With his annexation of parts of Ukraine on Friday, Vladimir Putin has set in motion forces that are turning Russia into a giant North Korea. It will be a paranoid, angry, isolated state, but unlike North Korea, the Russian version will be spread over 11 time zones — from the Arctic Sea to the Black Sea and from the edge of free Europe to the edge of Alaska — with thousands of nuclear warheads.
I have known a Russia that was strong, menacing, but stable — called the Soviet Union. I have known a Russia that was hopeful, potentially transitioning to democracy under Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and even the younger Putin. I have known a Russia that was a “bad boy” under an older Putin, hacking America, poisoning opposition figures, but still a stable, reliable oil exporter and occasional security partner with the U.S. when we needed Moscow’s help in a pinch.
But none of us have ever known the Russia that a now desperate, back-against-the-wall Putin seems hellbent on delivering — a pariah Russia; a big, humiliated Russia; a Russia that has sent many of its most talented engineers, programmers and scientists fleeing through any exit they can find. This would be a Russia that has already lost so many trading partners that it can survive only as an oil and natural gas colony of China, a Russia that is a failed state, spewing out instability from every pore.
Such a Russia would not be just a geopolitical threat. It would be a human tragedy of mammoth proportions. Putin’s North Koreanization of Russia is turning a country that once gave the world some of its most renowned authors, composers, musicians and scientists into a nation more adept at making potato chips than microchips, more famous for its poisoned underwear than its haute couture and more focused on unlocking its underground reservoirs of gas and oil than on its aboveground reservoirs of human genius and creativity. The whole world is diminished by Putin’s diminishing of Russia.
But with Friday’s annexation, it’s hard to see any other outcome as long as Putin is in power. Why? Game theorist Thomas Schelling famously suggested that if you are playing chicken with another driver, the best way to win — the best way to get the other driver to swerve out of the way first — is if before the game starts you very conspicuously unscrew your steering wheel and throw it out the window. Message to the other driver: I’d love to get out of the way, but I can’t control my car anymore. You better swerve!
Trying to always outcrazy your opponent is a North Korean specialty. Now, Putin has adopted it, announcing with great fanfare that Russia is annexing four Ukrainian regions: Luhansk and Donetsk, the two Russian-backed regions where pro-Putin forces have been fighting Kyiv since 2014, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, which have been occupied since shortly after Putin’s invasion in February. In a grand hall of the Kremlin, Putin declared Friday that the residents of these four regions would become Russia’s citizens forever.
What is Putin up to? One can only speculate. Start with his domestic politics. Putin’s base is not the students at Moscow State University. His base is the right-wing nationalists, who have grown increasingly angry at Russia’s military humiliation in Ukraine. To hold their support, Putin may have felt the need to show that, with his reserve call-up and annexation, he is fighting a real war for Mother Russia, not just a vague special military operation.
However, this could also be Putin trying to maneuver a favorable negotiated settlement. I would not be surprised if he soon announces his willingness for a cease-fire — and a willingness to repair pipelines and resume gas shipments to any country ready to recognize Russia’s annexation.
Putin could then claim to his nationalist base that he got something for his war, even if it was hugely expensive, and now he’s content to stop. There is just one problem: Putin does not actually control all the territory he is annexing.
That means he can’t settle for any deal unless and until he’s driven the Ukrainians out of all the territory he now claims; otherwise he would be surrendering what he just made into sovereign Russian territory. This could be a very ominous development. Putin’s battered army does not seem capable of seizing more territory and, in fact, seems to be losing more by the day.
By claiming territory that he doesn’t fully control, I fear Putin is painting himself into a corner that he might one day feel he can escape only with a nuclear weapon.
In any event, Putin seems to be daring Kyiv and its Western allies to keep the war going into winter — when natural gas supplies in Europe will be constrained and prices could be astronomical — to recover…