by Trudy Rubin
I’m just back from a theater vacation in London and a week in Scotland, which were meant to help me recoup from a strenuous work trip to Ukraine.
Things didn’t exactly work out that way.
The first London play I attended was Patriots, a powerful drama about Vladimir Putin’s revenge on the onetime “godfather” of 1990s Russian politics, Boris Berezovsky, who had facilitated Putin’s rise to power.
I interviewed Berezovsky in the mid-1990s at the Davos World Economic Forum, when he was at the peak of his power, and considered himself superior to Putin. He bragged that he and fellow Russian big business oligarchs were the “robber barons” who would bring their country into the modern age “as the Rockefellers and Carnegies did in America’s 19th century.”
Putin never forgave Berezovsky’s superiority complex.
The Russian tycoon was found hanged on March 23, 2013, while living in forced exile in Britain. (The coroner was unable to conclude whether he committed suicide or was strangled.)
On Aug. 23, three days after I saw Patriots (on a day I also took in the violent power struggles of Shakespeare’s Macbeth at the Globe Theatre), current events forced visions of Putin’s vendettas back onto my mind.
That was the day the private plane of onetime Putin pal — and Wagner private militia commander — Yevgeny Prigozhin exploded in midair over Russia.
Wagner won the only substantial victory for Moscow in Ukraine, and Prigozhin was hailed as a hero. But the plane explosion came two months after Prigozhin organized a brief, unsuccessful mutiny against Putin’s military chiefs, whom he believed were doing a bad job in Ukraine.
The militia leader apparently thought he was too important to be murdered.
Both Berezovsky and Prigozhin badly misread Putin. So, I fear, does the White House.
Indeed, these two oligarchs’ fates provide a flashing red-light warning about the incoherent U.S. strategy toward Ukraine, and the apparent White House failure to fully grasp what Putin is up to. Three points in particular come to mind.
First, Putin holds his grudges and will continue to seek revenge for what he regards as humiliation.
Berezovsky made the mistake of underestimating Putin’s determination to destroy those who challenged or betrayed him — no matter how long it took.
Prigozhin misconstrued the Kremlin leader’s initial indecision after the mutiny as weakness. But Putin used the next weeks to remove the mutineer’s control of his Wagner militia — then played on Prigozhin’s inflated ego to make him think he was impervious to assassination. Wrong.
In the case of Washington and the West, Putin made clear in his 2007 Munich speech that he fully blames them for the “tragedy” of the dissolution of the Soviet empire — the ultimate humiliation. He wants Washington’s recognition of his right to rebuild that empire under Moscow’s domination, with Ukraine as its heartland. He will not give up this aspiration unless he is militarily defeated.
Any U.S. or European misperception that Putin is willing to negotiate a compromise that recognizes Ukraine as a viable state is self-delusion as deep as that which doomed Berezovsky and Prigozhin.
Putin would only use negotiations with Kyiv — as he has done before — as an opportunity to rebuild his forces and restart the war.
Second, Putin plays a poor hand well, preying on Western weaknesses. With Berezovsky and Prigozhin, he played on their inflated egos, as he did with former President Donald Trump — and will do again if Trump wins in 2024.
With the Biden administration, Putin has cleverly played on its fear he will use nuclear weapons if Ukraine crosses his redlines. The goal is to persuade the West that it’s too dangerous to give Ukraine the weapons it needs to retake Crimea, and actually defeat Russia.
Yet no matter how many redlines have been crossed, Putin refrains from using nukes. That is because he knows that will hurt him more than help him, losing the support of China and finally making him an international pariah. His major concern is keeping power, not committing political suicide. Russia’s nukes are only valuable so long as Putin doesn’t use them, and the Kremlin can tout them as a potent threat.
If the West continues to be intimidated by this threat, he will use it again and again, including against Western European nations. Who would then believe that NATO would go to war to save Estonia, or Finland?
Third, and most importantly, Putin is counting on Western nations to be as shortsighted about his intentions as were the two dead oligarchs. He is playing for time.
Just as he patiently waited to move against Berezovsky and Prigozhin, a long war plays to Putin’s advantage. He knows manpower is precious to Ukraine, but he cares not how many men he loses, and is hoping for more weapons from North Korea.
He hopes to wait out the West’s patience with supporting Ukraine financially and militarily. He is clearly hoping for a Trump victory that leads to a complete aid cutoff to Kyiv.
The White House, to Putin’s probable delight, seems glued to a strategy that guarantees a long war, which Ukraine may not be able to sustain.
The Biden team hoped the current Ukrainian counterinsurgency would do enough damage in a short time to bring Putin to the negotiation table (a useless proposition unless the Russians are clearly defeated).
Yet Biden continues to refuse or delay the key systems — long range ATACMS missiles and F-16 warplanes — that would make faster Ukrainian progress possible. The administration refuses to recognize that only NATO membership for Ukraine will stop Putin’s dreams of empire.
The longer the White House fails to recognize the Kremlin’s goals and help Ukraine defeat them, the bigger the risk to Kyiv, to NATO, and to the West.
Biden must stop misreading Putin before it is too late.