In over more than 30 books about Russia, author Mark Galeotti has uncovered and explained the factors behind the rise of President Vladimir Putin, and his remarkable successes in wars, ranging from the attack on terrorism in Chechnya amid the post-Soviet chaos to the invasion of Ukraine last February. His latest book Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine follows a prescient 2019 book, We Need to Talk About Putin: How the West Gets Him Wrong, on why the world should have paid more attention to Moscow’s moves in the past few years. Edited excerpts from an interview.
When you first completed the book, ‘Putin’s Wars’, you didn’t have the Ukraine war in it, right?
Yes. I finished the manuscript and sent it to publishers two weeks before the actual invasion. My first thought after the invasion was — ‘how terrible for 40 million Ukrainians’; and my second thought was, ‘how terrible for 140 million Russians’. But my third thought was how terrible for me. Then followed a frantic moment of negotiation with publishers. The book does have a chapter which takes in the situation up to June 2022 and tries to look at how it might evolve, even though this has been a conflict that frankly has defied predictions.
In fact, it defied the predictions of even those in Russia. Why do you think so many people thought that Putin would not do it?
I think the answer is that so many within Russia were absolutely swearing blind that this wasn’t going to happen and this included Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The second reason, to be blunt, is it didn’t make sense. Up to the moment that Putin invaded, he was actually winning his conflict with Ukraine: He’d amassed a huge force on Ukrainian borders; the Ukrainian economy was in free-fall and he had a stream of Western dignitaries going to Moscow, putting Putin in exactly the position he likes to be, one in which, he is in the centre. If he really had been this grand geopolitical mastermind, Putin would have just let this state of affairs continue as it was.
You refer to Putin as a 19th century geopolitician in the 21st century. What do you mean?
Putin sees the world essentially in colonial terms... that there are two types of countries, the country which is able to exert its influence over others and the country that is a victim of such processes. Part of what he’s trying to do in Ukraine is because he genuinely believes that the West is trying to dominate Russia. In some ways, he’s trying to demonstrate that Russia is in the former category, that Russia is an imperial rather than a subject nation.
In India, there is some sympathy for the Russian narrative that it was NATO’s expansion that made Russia feel threatened,especially after the Bucharest Summit in 2008 that declared Ukraine and Georgia were on a ‘wait-list’ for membership.
I’ve got some sympathy for that view. There’s no way of getting around the fact that western policy towards Russia has in many cases been not just poorly framed, but disastrously counterproductive. But ultimately NATO is a defensive alliance, and it wasn’t “engineering this expansion”, the countries wanted the protection of being under NATO guarantees. It’s not like the Ukrainians were being forced into NATO, quite the opposite. But NATO gave this sort of vague guarantee that someday Ukraine would be a member, and that gave the Ukrainians false hope, so it was actually the worst of both worlds.
In the book you predict that this is probably Putin’s ‘last war’. How do you think he will emerge from it, and will Putinism survive even if Putin’s career does not?
Putin is as a survivor and a rational actor. I don’t think we’re going to see the kind of nightmare scenarios of him turning to nuclear weapons or anything like that. I would sort of flip the phrase around and say Putin might survive, but I think Putinism won’t, in the sense of a particular model to how you run the country and a vision for Russia’s place in the world. That’s crumbled. Russia is no longer going to be a military great power and it’ll take at least a decade to reconstitute Russia’s forces that have been destroyed over the past year. As for Putin himself, he’s 70 years old, he may have health problems, and there’s all sorts of lurid rumours doing the rounds which I think we need to treat with considerable caution, but nonetheless, this is a man who is getting on in a highly sort of complex and stressful environment. However, I don’t think the Russian regime is on the cusp of imminent collapse. It’s more that it is losing its spare capacity. Regimes can be pretty much brain dead and still survive for years. Arguably, the Soviet Union did. Tsarist Russia did. So we may be in the closing, dying years of Putin and Putinism, but that doesn’t mean it is going to be quick.