Russian President Vladimir Putin among his generals during this year's Victory Day Parade in Red Square, Moscow. Photo: The Kremlin

Russian President Vladimir Putin has summoned up a host of historical ghosts and their achievements – from Peter the Great’s imperial conquests to Josef Stalin’s to-the-death struggle against Nazism – to underwrite his “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine.

These summonses have emotive resonance for Russians – doubly so, as they are voiced by a president who commands huge popular across the world’s largest country.

Putin reconstructed Russian national pride after the humiliations and implosions of the Boris Yeltsin years; undertook a range of successful military adventures around the periphery of Russia and beyond; and returned Moscow to a top-tier position in global affairs.

Now, the Ukraine war casts a shadow over two decades of achievements. It has decoupled Russia from the West and the economic impact, not to mention many of the war’s unpleasant truths, have likely have not yet sunk into public consciousness. And a successful long-term outcome is far from certain. 

How sound are Putin’s justifications, through a critical lens? For answers, Asia Times spoke to Mark Edele.

A historian of the Soviet Union and its successor states, with a specialization in military history, the German-born Edele is a professor at the University of Melbourne who was educated at the universities of Erlangen, Tubingen, Moscow and Chicago. The author of multiple works, his latest book, Stalinism at War, was reviewed by Asia Times in December.

Professor Mark Edele. Photo: Mark Edele

Vladimir Putin

AT: Putin has been a master geo-politician, stabilizing and enriching the post-Yeltsin Russian Federation, while largely maintaining unity. And he has been a master warrior, securing Chechnya, Georgia, the Crimea and much of Donbas, while maintaining Assad in power in Syria. In Ukraine: has he gone a bridge too far?

ME: Not sure I agree that he’s a master geo-politician or master strategist. Domestically, he’s done little to diversify Russia’s economy away from fossil fuel exports, and the corruption of his regime is legendary.

It is true that his rebuilding of the Russian state had some positive aspects – less violence on the streets. And that there was initially strong economic growth – but that was just lucky because he got into power at the bottom of oil prices and then they rose like crazy.

He has been unable to create mechanisms which would allow him to retire safely, which is one of the reasons he’s still carrying on.

On the military side, both Chechnya and Syria were full of atrocities – the flattening of Grozny as well as Aleppo, the most iconic of them. The much celebrated modernization of Russia’s armed forces turned out to be something of a house of cards.

Geopolitically, Crimea was tactically astute, largely because he correctly concluded that Europe would not believe he would do such a thing and would have no idea how to respond. His attempts to bully Ukraine into the “Russian World” had the opposite effect – to the extent that he felt his only choice was war. And the war in Ukraine was a disaster from the get-go. So yes, this was an extremely ill-advised step – probably because he no longer takes any advice.

AT: What does the Special Military Operation in Ukraine tell you about Putin’s geopolitical ambitions?

ME: It does look more and more that he just wants to get into the history books as the guy who rebuilt the Russian empire. The ambition is clearly to become at the very least a global great power again.

AT: What do Putin’s recent comments on Peter the Great tell you about the future of Russian revanchism?

ME: It’s very worrisome. It implies that he wants everything Russia ever had back. At the maximum, that includes not only the Baltic states, Poland and Finland, but also Alaska. I would normally dismiss this as empty talk for a domestic audience, but all his recent historical claims have been followed by actions.

AT: A friend – a Russian academic who despises Putin – concedes that Putin is the most popular Russian leader ever. Do you agree?

ME: I’m not sure how we would find out “ever” – there are no opinion polls about what Russians thought of Peter the Great, for example. But he’s certainly very, very popular.

AT: Putin is deeply entrenched. Do you see any Achilles heels? Conscript call up? Military setbacks? Long, attrition?

ME: There are plenty of stumbling blocks. The question is if anybody in the top political class will be willing and able to act against him.

Purin has overseen the moderinzation of the Russian military, but its offensive in Ukraine has been plagued by errors and beset by slow progress. Photo: The Kremlin

Russki Mir (‘The Russian World’)

AT: From the Russian viewpoint: How reasonable is Putin’s stance on Ukraine? Such as: Russians and Ukrainians being one people and Crimea being essential for Russia? And principles like forward defense and Moscow’s sphere of influence?

ME: Unreasonable to the extreme.

AT: Stalin sprinkled ethnicities far and wide across the USSR. Are pools of ethnic Russians/Russian speakers beyond Russia casus belli for future aggression from Moscow?

ME: I’m not sure it’s right that he has “sprinkled them” around. Rather, as far as the near abroad – the other former Soviet republics – is concerned, Russian diasporas in these states are the result of migration patterns, often relatively spontaneous, during Soviet times. And yes, it’s possible that he could try to instrumentalize them as casus belli.

The Baltic states are probably highest on the list of most analysts, but that would mean war with NATO. And let’s not get ahead of ourselves – the Russian army has serious trouble defeating Ukraine, and it will eventually run out of steam.

There are already signs that they have run out of the most advanced weapons and are now using unguided missiles, dumb bombs, and of course artillery, as they still have stockpiles. Will the Russian army be able to do much after the war against Ukraine is over – however it may end? I don’t know, but in the medium term that seems unlikely.

AT: There appears to be some ethnic cleansing underway in areas captured by Russia, in preparation, it appears, for polling on future political status. Can “Russification” be realistically achieved in the 21st century?

ME: Why would the 21st century make any difference?

AT: Can Russia afford to rebuild Donbas, Mariupol et al the way it did for Chechnya – assuming Moscow prevails on the battlefield?

ME: If all sanctions are scrapped and they can return to merrily export oil and gas, maybe. Otherwise probably not.

Servicemen patrol at the Kremlin in Moscow on November 30, 2017. Photo: AFP / Mladen ANTONOV
Putin seeks to re-create ‘Russki Mir’ across the territory of much of the former USSR. Photo: AFP / Mladen Antonov

Military matters

AT: What does the fighting thus far tell you about the “Russia way of war.” (If there is such a thing….)

ME: Poor command and control, terrible operational and strategic leadership, poor tactical leadership, difficulty to coordinate different arms in multi-services operations, reliance on artillery and firepower, poor maintenance of equipment. Not sure this all becomes a “Russian way of war” but it is certainly what we see.

The reliance on massed artillery is reminiscent of World War II – but then they got much better at tactical, operational, and not least, strategic leadership.

AT: A lot of the tough, urban combat appears to be undertaken by Chechens, Wagner, the Donbas militias, and specialized units such as VDV (airborne). What does this tell you about the “modernized, professional” army?

ME: I don’t think it’s very modernized or professional.

AT: Putin has set political objectives: “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine. Are these achievable and sustainable?

ME: Denazification is a code word for regime change. That has clearly failed and Ukraine has a history of revolutions against governments they don’t like. So, even if it were achieved, it might not be sustainable. Demilitarization would only work if the democratic world would disintegrate and stop supplying weapons.

AT: Putin’s generals have set terrain objectives: All of Donbas, and a corridor across Ukraine to connect Transnistria to Russia. Are these achievable and sustainable?

ME: Possibly achievable, with enormous loss of life on both sides and huge destruction. Sustainable only if Ukraine does not get heavy weapons from US, Europe, etc.

AT: You wrote that the Red Army was not an efficient army, but it was effective. In World War II, it started with disasters on almost all fronts, but ended with victories on all fronts.  The same trajectory was seen in Chechnya. Do you anticipate this to be repeated in Ukraine – or will Ukraine become a new Afghanistan?

ME: Repeating the World War II experience would require complete mobilization of all of society for this war, a largely autarkic military industry, and quite some help from powerful allies. None of this seems to be likely. Not sure Ukraine will become the new Afghanistan. Maybe it will just become the new Ukraine.

AT: If Putin achieves his war aims how will it be received by the Russian people – who look set for years of economic hardship?

ME: At the moment, the mood seems to be of defiance. How long that will go on, I don’t know.

Massive devastation and loss of civilian life have marked Russia’s war in Ukraine. Photo: Sergey Mikhalchuk / Government of Ukraine