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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchPutin’s Ukrainian War Is About Making Vladimir Great Again

Putin’s Ukrainian War Is About Making Vladimir Great Again

Author: Niall Ferguson

Affiliation: The Hoover Institution at Stanford University

Organization/Publisher: Bloomberg

Date/Place: January 2, 2022/USA

Type of Literature: Essay

Word Count: 3164 



Keywords: The Ukrainian Crisis, Vladimir Putin, Peter the Great, Evoking History and the Coming Not-So-Great Northern War



Despite the ongoing diplomatic active movements among the major powers regarding the existing Ukrainian crisis, the war is inevitably coming as long as President Putin is determined to wage war against Ukraine. The West will not have many options but to impose financial and economic sanctions on Russia. However, their cost will be higher for Europeans than Americans without being sufficient to deter Putin. This is what historian Niall Ferguson argues here, using a historical reading of the relationship nature between the Russians and the region, especially with Ukraine and its vicinity.

In the beginning, the author presents a set of arguments that support his perspective based on relevant Russian statements made by Putin, as well as Russia’s behavior during the past few years towards the United States and NATO. Last July, Putin published an article “On the Historical Unity of the Russians and Ukrainians,” in which he argued that Ukraine’s independence was “an unsustainable historical anomaly”, before which Russia had deployed 100,000 soldiers on the border with Ukraine, and Putin repeatedly spoke of “red lines”, the crossing of which would elicit an “asymmetric response.” In addition, Russia sought to impose certain demands on the United States and NATO through two draft security agreements, some of which were an attempt by Moscow to resuscitate defunct security arrangements it signed with Washington and NATO 25 years ago. Moscow demanded, for example, that NATO should not accept new members including Ukraine, Washington should not deploy nuclear weapons in Russia’s near abroad, and should not agree to cooperate militarily with post-Soviet countries, etc. All were tacit warnings from Putin. According to the author, it is not excluded that NATO will cancel the promise it made in 2008 to the membership of Ukraine and Georgia, and the US Congress will not allow White House to end its military cooperation with Ukraine even if Biden agreed. Responding to Russia’s demands together is like entering into a “New Yalta” agreement, which would effectively cede to Russia a sphere of influence stretching across the former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe, just as it did in the original Yalta Agreement of 1945. It is unlikely that Putin will make any concessions in return because he is preparing a justifiable reason for war, especially since he has recently openly expressed his lack of confidence in US guarantees regarding NATO expansion and considered the presence of offensive US weapons on “Russia’s doorstep” like Russia having such weapons in Canada or Mexico.

In a second part of the article, the author turns to history to explain Russia-Putin’s view of the Ukrainian question. Ferguson argues that Putin yearns not for Stalin’s Soviet era, as many Western commentators mistake, but for the rising Russian Empire under Peter the Great, who is considered Putin’s “favorite leader.” Ferguson briefly tells the story of Tsar Peter the Great’s victory in the Battle of Poltava (July 8, 1708) over the Kingdom of Sweden, which was the great power in Europe at the time under the leadership of King Charles XII. This historical incident remained a source of inspiration for all Russians, reminding them of the homeland’s fate and a sign of Russia’s rebirth and emergence. Today, Poltava is located in eastern Ukraine, not far from the disputed areas. So, the author believes that the victory in the territory that is now known as Ukraine is important for Russia’s rise as a great European power in the eyes of “Tsar Putin”.

The article then argues with Russia’s ability to wage war against Ukraine despite its modest economic capabilities compared to other countries. Its economy represents only 20% of the size of its American counterpart, and its GDP, for example, is less than South Korea’s. The history of World War II reminds us that there is no relationship between the large size of the country’s economy and its ability to be an aggressor. “You do not need to be Goliath to start a war.” Moreover, Putin would not need to fight a 1939-style war. A large-scale invasion of Ukrainian territory remains only one of his options, as he could launch an amphibious assault on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast or launch a campaign of precision missile strikes against key Ukrainian targets or seize additional territory in eastern Ukraine, or launch massive cyberattacks paralyzing Ukrainian communications and infrastructure, etc.

Finally, Ferguson provides his predictions of how the United States and the West would respond to Russia if it launched a war against Ukraine. In this case, Ukraine would not receive military support from the West, and Biden ruled out sending US forces and delayed the delivery of military aid to Kyiv for fear of provoking Putin. Washington is likely to resort to the method of imposing financial and economic sanctions that may amount to “isolating Russia completely from the global financial system.” It could mean, for example, canceling the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, imposing sanctions on Russia’s sovereign debt in the secondary market and state-owned banks, restricting currency transfers, restricting imports of Russian goods, isolating Russia from the “Swift” system and others. Such measures would seriously affect Russia, but would inevitably have negative indirect impacts on the West. Russia is aware of this issue and is betting on it. For instance, the sanctions imposed on “Nord Stream 2” will be relatively simple and will not affect Russia’s ability to generate gas revenues. Moscow has $620 billion in foreign exchange reserves and a debt-to-GDP ratio of just 18%. Therefore, it is in a good position to withstand secondary sovereign debt sanctions, and its gas constitutes 43% of the European gas supplied in a way that puts the European Union in a situation of constant weakness towards Russia. Putin appears to have a clear advantage over the West in this crisis, as Ferguson hints at.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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