Putin’s revanchist empire will fall
CIUS weekly report on North American media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 5–11 November 2023
Five publications (Foreign Policy, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post) were selected to prepare this report on how the situation in Ukraine has been portrayed in the North American press during the past week. The sample was compiled based on their impact on public opinion as well as on their professional reputation, popularity among the readership, and topical relevance. These publications represent centrist viewpoints on the political spectrum.
This report covers only the most-read and relevant articles about Ukraine, as ranked by the respective North American publications themselves in the past week. Its scope covers promoted articles on home pages and articles from special sections on Ukraine, with the hashtag #Ukraine, from the paper editions of the publications, and about Ukraine from opinion columns and editorials.
Topics featured in the selected articles:
- The world and Ukraine: Ukraine is the key to restoring world order; one tool for Ukraine’s victory is to stop the supply of technology for Russian weapons;
- Russia in war: arguments in favour of the fall of Putin’s Russian Empire; of Russian propaganda narratives transformation
Putin’s revanchist empire will fall. Alexander J. Motyl (Foreign Policy) emphasizes that all empires eventually collapse; even empires that seem stable eventually decline until only the imperial centre remains. He further posits that empires which have undergone a long process of disintegration do not seek re-imperialization. But it is a completely different story with the empires that suddenly and comprehensively collapse at the peak of their power due to cataclysms that break the formal ties between the core and the periphery. Motyl cites the Russian Empire, Wilhelmine Germany, and the Soviet Union as types of empires in which “the imperial ideology remained alive and well after the collapse, leading to attempts by the imperial center’s elites to recreate all or parts of their former empires.” Post-Soviet Russia’s repeated attempts to re-imperialize since 1991 (and especially since 2000, when Putin came to power) are similar to those of interwar Germany. According to Motyl, “success or failure of re-imperialization generally depends on the balance of power among the core, periphery, and any intervening states.” The prerequisites for re-imperialization are a powerful military, a strong economy, and an effective government. Favourable conditions include pre-existing institutional links between the imperial core and the periphery, external forces indifferent or receptive to imperial expansion, authoritarian rule in the centre of the empire, and an imperial ideology that stimulates the desire for empire. Like the Third Reich, the Russian Federation lacks all these components, which brings it closer to the end. To speed up this process, the West should support Ukraine “in liberating its territories from Russian occupation by providing it with the weapons it needs—rather sooner than later. Should the West continue to slow-roll military deliveries [to Ukraine]—or even decrease them—it will only prolong an inevitable process and increase the suffering. Either way, Russian re-imperialization is destined to fail.”
Ukraine is the key to restoring world order. Nadia Schadlow (Wall Street Journal) argues that the US can end global chaos by demonstrating a strong commitment to victory in Ukraine and Israel. This will guarantee the preservation of the US’s global influence and make it impossible to destabilize other regions of the world. Today more than ever, revanchist states are determined to reshape the world order. Russia’s aggression in the centre of Europe was unquestionably aimed at destabilizing the world order: “Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine set the stage for the first episode of regional disruption—Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.” The second step was Hamas’ attack on Israel, with Iranian support in the Middle East. The third step in the deconstruction of the world order has been China’s increased pressure on Taiwan and the former’s desire to strengthen its control over the South China Sea. According to Schadlow, the key threat is that “across these three regions—Central Europe, the Middle East, and Asia—unnatural allies are supporting each other in pursuit of a new global equilibrium that significantly disadvantages the US and its allies.” Therefore, says Schadlow, the priority for the US and its allies is to seize the initiative and restore balance in the world: “The Biden administration’s management of the Israeli response in Gaza and the continuing war in Ukraine are crucial. America’s adversaries are watching.”
The West should stop supplying technology for Russian weapons. Maria Shagina (Foreign Policy) writes that the West should close all channels for the export of military goods and critical technological components to Russia. After all, they go into the production of weapons—from drones and cruise missiles to combat vehicles and artillery: “There are abundant reports of newly produced Russian weapons filled with Western components, such as powerful Kinzhal and Iskander missiles made with Texas Instruments chips and German coils.” Destroying every node in Russia’s military supply chains and cutting off arms delivery from third countries will help to turn the tide in favour of Ukraine. Since February 2022 Ukraine’s allies have imposed wide-ranging export controls against Russia, but they are imperfect. Russia has successfully circumvented the restrictions through a combination of tactics: “rerouting critical imports via third countries or transshipment points, obfuscating customs data, and using civilian proxy entities to redirect items to military firms.” To strengthen controls over critical technological components, it is necessary to (1) improve coordination between all key institutions (customs, export control services, intelligence services, and financial institutions); (2) improve state registers to ensure data accuracy and accessibility; and (3) realize that “Russia has a comprehensive strategy of military-civil fusion.” Academic research institutes, the Rosatom nuclear energy conglomerate, and energy giants are involved in the chain of exports of high-priority items to Russian defence companies. Shagina states, “Clamping down on export control violations, their perpetrators, and financial enablers is a key way to ensure that Ukraine breaks through the current deadlock on the battlefield.”
Russian propaganda has transitioned from “denazification” to fighting the West. Mikhail Zygar (Foreign Affairs) argues that Russia adjusts its propaganda narratives in line with the changing situation on the battlefield. The defeat in the battle of Kyiv at the hands of Ukrainians was too humiliating for Russian propagandists, so the narrative of the fight against the Ukrainian Nazis was turned into a proxy war between Russia and NATO/US. This propaganda cliché has harmoniously entered the minds of Russians who heard a similar thesis throughout the Cold War. However, there are significant differences between the propaganda narrative of that time and the current one: “During the Soviet years, Russian propaganda insisted that the Soviet Union was fighting for world peace and that the Americans were warmongers. Soviet propagandists claimed that their country was just and prosperous, whereas the West was guilty of apartheid, racism, and human rights violations. Today, the propaganda in Russia is completely different: no one pretends that one side is any better than the other.” The core of modern Russian propaganda is “whataboutism”—a response to any criticism by pointing to the alleged malice of the other party. For example: “it’s not Russia that attacked Ukraine but the United States that provoked the conflict and dragged both sides into it.” According to Zygar, with the change in narratives, the audiences have also changed: Putin has refocused his messages from the domestic Russian audience to the outside world in search of potential allies to confront the West. Russian “whataboutism” has gained popularity not only at home but also in other autocratic states that seek to revise the world order. According to the author, “it is the Kremlin’s accusations of Western hypocrisy that are having a potent effect around the world.”
Pyrrhic efforts in Russia’s advances in Donetsk Oblast’s Avdiivka. Patrick Drennan (Foreign Affairs) highlights the multifaceted motivations and consequences of Putin’s military actions in Avdiivka, a town in Donetsk oblast, about 41 miles from Kramatorsk. Drennan identifies several of those goals, including (1) promoting his presidential re-election in March 2024 by replicating the domestic support he gained after the annexation of Crimea in 2014—when his approval rate hit 85 percent; (2) holding on to Crimea despite claims of “protecting the Russian speakers of Luhansk and Donetsk.” According to the author, it became a priority after “Ukraine has made some small advances in the south that may threaten Crimea or at least put it in range of its main missile systems”; (3) avoiding conscripting men from his urban power bases, employing various tactics such as pressuring Central Asian immigrants, coercing Ukrainian POWs, and forcing citizens in occupied territories to join the Russian army. Drennan argues that while Russia may achieve short-term victories in its military actions, particularly the potential capture of Avdiivka, these victories come at a significant cost and create a potentially pyrrhic victory for President Putin. The sacrifices made by Russia’s ethnic minorities, especially those from the Caucasus and Siberia, may lead to questioning and discontent among these groups: “The angry Muslim “flash-mob” that stormed Makhachkala airport in Dagestan on October 29 should be a warning to Moscow, even if their intentions were anti-semitic rather than anti-government,” Drennan writes. “In the short term, as long as Putin achieves his goals and retains power in Russia, he doesn’t care.”
The West must persist in its support for Ukraine in countering Russia’s aggression. Anne Applebaum (The Atlantic) argues that the allied effort against Russia in Ukraine has damaged Moscow’s ability to project negative power in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, however, “Putin still believes (…) If he can’t win on the battlefield, he will win using political intrigue and economic pressure.” The Russian president is placing his strategic bets on Republicans who echo Russian propaganda, including Senator J. D. Vance, who is expressing concerns about the war in Ukraine leading to a “global disorder” and further “escalation.” Representative Matt Gaetz, who referred to a Chinese state media source as evidence during a congressional hearing while questioning alleged Ukrainian neo-Nazis. Additionally, GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who went so far as to label Ukraine’s Jewish President Volodymyr Zelensky a Nazi. With Ukraine’s slow land counteroffensive, talk has renewed in the West of a truce or a cease-fire, Applebaum indicates, noting that even if Zelensky expresses willingness to engage in negotiations, there is no indication that Putin is inclined to negotiate, halt the fighting, or has ever entertained the idea of doing so. Applebaum reminds readers that Putin’s objective remains unchanged: the complete destruction of Ukraine and encompassing the entirety of the country, as articulated by his allies and propagandists who discuss plans for further imperial expansion. Recently, she writes, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president, issued an extensive 8,000-word article branding Poland as Russia’s “historical enemy” and threatening Poles with the potential loss of their state. “The message was perfectly clear: We invaded Poland before, and we can do it again.” The potential conquest of Ukraine by Putin could have far-reaching consequences, empowering allies like Iran, Venezuela, and Syria. It might also embolden China to consider invading Taiwan, leading to a transformed Europe, where countries like Poland, the Baltic states, and even Germany face persistent physical threats. This scenario poses significant challenges to trade and prosperity, envisioning a Europe perpetually at risk of conflict, a possibility that seems implausible to Western observers but appears plausible to the Russian president. “By learning how to fight Russia, a sophisticated autocracy with global ambitions, we will be better prepared for later, larger conflicts, if there is ever a broader struggle with China or Iran,” Applebaum concludes. “More important, by defeating Russia, we might be able to stop those larger conflicts before they begin.”
Amid strategic challenges, Ukraine needs sustained, urgent support. Max Boot (Washington Post) highlights the challenges of offensive warfare in the digital age, emphasizing the difficulties faced by Russia during its invasion of Ukraine: “Russian troops have been mauled in ‘meat grinder’ attacks while barely advancing,” and the prevalence of drones and precision-guided munitions has made advancing without detection nearly impossible. At the same time, despite initial successes in Ukrainian counteroffensives, particularly in reclaiming seized territory in 2022, recent efforts have not achieved the anticipated breakthrough. The blame game between Ukrainian and U.S. officials reveals dissatisfaction with the execution of NATO-style combined-arms offensives by Ukraine and a perceived lack of support from the West. “U.S. troops would never attack entrenched positions without air superiority, yet the Pentagon expected Ukrainian troops to do just that,” according to Boot. “And the Biden administration did not send M1 Abrams tanks and Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) to Ukraine until this fall — too late to influence the summer counteroffensive.” The author reminds readers that “the war-weary Ukrainians have no choice but to continue fighting if they are to save their nation from being occupied by war criminals who commit heinous atrocities against innocent civilians”; and the West has no choice but to continue backing Kyiv. The United States faces a critical strategic imperative: the substantial losses inflicted by Ukrainian troops on the Russian armed forces are expected to diminish Russia’s threat to its NATO neighbours over an extended period. While many Americans express fatigue about the ongoing conflict, the reality is that American commitment to supporting Ukraine constitutes less than 1% (0.65 ) of the federal budget. In contrast, Ukrainians are risking their lives in the struggle. “If our support for Ukraine falters, then Putin could still emerge as the winner in his war of aggression—with frightening consequences for the entire world.”