Russian President Vladimir Putin’s undeclared war on Ukraine has stirred considerable consternation, none of which has so far moderated, let alone influenced, his behaviour.  The boldness of his moves has been breathtaking.  Why is he so successful in pursuit of his strategy?  What is his strategy?  Can nothing stop him?  With astonishing impunity, Putin has defied international law and the norms of international relations.  He can do so because nothing in Ukraine, Russia, or beyond constrains him in the conduct of his eccentric foreign policy. 


The course of a war is always difficult to predict.  The more so in the case of one of the “new wars” of the 21st century.[1]  With respect to the war in Ukraine we are bombarded with so much information that it is difficult to pick your way through it.  Nevertheless, an effort can and needs to be made to understand the conflict in a reasonably objective manner, lest one become merely a cheerleader on the sidelines instead of a critically thinking person able to contribute to the formation of informed opinion on the subject at hand.

Who is winning this war, now entering its second year?  Many observers have weighed in on this question.  Their viewpoints divide neatly into those who claim that Vladimir Putin is losing this war, and those who say he is winning.  Each side gives reasons why, which are the most intriguing part of the debate, and hence the focus of this paper.  Having presented the two sides, I shall argue that advocates for Putin have the stronger case—he is, in fact, winning this war against Ukraine, and there are sounder reasons supporting this position than those who say the opposite.

At this stage of my research, the paper is more of a press review or an essay in interpretation than a full-fledged empirical analysis.  It is based on reports of events and expert opinions, as well as statements by Putin himself.  If my argument fails to convince, I shall at least have put forward plausible hypotheses about the further course of the war in Ukraine susceptible to more rigorous analysis.

Following up on his 2008 war against Georgia, Putin with astonishing boldness invaded Crimea in March 2014 and annexed it, thereafter orchestrating the separatist rebellion in Eastern Ukraine.  How has he succeeded in defiance of international law as well as the norms of international relations, and in defiance of the rules of collective security?  Why could nothing stop him?  And what is there to deter him from further military conquests?  Appalling though his actions have been, it is important to understand the cultural and structural facilitators of his success.

Leaving aside the situation on the ground in Ukraine as a determinant of strategic success or failure for Putin—where there are plentiful factors tipping the balance in favour of the Russians[2]—observers have focussed on either the domestic determinants within Russia or those outside of it for an assessment of the future gambling record of Vladimir Putin.  Some say that economic costs and domestic upheaval will inevitably—sooner rather than later—curb his imperial adventures.  Others point to a weak and divided West as providing Putin with the licence to remake the post-Cold War world in his image.  Basically, Western optimists and Russian critics of Putin adhere to the former viewpoint; pessimists cling to the latter.  Both sides share the same diagnosis in that they agree that Putin has been drinking his own Kool-Aid—they simply disagree on the prognosis.

What, then, are the arguments coming from each team?  And why is it important?  Ultimately, Ukraine’s fate is in Putin’s hands.  This is a war on the West, too.

Team A:  Putin is Losing

According to the optimists, Putin is losing this geopolitical game because of its negative impact on the Russian economy, and because he is crazy to pursue such a goal (whatever it may be) oblivious of the social consequences.  Here are some typical warnings directed at him, and kudos for his Western opponents.

In his review of Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, P. J. O’Rourke asks:  “What do we do about a gigantic, depraved, immoral, lunatic country armed with nuclear warheads?”[3]  To which his response is:  “We may not have to do much is the fortunate answer.”  The reason being that “Russia is a demographic disaster.”  Citing Nicholas Eberstadt, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute to the effect that

Long-term economic progress . . . depends on improving productivity through new knowledge. . . . Patent awards and application provide a crude but telling picture. . . . Consider applications under the Patent Cooperation Treaty. . . . Russia comes in No. 21—after Austria—racking up less than 0.6 percent of the world’s total.  The population of Russia is more than fifteen times that of Austria.  Russia’s “yield” of patents per university graduate is vastly lower than Austria’s—thirty-five times lower.  By this particular metric Russia is only fractionally better placed than Gabon.

O’Rourke concludes that “what we need to do is . . . sit back and watch the Putin regime rot.”

In January of this year, noting the gains being made by pro-Russian rebels in the vicinity of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Mariupol, Michael Weiss and James Miller declared that “Putin is Winning the Ukraine War on Three Fronts.”[4]  If Mariupol were to fall to the rebels, it would give them greater economic viability with a seaport and an operating airport.  Meanwhile, the “Russians and pro-Russian forces also have two other assets favoring their greater advance—money and messianism.”

On Sunday, 1 February 2015, The Independent proposed to its readers that “President Putin is a Dangerous Psychopath:  Reason is Not Going to Work with Him.”  Addressing itself directly to decision-makers, the article pointed out:  “what European leaders are dealing with here is classic psychopathic behaviour.  Putin displays a complete absence of empathy and is painfully thin-skinned; he found being mocked by the punk band Pussy Riot so intolerable that two of the women ended up in penal colonies. Even more alarming is his lack of fear and enjoyment of risk, which means he enjoys baiting people he sees as opponents.”  Drawing comparisons with Sadam Hussein and Josef Stalin, it concluded categorically by declaring “Russia under Putin is an unpredictable rogue state.”

In an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal,[5] David Satter, author of Darkness at Dawn:  The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (2003), joins those emphasizing the economic disincentives to Putin’s war-making.  “The Putin regime,” he writes, “needs an end to sanctions not because they are crippling in themselves but because in combination with the growing crisis of the economy and the unpredictable trajectory of the war, they could help lead to the destabilization of Russia.”  He emphasizes the efficacy of Western sanctions.

If the economic situation in Russia continues to worsen, many Russians may come to see that the Ukrainian model of a peaceful and spontaneous rebellion against a corrupt regime can have relevance for them.  It was because of the potential power of the Ukrainian example for Russia that Mr. Putin began the war in Ukraine in the first place.

The cost of the fighting has been hidden from Russians but, as the death rate climbs, the war may soon be less popular.  The Russian authorities state officially that there are no Russian troops fighting in Ukraine but the movement of thousands of troops is impossible to hide and it is similarly impossible to hide soldiers’ funerals.

Societal unrest in Russia is liable to be augmented by the same sort of dissatisfaction at the elite level also.

The pyramid of power in Russia is very unstable.  Capital flight is reaching epic proportions ($63.7 billion in the first quarter of 2014, according to the U.S. State department) and thousands of Russian officials have made contingency plans to escape with their money to the West.

Mr. Putin and his cronies will not take aggressive action if they fear that they could as a result lose their hold on power.  This is why it is time for maximum deterrence on the part of the West now.

Always eager to puncture the Russian President’s balloon, Alexander Motyl is already bidding him farewell.[6]  “The longer the Russian war against Ukraine continues,” he writes gleefully, “the more likely it is that President Vladimir Putin’s regime will collapse.”  This can happen because of the drastic fall in financial resources—brought about by the collapse of oil prices and the cost of the war—which will undermine loyalty to him not only among the elite but also the general public:  “Putin’s popularity would take a serious hit if he were to roll back support to the lower classes.”  Putin has boxed himself into a corner:  he cannot “crush Ukraine without unleashing a global conflict,” nor can he “erode Ukraine’s economy without simultaneously destroying Russia’s.”  Thus, “all signs point to the eventual collapse of Putin’s regime.”  A coloured revolution is not out of the question, according to Motyl, despite Putin’s 85 per cent approval rating.  “Even if Putin is not ousted by popular revolution or by a coup, he will be crippled by unrest in Russia’s non-Russian regions.”  Ukraine must be supported, and Putin encouraged to wind down the war.  “When the rotten Russian dam breaks, as it inevitably will, only strong and stable non-Russian states will be able to contain the flooding, shielding the rest of the world from Putin’s disastrous legacy of ruin.”  The apocalypse beckons.

As we know, it takes a real pessimist to be an optimist.  In that vein, Alexander Golts, writing in The Moscow Times,[7] days after the conclusion of the Minsk II agreement, has declared Russia as already having lost the game.  Referring specifically to the rebels’ Pyrrhic victory at Debaltseve, which he terms contrary to appearances a “political failure,” Golts points to Russia’s limited military capabilities in the Ukrainian conflict.  The agreement itself, which Putin allowed the rebels to ignore, he regards as practically dead on arrival.  “It is unlikely,” he writes, “those world leaders will agree to that sort of humiliation again.  The failure of the peace process means that, among other things, Russia is fundamentally incapable of keeping its agreements.  It is impossible to make agreements with someone who violates that agreement the very next day.”  His prognosis for Russia is accordingly bleak:  “As for Russia,” Golts concludes, “it can now look forward to playing the unenviable role of a raw materials appendage for China.  The only consolation is that events play out faster in the modern world, and so Russia will hit a dead end sooner rather than later.”

Along similar lines, David J. Kramer considers that “the Western reaction to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was much stronger than Putin anticipated, even if it was less than what many advocated.”[8]  Furthermore, “instead of halting Ukraine’s westward shift, Putin has accelerated it.”  Thus,

It is Putin himself, notwithstanding his high levels of support, who poses the greatest danger to Russia by pursuing policies against Ukraine that have led to Russia’s isolation as a pariah state; by failing to diversify Russia’s economy (a problem that became clear with the significant decline in the price of oil); and by insisting on increases in defense spending at a time when the country cannot afford them.  Under Putin’s watch, Russia’s economy is in deep crisis:  by the end of 2014, the value of the ruble dropped by roughly half, capital flight was more than twice that of 2014, inflation and interest rates were up, and hard currency reserves had fallen below $400 billion.  Because of Western sanctions, Russian companies are unable to refinance the massive debt they owe to Western banks—roughly $150 billion in 2015 alone, and Russian banks are turning to the government for bailouts, further draining foreign currency reserves.  Things got so bad by the end of the year that China offered Russia financial assistance in December, a gesture that many Russians must find humiliating.

In sum, “Western sanctions have played a key role,” and Kramer along with “many believe that further Russian aggression . . . was prevented by the sanctions imposed by the West.”

Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine (2003-6) John E. Herbst is among those pressing for tougher policies by the West against Russia which can restrain Putin’s aggression.  Writing on the Atlantic Council’s blog,[9] in the immediate aftermath of Boris Nemtsov’s assassination, he advocates “that Western policies that help inform the Russian people that Russian soldiers are fighting in Ukraine makes it harder for Mr. Putin to continue his war of aggression.  This is an argument both to increase substantially the budgets for broadcast stations like Radio Liberty, and to provide defensive military weapons to Ukraine.  Providing weapons would either deter further aggression, or, by leading to more Russian casualties, make it harder for the Kremlin to hide its war with its own people.”  Like others, his argument is that public pressure will deter Putin from a policy of foreign military aggression.

Using the unexplained disappearance of Putin following Nemtsov’s demise, Lilia Shevtsova draws up a similarly negative prognosis for Russia and its pugnacious president.[10]  In brief, her point is that the hyper-personalized power system in Russia, while momentarily impressive, has been shown by these two events to be vulnerable to collapse.  “The Minsk agreement brokered by the Merkel-Hollande tandem is based on a tradeoff that works in Moscow’s favor:  ceasefire in exchange for Russian leverage over Ukrainian statehood.  Nevertheless, Putin’s victory at Minsk has failed to conceal his domestic quagmire.”  Nemtsov’s murder shows Putin is losing control, and his own absence reveals the system’s paralysis.  Where were his supporters, she asks rhetorically, clamouring for Putin’s return?  The image of his indispensability in the Crimean documentary aired at the time Shevtsova dismisses as “a sign of desperation,” not of self-assurance.  “There is, however, another process at work that could stymie any coup or any effort to return to the ‘Besieged Fortress’ or kick over the global chessboard:  the fact that Russia has become a consumption-oriented society, whose people are unwilling to sacrifice well being for any reason.  The Kremlin must understand this.”  So “the Russian system’s agony has begun.”

An interesting evolution of thought can be seen in the last of our optimistic commentators.  Chrystia Freeland, now a Liberal Member of Parliament from a Toronto riding, was formerly a newspaperwoman of international repute with an expertise on post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine.  In March 2014, her article in the New York Times was titled “Russia Has Already Lost the War.”[11]  In it she wrote that “the new [Euromaidan] revolution is enjoying a prolonged honeymoon, thanks to Mr. Putin, whose intervention in Ukrainian foreign and trade policy provoked the uprising in the first place, and whose invasion has, paradoxically, increased its chances of long-term success.”  Furthermore, “no matter what happens over the next few months, or even years, Mr. Putin and his vision of an authoritarian, Russian-dominated former Soviet space have already lost.  Democratic, independent Ukraine, and the messy, querulous (but also free and law-abiding) ‘European’ idea have won.”  The die has been cast, regardless of future uncertainties.  In August 2014, her article in Politico magazine,[12] “Ukraine Is Winning the War,” carried a more cautious subtitle—“But will Putin Invade?”  In it she argues that with the consolidation of civil society, national unity, and effective government, “Ukraine has steadily been pushing back the Russian-led insurgents.”  The greatest unknown, Freeland conceded, was whether there would be any further Russian escalation.

If the Russian forces massed on Ukraine’s border invade, it will be because Putin has decided to show Russians, Ukrainians and the world that he has the power and the will to impose autocracy not just at home, but at gunpoint in foreign, sovereign states.  The tragic paradox for Kyiv is that each democratic success has made it more vulnerable to a further Russian escalation.  Will the world’s democracies stand by and let Putin have his way?

By December, Freeland’s optimism had subsided.[13]  On the one hand,

Aggression against Ukraine has had severe implications for the Russian economy.  Western sanctions started soft and came gradually, but they are now starting to bite—the European Central Bank estimates that $221bn in capital fled Russia in the first quarter of 2014, and according to calculations by UBS, the Swiss financial services company, Russian firms need to refinance $157bn in debt in the coming months, which will be well nigh impossible to do in western capital markets.  Economists are predicting that, on current trends, the Russian economy will go into recession next year.

The consequence for Putin is that the old formula for shoring up his power no longer works in a new world of his own making.  Previously, Putin had secured his rule through a combination of coercion, some measure of economic performance and rising nationalism.  That equilibrium has been shattered. He must now decide whether to try to recreate it, or else to seek to build something else, with the new forces he has unleashed.

She therefore concludes that Putin has been improvising all along and that his erratic moves over the preceding 14 years are making him more, not less dangerous in the future.

To summarize, the argument on the optimistic side (optimistic for the West, pessimistic for the Kremlin) is that Putin can be restrained in prolonging and accelerating the war against Ukraine by:
1.  The impact of economic sanctions on Russia as a whole, as well as by the threat of further sanctions;
2.  Domestic pressures, at both the grass roots and elite levels, from a Russian society adversely affected by the economic sanctions against Russia; and
3.  Perhaps arming Ukraine, but this is controversial.[14]
Note that none of the following entities (not to mention the combined armed forces of Ukraine—including the Army proper, the National Guard, and the Security Service of Ukraine [SBU]) have been invoked as capable of halting further aggression by Putin:
4.  The European Union collectively or individual member-states such as the United Kingdom, France, or Germany;[15]
5.  The Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe (OSCE);
6.  NATO;[16]
7.  The United Nations;[17]
8.  The United States, by direct diplomatic or military intervention;[18]
9.  Canada; and
10.  God.
With such a relatively small list of arguments out of the whole range of available options for settling international disputes, it should be unsurprising if Team A’s position were vulnerable to rebuttal.

Team B:  Putin is Winning—And Why

The idea that Putin’s aggressive actions in Ukraine can be largely curbed by Western sanctions, by means of their direct and indirect effects, is simply wishful thinking.  It is based on a massive misapprehension of Putin’s thinking, of his strategy, of his relationship to the Russian people, and of Russian war-making philosophy.  Radical differences in perspective, meaning, and understanding underlie the ineffectiveness of the Western response.  Some representative arguments along these lines are the following; they seem irrefutable, taking account of observable events of the past year.

It is clear that Putin scorns Western rhetoric and hypocritical behaviour.  Asked to comment on Western leaders’ statements, Ukrainian political scientist and NAUKMA professor Hryhorii Perepelytsia has stated bluntly:

Putin has already become accustomed to such rhetoric and is convinced that behind it there is nothing that threatens Russia.  And the more they make remarks, the less impression they are going to make on Vladimir Putin and on Russia as such.  Russian society is in fact laughing at these threats and at the instituted sanctions because the Russians feel no negative influence from them.[19]

At the very outset of the conflict, Ben Judah was pointing out that Europe is more interested in doing business with Russia, and in laundering illicit Russian money, than sanctioning it.

Once Russia’s powerful listened when European embassies issued statements denouncing the baroque corruption of Russian state companies.  But no more.  Because they know full well it is European bankers, businessmen and lawyers who do the dirty work for them placing the proceeds of corruption in hideouts from the Dutch Antilles to the British Virgin Islands.[20]

A year later, thanks in part to the fact that “the Kremlin . . . has been able to make decisions without public scrutiny,”[21] at least 76, and as much as 88, per cent of the Russian public approves the work of their head of state.[22]  Everyone else is still waiting for Putin’s approval rating to go down, as a result of the effects of Western sanctions.

A full catalogue of the fateful discrepancies between Russian and Western strategic thinking has been offered by Lilia Shevtsova.[23]  These “popular myths,” as she calls them, have “contributed to the emergence of the crisis, complicate its resolution, and distort the real picture of the challenges facing the world.”  Shevtsova proposes that in dealing with Russia, the West needs to disabuse itself of these mythical beliefs in particular:
1.  That Putin is the problem when it’s the system of personalized power;
2.  That Russia’s “humiliation” can ever be alleviated;
3.  That Russia’s war with Ukraine is about territory and can be accommodated, when really it’s driven by internal economic weakness and serves as a compensation for that;
4.  That the Russian elite are rational actors, whereas they are not—they are risk-takers who respect force, not rules;[24]
5.  That geopolitics dictates an inevitable conflict between Russia and the West for which the West is to blame.[25]
6.  That the conflict in Ukraine is not a war; and
7.  That there is no military solution to the conflict—except that Russia is using this very means to secure its objectives.
Ultimately, therefore, the “’Ukraine crisis’ is not really about Ukraine at all,” but, in the Kremlin’s view, a response to and overturning of the post-Cold War order being dictated to Russia by the United States.[26]  It

means readjusting the world order in such a way as to give Russia a more dignified role in the world.  The problem is that the Kremlin will never find any Western concession regarding this order satisfactory, because the basis of its survival is the reproduction on the Weimar Syndrome, which depends on a constant demand for “deliverables” (the delivery of which must of course be in some way unsatisfactory—in order to maintain the “besieged fortress”).  Ukraine, unfortunately, has become a way for the Kremlin to sustain this process and thus reproduce itself.[27]

Shevtsova’s argument is convincing, and is buttressed by other knowledgeable observers.[28]

Not only is this war about more than Ukraine, but its perpetrators mean more by war and warfare than we usually assume, and they utilize a correspondingly broader array of weapons than we expect to see used in a military conflict.  As analyzed by two British scholars the Russian approach to warfare, which they call “full-spectrum conflict,” is neither new nor restricted to the battlefield.[29]  Premised on “a centralized command and control that enables a high degree of coordination,” it means “that Russia, unlike other actors, can subordinate everything from media broadcasts to oil extortion to intelligence operations and conventional means to the same political end.”[30]  Oddly enough, the Russians—in an acute example of the mirror-imaging phenomenon in international relations—accuse the Americans of waging exactly the same kind of full-scale warfare against Russia.[31]

Jonsson and Seely, doctoral candidate in defence and war studies at King’s College, London, examine Russian thinking on warfare under four categories.  First, what they call kinetic violence refers to the use of conventional armed forces for active violence or posing as a threat.[32]  The amount of violence can be modulated according to the fate of ceasefires and other warfare techniques.[33]  Second comes information warfare, where “the Russian view of information war is notably broader than any Western conception.”[34]  This has both purely informational as well as psychological aspects, and involves internal and external media/audiences.  In addition to infantry battalions it now has battalions of “trolls” flooding the social media with pro-Kremlin comments.[35]  According to Peter Pomerantsev, the aim is to sow confusion and disseminate an impression that no one can be believed, thus interfering with the formation of informed public opinion and of properly informed public policy.[36]  Under the third factor, economy and energy, they focus in particular on “food sanctions and energy supply,” illustrating how these are used by Russia.[37]  In fourth place are political influence operations.  Not easy to discover, such operations include sponsorships of international sporting events, support of front organizations, co-optation of leading political figures, collaboration with friendly political parties, subversion, and leaked phone calls.[38]  As all of this implies, the Russian conceptualization of warfare is difficult to capture[39]–because of the blurring of lines between war, peace, truth, lies, politics, propriety, and underhandedness—and to countervail against, unless the West is willing and able to stoop to similar means—which I guess it is not, at least not openly.

The Verdict

It seems clear to me that the means used hitherto—diplomacy, sanctions, plus the Minsk I and Minsk II ceasefires—are not capable of deterring Putin because the war he is waging is broader and different than skirmishes on the ground in a portion of the Donbas in Ukraine.  Furthermore, neither the United Nations nor the United States, the world’s remaining superpower, are able to stop his aggression.  Sadly, but with incomparably worse consequences for all concerned, somewhat like the British Empire was said to have been acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness, so today Vladimir Putin is proceeding to reassemble the Russian Empire through an episode of misapprehension.

[1] Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars, Second Edition (Stanford, California:  Stanford University Press, 2007).

[2] See, for example, Stanislav Kmet, “Iak my kuvaly svoiu porazku,” Ukrainska pravda, 18 September 2014,

[3] “The Land of Magical Thinking,” World Affairs Journal

[4] The Daily Beast, 26 January 2015.

[5] “Putin’s Shaky Hold on Power,” 3 February 2015.

[6] Alexander J. Motyl, “Goodbye, Putin:  Why the President’s Days Are Numbered,” Foreign Affairs, 5 February 2015.

[7] Alexander Golts, “Russia Lost the Long Game at Debaltseve,” The Moscow Times, 24 February 2015.

[8] David J. Kramer, “The Ukraine Invasion:  One Year Later,” World Affairs Journal,  .

[9]   Iran Deal: More Hard Work Ahead

[10] Lilia Shevtsova, “Has the Russian System’s Agony Begun?” The American Interest, 17 March 2015.

[11] 7 march 2015.

[12] Chrystia Freeland, “Ukraine Is Winning the War:  But will Putin Invade?” Politico Magazine, 11 August 2014.

[13] Chrystia Freeland, “What does Putin Want?” Prospect Magazine, 11 December 2014.

[14] Nader Mousavizadeh, “Arming Ukraine Will Put the West in Danger,” 6 February 2015, on Reuters blog at , received from Roman.Zurba@CIBC.com, on 9 February 2015.

[15] Ian Traynor, “Fear of Vladimir Putin Grows in EU Capitals Amid Spectre of ‘Total War,’” Guardian, 6 February 2015.

[16] “NATO nichym vidpovisty na novu voiennu doktrynu Putina—nimetski eksperty,” Ukrainska pravda, 18 March 2015.

[17]In April 2014, then Acting President Turchynov appealed to the UN for peacekeepers to help resist the rebels in Eastern Ukraine.  “Turchynov prosyt myrotvortsiv OON dopomohty borotysia z terorystamy,” Ukrainska pravda, 14 April 2014.    A year later, Ukraine was still asking.

[18]Aurel Braun, “U.S. Must Offer More than Rhetoric,” Globe and Mail (Alberta edition), 27 January 2015; Tom Parfitt and Raf Sanchez, “U.S. Eyes Arming Ukraine Military,” Edmonton Journal, 3 February 2015; and Shaun Walker, “West Weighs Risks as it Considers Arming Ukraine,” Guardian, 5 February 2015.  On the margins of talks regarding Iran in Lausanne, Switzerland, “Kerri proviv z Lavrovym ‘khoroshu dyskusiiu’ pro Ukrainu,” Vysokyi zamok, 30 March 2015, but that is about as close as the US gets to addressing the issue.

[19] Mykola Siruk, “Uroky bosniiskoho konfliktu i dolia Donbasu,” Den’, 24 June 2014.

[20]Ben Judah, “Why Russia No Longer Fears the West,” POLITICO Magazine, 2 March 2014.

[21] Fred Weir, “Putin’s ‘Hands-on Management’:  How the Russian Leader Makes it Personal,” CSMonitor.com, 15 February 2015.

[22] “Sotsiolohy:  reiting Putina zalyshaietsia vysokym,” BBC Ukrainian, 27 March 2015

[23] Lilia Shevtsova, “The Kremlin is Winning,” The American Interest, 12 February 2015.

[24] “For the West, restraint, compromise, and keeping promises are all attributes one can expect to find in a rational actor; the Russian political elite, however, interpret these attributes as signs of weakness.  For them, rational behavior includes unpredictability, tolerance for the use of force, and a callous disregard for human lives in the service of their objective.  This is exactly the reason why the Kremlin cannot afford to cave in the face of sanctions, even if doing so risks economic collapse.  The absence of external restraints (along with the lack of internal ones, such as independent institutions and strong public opinion) will drive the Kremlin toward even riskier experiments in self-realization.”  Shevtsova, “The Kremlin is Winning.”  On Putin as a risk-taker, see Timothy Heritage, Putin Called the West’s Bluff Over Ukraine,Business Insider, 18 February 2015, ; and Brian Whitmore, Putin Just Made a Huge Decision that may Explain his Strange Disappearance,Business Insider, 18 March 2015,

[25] See also Peter Zeihan, The Accidental Superpower:  The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder (New York and Boston:  Twelve, Hachette Book Group, 2014), a true believer in geopolitics, who actually accurately maps out Putin’s strategy for him (pp. 179-88), but whose main thesis is that the United States is fated to emerge from the present chaos as superpower, Sir Halford Mackinder and the Heartland Theory notwithstanding.

[26] Shevtsova, “The Kremlin is Winning.”

[27] Ibid.

[28] George Woloshyn, “Betrayal at Munich?” Kyiv Post, 4 January 2015; Andrew S. Weiss, “Putin the Improviser,” Wall Street Journal, 20 February 2015; “Putin’s War on the West,” The Economist, 14 February 2015; Anne Applebaum, “How Vladimir Putin is Waging War on the West—and Winning,” The Spectator, 21 February 2015, ; and “How Russian Culture Enables Vladimir Putin’s Global Aggression,” The Federalist, 12 November 2014,

[29] Oscar Jonsson and Robert Seely, “Russian Full-Spectrum Conflict:  An Appraisal After Ukraine,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies 28 (2015): 1-22.  See also Pavel Sheremet, “Liliia Shevtsova:  Kreml zadiie vsi zasoby dlia pidryvu Ukrainy,” Ukrainska pravda, 24 February 2015; Valentyn Torba, “Shcho protystavyty spetsoperatsii Kremlia,” Den’, 24 February 2015; and Mychailo Wynnyckyj, “Putin is Making a Formative Statement to the World as to his Power,” Euromaidan Press, 18 March 2015.

[30] Jonsson and Seely, 6-7.

[31] Ibid., p. 8.  See, for example, Andrew Rettman, “Putin Speech Bodes Ill for Ukraine Ceasefire,” euobserver, 27 March 2015,, accessed on 31 March 2015, where is was reported that “Russian leader Vladimir Putin has said ‘the West’ is encroaching on Russia and fomenting unrest. . . . He told a meeting of his internal intelligence service, the FSB, . . . that ‘they are using their entire arsenal of means for the so-called deterrence of Russia:  from attempts at political isolation and economic pressure, to large-scale information war and special services operations.’ . . . He also said ‘Western special services continue their attempts at using public, non-governmental and politicised organisations to . . . discredit the authorities and destabilise the internal situation in Russia.’”

[32] For a recent example, see Associated Press, “Russia Launches Military Drills in the Southwest,” Washington Post, 5 march 2015,

[33] Jonsson and Seely, 9-11.

[34] Ibid., 12.

[35] Ibid., 12-15.

[36] Alona Savchuk, “Piter Pomerantsev:  Meta rosiiskoi propahandy—shchob nikhto nikomu ne doviriav,” Ukrainiska pravda, 31 March 2015,

[37] Ibid., 16-18.  Indeed, in February 2015, Putin made one of these threats against Ukraine.  Michael Birnbaum, “Putin Threatens to cut Gas to Ukraine as Showdowns Shift to Economy,” Washington Post, 25 February 2015,

[38] Jonsson and Seely, 18-20.  One such leak may have been the one reported by Ian Traynor, “Putin Claims Russian Forces ‘Could Conquer Ukraine Capital in Two Weeks’,” Guardian, 2 September 2014,

[39] Jonsson and Seely, 21.


Bohdan Harasymiw

Before retiring in 2005, he was Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary. Trained as a Sovietologist, he specialized in the study of political elites and leadership. In 1989-91, he was seconded to the Government of Canada as an intelligence analyst. Since the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union, he has focussed on the consequent processes of democratization and authoritarianism in Russia and Ukraine. His book, Post-Communist Ukraine, came out in 2002. A former president of theCanadian Association of Slavists, he has published numerous articles in its journal, Canadian Slavonic Papers, as well as other scholarly publications.

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