The useful idiocy of Vladimir Putin
The Russian president's inept war has done more to empower NATO than Ukraine ever could.
Finnish newspaper Iltalehti reports that Sanna Marin’s government is preparing to apply for membership in NATO. If true, this will mark one of the most dramatic expansions in the alliance’s history, and certainly since its admission of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999. It may also very well precipitate NATO’s further expansion into Sweden, which has long remained neutral in solidarity with Finland.
It cannot be overstated what an absolute disaster this is, not only for Russia, but for any anti-imperialist who has fought for the demilitarization of Europe and the end of US global hegemony. And it absolutely did not have to happen! Here’s what Finnish publish opinion has looked like since the turn of the millennium:
Even after Russia annexed Crimea only 18% of Finns supported joining NATO. Last year only a quarter of Finns supported joining NATO. Now a 60% supermajority of Finns want to join NATO. What changed? Vladimir Putin not only fought back against NATO’s expansion into Ukraine and intervened against its government on behalf of the DPR and the LPR, but he did it in the most insane and idiotic way possible.
Let me spell this point out because I haven’t seen many people make it. In 2014, The Russian Federation annexed one of the most valuable pieces of land in all of Ukraine. It suffered serious international censure for doing so, but Putin pulled it off with a relatively trivial military investment, and he even managed to maintain semi-functional relationships with western nations despite the predictable exchange of sanctions. From a simple perspective of realpolitik opposition to NATO, it seems clear to me that Putin played this as well as he possibly could: his intervention challenged the legitimacy of Ukraine’s new government, defended two breakaway republics sympathetic to his government, annexed a strategically crucial port city, and demonstrated that further encirclement by the west would be ruthlessly contested. And all of this without provoking an unmanageable backlash. Here’s a standard assessment of the Nordic response in 2014:
…the major obstacle for NATO membership [in Finland] is the strong opposition among the citizens. This prevents even the parties in favour of NATO from pushing membership. The political risk is simply too high. In the recent polls, conducted after the annexation of Crimea, public support of NATO membership remains below 25 percent in Finland. The annexation only marginally increased the share of those in favour of NATO membership. In Sweden the support for NATO membership, interestingly, slightly decreased in March.
This is absolutely nothing like what we are seeing in 2022. Consider one of the best case scenarios for the Russian Federation at this point: it annexes Luhansk, Donestk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson and secures an agreement from Kyiv to end all cooperation with NATO. Even setting aside the price of sanctions and a decimated military, this is a terrible tradeoff for Finland and Sweden joining NATO.
So what, from a strategic perspective, has Russia done wrong this time around? A whole lot, but if I had to name one thing, consider a point I made in conversation with Mark Ames the day before the invasion:
Putin has always been extremely conscientious about escalating his interventions in a way that minimizes backlash from the rest of the world, sometimes literally inches at a time; this is why just about everyone who’s paid attention to his maneuvering over the years was shocked by this immediate, open assault on one of Europe’s oldest capital cities. Not because he’s somehow above such a thing, but because he’s smarter than this! The northern invasion has built an entire cottage industry of Kremlinologists and armchair generals who’ve been trying to figure out why on earth he tried this in the first place, culminating in a few major theories:
The assault on Kyiv was a negotiating gambit aimed at shifting the Overton window of an acceptable outcome (“okay, we’ll just take the southeast”).
The assault on Kyiv was a feint designed to divert forces from the fight in the southeast while also trapping Ukraine’s military in a pincer in the east.
The assault on Kyiv was a failed decapitation attack.
All of these theories have strengths and weaknesses as explanations for what Putin hopes to accomplish in Ukraine, I suppose. But at the level of international politics this makes no fucking sense. An assault on Kyiv makes unacceptable outcomes like Finland and Sweden joining NATO extremely likely. So if you can’t win in Ukraine in 2022 without attacking Kyiv then don’t try to win in Ukraine!
This line of criticism will probably seem bizarre to folks who’ve noticed a second problem with Putin’s invasion — IE, the whole thing about it being a moral atrocity that could very well end in nuclear war. But since there seems to be a whole genre of cargo-cult anti-imperialist who seems to think opposition to NATO in Ukraine means we can do anything other than call for an immediate ceasefire on all sides, it has to be stressed just how much this war is doing to empower imperialism. You have to see this even if you, for extremely not insane reasons I’m sure, want to absolve Putin of all guilt; the bottom line is that he has gone from a figure who has landed some real blows against NATO to one of NATO’s most useful idiots in the last several decades.