Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

Ukraine: Putin’s Mixed Messages

Two years already! And how much longer? This is what comes to mind as the war in Ukraine enters its third year with no prospect of an end in sight.

Because war is a matter of here-and-now one shouldn’t expect those who fight it to think of its aftermath. Belligerents who do so often end up losing the war. In the current war the stakes are so high that imagining an end of it in terms of winner-and-loser is mind-boggling.

If Russia wins, which means defeating NATO, it would be elevated to the position of top dog not only in Europe but on the global stage.

On the other hand, if Russia loses the defeat could unleash a process that could end up dismantling the rump version of the Tsarist Empire which Lenin called “prison of nations.”

So, what to do?

I believe that Vladimir Putin is already thinking of a way out provided as, he has been saying on a number of occasions recently, his NATO adversaries accept a face-saving compromise.

To advance that idea he has introduced three themes.

The first is to redefine his “Special Military Operation” as a civil war by claiming that Ukrainians are authentic Russians stuck by a crisis of identity. In his recent soliloquy, resented as an interview with American TV star Tucker Carlson, he even claims that, when no longer able to fight, Ukrainian soldiers call on Russians not to fire at them because “Russians shouldn’t kill Russians.”

To hammer in that theme, Putin even rewrites the history of World War II. According to him all that Hitler wanted was to re-unite scattered “German” peoples. Thus, he annexed Austria amid massive support by Austrians. Next, he rescued oppressed Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia, again facing no resistance. The next step was to bring ethnic Germans in Danzig under the flag of the “fatherland”, something that could have been done peacefully had not Poland, encouraged by the British and the French, decided to keep.

Needless to say, Putin’s revisionist narrative is full of holes. If we take it as a yardstick for using the “civil war” label, one could also see the American War of Independence as an English civil war. The First World War, too, started as a civil war between two grandsons of Queen Victoria. More recently even the war in Indochina was a civil war involving three different chunks of the French colonial “possessions” there.

What matters, however, is Putin’s attempt at persuading the Ukrainians that even if they do not achieve full victory as President Volodymyr Zelensky keeps promising, they would not be humiliated by someone outside the family. Using logical jujitsu or sophistry if you like, we could also say that the same would apply if Russia were to lose the war with one group of “Russians” winning against another group of “Russians.”

The second theme that Putin advances in the same soliloquy is that he is chiefly concerned with “de-Nazification” of Ukraine. He then goes out of his way to suggest that Zelensky isn’t one of the Nazis and, in fact, was initially opposed by the Nazis.

Thus, if and when, the idea of a negotiated end to the war is accepted, Zelensky, far from being excluded, would be acceptable as a partner. And since Putin doesn’t name the “Nazis” it would be possible to reshuffle Zelensky’s entourage and claim that the “Nazis” have left.

The next theme that Putin is developing is that of Russia as an historic “defender of Christianity”.

He ignores the fact that Russians were a branch of the heathen Vikings from Scandinavia who moved towards the southeast while other branches moved west to British Isles, northern France and probably pre-Columbus America.

For centuries the “Rus” were ruled by pagan Swedish barons. The word Rus, the origin of Russian means “rough” or “peasant” in Swedish and other Indo-European languages. (Rustic in English, Rustique in French and Rustai in Persian.)

Starting from 900 AD and for centuries, the “rus” lived as nomads and mercenaries for surrounding powers and ended up converting to Christianity under Vladimir, a Swedish baron and future saint.

Interestingly, Putin starts Russia’s history with Ivan IV known as the Awe-Inspiring or Terrible (1547-1584) who defeated the Tatars and united the various Russian groups under one flag with a standing army (streltsy) and a secret police (oprichinki).

Putin’s subtext is that the West should see Russia as a defender of Christendom against a new Tataria which he does not openly identify but isn’t hard to guess who he means.

In other words, he wants to be the new Ivan, reuniting all “Russians” but not to fight the West. He even claims he asked President Bill Clinton to help Russia join NATO to protect the Western family against threats from the East, but was cold-shouldered.

Asked whether he could imagine a negotiated end to the war, Putin says “Yes” and then adds the easiest of his wishes to grant; “but not without de-Nazification.”

But, what about “occupied territories” in Dombas that Zelensky vows to liberate?

They could be granted a special form of autonomy under a joint administration composed of both pro-Kyiv and pro-Moscow figures, something like the system created in Northern Ireland which Sinn Fein now calls “North of Ireland”.

And Crimea? In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, it had a 40-year lease that allowed it effective control not only of its naval bases but a virtual monopoly on key decisions concerning the Peninsula.

Although Putin suffers from a huge credibility gap in NATO circles, a closer reading of his recent statements, including the wackiest about using nuclear weapons, could indicate deep worries about losing face which, if Russian history is an indication, could also mean losing one’s head.

The message that takes shape is that notwithstanding his braggadocios, Putin is looking for a face-saving way out of a war that he must know he cannot win in conventional terms. In this war, Ukraine, or NATO, cannot surrender and Russia cannot throw in the towel without a cataclysmic change in its domestic politics.

What if this war is no longer about Ukraine but what place Russia could and should have in the still chaotic process of reshaping a world order that no longer works?