Putin’s Ground Truth?

By Julian Lindley-French, Chair of The Alphen Group

Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach

Joseph Stalin

Ground Truth?

May 10th, 2022. What is Putin’s Weltanschaaung? What is his ground truth? To understand that one needs to reach back into Russia’s tragic past and understand the Russian elite’s obsession with the West, primarily Germany, and their tawdry belief that the lands in-between are little more than pawns in their never-ending addiction to incompetent Realpolitik.

Victory Day, or Den Pobedy as the Russians would have it, did not see Putin declare all-out war on Ukraine, although his speech was a catalogue of lies about NATO, Nazis, nukes and the existential threat from no-one Russia apparently faces. Putin needs an existential threat to Russia precisely because he offers precious little else to the Russian people. Victory Day is not just about the Great Patriotic War. It is also a metaphor for the creation of the Soviet empire that subjugated much of Central and Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1989 in the guise of ‘liberating’ Europeans from Nazism.  That latter reflection is perhaps the most important takeaway from this year’s underwhelming parade given the tragedy Putin is inflicting on Ukraine.  The fact that General Valery Gerasimov was unable to attend because he is in hospital recovering from his wounds is almost another metaphor for Putin’s hopeless and desperate gamble.

Victory Day had been meant to commemorate Putin’s strategic victory in the Ukraine War and the imposition of his nationalistic Soviet-style, anti-Nazi ideology on the Ukrainian people. Instead, it was an essentially defensive exercise in political expectation management.  This is because Putin’s ground truth is driven by his own survival in a country that has no mechanism for peaceful political change or the ability to adapt. Take Britain. A century ago the British ruled the largest empire the world had ever seen but soon lost it.  Britain adapted and became a modern European liberal democracy. The problem for Putin and Russia is an inability to adapt to a changing world.

War and peace

What are the lessons from history? Firstly, it is not Muscovite liberals who worry Putin, much though the West wishes it. It is the ultra-nationalists to Putin’s (hard-to-believe) political right who really do believe in Stalin’s maxim that all that matters is how far the Russian Army can reach.  Thankfully for much of Europe, and only for the moment, it is not very far, but it will not always be so. A study of Russian military history suggests that whilst the Kremlin finds it hard to adapt, given time the Russian General Staff does not.

Implicit in Putin’s Victory Day speech was an inferiority complex with the ‘West’ from which Russian leaders have suffered at least as far as Peter the Great and the seventeenth century. This is evident in Putin’s repeated references to past Russian heroes, such as Alexander Nevsky and the struggle against the Teutonic Knights, and even if Prince Grigori Potemkin would have been more appropriate.

However, it is Russia’s tortured twentieth century history which is most relevant to Putin’s Weltanschaaung, particularly Moscow’s complicated, duplicitous, Realpolitik relations with Germany. Indeed, Putin’s Realpolitik can be traced back to one event: the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Lenin’s Bolshevik regime felt as much aggrieved by the Treaty of Versailles as Weimar Germany.  Both Moscow and Berlin believed the terms imposed on them by the victorious World War One allies, several of whom supported the anti-Bolshevik Russian White Army in the 1919 civil war, were unduly harsh.  The tipping point was the failed 1922 Treaty of Genoa.  British Prime Minister Lloyd George was all-too aware that Versailles far from ending the war to end all wars would simply delay another blood reckoning in Europe and endeavoured to bring all the European powers together at the Conference of Genoa to give the League of Nations some teeth.  However, with the absence of the United States and France’s reluctance Lloyd George’s demarche was always going to be a long shot.

Even as Lloyd George was prematurely celebrating the success of his new European security order at Genoa Russia and Germany were meeting secretly at Rapallo where they established ‘friendly relations’ based on Germany’s need for raw materials and Russia’s supply of it. Nothing new there then. Rapallo also had secret clauses, which were meant to have been outlawed by Versailles that led to the Germans being offered facilities in Russia to test both tanks and aircraft illegal under Versailles.  The tank testing centre was led by one Heinz Guderian who twenty years later would come back with his panzer armies to devastate the Soviet Union.

In spite of the 1925 Treaty of Locarno at which Britain and France sought to normalise relations with Weimar Germany and in return for the confirmations of post-Versailles borders the Russo-German accord doomed Europe to catastrophe. Taken together with the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the failed World Disarmament Conference between 1932 and 1934, US isolationism and British and French impoverishment Genoa, Rapallo and Locarno set a fragile pattern for European security relations in the interbellum and beyond.  In the self-willed absence of the United States from Europe, Britain and France simply lacked the power and the will to engage in European Realpolitik, not least because of their focus on vulnerable global empires.  In the vacuum Germany, the Soviet Union and Mussolini’s equally aggrieved fascist Italy set about revising the European order in their favour. For much of the interbellum the British and French political establishments saw Bolshevism and the Soviet Union as the major threat to the established European order.

And then came Hitler. It became increasingly obvious in the wake of the remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936 and the Anschluss in 1938 that the fragile European order would soon collapse. Fearing a repeat of 1914-1918 only British prime ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain continued to harbour naïve hopes that Hitler could be convinced of the merits of disarmament. France, meanwhile, had politically imploded during the Popular Front governments. As it became ever clearer that Nazi Germany intended to destroy Versailles by force if need be a race developed between Britain and France and Stalin’s Soviet Union to ensure that Hitler would attack the other first.

The land in between

The victims of this European Great Game were the lands in between and its icon was Munich.  First, in September 1938 Czechoslovakia was dismembered by the ‘peace in our time’ Munich agreement by which Chamberlain believed he had bought off Hitler with the Sudetenland. Second, when it became clear that Hitler also wanted ‘lebensraum’ in Poland and Ukraine Stalin began to see the threat. Third, firm in their belief that Bolshevism and Nazism were such mortal enemies London and Paris naively believed they might form some form of pact with the Soviet Union to contain Hitler. They thought Stalin would be amenable to such a pact because he had just decimated the senior command of the Red Army through purges.  In 1939 the Russians were also humiliated by the Finns on the Mannerheim Line in circumstances of incompetence eerily similar to today’s Ukraine War.

However, Hitler and Stalin were also the ultimate practitioners of Realpolitik in spite of their fundamental ideological struggle.  In August 1939, much to the shock of Britain and France, they signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (named after their respective foreign ministers of the time) even as a British military mission was in Moscow. The Pact not only ensured that Hitler would first seek to drive Britain and France out of the war, it also sealed the brutal fate of the lands in between Germany and Russia. At Brest in September 1939 Poland was divided up between Germany and the Soviet Union, under the terms of yet another secret protocol, whilst in June 1940 Stalin invaded the Baltic States.

Perhaps the most telling echo of the past, albeit the reverse of Germany’s thinking in 2022, was Stalin’s belief that Hitler’s economic dependence on the Soviet Union was the best security guarantee. After all, in early 1941 the Soviet Union supplied 74% of Germany’s phosphate, 67% of its asbestos, and 65% of its chrome, 55% of its manganese, 40% of its nickel and 35% of its oil, all of which were vital for the conduct of Hitler’s war in the West.  In January 1941, Germany and the Soviet Union even signed a new trade agreement that made Berlin reliant upon Moscow for 70% of its trade. And yet, in June 1941 Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union.  For three days Stalin was paralyzed by shock.

Just in case or Just in time?

What of today? Those in the West calling for a cease-fire should be careful not to again confuse diplomacy with appeasement and simply confirm Russia in its ill-gotten gains. Those same people must also be careful not to see Ukraine as a large country faraway about which we know little, a la Chamberlain. The 2022 Ukraine War, for that is what it is, is resetting the strategic and geopolitical context of NATO, Europe and the wider world. As I told NATO ambassadors Putin is forcing the world of globalised just-in-time back to the hard Realpolitik of just-in-case. He is reminding European leaders who have for too long abandoned sound defence of the dangers of being seduced by economists who do not understand that power and coercion can exist independently of supply and demand.

Today, the Western allies must thus again confront two potentially existential questions that are red in tooth and claw. How can peace be preserved? How can NATO deterrence and defence really deter and defend into the future? European history is again entering a darkened room and it is vital that all the democracies go forward together with a mind-set robust enough, collective enough and ambitious enough to stop the corrupt, cynical and corrosive regime in Moscow that was on show on May 9th. Facing down Putin’s Weltanschaaung (and China if it so chooses to be an enemy) will take a unity of effort and purpose not seen since NATO’s formation.

Given that the West now faces a choice. Force Ukraine to accept Putin’s ground truth on Ukraine’s ground and thus enable Moscow to impose its system as far as Putin’s army can reach, or commit to a clear set of strategic aims that culminate with the return eventually to the restoration of Ukraine’s borders. If Ukraine is forced to face a frozen stalemate on Russian terms those in Western Europe who imposed it on Kyiv will be the natural heirs of Chamberlain and any such ‘accord’, far from being a success of diplomacy merely the latest ‘peace in our time’ appeasers.  Why not sign it in Munich?

However, before any longer term strategy can be established it is vital Ukraine is given the means to resist the latest Russian offensive. Specifically, that means denying the Russians success in the first phase of their current operation, the seizure of an axis that links Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, Druzhina, Kostyantyniska, and Donetsk, which if successful would turn a salient into a pocket enabling Russian air power to destroy Ukrainian regular army formations, much like the destruction of the Wehrmacht’s Army Group B in the Falaise Gap in August 1944. Without securing that objective the Russians will be unable to conduct phase 2 of the offensive and the clear-out of Ukrainian forces up to the Donetsk Oblast border. Only when this offensive has succeeded/failed can ‘we’ (whomsoever that is going forward) properly tailor Western support over campaign time and space. What matters now is maintaining the coherence, manoeuvre and counter-attack fighting power of engaged Ukrainian forces.

The simple and tragic truth about Putin’s ground truth is that once again it is the lands in between who are paying the ultimate price for Russia’s geopolitical folly, malpractice, paranoia and sheer incompetence. Putin’s ‘ground truth’ is in fact no truth and his Weltanschaaung is the corrupt view of a corrupt history by a corrupt elite.   NATO’s job is to ensure that the Russian Army can only impose the Russian system within Russia’s legitimate borders now and into the future.