Putin’s war in Ukraine through a historical lens

man sitting in front of flags


MARCO WERMAN, HOST: Russian leader Vladimir Putin likes to compare himself to the 18th-century Russian czar Peter the Great. Putin says his goals are the same as a czar. He’s on a historic quest to win back Russian territory. But author and Kremlinologist Mark Galeotti has another take. He says Putin risks looking more like Nicholas II. That’s Russia’s last czar who had a historic falling out with the Russian public and was forced to abdicate. I asked Galeotti, author of the new book “Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine,” why he thinks the war in Ukraine will be Putin’s final military action.  

MARK GALEOTTI, GUEST: Firstly, because this much-vaunted military has been chewed to pieces, and although they’re busy trying to replenish it with mobilized reservists, people who scarcely remember which is the dangerous end of a Kalashnikov. Nonetheless, we’re seeing that just as Ukraine is increasingly acquiring a 21st-century army because of the training and kit that NATO’s providing. Well, now the Russians increasingly are fielding what could be described as a late Soviet 20th-century army. So, I think, first of all, just Putin’s capacity to fight more wars, he’s going to be dramatically limited, whatever happens in Ukraine. But secondly, it also speaks to, I think, the dying days of Putinism. Putin, like any other kind of leader who depended not on democratic legitimation or anything else, depended on the myth, the myth of his own success, the myth that he was a man who never makes a blunder, that he always wins his wars, which in the past he had. Now that is becoming very much a thing of the past. And it’s quite interesting. Even in my last trip to Russia before my ban again, you’re beginning to hear people talking about him as the old man. I find [it] fascinating for a leader who, you know, even though he’s now 70, had still tried to build his image around his political and practical and personal virility. He may well remain in power for a long time. We wait and see whether mortality, fate and political machinations allow that. But he will undoubtedly be a much, much weaker figure, no longer the kind of the great warlord who could unleash his armies when he chooses.

cover image to book
The book cover for Mark Galeotti’s book, “Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine.”Courtesy of Mark Galeotti 

WERMAN: The historical context, as your book shows us, is really important. I mean, you start with Chechnya, but allow me to just go back even further. I mean, Russia has been embattled from its western flank for a long time, a battleground, as you point out, since the 1300s. Is there some value in seeing Putin’s war in Ukraine through that long historical lens? 

GALEOTTI: There is some value in the sense of it helps us understand, I think, Putin’s own frankly, rather warped, but nonetheless kind of historically based notion. Look, Ukraine posed no serious military threat to Russia. But nonetheless, for someone like Putin, who, frankly, you know, we know he pays attention to history. History is one of the few things he reads. He may not understand it very well, but he’s certainly interested in it and viewed through that prism. Absolutely. There is this notion that whenever Russia is weak or divided, it is vulnerable and that Russia’s neighbors are always potential aggressors. So I think it really contributed to this. I mean, you can use a slightly extreme word, paranoid mindset with which Putin looked at the West. 

WERMAN: I’m speaking with Russia expert Mark Galeotti, whose new book, “Putin’s Wars,” has just been published. If we look at the wars Russia has waged since Vladimir Putin became president, as you do in your book Chechnya in the 1990s and the aughts, of course, loom very large. What lessons had Putin take from the first and second Chechen wars? 

GALEOTTI: The main thing is precisely one of, to put it very crudely, brutality, that if you are going to fight a war, you fight a war without any limitations. Remember, the Chechen war was actually against a country which was meant to be part of the Russian Federation, even if it was a rebellious part. But nonetheless, its capital city, Grozny, was laying waste. It basically looked almost like Hiroshima after the A-bomb had hit it. Generally speaking, it was the sense that you go all in. And although it didn’t mean to say that, it was always about fighting wars with savagery, if you look at the very brief five-day war with Georgia, you know, the Russians could have gone further, but they actually sort of very pointedly stopped before going to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and withdrew to the areas that they were claiming. But there was always that sense, and we’ve seen this play out very, very brutally in Syria, that terror is always on the table. It is always one of the potential instruments that you use. 

WERMAN: You alluded to this earlier, Mark Galeotti, but to what degree did the U.S., the West and Naito kind of prod the tiger, you know, provoke Putin? Because we remember those video clips of Lindsey Graham and Amy Klobuchar telling Ukrainian generals that they had their back. 

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Mark GaleottiCourtesy of Mark Galeotti

GALEOTTI: Yeah, this is a difficult one. I mean, to be perfectly honest, I mean, I think the real blunders I mean, they date back to the 1990s. We mishandled Russia immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union very badly and in effect contributed to the circumstances which led to the rise of not necessarily Putin himself, but a Putin someone like him. I think the trouble is we depend way too often on so-called strategic ambiguity, which is more or less saying, look, you know, we will do things, but we’re not going to tell you what they are. And in fact, with someone like Putin, I think what we need to be is very, very specific. If you do X, we will do Y. But more broadly speaking, I think by this time, Putin now lives in an enclosed bubble of yes men and cronies. I mean, look, I remember speaking to Russian intelligence officer who said to me, a retired one, I should add, who said to me, look, we’ve learned you do not bring bad news to the czar’s table. So I think that although, yes, they may well be have been all kinds of missteps and so forth, when it comes down to it, I don’t think it really mattered. Putin had convinced himself that Ukraine is not a real country, had convinced himself that the 2014 revolution of dignity that brought the new government in place was some kind of CIA and God bless them, MI6 coup. In those circumstances, I don’t think there’s much we could have done to change his mind anyway.

WERMAN: Is Putin obsessed with the war in Ukraine to the exclusion of other things like domestic politics and economics? 

GALEOTTI: Absolutely. You’ve got to understand that the Russian system, you know, although it presented itself as a so-called power vertical, some kind of sort of disciplined, monolithic, centralized system, actually was in effect designed under Putin to be in unstable. You have constant struggles between individuals, institutions and factions. And the thing point was this guy, Putin power, this allowed him to constantly divide and rule. He was the final decider who could decide who got control of which industry or who got which particular job or whatever else. But it depends on putting being present. It depends on Putin doing his job. And at the moment, Putin clearly isn’t. He is obsessed with the war and therefore, he’s neglecting managing the economy, managing society, managing the elite. And therefore, we’re seeing increasing tensions are rising. We’re seeing figures actually sort of criticizing each other publicly in a way we haven’t seen at any point under Putin, especially the defense minister. We’ve seen a whole series of mysterious deaths that, in my opinion, [have] nothing to do with the Kremlin because the Kremlin has all kind of other ways of punishing people if it wants to, but a rather a return of 1990-style business in which murder is an acceptable way of running a takeover deal. All of these things point to the fact that there is growing instability within the Russian system because it is built been built around Putin and there is now a Putin-shaped hole at the heart of it. 

WERMAN: Mark Galeotti is a historian, a political scientist and a former advisor to the UK Foreign Office. His latest book is called “Putin’s Wars From Chechnya to Ukraine.” Mark, thanks so much for being with us.

GALEOTTI: My pleasure. 

This transcript was created on deadline and may be updated. The World’s authoritative record is the audio record.

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