Every week, our editor Robert Cottrell writes a special letter our Friends Of The Browser circle – we'd like to share with you this week's letter, covering recent pieces on Ukraine and Russia. If you'd like to receive these weekly letters (plus our full daily curation newsletter and other goodies) please do join Friends of the Browser, or you can see all our subscription options here.
The war in Ukraine is attracting writing of extraordinary depth and quality — not least, I think, because it is becoming increasingly clear that this war will decide the future of Russia.
First, a service message of sorts: If you want to follow the detailed progress of the war in Ukraine day by day, check in with the Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment at the Institute For The Study Of War, which goes live daily at 5pm EST. Most of the line-items seem to come from the Ukrainian military's official social media accounts. The redder the ISW's map, the worse the situation for Ukraine.
Second, The New Yorker carried a strong interview on 11th March with Princeton history professor Stephen Kotkin, who is currently working on the third and final volume of his Stalin biography, and is thus much preoccupied by the habits of dictators.
In conversation with New Yorker editor David Remnick, Kotkin demolished the recently fashionable hypothesis that dictators deserve respect because dictators get stuff done. He explained why Russian dictators in particular do not get stuff done, at least at any reasonable human cost.
In Russia it is the job that shapes the leader, rather than vice versa. Every leader in Russian history has inherited a country with too little state capacity and/or (in the late Tsarist and late Soviet periods) a hypertrophied bureaucracy. Every Russian leader has become frustrated with the country's ungovernability or the administration's incompetence or both. Almost every leader has doubled down on one-man-rule in the hope of a quick fix. Almost every leader has ended badly.
History strongly implies, therefore, that if blowback from Ukraine leads to the unseating of Putin, then the replacement for Putin will be another leader in the same basic mould, or worse.
Admirers and apologists used to say of Putin in his better years that, however intemperate he sounded to Western ears, he was really quite a moderate and enlightened figure by Russian standards — "You ought to see the next guy!"
Well, soon we may see the next guy. Let's say, in a fanciful scenario, that by some concatenation of backstabbings the "next guy" is Putin's supposedly polar opposite, the imprisoned and much-lionised opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Many will cheer. I will worry that Navalny, once in power, will look and sound uncannily like Putin did twenty years ago, all nationalism and pragmatism and wanting to seem "tough". He will inherit many of the same frustrations and temptations that Putin did, and whole rafts of new problems created by Putin. It will seem to Navalny that he can rely only upon himself. There is a cycle here. Can it be broken?
It may be absurd to think in terms of a concerted Western intervention which changes the Russian political character and makes possible a different tradition of Russian leaders. But it was absurd not long ago to think in terms of a major new land war in Europe, and here we are.
Germany was changed fundamentally after World War 2 by occupation, a new constitution, and some serious history lessons. Japan was changed enough by similar means, though the history lessons did not really take.
The best way I can see of changing Russia fundamentally for the better is by obliging Russia to join the European Union and Nato — in preparation for which Russia would have to build out its institutions, especially its legal and justice systems, to EU standards; reset its politics to the norms of parliamentary democracy; and reorient its military.
The transition would be supervised jointly by Nato and the EU (like arms inspectors, but for politics). The EU would have to raise its game very considerably, which would be no bad thing. The process would benefit greatly from being seen as something that Russia itself desired; which I imagine could be arranged, under a Navalny.
Now, back to Kotkin and Remnick. Other points in the interview which jumped out at me:
— Was the arrest and imprisonment of Navalny part of Putin's long-term preparations for invading Ukraine, removing a likely focus for anti-war and anti-régime protests? Perhaps yes. Kotkin on Navalny: "He was imprisoned in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine. It could well be that this was a preparation for the invasion, the way that Ahmad Shah Massoud was blown up in Northern Afghanistan right before the Twin Towers came down"
— If Russia does claim victory in Ukraine, then what follows? Kotkin sees no new equilibrium. Here is his analysis: "The largest and most important consideration is that Russia cannot successfully occupy Ukraine. They do not have the scale of forces. They do not have the number of administrators they’d need or the cooperation of the population. They don’t even have a Quisling yet".
Some of Kotkin's remarks suggest to me that the US intelligence community may be consulting with him for his knowledge of how Russian power structures work, and that this gives Kotkin some sense, at some remove, of US intelligence product. Three such moments:
— "You have a construction foreman who’s the defense minister [Sergei Shoigu], and he was feeding Putin all sorts of nonsense about what they were going to do in Ukraine."
— "The West is working overtime to entice a defection. We want a high-level security official or a military officer to get on a plane and fly to Helsinki or Brussels or Warsaw and hold a press conference and say: I’m General So-and-So and I worked in the Putin regime and I oppose this war and I oppose this regime. And here’s what the inside of that regime looks like.”
— "We hear chatter. There’s a lot of amazing intelligence that we’re collecting, which is scaring the Chinese, making them worry: Do we have that level of penetration of their élites as well? But the chatter is by people who don’t have a lot of face time with Putin, talking about how he might be crazy."
Let me leave Kotkin behind, reluctantly, and take up that point about "scaring the Chinese". In my view China is still well ahead on its investment in encouraging Putin to go rogue.
China has learned priceless lessons from the Ukraine invasion: That the West can get its act together; that American military intelligence is currently better than anyone imagined; that even a thrown-together civil defence force can embarrass an invading army. China must be thanking its lucky stars that it did not elect to learn these lessons in Taiwan at its own expense.
What is good for China is not necessarily good for Xi Jinping. I wondered last week who was writing well about China-Russia relations, and the answer is: Nikkei Asia, which thinks that Xi has overplayed his hand on Ukraine so clumsily that the other six members of the Politburo Standing Committee are moving to rein in Xi's increasingly personalised dictatorship and reinstate a more deliberative collective leadership.
The Nikkei view is that Xi took at face value Putin's assurances to the effect that Ukraine would collapse when the first Russian tanks rolled in, and the West would scarcely whimper. He duly backstopped Putin in February, doing shoulder-to-shoulder photo-ops and talking up their mutual admiration — without seriously consulting his Politburo colleagues beforehand.
Believing what Putin said would have been a rookie error almost incredible in a statesman at Xi's level. Failing to consult before revising China's line on Russia would have been a sin more or less equivalent to visiting each member of the Politburo Standing Committee and slapping them in the face.
And yet, a comeuppance for Xi would probably increase still further the net gains to China from this whole affair. Xi's dictator-for-life act was becoming ever more of an insult, even a danger, to his Communist Party colleagues. His reactionary turn has been unpopular with everybody save for ideologues. By reining Xi in, but not throwing him out, China could give Russia a lesson on how dictatorship ought to work.
Adam Tooze had a beautifully barbed piece in the New Statesman on 8th March about "great-power realism" in foreign policy, provoked by John Mearsheimer's claim a week earlier that the West had brought on the Ukraine war by trying to "turn Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy", thereby presenting Russia with an "existential threat". In Mearsheimer's words, "The West, especially the United States, is principally responsible for this disaster".
Without conceding Mearsheimer's premises, Tooze observed that, even if the West were presenting Russia with an "existential threat", there was nothing "realistic" in Russia's decision to respond by invading Ukraine:
"Morality and legality are one reason for opposing war. The other is simply that over the last century at least, it has a poor track record for delivering results. Other than wars of national liberation, one is hard pressed to name a single war of aggression since 1914 that has yielded clearly positive results for the first mover. A realism that fails to recognise that fact and the consequences that have been drawn from it by most policymakers does not deserve the name"
I thank Anatole Kaletsky for alerting me to Comment Is Freed, the Substack newsletter from Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King's College London, and the Sun Tzu of our time.
On 9th March Freedman was wondering what a Ukrainian peace process might look like, and acquainting me with a poignant term of art in international relations, the "hurting stalemate".
On March 15th he was looking at the particular role of reparations.
What, asked Freedman, if Russia declares victory in Ukraine and then installs a puppet government? When Vladimir Putin did something very similar after the second Chechen war of 1999-2002 he appointed a Chechen regent whose only apparent quality was his ferocity, and whom Moscow has had to bankroll ever since to the tune of (perhaps) $1-3 billion per year just to keep Chechnya under some sort of control. Ukraine has 30 times the population of Chechnya. The math is not good for Russia.
And what if, on the other hand, Russia backs off from Ukraine, claims (for domestic consumption) that it has proved its point, and wants to rejoin the civilised world? This, notes Freedman, should mean peace talks and a post-war settlement, with Ukraine at table.
Reparations will be a "reasonable request" on the part of Ukraine, to put it mildly. And it will be a request which Russia will have a very hard time satisfying, since by Freedman's reckoning Russia has already caused far more than $100 billion of damage in Ukraine and looks set to cause plenty more.
The ironies inherent in this possible outcome should surely be playing a larger part in the West's current messaging towards Russia. In Freedman's words: "As there can be no Western-led peace talks without Ukraine, it should be made clear to Moscow that for now this is a card for Zelensky to play. The future of the Russian economy can then be in his hands."
A hopeful note on which to close. But hope does little to mitigate the sufferings of Ukraine in the meantime.
— Robert Cottrell