Western armies will not defeat Russia because it treats its citizens as cannon fodder
French President Emmanuel Macron has spent years talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin about partnerships. In the summer of 2019, he even invited him to the Cote d’Azur to discuss building a “new architecture of security and trust between Russia and the EU.” Putin was confused, given that Macron had not bothered to coordinate this with his European counterparts in advance. “Do you think you will be able to convince them?” he asked Macron.
After Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last year, documentary filmmaker Guy Lagache asked Macron: “Did you think talks with Putin would lead to anything else?” “Yes,” replied the French president. “But it didn’t,” Lagash continued. “No,” Macron admitted.
In the film, he stares off into the distance, drinks water, then falls silent for a moment. “For a moment, Emmanuel Macron gave the impression that he finally understood what Vladimir Putin was like,” French journalist Sylvie Kaufmann described the scene in her recently published story Les aveuglés (“The Blinded”).
She analyzes why the West has misunderstood Putin. Kaufman toured Europe questioning former leaders and diplomats, unearthing long-buried controversies from international summits. One can finish her book feeling that yes, Western leaders have often been blind to Putin, writes Financial Times columnist Simon Cooper. And just like him, they treated the Eastern Europeans as second-hand countries that did not need to be consulted. But by favoring Russia from 2008 to 2022, Westerners also pursued their own interests. And they will probably do it again, the author believes.
Each Western country had its own incentive to misinterpret Putin. The French fantasized that they were a superpower, playing on an equal footing with others, not just following the US. Germany’s psychologically damaged embrace of Russia was steeped in guilt, greed and fear. The Germans, Kaufman recounts, felt they had to repay Russia (but not Ukraine, Belarus, etc.) for every Soviet soldier killed in World War II. And German industry craved cheap Russian energy. Economic interdependence had brought about friendship with France in the past; surely it would have worked with Russia too? German leaders imagined that, like them, Putin was pursuing economic rationality.
The US just didn’t care much. Of course, they were slapped when Putin invaded Georgia in 2008. During a debate earlier this year, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recalled a White House discussion in which “testosterone was in the air.” But she said, “We were not going to use American military force against the Russians.” This has always been the case. Little Georgia lacked military power. As did Ukraine in 2014. When Russia invaded Crimea, Kaufman writes, the Obama administration instructed Ukraine not to fight back. A large part of the Ukrainian army in Crimea defected to Russia. The defense minister fled to Crimea and accepted Russian citizenship. His successor told the Ukrainian president: “We don’t have an army.”
What changed between 2014 and 2022 was not Putin or the West, but Ukraine. She built a serious army. Only after standing up to Putin did surprised Western nations eventually do the same. Now the battle is for the territory between the two worlds. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova will either join the West or be re-colonized.
But however this unfolds, Western armies will not defeat Russia. The country has one crucial military advantage over the West and possibly even China: it treats its citizens like cannon fodder. The US has lost about 7,000 people over two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan and has given up fighting wars. The Russian army lost perhaps 120,000 people in the first 18 months of the war and didn’t even bother to bury many of them.
Young Germans, Americans, Brits and French will not go to die in frozen trenches to save Eastern Europe. Angela Merkel, the chancellor at the time of Germany’s addiction to Russian gas, operated on this presumption. Even her Eastern European critics admit that she really understood Putin. In a wonderful conversation recreated in Kaufman’s book, he tells her, “Listen, I’ll tell you the truth,” and she replies, “But Vladimir, I hope you always tell the truth.” “Everybody lies,” he retorts. “I lie, you lie, Emmanuel lies, even Zelensky would lie, that’s normal.” All Western leaders already know that Putin is lying. But when the time comes, they will try to force Zelensky to lay down his arms — let’s not call it peace — just as then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy forced Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili in 2008.
Since the West will not overthrow Putin, it will have to live with imperialist Russia. From 1945 to 1990, he learned that he could, even though he knew that Eastern Europe did not want it. When British soldier Fitzroy Maclean worried in 1942 that post-war Yugoslavia would become communist, Winston Churchill asked him: “Do you intend to live there after the war?” “No,” McLean says. “Nor do I,” says Churchill. Replace Yugoslavia with Ukraine and the West’s attitude becomes clearer: no longer blind, but only selfish, Kuper concludes.