By Thomas Neuburger
Much is being made of a Twitter thread by Thomas de Waal, a fellow and scholar at Carnegie Europe. (The whole thread is appended below.) The thread is itself a commentary on an article published on February 26 by RIA Novosti, the state-owned Russian news agency, shortly after the invasion of Ukraine. The article's translated title is "The Offensive of Russia and of the New World," where the Russian word "Наступление" has the meaning of a military offensive, incursion, or attack. Not that the title identifies two "offensives" — the West's and Russia's.
The Russian piece begins (auto-translation): "A new world is being born before our eyes. Russia's military operation in Ukraine has ushered in a new era — and in three dimensions at once. And of course, in the fourth, internal Russian. Here begins a new period both in ideology and in the very model of our socio-economic system — but this is worth talking about separately a little later."
You can see where this is headed. It basically lauds a return to the foreign policy of Imperial Russia, the world of the great czars. (Its author is a regular RIA Novosti commentor, so this has the flavor of an op-ed piece.)
The article appeared only briefly at the RIA Novosti website, and has since been withdrawn. It's not clear that the redaction had anything to do with the policies it praises. It could have been withdrawn because the "offensive" was not the march to immediate glory the Russian state thought it would be. For example, very early in the piece the author claims, "Now this problem [a 'divided people,' Russians and Ukrainians] is gone - Ukraine has returned to Russia." So far at least, that sentence is embarrassingly wrong.
Since Putin has regularly been painted in the "Anglo-Saxon" world (the article's term) as a monster, the commenters in the English-speaking West are using the article to highlight what may well be a return to imperial ambitions on the part of the Putin-run Russian state.
All of that may be true. Putin may be a monster, though we have a rather rich history of demonizing our enemies to rally our people to war.
Putin may be evil, but is he uniquely evil? More evil than Augusto Pinochet, for example, or Idi Amin? Or even our friend the current ruler of Saudi Arabia? About Idi Amin, reporter Kim Walls wrote for Harpers: "Uganda’s playboy dictator ... never hid his sadism and boasted that he kept heads of political enemies in his freezer — though he said human flesh was generally 'too salty' for his taste." Putin would have to go a bit further to match that.
Independent of Putin, NATO Incursion Remains a Problem
The Twitter tread picks up on the article's emphasis on a lost Russia, and its main point seems to be that Putin has Peter the Great–ambitions for the Russia nation, and by implication, for himself.
All that may be true; Putin may indeed be on a campaign to capture lost glory. But much of what the Russians allege and believe about the West is in fact quite true independent of Putin's character or morality. Note the thread's third point:
3. The main theme [of the article] is that the "operation" is a defeat for the West's project to defeat Russia. That Putin seized the moment to return Ukraine to its historic Slavic union with Russia and Belarus. Potential NATO candidacy is seen as a symptom of the problem, not the main cause.
Of those three sentences, two are incontrovertible, the first and the third. The West, as led by the U.S., is indeed engaged in a project to "defeat Russia" and has been for decades. We perceive them as still the enemy they once were, treat them as badly as we can, make them the designated "bad guy" in much of our propagandistic popular entertainment, and feel we can ascribe to them almost any evil intention without contradiction. (That they've been grooming Trump since the 1980s as a kind of Manchurian Idiot is particularly adventurous.)
The point is not whether the Russian state is evil or not. The point is that we openly consider it evil and and this justifies our advance, with arms, to their borders. For the Russian government to notice that we think of them as the enemy is not an error on their part. The error would be for them not to notice that, in the same way that it's an error for progressives not to notice that the Democratic Party Establishment considers progressives, even the most respectful of them, a greater enemy than Republicans.
The tweet's third question is similarly true — NATO encroachment into the Russian sphere of influence even to its borders (imagine Russian missiles in Mexico) is not the problem, but one manifestation of the anti-Russian madness that has gripped this nation since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failure of Bill Clinton to "neoliberalize" Yeltin's new regime, long before Hillary Clinton's need to blame Russia for her ignominious 2016 defeat. (See "U.S. Involvement in Yeltsin’s Russia: From "America’s Colony" to "Number One Threat.")
A One-Problem Solution to a Two-Problem Dilemma
We're trying to solve two problems while pretending to solve one. The first problem: How to end the current Russian invasion, not just into the ethnically Russian areas of Ukraine, but the whole the country itself. The second: How (or whether) to end the English-speaking world's animosity to Putin's Russia and its eager and aggressive incursion into Russian space and affairs.
The world wants to achieve the first goal while ignoring the second. As usual in cases like this, it's therefore possible it will achieve neither.
Time will tell, of course. Can Putin rally the Russians — the people and its oligarchic class — to the defense of the homeland and stop the Western incursion? He could easily fail at that and fall from power or grace.
But he may also succeed; he may stubbornly stick to his, well, guns, and try to force, if not the surrender of Ukraine, the retreat of NATO. If he does indeed hold to this lesser (in his eyes) goal, and if the Russian people back him, the crisis could go on for a while.
After all, if NATO's anti-Russian mission is the line in the sand for both parties — if both sides see NATO obvious threat to Russia as existentially important — only one side can win. And if both parties are stubborn, neither will emerge unscathed.
A lot depends on the stubbornness, not of Putin, but of the people he rules. Will they fold and weaken his hand, or be inspired by the Western economic assault to stiffen both their backs and their will?
"The Anglo-Saxons who govern the West" (the article's language), by working to make Russians as miserable as they can, are also working to ensure the least gentle outcome to this existential crisis. Not the best decision, but a predictable one.
Hubris is a heady wine, and America's been drunk for as long as we've been alive. Hubris, however, is an unusual cocktail. It doesn't promise invulnerability — just the illusion of it.
And now the thread itself:
1. “The resolution of the Ukraine question.” A mistakenly published Russian article gives us a chilling insight into the neo-imperialist thinking in Russia that drives Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. A (long) THREAD.
2. RIA Novosti news agency accidentally published an article, tagged with a publication date of 8AM on February 26, already celebrating a Russian victory and collapse of the Ukrainian state within an anticipated two days. It's still on their site. [Ed: Not any more.] web.archive.org/web/2022022605…
3. The main theme is that the "operation" is a defeat for the West's project to defeat Russia. That Putin seized the moment to return Ukraine to its historic Slavic union with Russia and Belarus. Potential NATO candidacy is seen as a symptom of the problem, not the main cause.
4. Some quotations first and a few comments at the end:
The author calls this a “new era.” “Russia is restoring its historic unity: the tragedy of 1991, that terrible catastrophe of our history, that unnatural aberration, has been overcome.”
5. He concedes it's "a civil war in which brothers still shoot at each other even though they were divided only by their membership of the Russian and the Ukrainian armies. But there will now no longer be a Ukraine which is anti-Russia.”
The only mention of Ukrainians as people
6. Putin, we are told, had to act now or to lose Ukraine forever.
“We can say without a drop of exaggeration, that Vladimir Putin took upon himself a historic responsibility, by deciding not to leave the resolution of the Ukrainian question to future generations.”
7. The main issue was “the complex of a divided nation and a complex of national humiliation, when the Russian House began to lose part of its foundation (the Kievan one) and then was forced to reconcile itself to the existence of two states of not one but two peoples.”
8. The answer? Kill Ukraine's sovereignty.“Now this problem no longer exists: Ukraine has returned to Russia. This doesn’t mean that its statehood will be liquidated but it will be re-structured, re-established and returned to its natural condition as part of the Russian world…
9. “…In which borders and in what form.. (through the CSTO, and the Eurasian Union or as part of the Union State between Russia and Belorussia)?—questions like this will be decided when we have placed a firm full stop to the history of a Ukraine as an anti-Russian entity.”
10. The author moves to the West. “Did anyone in.. Paris and Berlin, seriously believe that Moscow would give up Kiev?… the West as a whole, and Europe in particular, lacked the strength to keep Ukraine within its sphere of influence, let alone to take Ukraine for itself."
11. “More precisely, they had only one option: to bet on the further collapse of Russia, that is of the Russian Federation. But it should have been clear twenty years ago that this would not work. And already 15 years ago, after Putin's Munich speech [of 2007]..."
12. The big geopolitical clash will cost Russia but it will survive:
“No amount of Western pressure on Russia will have any results. There will be losses from the transformation of the confrontation on both sides, but Russia is ready for them morally and geopolitically.”
13. A big theme for the author is that France and Germany are allegedly fundamentally different from the “Anglo-Saxons,” the UK and US, who are trying to assert Western hegemony over everyone, them included.
14. “The German project of European integration makes no strategic sense as long as there is Anglo-Saxon ideological, military and geopolitical control over the Old World.”“Europeans are now completely uninterested in building a new iron curtain on their eastern borders.”
15. “[T]he construction of a new world order - and this is the third dimension of current events - is accelerating, and its contours are more and more clearly poking through the unravelling fabric of Anglo-Saxon globalization. A multipolar world has finally become a reality.”
16. "the rest of the world sees and understands perfectly well: this is a conflict between Russia and the West, this is a response to the geopolitical expansion of the Atlanticists, this is Russia's recovering its historical space and place in the world."
17. Article ends:
“China and India, Latin America and Africa, the Islamic world and Southeast Asia - no one believes that the West leads the world order, much less sets the rules of the game. Russia has not only thrown down a challenge to the West,...
18. "..it's shown the era of Western global domination can be considered fully and definitively over. The new world will be built by all civilizations and centres of power, naturally, together with the West (united or not) -but not on its terms and not according to its rules.”
19. A few final comments. This is a Russian imperialist discourse: rejected at the end of the USSR, given respectability again under Putin in 2000 but still marginal. It entered Putin’s public speeches after seizure of Crimea—and now has entirely captured Putin’s world-view.
20. Much of the Russian foreign establishment is anti-Western to various degrees but not nearly this aggressive (which is why most of them did not predict the invasion). But their views mean little when Putin makes all the decisions.
21. The author gives no agency to Ukrainians as people. He twists himself in a knot asserting that “brothers still shoot at each other, even though they have been divided only by their membership of the Russian and the Ukrainian armies.” It's regrettable fratricide, folks.
22. He magnifies differences in the West over Russia into major splits. That's now answered by Germany's historic reaction to events. Like most imperialists he fails how small countries, from the Baltic States in 1940 to Czechoslovakia in 1968, feel about big neighbours
23. The author gets it wrong anticipating Ukraine’s collapse and European disunity. Thank the Lord! But there's less to cheer elsewhere. The bet that only the West cares about Ukraine still has to be disproved, given equivocation of China, India, Turkey’s limited response.
24. The piece also reveals how far paranoia, grievance and aggression is embedded in state decision making—and is thus far immune to an alternative reality. Part of this is a willingness to endure hardship in pursuit of this Russian imperial project.
25. We can only hope Ukrainian resistance, international pressure and diplomacy will eventually force a re-think, but what will have happened to Ukraine, how many thousands of lives will have been lost before that happens? ENDS
*26 Thank you all for the huge response! Let me add one caveat. We can’t know that the article reflects the Kremlin’s intentions, only that a big news agency commissioned it to celebrate victory—and it “rhymes” with Putin’s big speech last week. Let's hope other views prevail.