Will Putin Get His World War III?

Vladimir Putin at the Olympic Opening ceremony
Photo by Anthony Wallace/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
February 22, 2022

Who would’ve thought that Vladimir Putin was so into numerology and anniversaries. On August 8, 2008—08/08/08—he invaded Georgia. Shortly after midnight in Moscow, on February 22, 2022—02/22/22—he sent troops (“peacekeepers,” in the Kremlin parlance) into the Donbas region of Ukraine after recognizing the independence of the two breakaway “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. It also marked the day, exactly eight years ago, that Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine (with Putin’s help) after ordering his troops to open fire on the protestors in Kyiv’s Maidan, killing over 100 people. 

That day in 2014 was a turning point. For Ukrainians, it was a day of celebration: what they called “the Revolution of Dignity” had triumphed. The old, corrupt, pro-Moscow regime was out and a new era of hope, good governance, and Westernization seemed to have dawned. (Not all these dreams would pan out, as corruption and political squabbling continued and even deepened.) 

For Putin, February 22, 2014 was a much darker day. He would forever after call what happened an “anti-government coup.” He saw it as a repeat of the Orange Revolution of 2004, another successful regime change in Kyiv, which, in his view, could only have been orchestrated by the C.I.A. and the State Department. Almost immediately after that day, Putin launched his first invasion of Ukraine. He sent “little green men”—Russian soldiers without any identifying insignia—into Crimea, whipped up some astroturf pro-Russia protests, held a quick and dirty “referendum,” and annexed the peninsula. At the same time, “volunteers” and Russian military personnel ostensibly on vacation from active duty started showing up in the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine, seizing government buildings and starting a separatist war. The conflict eventually led to separatists (with help from the FSB) accidentally shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 and killing all 298 civilians on board. Ever since, the two separatist republics, the LPR and DPR, have existed in a militarized limbo, cut off from Ukraine but not part of Russia and not recognized as real countries by anyone in the world.

Until Monday. After surrounding Ukraine on three sides with 150,000 Russian troops and playing diplomatic cat-and-mouse with the West for two months, and after three days of non-stop false flag attacks meant to justify Russian intervention, Putin officially recognized the independence of the two breakaway republics that he himself had broken away from Ukraine. The edict, which says that Russia will respect and militarily defend the territorial integrity of the LPR and DPR, is now in effect for ten years, after which point it will automatically renew itself. And now that Putin has sent in “peacekeepers”, the breakaway Donbas region is going the way of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria: cardboard entities created by Moscow to paralyze non-compliant former Soviet republics.

Perhaps even more terrifying was the speech Putin gave before he officially acknowledged the republics’ independence. In a primetime address to the Russian nation, Putin said, without any hedging, that Ukraine is not a real country but rather a fictitious entity created by Vladimir Lenin, which received its independence from the Soviet Union for no good reason, and which amounted to a lopping off of a key, historically significant part of Russia. And though Putin claimed that this was “wholly and completely proven by archival documents,” it was mostly lies. It was also jarring to hear Putin say this all out loud, despite the fact that he has expressed variations of this sentiment in various forms over the years. It belied the idea that Putin’s beef was with NATO and showed, once again, that the issue was the terms of the U.S.S.R.’s surrender in 1991, which he has long been determined to renegotiate—or change by force. 

War Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Depending on whom you ask, we have either just witnessed the opening salvo of World War III—or this is welcome news for Ukraine. Some, like Barack Obama’s ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, say Ukraine has just been invaded. Others, like the senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters on a background call on Monday, emphasized that these developments were new but not that new: the Russian military has been present in this region for eight years now. The only difference was that it was now being done in the open. Russia was no longer falsely denying that it had troops in the disputed territories. It was why the sanctions that the Biden White House promised to roll out in the coming days would be milder than those it warned of if Russia invades more of Ukraine’s territory.

Others, including sources in Moscow who are critical of the Kremlin, told me it was time for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to break out the bubbly. For the last few years, Kyiv and Moscow have been butting heads over the nebulous and, frankly, impossible to implement Minsk agreements, which required Ukraine to reincorporate the LPR and DPR back into Ukraine as autonomous regions. Now that Putin has recognized them as independent entities—which, as he admitted last week, would violate the Minsk agreements—the agreements are dead. Now Ukraine does not have to swallow the poison pill of folding these regions back into the rest of the country. Zelensky has been railing against the agreements for a while now—he has even flirted with the idea of abandoning the area unilaterally—and now Russia has untied his hands. He can stop pretending that he will win back these republics, which, for domestic political reasons, was not something he could do before. And he can get even more aid from the West to prop up both the Ukrainian military as well as the Ukrainian economy, which has been slammed by the crisis.

This calmer and more optimistic view, however, presupposes that Putin will stop here. The documents he signed on Monday bind him to defending the “territorial integrity” of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, which claim that their rightful territories are far bigger than the areas they currently control. The DPR and LPR control only about a third of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces (akin to American states), but claim that the entire provinces belong to them. On Tuesday, various Russian officials gave different answers as to what constituted the territory of the people’s republics. Some said it was just the territory now occupied, others said they were entitled to the entire region.

At an evening press conference at the Kremlin today, Putin confirmed that he recognized the LPR and DPR as falling within “the borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions when they were still part of Ukraine.” That means Putin believes that two-thirds of Donetsk and Luhansk—including the city of Mariupol, a strategic port city on the Sea of Azov—should also belong to the separatists. Does that mean that he will send Russian troops further into these provinces—and into sovereign Ukrainian territory? If he does, that would be an undeniable war, not just an escalation. 

Gloves Off

Since the beginning of this crisis, the Biden administration has tried to head off Putin’s re-invasion of Ukraine with a two-pronged strategy. First, it has explained publicly, to Russia and the world, the economic consequences Russia will face if it goes ahead with its invasion. Second, it has unmasked Russian plans for staging false flag operations to justify a large invasion of Ukraine—removing Russia’s plausible deniability and taking away the element of surprise. For a while, the strategy worked, buying the administration and its European allies over two months of diplomacy by postponing a war. 

In the last few days, however, Putin has dispensed with all pretense. He has shown that he clearly doesn’t care if the U.S. anticipated his tactics. In fact, as observers have pointed out, the false flag operations thus far have been sloppy and obvious. 

As for economic sanctions, a consensus has emerged in elite circles that they are inescapable, ineffective, and therefore should not be a factor in the Kremlin’s decision-making. Western sanctions have become punishment, rather than deterrent, and even then, Putin doesn’t seem to care. His Monday speech crashed Russian markets as well as the ruble. But after so many of Russia’s wealthiest have ended up in jail, in exile, or dead, who will dare say something? In the security council meeting, Putin called up Russia’s highest ranking officials one by one, and one by one each took the microphone and obediently supported Putin’s decision, trying to outdo each other in their fervor. Whether they privately disagreed or were in sincere agreement with Putin, it didn’t really matter: they knew that to keep their jobs, their money, and their freedom, they had to bow and scrape and agree.

It’s easy to turn away from the internal politics of a foreign country. They can seem confusing and lack the immediate emotional connection that tells you the story is important and affects you directly. But as this crisis has shown, the domestic politics of a place eventually force their way onto the world stage. As the commentator Maxim Trudolubov noted back in 2014, Putin’s aggression abroad is an extension of his brutality at home. Much of what he has shown to the West—troll farms, cyberattacks, undermining the very idea of democracy—he first honed inside Russia’s borders. 

There’s a reason this is happening now, at the end of a year in which Putin crushed what was left of the Russian opposition. In 2014, thousands of Russians marched and spoke up against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and his annexation of Crimea. This time, only six people dared to protest and they were immediately arrested. When there is no one to tell Putin that a war with Ukraine would be a disaster, when he can afford not to care what anyone at home thinks, this is what we get: a furious and clearly deranged old man, threatening to drag us all into World War III.

The Shadow of Gleiwitz—and Volgodonsk

Almost as soon as the false flags started, Russians who oppose Putin and the war started invoking two historical events. The first was the Gleiwitz incident. On August 31, 1939, operatives from Nazi intelligence put on the uniforms of Polish nationalists and briefly took over the radio tower in the town of Gleiwitz, on the Polish-German border. They broke in, transmitted an anti-German message, and left, leaving the corpse of a well-known Polish nationalist on the steps of the tower as they retreated. (They had arrested him for this very purpose, then drugged and shot him.) This, as well as other false flag events Nazi operatives staged in the region, was used as a pretext by Adolf Hitler to declare war on Poland the following day, on September 1, 1939. In his telling, the Polish government was unfairly targeting, discriminating and repressing Germans living in Poland, and Nazi German simply had to come to their aid militarily.

I know. It’s a high bar to bring in Hitler, but for Russians, the trauma and history of World War II are never far away, which is why Putin has made such a potent cult of the war. And, in this case, it is not an inapt analogy. One of Hitler’s stated motivations for conquering eastern and central Europe was to protect the volksdeutsche, people of German ethnicity or heritage who lived outside of Germany’s borders and were, in his mind, vulnerable to anti-German discrimination. The only way to defend them was to bring them under the sheltering umbrella of German occupation. The annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland was a way of restoring a larger, historical Germany, one which was defined not by arbitrarily imposed borders, but encompassed the entire population of ethnic Germans.

Everything that’s been happening in the last week—in the last year, really—has, to many Russians, felt eerily familiar. The false flag operations to create a pretext for going in to defend ethnic Russians in Donbas. The constant concern, from everyone from Putin to his foreign minister, parliament, and state-controlled TV, about the alleged discrimination of Russian speakers in Ukraine. The fiery presidential address in which Putin invoked Russian “blood ties” to the people of Ukraine. The way in which he spoke of the larger historical Russia, a once glorious country that had been unjustly divided and diminished by bad-faith actors. It was the kind of blood-and-soil nationalism that, for Russians with a historical memory, triggered all kinds of terrifying associations. 

People are also remembering the 1999 bombings of residential apartment buildings that killed hundreds of people in Moscow and the southern city of Volgodonsk. At the time, Putin was the prime minister of Russia and he blamed the bombings on Chechen separatists. The separatists denied the claims and evidence began to surface that the attacks weren’t quite what they seemed. Journalists and politicians—Russia was still a democracy then—raised doubts that these were true terrorist attacks. There were suspicious events, like when witnesses saw people loading bags of sugar into the basement of an apartment building in another Russian city. The bags turned out to be full of explosives and the people turned out to be from the FSB. (For more on this, read Steven Lee MeyersThe New Tsar or John Dunlop’s The Moscow Bombings of September 1999.) 

At the time, these troubling signs were dismissed and buried, and Putin used the bombings as a pretext to invade Chechnya, which was by this point a de facto independent state, beginning a bloody and ruthless campaign that brought the republic back into the Russian fold. It also put Putin onto television screens and introduced him to the Russian population as an energetic and decisive leader, and made him a natural successor to the ailing Russian president Boris Yeltsin.

In the decades since, the apartment bombings have become a topic that is mostly whispered about, a theory that had lots of evidence to support it but was never quite confirmed. The events of recent days, however, have shown just how willing Putin is to use false flag operations to begin a war he has already decided on waging. It has made some observers realize that maybe the theory about the apartment bombings might not be so crazy after all.  

On Tuesday, Putin asked the upper chamber of the Russian parliament to authorize the use of Russian military force abroad. As of this writing, he is scheduled to address his country again tonight. After months of teetering on the precipice of war, it feels like Putin is about to make the jump, head-first, into the abyss.

It’s hard to imagine how this ends. Wars have a way of getting out of hand, of getting swept up in their own momentum and sparking unpredictable chains of events. These are the questions that are keeping people in Washington’s foreign policy circles up at night: is this the beginning of a generational cataclysm, and if so, what tectonic shifts will it trigger? If Putin continues his advance into Ukraine and a full-scale war and an insurgency do break out, what will the world look like in a decade? Will it trigger massive refugee flows into Europe, further emboldening the far right? Will Putin provoke the Baltic states, dragging NATO into a direct military confrontation with Russia? Will Xi Jinping seize the opportunity to conquer Taiwan? Will the United States come out on the other side of this with the kind of stature it had after World War II? Or will it look more like Britain did in 1945? Will Putin even be there to witness all that he will have wrought? Will the Russian state he created?

Putin likes anniversaries and round numbers, and this year, he will turn 70. It is an important marker—and an age that a great many Russian men never live to see. He seems bent on securing his historical legacy as the rebuilder of Russian greatness and a gatherer of Russian lands. Given the Russian historical figures he has elevated—Alexander Nevsky, Alexander III—he clearly thinks that his will be a legacy on par with those men, with leaders like Peter the Great. He seems to have left no room to imagine that, by starting a punishing and unnecessary war, one his people likely won’t want to fight, his legacy could be more like that of Nicholas II.

Both Peter and Nicholas were willing to shed seemingly inexhaustible supplies of Russian blood, but one built an empire and the other destroyed it. Nicholas II joined World War I and ended up losing the war, his kingdom, and his life. And yet, compared to the nearly 50 million Soviet citizens who would follow him to a violent death in the decades after he abdicated the throne, Nicholas got off easy. Doubtless, he could not have imagined that when facing his Bolshevik executioners in a Siberian basement.