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Matrix of War: Russian Elites Unlikely to Split from Putin Despite War Losses & Western Sanctions

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Russians are weathering the fallout of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with no sign of a negotiated peace deal soon. Economic sanctions have driven up food prices, and there has been repression of political dissent within the country. We speak with author Tony Wood, a member of the New Left Review editorial board, who says the crushing Western sanctions are unlikely to end Putin’s rule and are only hardening attitudes. “The Russian elite has already been fully consolidated around Putin since 2014, if not before,” he says. “These sanctions are not going to split them off.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we turn now to Russia to look at the impact there of President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, now in its eighth week.

On Wednesday, the U.S. launched another round of sanctions against Russia. The U.S. State Department is reportedly considering whether to recognize Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.

As the Russian military pushes for a victory in eastern and southern Ukraine, Putin has made repeated warnings to the U.S. and other countries about supplying Ukraine’s army with weapons. On Wednesday, he appeared on Russian television to announce the launch of a new intercontinental ballistic missile system capable of delivering nuclear warheads around the world.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] This truly unique weapon will strengthen the combat potential of our Armed Forces, reliably ensure Russia’s security from external threats and provide food for thought for those who, in the heat of frenzied, aggressive rhetoric, try to threaten our country.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as thousands of Russians are reportedly fleeing the country amidst the Kremlin’s crackdown on protests against the war in Ukraine, and on independent media outlets following the passage of a new law that prohibits the, quote, “discrediting the Russian Armed Forces.”

For more, we’re joined by Tony Wood, member of the editorial board of the New Left Review, where his recent piece is headlined “Matrix of War” and looks at how the present conflict developed, the possible scenarios that lie ahead, author of Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War.

Tony Wood, welcome back to Democracy Now! This invasion has been a catastrophe for Ukraine. You also, though, point out that this has been suicidal for Russia. You were shocked by what Putin did. Can you talk about why you believe he did it and the response of the Russian people?

TONY WOOD: Mm-hmm, yeah. Thanks for having me back on the show, Amy. And you’re absolutely right. The main focus here is the catastrophe that this war has been for the Ukrainian people.

In terms of why Putin decided to launch this invasion, it did catch certainly many analysts off guard. I think it’s partly the scale of it, the level of aggression, but also the initial war aims, which involved seemingly toppling the Ukrainian government and installing a puppet regime — right? — decapitating the Zelensky government, and the so-called denazification, which I’m sure previous guests have talked about, but this idea that Ukraine is ruled by a far-right junta — this is the word they use in Russian state media — and so this needed to be overthrown. And this was just, frankly, a delusional set of war aims.

And so, the question here is: Was there just such a catastrophic intelligence failure in the Russian leadership that they thought they could pull this off? And here it bears repeating that, you know, in 2004, the Russian-backed candidate rigged an election in Ukraine, and that was the source of popular protests, and that resulted in fresh, more transparent elections that produced a pro-Western leader. So, just to bear in mind, 16 years ago, Russia couldn’t help rig an election in Ukraine, and here we are in 2022 with the Russian government seemingly thinking they can impose a puppet government. So, the shock was not just the fact of the war itself but the scope and the character of these, frankly, delusional war aims.

What we’re seeing now with the turn of Russian forces to the Donbas and to a much more conventional land war in the Donbas is much more like the war that has already been happening in Ukraine since 2014, but on a much larger scale and a much more destructive scale. And that looks much more — sadly, much more like what one might have expected from the troop buildup in early parts of this year.

In terms of the motivations for launching it, I think there’s a complex of different things here. There’s a layering of thinking in the Russian elite. And I should say it’s not just Putin who thinks this. I think this kind of thinking is quite widespread. There is the issue of NATO expansion, and we can talk a bit more about the nature of that in Russian calculations. But there is also just the fact of Ukrainian sovereignty that the Russian leadership — again, not just Putin — has found very hard to digest and to respect. And that is something they’re keen to curtail, to limit. And the fact that a sovereign Ukraine might choose to lean in a Western direction and join the EU is something that Russian strategic calculations can’t allow. But the timing is also somewhat mysterious, because I don’t think — again, there was so much to be lost from the Russian end alone, actually. There was so much to be lost by carrying out this act of aggression, and so little to be gained, that something about it still doesn’t really hold together rationally, I think.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Tony, you’ve said that in the last decade or so, the internal divisions within Ukraine have been turned into a zero-sum battle between rival geopolitical interests. Could you explain what you mean by that?

TONY WOOD: Certainly, yeah. I mean, broadly speaking, since Ukraine gained independence in the early 1990s, it has tried to kind of balance between two rival power blocs on either side. And one is — one was Russia, and one was a combination of NATO and the EU. Both of these projects — the Russian project was very much weaker, in crisis, that had really nothing to offer in the 1990s. After the 2000s, there was more economic growth in Russia, and Russia had more of an ambition to reassert its influence in neighboring states, what it called the near abroad. And by the 2010s, Russia had a kind of regional economic integration project, the Eurasian Union, so-called. And it wanted Ukraine to be a key element in that broader regional economic strategy, if you like, a kind of power bloc against the EU.

On the other side, you have, obviously, the EU, as I just mentioned, which is a sort of very large-scale — not just an economic project, actually. It does involve fairly profound reengineering of societies, of their legal structures, their regulatory regimes. And also, incidentally, this is often forgotten, but the EU integration process does involve a military component, and it does involve coordination of militaries. On top of that, you have NATO, which is obviously the U.S.-led European security architecture. And a lot of Eastern European states in the 1990s tilted in the direction of NATO as seeking security guarantees.

For a time in the 1990s and early 2000s, Ukraine could really balance between these two and was not forced into a choice between them. It was constitutionally neutral. It was not allowed to have military — foreign military bases on its territory. And that was an arrangement that broadly worked. But increasingly, after the 2000s, I would say, and certainly in the 2010s, this became a zero-sum choice, that you couldn’t actually balance between these two. You had to actually choose between the two. EU integration was not compatible with continued economic ties on the same scale as before with Russia. And certainly, you couldn’t choose to balance between these two security architectures, as far as a section of the Ukrainian elite was concerned. There was a risk in maintaining neutral status, and so they plunked very hard for NATO membership.

But I should say that, until relatively recently, NATO membership did not have majority support in the Ukrainian population. So, just to echo what your previous guest Denis Pilash said, that, actually, you know, Putin has really been the best recruiting sergeant for NATO, not just in Ukraine but in Eastern Europe as a whole.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And do you think, Tony, that fact also corroborates what our previous guest Denis said, namely, that NATO was simply a pretext for this war, and other observers who have suggested that this is kind of — that the scale and, really, irrationality, as you’ve said, of the Russian invasion is simply the last gasp of a collapsing empire?

TONY WOOD: I think, certainly, it’s an important pretext. But I think, in a way, you know, there’s an effort here to kind of separate out NATO from what is happening, in order to describe Russian actions purely from the Russian side. And I think that’s — unfortunately, that’s not how geopolitics works. These things — you know, Russia’s act of aggression is very much its own responsibility, and it will have to bear that criminal responsibility for decades to come. But these decisions are not made in a vacuum. And so, the question of NATO expansion is necessarily part of this context.

In terms of assigning blame, obviously, it’s very clearly the blame lies with Russia for this act of aggression. But I think we can’t extract NATO from understanding the conflict, the buildup to the conflict. And the analogy I often make here is with World War I, that, actually, you know, in a very narrow sense, Germany invaded Belgium, and that was the cause of the war. But if we extract all of the great power rivalries that led up to World War I, all of the arms buildup, all of the tensions over the Balkans or all of that stuff — if we extract that from our understanding of World War I, we have zero understanding of how it actually took place. So I think NATO does need to be factored in here.

And I think, you know, the question there, in a sense, it’s unanswerable. If people are so sort of clear that NATO was just a pretext and it didn’t have any real bearing on how this conflict came about, then the question really becomes: Why was NATO expansion so unquestionably necessary? Why was it necessary to overturn Ukraine’s neutral status? I mean, I think NATO is definitely relevant to this because it supplied a pretext for Russia, if you like. Why create that pretext? Why not remove the pretext, and then you can have a different set of conversations about Russian imperialism and Russian power projection in the near abroad?

AMY GOODMAN: Your book, Tony Wood, is Russia Without Putin. Do you think this invasion could lead to that? And you’ve described what could happen next as this just long war of attrition. What about the alternative? What do you think could be a ceasefire, an outcome, in terms of Ukraine preserving its territorial integrity? What will happen in the Donbas and Crimea, as well?

TONY WOOD: Mm-hmm, yeah. I guess those are two very large and complex questions, but I’ll try and get to them as quickly as I can. I mean, in terms of the future scenarios, I think that, unfortunately, a war of attrition of some kind — I mean, again, very much different from World War I in this sense, because of the sheer destructive power available, certainly to the Russian army. I think something like that is likely in the coming weeks. I think it’s — and the problem here is that wars have a tendency to create their own dynamics and perpetuate themselves. And at a certain point, it becomes — and especially after the atrocities that you were discussing earlier in the show, it’s going to become very hard within Ukraine to make a moral case for peace. I think, understandably, people are not going to be ready to make any kind of negotiations, let alone any concessions to Russia at this point. And it becomes very difficult to see the off-ramp from either side. So, you know, initially, there were these negotiations that seemed to lay out the terms of a potential settlement. And I think that has now shifted.

One of the reasons for that, I think, is that, in a way, the severity and the cohorted nature of the Western, U.S.-led response to Russia — the scale of the sanctions, the economic impact on Russia — has really backed the Russian elite into a corner here, where they really have nothing else to lose. I mean, the destructive impact on the Russian economy is already pretty severe. They’ve tried to shield themselves from it in whatever way they can. But really, they don’t have a massive incentive now not to pursue some kind of military victory, or something they can call a victory, before pursuing a peace settlement.

And I guess this gets back to your first question of what is the likely outcome in Russia. Sadly, I do not think a substantive change in the nature of the Russian regime is likely. And I think this partly gets back to the nature of sanctions in general — certainly, these sanctions, but, I think, sanctions in general. They don’t really work. They have often the reverse effect to that intended. They will often consolidate a national population around the leadership on patriotic grounds. And that’s certainly what’s been happening in Russia, thanks to official media. But, very importantly, they also consolidate the elite around the leadership. This was already the case in 2014.

And I think there’s a misunderstanding here in the West of the impact of those sanctions. The idea that in 2022 you could impose sanctions that would somehow split the Russian elite from Putin and lead to a palace coup, this is really false. The Russian elite has already been fully consolidated around Putin since at least 2014, if not before, and so these sanctions are not going to split them off. They’re going to rally them even further.

And so, I think that elite has much less of a reason to back down. And, you know, we see this in some reports of Russians who have fled the country in order to escape the climate of repression that’s building there. Several of them have had to go back to Russia, because the effect of the sanctions cuts them off from access to any of their finances. They can’t get jobs. I mean, all of these things that actually — in a way, what we’re seeing with the sanctions is kind of cutting off Russia from the rest of the world in a way that makes it much more likely that they will turn even further in a nationalist direction. And I think this is a trap. It’s very difficult to see what to do.

But my broader anxiety here is that in responding to the very immediate emergency of war, there is less of a focus on what could produce a peace. And I think that is going to be — my worry is that that becomes much harder to see as time goes on. And that’s why I think the war will continue, unfortunately.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Wood, we want to thank you for being with us, member of the editorial board of the New Left Review. We’ll link to your piece, “Matrix of War,” also author of Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War.

When we come back, we speak to a former resident of Donbas, in 30 seconds.

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