’s tested the defenses of the democratic world. He’s crossed boundaries, found out what limits there were and what limits there weren’t, to the point where, you know, in the last two weeks, he’s been taking extreme risks trying to conquer an entire European nation larger than France. And as you know, this is the first interstate conflict on this scale in Europe since 1945, which means we’re in a very painful place and a very dangerous place thanks to Putin’s agenda of aggression. 

PS – You talk about his agenda of conquest. In that regard, what are his thoughts about the European Union and NATO? Is it correct that he doesn’t like them because they stand in the way of his agenda? His actions don’t seem to be driven by his concern for Russian security.

CA – Putin doesn’t really care about security the way we think of it. You know, having secure borders and being assured that you can defend yourself from enemies. He’s interested in gaining territory. He’s trying to do it wherever and whenever he can. And so, NATO is part of his calculations. He has not been foolish enough or bold enough to attack a NATO member. And I think we have to admit that if Ukraine had been a NATO member, he very well might not have attacked. In 2008, there was a strong move by Ukrainian leaders and strong support in the United States by people like Senator John McCain to make Ukraine a member. But it never took off. Germany and France opposed the move at the time because they thought it would upset Russia. Well, far from upsetting Russia, it has given Russia a target. It has painted a target on the forehead of Ukraine ever since. And Georgia as well, for that matter. And so why is he attacking now? Because he can, because he thinks he has worked hard enough to weaken NATO democracies, and that no leadership strong enough that might emerge will be strong enough to prevent him from achieving his goals in Ukraine. 

PS – What about the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia and Putin?

CA -I think he was absolutely aware that there would be strong sanctions. He believes he can weather those sanctions. He’s not really accountable inside Russia for his economic performance. His power is absolute at the moment. And Russians are notorious for being willing to suffer enormous economic hardship if they think it’s a cause that involves the national interest. They went through hell in Lenin’s time, Stalin’s time, the Second World War famine, conflict, repression without ever rising up because there were enough Russians who thought that their patriotic future was hanging in the balance. And similarly, today, all the opinion polls we have show that even after Putin invaded Ukraine, even after these very strong sanctions started to hit, Putin’s support in Russia has, if anything, gone up. 

So what is he trying to do? He’s trying to regain territory that he thinks properly belongs to Russia. He’s really engaged in genocide against Ukraine because he doesn’t accept that Ukrainian identity, Ukrainian language, and culture are legitimate. In his mind, Ukrainians and Russians are one people and what he’s doing is an almost exact match for the definition of genocide as we see in the convention. And he’s trying to extend what he calls the Russian world, which is a kind of amalgam of the old Soviet world and the Czarist world in a way that overturns the order that has been prevailing since 1945 and especially since 1991. 

I think his objectives are far greater than simply conquering Ukraine. He wants to divide Europe. I think he wants to defeat the Biden presidency. And he feels that if he can show this kind of ruthless resolve, he’s going to end up with a bunch of leaders in the West eventually who are, like Trump, malleable in his grip. God forbid that would ever happen. I think, for now, the opposite is happening. Positions and views are hardening against Russia almost everywhere. But we have to be honest about how deluded he is, and I think that the very ambitious delusion that I just laid out accurately describes Vladimir Putin. 

PS- You said that his position within Russia has been strengthened by the sanctions. But there has been some dissent in the Duma. Not much, but a little bit, and there have been widespread protests by the Russian people. 

CA – He has a very, very limited dissent in the Duma and municipal government. There have been demonstrations involving thousands of people, but these are people who came out in much larger numbers when Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014. I think there are even fewer today. Putin controls a propaganda machine that would make some of the Nazi old guard blush. It is ruthless. It is sophisticated. It is powerful. And I think the only way to describe Russians today is that they’re brainwashed. And so when he spends weeks and weeks, as he’s done recently, saying that Ukraine is in the hands of Nazis and that Ukraine is determined to disenfranchise all the Russian speakers and perpetrate all kinds of crimes against Russia, people believe him. We all know that the real threat to Putin from Ukraine was that Ukraine is a democracy. Ukraine has freedom of speech. Ukraine was reforming itself to be less corrupt, a stronger institution, and all of those trend lines were making it very different. Right from Putin’s Russia, they were an unwelcome source of comparison. 

PS – So these ongoing economic sanctions, Russia’s growing isolation hasn’t deterred him. I mean, he’s gone too far ahead to turn back, so to say. 

CA – There’s no turning back for him now. And my view is that sanctions, no matter how stiff, an indictment in an international criminal court, no matter how swift, are not going to deter him from the military course he’s now on. The only way to stop him is a military response. 

PS – And that doesn’t seem to be happening. Ukraine’s requested that allies help them close the airspace over Ukraine. There hasn’t been any response yet. 

CA – I don’t think we’ve seen anyone’s final answer. I mean, I wouldn’t at all minimize the extent to which allies and even non-NATO countries are supporting Ukraine militarily. Now people are going. Weapons are going. Ammunition is going, and weapon systems are going from every NATO ally and many countries beyond NATO. So that is having an effect. Air operations take longer to organize. I think the discussion until now has been unhelpful, you know, with people saying, Oh, if we do anything over Ukraine, it’ll start World War Three, that’s absolutely not true, in my view. The UN is still discussing Russia’s aggression right now. There’s every prospect of the UN, either the Security Council or the General Assembly authorizing various missions that could help to protect Ukraine from this Russian onslaught, even if Russia voted against or vetoed. I think there’s a legal case for saying the UN could disregard that veto because Russia is the aggressor and that, you know, such missions would be authorized under the U.N. Charter Chapter seven to protect Ukraine from annihilation, specifically to protect the cities from the incineration that they’re now facing by Russian artillery, Russian rockets, and Russian airpower. 

NATO in the first week concentrated on literally covering its own backside, making sure that its defenses of NATO members were strong enough given the new circumstances. I think the discussion is going to turn increasingly to asking what more can and should be done. There certainly are many military options that could be on the table that haven’t been enacted or implemented yet. 

PS – So he’ll be able to handle this isolation and all the sanctions? Will he be able to weather all that unless there’s a coordinated military response?

CA – That’s my view. And if Putin is defeated in Ukraine, if he doesn’t achieve his objectives, if there’s continuing strong Ukrainian military resistance and growing international support for Ukraine to remain free or fight to free itself, then I think he starts to be in deep trouble. Russia traditionally doesn’t have a lot of tolerance for leaders that fail in large-scale military campaigns. You remember Afghanistan. This was a quagmire in the 80s and led to significant changes. Before that, you had the Winter War, Stalin’s winter war in Finland, which was one of the reasons why Hitler chose to invade. I think he probably would have done it sooner, but the timing was definitely affected by the fact that Russia had been so unsuccessful in trying to conquer Finland. And then the great example is 1905 when they lost a big naval engagement with Japan that they thought they would win easily and that didn’t lead to changes overnight, but there was a small revolution that year and then the big revolution that brought Lenin to power in 1917. So military defeat is what could change the balance of power in Moscow. We’re a long way from that, but the number of casualties Russia has incurred so far is significant. In only one week, the number of Russian soldiers killed is roughly equivalent to the number of Soviet soldiers they lost in the first four years in Afghanistan, and it was after only four or five years that the Soviet Union started to think about withdrawing. It took them ten years to actually get out. But there’s really no honest way of arguing that Russia’s military campaign has been a success to date. They’re still fighting. They’re still growing troops into action, but they’re losing people, including aircraft, at an alarming rate. So we’ll see where this goes, but there will be less suffering, and I think less escalation, the more the free world does to help Ukraine. And this doesn’t have to result in World War Three. We are supporting a country that has every right to self-defense. Everything we do for them at their invitation is legal and is just the right thing to do, in my view. And without it, we just make Ukraine more vulnerable and fragile, which makes the whole world, I think, a more unstable place as well. We all have an interest in Ukraine holding out and ultimately prevailing. 

PS – Western leaders have said that, you know, Putin must fail and must be seen to fail, too. 

CA – Yes, that was Boris Johnson’s phrase. But then he was going on and on about how a no-fly zone was impossible. I mean, you can’t say Putin must fail and then take military options off the table. I agree with his first statement, but now with the second one, there’s no reason why a no-fly zone needs to be led by NATO. But it could involve all of us in providing air assets directly or indirectly that would benefit Ukraine. I mean, the EU, at one point a couple of days ago, was going to give aircraft to Ukraine that their pilots could use. There are all kinds of models that would help to take away the threat from the air in Ukraine, augment Ukraine’s offensive air capacity, which is still flying, and they don’t have to once again lead to an all-out war between NATO and Russia, which no one wants. 

PS – President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen also expressed  sentiments that Putin must fail.

CA – And we’ve seen NATO adopting quite a defensive posture in the first week. I would say that the EU and some NATO members, especially those that border Ukraine, have been much more forward-leaning. And that’s a good thing. 

PS – China seems to be waiting and watching, and seeing what they can do in Taiwan based on what Russia can achieve here. Pakistan recently announced they are buying wheat and fuel from Russia. 

CA – I think for you and me who follow Pakistan’s foreign policy and security policy, especially in recent years, it’s not that surprising. But for Imran Khan to be in Moscow on the day Putin launched this war and not utter a syllable of criticism or even a syllable that sounded neutral? When even the Chinese have gone to some lengths to appear to sound ambiguous and even neutral in this conflict. As Russia launches this campaign, which obviously China hopes will at least divide and weaken the democracies, Imran Khan is signaling that he’s prepared to be close to Vladimir Putin, who has been as ruthless in using violence and terror in Ukraine over the past week, as Imran Khan’s Pakistan has been sponsoring the groups that are now running Afghanistan. The other reason he had for being willing to be in Moscow on the day this war began is he is playing to an audience in India. He is trying to show that Pakistan’s ties to Putin’s Russia are deeper than India’s ties because Pakistan has an aggressively anti-Western agenda given its policy of proxy war in Afghanistan and now occupation, which is, you know, analogous to what Putin is trying to do in Ukraine. 

India has a strong defense relationship with Russia and a significant dependency on Russian weapons systems. Obviously, India is not happy with either a Taliban regime in Afghanistan or interstate wars that end up in conquest. 

PS –I think the world has failed with Afghanistan and Ukraine, but Afghanistan more. What are your thoughts?

CA –  I agree with that statement fully. I mean, they are very different situations, but you had a strong US and NATO presence in Afghanistan and a larger group of countries there as donors and contributors for 20 years. Ukraine has never had a NATO mission. It had training missions for its armed forces, but you never saw NATO countries engaged in the conflict even after 2014, and certainly not now. There’s also a geographical difference. Ukraine borders NATO’s territory and the Euro-Atlantic core area of operations. Afghanistan was always an out-of-area operation. But why did the Afghan operation fail? Because it went on for so long, and support for it basically ran dry. There was an extremely flawed negotiation underway, which de-legitimized the Afghan government. And thirdly, the US, the UK, and others involved were totally uncritical towards Pakistan. They didn’t believe until the last moment that Pakistan would dare organize an invasion and take over on the scale they did. That last factor has an echo in that. There were many in the United States, including in the Biden administration, who, even despite US intelligence forecasts, did not believe that Putin would try to invade all of Ukraine. The other reason why the response to Putin has been weak and deterrence of his aggression has failed is because Putin worked very hard to keep us divided and polarized our politics to prevent strong leaders from emerging who were dedicated to deterring what he was doing. He used energy as a wedge to finance political corruption, to use political violence, including assassination, to intimidate people, sometimes silence them or distract them. So he’s been working for over 20 years to prevent a unified response. That hasn’t stopped all 30 NATO allies from offering and providing military assistance to one degree or another to Ukraine. But it’s not enough so far to slow, let alone stop the Russian onslaught. So the precedent of abandonment in Afghanistan is so far proving to be a recipe for insufficient support to date in Ukraine. Still, some of us are pushing for that insufficiency to be overcome. I mean, at some point, we have to stop stepping away from genocide and the takeover of countries by dictators or terrorists. We failed to prevent genocide in Syria. We failed to prevent a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, which is a Pakistani takeover by Pakistan military proxies as far as I’m concerned. We cannot fail a third time in Ukraine. And if the world does come together to ensure Ukraine and Ukrainians are able to fight to hold out and ultimately rid themselves of this threat, that will be a good thing for Afghanistan, Syria, Taiwan, and lots of other societies that are occupied or threatened. You know, there’s been a knock-on effect from failures over the past ten years. There’s no reason why there couldn’t be a knock-on effect from a resounding success if this turned out to be that. In the meantime, we’re seeing cities being decimated, and civilian casualties. The sanctions so far have been very strong, but the political and military response to follow those sanctions is still, let’s say, being debated.

This interview was published in Marathi for Sakal Media.

Author profile
Poonam Sharma
Editor

Poonam is a multi-media journalist, and Founder and Editor of Global Strat View. She was the Managing Editor of India America Today (IAT) for seven years, and launched its print edition in 2019 with IAT's Founder and Editor, the late Tejinder Singh.

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