I used to, say, prior to 2020, when observing something that didn’t make any sense at all, assume there was some factor behind it I didn’t know or understand. Now that I have adopted the “monkeys on the bridge” model of geopolitics, I have extirpated “That doesn’t make any sense” from my verbal repertoire and ceased to fret over incomprehensible things—because that’s what happens when you have monkeys at the helm.
That said, if Putin’s goal is what Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoke of in a 2008 interview with Forbes, “Alexander Solzhenitsyn On The New Russia”:
Already in 1990 I wrote that Russia could desire the union of only the three Slavic republics [Russia, Ukraine, Belarus] and Kazakhstan, while all the other republics should be let go. It would be desirable if [a resulting Russian Union] could be formed into a unitary state, not into a fragile, artificial confederation with a huge supra-national bureaucracy, as Nazarbayev recently proposed. That’s just smoke and mirrors.
And on Ukraine, when asked “Why does independence for Ukraine weaken Russia?”:
As a result of the sudden and crude fragmentation of the intermingled Slavic peoples, the borders have torn apart millions of ties of family and friendship. Is this acceptable? The recent elections in Ukraine, for instance, clearly show the [Russian] sympathies of the Crimean and Donets populations. And a democracy must respect this.
I myself am nearly half Ukrainian. I grew up with the sounds of Ukrainian speech. I love her culture and genuinely wish all kinds of success for Ukraine—but only within her real ethnic boundaries, without grabbing Russian provinces. And not in the form of a “great power,” the concept on which Ukrainian nationalists have placed their bets. They are acting out and trumpeting a cult of force, persistently inflating Russia into the image of an “enemy.” Militant slogans are proclaimed. And the Ukrainian army is being indoctrinated with the propaganda that war with Russia is inevitable.
For every country, great power status deforms and harms the national character. I have never wished great power status for Russia, and do not wish it for the United States. I don’t wish it for Ukraine. She would not be able to perform even the cultural task required to achieve great power status: In her current borders, 63% of the population consider Russian to be their native language, a number three times larger than the number of ethnic Russians. And all these people will have to be re-educated in the Ukrainian language, while the language itself will have to be raised to international standards and usage. This is a task that would require over 100 years.
In a February 16, 2022 piece in Substack, “Regathering of the Russian Lands”, Anatoly Karlin argues that Putin’s statements since the late 2000s are consistent with this view and that Putin may see the present as an excellent and perhaps final window of opportunity to achieve this goal.
More broadly, the economic environment has perhaps never been more favorable for Russian irredentism. Russia has spent the past eight years insulating its economy from sanctions through import substitution and pursuing tight fiscal and monetary policies, which allowed it to build up a formidable war chest of $600 billion in foreign currency reserves. In any case, most of the sanctions that could be imposed on Russia cheaply have either already been implemented, or are simply absurd (Russian vatniks will be very sad if Navalny-supporting hipsters were to lose access to the latest iPhone models… maybe not), or are downright impractical, like cutting off its oil exports or cutting it off from the Internet (a popular Reddit fantasy). Even SWIFT is ultimately just a financial messaging system and its removal will just be an inconvenience. Ultimately, Russia has a 2x bigger population, much bigger GDP, and far more developed technological base than Iran, and as Iran mostly gets by, it’s unclear why Russia should be expected to do worse.
If you’re in charge of a country with national debt of 17% of GDP and a net energy exporter confronting the clown show in Washington, but looking at dire demographic projections for your own country and the generation that remembers the prestige of the Soviet empire with nostalgia scrolling off the screen, mightn’t now be the time to roll the dice?