In a Q&A, Stephen Holmes discusses the invasion of Ukraine and its implications for Putin’s Russia

Stephen Holmes
Stephen Holmes

In his teaching and scholarship, Walter E. Meyer Professor of Law Stephen Holmes has long focused on Eastern Europe, as well as Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. In January 2019, Holmes and Ivan Krastev published The Light That Failed: Why the West is Losing the Fight for Democracy. After the end of the Cold War, they note in the highly acclaimed book, some observers assumed Russia would embrace multi-party politics, adopt Western institutions and political practices, and “cooperate in upholding the Western-dominated world order.” Instead, Holmes and Krastev wrote, Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin “has become an angry revisionist power, seemingly focused on destroying the European order” and its “goal is not conversion or assimilation, but revenge and vindication.” 

Two years hence, those observations appear to have been remarkably prophetic. Nearly a month after Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, we asked Holmes to offer his assessment of the situation.

Your book discusses Putin’s motives for annexing Crimea. How does that move, and the reasons behind it, compare with what Putin is now attempting to do in the rest of Ukraine?

It is crucial to remember that no one died during the illegal military annexation of Crimea. Perhaps Putin is so deranged and uninformed that he hoped to repeat the miracle of a basically bloodless annexation of the rest of Ukraine. He gave an order to topple [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky, not to destroy Ukraine. Unable to conquer, occupy and govern the country, he has evidently and monstrously decided to wreck it.  But he did not begin with a plan to massacre Russia’s intimate kin in Kievan Rus the way he had ravaged Grozny and Aleppo. In these last, the targeted “terrorists” had no ties of consanguinity with the army razing their cities.  By mass-murdering Russia’s kith and kin in the name of reconciling them to Moscow’s authority, Putin has entered into an abyss of maniacal barbarism that even his harshest critics did not anticipate.

That said, in a general sense, the logic and imagined purpose of the two “operations” was the same, namely to right the grievous wrong of 1991, to show America that no one can dictate to Moscow, and to rattle the smug Europeans with Russia’s awesome thunder.  

The Soviet breakup not only erased Moscow’s superpower status. It also created a “beached diaspora” of ethnic Russians living beyond the newly shrunken borders of the Russian Federation. Returning these ethnic sons and daughters to mother Russia, not restoring the multi-ethnic Soviet Union, has been one of Putin’s obsessions. This is what sharply distinguishes his geopolitical ambitions from those of his Czarist and Soviet predecessors who were never focused on creating or recreating mono-ethnic empires. In this sense, Putin’s expansionism resembles Hitler’s attempt to “gather in” the ethnic Germans of the East rather than the kind of post-ethnic or multinational territorial aggrandizement typical of Russian history.  

The messianic zeal with which he is pursuing an impossible reintegration of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples is surely the most visible sign of his loss of contact with observable reality. But this delusional mission cannot be separated from Putin’s pent-up craving for revenge against the Americans who, in his view, orchestrated the dismantling of the USSR.  In other words, his “brotherly love” is steeped in venom. What this means for the next phase of his aggression is frightening to contemplate.

What new concerns does Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raise for other countries that were previously part of the Soviet Union or under its domination?

The “new concerns” raised by the botched invasion, while not limited to former members of the Warsaw Pact, are naturally felt most acutely by them. This is even true in those capitals that, on paper, should feel protected by Article 5 [of the North Atlantic Treaty]. Putin may believe that, by relocating a part of Russia’s formidable nuclear arsenal to the Belarus side of the Polish/NATO border, and perhaps to Kaliningrad, he will make it easy to turn Estonia once again into a Russian protectorate. If he succeeds (in his feverish imagination), the other dominoes might fall. The threat of nuclear missiles within a few minutes flight of every West European capital (he presumably calculates) would be sufficient to paralyze any response. To understand the sense of looming catastrophe that is growing in the far side of Russia’s western borders, we need to watch the way Finns and Swedes, not only Poles and Lithuanians, are preparing for prolonged siege warfare. 

What would it take for Putin to face internal threats to his power?

If you mean a violent ouster, well you never know that Brutus is Brutus until the deed is done.  Some internal cracks in the regime seem to be opening up, partly because Putin himself will be looking for scapegoats who, in turn, will be reluctant to be shot in the basement of Lubyanka. Moreover, we should not overestimate “centralization” in such a corrupt, sloppily governed country where public officials steal for their own benefit, not for the state’s, and do not always need direct orders from above to kill a rival or someone who they think annoys the supreme leader. The self-harm Putin has inflicted on his own country is cataclysmic, and as the truth begins to seep through his monstrous wall of lies about the “war” that cannot speak its name, in-house challengers will surely be emboldened. Success in such a palace coup will depend on luck.

Your book outlines how Putin has used different modes of imitating the West to consolidate his power. How does the invasion of Ukraine fit into that paradigm?

Imitation plays several roles. For one thing, Putin is obviously afraid of Russian citizens imitating last year’s Belarusian street protests against a superannuated dictator. This fear explains the introduction of repressive measures on Moscow streets not seen in half a century, if then. He has also denounced as foreign-hearted inner enemies, who deserve to be spit out and crushed, any Russian who values Western consumerism and international travel above Russian blood and soil.

Superficially, Putin thinks he is doing in Ukraine what the US did in Iraq.That is, he is using superior military force without any legal basis to work his will on a weaker country. This conceit satisfies his need to mock the double standards of the West. More consequentially and grotesquely, he talks as if he is reenacting Stalin’s glorious defeat of the almighty Wehrmacht by wreaking a hellish nightmare on a weaker, smaller nation.

The subtitle of your book is “Why the West is Losing the Fight for Democracy.” What bearing will the unfolding events have on that fight?

Antiliberal movements, parties, and governments in both Europe and America have become secondary victims of Putin’s war. We are witnessing a massive shifting in the structure of international security. It is much too soon to say anything intelligent about the long-term repercussions of this geopolitical earthquake. But no one watching the ongoing Russian attempt to destroy a neighboring country while threatening nuclear war can continue to single out liberalism as the greatest enemy of mankind. Poland’s populist government, for example, has momentarily ceased spewing antiliberal propaganda in the face of Zelensky’s heartfelt pleas for Ukraine to join the EU in the name of liberal values.   

What has surprised you about the events of the past several weeks?

Most shocking, in my opinion, is the speed with which Putin has reacted to his predictable failure to reunify the Ukrainian and Russian peoples by initiating a war of annihilation against Ukrainian cities. His simultaneously puerile and monstrous message to America is apparently: if I can’t have it, then you can’t have it either.

Posted March 22, 2022