The World

Putin Is Ripping a Page From an Old Soviet Playbook

A military convoy drives down a gravel road with light snow cover.
A military convoy of armed forces of the separatist self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic on a road in the Luhansk region of Ukraine on Sunday. Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

When I asked Fred Kaplan, who writes Slate’s War Stories column, whether he’d anticipated the kind of open warfare we’ve been seeing in Ukraine, he had an admission to make: “I have to confess I was surprised.”

Kaplan actually came on this show, back in December, and made a prediction that an invasion was not really what Putin wanted in Ukraine. He was wrong about that. For Kaplan, that is still stunning. But now that this invasion has happened, Kaplan has been thinking about the history here. The moments that, in retrospect, seem predictive in some way. He’s found a lot of them.

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What’s happening right now, versions of it have happened before—in Crimea, in Georgia, and before all of that in Czechoslovakia, in 1968. On an episode of What Next this weekend, I spoke with Kaplan about what history can tell us about what’s going on now in Ukraine. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Let’s start with Czechoslovakia in 1968. Back then, Czech leaders were making noises that sounded a lot like Ukraine does today. The country was opening up to democratic change. 

Fred Kaplan: The head of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek, declared that he was pursuing a policy of “socialism with a human face.”

The first thing he did was make sure the press could be free.

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And he reached out to Western Europe for support.

Well, Leonid Brezhnev, the head of the Soviet Union at the time, decided this cannot stand. He moved in not 150,000 troops, but 250,000 troops to occupy Czechoslovakia. At the time, he had a lot of help. The Czech military was very much on Moscow’s side in this.

Now, you have an independent Ukrainian army, and a people that has been independent from Moscow’s orbit for 30 years.

So you’re saying that Putin’s ripping a page from an old Soviet playbook, but the circumstances have completely changed.

That’s right.

Think about how this story ended: Decades later, Czech leaders joined NATO and then the European Union. But breaking free from Moscow’s grip took decades, which means Ukraine could be just beginning to fight, right?

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Combat is just one phase of a conflict like this. It’s quite likely that in this first phase of combat, Russians will “win,” but then what?

You’ve said we can trace the modern day Russian plot to take back its sphere of influence as starting sometime around 2008. Back then, a few more Eastern bloc countries were being admitted to NATO. And at a conference in Bucharest, U.S. President George W. Bush suggested that Ukraine and Georgia be allowed to join next. These comments received instant pushback.

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Everybody said this is a terrible idea. First, these countries do not qualify right now to get into NATO. Second, this is going to be needlessly provocative of Russia because even back in the 1990s, when NATO was first expanding, just about everybody, even the real ardent enthusiasts for doing this into the Czech Republic and Poland, Romania, the Baltics, and so forth—they all stopped short of Ukraine.

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Because it’s right on the border with Russia.

It’s right on the border. And it’s so much a part of Russian interests and Russian culture. The ties are enormous. So when Bush said this, everybody objected. But then when the official statement came out from the conference, it said, “Ukraine and Georgia will become members.” It didn’t say when, but it said they will become members, and it was four months later that Putin did in Georgia kind of what he’s doing now with the two aspiring breakaway republics in Ukraine.

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For people who don’t remember, explain what happened in Georgia in 2008?

Georgia became an independent republic, as did Ukraine, in 1991. But there were these two provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were heavily Russian in population. A separatist movement took hold, which was very strongly aided by Moscow, and they claimed, “Oh, we’re under attack from the Georgians, and so we have to fight back.” And Russian troops moved in.

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How did the world react to this?

You know, other things were going on. Iraq, for example. So, not a whole lot. And it was very small. Some people like John McCain raised a big fuss, but it didn’t seem to be worthy of a big fuss, quite honestly.

Russia’s swift invasion of those two areas in Georgia was just the beginning. Six years later, after protesters in Kyiv ousted their Moscow-backed president and replaced him with a leader who had aspirations of joining the EU, the Russians struck back by occupying the separatist region of Crimea. And the reaction by the Obama administration at the time was muted. 

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Here’s the thing: In 2014, when they annexed Crimea and took out a slice of Eastern Ukraine in fraternal assistance to the pro-Russian separatists there, there was a big meeting within NATO on what to do. And President Obama decided to focus on economic sanctions, not military sanctions. He didn’t even do what was done later, which was to send anti-tank missiles, anti-air missiles. He did send things like night vision gear and radar and blankets and equipment and helmets.

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What was the reasoning there?

Well, his reason was: Look, Ukraine is a lot more important to Russia than it is to us. Any military move we make is going to be matched and far exceeded by Russia. And therefore, I’m not going to get into a big arms race, which we’re going to lose. Even now, even as Russia is mounting this massive invasion of Ukraine, Biden is very clear and careful to note that we are not  going to be sending U.S. or NATO troops into Ukraine. We don’t want to get into a war with Russia over Ukraine, which we have decided, using similar logic to Obama, is really not worth the devastation that such a war might very easily escalate to.

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But looking back at what happened in Georgia and what happened in Ukraine in 2014I know hindsight is 20/20but it’s impossible not to see a picture of Putin testing the limits of the Western world.

Well, you had to wait until he had the means to test the limits. Until quite recently, Russian economy was still very weak. It’s still quite weak. I think Putin and many Russians would be very disturbed by seeing Ukraine go all the way over into the West. He viewed the enlargement of NATO with alarm, and there were even legitimate security reasons for his viewing it that way.

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You think he legitimately had something to fear from more and more arms being put at the border?

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Bush’s Bucharest statement that Ukraine will become a part of NATO, I think, was a big mistake. I think there was some way of just owning up to the fact that Ukraine is not going to become a part of NATO and making some other kind of security arrangements for the country.

Now, do I think that this is all our fault? No, I think a deal could have been struck with any number of other people who have been the leader of Russia in the last several decades to show him, Look, this isn’t going to happen. Biden offered a lot of arrangements. He said publicly that Ukraine is not going to become part of NATO anytime soon, but we can’t just bar them from doing this. And by the way, we can open this up to we could open up military exercises to transparency. And do you really think that these two missile defense launchers that we have in Romania can fire offensive missiles? Well, come over and inspect them so you can see they can’t. Let’s have a conference to talk about.

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He offered a lot of things that a lot of Russian leaders would have taken as a possible way out of the crisis and a way to rack up some wins.

But not Putin.

I think what happened is that Putin, who has always been obsessed with not only the loss of empire but also his destiny as the man who can to some extent restore that empire—that plus possibly the isolation that he’s been in since COVID, the stories that he’s surrounded himself with a handful of advisers who are even more obsessed and paranoid on this score than he is.

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You can just look at the pictures of Vladimir Putin in the last few days. He refuses to be closer than 20 feet to anyone, even his closest allies.

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Yeah, apparently that table was specially built for this occasion.

The table where Macron was at one end and he was at the other.

That’s right. So there are a lot of things going into this. The other thing is back during the Cuban missile crisis or any time in the Soviet Union, there was a Politburo. Khrushchev did some crazy things; the Politburo kicked him out. They denounced Khrushchev for his harebrained schemes. There is no Politburo anymore.

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It’s all Putin.

He has advisers, but they don’t know what he’s about to do. Two days before he formally recognized the separatists-controlled two provinces of Ukraine as an independent republic, Russia’s ambassador to the U.N. said, “Let me make this clear: We regard the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk as part of Ukraine.” He said that, and two days later, Putin said, “No, they’re not. They’re an independent republic.”

I would be very surprised if you found anybody—or very many people—on the record, not months, but years ago who said, “Yeah, Russia is going to launch a massive invasion and take over all of Ukraine.” That’s a very big, big deal. Now that they’ve done it, I think they will find that in the long run, it will be a huge mistake.

Something one of my producers pointed out is that the conflict in Georgia that we talked about back in 2008, it was only a few days long.

Yeah, six days. But Georgia’s very small. Ukraine is a big country.

So we should prepare for more than that?

It’s a very different kind of thing. And it is an all-out invasion. He has either launched missile attacks on or sent troops to towns and military installations in all parts of the country now—east, south, north, and a little bit west. And they’re moving toward one another. It’s a pincer movement to cut everything off and to divide resistance.

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