The Two Blunders That Caused the Ukraine War - article for the Wall Street Journal - 04.03.22

Robert Service, a leading historian of Russia, says Moscow will win the war but will lose the peace and fail to subjugate Ukraine. How Putin could be deposed.

By Tunku Varadarajan for the Wall Street Journal - March 4, 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine resulted from two immense strategic blunders, Robert Service says.

The first came on Nov. 10, when the U.S. and Ukraine signed a Charter on Strategic Partnership, which asserted America’s support for Kyiv’s right to pursue membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The pact made it likelier than ever that Ukraine would eventually join NATO—an intolerable prospect for Vladimir Putin. “It was the last straw,” Mr. Service says. Preparations immediately began for Russia’s so-called special military operation in Ukraine.

Mr. Service, 74, is a veteran historian of Russia, a professor emeritus at St. Antony’s College, Oxford and a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. He has written biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. The last work, published in 2009, attracted the ire of die-hard Trotskyites world-wide for saying that their hero shared many basic ideas with Lenin and Stalin on the “one-party, one ideology terror state.” Mr. Service says they still “mess around” his Wikipedia entry.

The November agreement added heft to looser assurances Ukraine received at a NATO summit five months earlier that membership would be open to the country if it met the alliance’s criteria. Mr. Service characterizes these moves as “shambolic mismanagement” by the West, which offered Ukraine encouragement on the NATO question but gave no apparent thought to how such a tectonic move away from Moscow would go down with Mr. Putin. “Nothing was done to prepare the Ukrainians for the kind of negative response that they would get.”

After all, Mr. Service says, Ukraine is “one of the hot spots in the mental universe of Vladimir Putin, and you don’t wander into it without a clear idea of what you’re going to do next.” The West has known that since at least 2007, when the Russian ruler made a speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy that was, in Mr. Service’s words, “a rage against Ukraine ever joining NATO.” He was about to step down from the Russian presidency (to become prime minister for four years), “so it was his last lion’s roar in the jungle.”

When he returned as president in 2012, he made it clear again that “the Ukraine-NATO question wasn’t negotiable.”

In July 2021 he wrote an essay that foretold the invasion. Mr. Service sums it up as saying, “more or less, that Ukrainians and Russians are one people.” Mr. Putin had said so many times before, “but not as angrily and punchily—and emotionally.”

It rankles Mr. Putin that Ukraine would seek to join the West—and not merely because he wants it as a satellite state. He also “can’t afford to allow life to a neighboring Slav state which has even a smidgen of democratic development. His Russian people might get dangerous ideas.”

As a result of the invasion, which began on Feb. 24, “the U.S. has started to get its act together,” Mr. Service says. “But I don’t think American diplomacy covered itself in glory in 2021.”

The second strategic error was Mr. Putin’s underestimation of his rivals. “He despises the West and what he sees as Western decadence,” Mr. Service says. “He had come to believe that the West was a shambles, both politically and culturally.” He also thought that the leaders of the West were “of poor quality, and inexperienced, in comparison with himself. After all, he’s been in power 20 years.”

In Mr. Putin’s cocksure reckoning, the invasion was going to be “a pushover—not just in regard to Ukraine, but in regard to the West.” He’d spent four years “running rings around Donald Trump, ” and he thought the retirement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel left the West rudderless.

That set the scene for the “surprise he got when he invaded Ukraine, when he found that he’d inadvertently united the West—that what he’d done was the very opposite of what he wanted.” Mr. Service calls Mr. Putin “reckless and mediocre” and scoffs at the notion that he is “some sort of genius.” What kind of Russian leader, he asks, “makes it impossible for a German leader not to build up Germany’s armaments”?

Mr. Putin evidently “hoped there wouldn’t have to be a war” because the massing of troops on the border would lead to the collapse of the Ukrainian government. He underestimated Volodymyr Zelensky, whom he’d met in Paris in December 2019, six months after the Ukrainian president took office. Mr. Putin had “done his usual brutal discussion performance with him. Zelensky came out of these talks obviously shaken.”

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Robert Service, a leading historian of Russia

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