Putin’s Flawed Knowledge of History Could Cost Him Dear

Stephen Dalziel is an independent Russia Analyst, who formerly covered Russian affairs for the MoD and the BBC

Ever since the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, wrote an essay last year pointing out with allegedly historical arguments that Russians and Ukrainians are one and the same nation, much has been said and written about Putin’s grasp of history.[1] But his essay, and the current posture adopted by the Russian armed forces around Ukraine suggest that Mr Putin’s knowledge of history is not as great as he would have us believe.

A serious failing in the West’s response to Russia’s threatening actions around Ukraine in recent months is that Western leaders have little or no concept about who they are dealing with. Putin is not a historian. Putin is not a leader who abides by the rules of democracy. Indeed, Putin is not even a politician. He is a secret policeman who comes from a system where the rules of democracy and diplomacy do not apply, and where there is no obligation to keep one’s word. Rather, lies and obfuscation are the norm for his behaviour.

Aside from this, one of the myths that Western leaders seem to believe about Putin is that, whatever else, he is ‘logical’. Once again, they fall into the trap of seeing Putin and those around him as behaving according to the norms of Western democracy. ‘He has genuine security concerns’, they say. ‘NATO has encroached too close to Russia’s borders.’

What nonsense. This crisis – that Putin has single-handedly created – has nothing to do with NATO or Russian ‘security concerns’. NATO did not go out touting for customers after the collapse of the USSR. Individual countries, many with newly-democratic systems, applied to join NATO as protection against…a revanchist Russia. What is happening now simply illustrates why these countries were right to do so.[2]

The only ‘security concerns’ Putin is worried about is that if the Russian people see the benefits of a free, democratic system, as has been created in post-Soviet Ukraine, they may decide that they, too, would be better off living under such a system. These are not concerns over Russia’s security. These are concerns over the security of the Putin regime. Putin does not want to become another Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi.

Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, Ukraine will never be safe while Putin is in power. Firstly, he simply refuses to accept that Ukraine is an independent country. His mindset is stuck not just in the Soviet Union, but back in the days of the Russian Empire, when the core people of the Empire were the Russians, the Little Russians and the White Russians; otherwise known today as Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians.

Secondly, this supposedly ‘logical’ leader not only sees these people as forming one nation, but he has blind spots, where his emotions take over. We have seen this before. When he launched the second war on Chechnya when he was prime minister in 1999 it was not only because of the humiliation suffered by the Russian Army when it left the Caucasian republic with its tail between its legs in 1996. It was because his emotional reaction to that defeat meant that he was determined to smash Chechnya at all costs. His outburst at a press conference that ‘we will get the terrorists wherever they are, even in the shithouse!’ shocked the journalists who heard it at the time, but also revealed that emotion can rule even this supposedly logical man.

Ukraine is another blind spot for Putin. Not only does he not accept that it is a separate nation; he is determined to take his revenge on the country for showing – in the Orange Revolution of 2004 and even more so in the Maidan Revolution of 2013-14 – that a Slav nation close to Russia can become a democracy. Putin suffered humiliation in 2004 when he congratulated Viktor Yanukovych on becoming Ukrainian President even before the result was declared. When mass vote-rigging was revealed and the vote re-run, with Yanukovych defeated, Putin was left with egg on his face.

Nothing motivates Putin more than resentment and the desire for revenge. Logic goes out of the window. Ukraine has become a Western-facing democratic state. So in Putin’s mind, they must be punished for this. Even if he doesn’t succeed in dragging Ukraine back into a Soviet Union or a Russian Empire of sorts, then Putin will be satisfied if he manages to destroy it economically; at the very least to persuade the West that it should keep its investment out of Ukraine. Putin’s approach can be summed up as, ‘They humiliated me in 2004 and 2014; now they must suffer for it.’

If Putin were logical, he would look at history to see what his adventurism over Ukraine might bring. In December 1979, the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan. The Soviet people were told that this was, effectively, a peace-keeping mission. The first soldiers were shown on Soviet TV (a week after the invasion started) being greeted with flowers by the inhabitants of Kabul. The message being put across was that they were there to help build schools and hospitals and mend roads; not that they would be fighting a bloody war.

It was only in 1987 under Mikhail Gorbachev, who had become Soviet leader two years previously, that figures were released for the number of Soviet soldiers who went through Afghanistan, and the number of casualties. Over one million soldiers had been sent there. The bodies (or parts of them) of over 13,000 of those soldiers were returned in sealed zinc coffins to grieving families, who were offered no comfort. But throughout the 1980s, those million soldiers had been returning to all parts of the USSR and telling their families and friends what was really going on in Afghanistan. Soviet people began to realise that they had been lied to. ‘And if they lied to us about this, what else have they lied about?’

The legacy of the Afghan War was a significant factor in the break-up of the Soviet Union. What will happen when hundreds and then thousands of Russian soldiers return from combat in Ukraine in 2022 with life-changing injuries – or in sealed zinc coffins?

Putin may wish to look back in history a little further. Discipline and morale fell apart in the Russian Army in the First World War. This played no small part in bringing about the two revolutions of 1917, the first of which deposed the monarchy, the second started a civil war that ended with the Bolsheviks establishing the USSR. The year 2017 saw the one hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution; but there were no official celebrations in Russia to mark this historic event.

Why not? Why not celebrate the events that overthrew a despotic system, run by a hated coterie of privileged people out of touch with the mass of the population? Oh…what is the system that Putin and his cronies have created now?

It appears that in 2017 Putin was aware of certain lessons of history. Right now, he seems to have forgotten that a battered and bloodied army played a major role in bringing about the Revolution. And if he thinks his army now could walk over Ukraine, he is in for a very nasty shock.

  1. A particularly good example is this article by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, https://cepa.org/putin-conscripts-history/.
  2. Putin’s behaviour is reminiscent of the character Begbie in the film Trainspotting. Begbie throws a glass into a crowd in a pub, causing mayhem – and then wades in, ostensibly to sort it out, but simply because he is a psychopath who loves violence. Putin has created the situation around Ukraine single-handedly, because he is looking for a fight to ‘sort out’ Ukraine