Stephen Kotkin on How the Ukraine War Could EndHistorians in the News
tags: military history, Russia, Ukraine, Russian history
Last year, not long after Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, I turned to the historian Stephen Kotkin for illumination and analysis. I’ve been doing that, for good reason, since the final years of the Soviet empire. Kotkin has published two volumes of a projected three-part biography of Stalin, and his works on the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its aftermath are without peer in their precision and depth. After spending more than thirty years at Princeton, he is now at Stanford.
In our conversation last year, we delved into the nature of the Putin regime, his decision to invade, and what the war could look like as time unfurled. Now we know: the Russian invasion has been a catastrophe in every sense. There have been hundreds of thousands of casualties––it is folly to attempt a more accurate reckoning––and much of Ukraine’s infrastructure is in ruins. Once the Russian military failed to achieve its early hope of taking the capital, Kyiv, and supplanting the Ukrainian leadership, it has prosecuted a vicious war of attrition, in which more and more human beings on both sides are sacrificed to Putin’s pitiless ambitions.
Kotkin is a top-flight scholar, but his ties to the subject are not limited to the archives and the library. He is well connected in Washington, Moscow, Kyiv, and beyond; his analysis of the war draws on his conversations with sources as well as on his own base of knowledge. We spoke again last week, and our discussion, which appears in different form on The New Yorker Radio Hour, has been edited for length and clarity.
Last year, you told me, at a very early stage of the war, that Ukraine was winning on Twitter but that Russia was winning on the battlefield. A lot has happened since then, but is that still the case?
Unfortunately. Let’s think of a house. Let’s say that you own a house and it has ten rooms. And let’s say that I barge in and take two of those rooms away, and I wreck those rooms. And, from those two rooms, I’m wrecking your other eight rooms and you’re trying to beat me back. You’re trying to evict me from the two rooms. You push out a little corner, you push out another corner, maybe. But I’m still there and I’m still wrecking. And the thing is, you need your house. That’s where you live. It’s your house and you don’t have another. Me, I’ve got another house, and my other house has a thousand rooms. And, so, if I wreck your house, are you winning or am I winning?
Unfortunately, that’s the situation we’re in. Ukraine has beaten back the Russian attempt to conquer their country. They have defended their capital. They’ve pushed the Russians out of some of the land that the Russians conquered since February 24, 2022. They’ve regained about half of it. And yet they need their house, and the Russians are wrecking it. Putin’s strategy could be described as “I can’t have it? Nobody can have it!” Sadly, that’s where the tragedy is right now.
How do you even begin to analyze Putin as a strategic figure in this horrendous drama?
He is not a strategic figure. People kept saying he was a tactical genius, that he was playing a weak hand well. I kept telling people, “Seriously?” He intervened in Syria, and he made President Obama look like a fool when President Obama said that there would be a red line about chemical weapons. But what does that mean? It means that Putin became the part owner of a civil war. He became the owner of atrocities and a wrecked country, Syria. He didn’t increase the talent in his own country, his human capital. He didn’t build new infrastructure. He didn’t increase his wealth production. And so if you look at the ingredients of what makes strategy, how you build a country’s prosperity, how you build its human capital, its infrastructure, its governance—all the things that make a country successful—there was no evidence that any of the things that were attributed to his tactical genius, or tactical agility, were contributing in a positive way to Russia’s long-term power.
In Ukraine, what is it that he’s gained? If you look over the landscape, he’s hurt Russia’s reputation—it’s far worse than it ever was. He consolidated the Ukrainian nation, whose existence he denied. He is expanding nato, when his stated aim was to push nato back from the expansion undertaken since 1997. He’s even got Sweden applying for nato membership. And, so, all across the board, it’s a disaster.
The problem is that he’s in power. And soft Russian nationalists, who were semi-critical of Putin, now have no place to go because you’re either all in, or you flee to Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey. He’s wrecking his own country in a way, although in a very different way from the murdering that he’s carrying out in Ukraine.