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The Week In Russia: Putin's 'Snarling Revanche'

Rescuers work at the site of a residential building heavily damaged by a Russian missile strike in the city of Uman, Cherkasy region, Ukraine, on April 28.
Rescuers work at the site of a residential building heavily damaged by a Russian missile strike in the city of Uman, Cherkasy region, Ukraine, on April 28.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

Russian President Vladimir Putin decided on the large-scale invasion of Ukraine about a year before he launched it in late February 2022, and his main motives were personal, an investigative report released at a potentially crucial juncture in the devastating war concludes.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Resentment And Revenge

When pundits claim they know what Putin is thinking, there's often a justified backlash: We know what he says out loud, and we often have a good idea of why he said it and whether it's true or false, but to guess what's in his mind can be counterproductive.

But a new report about the run-up to the February 2022 invasion -- from factors that emerged two decades ago to the increasingly deafening drumbeat of war in the months before the onslaught -- sets out a stark conclusion in its very first sentence.

"Putin's motives for starting a war with Ukraine were personal resentment and a desire for revenge," it says.

The report by the Russian-language investigative outlet Vyorstka is based largely on conversations with former and current officials and other members of the political establishments in Russia and Ukraine, most of whom are cited anonymously.

Among its other key conclusions: Putin made the decision to invade Ukraine in February-March 2021, not earlier or later, so preparations were being made for almost a year. However, "all this time, the Kremlin was proceeding from inaccurate assumptions and calculations," the report says.

Almost anyone commenting for such a report may have their own motives for their remarks, of course: to deflect criticism, for example, or to assign blame to a person or group that is their rival for influence or standing in one of those establishments.

Beyond The Donbas

But it widens the scope of evidence about the factors that played into Putin's decision to launch the unprovoked invasion. And it points to the primacy of personal motives -- or, in some cases, geopolitical motives steeped heavily in animus, resentment, and spite -- over reasoned consideration of Russian security concerns.

"I struggle to imagine a moment of sober lucidity in Putin's decision-making between extended periods of snarling revanche," Brian Milakovsky, an analyst who spent several years in Ukraine's Donbas region amid the separatist war that Russia fomented there in 2014, wrote in an April 24 article.

The Vyorstka report suggests Putin's decision to launch the large-scale invasion nearly eight years later, massively escalating a conflict that had been limited to the Donbas, had much more to do with snarling revanche than with sober lucidity.

"Lots of interesting details in this piece, but one thing that's clear is Putin's decision to invade was driven much more by personal grievances and historical delusions than 'NATO expansion,'" Seva Gunitsky, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, wrote on Twitter of the journalistic investigation.

He was referring to Putin's frequent, sometimes fiery criticism of the enlargement of NATO, which has taken in 15 Central and Eastern European countries seeking improved security and protection from potential Russian threats in the years since the Soviet collapse in 1991, and to Moscow's stated concerns that Ukraine would pose a threat to Russia if it joined the alliance.

The Vyorstka report also adds to evidence that a list of sweeping proposals made in draft agreements Russia sent to the United States and NATO in December 2021 were, as many in the West suspected, not a genuine effort at diplomacy but a ploy to create grounds to blame Kyiv and the West for an invasion that Putin had already decided to unleash.

The proposals -- which looked more like demands and were sometimes described that way by Russian officials -- called for a substantial rollback of the results of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism in the countries to its west, leaving them more vulnerable while sharply increasing Moscow's power to shape the fate of nations in the region and beyond.

Revising History

In addition to barring Ukraine, Georgia, and other countries in the region from joining NATO, the proposed agreements would have prohibited NATO military deployments beyond the borders of the alliance as of 1997 -- before any of the former Warsaw Pact nations or the Baltic states became members.

One of the mantras of Putin's Russia is "indivisible security," the notion that one country should not increase its own security at the expense of another country's security. But the proposals Moscow laid out before the United States and NATO would have done just that to a swath of nations from the Baltics to the Black Sea, many analysts say.

Furthermore, the investigation casts additional light on steps, statements, and signals by Putin in the year or two before the invasion that caused alarm at the time, but only a limited amount of alarm: In the weeks and even days before the invasion on February 24, 2022, many observers clung to the belief, or at least the hope, that he would not go ahead with it.

Before the massive military buildup in the fall of 2021 but after an initial buildup that spring had raised concerns about Putin's intentions, those signals included several spoken and written remarks in which he sought to cast doubt on Ukraine's legitimacy as a sovereign state and suggest it has no right to independence.

This included a July 12, 2021, article about Ukraine and Russia that one commentator called "tortured" and another described as "over the top," "off the rails," and "completely deranged."

Analysts disagreed about what it meant: Was it a disturbing, ill-mannered, and historically inaccurate but ultimately unimportant reflection of Putin's psyche and his "fixation" on Ukraine? Or was it a "final ultimatum to Ukraine," as political observer Mikhail Rostovsky put it?

"I would draw your attention to one very important detail that is buried in the text and is of fundamental importance," said Aleksei Venediktov, then editor in chief of the Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy. "Putin lays out territorial pretensions to Ukraine."

Those who read it as a concrete threat turned out to be right, even if they were reading between the lines: According to Vyorstka, Putin had wanted to include a more specific threat to Ukraine in the article but was talked out of it by associates -- something that certainly did not happen when it came to the invasion itself.

A Clouded Future

As has been widely reported in the 14 months since the assault began, Vyorstka concluded that Putin made the decision without seeking advice from anyone beyond a handful of cronies -- a big part of the reason it has, given that the apparent goal was to swiftly subjugate Ukraine, been a spectacular failure so far.

The Russian invasion has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians, driven millions from their homes, and destroyed cities, towns, and villages across parts of the country where Putin has falsely claimed he is trying to protect residents. Instead, Russia is killing them.

Russian soldiers stand accused of widespread atrocities against civilians in Ukraine, and the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin last month on suspicion of war crimes over the illegal transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia.

Putin signed a decree this week that allows occupying forces to "deport" Ukrainians from Russian-controlled areas if they refuse to accept Russian citizenship, prompting additional accusations of war crimes.

Putin's decision to invade Ukraine has also led to the deaths or wounding of what Western estimates say are some 200,000 Russian soldiers and has darkly clouded his country's future, prompting hundreds of thousands of people to flee and worsening living standards for millions who remain.

In recent years, Russia's "decision-making became utterly subsumed to the personalistic, paranoid, (a)historically obsessed vision of one man, Vladimir Putin," Milakovsky wrote.

The Vyorstka report comes ahead of a potentially crucial juncture in the war as Ukraine prepares for what officials have signaled could be a major counteroffensive against Russian troops who hold large swaths of territory in the east and south including Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Moscow occupied in 2014.

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).

The next edition of The Week In Russia will be issued on May 12.


Steve Gutterman

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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About This Newsletter

Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

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