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The Morning Dispatch: For Russia, Why Now?
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The Morning Dispatch: For Russia, Why Now?

Vladimir Putin's dream of restoring the former Soviet sphere of influence has been a long time in the making.

Happy Wednesday! We thought Aaron Rodgers returning to the Packers on a four-year deal would be the worst sports-related news of the day. Then MLB owners and players failed to meet yet another deadline to reach a labor deal. We should be watching spring training games by now!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • After congressional leaders made clear in recent days they would force the administration’s hand, President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Tuesday formally banning the import of Russian crude oil, liquefied natural gas, and coal. “This is a step that we’re taking to inflict further pain on Putin,” Biden said. “But there will be costs as well here in the United States.” Crude oil prices increased about 4 percent on the day. 

  • With the ruble already down nearly 64 percent against the dollar since the beginning of the year, the Bank of Russia announced Wednesday it was restricting Russian citizens’ ability to buy foreign currencies and withdraw more than $10,000 in U.S. dollars through September 9. “Banks will not sell cash currency to citizens during the period of the temporary procedure,” the central bank said. “It will be possible to exchange cash currency for rubles at any time and in any volume.”

  • Four of the highest-profile Western holdouts thus far—McDonalds, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo—announced Tuesday they will suspend all operations in Russia in light of the country’s invasion of Ukraine. Amazon announced it would block new customers in Russia and Belarus from signing up for its Amazon Web Services cloud computing.

  • The Senate voted 79-19 on Tuesday to pass the Postal Service Reform Act, legislation championed by U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy that provides the U.S. Postal Service with more than $100 billion of financial relief and streamlines the agency’s retirement benefits.

  • Five intelligence community leaders testified before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday about the state of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. “I think Putin is angry and frustrated right now,” CIA Director William Burns told lawmakers. “He’s likely to double down and try to grind down the Ukrainian military with no regard for civilian casualties, … [but] he has no sustainable political endgame in the face of what is going to continue to be fierce resistance from Ukrainians.”

  • The Census Bureau reported yesterday the United States’ international trade deficit in goods and services reached a record high in January, increasing 9.4 percent month-over-month to $89.7 billion.

  • The New York Times announced on Tuesday it was moving its staff based in Russia out of the country in response to Moscow’s new law cracking down on independent media coverage. The BBC, meanwhile, reversed its decision earlier this week to suspend coverage in the country due to “the urgent need to report from inside Russia.”

Why Did Putin Do This Now?

(Photograph by Sergei Guneyev/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images.)

Because foreign policy developments tend to get filtered through the lens of domestic politics, and because we’re in an election year, many pundits and elected officials have focused their energy in recent weeks on coming up with theories explaining why their political opponents just so happen to be to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the seeds of this war were planted decades ago, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s delusions of grandeur were nurtured over the years by multiple administrations.

In a piece for the site today, Charlotte seeks to provide an answer to the question on everybody’s mind: How long has this war been brewing, and why did it happen now?

Putin’s rationale for military aggression changes depending on the context and his audience.

When building a defense for an external audience for his overt military aggression, Putin couches his actions in the language of national security concerns stemming from NATO “expansionism” and U.S. hegemony, among other things. But when addressing a domestic audience, he takes direct shots at Ukrainian statehood, making ahistorical appeals to the “Great Patriotic War” and a ginned-up threat of Nazism at Russia’s doorstep. 

But the Kremlin’s public pretexts all advance a similar end: to restore, at least in part, the former Soviet sphere of influence. Putin admitted as much in a 2005 speech before the State Duma, when he declared that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster [in which] tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.” More than 30 years after the socialist state’s defeat in the last century’s great power competition, Putin appears to be embarking on a costly mission to see its partial restoration within his lifetime.

In a 2007 speech at the annual Munich Security Conference, Putin offered the world an unobstructed look into what was to come.

After cautioning that his coming remarks might seem “unduly polemical, pointed, or inexact,” the Russian president launched into a full-throated tirade against American world order and the NATO alliance. 

“One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its

national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?” Putin asked the audience. “[NATO] represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: Against whom is this expansion intended?”

According to John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA and former head of its Russia operations, Putin has remained steadfast in this messaging ever since. “There’s three big things that Putin has always said and he’s been very consistent,” Sipher told The Dispatch. “He wants the U.S. out of Europe, he wants to destroy NATO, and he wants countries in Europe to be either subservient to him or vassals to Russia.”

The Bush administration’s decision to back Ukraine and Georgia for eventual NATO membership may have been strategically misguided.

“At the end of the day, we had to debate about whether they should get the membership action plan or not. And what the heads of state came up with was, in some ways, the worst of all worlds,” said Eric Edelman, the third-ranking civilian at the Pentagon under Bush and former ambassador to Finland and Turkey. “They said, we’re not going to give them the membership action plan, but someday they’ll be members of NATO. So they enraged Putin and in his mind created the notion of their NATO membership as an inevitability, but didn’t extend to them any kind of protection.”

While Edelman and other experts dismiss NATO’s alleged threat to Russia’s sovereignty as the product of Kremlin propaganda, the 2008 conference placed the two former Soviet republics firmly in the West’s camp—and seemingly out of the Kremlin’s grasp—without Article 5 security guarantees to provide for their immediate defense. Putin began his invasion of Georgia just a few months later, recognizing the Russian-backed breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and deploying Russian “peacekeepers” to force Tbilisi into an uneven political settlement.

Former President Barack Obama’s “Russia reset” and inability to adequately punish Putin for annexing Crimea reverberate to this day.

In 2014, halfway through Obama’s second term, Putin launched his first incursion into Ukraine after the Maidan Uprising deposed Kyiv’s Kremlin-backed president. Despite promises by the U.S. and allies to “isolate” Russia in retaliation for its occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea and push into eastern Ukraine, Obama and Putin met face-to-face that same year. Eventually, Moscow secured more one-sided diplomatic agreements—Minsk I and II—which sought to normalize the existence of two rebel states on sovereign Ukrainian territory, the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. All the while, Moscow continued to engage in negotiations that would eventually yield the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal. 

“[Putin] basically didn’t face any consequences. He got the Minsk agreements in 2014 and 2015, which Ukraine agreed to at the barrel of a gun,” said John Bolton, former national security adviser under Donald Trump. “If they had actually been implemented, he would’ve gotten a large part of what he wanted in Ukraine.”

The pattern of NATO appeasement established during the Obama era was followed by  alliance infighting under Trump, who frequently butted heads with European partners and moved to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Germany.

“Putin looked at what Trump was trying to do to NATO and figured: Why interfere when the NATO alliance is having such difficulty with the country that’s nominally its leader?” Bolton told The Dispatch.

And Trump’s domestic political objectives wore on his diplomatic relations with and military support for Kyiv. “[Putin] saw what happened with Trump and [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky and the summer of 2019, which had an extremely negative effect on the bilateral relationship,” Bolton added, referring to efforts by the former president to withhold $400 million in security assistance to the Ukrainian government until it launched an investigation into his domestic political adversaries. “Zelensky couldn’t have a conversation with Trump without hearing about Hillary Clinton’s server, and Hunter Biden’s income, and this and that and the other.”

And for all its lip service to repairing multilateral ties, the Biden administration also got off to a rocky start with NATO partners. 

Last spring, President Joe Biden waived sanctions on the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline—a conduit connecting Russian supply of natural gas to Germany—despite some European concerns that its completion would give Putin undue leverage over the continent’s energy supply. And in September, French officials described a U.S.-spearheaded security agreement with Britain and Australia, known as AUKUS, as a “stab in the back.” 

The Biden team also took up the Obama-era “pivot to Asia” in its earliest days in office, sometimes at the expense of military and diplomatic focus elsewhere. “As far as the Biden folks were concerned, it was all about China. The people who were brought into the administration … the strong voices, the strong bureaucratic players were the Indo-Pacific folks,” said Jim Townsend, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO, told The Dispatch. “We let our guard down in Europe and we didn’t take [Putin] seriously.”

While Bolton told The Dispatch that Beijing presents the “greatest threat we face in the 21st century,” he added that what happens in Europe will have direct bearing on Washington’s leverage in Asia. “You can’t ignore Ukraine. When Russia makes advances, let’s say in Europe, it strengthens China in the Indo-Pacific if it makes the U.S. look weaker. All of these things are related.”

Afghanistan is a good case study. In addition to creating friction among NATO allies, experts argue that Biden’s rapid and disastrous departure from Kabul projected vulnerability to Moscow. 

Retired U.S. Army General H.R. McMaster, former national security adviser to Trump from 2017 to 2018, described the debacle as the “most proximate cause” for Putin’s brazen attack on Ukraine during a recent briefing in Washington, D.C. “If you think of deterrence as an equation of capability times will, I believe our adversaries think our will is just about zero,” he said, adding that Moscow’s 2014 invasion of Crimea came after Obama’s unenforced “red line” in Syria, when President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons during the country’s civil war. 

“Putin was looking at the U.S. and saying, look, Biden pulled out of Afghanistan and gave it to the Taliban for the sake of 3,000 troops who weren’t even involved in combat,” said Bill Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital, adding that the withdrawal coincided with periods of domestic uncertainty within other member states. “[Olaf] Scholz is a new German chancellor and hasn’t found his feet. Boris Johnson was at the edge of losing power because of having parties in Downing Street. [French President Emmanuel] Macron is running an election. Putin thought that everybody was weak and undetermined.”

Worth Your Time

  • With yesterday’s Russian oil import ban likely to drive gas prices even higher, Kevin Williamson dings the Biden administration for what he sees as its shortsighted energy policy. The White House appears to be heading “in the direction of Venezuelan imports, replacing those forgone Russian imports (and maybe even adding a little more) to put downward pressure on the oil market without expanding U.S. drilling and production,” he writes for National Review. “We could spare ourselves some of these calculations by maximizing our own output—not only of crude oil and natural gas but also of refined-petroleum products. That would also mean building the necessary pipeline infrastructure and reforming our antiquated maritime regulations to enable the transportation of those fuels. Doing so would offer many benefits that ought to appeal to Democrats and Republicans alike: lower prices, more strategic and economic flexibility, and a bunch of high-paying jobs for people who are not software engineers, investment bankers, or lawyers. But with the exception of waiving the Jones Act, none of that is work that can be done by next Monday.”

  • In a “diary entry” published by American Purpose, Yakov—a 23-year-old art history student living in Kharkiv—details Russia’s assault on his city. “On March 2, Russian fascist troops and fighters bomb the city. They are trying to destroy the infrastructure, but they are also bombing residential areas,” he writes. “They are demolishing houses, smashing apartments. My friends and loved ones run out of their homes. Their apartments turn to ashes. People’s bodies turn to earth. It’s tears; it’s pain, incredible pain. No one would think that they could destroy Kharkiv, a cultural city, a city of students and scientists, the city where Repin was born, where Landau lived. If the war ends, can we forgive the Russians for it? No, we can’t. You can’t forgive. This is a genocide of the Ukrainian population, like the Holocaust during World War II. It is now genocide.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • For Tuesday’s Uphill, Haley spoke with Democratic Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia about congressional space policy. “NASA is half of 1 percent of GDP now, and wasn’t it 3 or 4 percent of GDP when we went to the moon?” he tells her. “We have the ability to pay for it. But then the second question, the more relevant question, is do we have the political will to pay for it?”

  • This week’s Sweep (🔒) makes heavy use of animal metaphors—lions, cheetahs, and otters, oh my!—to explain the differences between presidential, state, local, and ballot measure campaign operatives. “[Otters also] hunt,” Sarah writes. “But in a totally different place and in a completely different way. Plus they’re considered adorable and lovable and nobody hunts them for sport.”

  • David’s Tuesday’s French Press (🔒) argues the war in Ukraine is a blow to the nationalist, postliberal right. “When Russia invaded Ukraine, the American people responded with overwhelming solidarity with Ukraine,” he writes. “The very idea of sympathy for the Russian autocrat seemed bizarre. It seemed fringe. That’s because it is bizarre. It is fringe.”

  • Not able to tune into last night’s Dispatch Live? Or did you tune in but tune right back out after glitches in the first few minutes made it hard to tell what we were saying? Never fear! Dispatch members can access a recording of the conversation here. (And, while we are not yet implementing a “total and complete shutdown” of Dispatch Live while we investigate the cause of recent technical difficulties, be assured that we’re looking into the problems and will have them resolved soon.)

Let Us Know

We’ll pose a question here that was discussed on last night’s Live: If you were Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky, would you accept a potential ceasefire agreement that ceded the Donbas region to Putin and precluded Ukraine from ever joining NATO if it meant Ukraine kept its sovereignty and its current regime in place? Why or why not?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).