Many analysts have suggested that the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to move toward Ukraine, exploiting the perceived weakness of the West. But Leon Aron, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, reminds us that Russians were also trapped in Afghanistan in 1978-89.
They sustained heavy casualties and withdrew their forces in defeat. This collective trauma, according to Aron, is what is holding Moscow back from a full invasion of Ukraine, despite all the odds.
In your article in The Hill you presented President Putin as a “wartime president for life.” Are his war games just posturing?
He needs these kinds of threats and confrontations in order to sustain his domestic popularity to support his regime. In fact, if we look at the public opinion polls, every time there is a confrontation, his ratings go up. But also it is his firm conviction that at the end of the Cold War, Russia got a very bad deal. He believes that his mission is to restore the respect for Russia. His actual demands are aimed at rolling back the advance of NATO towards what Russia considers its sphere of influence. It’s a long-term project and I believe that he would resort to these types of crises, like the Ukraine crisis. He will manufacture these types of crises again and again.
Does he really have a strategic plan for a born-again Soviet Union, perhaps in the form of a Greater Russia as the dominant force in Europe?
Putin wants to restore the political borders of the Soviet Union, meaning that all the post-Soviet states, including former members of the Warsaw Pact, have to be within the Russian sphere of influence. That means that Russia should control their foreign and defense policy, but in some cases of truly important countries, such as Ukraine, also be the dominant influence all over the domestic politics.
Can we assume that President Putin sees us NATO countries as in Washington’s sphere of influence?
That’s exactly correct. In fact he uses very derogatory terms for America’s NATO allies. He has said that they are like a herd of pigs, and then another term he uses translates as “yapping along like dogs.” And, interestingly enough, he used the term “satellites,” which, of course, is a very loaded term because this is what the Soviet Union called Hitler’s allies in World War II.
Did the US really breach the 1990 promise not to move NATO eastward?
Some say that there were oral assurances, oral – nothing in writing – oral assurances given to Gorbachev that NATO would not go beyond Germany. Some say that there were no such assurances. This is a very murky area. But NATO expansion did not cause Russia consternation either in 2004 or later in 2007, when the Baltic countries got in. Yes, they had some objective objections, but nothing as fierce as what we see today.
Why has Russia hardened its stance?
Putin’s circle are the men that became KGB officials in the 1970s. Today they have come into complete control of Russia. You see now their sentiment, their resentment about what they believe happened to the Soviet Union. Remember, they don’t think the Soviet Union collapsed alone, but that it was a vast conspiracy all over. It was all a plot by the West – and Putin says it all the time. So I think they feel that they could really apply the entire power of Russian military force to essentially recover what was lost by the Soviet Union.
In that case, why don’t you expect Russia to invade Ukraine?
I said that no large-scale invasion is being played out. And the reason for that is that Russians like it when Putin wins quickly and elegantly and with few casualties, as he did in Crimea. But they will be immediately against any war that would result in major casualties. Initially, the Russian army is going to decimate the Ukrainian army, but then you have to hold the territory. And if that would result in a second Afghanistan, the Russians would react. Russian people today are the generation of Afghanistan, they have veterans in their families. There are those who lost their husbands, older brothers. They will not stand for it. So, he’s not going to invade.
Well, he might invade and then annex a large part of the country.
Ukrainians have proven again and again, certainly during WWII, that they’re absolutely fearless and fearsome partisans. Can you imagine urban guerrilla warfare developing in a place like Kharkov, say – a city of one and a half million? The Ukrainians are not going to give up. The people there are all training, the men and women of 30 and 40 years old. In addition to the army, they are training as volunteer forces to resist Russians. Putin knows all of this.
Yes, but the longer a leader stays in power, the more he becomes susceptible to hubris. Could hubris push Putin toward a full invasion?
He has enormous hubris that comes from his previous victories. But I don’t think he is at the level where it is a Greek tragedy. In other words, I don’t think it is at the level where he becomes self-destructive.
You knew Russia before Putin. Can you imagine Russia after Putin?
Yes, I can, but Putin’s influence on the Russian national character and national identity is close to that of Stalin. Look at what happened after Stalin died. Yes, there were reforms. Yes, the gulags were closed down. Yes, certain excesses were stopped. But essentially the country continued as it was. Equally, Putin’s impact on the Russian state is going to be very strong, no matter what his heirs do.