In the confrontation between the West and Russia which started on February 24, 2022, the West and Ukraine had everything they needed to win: economic resources far superior to Russia’s, a technological edge in military capabilities, and last but not least, the international law on their side. Despite this, Putin now believes he has the wind in his sails, to the extent that he no longer conceals his unchanged ambitions for Ukraine and beyond. How did we get to this point?
“Righteous people are weak, self-centered, and timid; only scoundrels are determined.”
— Chamfort, 17891
The situation in Ukraine is dramatically reminiscent of that in Finland in March 1940. The small country had been invaded by the Red Army on November 30, 1939. “In three days, our troops will be in Helsinki,” Vyacheslav Molotov told Alexandra Kollontai, the Soviet ambassador to Sweden, in October 19392. Stalin had already prepared a Communist government to be installed in Helsinki. The heroic resistance of the Finnish people and their initial dazzling successes aroused the admiration of the democracies and a torrent of declarations of support from Paris, London and Washington. But after initial setbacks, Stalin pulled out all the stops. On February 11, 1940, the Finnish lines were broken. Field Marshal Mannerheim reconstituted his defense on a second line, but this too gave way on February 19. By February 28, Mannerheim felt that the defense had run its course. Ammunition supplies were exhausted. On February 29, the Finnish government decided to open peace negotiations. The front was in danger of collapsing. On March 11, France and Great Britain, which for months had been debating the form of assistance to be provided to Helsinki, officially promised to help Finland if it asked: an allied expeditionary force was to be dispatched as early as March 15. But on March 13, the armistice was signed. According to diplomat Raymond Boyer de Sainte-Suzanne3, right up to the end, General Gamelin and his British counterpart General Ironside “scuppered the execution of the Supreme Council’s decisions by the sluggishness of preparations, so as to be ready too late”. In Gamelin’s case, there was even talk of “very conscious sabotage”. As for Daladier, head of the French government, bellicose in words, “in extremis, he stalled”4. The Kremlin’s propaganda succeeded in blocking any inclination to act in the Western camp by whispering that Allied intervention on Finland’s side would further drive Stalin into Hitler’s arms, while the master of the Kremlin was more than willing to negotiate with the West. And so, throughout this period, the German-Soviet partnership managed to stun democratic countries and prevent them from taking action. Boyer de Sainte-Suzanne wrote5: “The impression was one of weakness and timidity: tragic and mediocre days indeed.” Daladier bitterly observed: “The terrible thing is that we are pursuing a great-power policy and we are no longer a great power. The Empire is all talk”6. This lamentable fiasco of democratic countries foreshadowed the catastrophe of May-June 1940.
History is an echo chamber. If today we hand Ukraine over to its Russian executioner in the same way we let Finland down in the winter of 1939-40, we may soon be facing a debacle on an altogether different scale in the face of the Axis of dictatorships cemented by hatred of Western civilization.
Above all, we need to understand the causes of the paralysis of the will that cripples democratic peoples when they have to deal with rogue regimes, similar to the seizure that petrifies moderates when they find themselves confronted with small but aggressive factions using terror; something already noted by the perceptive Pierre de l’Estoile at the time of the first revolutionary crisis that shook Paris in 1589, when in the midst of the religious war the League bringing together extremist Catholics took power: “Good people are paralyzed by terror… Courage was lacking, not strength”7 among the remaining supporters of the legitimate monarch (Henry III, then Henry IV). We forget too often that Putin is a revolutionary intent on overturning the world order. We fail to see that a backward-looking project, such as that of the Kremlin, can perfectly well be accompanied by revolutionary practices: this was the case with the League mentioned above, and it is the case with Putin today.
The immediate causes of our passivity lie first and foremost in the insidious propaganda of the enemy and its relays in democratic countries. Marc Bloch, whose book L’étrange défaite (The Strange Defeat), was written between July and September 1940, deserves to be reread today. Like today’s “realists”, the pacifists, as Bloch observes, “invoked interest above all else; and it was by forming an image of this supposed interest that was terribly alien to any true knowledge of the world that they heavily misled the sheep-like followers who put their faith in them. They taught, not without reason, that war wrecks useless devastation. But they failed to distinguish between the war you voluntarily decide to wage and the war that is forced upon you, between murder and self-defense. They whispered — I heard them — that Hitlerites were not, in fact, as evil as they were portrayed: as the word they preached was a gospel of apparent convenience, their sermons found an easy echo in the lazily selfish instincts which, alongside nobler virtualities, lie dormant at the bottom of every human heart.”
Russia’s psychological warfare against the “collective West” appeals to the same tendencies. Russian subversion uses two levers: intimidation (nuclear blackmail) and demoralization. The aim is not only to frighten Western democracies into denying Ukraine victory (which has been the case since the beginning of the conflict), but above all to provide arguments to justify their cowardice and abandonment of Ukraine. And here the Kremlin showed itself to be utterly inventive. The number one objective was to destroy the idea of the moral superiority of the Ukrainian cause. Everything was used to this end: the corruption of the Kyiv elites, discord at the top, Zelensky’s infatuation with the limelight, etc. were all highlighted. Pseudo-humanitarian rhetoric was called to the rescue: let’s put an end to the needless suffering of the Ukrainians, who in any case will return to the Russian fold, from which they are not far away anyway, etc. And let us not forget the old tried-and-tested argument: Western hostility only strengthens ties between Beijing and Moscow, whereas it would be in the West’s interest to pull Russia out of China’s orbit. So, from the outset, the Kremlin has knowingly banked on Western weakness and eagerly provided it with the whole arsenal of sophisms to justify future climb downs.
But beyond these immediate causes, there are factors endogenous to our societies making the manipulations of Moscow much more effective. Marc Bloch incriminated “the intellectual lethargy of the ruling classes”: “Misled by their predilection for insiders’ tidbits, our political leaders thought they were getting information when all they were doing was picking up gossip at random meetings. Global and national problems appeared to them only in terms of personal rivalries. […] Why should we be surprised if the staffs did not organize their intelligence services properly? They belonged to circles where the taste for information had gradually died down; where, when they could leaf through Mein Kampf, people still doubted the true aims of Nazism, and where, when they adorn ignorance with the beautiful word “realism”, people still seem to doubt them today. The worst thing is that this laziness to seek knowledge almost necessarily leads to a fatal self-complacency.” A popular upsurge was possible, provided the nation was properly informed of the danger: “Now, these people […] who were not, I believe, incapable, in themselves, of choosing the right paths, what have we done to provide them with a minimum of clear and reliable information, without which no rational conduct is possible? In truth, nothing. Such was certainly the great weakness of our supposedly democratic system, such the worst crime of our so-called democrats.”
All these bitter observations apply to the current situation, except that it is aggravated by the changes in consciousness brought about by the expansion of the media and the suicidal lack of culture in our democratic societies. The Finnish fiasco led to Daladier’s resignation on March 20, 1940, proof that people in France understood the scale of the disaster. Today, the prospect of a Russian victory in Ukraine scarcely moves our fellow citizens, who have not the slightest notion of what is at stake in the conflict. Subjected to the daily bombardment of the news, they have acquired a flickering perception of the world, where one sensational news item drives out another, where the same irrational affects pour out on successive objects, one event eclipsing and erasing the previous one, while only the torrent of emotions remains permanent. Hamas’s spectacular attack on Israel was enough to make us forget Ukraine’s martyrdom. The passions aroused by the Middle East conflict have diverted attention from the Russian-Ukrainian war, and obscured in our minds what is at stake: the freedom of European nations. And how can we expect our politicians to be able to draw up a coherent plan of action and explain the need for it to their people, if they allow themselves to be swayed by opinion polls and media-inflated passions? The loss of a sense of continuity means that we stop trying to understand the world around us, and abandon any attempt to see clearly, in favor of a permanent state of emotional over-excitement quickly transformed into a conspiracy construct cemented by partisan passion. Worse still, those who resist this bias of ignorance and incomprehension are met with a barrage of hostility. The few experts who warned against Putin’s Russia were labeled “essentialists”, because their knowledge of the weight of Russian history meant they did not share the euphoria that followed the fall of communism. An “essentialist” is someone who believes that the world, despite all its sound and fury, is intelligible. That this term is now used to stigmatize speaks volumes about our society’s allergy to freedom of the mind. The deliberate choice of ignorance and the visceral rejection of intelligence, out of a passion for equality and out of bureaucratic comfort, are the Kremlin’s best allies. This narrowing of horizons translates into growing provincialism, when parochialism and partisanship obscure a sense of the public good and long-term interests. Moscow does its utmost to cultivate this narrow-minded provincialism, which feeds fanaticism and antagonism, inevitable in a confined space cut off from the open sea and deprived of its past. The Putin regime sees this as the best way to bring down democracies.
As long as confusion reigns in people’s heads, no course of action is possible, and democracies will continue to look permanently bungling, allowing Putin further gloating. Our fellow citizens and decision makers need to distance themselves from the media din and the bombardment of news and current affairs. To instill a sense of proportion and perspective on events, nothing beats historical culture. Marc Bloch stressed the importance of the teaching of history: “Not that it can be blamed for neglecting the contemporary world in our secondary schools. On the contrary, it gives it an ever more exclusive place. But precisely because it focuses on the present, or the very near past, it becomes unable of explaining them: like an oceanographer who, refusing to raise his eyes to the stars, on the pretext that they are too far from the sea, can no longer find the cause of the tides. The past may not command the entire present, but without it, the present remains unintelligible.”
Let us take a look at what history can tell us about what to expect from Putin and post-Putin Russia. Soon, Putin will have been in power as long as Stalin was. Both dictators are responsible for what in any other country would have been considered absolute disasters: bloodshed, economic regression, massive enslavement of the people. But both dictators stayed in power because they were able to tap into the deepest aspirations of the Russian people: the desire for power that lies dormant in a any person treated as a slave; the desire to humiliate and set back neighbors who live better than they do; the pride of intimidating and infiltrating Europe and the West in general; the affirmation of Russia’s metaphysical superiority. Both men came to power after a contraction of the Russian state and understood that the formula for lasting despotism was to promise the restoration and expansion of the empire, by transforming the state into a gigantic army and police force, all in the name of “reuniting the Russian lands”. In so doing, they inserted their regime in a major trend of Russian history. From the 15th century onward, Russia grew every year by an area the size of Holland. During the 300 years of the Romanov dynasty, the Russian empire expanded at an average rate of 140 square kilometers per day8. Territorial expansion justified autocracy. The state was conceived as the instrument of territorial expansion.
Russia is a country that was self-colonized before it became a nation. “Muscovites seemed to feel like strangers in their own state, temporary inhabitants housed by chance in a building that didn’t belong to them,” wrote Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky, referring to Russia in the 14th and15th centuries. The weakness of internal and spontaneous ties was compensated for by the systematic concentration of all the country’s forces and resources in the hands of the autocrat and the small cosmopolitan imperial elite surrounding him. The underdevelopment of social organization led to the hypertrophy of the state. As Klyuchevsky famously put it: “The state swelled while the people withered away”. From the 15th Century onward, the Muscovite state was exceptionally militarized; it was this growing militarization that explained the worsening of serfdom until the 18th Century. In 1830, the English army numbered 140,000 men, the French 159,000, the Habsburg Empire 273,000, Prussia 130,000 and the Russian army 826,000. “We have found no other means of guaranteeing our frontiers than to extend them,” Catherine II wrote to Voltaire, justifying the partition of Poland.9 A few days ago, the propagandist Vladimir Solovyov echoed: “If we have to take Lisbon to ensure our security, we will”.
With the advent of Bolshevism, the Russian imperial elite was transformed into a criminal international. After 1991, the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc survived underground in underworld networks supported by the former KGB. From the outset, the Kremlin used these networks to carry out its plan to reintegrate the former Soviet space. Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian Ukrainian president, was a multi-recidivist. Pro-Russian activists in the Donbas and Crimea were mostly local convicts, who were then eliminated to make way for the corrupt networks of oligarchs close to the Kremlin. Under Putin, the process of merging power with organized crime was completed. At the same time, the pace of expansionist dynamics has accelerated, under the camouflage of an ideological messianism. Russia is a state in appearance only. In reality, it is an aggregate of criminal gangs revolving around an all-powerful godfather. This mafia-like structure of Russian power has merged organically with imperial practice: for Putin, the main thing is to control the elites of target countries, just as a godfather, the capo di tutti capi, supervises his henchmen. Hence his obsession with “color revolutions”, which make him lose face by dethroning his satraps.
To regard Putin’s regime as “nationalist” is to seriously misread the situation. The Russian president and his inner circle divide Russia into three circles. There is the core of the ruling group, made up of the regime’s tycoons, the directors of the major state corporations, the high-ranking siloviki and so on. Then there is the group of the privileged, those serving the elite who owns the country, mainly Muscovites and a few foreign nationals. The remainder of the population is considered to be serfs, with the regime’s favorites scarcely bothering to hide their contempt for this brainless plebs dazed by televised force-feeding. Not long ago, propagandist Margarita Simonyan proposed detonating an atomic bomb over Siberia to scare the Americans: a fine expression of the Moscow elite’s disdain for the Russian people. The vulgum pecus is seen as ballast past the expiry date. Not enough thought has been given in the West to what Russia’s battlefield strategy reveals, these successive assaults where wave after wave of soldiers are slaughtered in Ukrainian fields. The Darwinian vision in vogue during the Yeltsin years, when the “new Russians” had all the rights, while the rest of the miserable population was trampled underfoot by high ranking predators, has deeply permeated Russian ruling circles. Putin revealed what he really thinks of the Russian people during his meeting with soldiers’ mothers, when he told them that they should console themselves for the death of their sons in battle by thinking that otherwise they would have died of alcoholism anyway, whereas their sacrifice for the motherland was at least worthwhile. For such remarks Putin can be considered the ultimate Russophobe: he sees his compatriots as nothing more than cannon fodder, Russian women as reproductive organisms whose task is to renew the stock of cannon fodder for future wars and conquests.
Europeans are finding it hard to grasp the scale of Putin’s immense effort to get Ukraine under his grip, and above all to grasp what this means for Europe. Let us look at some figures. At the start of the “special military operation”, Putin sent 170,000 troops to Ukraine, reinforced by 60,000 troops recruited from the annexed regions, making a total of 230,000. Then 300,000 were mobilized in the autumn and sent to the front, to which must be added the 60,000 recruited in the Gulag by Wagner. Finally, according to the figures revealed by Putin at his news conference on December 14, 486,000 enlisted under contract in 2023. A total of 1,076,000 troops have been drafted into the Ukraine, while, by Putin’s own admission, 617,000 troops are currently on the front. This leaves a shortfall of 459,000 troops. Given the piecemeal rotation of troops, this gives an estimate of Russian casualties far higher than the figures given so far (around 300,000 troops). And clearly Putin is ready to continue feeding the mincer until he has achieved his initial objectives, the total enslavement of Ukraine and the liquidation of its national elites, as he confirmed in his December 14 news conference. Darwinian vision and imperial logic explain this obstinacy. Putin is euthanizing the jetsam of the Russian Federation’s population - tramps, drunks, drug addicts, the incurably and mentally ill people, multi-recidivists - in order to make himself master of the Ukrainian people, because he is convinced that without Ukrainians at Russia’s service, Russia’s power objectives cannot be achieved: Ukrainians are perceived as better soldiers, better farmers and better engineers than Russians. The Soviet military-industrial complex relied heavily on Ukraine, and the Soviet army was staffed by many Ukrainians. That’s why Putin is cynically trading the scraps of his empire’s population for the destruction of the Ukrainian national elite. Once he has subdued Ukraine, he expects to augment his army with Ukrainian contingents to threaten Europe, just as the defeated Chechens were sent to spread terror in Ukraine and the men of the Donbas were thrown to the front against their compatriots, to the point where there are almost no men left in that region.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba with his British counterpart David Cameron in Brussels on November 29, 2023 // nato.int
Now let us get back to the genesis of this war, which is the only way to grasp what is at stake. After the American debacle in Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, Putin believed that the time had come to push his pawns into Europe, that it would only take a flick of the wrist to drive the Americans out, an indispensable condition for the realization of the vast Moscow-dominated Eurasian Union that is the grand project of his reign: a Europe divided into states governed by men (or women) loyal to the Kremlin, a vassal Europe working for Russian power, obediently providing capital, technology, agricultural produce, empire administrators, industrialists and so on, but all under the close supervision of the Kremlin. To achieve this goal, NATO had to be destroyed and the transatlantic link severed. Russia had to make sure that the Americans were no longer a credible player in European security. This was the aim of the Kremlin’s ultimatum of December 2021, which called on NATO to return to its 1997 borders, and threatened nuclear war. When the West refused to comply, Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine, with the same aim in mind: to discredit NATO in Europe, and to discredit the United States by showing that it was incapable of protecting those who looked to it for security.
If the United States, made short-sighted by partisan bickering, stops supporting Ukraine, Putin will have won. Russia will be all the more determined to enslave Europe as it has realized, after its disastrous experiment with “import substitution”, that it is totally dependent on Europe. And Russia aims to control those on whom it depends. It cannot do this with China, but with Europe the process was well underway until the aggression against Ukraine. Moscow will strive to revive the “Schröderization” of Europe. If Putin is perceived as an obstacle to this process, the Kremlin’s criminal syndicate will change its proxy and choose a Chekist with a human face who will stage a “perestroika 2”, with a superficial liberalization of the regime. But the fundamental objective — to co-opt Europe’s human and material resources and channel them to serve the Russian power machine — will remain unchanged.
Putin thinks he has already won the day. Not only is he convinced that he will achieve his goals in Ukraine, as he keeps asserting, but he believes that it will be possible to restore relations with the West once “internal changes” have taken place in democratic countries. Knowing from experience that Westerners have short memories, he already sees them rushing to the “immense Russian market”.
Westerners should not be fooled by the Russian president’s impudence. Russia is only as strong as our weakness. It depends on us, and it knows it. It is up to us to turn our strengths into leverage, instead of remaining paralyzed by fear of this country, like a hare caught in headlights. The sanctions put in place have only worked in part, because the West had the wrong target: they wanted to punish a state, when in fact they were dealing with a protean mafia with countless tentacles. We discovered that the African gold raided by Putin’s mercenaries went straight to financing the war in Ukraine. Oligarchs were allowed to tamper with the sale of hydrocarbons and raw materials, in the belief that they would divert the funds from state coffers, drying out finances for the war in Ukraine. In reality, these oligarchs are the Kremlin’s piggy banks: Putin can demand his share of the spoils at any time to feed his war chest. The Russian diaspora in the emirates is systematically put to work. The high number of “suicides” and “accidental” deaths among oligarchs since the start of the war in Ukraine is a clear signal to survivors that they must cough up the dough when they are ordered by the boss. Similarly, the West thought it was fighting Kremlin subversion by expelling Russian spies. A laudable measure, to be sure, but we should not forget that the Kremlin’s influence is exerted through a thick web of “informal” networks. Fighting the Russian state is missing the target. It is the Kremlin’s criminal corporation that needs to be eradicated, with all its metastases in our countries. If we take this factor into account in our sanctions policy, they will reach their goal more quickly. The Russian economy has been compared to the Titanic, after he has hit the iceberg and continues on its way as if nothing had happened, even though its compartments are sinking one after the other. The image is apt, and we can already see the water seeping under doors; planes are on fire, inflation is running riot, queues are appearing again. We need to stand firm, rush to Ukraine’s aid and, above all, make the Russians understand right now that as long as their troops occupy territories wrested from neighboring states, sanctions will only get heavier until the Titanic sinks to the bottom. Putin thinks he can have his cake (Ukraine’s submission) and eat it too (the lifting of sanctions). We must prove him wrong.
Quoted in: Jean-François Marmontel, Mémoires, Mercure de France 1999, pp. 409-410 ↩
O.A. Rjechevski, O. Vehviläinen (eds.),Zimnjaïa Voïna 1939-1940, Moscow, Nauka, 1999 t. 1 p. 126 ↩
Raymond Boyer de Sainte-Suzanne,Une politique étrangère, Paris, Editions Viviane Hamy, 2000, pp. 215, 232 ↩
Raymond Boyer de Sainte-Suzanne, Note dated March 14, 1940, op. cit. p. 250 ↩
Note dated December 13, 1939. Raymond Boyer de Sainte-Suzanne,op. cit., p. 172 ↩
Note dated January 11, 1940. Raymond Boyer de Sainte-Suzanne,op. cit., p. 192 ↩
Pierre de l’Estoile, Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris sous Henri III, 10/18, 1966, p. 274 ↩
Quoted in: Michel Heller,Histoire de la Russie et de son empire, Plon, 1997, p. 573 ↩
Quoted in: Jacques Bainville, La Russie et la barrière de l’Est, Plon 1937, p. 179 ↩
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