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What makes Vlad tick?
Is Putin a monster, or something more predictable?
There are moments in history when the world waits on the decisions of one person. Such a time was the period between the election of Abraham Lincoln and his inauguration. During those four months seven Southern states seceded from the Union, and the world waited to see what Lincoln would do about it.
The present is another such moment. Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, and the fighting there rages. How far will he go? What does he want in Ukraine, and what are his aims beyond Ukraine? The world waits to learn.
If Lincoln had declined to resist secession by force, there would have been no Civil War. Northern opposition to secession was inchoate; many Northerners wished good riddance to the ungrateful wretches of the South. During the first year of the war, and at several points after that, Lincoln could have ended the conflict with little more than a word. His was the will that put and kept Union soldiers in the field.
If Putin had withheld the order to invade Ukraine, there would have been no war there. The Russian people have not been shouting to reclaim Ukraine for a revived Russian empire. Now that the war has begun, Putin could end it any day. His was the decision for war, and with him the decision remains.
So what caused Lincoln to choose war? And what caused Putin to do the same?
For the first year and a half of the Civil War, Lincoln rested his case for belligerence entirely on the preservation of the Union. He denied the constitutional right of the South to secede, and he judged it his constitutional duty to keep the South from seceding.
Putin’s stated justification isn’t hugely different from Lincoln’s. Putin denies the validity of Ukrainian nationhood, contending that the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union by which Ukraine became independent was a historical aberration permitted by weak and shortsighted leaders. Putin is 69 years old; for most of his life Ukraine was an integral part of the Russian sphere. He might well imagine that if he had been in power in 1991 he would have prevented Ukrainian secession, just as Lincoln prevented Southern secession.
To put the matter differently, suppose Lincoln had not resisted secession, and the Confederate States of America had become a going concern. Would that have precluded all subsequent presidents from taking action to reunite the broken country?
In point of historical fact, that is what Lincoln himself did. James Buchanan did not contest secession, and the Confederacy came into existence. Lincoln reversed Buchanan’s policy and started a war to bring back the wayward states. Would it have made a difference if the delay had been four years rather than four months? Or thirty years, as is the case between Russia and Ukraine?
The purpose of this mental exercise is not to make a Lincoln of Putin. Lincoln revered the rule of law in a way Putin cannot even comprehend.
The purpose, rather, is to understand what makes Putin tick. It’s tempting to cast him as a monster, another Hitler. Perhaps he will prove to be just that. But Putin’s goal of restoring Russian control in a region ruled for centuries from Moscow doesn’t require him to be a monster. For that, it would suffice for him simply to be as committed to Russian strategic interests as Lincoln was to the interests of the United States.
It might be objected that Putin is trampling on the right of Ukrainians to have their own government. True enough. But so was Lincoln trampling on the right of Virginians and Georgians and the other Confederates to have their own governments.
Lincoln acknowledged this. He denied the constitutional right of Southerners to secede, yet he didn’t deny their natural right to make a revolution on behalf of their independence. This was the right under which American Revolution had been fought against Britain. The catch was that revolutionaries have to win their revolution in order to enjoy their right. The Confederates had to defeat Lincoln and the Union army.
Does Putin have an insatiable lust for power? Will he stop only when defeated by force? Again, maybe. His actions so far are consistent with such conclusions. But, again, he’s not acting much differently than the leader of almost any great power would be expected to act. The first principle of power is to defend itself: to resist loss of power and to attempt to recoup power lately lost.
Is there a statute of limitations on recovering lost power? The Confederacy was lost to Lincoln and the Union for a period of years; Lincoln didn’t retain the South, but had to regain it. Not until four years after the war began was he able to walk the streets of Richmond, scarcely a hundred miles from Washington.
Putin concedes no statute of limitations in the case of Ukraine. Most of the world takes a different view. And rightly so. There is a very good reason for statutes of limitations; without them, old grudges would never be buried and ancient conflicts never resolved. At some point the heirs of those who have been injured simply have to move on.
But persuading them to do so isn’t easy. Many Palestinians don’t want to acknowledge they’re never going to get back land their grandfathers lost to Israel in 1948. Some Cubans still hope to recover property confiscated by Castro in the early 1960s. Xi Jinping certainly isn’t willing to surrender China’s claims to Taiwan, a territory it lost in the 1890s.
The irredentists have reason to believe history will treat them well. Lincoln is judged the greatest president in American history for restoring the Union, which had the side effect of ending slavery. Garibaldi, for whom the irredentist label was created, became a father of modern Italy by restoring Italian lands to Italian rule. China’s Xi knows that whoever recovers Taiwan will be ranked among the greatest of Chinese leaders. Putin, if he pulls off the project he has started, will become a modern Catherine the Great.
In this reckoning it matters little whether the restoration pleases those restored. In some cases, the more blood shed, the greater the victory. The American Civil War was goriest conflict in the Western world between the Napoleonic wars and World War I. And still Lincoln is revered.
Yet nations sometimes do reconcile themselves to loss. Two centuries after losing its North American colonies, Britain surrendered the raj in India without much fuss. Mexicans resented the seizure of the northern half of their country by the United States in the 1840s, but no politicians in Mexico today campaign on reclaiming California.
The question for the world right now is whether and when Vladimir Putin will conclude that the Russian empire of the era before 1991 is not coming back. As long as he, or whoever comes after him in Moscow, thinks it might, Ukraine and other countries spun off from that empire will be at risk. And the world will continue to wait on their decisions.