We in the West have always feared failed states. They breed geopolitical chaos, criminal networks, havens for terrorist groups, and internal violence—in some cases leading to ethnic cleansing and genocide. We fear these things because they mark a return to the pre-Leviathan world of poverty and bloody instability. Domestic stability leads to greater international order; internal collapse and strife results in regional and perhaps wider turmoil. It is not surprising therefore that over the past few decades the West has devoted much of its attention to preventing, or at least mitigating the effects of, failed states in Africa (remember Somalia?) as well as Europe (see the collapse of Yugoslavia).
Putin seems to think differently on this issue. He does not fear failed states. In fact, he wants to cause one.
He is pursuing aggressively a path that will lead to a failed state in Ukraine. Russia’s conquest of Crimea, followed by an ongoing westward push into the Donbas region, is redrawing the map of Ukraine in a bloody fashion. The result is thousands of dead (more than 6,000 according to a conservative estimates) and wounded, hundreds of square miles changing control, and a simmering war that is unlikely to be resolved through negotiations. Moreover—and this is the puzzle here—Putin does not seem to be worried in the least about the possibility of having a failed state on Russia’s western border.
There can be no mistaking that Ukraine is heading in that direction. The loss of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions has deprived Ukraine of about 16 percent of its GDP and almost a quarter of its exports. Much of the infrastructure, from roads to buildings to a brand new Donetsk airport renovated for the Euro 2012 soccer championship, is in ruins. And what is left under Ukrainian control is caught in a downward economic spiral. The GDP fell roughly 15 percent on an annual basis, and the hryvnia is down almost 70 percent since a year ago. Ukraine’s military is teetering despite Ukrainians’ resurgent willingness to sacrifice for the defense of the state, and Kiev’s political institutions are fragile, in part because of dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war and how the army is being led (or misled).
The economic, military, and political weakness of Ukraine may even result in a partitioning of the state into rump polities (say, centered in Donetsk, Kiev, and Lviv), none of them capable of political independence or coherence. A geopolitical detritus of Russian imperialism.
For Putin a failed Ukraine is preferable to a Westward-leaning one. A stable and growing Ukraine may remind Russians under Putin’s regime that there are political alternatives to tyranny.
But there is more to it. The Western order, both regionally in Europe and globally, thrives on political order. In its basic form, this order rests on the rule that borders ought not to be altered unilaterally and violently—a rule clearly violated by Putin in Ukraine.
Moreover, it is predicated on stable states capable of coherent policies, even if these are not fully in harmony with those of neighboring states. Negotiations are the bread and butter of the Western political modus operandi, but negotiations with a government incapable of controlling its own territory, economy, and perhaps even military are pointless. In brief, it is hard to conceive of an international political order without stable states respecting the basic rule of sovereignty. Unless, of course, you do not want that order.
Putin does not want a stable Ukraine because he fears—nay, he hates—the Western international order. In his warped, paranoid mind, he deems that order, in its EU and NATO incarnations, to have been the culprit of Russia’s decline over the past two decades, and to be a direct affront to his own rule. His vision of Russia is incompatible with a vibrant and attractive Europe bolstered by a credible Atlantic alliance. The imposed failure of Ukraine as a state is therefore a way of undermining that larger order.
Of course, intentionally causing the failure of a state is incomprehensible to the Western mindset. It goes against every policy impulse of European and American policymakers and experts: economic destruction and political chaos may be regrettable and unintended consequences of wars, but they are never sought as goals in themselves. For Putin, they are goals in themselves; as a result he remains something of a dangerous mystery.
Once we accept that he may be seeking not merely a conquest of Ukraine or a piecemeal establishment of a land bridge linking Russia to Crimea (and most likely further west, to Transnistria) but the collapse of Ukraine as a stable state, we must also change our assessment of Russian behavior. The spectrum of possible actions that Russia can undertake to cause Ukraine’s failure is much wider—and much riskier and more violent—than those needed purely to conquer and occupy new territories. To do the latter, Russia would need to consider the postwar viability of the territories it grabs; to do the former, it is sufficient to smash what is in place, from material infrastructure to economic and political life. What comes after is less important than the fact that the present political life has been destroyed.
If Russia aspires to create a failed state, this also means the resulting confrontation is less amenable to a diplomatic resolution. Territorial adjustments, however tragic and violent, present issues that can be the subject of negotiations. Redrawing maps has been central to grand negotiated settlements from the Congress of Vienna to Versailles. But in this case Putin is not seeking more acreage. He wants the political failure of Ukraine and of the Western order that was so attractive to Kiev.
Putin’s behavior is thus more akin to a plundering raid than to territorial conquest. He hopes to leave in his path a failed Ukraine and the debris of the Western political order. We cannot negotiate that away.