An Interview with Stephen Kotkin
“Unless the Ukrainians succeed on the battlefield in the short term, we’re stuck here with a de facto Russian victory that internationally won’t be recognised. That means a destroyed Ukrainian country under Russian occupation. It’s a hollow victory for Russia…”
From your perspective, what do you think Putin’s strategic calculation was when it came to the invasion of Ukraine? Why has it seemingly gone so wrong for him? Perhaps we can explore how Putin and the Russian state views Ukraine.
I think it’s pretty clear that the ruling establishment—not just Putin, but wider circles in Russia—were unhappy with the post-1991 settlement. The Soviet Union was dissolved by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, in cahoots with the Ukrainian president and the Belarussian president, but nonetheless, they lost their colossal state. That was after losing their positions in Eastern Europe, which had been gained as a result of defeating the Nazi-lead army in WWII. They were in headlong retreat and the U.S used this post-1991 collapse of Russian power to move its own sphere of influence in—an open and voluntary sphere of influence, not a closed and hierarchical sphere of influence, like the Soviet one. The U.S did that because other countries were begging to join.
Russia’s position got worse after 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. [Their] ability to reverse that situation was lacking. Throughout the 1990s, President Putin, and others in his regime, patiently rebuilt some of the capacity to push back. [He then] began to push back. [There was] the infamous Munich speech in 2007 at the Munich Security Conference, the provocation leading to a war and dismemberment of Georgia in 2008, Crimea, obviously, in 2014, and eastern Ukraine in February 2020, to the latest stage of the aggression. This is a pattern. It’s a pattern of resentment and anger, and a desire to see a reversal if possible. They issued those treaties, which were not really treaties in the sense that they were drafts of a wishlist that no one in Washington or in Brussels would ever agree to, but which clearly expressed the desire to roll back the Western advances and the Russian losses since 1991. Ukraine, in some ways, represented a kind of last stand. So, [this is] an act of anger, resentment, and desperation. Unfortunately, the Ukrainians [are] caught in the middle.
You’ve used the phrase Russia’s perpetual geopolitics. I’m wondering if you could flesh out that concept. You have said that Russia is right in thinking that the post cold war settlement was unbalanced. Did we fail to anticipate Russia attempting to restore or reclaim its former power?
Yes, we did. We had illusions, but let’s remember that various American, European-allied, and Canadian governments attempted to integrate Russia into the international system. That integration was on Western terms. Now we’re all saying, well, geez, you know, why didn’t we integrate Russia? The answer is that Russia and its establishment—not just President Putin—refused integration on Western terms. So, the problem was not a failure to integrate Russia. The problem was, we could not concede to Russian terms for integration, which were dating back to Gorbachev: a continued condominium of Washington and Moscow, deciding European Affairs, or deciding the affairs of the neighbours, the newly independent states around Russia that formerly belonged to the Soviet Union. No Western government, whether in Ottawa or Washington, or anywhere on the European continent, was going to concede to Russia, the ability to dominate its neighbours, because that’s what they lost when the neighbours became free.
[Concerning] Russia’s perpetual geopolitics, we maybe didn’t fully understand the history. Russia, like many great powers, imagines itself to be a providential country, a country under God, with a special mission in the world. It wants to be in the first ranks of great powers. However, its ambitions never fully match its aspirations. When its ambitions don’t match its aspirations, it resorts to coercive state power to try to manage the gap with the West or close the gap with the West. It doesn’t really work. There are sometimes spurts of economic growth and military modernization, but inevitably, there’s a stagnation that follows. They kind of hit a wall and devolve, not into strong state rule, but personalist rule. There’s a conflation between the survival of the personalist regime and the survival of Russia. So, this dynamic, which goes back to the czarist period, was there throughout the Soviet period, and we see it still now.
Under President Putin, this dynamic of wanting to be a special country, with a special mission, wanting to be in the first ranks of powers, but being unable to do that through its own wherewithal and capacity continues. The West is just immensely stronger, larger, richer, better technologically, and therefore, Russia is trying to coerce its population to manage this gap, maybe even to close it a little bit, and devolving into personalist rule. This is what I call Russia’s perpetual geopolitics. The Soviet period is very different from the Putin regime. The Soviet period was different from the Czar’s period. Nonetheless, there’s a fundamental underlying pattern here. It’s not a cultural predilection. It’s not something that’s innate and can’t change. It’s a strategic choice to try to match and overtake Western Power. So, if Russia were to relinquish that strategic goal, it could be another country alongside European countries. It could integrate into Europe, the way Poland integrated into Europe, or the way Romania integrated into Europe. If Russia were to make that strategic choice, its perpetual geopolitics syndrome could be broken. Russia wouldn’t necessarily end up where it is every single time with an autocratic regime, a failed or partial-modernization, and stagnation.
What is Putinism and how might it differ from Stalinism or even the CCP regime under Xi Jinping?
Authoritarian regimes come in many different varieties. Some are totalitarian regimes, which means they control the life chances of people. If you want to get a job, if you want to go to school, if you want to buy food, if you want an apartment—all of that runs through the state and state officials. They control not only parts of the economy, not only parts of the public sphere, but people’s life chances. Those regimes are rare. The Stalinist regime was like that. The Maoist regime was like that to a certain extent. The current Chinese regime aspires to be like that and is moving in that direction. The Putin regime doesn’t have the wherewithal to control people’s life chances. What it resorts to is driving them out, driving them out of the country. It’s willing to haemorrhage a tremendous amount of human capital. When you go to Canadian think tanks, Canadian laboratories, or Canadian private sector companies, you’ll find a whole bunch of people who were educated in Russia, but who either left because they feared arrest or were driven out, because the regime didn’t want them.
This vast haemorrhaging of human capital means that they’re willing to sacrifice their best people. This is in the millions. We’re talking millions of people. The number of educated Russians who live outside of Russia is greater than the size of the Russian middle class. That loss of human capital is because they don’t have the capacity to implement or impose a totalitarian control of all life at home. Thus, they push out their critics. Have you seen the surveys [coming out of the country]? Is Putin popular? Who’s going to say no when they’re speaking to some official survey person? They could fall afoul of the regime. There are no other choices on offer. Do I like my dad? Or do I not like my dad? It’s not like I’m going to have a different dad. Moreover, there are millions and millions of Russians not answering those surveys because they don’t live in the country anymore. That is one way in which the Putin regime is very different from the Stalinist regime, or even from the contemporary China regime. It doesn’t have the wherewithal, the ideological buy in, the secret police control, and the kind of neighbours snitching on neighbours, which you see in contemporary China, and of course, under the Soviet Union, where society [participated] in its own surveillance.
Academics such as John Mearsheimer and Noam Chomsky have asserted that a great deal of the blame for the war in Ukraine goes to the United States, and to a certain extent, the expansion of NATO. What is your take on assessments such as these?
John Mearsheimer is one of our great scholars, and I give him credit for provoking this important debate. I disagree with him. However, the pattern that I’m talking about—an autocratic regime in Russia that’s repressive, and anti-Western—is not something that’s new. Its not like we haven’t seen this before, as I alluded to, in my argument about perpetual geopolitics. This kind of regime in Russia not only predates NATO expansion, but it also predates the existence of NATO. So, it’s very hard for me to blame “Western imperialism”. I don’t blame Russian imperialism either. I said it was a strategic choice. It’s not innate in the culture, right? It’s a choice that these regimes make because their ambitions are greater than their capacities, but it’s something that they can stop doing. It’s not eternal Russian civilizational imperialism, but it’s also not Western imperialism.
Let me give you a few important moments in recent history that we need to take into account. Russia insisted that it had to be recognised as the legal successor state internationally to the Soviet Union. It assumed Soviet control over Soviet property abroad and it chaired the Soviet seat with veto power on the UN Security Council—there were many other attributes of Soviet power as well. It also assumed the obligations that the Soviets had signed, recognizing the sovereign right of any country to enter into alliances freely under the 1945 UN Charter, and reaffirmed by the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the 1990 Charter of Paris, and the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. The 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which stated that Russia had no veto over anybody joining the NATO alliance and could not impose limits on NATO membership, is of particular significance as this was signed by the Russian President, not Soviet-era leadership. Russia is party to many international treaties, recognising any state’s right—that includes Ukraine—to join any alliance it wants on a voluntary basis.
Russia’s attempt to coercively impose its sphere of influence on Ukraine, as opposed to Ukraine’s desire to join a Western alliance—which under the UN Charter and its reaffirmations, it has every right to do—is in contradiction. That contradiction is on the Russian side, and you cannot blame the West for that. Now, should the West have understood this better? Should the West have known what was happening in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014? Should there have been an empty invitation to Ukraine to join NATO at some point with no process to do so? I believe that those were mistakes. If you make a promise, you must redeem the promise. If you make a commitment, you must uphold the commitment. But the blame here is on the Russian side for violating its own treaty commitments that are long standing, as well as recently reaffirmed. You cannot blame the West despite the Western mistakes. This is not about Western imperialism. This is about Russia’s strategic choices.
I’d like to switch gears and focus on China. What do you think the war in Ukraine and the Western response means for China’s ambitions in the South China Sea, particularly over Taiwan? How do you think China is likely to emerge from all of this? What do you think they’re learning from Russia?
We don’t know for sure. The Chinese regime is opaque. There is no transparency when in comes to Chinese policymaking. However, we have a pretty strong record of their actions in Tibet, in Xinjiang, in Hong Kong, and in the South China Sea. There is a pattern here. That pattern is one of international aggression concerning what we consider to be treaty obligations that China has, that it does not uphold. It violates them. So, there’s cause to be worried. The coercion from China against Taiwan is long underway. People Keep Talking about when China will conduct a military operation against Taiwan. Will it be in 2027? Will it be earlier than that? It’s happening already. The amphibious landing on Taiwan is not happening already, but that never was the most likely version of China’s aggression. The more likely version was all a manner of coercion, short of military invasion, because an amphibious landing is the most complex and difficult military operation to carry out. It is also cheaper and a lot easier, as Sun Tzu wrote, to win without fighting.
If you can cause the U.S alliance system to unravel, if you can cause Taiwan to cry uncle, if you can apply the amount of pressure that China is applying and get what you want short of the amphibious landing, then 2027 never comes as it were, because you don’t need to do it. We’re living through that historical process right now—its unfolding before our eyes. China is learning that Russia’s military was a lot weaker than people imagined. They have learned that an invasion on land contiguous with the next country is not as easy as it looks—let alone crossing the Taiwan Strait. They’re also learning the extent and limits of coercive economic power applied by the West, and they’re learning how they might use those tools against Taiwan. When China declares, as they recently did, that the Taiwan Strait is not international waters, but Chinese waters—that’s a momentous shift that they can begin to enforce at any moment. We need to have answers now, not in the future. We need to prepare, not solely or predominantly for the amphibious landing, but for the course of tactics, which might include forcing countries to switch their diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China. It is time for a real and a serious policy here.
We are now approaching seven months of war in Ukraine. Can you offer your predictions for what’s to come?
We’re waiting for Ukraine to mount a counter offensive at scale. A combined arms operation with tanks, planes, artillery, and skilled infantry to retake and hold territory. Wars are won on the battlefield. You can lose a war at the negotiating table after the war, even if you won on the battlefield, but you can’t win at the peace table if you’ve lost on the battlefield. Russia is occupying Ukrainian territory. They are winning unless the Ukrainian army can evict the Russians in a combined arms operation at scale. Not defence, not counter attacks, but a massive counter offensive. [If Ukraine can’t do that], Russia wins. They’re in occupation of Ukrainian territory. They have a stranglehold over the Ukrainian economy.
Yes, the first grain ship has left Ukraine’s port. We’re very grateful for that. However, there’s no guarantee going forward because that’s up to Russian goodwill to honour the agreement that was brokered by the UN Secretary General. So, unless the Ukrainians succeed on the battlefield in the short term, we’re stuck here with a de facto Russian victory that won’t be recognised internationally. That means a destroyed Ukrainian country under Russian occupation. It’s a hollow victory for Russia because they’ve wrecked Ukraine and cannot extract the value. The metal plants have been levelled. The ports have been levelled. The great value of Ukraine for Russia is not there. It’s a hollow victory, but it’s a victory, unless Ukraine can turn the tables on the battlefield. That’s what we need to watch in the upcoming months. We won’t underestimate the Ukrainians because they’ve proven, through their bravery and ingenuity, to be extraordinary in this fight for their survival. However, it’s very difficult to mount this counter offensive. Fingers crossed.
Stephen, it has been a tremendous privilege speaking with you. Thanks so much for joining us.
Thank you. We’re grateful to have Canadians as our neighbours and we’re grateful for the strong alliances and economic integration that we share. We are very lucky here in North America.
Stephen Kotkin, in addition to being a Hoover senior fellow, is the Birkelund Professor of History and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and History Department of Princeton University, where he has taught since 1989. He received his PhD at UC Berkeley during the years Reagan was president. He has been conducting research in the Hoover Library and Archives for three decades. He founded and runs Princeton’s Global History Initiative.
Kotkin’s research encompasses geopolitics and authoritarian regimes in history and in the present. His publications include Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941 (Penguin, October 2017), Stalin, Vol. I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 (Penguin, November 2014), part of a three-volume history of Russian power in the world and of Stalin’s power in Russia.